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Chris Hedges and the Left-Wing Attack on Liberals, Liberalism, and Barack Obama

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I hardly think "liberals are a useless lot," but I like Chris Hedges a lot, and those are his words, and I think it's important that we think critically about ourselves and that we welcome thoughtful criticism from thoughtful commentators -- including from the likes of Hedges, a self-defined socialist (and the author of some excellent books) who voted for Nader. And here's the rest of the opening paragraph of Liberals Are Useless:

They talk about peace and do nothing to challenge our permanent war economy. They claim to support the working class, and vote for candidates that glibly defend the North American Free Trade Agreement. They insist they believe in welfare, the right to organize, universal health care and a host of other socially progressive causes, and will not risk stepping out of the mainstream to fight for them. The only talent they seem to possess is the ability to write abject, cloying letters to Barack Obama -- as if he reads them -- asking the president to come back to his "true" self. This sterile moral posturing, which is not only useless but humiliating, has made America's liberal class an object of public derision.

And here's some of what he has to say about Obama:

How can an organization with the oxymoronic title Progressives for Obama even exist? Liberal groups like these make political satire obsolete. Obama was and is a brand. He is a product of the Chicago political machine. He has been skillfully packaged as the new face of the corporate state. I don't dislike Obama -- I would much rather listen to him than his smug and venal predecessor -- though I expected nothing but a continuation of the corporate rape of the country. And that is what he has delivered.

I do not necessarily reject all left-wing criticism of Obama, and I think this is partly right. Obama is certainly a continuation of a sort of Democratic-Republican consensus that has ruled America for a long, long time. Take his new Afghanistan policy, for example, which is a surge very much like Bush's in Iraq, or take his bailouts of the banks and the auto industry, both of which seek to prop up the corporatism at the core of the oligarchy at the core of socio-economic America. It's just more of the military-industrial complex of which Eisenhower, at the end of his presidency, warned -- and it is what Morris Berman analyzes so thoroughly in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire. Those who thought Obama would be a transformational president were bound to be disappointed. He is a brilliant man, I believe, but he is no revolutionary, nor even much of a radical -- no matter the silly propaganda of the right. Socialism? Please. Obama is no socialist. He wants to make America stronger, to rescue it from the brink of collapse, not replace it with something else entirely different. That much has always been clear.

Still, while we can wish that Obama were transformational, and that he wouldn't continue certain key elements of the Bush-Cheney national security state, which was itself a continuation of a long history of national security policy in the U.S., and that he might remake the financial sector rather than just save it from itself by feeding some of its worst habits, and that he might actually do something about the fact that America is a dying empire in need of an historic overhaul, as massive debt continues to flow to China and other international creditors and as the economy sinks below the possibility of recovery to anything resembling its former glory, while we can wish all that, and more, it would be wrong to think that nothing meaningful has changed, and this is where Hedges, for all his scathing left-wing criticism, comes up well off the mark.

Some of us would like to see a single-payer health-care system in the U.S., but it is likely that whatever reform bill Congress ends up passing, with Obama's support, even without a robust public option, will be an historic overhaul of a sick and unjust system. At the very least, it will be the thin end of the wedge leading to further and more substantial reform down the road. And what of Obama's commitment to addressing the climate crisis, including yesterday's announcement that carbon emissions will be regulated even in the absence of federal legislation? Again, we can wish that Obama would push a more transformational approach to global warming, which would require a transformation of the U.S. economy, but he is limited by what is possible within the context of federal politics and the Constitution. What is clear, though, is that he is nothing like his predecessor on this issue, the most pressing of our time, and he does seem genuinely committed to joining the international effort, as well as to changing U.S. energy policy broadly. And what of the re-engagement with the international community that has been one of the key priorities of the president's first year in office?

I do not disagree with this:

[H]ow about the refusal to restore habeas corpus, end torture in our offshore penal colonies, abolish George W. Bush's secrecy laws or halt the warrantless wiretapping and monitoring of American citizens? The imperial projects and the corporate state have not altered under Obama. The state kills as ruthlessly and indiscriminately in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan as it did under Bush. It steals from the U.S. treasury as rapaciously to enrich the corporate elite. It, too, bows before the conservative Israel lobby, refuses to enact serious environmental or health care reform, regulate Wall Street, end our relationship with private mercenary contractors or stop handing obscene sums of money, some $1 trillion a year, to the military and arms industry.

But I do disagree that Obama has simply been a continuation of Bush, that nothing has changed. Actually, a lot has changed, and there is the prospect of significant change to come, starting with health-care reform and continuing, hopefully, with climate legislation and energy reform. Yes, yes, there is much to criticize, and I do that, as many other liberals do, but it is important not to lose perspective, which I fear that Hedges has.

Hedges directs some of his most stinging criticism at "our bankrupt liberal intelligentsia," but he uses a broad brush that, once more, reflects a lack of perspective, a lack of nuance. There are many liberals who are very much like conservatives in their approval for the military-industrial consensus, yes, but liberals are not all part of some single-minded monolith. Really, liberals are all "cloying" when it comes to Obama? Hardly. Besides, liberals are very much at the center of the fight for health-care reform, the battle currently being waged up on Capitol Hill, and, while many of them may be looking for compromise rather than pushing a reform package that has no possibility of passing, such being the reality of things, it is simply wrong to claim that they aren't at all socially progressive. If you don't like the system, that's fine, but democracy in America is what it is -- both for better and for worse -- and there's nothing inherently wrong with working within the system to effect real, lasting change.

Like Nader, Hedges is just plain wrong that there is fundamentally no difference between Democrats and Republicans, between Obama and Bush, between liberals and conservatives. I'm sorry, but if that's what you think, you just don't have that much credibility -- and again, I really like Hedges otherwise.

Liberals aren't useless, they're fighting for some of the very things Hedges seems to support. They may not be as revolutionary as some left-wing progressives would wish, but they have been the driving force behind much of American history -- I would argue, behind most that has been good in American history -- and, contrary to the illiberal views of their critics on the left and right, they continue to be that even now. There are exceptions, of course, and liberals can be deeply critical of their own kind, and rightly so. Some liberals really do seem to have given up, and to have joined the ruling consensus -- we see that in the media all the time, where "liberals" seem like conservatives with a bit of a social conscience and nothing more -- but America's liberal class, and I'm not even sure what that means, or who supposedly belongs to it, is hardly an object of public derision any more than any other "class." And if it is, it's only because conservative anti-liberal propaganda, combined with similar condemnation from the left, has been so effective at making liberalism a dirty word.

Yes, we liberals could and should be doing a lot more, and a lot better, but there's no reason we shouldn't be proud of our accomplishments, encouraged by our successes, and dedicated to our principles. America needs liberals and liberalism more than ever.

Cross-posted from The Reaction.