Thursday, March 3, 2011

Book Selections of the Month: "Death of the Liberal Class" and "How to Disappear" Book Selections of the Month (March 2011): Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges and How to Disappear by Frank M. Ahearn with Eileen C. Horan

Avoiding indulging in “confirmation bias” (disproportionately registering data that confirms your existing notions) gets harder with each passing year.  I was once criticized, for example, for saying that I largely just read whatever books my friends give me (especially if they wrote the books themselves), but that passivity was partly an effort to combat the inevitable impulse to pick things myself and end up even inadvertently reading more sci-fi, libertarianism, and pro-science stuff I may not need.  (NOTE: Don’t recommend anything!  I’m swamped!  And if you want to talk about one book at length, remember to join us tomorrow night at Lolita Bar at 7pm to hear from Machinery of Freedom author David Friedman.)

Occasionally, worried that my friends are themselves obviously a biasing cohort despite their ideological diversity, I will attempt to strike out on my own – and still often end up picking more Seaveyesque books than intended, I must admit.  So, when I bought Death of the Liberal Class by Chris Hedges, I was honestly trying to give my brain a dose of leftism to compensate for its usual drift – and I literally picked up the Ahearn/Horan book on How to Disappear just because it was nearby on the display table and sounded more earthy and concrete than the philosophical stuff I had just, once more, picked up. 

Well, turns out Death of the Liberal Class is largely an Old Left lament that self-proclaimed “liberals” have all turned (back) into de facto libertarians over the past several decades (a lament so negative that, although I am no sadist, I actually had to laugh a couple times at how bleak – and laissez-faire capitalist – Hedges thinks everything is).  And the main author of How to Disappear, it becomes gradually apparent throughout the book, is, yes, a libertarian (or very close to it).  I don’t plan these things.  The world – and our brains – are full of rather fine-tuned filter mechanisms of which we are only dimly aware, as I often say. 

(Similarly, you may have had the experience of walking into a hotel and just sort of knowing that someone in the lobby is in town for the same event you are because she sorta looks like the type.  Other scrimshaw and polka enthusiasts, or whatever it may be, just have a walk that you immediately recognize as akin to your own vibe.)

But on to the books.


Death of the Liberal Class is largely an angry history-recounting rant about what Hedges sees as twentieth-century American liberalism’s dereliction of duty.  There was a time – though apparently we have to go back not just to the 60s or FDR to find it but really all the way back to a century ago – when left-leaning intellectuals were not interested in pleasing governmental, corporate, or fellow-hipster establishments but were genuinely ornery and ready, like communist insurrectionists and
surly union members, to wage class warfare and remake society on behalf of the little guy.  Since then, alas, even liberals – starting with the hippies, arguably, despite their pretense of revolutionary thought – have readily bought into consumer culture and individualism, merely substituting casual sex and drug use for the things that more-bourgeois culture wants to sell you.

Hey, when you put it that way, Mr. Hedges, I’m starting to like these hippies and liberals after all.  Do you get frustrated when you visit the offices of The Nation and people are excited about getting their new Nation coffee mugs?  I understand, I really do.

Hedges, unfortunately, loves the Wobblies – and other ornery old-school leftist fighters such as (aspects of) Ramparts and the Black Panthers, not to mention Catholic anti-rightists such as Dorothy Day – as opposed to the white individualist-hedonists of the New Left and later movements (p.c. and deconstructionism stand condemned in this book as more variants on consumer culture and/or politically-irrelevant elitism).  It’s enough to make one think libertarians should love the New Left – and the modern liberal class – after all.  There are things worse than the Establishment, and much as I admire Hedges’ insistence on sticking to principle, he is promoting those worse things.

And I should not let him off the hook too easily by making it sound as if he is more philosophically consistent than those he condemns.  There is something very odd, for instance, about his condemnation of mere propagandizing intellectuals being juxtaposed with his praise of a New Deal-era children’s play about socialist beavers building a dam and fighting off an evil beaver king so that all the workers can have equal amounts of ice cream – a play produced at taxpayer expense, no less. 

Interestingly, as if to make the book even more Todd-attracting, it begins with backhanded praise for the Tea Party movement, Hedges’ view being that liberalism has so grievously failed to explain current political circumstances that marginalized people have nowhere to turn for plausible explanations except the libertarian right.  Got that right. 

And in this era of liberal government bailing out big banks, I would love it if progressives such as Hedges at least considered the possibility that their love of anti-capitalist movements and activist government is a big part of the reason we ended up in our current morass – a much bigger part, indeed, than hippies taking office jobs and turning to cocaine.  Libertarians didn’t create Woodrow Wilson, who Hedges recognizes as the start of centralized propagandistic manipulation of American media.  They also didn’t create the parasitic relationship between unions and government now leading Wisconsin to the brink of bankruptcy or enlightenment. 

You really want to shake up the establishment and be intellectually bold, Hedges?  Help foster a global anti-government “Jasmine Tea Party,” I say.  Humanity deserves better than to be governed. 


But suppose you despair of solidarity and rebellion and just want to hide, maybe hang out on the beach with no ties to your old life, somewhere in the Caribbean perhaps?  For that, you might want to start by reading How to Disappear – but if you’re serious about disappearing, as Ahearn would be quick to tell you, you probably shouldn’t be blogging about it, nor even about his book.  He reluctantly acknowledges that for some of us media types, keeping our identities secret and “off the grid” just isn’t an option.

(And indeed, I was reading this book around the same time that I was launching my long-overdue Twitter and Facebook accounts, causing no small amount of cognitive dissonance.  The past few days of initial activity have seen Heather Lowe become my hundredth Facebook friend and the Franklin Center become my hundredth Twitter follower, so I guess I’m committed [and not a moment too soon, since the unbiased New York Times reported last week that blogs are over – if anyone’s reading this, let me know].  And Franklin Harris, who is not a center but rather a person, happened to note on Facebook this week that there’s a trailer out that really shows what life on the Grid looks like – that is, the impressive trailer for the new TV series Tron Uprising.)  

I’ve long considered hosting a public debate about which better fosters freedom – being wired or being off the grid.  Each has its advantages, and it’s tough to do both at the same time.  To do the latter, suggests Ahearn, it may help (to put it in modern parlance) to think in terms of trying to reduce your digital footprint.  Why have more accounts or give out more personal information than necessary?  Amusingly, he likes to resort to very old-fashioned methods when advising clients on how to cover their tracks (using essentially p.i. tactics, he makes a living both tracking people down and aiding those who do not want to be tracked down).  For instance, his method of disposing thoroughly of hard drive data includes leaving the hard drive in the freezer for a while, smashing it into many pieces with a hammer, and then disposing of the pieces in disparate public trash receptacles or a convenient lake. 

But I do not wish to make Ahearn sound unphilosophical (and he’s definitely funny).  He hints at libertarian political views, saying at one point that as long as you aren’t hurting anyone or violating anyone’s rights, he has no quarrel with anything you do while you’re in hiding – and that you should expect to meet the occasional libertarian if hiding offshore (the chapter on the paradox of disappearing into social media also hints he’s an atheist). 

And yes, p. 178 actually lists Midas Mulligan as an example of someone who successfully disappeared – Mulligan being the fictional black-market banker from Atlas Shrugged (whose disappearance, as it happens, will reportedly form the opening sequence of the Atlas Shrugged movie in two months, a slight deviation from the book but presumably not one that will anger anyone).  The message is clear: For Ahearn, offshore tax havens and changes of identity are the real-world Galt’s Gulch. 

And speaking of eluding surveillance and bourgeois mind control, next month, let’s take a look at Jonathan Lethem’s book-length analysis of the deconstructionist John Carpenter sci-fi thriller They Live.  If the establishment permits me to.  


Preparing For Fifty said...

Hey Todd,

Thanks for the great write up.

Frank M. Ahearn

Dave said...

As I mentioned to you I'm sort of going through a political/philosophical realignment, and this:
"liberalism has so grievously failed to explain current political circumstances that marginalized people have nowhere to turn for plausible explanations except the libertarian right."

Is a major driving factor. It seems to me that libertariansm or libertarians do more to drive philosophical discussion than anyone else I encounter.

Most of the liberal Public Union supporters sort of make implications without outright saying that they believe in a redistributive tax on the ultra-wealthy - behind all the snark and eye rolling, they point out income inequality without outright saying that they're proposing an increase in progressiveness of taxation, (if they are suggesting that. All they are doing is pointing out that there are ultra rich people. If I have to do the thinking for them, well, my philosophy only develops so far in that direction, as opposed to libertarians who seem more than happy to explain themselves, name authors etc.)
None have shown me a Democrat who is even saying anything of the sort, so how can I even engage or entertain their vision?

And of course, without developing their philosophy or demonstrating clear leadership, what is going to happen? Tax increases on people making similar salaries to the teachers. I'd rather keep money in my pockets than deal with that mess.

Todd Seavey said...

One of my biggest fears about both pro-government activists and religion (unrelated as the two things may at first appear) is that each all too easily leads to a "shakedown" mentality in which few testable claims are made but essentially random, never-ending demands can be made _so long as problems still exist in the world_.

That is, religions rarely need to demonstrate that they improve character if they can get away with simply saying "You've noticed sin and nastiness in the world, haven't you? Well, then, tithe and pray!"

And pro-government types can always say "So you don't think poverty is a problem?" and guilt-trip people into OKing their latest scheme, without dwelling too long on whether their latest scheme even alleviates the problem -- that's just taken for granted.

There will always be problems in the world, and government and religion hope you'll always assume you therefore need _them specifically_. But they aren't actually helping.

And I complain a bit more about unions in today's (March 4 entry).