A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
The liberal elites, who bear significant responsibility for the death of our democracy, now hold themselves up as the saviors of the republic. They have embarked, despite their own corruption and their complicity in neoliberalism and the crimes of empire, on a self-righteous moral crusade to topple Donald Trump. It is quite a show. They attack Trump’s lies, denounce executive orders such as his travel ban as un-American and blame Trump’s election on Russia or FBI Director James Comey rather than the failed neoliberal policies they themselves advanced.
Where was this moral outrage when our privacy was taken from us by the security and surveillance state, the criminals on Wall Street were bailed out, we were stripped of our civil liberties and 2.3 million men and women were packed into our prisons, most of them poor people of color? Why did they not thunder with indignation as money replaced the vote and elected officials and corporate lobbyists instituted our system of legalized bribery? Where were the impassioned critiques of the absurd idea of allowing a nation to be governed by the dictates of corporations, banks and hedge fund managers? Why did they cater to the foibles and utterings of fellow elites, all the while blacklisting critics of the corporate state and ignoring the misery of the poor and the working class? Where was their moral righteousness when the United States committed war crimes in the Middle East and our militarized police carried out murderous rampages? What the liberal elites do now is not moral. It is self-exaltation disguised as piety. It is part of the carnival act.
The liberal class, ranging from Hollywood and the Democratic leadership to The New York Times and CNN, refuses to acknowledge that it sold the Democratic Party to corporate bidders; collaborated in the evisceration of our civil liberties; helped destroy programs such as welfare, orchestrate the job-killing North American Free Trade Agreement and Trans-Pacific Partnership deal, wage endless war, debase our public institutions including the press and build the world’s largest prison system[….]
It is the job of the guardians of orthodoxy to plaster over the brutal reality and cruelty of neoliberalism and empire with a patina of civility or entertainment. They pay homage to a nonexistent democracy and nonexistent American virtues. The elites, who live in enclaves of privilege in cities such as New York, Washington and San Francisco, scold an enraged population. They tell those they dismiss as inferiors to calm down, be reasonable and patient and trust in the goodness of the old ruling class and the American system. African-Americans have heard this kind of cant preached by the white ruling class for a couple of centuries.
Because the system works for the elites, and because the elites interact only with other elites, they are mystified about the revolt rising up from the decayed cities they fly over in the middle of the country. They think they can stuff this inexplicable rage back in the box. They continue to offer up absurd solutions to deindustrialization and despair, such as Thomas Friedman’s endorsement of “a culture of entrepreneurship” and “an ethic of pluralism.” These kinds of bromides are advertising jingles. They bear no more connection to reality than Trump promising to make America great again.
I walked into the Harvard Club in New York City after midnight on election night. The well-heeled New York elites stood, their mouths agape, looking up at the television screens in the oak-paneled bar while wearing their Clinton campaign straw hats. They could not speak. They were in shock. The system they funded to prevent anyone from outside their circle, Republican or Democrat, from achieving the presidency had inexplicably collapsed[….]
At first the press, especially the television press, could not get enough of Trump. He received 23 times the coverage of Sen. Bernie Sanders, who spoke about things that do not make for great television—inequality and corporate corruption. Trump brought in the advertising dollars. 2016 was CNN’s most profitable year. Now, alarmed at Trump’s ascendancy, the press has set out to destroy him[….]
The press, like the Democratic Party, is an appendage of the consumer society. These institutions are not about politics or news. They are about imparting an experience. They create political personalities, marketed as celebrities, to make us feel good about candidates. These manufactured emotions, the product of the dark arts of the public relations industry, determine how we vote. Issues and policies are irrelevant. It is marketing and entertainment. Trump is a skillful marketer of his fictitious self[….]
The pseudo-events on television displace reality. This is how a reality star becomes president. Sixty million people think Trump’s manufactured persona—the predominate tycoon—on “The Apprentice” is real. Our perception of the truth is determined by what appears on the screen. If an event is never broadcast, it somehow never happened. The electronic image is the word of God. The corporate state controls most of what is seen and heard on television, what ideas and events can be discussed in the mainstream media and what orthodoxies, including neoliberalism and the war industry, must never be questioned. We suffer an intellectual tyranny as pervasive as that imposed by fascism and communism. Trump, who is as gullible as the most habitual television viewer, exemplifies our cultural and political death. He is no more “authentic” than Hillary Clinton. But he appears on our screens as more authentic because he is more deeply embedded in the medium that controls our thoughts. He is what is vomited up from the perverted zeitgeist of a nation entranced and dominated by electronic hallucinations[….]
A genuine populism, one defined and often articulated by Bernie Sanders, could sweep the Democratic Party back into power. Regulating Wall Street, publicly financing campaigns, forgiving student debt, demanding universal health care, bailing out homeowners victimized by the banks, ending the wars in the Middle East, instituting a jobs program to repair our decaying infrastructure, dismantling the prison system, restoring the rule of law on the streets of our cities, making college education free and protecting programs such as Social Security would see election victory after election victory.
But this will never happen within the Democratic Party. It refuses to prohibit corporate money. The party elites know that if corporate money disappears, so do they. The party’s hierarchy, pressured by Obama and the Clintons, elevated Tom Perez over Keith Ellison—whom a major donor to the party, Haim Saban, condemns as an “anti-Semite” because of Ellison’s criticism of the Israeli government—to head the Democratic National Committee. They will press forward repeating the same silly slogans and trying to use the now ineffective Force choke on their political enemies. They may have lost control of the Congress and the White House and hold only 16 governorships and majorities in only 31 of the states’ 99 legislative chambers, but they are incapable of offering any meaningful alternative to neoliberalism and empire. They are devoid of a vision. They can only moralize. They will continue to atrophy and enable the consolidation of American fascism[….]
Chris Hedges (photo: Moyers & Co.)