Books about society: a clutch of rotten eggs

It’s time, for a while, to move on from books about how the mind works — to books about how society doesn’t.

I recently acquired a group of new or recent books that all take various potshots at today’s politics and culture. Their specific subjects differ, but most of them are of like mind, coming as they do from various positions on the left side of the political spectrum.

I’ll be dealing with each one in its turn over the next while, but a group preview seems in order, so here it is. I’ve started reading all of these books, but I haven’t finished any of them, so these are first impressions only.

Here are the books:

The World As It Is by Chris Hedges
Democracy Incorporated by Sheldon Wolin
Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich
Third World America by Arianna Huffington
The Dumbest Generation by Mark Bauerlein

Two of these books have a close thematic connection. The World As It Is, a collection of essays by Chris Hedges, owes much of its analytical force to Hedges’s enthusiastic adoption of the political critique in Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated. Wolin’s ideas can also be found in Hedges’s well-known The Death of the Liberal Class, but that earlier work owes at least as much to Russell Jacoby as it does to Wolin, while Hedges’s new book is more explicitly in thrall to Wolin’s ideas.

As much as The Death of the Liberal Class is darkly accusatory and pessimistic, The World As It Is is even “worse.” Hedges as much as describes himself as the modern analog of a Biblical prophet, roaming in the bankrupt wilderness of corporate postdemocratic America, spewing his quasi-epistolary jeremiad in all directions, from left to farther left.

Hedges’s argument is centred on Wolin’s conception of “inverted totalitarianism,” a new kind of power-seeking that is the subject of Wolin,s 2008 study Democracy Incorporated. With a new Preface for the 2010 paperback edition, Democracy Incorporated argues that American democracy cannot sustain itself in the culture of complicity between corporations and government, in the context of what has become, thanks to 9/11, a global and endless state of imperial warfare.

Hedges applies this insight to everything from ” Brand Obama” to big farming in an uneven series of essays, the most consistent feature of which is the anger, perhaps more accurately anguish, in which they are awash.

Barbara Ehrenreich is typically more sarcastic than sanctimonious, and her latest book of essays, Bright-Sided, is certainly lighter than Hedges’s, while at the same time feeling darker than her earlier work.

In her view, Americans would be a lot better off if they were not so thoroughly blind-sided by the bright side, the almost ideological requirement to practice “positive thinking.” Positive thinking can blind us to problems that we could fix if we could see them, after which our lives truly would be more bright, more happy and more fulfilling.

Bright-Sided begins with an  analytical look at positive thinking and optimism in general. Ehrenreich continues with a series of essays, the first of which, on her experience with the “cancer culture,” is uncompromisingly negative. Ehrenreich reacted with anger to a diagnosis of breast cancer, and she was quickly and thoroughly turned off by the cute and, in her view, infantilizing nature of the community of caregivers and survivors, for whom cancer is transformed from a disease to an experience, even an opportunity for positive life change.

There’s not much positive thinking in Arianna Huffington’s provocatively titled Third World America, “a place that failed to keep up with history. A place not taken down by a foreign enemy, but by the avarice of our corporate elite and the neglect of our elected leaders.”   Third World America is the standard warning from the left, and there’s little in the opening chapters of Huffington’s book to suggest that we’ll encounter anything really new.

However, Huffington’s version of “The sky is falling!” is clearly written and direct, both virtues if you’ve read many scholarly tomes lately. Huffington writes that “the warning lights on our national dashboard are flashing red.” Her most damning accusation is the corporate and political attack on the middle class:

America’s middle class, the driver of so much of our creative and economic success—the foundation of our democracy—is rapidly disappearing, taking with it a key component of the American Dream: the promise that, with hard work and discipline, our children will have the chance to do better than we did, just as we had the chance to do better than the generation before us.

Third World America has much of the content of The World As It Is, but it lacks the sense of  personal betrayal that inhabits Hedges’s book. In a sense, Huffington warns of the material consequences for us, while Hedges laments the spiritual consequences for himself. It’s an interesting contrast, and one that adds a layer of interest to both books.

Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation is the outlier here. Rather than a left of centre political cant, Bauerlein’s viewpoint is that of the traditional curmudgeonly elder, writing of the failings of the coming generation. This sort of thing has been going on since the Greeks, of course, and, despite Bauerlein’s assertion that his critique is different because he has lots of dire statistics to back up his impressions, The Dumbest Generation is very much more of the same.

There are two reasons why I would spend the time to read this kind of familiar anti-internet, pro-book rant. One, I used to be a book person myself, having spent more than thirty years teaching English literature, so the subject interests me generally. Two, I’ve recently reviewed The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and the contrast in approach is intriguing.

So I will keep reading all five of these books, and I expect that you’ll see articles on most or all of them here in the near future.

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