Guest Post: The Illusion of Progressivism

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13 Responses

  1. Rufus says:

    A lot of this I agree with, but I think your reading of the book emphasizes some different things than mine does. A lot of the elitist tendencies that you talk about I noticed as well. However, you say Hedges thinks it’s high time the government intervenes, and I didn’t pick up on that at all. Actually, a criticism I had by the third chapter was that it’s not clear at all to me what he thinks should be done about all of this, if anything. In fact, the last chapter seemed to me an admission of defeat in a lot of ways. He apparently thinks we’re screwed and need to start being more honest about that- it’s not much of a call to arms. (“Step with me now, into the quagmire!”) But, as for concrete solutions, I thought he was entirely too vague. I don’t know, after reading it, what Chris Hedges thinks is to be done.

    But, I could be missing something here. You write, “Disturbingly, Hedges points to the failure of the government to take action to stop all of this – when “all of this” consists of the aggregation of millions of choices made by millions of people all purely voluntarily.” This passage must have sailed quietly over my head because I didn’t catch him saying the government has failed in taking action to limit people’s media choices. He does think the government and corporations need to be pried apart from their loving embrace, but I took that as going both ways-for instance, the government has tended to dominate the news media in his telling, so I felt he was talking about ending the move towards corporatism more than using the power of the state to make people’s media decisions for them.

    But your results may vary! I think this is the whole point of doing a group read: we all pick up on different things.Report

  2. E.C. Gach says:

    “There is truth to each of these accusations. But once again, Hedges identifies the worst of something and attributes it to the whole. He ignores the significant strains of libertarianism still extant within the Republican party because that would create ambiguity; his point is much stronger when the GOP is nothing but a bunch of Jerry Falwell acolytes and press representatives of defense contractors rather than the reality, which is that the GOP, like the Democratic Party, is a broad coalition of people with diverse interests and priorities who try to find some degree of common ground in the process of selecting and electing candidates to office.”

    You might fault him for not seeking out more rigorously, the “significant strains of libertarianism still extant within the Republican party,” but to say he idly ignores them is unfair.

    Are you saying that you think opinion leaders within both parties are equally diverse, or that both parties tolerate dissent/accept dissent to the same degree?Report

  3. E.C. Gach says:

    Also, your title, “The Illusion of Progressivism,” and this paragraph opener, “Hedges is an unabashed political progressive,” left me still wondering what the illusion was. Did you mean simply that Hedges is advocating what he sees as a superior course of action?Report

    • @E.C. Gach, no, I was mainly trying to be clever. The dissonance I saw was that Hedges claims to be acting for the people but as I see it, he would impose his choices instead of agreeing to the decisions of the unreliable (because uneducated and brainwashed) majority. That doesn’t seem progressive to me, but perhaps I’m wrong about that.

      And Rufus is right in that Hedges does not come very far out of his shell and explicitly say that he thinks that policies intended to remedy the problems he identifies should be imposed on us. But it’s very clear that he thinks unless something is done to change the path of society, we’re headed to self-destruction, and it’s also very clear that at least until further notice, the majority of the American people cannot be relied upon to choose an undestructive path for themselves. Ergo, the only way out is for contra-majoritarian rules to be somehow implemented.

      That’s why I infer Hedges is anti-democratic, and that’s why I think he’s not being particularly progressive so much as dictatorial. But mainly, I was trying to be clever; admittedly not doing a very good job of it.Report

      • @Transplanted Lawyer, See, this is where I think my reading was different. I agree with a lot of the points you make in this post about the varieties and long history of porn, the real reasons civilizations collapse, and the fact that he piles up a lot of terrible, awful things and implies coordination and causality without really proving these things are there. So, I’m with you on all but the last point.

        There, my problem is he doesn’t explain what he wants. It is fairly standard in liberal screeds against pornography to begin with a statement against any sort of censorship, so the readers won’t think that’s what you’re driving at. But he never explicitly says what he wants and so the implication can be made. Moreover, when you’re saying that the media choices of most people are lousy and this is having a serious deleterious effect on the society overall, you need to make it clear that you’re not saying that someone like you should be making those choices for the culture, and he doesn’t do that. So, in the general sense that critical arguments about the culture of a democracy can imply very anti-democratic things, I agree with you. But I’m not sure if it’s a matter of him implying something and me missing it, or you reading it into the book because he’s a progressive.

        Personally, I didn’t read it as Hedges trying to advocate for something specific without being explicit about it. He doesn’t strike me, after this book, as a writer who minces his words. I’m not saying he might not want tyranny in his ideal world, but I tend more to think he’s trying to unsettle us by posing a problem without giving us any real solution, aside from vague platitudes about the people taking back the power from the elites. On the other hand, he might just not have any answers. For my money, he certainly isn’t clear about them.

        What I see him doing is what a lot of terrifying books and documentaries claim to be doing now, which is “raising consciousness”. He’s trying to show us that things are really screwed and we need to do something about it, but he’s really leaving it at that. It’s more, “Here’s the problem. Now you fix it.” I did think of Michael Moore at times because he, too, doesn’t seem to pose any solutions to the problems he selectively illustrates.

        In some ways this can be empowering. If you agree on the problem he’s proposing, you can imagine a different way of doing things and do that. Maybe rent a better movie about women and men than Sodomania 17, or form a book club, or read more books in general. But, it can also be enervating hearing about all the horrors. At points I thought, “If he’s right, I’m leaving for the cottage in the hills tomorrow!” Also, I’m not sure that the left, as well as the right, aren’t just a lot better now at illustrating problems than finding solutions.

        Finally, I think your suggestion that he puts us in a place where the only logical solution is the state isn’t exactly accurate, but illustrates a major problem I had with the book- he never discusses the Internet! I mean, the choice is no longer between corporate mass media and state media, if it ever was. You get to this about porn- nowadays, people don’t like what they see, so they make what they want to see. If people don’t like television programs, they can now make their own for very little money. Recently, I watched an internet sitcom about a polyamorous triad (of all things) on Youtube, made by a woman in that scene who “didn’t see herself represented on television”. On a site like this one, we can spent thousands of words discussing political philosophy instead of watching cable news discuss nothing.

        In other words, the possibilities are endless, once we turn off the tube and the passive attitude. On one hand, it’s a relief that Hedges doesn’t tell us what those possibilities might be. On the other hand, it gives the book a current of hopelessness that I really found more tiring than disturbing.Report

  4. E.C. Gach says:

    In the spirit of Rufus’ remarks then, are there specific lines or statements that declare or lead you to infer the author leaves us only with government to curb these excesses? What makes you feel he is implying the need for state action rather than changes in societal values, norms, and expectations, through social pressure?Report

  5. Will H. says:

    It occurs to me that, perhaps, the truth of the matter is that we already have been destroyed as a society, civilization, or what-have-you, and the present state of affairs is merely what destruction looks like from an internal view.
    Perhaps the true meaning is that there is no meaning.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to Will H. says:

      @Will H., And I’m not really sure that Hedges isn’t basically saying just that.

      I have a friend who studied under a historian who we both admired while he was at the University of Chicago. He told me once that the historian had said to him, “You’re a bright student. My advice to you is to start constructing a library in your home. We’re entering a new Dark Ages and we need to preserve wisdom so that it’s not lost.” I don’t know if Hedges would go that far, but at least it’s a program.Report

  6. JosephFM says:

    I haven’t read the book (I’m reviewing two others right now AND designing a computer network, I barely have time to read this blog), but from the descriptions, this seems like a rehash of the kinds of arguments made by the Frankfurt School. Capitalism is tyranny sold to the ignorant masses with bread and circuses, etc. Is that right?

    You’re right that this isn’t really progressive, but it’s something I used to agree with wholeheartedly, and in my more bitter and pessimistic moments still do.

    I still wonder, though, about guys like a certain anarcho-socialist aikido-practicing reggae DJ I used to know. He’d make all sorts of arguments not unlike Hedges about society, all while proposing a society that would be radically more empowering to precisely the people he most looked down on.Report

    • Rufus F. in reply to JosephFM says:

      @JosephFM, Yeah, it’s definitely a book that was inspired by the Frankfurt school. I think he’s a bit different though in recognizing the real demand for these sorts of entertainments. I remember a Horkheimer essay that explained Tom and Jerry as the capitalist class inculcating a taste for cruelty in the masses. Hedges seems to be saying, on the other hand, that people already want cruelty in their entertainment so they seek it out, and he’s asking why that is. So it’s not quite as Marxian as the Frankfurters, although they’re definitely in there.Report