Media

America's Obscenely Rich Have No Idea That They Are Destroying America

They surf the economic tides and ignore their social costs.

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, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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