Chris Hedges Joins the Tea Party
I recently read an essay at TruthDig.com in which Chris Hedges, a journalist and author active in Occupy Wall Street, argued that “People who work hard should get to keep the fruits of their labor. People who are lazy and irresponsible should suffer the consequences.” I was stunned. I had just done a discussion with him last week at the 92nd Street Y in New York, where we had what I thought was a very interesting and civil discussion about war, politics, and capitalism. We agreed on many points, such as that business is not intrinsically bad, but that corporations, when left unchecked by government, sometimes become super-organisms that can take over, corrupt the government, and then rig the system so that they get to pass on external costs to innocent bystanders. We both agreed that the financial sector was the most dangerous genie that had escaped from the bottle, wreaking havoc and suffering across the globe. But Hedges was well to the left of me.
So what was he doing spouting Tea Party lines, such as dismissing “slackers” and “cheaters” and everyone else who “drinks the water rather than carries it for the group.” He actually argued in his TruthDig essay that such people should be “denied social assistance in the name of fair play.”
Now, if you actually read Hedges’ essay, you’ll see that in the quotations I gave, he’s quoting or paraphrasing me. Those lines do really appear in his essay, so I was not wrong to quote them. But it was terribly wrong of me to suggest that Hedges was making those arguments himself, rather than reporting them as my beliefs, which he extracts from my book, which he was reviewing.
Yet this is exactly what Hedges did to me in his review. In The Righteous Mind, I try to help everyone understand the other side. I try to say what liberals, conservatives, and libertarians believe. For example, on p. 169 I’m trying to show the difference between liberal and conservative understandings of fairness. I quote some letters I received from angry conservatives who rejected my explanation of What Makes People Vote Republican. One letter said: “I vote republican because I’m against other people (authority figures) taking my money (that I work hard for) and giving it to a non- producing, welfare collecting, single mother, crack baby producing future democrat.” I then tried to analyze these conservatives’ notion of fairness. Here’s the key passage:
These emails were overflowing with moral content, yet I had a hard time categorizing that content using Moral Foundations Theory. Much of it was related to fairness, but this kind of fairness had nothing to do with equality. It was the fairness of the Protestant work ethic and the Hindu law of karma: People should reap what they sow. People who work hard should get to keep the fruits of their labor. People who are lazy and irresponsible should suffer the consequences.
I’ve never taken a journalism class, but I don’t think it was appropriate for Hedges to take that last sentence out of context and present it as though it was my personal belief.
Hedges does this to me over and over again. He repeatedly calls me a “social Darwinist,” by which he means the belief that we ought to let the poor starve to death, so that the gene pool can benefit from the “survival of the fittest.” Yet I do not believe this, and nowhere do I suggest anything remotely like this. My book is overwhelmingly descriptive. I’m trying to understand divergent moral matrices by climbing into them and seeing how they are built. Yet Hedges frequently takes my descriptions as though they were proclamations of my own personal values.
He also makes stuff up. I do talk about my urge, on and after 9/11, to display the flag and be a team player, even supporting the President. But Hedges then asserts: “Haidt became a lover of conservatism and nationalism when he became afraid. He embraced an irrational, not to mention illegal, pre-emptive war against a country, Iraq, that had nothing to do with 9/11.” Yet I am not now and never have been a conservative. Both before and after 9/11, I was a liberal Democrat, as I say in the book. I got into political psychology in 2005 specifically to help the Democrats do a better job of connecting with American morality. And while I supported the invasion of Afghanistan, I did not support the invasion of Iraq. Again, I’m no journalist, but I think that when journalists contradict their sources, they are supposed to have some evidence.
Hedges makes some valid criticisms of me. He’s right that I’m not sufficiently attentive to oppression by the powerful. He’s right that I’m too positive about social life in Bhubaneswar, India, in part because I spent very little time talking to people of very low caste. He could have written a compelling critique of my book from the perspective of the religious left, a critique I would have valued and learned from. But instead, he ended up demonstrating one of the principles of the book, which he quoted and rejected: “Conscious reasoning is carried out for the purpose of persuasion, rather than discovery.”