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Chris Hedges: Obama is a “Poster Child for the Death of the Liberal Class”

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The compromise tax-cut deal that President Obama signed into law on Friday has angered many of his supporters. In his new book, Death of the Liberal Class, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges argues that the failure of President Obama to represent the interests of his supporters is just another example of a quickly dying liberal class. In the book, Hedges explains how the five pillars of the liberal class — the press, universities, unions, liberal churches and the Democratic Party — have become corrupt. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Obama signed the controversial $858 billion tax-cut legislation into law Friday. At least a quarter of the tax savings under the deal will go to the wealthiest one percent of the population. The only group that will see its taxes increase are the nation’s lowest-paid workers.

In the wake of the tax deal, the Washington Post reports the White House is, quote, “moving quickly to mend its strained relationship with the Democratic base, reassuring liberal groups, black leaders and labor union officials who opposed the tax compromise that Obama has not abandoned them.” The Post goes on to say, quote, “Liberal groups were part of [the] broad coalition that helped elect Obama in 2008, and activists had high hopes [that] he would govern as a left-of-center president. But tensions with the White House increased as many liberals complained Obama took a more centrist view on issues,” unquote.

Well, my next guest argues the failure of Obama to represent the interests of his supporters is just another example of a quickly dying liberal class. In his new book, journalist and author Chris Hedges explains how the five pillars of the liberal class — the press, universities, unions, liberal churches and the Democratic Party — have become corrupt.

Chris Hedges is a fellow at the Nation Institute, former foreign correspondent for the New York Times, won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 as part of a team covering the issue of global terror. He’s author of a number of books; his latest, Death of the Liberal Class. On Thursday, Chris Hedges was one of the more than 130 people, mainly war veterans, arrested outside the White House in an antiwar protest led by the group Veterans for Peace.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

CHRIS HEDGES: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: What happened? It hardly got any coverage in the corporate media.

CHRIS HEDGES: Yeah, well, that’s not much of a surprise, at this point. I think we’ve seen a kind of a withering of corporate media, including my own paper, the New York Times. As advertising rates decline and as circulation drops, they become even more craven in their service of the power elite and reportage that in no way offends the structures of power. So, you know, events like that one are nonentities for mainstream news organizations.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by the “death of the liberal class”?

CHRIS HEDGES: The collapse of the pillar, the primary pillars of the liberal establishment, those liberal institutions — the press, labor, public education and, in particular universities, culture, liberal religious institutions and the Democratic Party — that have been under assault.

And I speak a lot about World War I and the rise of the Committee for Public Information, the Creel Commission, which was the first system of modern mass propaganda, very closely studied by the Nazis, used to sell an unpopular war to an American public, but also used to crush populist, radical, progressive anarchist, Socialist, Communist movements that had frightened the power elite on the eve of World War I. And they employed for the first time the techniques of mass crowd psychology studied by figures like Le Bon, Trotter and Sigmund Freud. They understood that people were moved or manipulated not by fact or reason, but by what Walter Lippmann calls the “manufacturing of consent” in his 1922 book Public Opinion. And we’ve never recovered ever since.

So the assault and destruction of these populist or radical movements, which kept liberal institutions honest, and then the purges within liberal institutions, especially the anti-Communist purges of the 1950s. And many people who were expelled from these institutions were no way Communist, figures like I.F. Stone, arguably our greatest journalist of the 20th century, couldn’t even get a job at The Nation magazine and ends up a pariah. He’s not alone — thousands and thousands of people. So that with the rise of neoliberalism and the corporate state under Clinton, these — we lost the radical movements, and we lost the liberal institutions that normally make possible incremental or piecemeal reform within the formal mechanisms of power.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened within the universities.

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, there was — of course, one of the most egregious examples occurred here in New York City when Rockefeller went after City University. What they did is they destroyed the capacity for people outside the power elite to get great education. City University at one time was one of the great universities in the country and educated, you know, a huge swath of mostly first-generation immigrants. The corporatization of universities is far advanced now. You have a withering of the humanities, destruction of philosophy departments. Departments must raise not only their own research and grant money, but often their own salaries. Well, you know, who’s going to pay for that?

And so, what we’ve turned our universities into are essentially vocational schools. If you go to a school like Princeton, then you will become a systems manager and go to Goldman Sachs. If you go to an inner-city dysfunctional public school in a place like Camden, you are trained vocationally to stock shelves in Walmart. It’s a kind of solidification of a very pernicious class system, and one that doesn’t train students anymore to think but to fill slots.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Hedges, you were a longtime correspondent for the New York Times. For two decades you worked there. You were one of the premier war correspondents. You wrote the book War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. You won the Pulitzer Prize about eight years ago. You talk in Death of the Liberal Class about your experience at the Times. Why don’t you go through it for us in detail and what you think it indicates?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, I spent a lot of time in the book talking about those figures, like Sydney Schanberg and others, who were expelled from these liberal institutions — Richard Goldstone, who wrote the Goldstone Report on the 22-day Israeli assault on Gaza, would be another example — because there are clear parameters within these institutions that you don’t cross. The perfect example would be the buildup to the Iraq war. Here, the liberal, so-called self-identified liberal class — figures like David Remnick at The New Yorker; Bill Keller, who was a columnist at the New York Times, now the executive editor; George Packer; on and on, even people like Frank Rich, people forget — all backed the war. And they did it as sort of reluctant hawks. Probably the poster child for this was Michael Ignatieff of the Carr Center, at Harvard, for Human Rights, who’s now the head of the Liberal Party in Canada.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, that reluctance makes them the most convincing.

CHRIS HEDGES: And it — yeah, of course it does, because it gives a kind of moral veneer to a crime. It’s heartfelt. “We don’t like war. We all opposed the Vietnam War.” This is almost verbatim Ignatieff’s argument. And “But it’s something that has to be done. We have to face the hard, bitter truth of world politics and recognize that we are a force for good.” Samantha Power does this, in essence, in her book on genocide. It’s the idea that the empire is sort of used to — it can abrogate for itself the right to use force to impose virtues. It’s an utter tautology and absurdity to those of us who have been at war. But it works. And the function of the liberal class and why it is traditionally tolerated by the power elite is because it disarms movements that should have stood up on the eve of the Iraq war and fought back.

And, of course, my own clash with the New York Times occurred over the war after I gave a commencement address, which you played on Democracy Now!, at Rockford College, my first and last invitation to give a commencement address. And if I had gotten up and said, “America is a great democracy that goes abroad to liberate and provide freedom and impose — or, you know, give its sort of virtues of Western civilization to the lesser people of the Middle East,” well, nobody would have said anything. Indeed, John Burns was quite public in his support for the war. But to challenge the intentions and the virtues of the power elite, that’s the line that the liberal class — if you cross that line, which, of course, Goldstone did in his report — Schanberg did it when he started writing about real estate developers who were driving out low-income and medium-income New Yorkers from Manhattan and the homeless on the streets — then you’re out. Then you are pushed out of the institution.

So, oftentimes there are good people within these institutions, but if they hold fast to these moral imperatives, inevitably they are shunted aside. And the problem is, with the rise of the corporate state and power systems, especially financial systems, that by any definition or any criteria are criminal, you have liberal institutions like the New York Times paying deference to these institutions, when in fact they should be challenging them.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, if you had given a speech for the war at Rockford College, you hardly would have been reprimanded. But just for a moment, let’s go back in time. We’ll link to it at, this amazing moment, the speech that you gave, that you did not actually think was going to be that controversial.


AMY GOODMAN: After all, Rockford College was Jane Addams’ college.

CHRIS HEDGES: That’s all I knew about it. I thought they were just pacifist Socialists.

AMY GOODMAN: When the police were escorting you out, why don’t you just quickly explain what happened, and then what the Times did about this?

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, it was — I had my mike cut. And you can watch it on YouTube or on —- link it to And I was booed, and people stood up and started singing “God Bless America” and jeering and -—

AMY GOODMAN: And you were saying?

CHRIS HEDGES: I was talking about the consequences of the war. I spent seven years in the Middle East, months of my life in Iraq. I speak Arabic. This wasn’t an opinion. This was based on a tremendous amount of time and energy in an area of the world I knew very well. And then I was finally escorted —- they closed all the roads out of the campus, and the security escorted me out before the awarding of diplomas, because they didn’t want the students to come in close proximity. I had two young men try and climb up on the stage at the end and push me off the podium. And what happened was the trash talk. Fox and all these people got a hold of the home videos and ran it in these sort of endless loops. So I was lynched in the same way they lynched, you know, figures like my friend Jeremiah Wright. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: You almost were a minister.

CHRIS HEDGES: Yes, I almost was. I finished but wasn’t ordained. And the Times had to respond. So they responded by giving me a formal written reprimand, and were Guild — they were Guild, which means that the next time I spoke out against the war, the next time I violated that warning, I would be fired. And that’s when I left the paper.

AMY GOODMAN: You were actually quite muted in criticism of the government when you were at the New York Times and you were being interviewed, like by us.

CHRIS HEDGES: Yeah. The Times wouldn’t consider it muted. Maybe for Democracy Now! listeners, it was muted. But yeah, the stance was — and I knew what I was doing. I had been there 15 years. It was a kind of career suicide. But I felt so strongly that this was a mistake, and there were so few of us that had that kind of experience, in particular, in the Arab world, that I had a kind of duty to speak out.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chris Hedges. His new book is called Death of the Liberal Class. The incoming head of the House Committee on Homeland Security, New York Congressmember Peter King, says he’s going to hold hearings on what he calls the radicalization of American Muslims. What is your response to this?

CHRIS HEDGES: It’s racist. It’s racist garbage. And I speak to Muslim groups all over the country, and they’re terrified. And it’s — in the stories that I hear anecdotally of every time they fly, constant intrusions by state security into matters of privacy, when these people have done nothing wrong. They are being demonized, especially by the right wing, for the failings of the — as the state continues to unravel and collapse, they are being picked out as scapegoats. And should we suffer another catastrophic terrorist attack on American soil, I’m very, very frightened for what’s going to happen to American Muslims, who are hardly radical. Every time I go to these groups, they fall all — the most radical person in the room is myself, or they fall all over themselves to talk about American democracy and how great it is and how they are so proud to be citizens. It’s heartbreaking to watch.

I mean, I spoke at the Jerusalem Fund, and in the middle of the talk — you know, I can get away with it, because I’m not Muslim. The director got up and said, “You know, this is his own opinion. We totally disassociate. We have nothing to do with his stance.” The fear — and legitimate fear — that has been driven by Neanderthals like this guy and others by demonizing American Muslims is really deeply frightening.

AMY GOODMAN: You were being arrested on Thursday in the snow in Washington, D.C. with over 130 others. Among them, who? Dan Ellsberg —


AMY GOODMAN: — Pentagon Papers whistleblower; Ray McGovern, who was the briefer for George H.W. Bush for years, worked at the Central Intelligence Agency; many veterans. We played some clips last week, at the same time that this tax bill was passed, which will increase taxes on the working poor and decrease, of course, at the highest level, the wealthiest Americans. Link the war with — spending on the war with what we’re spending on people at home and dealing with poverty here.

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, you know, this was — became a very prominent theme that Martin Luther King beat home, especially in the last years of his life during the Vietnam War, that — especially because we’re going into debt. I mean, we’re building a kind of debt peonage system, which is used then as an excuse to go after wage earners, to go after systems like Social Security. I mean, one of the most pernicious things that Obama did in this tax bill was reduce contributions to Social Security, because of course that’s next on the target, as well as raise the deficit by $900 — $700 and $900 billion.

And what’s terrifying about movements like the Tea Party is that they provide a kind of emotional consistency. And, of course, that undercurrent of racism towards undocumented workers, towards Muslims, is very much a part of the language of that pernicious right wing. But it embraces all things military, as if somehow the military is not part of government. It’s an irrational political policy. You know, nobody — they want to get government off their backs, but nobody — everybody wants to extend unemployment benefits, Social Security, Medicare, and of course not touch the big — you know, the force that is draining the — hollowing the country out from the inside, which is the military-industrial complex — 50 percent of all discretionary spending. And so, as these deficits — we’ve now racked up the largest deficits in human history, and as these deficits are ratcheted upwards, and there is an inability to question the self-destructive quality of the armament industry, then it’s taken out on the backs of the working class — and our working class is already in tremendous financial straits — and in the middle class.

AMY GOODMAN: The incoming House Banking Committee chair, Spencer Bachus, said, “In Washington, the view is that the banks are to be regulated, and my view is that Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks.”

CHRIS HEDGES: Well, that’s pretty much been the policy since Bill Clinton.

AMY GOODMAN: Your assessment of President Obama?

CHRIS HEDGES: A disaster. A poster child for the bankruptcy of the liberal class. Somebody who, like Clinton, is a self-identified liberal, who speaks in the traditional language of liberalism but has made war against the core values of liberalism, which is a concern for those people outside the narrow power elite. And the tragedy, if tragedy is the right word, is that Obama, who made this Faustian bargain with corporate interests in order to gain power, has now been crumpled up and thrown away by these interests. They don’t need him anymore. He functioned as a brand after the disastrous eight years of George Bush.

And what we are watching is an even more craven attempt on the part of the White House to cater to the forces that are literally destroying the United States, have reconfigured, are reconfiguring this country into a form of neofeudalism. And all of the traditional — the pillars of the liberal establishment, that once provided some kind of protection and, more importantly, a kind of safety valve, a mechanism by which legitimate grievances and injustices in this country could be addressed, have shut tight. They no longer work. And so, we are getting these terrifying, proto-fascist movements that are leaping up around the fringes of American society and have as their anger not only a rage against government, but a rage against liberals, as well. And I would say that rage is not misplaced.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Chris Hedges, you began your speech outside in the snow, outside the gates of the White House, by saying, “Hope, from now on, will look like this.”

CHRIS HEDGES: That’s right. All we have left are acts of physical resistance. Of course, I’m deeply nonviolent. And if we don’t get out, then we’re finished. To trust in the normal mechanisms of power and those normal liberal institutions that once — and Democracy Now!, of course, is an exception to this — but, you know, once gave voice and a place to working men in this country is to be very naïve and essentially acquiesce to our own bondage.

AMY GOODMAN: Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, worked for the New York Times for more than two decades. His latest book is Death of the Liberal Class.

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