When I graduated from Yeshiva high school I spent a year in Israel studying at an American-based seminary, together with most of my ultra-orthodox Jewish friends from New York. At the start I adhered to two forms of religion: fanatical Judaism, of which I had already been skeptical and renounced by the end of the year, and a libertarian-inspired faith in free markets and corporate structure.
I had previously been influenced by Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead which, I now realize, enabled me to channel my tendency to celebrity worship into the story—at the time I was a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan and saw a lot of Billy Corgan in Howard Roark. I read The Virtue of Selfishness and Atlas Shrugged at seminary in Israel; a period when I was studying Talmud and Torah in earnest, but beginning to understand that Jewish extremism provides a false and confining worldview. The main appeal of Rand’s libertarianism was its reactionary attitude towards religion—I reveled in John Galt and co.’s attacks on god-worship.
But this was accompanied by the philosophical case for free-market fundamentalism. As someone who grew up in a sheltered, wealthy community and an ultra-conservative family, I was taught to believe that those who “succeed” are superior to the poor because they contribute most to society. Atlas Shrugged cemented this dogma because it earned my trust as one of the first secular books I encountered, written not by rabbis, who had lied to me endlessly, but by someone from the “real world.” Although it helped me overcome one form of religion, it ironically reinforced another by confirming the idea that my family and neighbors, along with celebrities, Wall Street executives and powerful corporate leaders, were the John Galts of the world. If not for them our civilization would crumble and the “looters,” who just want to steal from the rich and worthy, would take over. It followed, therefore, that I was likewise destined to join the ranks of the ubermensch in one form or another, perhaps as a lawyer. I was further drawn to the mantra of “personal responsibility”—that government never has the right to tell its citizens what it can and cannot do.
I clung to this outlook for a long time. I found Fahrenheit 9/11 revolting. When I took two sociology classes at Queens College the following summer, I gave my teachers a very hard time for pushing C. Wright Mills’ The Power Elite and various textbooks arguing that unchecked capitalism ineluctably creates extreme inequality and devastating boom-bust cycles while regulation and higher top bracket tax rates narrow the gap and stabilize the economy. All this looked like liberal propaganda posing as education. I was infuriated that my teachers had not grasped that communism failed, and called the class’s attention to centrist-minded South Park episodes and Team America satirizing knee-jerk liberal disdain for “evil corporations.” My instructors’ paranoia, betrayed by their hatred for Bush, Cheney, the Iraq War and the rising surveillance state (“Beware, the feds can track you through something as simple as your Metrocard”) struck me as absurd. I dismissed them as liberal crackpots, assuming they considered Bush a Nazi and believed in the 9/11 conspiracy theories, though they had never said as much, and felt comfort in the thought that since America has thrived for so long it is destined to prosper, regardless of who’s in charge.
I ignored politics and channeled my intellectual energies into literature, particularly Vladimir Nabokov. As with Ayn Rand, I was seduced by some of his work and came to embrace his entire worldview as Gospel. After reading Lolita, one of the great dramatizations of psychological slavery, sin and guilt, as well as a revealing portrait of American culture, I indulged in his Lectures on Literature, which argues as a matter of principle (perhaps in reaction to the liberal fervor that characterized the 1960s) that in literature ideas are meaningless and irrelevant because of their subjectivity; the only thing important is language and structure, which can create beauty and harmony.
This outlook dominated my next few years in college. After transferring to NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study I concentrated on literature and despised those (few) teachers who would use Shakespeare to justify their grievances with Bush and Iraq, considering it a sin to mix politics with literature. I conducted tutorials with mentors that focused primarily on literary style and structure. But, as much as I resisted the notion, the novels we covered usually led us to discuss American culture and politics (how Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s sex scandal relates to Middlemarch, for example). And this pattern gradually escalated as I approached graduation.
In my junior year I took two crucial classes. One was an independent study on the nature of evil, which covered Moby Dick, Melville’s classic short stories and Othello. The other was a science course that introduced me to basic concepts and scientific figures as well as systematically taught how to distinguish between a strong and a weak argument through class discussion, debates and writing assignments. These classes complimented each other nicely, especially when I embarked on a final paper about climate change for my science class. Over the following month I pored through numerous books, articles and shows arguing for and against the notion that man is causing climate change, which will destroy civilization if we don’t act fast. What I discovered shocked and terrified me. Every piece of skepticism I came across was either a pack of lies and/or a gross cheapening of science.
Professional climate scientists, such as Patrick J. Michaels and Robert C. Balling Jr., have published books through the CATO Institute designed to mislead readers by misrepresenting other climate scientists and systematically distorting facts. Others, such as Roy W. Spencer, argue that we have no real historical record on CO2 levels because carbon dating via ice cores and tree rings is unreliable. And then there’s the Investor’s Business Daily and Fox News etc., which promulgate dangerously false counterintuitive claims such as “higher CO2 levels will be good for mankind” and “trees are causing global warming.”
My final analysis consisted of a primer on climate science and a critique of media-based disinformation (the latter portion of which can be found here). As I wrote about propaganda I could not help but draw connections between the deceptive tricks employed by global warming deniers and those used by Shakespeare’s Iago, whom I was studying in my literature tutorial. It was inescapable, uncanny—how do you convince people to commit suicide when the truth, which can save them, is so obvious?
All this took place shortly after Barack Obama won an election in which I did not vote, and I soon read The Audacity of Hope. The book is extremely well-written and persuasive. Obama earned my trust by establishing that he accepts global warming and generally employing a level-headed, compromise-oriented tone: we can all agree that x is a problem, so let’s figure out how to combine liberal and conservative approaches to solve it. This charmed me into maintaining my delusions that, although in the case of climate change conservatives and corporations lie, perhaps that issue is unique, since it is, after all, a matter of science, not politics. But when it comes to economics, war, and social issues, both sides are equal. I celebrated Obama’s spirit of compromise, which has come to dominate his presidency.
During the ensuing months I earnestly explored many media outlets. I watched Fox News and MSNBC, listened to conservative talk radio (770) and NPR, watched as much CSPAN as possible, and read The Wall Street Journal (The New York Times was unavailable to me, living in an ultra-conservative house). After some time, though, the mainstream media began to feel like a waste. It became obvious that FOX is nothing more or less than a political machine for the far/mainstream right and corporations when, while watching during my lunch break, one of the supposedly apolitical anchors appeared clad in colonial garb, encouraging viewers to join a Tea Party protest. The conservative talk show hosts were at least as awful—Rush Limbaugh routinely indulged in fantasies about how Obama will silence all dissenters and march us towards socialist totalitarianism, and Mark Levin ranted about how the Geneva Conventions do not protect enemy combatants from torture, which is not true. And the Wall Street Journal editorials scandalously called into question climate science all the time.
Perhaps equally corrosive, though, was the broader effect all this had on me. It became difficult to distinguish between fiction and reality. Keith Olbermann’s Countdown seemed entertaining but not credible, since it looked and sounded just like Hannity and Beck. Without fact-checking any of Olbermann’s claims, I assumed that no serious person could trust Countdown and barely tuned in. I likewise dismissed Noam Chomsky as a liberal Limbaugh without reading his works, and maintained that Michael Moore is a chronic liar and fanatic, just as prior to my climate change research I gave credence to the idea that James Hansen and the scientists who contributed to the U.N. report were merely “liberal alarmists.”
When I returned to NYU for my final year, I wrote a research paper on the financial crisis for a science class about energy. My essay explored the connection between entropy and capitalism in the context of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco. The research consisted of some classics—chunks of Das Capital and Wealth of Nations—and numerous books on the housing bubble, such as 13 Bankers, How Markets Fail and The Big Short. Although I previously detested Marx, as I had been taught, I discovered that his critique of capitalism is unanswerable, though his call for communism seems vague and impractical.
And all the books about financial crisis illustrated very clearly that markets cannot regulate themselves. After resisting this notion all my life, I had to acknowledge that the housing bubble (among many other instances of corporate fraud and abuse) proves the skeptics right. The lesson is beyond dispute: when power goes unchecked it leads to fascism (in one form or another), fraud, force and self-destruction. The answer, it seems, is not socialism but a strenuous case-by-case effort to strike a fair balance between workers’ rights and business, which is why the protestors in Wisconsin fighting for collective bargaining rights need our support. And some industries, such as health care and energy, must be run by and for the public. Government is the only institution that can keep corporate power in check, and in a democracy all participants must be aware and pressure their leaders to regulate markets, lest it mutate into an oligarchy.
I recently read a few books that have helped me connect dots about the corporate system. First, Winner-Take-All-Politics explains how corporate interests took over Washington in 1978, systematically crushed most of the welfare state and remain in firm control. Next, Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusions brilliantly describes how corporations control almost everything, from the machines with which we vote, to the clothes we wear, to the food we eat, to the movies and shows we watch, to the very values and ambitions that guide our lives. It is ultimately the cult of celebrity worship that distracts us from real-world suffering and instills in us the obsessive pursuit of wealth and social advancement, often at everyone else’s expense.
And, finally, I just started reading Deadly Spin, in which a former PR executive for the big health insurance companies reveals how he and his former colleagues did exactly what the Chomskys and Moores and Hedges’ of the world have been warning us about—plot advertising and lobbying campaigns designed to misinform the public and maximize short-term corporate profits by ensuring that the rest of us suffer. Politicians are tools. They exist to delude us into thinking we have power. We have none. The author, Wendell Potter, actually appeared on Countdown recently and apologized to Michael Moore for ruthlessly discrediting Sicko.
As Hedges admonishes in his latest Death of the Liberal Class, authentic, classical liberalism is the only political force that can check corporations because it assumes that power craves power, as Shakespeare teaches. Tragically, today’s mainstream liberalism, together with our president, has by and large sold itself out to corporate paymasters—witness the Huffington Post/AOL buyout, the Times’ and New Yorker's fear-driven support for the Iraq War and Obama’s capitulations to Wall Street, the insurance industry and war profiteers—leaving us with a shattered economy, an angry populace susceptible to the emergence of a radical charismatic leader and corporations with enough power to impose classical fascism on the population if force becomes the only option left to preserve the system.
The only way our politicians can ever again be governed by the public interest, especially when it comes to climate change, fiscal policy and war, is if we learn how to see through the deceits that riddle our corporate culture. But, as my experience indicates, the journey, which never ends, is long and confusing.
—Marc Adler also writes at thebloodycrossroads.com