By: Chris Hedges
Posted on September 14, 2010
The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears or John Edwards, enthralls the country … despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.
The virtues that sustain a nation-state and build community, from honesty to self-sacrifice to transparency to sharing, are ridiculed each night on television as rubes stupid enough to cling to this antiquated behavior are voted off reality shows. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame, cheered on by millions of viewers, elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Celebrities that can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish. Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.
Our culture of flagrant self-exaltation, hardwired in the American character, permits the humiliation of all those who oppose us. We believe, after all, that because we have the capacity to wage war we have a right to wage war. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food. And the numbers of superfluous human beings are swelling the unemployment offices, the prisons and the soup kitchens.
It is the cult of self that is killing the United States. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Michael Jackson, from his phony marriages to the portraits of himself dressed as royalty to his insatiable hunger for new toys to his questionable relationships with young boys, had all these qualities. And this is also the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is why investment bankers blink in confusion when questioned about the morality of the billions in profits they made by selling worthless toxic assets to investors.
We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. It is this perverted ethic that gave us investment houses like Goldman Sachs … that willfully trashed the global economy and stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. The ethic of Wall Street is the ethic of celebrity. It is fused into one bizarre, perverted belief system and it has banished the possibility of the country returning to a reality-based world or avoiding internal collapse. A society that cannot distinguish reality from illusion dies.
The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture, however, are vanishing for most citizens as we head toward collapse. The ability of the corporate state to pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured goods to the masses is gone. The jobs we are shedding are not coming back, as the White House economist Lawrence Summers tacitly acknowledges when he talks of a “jobless recovery.” The belief that democracy lies in the choice between competing brands and the accumulation of vast sums of personal wealth at the expense of others is exposed as a fraud. Freedom can no longer be conflated with the free market. The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the middle class, especially as unemployment insurance runs out. And class warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to enter an age of prosperity with unfettered capitalism, is returning with a vengeance.
America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8,000 people a day – and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. It refuses to prosecute the Bush administration for obvious war crimes, including the use of torture, and sees no reason to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called “near poverty.” One in eight Americans – and one in four children – depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we continue to be a country consumed by happy talk and happy thoughts. We continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire.
When a culture lives within an illusion it perpetuates a state of permanent infantilism or childishness. As the gap widens between the illusion and reality, as we suddenly grasp that it is our home being foreclosed or our job that is not coming back, we react like children. We scream and yell for a savior, someone who promises us revenge, moral renewal and new glory. It is not a new story. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually, emotionally and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans and will usher America into a new dark age. It was the economic collapse in Yugoslavia that gave us Slobodan Milosevic. It was the Weimar Republic that vomited up Adolf Hitler. And it was the breakdown in Tsarist Russia that opened the door for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to loudmouth talk show hosts, whom we naïvely dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. And as in all totalitarian societies, those who do not pay fealty to the illusions imposed by the state become the outcasts, the persecuted.
The decline of American empire began long before the current economic meltdown or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It began before the first Gulf War or Ronald Reagan. It began when we shifted, in the words of Harvard historian Charles Maier, from an “empire of production” to an “empire of consumption.” By the end of the Vietnam War, when the costs of the war ate away at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and domestic oil production began its steady, inexorable decline, we saw our country transformed from one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumed. We started borrowing to maintain a level of consumption as well as an empire we could no longer afford. We began to use force, especially in the Middle East, to feed our insatiable thirst for cheap oil. We substituted the illusion of growth and prosperity for real growth and prosperity. The bill is now due. America’s most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free-market capitalism and globalization. They have dynamited the very foundations of our society. In the 17th century these speculators would have been hung. Today they run the government and consume billions in taxpayer subsidies.
As the pressure mounts, as the despair and desperation reach into larger and larger segments of the populace, the mechanisms of corporate and government control are being bolstered to prevent civil unrest and instability. The emergence of the corporate state always means the emergence of the security state. This is why the Bush White House pushed through the Patriot Act (and its renewal), the suspension of habeas corpus, the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” warrantless wiretapping on American citizens and the refusal to ensure free and fair elections with verifiable ballot-counting. The motive behind these measures is not to fight terrorism or to bolster national security. It is to seize and maintain internal control. It is about controlling us.
And yet, even in the face of catastrophe, mass culture continues to assure us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, by Hollywood or by Christian preachers, is magical thinking. It turns worthless mortgages and debt into wealth. It turns the destruction of our manufacturing base into an opportunity for growth. It turns alienation and anxiety into a cheerful conformity. It turns a nation that wages illegal wars and administers offshore penal colonies where it openly practices torture into the greatest democracy on earth. And it keeps us from fighting back.
Resistance movements will have to look now at the long night of slavery, the decades of oppression in the Soviet Union and the curse of fascism for models. The goal will no longer be the possibility of reforming the system but of protecting truth, civility and culture from mass contamination. It will require the kind of schizophrenic lifestyle that characterizes all totalitarian societies. Our private and public demeanors will often have to stand in stark contrast. Acts of defiance will often be subtle and nuanced. They will be carried out not for short term gain but the assertion of our integrity. Rebellion will have an ultimate if not easily definable purpose. The more we retreat from the culture at large the more room we will have to carve out lives of meaning, the more we will be able to wall off the flood of illusions disseminated by mass culture and the more we will retain sanity in an insane world. The goal will become the ability to endure…..
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
By Chris Hedges
Hardcover: 232 pages
Publisher: Nation Books (2009)
If you’re looking for one of those treacly Oprah books—The Secret, and its variants—avoid this one. Those books nourish like potato chips and leave most people more confused, more desperate, more thirsty for fantasies than before. No amount of wishing, earnest yearning, visualizing and New Age mysticism is going to get us out of the morass we’re in. In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges takes a sober look down our hall of distorting mirrors. The son of a minister, with a degree in theology from Harvard, a columnist for Truthdigger.com, Hedges has worked as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. His books include War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and American Fascists. He was part of the New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. Here are some of the pertinent facts he contemplates:
* The top 1% of Americans now control more wealth than the bottom 90% combined.
* World-wide porn revenues, including in-room movies at hotels, sex clubs, and the Internet, topped $97 billion in 2006—more than that of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflixs, and EarthLink combined.
* The football coach is the University of California-Berkeley’s highest paid “employee”; he makes about $3 million a year. Nationwide, full-time faculty positions have been disappearing, replaced by adjunct positions, with itinerant instructors barely making living wages.
* Collapsing and overwhelmed sewage systems release more than 40,000 discharges of raw sewage into our drinking water, streams and homes each year.
* One-third of our schools are in such a severe state of disrepair that it interferes with the delivery of instruction.
* We spend $8.9 billion on ICBM missile defense systems that would be useless in stopping a shipping container concealing a dirty bomb.
* A family of 4 now pays about $12,000 a year in premiums for healthcare—up about 90 percent from 2000 to 2006. About 50 million Americans are uninsured; another 25 million are “under-insured.”
* We have 2.3 million of our citizens behind bars. With less than 5% of the world’s popultion, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners (1/2 for non-violent drug crimes).
Any wonder there’s been a flight to fantasy? But, more profoundly, what’s the connection between fantasy and our decaying culture? How did we get here? Digging beneath the statistics, we find an increasing number of warm-blooded humans suffering like they never have before: lost in a world of promises broken; the American Dream of endless consumption and fulfillment–nightmarishly evinced.
“A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies,” Hedges writes. “And we are dying now. … Those who cling to fantasy in times of despair and turmoil inevitably turn to demagogues and charlatans to entertain and reassure them. …” As bad as things are now—the disconnectedness, fragmentation, loneliness, im- and a-morality–we can extrapolate, interpret the trend lines, read history, and find worse to come. Hedges dissects “our cultural embrace of illusion and the celebrity culture that has risen up around it” in five comprehensive chapters:
The Illusion of Literacy
The Illusion of Love
The Illusion of Wisdom
The Illusion of Happiness
The Illusion of America
At his best, Hedges has a “true” journalist’s (i.e., the careful observer’s, the truth-digger’s) eye for detail, and a novelist’s ear and sense of flow. His book is a compilation of some of the best thinking on corporate power, the Corporate State, the decline of the American empire—deftly knitted together with wit and a lively writing style. (His chapter on the “Illusion of Love,” focusing on pornography, is both funny and poignantly sad.)
Empire begins with spectacle. We’re in a wrestling ring with jeering fans chanting at the villainous “tycoon” actor-wrestler, John Bradshaw Layfield: “You suck! You suck! You suck!” Layfield is pitted against the “Heartbreak Kid,” the crowd favorite, a working-class hero. “You lost your 401(k). You lost your retirement. … You lost your children’s education fund,” Layfield taunts the Kid and the audience. Then, he offers the Kid a job—working for him! All the Kid has to do is leave the ring. Humiliated, that’s just what the Kid does. And in their identification with their fallen hero, in their vicarious humiliation, the anger and resentment of the audience is stoked against the tycoon. They hunger for vengeance.
“The bouts are stylized rituals,” Hedges writes, “public expressions of pain and a fervent longing for revenge. The lurid and detailed sagas behind each bout, rather than the wrestling matches themselves, are what drive crowds to a frenzy. … And the most potent story tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin … and enslavement of a frightened and abused working class.” This mirroring of the “ emotional wreckage of the fans” is the “appeal of much of popular culture, from Jerry Springer to ‘reality television’ to Oprah Winfrey.” It succeeds “because we ask to be fooled.”
Celebrities become our “vicarious selves” who provide us with release from anonymity and drudgery—“ultimate fulfillment before death.”
Given his background, its no small wonder that Hedges would spend much of his book wrestling with the angel. “Morality is the product of a civilization,” he writes; but, in “a society that has less and less national cohesion, a society that has broken down into warlike and antagonistic tribes where ‘winning is all that matters,’ morality is seen as ‘irrelevant.’”
Ours is a culture of manipulation, one of “inverted totalitaianism.” Hedges borrows the phrase from Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated. “Inverted totalitarianism,” Hedges writes, “unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the Corporate State. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, and the Constitution while manipulating internal levers. … Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens, but candidates must raise staggering funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists … who author the legislation. … Corporate media control nearly everything we read, or hear. It imposes a bland uniformity of opinion. It diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. …In classical totalitarian regimes … economics was subordinate to politics.” In America, economics is dominant.
“The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to keep us from fighting back.” We need not stretch ourselves, I imagine. The hero of The Matrix will stretch for us. So will Plastic Man or Batman or Superman. In our culture of distractions and manipulations, Aldous Huxley “feared that what we love will ruin us.” Citing Neil Postman, he reproduces a dialectic between the authors of 1984 and Brave New World:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
I put it this way: We need not worry that Big Brother is watching us; we need worry about our dual fascinations with watching Big Brother—and with beingwatched! In fact, we’ve become a nation of double voyeurs: we watch people on “reality shows” who are being watched and monitored by the unblinking camera recording their humdrum lives.
We are what we eat and we’ve been eating a lot of baloney. It comes to us in various forms including the petrochemical-sprayed food we eat, the Big Pharma pills we take to keep us drugged, numb and complaisant. We watch our celebs gulping it and pitching it back at us. Our politicians sprinkle it with mustard and daub it with relish.
Conditioning. … Both those geniuses—George and Aldous–were trying to deal with it: the whole spectrum of the Propaganda State grown up around the theories of Edward Bernays—Freud’s nephew. They both understood the necessary concomitants of fear, repetition, tribal identity and group conformity. They gave it different expressions, but they grounded it in the imperative of psychological re-structuring and transformation. Orwell with the gut-wrenching fear of our worst chimeras; Huxley with mind-numbing lullabies to babies, easy, commitment-free sex from puberty onward, and lots of soma.
Hedges’ chapter on the “Illusion of Happiness” addresses the issue of psychological conditioning. It would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic. It has the same tenor of pathos as his chapter on sex, in which one enthusiast waxes eloquent about his $7500 anatomically correct silicone dolls. (He has eight, with removeable heads, and he exults over the simulated veins in the feet and the dorsal venous arch—“really, really cool.”)
The silicone pitch in academia is “positive psychology,” or what Professor Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University calls, “Transformational Positivity.” According to the professor, “Institutions can be a vehicle for bringing more courage into the world, for amplifying love in the world … temperance and justice, and so on.”
And so on it goes. Just think positive. (Remember that Indian guru who beguiled the Beetles? “Just be happy!” ) All we need is “appreciative inquiry” in order to “transform organizations into ‘Positive Institutions’.”
Cooperrider is hardly alone. There are more than a hundred courses on positive psychology on college campuses. The University of Pennsylvania offers a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology, and Claremont Graduate University offers Ph.D. and M.A. concentrations in “The Science of Positive Psychology.” Such degree programs are also available in England, Italy and Mexico. They focus on “cultivating strengths, optimism, gratitude, and a positive perspective.” Think positively and positive things will happen. Sound familiar? Perhaps we should call such programs, “Becoming Oprah.”
Hedges lifts his lens high enough to kindle fire here: “The purpose and goals of the corporation are never questioned. To question them, to engage in criticism of the goals of the collective, is to be obstructive and negative. … If we are not happy, there is something wrong with us. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.’” And he’s a good pitbull here:
“Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis.” It’s a “quack science” that “throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed.”
So, if you’re looking for treacle, look elsewhere.
My one cavil is with the ending of the book, the last part of the last chapter. Hedges can be polemical and he does repeat himself. The last chapter needs less polemicism and summary arguments. And I can’t help but wonder: What is the other side? Is there any way to avoid catastrophe? Perhaps an interview with one of those heroes whose names pepper this important book would have sharpened the quill: people like Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, Father Roy Bourgeois, Kathy Kelly, Amy Goodman, Bill Moyers, Jim Hensen—what sustains them, keeps them going?
Also missing in action is Marshall McLuhan, whose Understanding Media of some forty years ago established the scientific foundation of critiquing the media—the mesmeric effect of mentally connecting pixiles; the alpha waves generated in a half-waking, half-sleeping state.
Morris Berman and Derrick Jensen have argued that we’re already past the “tipping point.” NASA scientist Jim Hensen says we should have started yesterday to bring down C02 levels or face global cataclysm.
In the last couple of pages, Hedges seems to pull his punches for a gentle caress: “No tyranny in history has crushed the human capacity for love,” he writes. “The mediocrities who mask their feelings of worthlessness and emptiness behind the façade of power and illusion, who seek to make us serve their perverse ideologies, fear most the power of love. … Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.”
I don’t know. I’m not sure. The power of love is cold comfort to the corpses and the wasted lives. Love without wisdom, like freedom without wisdom, has caused as much mischief and grief as the genuinely malignant spirits and ideologies among us. Perhaps the overriding question now is how best to organize collective action against the tyranny of corporatism, the relentless pulsations of conformity. How do we return to a “literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas”?
One book cannot do it all, of course. Hedges has trained a brilliant light on our confused and murky, rather bizarre culture. In the last couple of pages he leaves us with another powerful idea, probably as good as love. He alludes to Rostand’s Cyrano: “The ability to stand as ‘an ironic point of light,’ that ‘flashes out wherever the just exchange their messages,’ is the ability to sustain a life of meaning.”