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The rebel is the pure soul

By Greg Barns - posted Friday, 13 January 2012


Chris Hedges is a former New York Times journalist who fell foul of his employers during the Iraq war when he used a graduation address at a college in Illinois to rail against the war and those who supported it. Hedges was able to speak with authority on the subject given he had spent some years as a Middle East correspondent for The Times.

The New York Times and those who support its editorial line, a generally liberal one except on Israel, are part of the problem, according to Hedges. Death of the Liberal Class, the author's eighth book, is an excoriation of American liberalism. The common garden variety American liberal supports Barak Obama, votes Democrat and is generally a supporter of gay marriage and abortion rights. But according to Hedges it is the failure of the liberals to dismantle corporate greed, to end US foreign policy adventurism and to meaningly reduce inequality that is their evil. You don't expect the Right to do any of this but you do expect their political opponents to have a crack, goes the logic.

Hedges' short book is a rant. He sees liberals as functioning as a "safety valve." They make "piecemeal and incremental reform possible...[offer] hope for change and [propose] gradual steps towards greater equality," he writes. The liberal class is a "useful component within the power elite" because it keeps at bay more radical social movements.

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President Barak Obama, a man much less qualified for the White House than the often lampooned former Californian governor Ronald Reagan, is simply an illusion. He is a vacuous president according to Hedges who has emerged courtesy of the insidious and anti-democratic trend of celebrity culture.

There is some truth in what Hedges says. The ALP and the handful of small l Liberals in this country could be placed into this category. Reform in Australia, like the US, is piecemeal and liberals celebrate if they move the social equality index a millimetre. Celebrity culture rules Australian politics. Journalists in the Canberra gallery write about the entrails while the big issues go unnoticed.

The problem with Hedges' lambasting of the media, lobbyists, Washington corruption, and the liberal class's failure to radically reform society is that he doesn't map out a genuine solution. In this sense Death of the Liberal Class is a missed opportunity.

The sympathetic reader finds him or herself nodding vigorously and admiring Hedges' phrasing and firm grasp on American society's ills. But what's next is the question not answered.

In the final chapter, Rebellion, Hedges runs through the alternatives. With a quirky sense of understatement Hedges notes that violence as a tool of reform "has inherent problems." But climate change, which will end up killing us all, argues Hedges, and the takeover of the much vaunted new tool of democracy the Internet by the capitalist class aided by liberals, means we must rebel.

The rebel argues Hedges is the pure soul. He quotes Albert Camus' "A living man can be enslaved and reduced to the historic condition of an object. But if he dies in refusing to be enslaved, he reaffirms the existence of another kind of human nature which refuses to be classified as an object."

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The liberal class backed corporate state structure will be undermined if we rebel against it continually, argues Hedges. This means when we see injustice we must act with kindness and not withdraw. It means we shun the existing power structures.

There are two questions which emerge here. Firstly, is the liberal democratic tradition so hopelessly corrupted morally that it must be brought undone? Hedges argues yes but many would say what is required is political courage in standing up to rent seeking interest groups whether they be the Australian car industry or extreme greens. Secondly, will individual acts of rebellion be enough to create a kinder, more equal society. Perhaps but it is surely a utopian vision and one that unfortunately has not really emerged anywhere in any society for any length of time because man is, as Aristotle said, a political animal.

But for all its faults Hedges' book is an important one. It is a kick up the rear for liberals and this is always a good thing.

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This is a review of Death of the Liberal Class, Chris Hedges. Vintage 2011.



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About the Author

Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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