America’s Obscenely Rich Know Full Well That They Are Destroying America

By Jim Sleeper, AlterNet, December 9, 2014

Excerpt

…more than a few of these writers resigned and these students marched because they’re indignant as citizens. The eerie dislocations of journalism and criminal justice are only the most recent developments since the passage of the USA Patriot Act, the perpetration of the Iraq War, the capitalist predation and regulatory defaults that have thrown millions of Americans out of their homes and jobs, the revelations about Orwellian state and corporate surveillance that have coalesced into a crisis of legitimacy for the American constitutional system and capitalist republic. Hannah Arendt described the importance of “speech acts” in politics, warning against letting words and deeds get so far apart that the words become empty and the deeds become brutal. Consider first today’s journalistic vortex of increasingly empty words…transformation of American news and opinion outlets into what his CEO Guy Vidra calls “vertically integrated digital media companies.” These ventures break down voices of the American republic into market-driven metrics and repurpose them …to maximize profit, not public deliberation…The answer isn’t that they misread what journalism, politics and capitalism in America are becoming. They read it only too well. The answer is that, like so many other young, market-molded Americans, they don’t understand how the perversion of public life by tsunamis of marketing, financing and technological innovation has decontextualized and overwhelmed thoughtful writing, reading and the habits of mind and heart that sustain republican deliberation and institutions. It is impossible to exaggerate the physical as well as moral danger we are in as a result. We’ve been sleepwalking or dancing up the garden path into it. The American republic – and therefore our expectation that we can express controversial political opinions without going to prison – depends on those habits.…their own lives are spun so finely around commodification that they’ve become its creatures. They may crave a token or two of civic credibility…they lack the civic grounding, the nerve ends, the viscera and the body scars that enable most people to distinguish surface gestures from substantive struggles, and bought speech from real political speech…Although we like to think of ourselves as free men and women, many people’s pressing needs and fears prompted a foot-shuffling deference to power…Leadership to interpret and address the crisis of legitimacy that’s upon us will have to come from people who’ve shared their neighbors’ experiences of expediency and dependency and have found the strength and talent to see past the usual snares and delusions. But in a republic, some citizens have to uphold codes of honor and civic loyalty that are strong enough to keep power responsive to social purposes that can’t be met by markets and can’t be bought off or finessed by them. If capitalism becomes predatory and insinuating, citizens’ codes and trust of one another become empty, the stuff of slick videos and click-bait that lead to slavery. And the predators lose their ability to tell the difference: “Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the naïve psychology of the business man, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert.” That was written by the British economic historian R.H. Tawney in May 1926, in the New Republic — whose present owner is bewildered and bleating. But journalism isn’t justice. It would take a lot more disciplined defiance to make prosecutors and police officers bleat, too. From Nathan Hale and Thomas Paine to Jonathan Schell and Edward Snowden, some Americans have always emerged to announce the need and others to lead in breaking ties that had to be broken and framing new understandings and courses of action that had to be tried.

Full text

The tech oligarchs like Chris Hughes understand the direction this country is going in.

Last Friday, as New Republic writers and contributing editors wrenched themselves out of the whirling, digital vortex into which their employer and Facebook fantasist Chris Hughes is plunging the magazine, I witnessed another wrenching departure, at one of the selective university campuses where most New Republic staffers begin their public lives.

Driving through the Yale campus, I got stuck in traffic as hundreds of law students, undergraduates and faculty, holding hands in a disciplined single file, wended their way from the Yale Law School’s imposing gothic towers to the imposing, marble U.S. Courthouse on the New Haven Green several blocks away.

Indignant at the complicity of prosecutors, grand juries and militarized police departments in shielding uniformed murderers of unarmed black men, the marchers were anything but the conformist “zombies,” preening careerists and “entitled little shits” who fill the pages of former New Republic contributing editor William Deresiewicz’s anti-Ivy jeremiad, “Excellent Sheep.” They were citizens, whose existence he’d ignored, as had the New Republic when it ran an excerpt of his book under the headline,“Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League! The Nation’s Top Colleges Are Turning Our Kids Into Zombies.”

It’s not easy for magazine writers and editors to walk off their jobs these days. And it’s risky for law students, preoccupied with obtaining judicial clerkships and law firms’ signing bonuses that might erase their debts, to interrupt their classes and traffic to denounce prosecutors, grand juries and officers of the law.

Yet more than a few of these writers resigned and these students marched because they’re indignant as citizens. The eerie dislocations of journalism and criminal justice are only the most recent developments since the passage of the USA Patriot Act, the perpetration of the Iraq War, the capitalist predation and regulatory defaults that have thrown millions of Americans out of their homes and jobs, the revelations about Orwellian state and corporate surveillance that have coalesced into a crisis of legitimacy for the American constitutional system and capitalist republic.

Hannah Arendt described the importance of “speech acts” in politics, warning against letting words and deeds get so far apart that the words become empty and the deeds become brutal. Consider first today’s journalistic vortex of increasingly empty words.

Deresiewicz tried to sound an alarm in an essay on the corruption of elite liberal education that went viral and prompted him to write “Excellent Sheep.” But his warnings came on more like fireworks than depth charges because they, too, were part of the tsunami of casino-like financing and consumer-groping that drives the New Republic and his publishers at Free Press. The latter crafted the book and its roll-out ”for coronation by the gilded cage’s resident pundits and conscience keepers, who’ll use it to guide the kept through another empty ritual of self-flagellation on their way back to college this fall,” as I put it in a review for Bookforum.

Hughes’ New Republic then celebrated precisely the empty ritual I’d sketched by packaging Deresiewicz’s chapter under that headline, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League!” “Excuse me,” I wrote here in response, “but aren’t most editors, staffers, and writers at that faux-contrarian magazine themselves Ivy Leaguers…? Have they all met and pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to dethrone their alma maters? … Or are they playing on the insecurities of 18-year-olds and their parents with yet another of the click-bait headlines and graphics they produce each day to redecorate the cage of their own house-broken hopes?”

Not that the pre-Hughes New Republic was much better. Its political incoherence has been characterized smartly by Corey Robin. Bracing though it could be in debunking politically correct indulgences (not least via my own critiques of black racial demagoguery at the time), its treatment of left-liberals was marinated in resentment, whether in Martin Peretz’s and Paul Berman’s attacks on critics of Israel, Michael Kelly’s loathing of Bill Clinton and the left-leaning “sandalistas” of Vermont, and Peter Beinart’s lambasting of opponents of the Iraq War with a fervor worthy of neoconservative field marshal Bill Kristol. (Beinart reversed course several years ago, after leaving the New Republic.)

And nothing compares with the preening, Cold War-ish orotundities of the magazine’s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, a brilliant editor who should write only three times a year under his own name, and then with an editor at his elbow, because he’s a cankered horror show of unction and alliterative pomposity with the ethics of a faculty-lounge lizard who holds Washington journalists of upper-middling intelligence in his thrall. By comparison, his editorial counterpart at the magazine, Franklin Foer, author of “How Soccer Explains the World” and would-be scourge of Amazon, is at least anodyne.

The magazine has always struggled to be a voice, or at least a forum, for a “liberalism” that has mostly failed to balance its need for citizens to uphold public virtues and beliefs against its knee-jerk obeisance to every whim and riptide of a go-go capitalism that dissolves civic virtues and republican sovereignty itself. What the New Republic lacks is a civic republicanism rooted in something deeper than politics. Under Peretz, it tried Jewish nationalism. Under Hughes, it has nothing, and his writers, lost as they are, can’t help but feel it.

Other liberal magazines also face this problem as they try to present American life to the well-educated reader who seeks “the most comfortable and least compromising attitude he can assume toward capitalist society without being forced into actual conflict,” as the critic Robert Warshow once put it in an essay about the New Yorker.

Hughes’ new New Republic represents the even scarier transformation of American news and opinion outlets into what his CEO Guy Vidra calls “vertically integrated digital media companies.” These ventures break down voices of the American republic into market-driven metrics and repurpose them – as I suspect even Deresiewicz’s book publishers induced him to do somewhat in writing “Excellent Sheep” – to maximize profit, not public deliberation. (I experienced such pressure from Viking/Penguin Books when I was writing “Liberal Racism.” More blood! More angry words! I gave in only a little.)

It’s also worth noting that Hughes’ husband, Sean Eldridge, 28, tried to eviscerate electoral politics pretty much as Hughes was eviscerating the New Republic when the couple bought two estates in two New York congressional districts while Eldridge decided which one to run in. He then funded economic development initiatives in his chosen district, made slick videos proclaiming his love for the Hudson Valley, and launched politically correct but highly negative ads against the conservative but likable and homegrown Republican incumbent Chris Gibson, who won 65 to 35 percent. That public repudiation of Eldridge’s opportunism was as humiliating as the mass resignations at the New Republic have been for Hughes.

How could these guys and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, creator of the vertically integrated, digital and disastrous First Look Media, have been so blind?

The answer isn’t that they misread what journalism, politics and capitalism in America are becoming. They read it only too well. The answer is that, like so many other young, market-molded Americans, they don’t understand how the perversion of public life by tsunamis of marketing, financing and technological innovation has decontextualized and overwhelmed thoughtful writing, reading and the habits of mind and heart that sustain republican deliberation and institutions.

It is impossible to exaggerate the physical as well as moral danger we are in as a result. We’ve been sleepwalking or dancing up the garden path into it. The American republic – and therefore our expectation that we can express controversial political opinions without going to prison – depends on those habits.

So let’s try to open these men’s eyes to the loss of opportunities and the sickening demoralization they can’t see because their own lives are spun so finely around commodification that they’ve become its creatures. They may crave a token or two of civic credibility — a title like “Publisher of the New Republic” or “Member of Congress.” But they lack the civic grounding, the nerve ends, the viscera and the body scars that enable most people to distinguish surface gestures from substantive struggles, and bought speech from real political speech.

These men’s consuming passions for veneers and the money to sustain them isolates and insulates them from Americans who — like the departed New Republic writers, the voters who rejected Eldridge, and many students and faculty at Yale – have bestirred themselves to challenge riptides that Hughes, Eldridge, Vidra and Omidyar are surfing and even accelerating. Chris Lehmann’s account of Omidyar in In These Times offers a delicious exposition of these surfers. They aren’t as overpowering and irresistible as they seem at first.

An Eldridge campaign video that shows him consulting with citizen-activists in the district he wanted to represent becomes more subtly annoying when one or two of these courted citizens offer testimonials to his hands-on engagement and reliability. Now that he’s unlikely ever again to run for office there, time will tell whether his professed love of the Hudson Valley keeps him funding and working on these economic and other development projects.

Rich misadventurers rush in to fill widening gaps between their wealth and others’ declining fortunes. I saw it in the 1970s while running a newspaper in a beleaguered Brooklyn congressional district represented by multimillionaire Fred Richmond, whose largess kept him in office until his crimes forced his departure.

Although we like to think of ourselves as free men and women, many people’s pressing needs and fears prompted a foot-shuffling deference to power in that district more abject than I’d ever expected.

Richmond, who’d made $40 million (a lot of money in the late 1970s) in the steel industry and then on Wall Street, was old-fashioned enough to crave the legitimacy that might come with prestigious public service. Glimpses I’ve had of Eldridge and Hughes suggest something similarly, almost endearingly old-fashioned in them.

But insinuating oneself into a proprietary posture toward others’ long-term efforts isn’t leadership. Nor is Vidra’s and Omidyar’s arrogance and impatience with underlings. It reminds me of the late Brazilian educator Paolo Freire’s observation, in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” that

“Any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor always manifests itself in the form of false generosity. In order to express their ‘generosity,’ the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. That is why the dispensers of false generosity become desperate at the slightest threat to its source.”

It’s at this point that the more proximate enemy of the needy and those of us who care about the republic becomes not only a Hughes, an Eldridge or an Omidyar but the criminal-justice system and, with it, tragically, the white working-class men I wrote about here a couple of days ago and won’t address again now.

Leadership to interpret and address the crisis of legitimacy that’s upon us will have to come from people who’ve shared their neighbors’ experiences of expediency and dependency and have found the strength and talent to see past the usual snares and delusions.

Interlopers like Hughes and Omidyar, who try to buy leadership in such circumstances, find themselves nourishing only love-hate, passive-aggressive relationships. As a certain social critic once explained, “Money appears as a disruptive power for the individual and social bonds. It changes vice into virtue, stupidity into intelligence. He who can purchase others’ bravery is brave, though a coward … But if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, your love is impotent, and a misfortune.”

I’m far from claiming there’s no social benefit in the creation of Facebook, in which Hughes was involved, and of eBay, which Omidyar founded. Separating the creators’ massive accumulations from conventional social constraints is part of capitalism’s triumph, a source of its dynamism and innovation.

But in a republic, some citizens have to uphold codes of honor and civic loyalty that are strong enough to keep power responsive to social purposes that can’t be met by markets and can’t be bought off or finessed by them. If capitalism becomes predatory and insinuating, citizens’ codes and trust of one another become empty, the stuff of slick videos and click-bait that lead to slavery.

And the predators lose their ability to tell the difference: “Few tricks of the unsophisticated intellect are more curious than the naïve psychology of the business man, who ascribes his achievements to his own unaided efforts, in bland unconsciousness of a social order without whose continuous support and vigilant protection he would be as a lamb bleating in the desert.”

That was written by the British economic historian R.H. Tawney in May 1926, in the New Republic — whose present owner is bewildered and bleating. But journalism isn’t justice. It would take a lot more disciplined defiance to make prosecutors and police officers bleat, too. From Nathan Hale and Thomas Paine to Jonathan Schell and Edward Snowden, some Americans have always emerged to announce the need and others to lead in breaking ties that had to be broken and framing new understandings and courses of action that had to be tried.

Jim Sleeper is the author of Liberal Racism (1997) and The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (1990).

http://www.alternet.org/media/americas-obscenely-rich-know-full-well-they-are-destroying-america?akid=12572.125622.5LNNv0&rd=1&src=newsletter1028595&t=11&paging=off&current_page=1#bookmark

A Fearful Price

 

By BOB HERBERT, Op-Ed Columnist, New York Times, December 8, 2009

Excerpt

…The idea that fewer than 1 per­cent of Amer­i­cans are being called on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and that we’re send­ing them into com­bat again and again and again — for three tours, four tours, five tours, six tours — is obscene. All decent peo­ple should object…the over­whelm­ing major­ity of Amer­i­cans have no desire at all to share in the sac­ri­fices that the ser­vice mem­bers and their fam­i­lies are mak­ing. Most Amer­i­cans do not want to serve in the wars, do not want to give up their pre­cious time to do vol­un­teer work that would aid the nation’s war­riors and their fam­i­lies, do not even want to fork over the taxes that are needed to pay for the wars…The rea­son it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to con­tinue fight­ing year after year after year, is because so few Amer­i­cans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fight­ing in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II com­bined. If vot­ers had to choose right now between insti­tut­ing a draft or exit­ing Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two coun­tries in a heartbeat…Here’s George Washington’s view, for exam­ple: “It must be laid down as a pri­mary posi­tion and the basis of our sys­tem, that every cit­i­zen who enjoys the pro­tec­tion of a free gov­ern­ment owes not only a pro­por­tion of his prop­erty, but even his per­sonal ser­vice to the defense of it.”

 

Full text

I spoke recently with a student at Columbia who was enthusiastic about the escalation of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. He argued that a full-blown counterinsurgency effort, which would likely take many years and cost many lives, was the only way to truly win the war.

He was a very bright young man: thoughtful and eager and polite. I asked him if he had any plans to join the military and help make this grand mission a success. He said no.

There was an article in The Times on Monday about a new study showing that the eight years of warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan were taking an emotional toll on the children of service members and that the difficulties increased the longer parents were deployed.

There is no way that the findings of this study should be a surprise to anyone. It just confirms that the children of those being sent into combat are among that tiny percentage of the population that is unfairly shouldering the entire burden of these wars.

The idea that fewer than 1 percent of Americans are being called on to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq and that we’re sending them into combat again and again and again — for three tours, four tours, five tours, six tours — is obscene. All decent people should object.

We already knew that in addition to the many thousands who have been killed or physically wounded, hundreds of thousands have returned with very serious psychological wounds: deep depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and so on. Other problems are also widespread: alcohol and drug abuse, family strife, homelessness.

The new study, by the RAND Corporation, was published in the journal Pediatrics. The children surveyed were found to have higher levels of emotional difficulties than their peers in the general population.

According to the study:

“Older youth and girls of all ages reported significantly more school, family and peer-related difficulties with parental deployment. Length of parental deployment and poorer non-deployed caregiver mental health were significantly associated with a greater number of challenges for children, both during deployment and deployed parent reintegration.”

The air is filled with obsessive self-satisfied rhetoric about supporting the troops, giving them everything they need and not letting them down. But that rhetoric is as hollow as a jazzman’s drum because the overwhelming majority of Americans have no desire at all to share in the sacrifices that the service members and their families are making. Most Americans do not want to serve in the wars, do not want to give up their precious time to do volunteer work that would aid the nation’s warriors and their families, do not even want to fork over the taxes that are needed to pay for the wars.

To say that this is a national disgrace is to wallow in the shallowest understatement. The nation will always give lip-service to support for the troops, but for the most part Americans do not really care about the men and women we so blithely ship off to war, and the families they leave behind.

The National Military Family Association, which commissioned the RAND study, has poignant comments from the children of military personnel on its Web site.

You can tell immediately how much more real the wars are to those youngsters than to most Americans:

“I hope it’s not him on the news getting hurt.”

“Most of my grades dropped because I was thinking about my dad, because my dad’s more important than school.”

“Mom will be in her room and we hear her crying.”

The reason it is so easy for the U.S. to declare wars, and to continue fighting year after year after year, is because so few Americans feel the actual pain of those wars. We’ve been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan longer than we fought in World Wars I and II combined. If voters had to choose right now between instituting a draft or exiting Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops would be out of those two countries in a heartbeat.

I don’t think our current way of waging war, which is pretty easy-breezy for most citizens, is what the architects of America had in mind. Here’s George Washington’s view, for example: “It must be laid down as a primary position and the basis of our system, that every citizen who enjoys the protection of a free government owes not only a proportion of his property, but even his personal service to the defense of it.”

What we are doing is indefensible and will ultimately exact a fearful price, and there will be absolutely no way for the U.S. to avoid paying it.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/08/opinion/08herbert.html?_r=0