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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/26/19

The Curse of Moral Purity

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From Truthdig


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The continued inability of America's liberal democratic establishment to address the ills besetting the country -- climate change, unregulated global capitalism, mounting social inequality, a bloated military, endless foreign wars, out-of-control deficits and gun violence -- means the inevitable snuffing out of our anemic democracy. Overwhelmed by the multiple crises, the liberal elites have jettisoned genuine political life and retreated into self-defeating moral crusades in a vain and futile attempt to deflect attention away from the looming social, political, economic and environmental catastrophes.

These faux moral crusades, now the language of the left and the right, have bifurcated the country into warring factions. Opponents are demonized as evil. Adherents to the cause are on the side of the angels. Nuance and ambiguity are banished. Facts are manipulated or discarded. Truth is replaced by slogans. Conspiracy theories, however bizarre, are incredulously embraced to expose the perfidiousness of the enemy. Politics is defined by antagonistic political personalities spewing vitriol. The intellectual and moral sterility, along with the inability to halt the forces of societal destruction, provides fertile soil for extremists, neofascists and demagogues who thrive in periods of paralysis and cultural degeneracy.

Liberals and the left have wasted the last two years attacking Donald Trump as a Russian asset and look set to waste the next two years attacking him as a racist. They desperately seek scapegoats to explain the election of Trump as president, no different from a right wing that tars its Democratic Party enemies as America-hating socialists and that blames Muslims, immigrants and poor people of color for our national debacle. These are competing cartoon visions of the world. They foster a self-created universe of villains and superheroes that exacerbates the mounting polarization and rage.

"Bourgeois society seems everywhere to have used up its store of constructive ideas," Christopher Lasch wrote in 1979 in "The Culture of Narcissism." "It has lost both the capacity and the will to confront the difficulties that threaten to overwhelm it. The political crisis of capitalism reflects a general crisis of western culture, which reveals itself in a pervasive despair of understanding the course of modern history or of subjecting it to rational direction. Liberalism, the political theory of the ascendant bourgeoisie, long ago lost the capacity to explain events in the world of the welfare state and the multinational corporation; nothing has taken its place. Politically bankrupt, liberalism is intellectually bankrupt as well."

The online magazine Slate recently published a transcript of a town hall meeting between Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, and the Times staff. It was a fascinating window into the hubris and cluelessness of the paper, the ruling elites' primary news organ, which has spent the last two years shredding its credibility by hyping the investigation by Robert Mueller and the conspiracy theory that Trump was a Russian asset. Here is Baquet on the newspaper's reporting on Trump:

"Chapter 1 of the story of Donald Trump, not only for our newsroom but, frankly, for our readers, was: Did Donald Trump have untoward relationships with the Russians, and was there obstruction of justice? That was a really hard story, by the way, let's not forget that. We set ourselves up to cover that story. I'm going to say it. We won two Pulitzer Prizes covering that story. And I think we covered that story better than anybody else.

"The day Bob Mueller walked off that witness stand, two things happened. Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, 'Holy sh*t, Bob Mueller is not going to do it.' And Donald Trump got a little emboldened politically, I think. Because, you know, for obvious reasons. And I think that the story changed. A lot of the stuff we're talking about started to emerge like six or seven weeks ago. We're a little tiny bit flat-footed. I mean, that's what happens when a story looks a certain way for two years. Right?

"I think that we've got to change. I mean, the vision for coverage for the next two years is what I talked about earlier: How do we cover a guy who makes these kinds of remarks? How do we cover the world's reaction to him? How do we do that while continuing to cover his policies? How do we cover America, that's become so divided by Donald Trump? How do we grapple with all the stuff you all are talking about? How do we write about race in a thoughtful way, something we haven't done in a large way in a long time? That, to me, is the vision for coverage. You all are going to have to help us shape that vision. But I think that's what we're going to have to do for the rest of the next two years."

Baquet asserts that the journalistic campaign to incriminate Trump as a Russian agent sputtered out and a new campaign -- read moral crusade -- arose six or seven weeks ago to focus on Trump's racism. Trump's racism, of course, did not begin six or seven weeks ago. It is the paper that switched narratives six or seven weeks ago, from one moral crusade to another.

This is not journalism. It is moral purity masquerading as journalism. And it will, like the "Russia-gate" conspiracy, be useless to blunt Trump's support, explain and cope with our innumerable crises or heal the growing divide.

The problem that the paper, along with the Democratic Party and its liberal allies, faces is that it is captive to its corporate sponsors who orchestrated our grotesque income inequality, deindustrialization, out-of-control military machine, neutered media and muzzled scholarship. The paper, therefore, rather than turn on its corporate advertisers and elitist readers, first blamed Russia and now blames white supremacists. The longer such demagoguery continues on the left and the right, the more the country will be torn asunder.

Hannah Arendt in "The Origins of Totalitarianism" pointed out that ideologies are attractive in times of crisis because they reduce and simplify reality to a single idea. While the right wing blames the decline on darker races, the liberal elites blame the decline on Russia or racists. It is the ideology, not experience or fact, that is used "to explain all historical happenings, [to provide] the total explanation of the past, the total knowledge of the present, and the reliable prediction of the future," she wrote.

All ideologies demand an impossible consistency. This is achieved by a constant mutation and distortion of reality until it becomes, as the Mueller investigation did, absurdist theater. The result for believers, Arendt wrote, is disorientation, heightened fear and paranoia.

These types of collective self-delusions have always existed in American society, as the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out. Such self-delusions, he wrote, are "made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies: the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary."

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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Patrick Walker

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Probably the most valuable feature here is Hedges' spotlight on the stinking hypocrisy of Dean Baquet and the New York Times. Hedges powerfully exposes--for a possibly larger (but almost certainly more influential) Truthdig audience what comedian Jimmy Dore and journalist Aaron Mate have themselves covered quite well: .youtube.com/watch?v=BivCPmU3tjo

I'm less impressed by Hedges' framing thesis, which fails to make a crucial distinction between the "moral crusades" of self-serving elites and those of grassroots activists. For example, today's Poor People's Campaign (which has regrettable flaws but also merit) thinks of itself as a moral crusade. And as to moral purity, don't we WANT lots of moral purity in the youth climate movement, in the sense that it needs to be HIGHLY resistant to compromise and righteously insistent on its demands?

Really wish Hedges had been more nuanced in this IMPORTANT piece.

Finally, I think a commenter at Truthdig (where I first read this) nailed another key issue in asking whether Hedges criticizing moral purists isn't a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Hedges is often a moral purist--for example, in his unwillingness to touch anything connected with the Democratic Party (even its rising insurgency) in ways that harm him as a political strategist. His contemptuous silence toward the Sunrise Movement is another example.

Submitted on Monday, Aug 26, 2019 at 2:44:00 PM

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nelswight

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Great commenting.

Submitted on Monday, Aug 26, 2019 at 3:29:17 PM

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This is powerful writing that brings clarity to much of the political and social weirdness we see these days. I do see the moral purity you detect in one aspect: climate change. When he wrote "Facts are manipulated or discarded", he seemed unaware that is a hallmark of climate campaigning .

Submitted on Monday, Aug 26, 2019 at 5:04:36 PM

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It's amusing reading political purist Hedges critique moral purity.

Submitted on Monday, Aug 26, 2019 at 6:51:10 PM

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