Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

15 February, 2010

Chris Hedges Is the New Howard Zinn

When Howard Zinn died last month, I read many an encomium written by someone who mourned his passing. A couple historians related how it was Zinn who inspired them to become historians but most of the ones I read were akin to Matthew Rothschild's "Thank You, Howard Zinn" which focused on the man's tireless activism in support of "progressive" causes of various stripes.

In addition to the lavish praise, I also read a lot of criticism about Zinn as an historian. The most damning was probably Michael Kazin's "Howard Zinn's History Lessons". To my knowledge, Kazin is no right-winger intent on keeping the sights of history books trained on wealthy, powerful white males which perhaps gives his words even more of a bite. He wrote:

History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed...This is history as cynicism. Zinn omits the real choices our left ancestors faced and the true pathos, and drama, of their decisions...Zinn's ruling elite is a transhistorical entity, a virtual monolith; neither its interests nor its ideology change markedly from the days when its members owned slaves and wore knee-britches to the era of the Internet and Armani.

These sentiments were echoed by Gabriel Winant at Salon:

But Zinn’s humanitarianism was also fuzzy-headed. "A People’s History of the United States" -- the one work among his many for which he will be most remembered -- does not offer a compelling explanation of past events or present conditions. Zinn was not really capable of doing so, committed as he was to insisting on the nobility of the exploited many at the hands of a nefarious few. Exploitation and protest, domination and resistance are indeed enduring and central features of American history (and all other history). But they don’t come near being the whole story...Zinn’s world had little room for workers who wouldn’t join unions, or black people who were not on the front lines of protest. It’s certainly possible to explain these phenomena without abandoning radical criticism or arguing that the proletariat is cheering on Goldman Sachs. But Zinn’s preference was to pretend there was no issue at all.

Lastly, I will quote Sheldon Stern, an historian formerly at the JFK Library, who recalled a couple encounters with Zinn. Here's one of them:

On another occasion, he lectured about pollution of the environment by American industry. I asked him about the environmental catastrophe left by the Soviet Union in their former satellites—in Czechoslovakia, for example, most of the arable land was no longer fit for agriculture. He smiled but made no reply. I also asked, after he had spoken about the peoples’ struggle against the war in Vietnam, why much of organized labor had supported the war and construction workers had attacked students demonstrating against the war. He countered that the genius of American capitalist leaders was their unfailing ability to turn the people against their own interests.

I would guess that none of these people feel that Zinn's heart was in the wrong spot or that he perceived injustices in the world which were mere chimeras. Instead they fault Zinn as an historian who eschewed nuance in favor of a simplistic battle of monoliths.

Now that Zinn is gone, it occurred to me today that he has been replaced by Chris Hedges. Just read his articles at Truthdig. According to him, we Americans no longer have democracy and are on the path to serfdom.

America is devolving into a third-world nation. And if we do not immediately halt our elite’s rapacious looting of the public treasury we will be left with trillions in debts, which can never be repaid, and widespread human misery which we will be helpless to ameliorate. Our anemic democracy will be replaced with a robust national police state. The elite will withdraw into heavily guarded gated communities where they will have access to security, goods and services that cannot be afforded by the rest of us. Tens of millions of people, brutally controlled, will live in perpetual poverty.

Then there's the media which has made us into mindless zombies, an argument he makes, as with most of his arguments, in only the most apocalyptic terms.

We are enraptured by the revels of a dying civilization...Celebrity worship has banished the real from public discourse. And the adulation of celebrity is pervasive. The frenzy around political messiahs, or the devotion of millions of viewers to Oprah, is all part of the yearning to see ourselves in those we worship. We seek to be like them. We seek to make them like us. If Jesus and “The Purpose Driven Life” won’t make us a celebrity, then Tony Robbins or positive psychologists or reality television will. We are waiting for our cue to walk onstage and be admired and envied, to become known and celebrated. Nothing else in life counts.

And yesterday Hedges held court on the evil of the Internet.

The Internet has become one more tool hijacked by corporate interests to accelerate our cultural, political and economic decline. The great promise of the Internet, to open up dialogue, break down cultural barriers, promote democracy and unleash innovation and creativity, has been exposed as a scam. The Internet is dividing us into antagonistic clans, in which we chant the same slogans and hate the same enemies, while our creative work is handed for free to Web providers who use it as bait for advertising.

As with Zinn, we unwashed masses are nothing but pawns in the games of corporate interests, the elite, etc. We are simply unwitting victims who can only free ourselves by voting for the Green Party and taking to the streets.

I read this latest screed almost positive that I saw Hedges on C-SPAN in one of those interview shows which takes a break half way through to give the audience a tour of the author's home and writing space. This means we get a glimpse of someone's study, the walls of which are lined with books and invariably contain a desk at which the author writes. We find out the writing habits of the person as well as some of their favorite texts. And I'd swear that when the camera was in Hedges home, he remarked that he doesn't use the Internet except to get the weather and to communicate with his editors. Does anyone else remember this?

I thought of that scene when reading his views on the Internet and imagined him researching the topic on the Web and hating it all the while. How much stock should a reader put in an article about how evil the Internet is by someone who deliberately avoids it? Hedges liberally quotes Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in virtual reality and someone who is definitely not someone who avoids the Net. I suppose he'd have to since he seemingly has precious little experience of his own to draw from on the subject. This being the case, Hedges takes a very long view and thusly addresses only the big picture. It's a bit of a straw man ploy as well. He notes the utopian claims made for the Internet in its early days and uses these as the only criteria with which to judge it. Because the Internet hasn't transformed our country into a model democracy with egalitarianism growing on trees, it is thusly the "information super-sewer" for him.

Considering Hedges' excellent book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning and other essays about war, I find his new attitude to be rather odd. Hedges is very eloquent when he talks about how war, violence, and hatred transforms people, how it drains them of their humanity. I just don't understand how someone with such insight and experience could possibly believe that the Internet was equivalent to magic and would somehow transcend our natures and transform us into model citizens who would spend their days engaging in reasoned debate.

Take this bit:

Tastes and information on the Internet are determined by the crowd, what Lanier calls the hive mentality. Music, books, journalism, commercials and bits of television shows and movies, along with inane YouTube videos, are thrust onto our screens and into national consciousness because of the statistical analysis of Internet crowd preferences.

Do you see the Zinn thing here? The content created by the hive mind thrusts itself onto our displays and there's nothing we can do about it. We as denizens of the Net have no control over it. We are helpless.

While the Net certainly has changed things, a lot of what we do on it is simply a new way of doing the same stuff we did before there was a Worldwide Web. For instance, people have consumed music according to crowed preferences for a long time. Top 40 radio, music magazines, and the like have helped shape taste in this domain. And I think you can find analogs in how people decided which books to read and which movies to see. America's Funniest Home Videos had the inane home video scene covered. Vast numbers of consumers of culture have been flocking to the lowest common denominator for ages – this is not exclusive to the Internet. And when was this golden age when citizens ignored celebrity and only went for, as Hedges terms it, "the real"? Neil Postman gave this same discourse back in 1985.

Hedges would do well do take a broader view of what people do on the Internet. Yeah, people download Hollywood blockbusters and Top 40 hits, yeah they watch TV shows at Hulu and videos of teenaged skateboarders faceplanting on the sidewalk, but none of these activities preclude others that are more mundane or even more enlightening. What else do we do online? On the mundane side, we play games and do crossword & Sudoku puzzles; we do our banking and pay bills; we find recipes online; we get weather forecasts and book hotel rooms; and we scan classified and singles ads. I e-filed my taxes this year and got my refund within a week. In short, a lot of the same stuff we used to do either in person, via pen & paper, or with a newspaper.

People also watch independent and foreign films on Netflix. Decidedly lo-fi documentaries, such as ones about lutefisk, become available to anyone instead of languishing in total obscurity. They download Beethoven (and some even pay for it) and can take a step back in history by listening to the earliest Edison wax cylinders online. Because of the Net, I can read Hedges' column every Monday and then go to YouTube to watch interviews with him. Newspapers from around the globe are at our fingertips as are tons and tons of information and public records held by our government. E-books are to be had as well as recordings of countless semesters of college lectures. There are also some great blogs out there with informed comment and opinion.

I'm not arguing that everything on the Web is informative & helpful nor that our society's move towards digitalization is grand in every respect. For instance, I think that Frontline's Digital Nation brought up some perfectly valid concerns. But painting a picture of the Internet as simply a place where powerless people go to get their mandated regimen of corporate culture is false. Just as Howard Zinn didn't want to talk about labor unions that supported the Vietnam War, Chris Hedges doesn't want to talk about the mundane and even enlightening ways people use the Internet because that would put the lie to his idea that we, the teeming millions, are simply manipulated by elites and corporate interests. We the people have agency that goes beyond demonstrating in the streets. We aren't helpless at almost all points and times. If the people with money fool us or take advantage of us, we are to blame as well because it takes two to tango.
|| Palmer, 10:30 AM

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