Saturday, August 17, 2013

On Hedges' Empire of Illusion

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."  - James Baldwin 

Thus begins Chris Hedges' Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009), a collection of five independent parts that lead to the same place.  We're in denial - thick and deadly.  It's similar to Jane JacobsDark Age Ahead, but I can't, for the life of me, find my heavily annotated copy of the book.  So I'll skip the comparison except to say they both suggest we're in a similar cultural place that many empires were just before collapsing.  What Jared Diamond did with environmental degredation's effect on the fall of empires, Hedges does for cultural illusions.  The problem with this fall is that it will be global.  There will be no area of the world that can rise up afterwards.  There will be no area of the world.

Here are some of the main points in brief.  It's a quick read though, so go buy it!

I. The Illusion of Literacy

The WWE, reality television, and Jerry-Springer-type shows foster arenas for illusory characters to play out artificial scenarios in a way that completely eviscerates the line between fact and fantasy.  "We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so "realistic" that they can live in them" (15).


And these characters have become the basis for a trite and consumptive religion:  "We all have gods....and in American society our gods are celebrities....Our culture builds temples to celebrities the way Romans did for divine emperors....We are a de facto polytheistic society....Those who can touch the celebrity or own a relic of the celebrity hope for a transference of celebrity power.  They hope for magic....Hard Rock Cafe...ships relics of stars from one restaurant to another the way the medieval Church used to ship the bones and remains of saints to its various cathedrals" (17).   "We pay a variety of lifestyle advisers...to help us look and feel like celebrities...plastic surgeons, fitness gurus, life coaches...promise to make us happy...and happiness comes, we are assured, with how we look and how we present ourselves to others" (23).

And one of my favourite books gets a mention:
"In the Middle Ages, writes Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety, stained glass windows and vivid paintings of religious torment and salvation controlled and influenced social behaviour.  Today we are ruled by icons of ross riches and physical beauty that blare and flash from television, cinema, and computer screens" (26).  
This new surreptitious religion has us exalting ourselves as we become god-like, instead of worshipping something better than ourselves, some ideal of graciousness and kindness to follow all the while accepting our own human imperfection.  "The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape....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" (33).

George Orwell feared book banning, but Aldous Huxley (at left) was closer to the mark in fearing there would be no need for censorship because, "the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny 'failed to take into account man's almost infinite appetite for distractions.'...In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain.  In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure" (39).

Beyond sucking us in with fictionalized ideas of their lives, the new entertainment also "normalizes what was once considered a flagrant violation of our Constitutional right to privacy" (40).   It serves to "constrain rather than expand our horizons and experiences" (48).  And, worst of all, it distracts the populous from the real world.  "Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic....Canada has an illiterate and semiliterate population estimated at 42 percent of the whole" (44).  Standardized tests do squat to show up the true picture of our citizens.  And it's not just a problem that they're not picking up a book for pleasure,
"Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology.  Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel.  Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality.  And in this precipitous decline of values and literacy, among those who cannot read and those who have given up reading, fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded" (45).  "It seeks at every turn to obliterate voters' consciousness of socioeconomic and other difference in their midst" (47).  
We're far more interested in political sex scandals than regulatory reforms.  And, by inducing in citizens "panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality, paranoia, then can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything that is 'attractively packaged'" (53).

II. The Illusion of Love

This chapter took me days to read because it's so harsh.  Porn rakes in over $100 billion a year.  The largest users are between 12 and 17.  The porn they're seeing now is very different than a few decades ago.  It's meaner and more misogynist.  Girls, very young, or made to look so with nary a sign of pubic hair, are expected to take on physical pain and serious damage to their bodies.   One male porn actor and producer said,
"My whole reason for being in the industry is to satisfy the desire of the men in the world who basically don't much care for women and want to see the men in my industry getting even with the women they couldn't have when they were growing up....We're getting even for their lost dreams....When I've strangled a person or sodomized a person or brutalized a person, the audience is cheering my action, and then when I've fulfilled my warped desire [by coming on a woman's face], the audience applauds" (74).  "All I know is that large segments around the world like to watch young girls being tortured" (75).
We all know the feeling we get when characters in a movie are evil or annoying, and they finally get their comeuppance - especially when it's in a context wherein we recognize how helpless we might feel against them.  Home Alone started that vicarious thrill for many kids.  And there's nothing wrong with wanting some vindication over the evildoers in the world.  That's what started some necessary rebellions along the way.  But the porn industry suggests that the truly evil are the beautiful young women who turned you down or stood you up or just grew disappointed with you and left.  It's a blatant revelation that you can't have everything you want, and, in our culture, we think somehow that's just not fair.  It's seen as cruel when people prevent our fulfilment by refusing to freely give themselves to us.  This takes me back to middle school when boys openly campaigned against any attractive girl who rejected them.  Girls are mean for saying "no thanks."  They're bitches.

Violent porn is a means for retaliation, and a few women are taking the brunt of abuse for the rest of us in a means that allows the viewers to retaliate vicariously without possibility of punishment.

That's all I can say on that chapter.  Yuck.

III. The Illusion of Wisdom

The elite educational institutes are peddling an ideology that maintains a conformity to the current untenable structure of our world.  Not enough people are questioning this.  He points to a few that do: Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dennis Kucinich, and Ralph Nader, and describes how they've been largely marginalized from some institutions.  Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, the University of Toronto, etc. have banished self-criticism, refuse to question a self-justifying system, and embrace a terrifying moral nihilism.  Hedges relates that philosopher and sociologist Theodor Adorno "knew that radical evil was possible only with the collaboration of a timid, cowed, and confused population, a system of propaganda and mass media that offered little more than spectacle and entertainment, and an educational system that did not transmit transcendent values or nurture the capacity for individual conscience.  He feared a culture that banished the anxieties and complexities of moral choice" (91).

This is one reason why I believe philosophy courses in critical thinking should be mandatory in high-schools everywhere.

Adorno suggests that educational ideals of hardness and endurance align themselves too easily with sadism which dominates our culture and which we have accepted complacently.  This is played out in our obsession with sports such that the highest-paid employee at Berkeley is the football coach who makes $3 million (94).

Like Chomsky, Hedges rails against the language of the elites that is a "barrier to communication as well as common sense."  Academics "rarely understand or concern themselves with the reality of the world" (97).  "College socializes you, so you can learn to present even trite ideas well" (99).   The elite school speak of the diversity among their students, but "they base diversity on race and ethnicity rather than on class" (101).  "The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system....But grabbing what you can...isn't any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists" (104-5).

This chapter reminded me of that one section of the film, Inside Job, in which a Harvard prof couldn't see a the possible conflict of interest between being funded by corporations and influencing economic policy.  He was baffled at the very idea of it being a problem.


Hedges explains further,
"Most universities have become high-priced occupational training centres" (109).  "Ironically, the universities have trained hundreds of thousands of graduates for jobs that soon will not exist.  They have trained people to maintain a structure that cannot be maintained.  The elite...know only how to feed the beast until it dies.  Once it is dead, they will be helpless.  Don't expect them to save us.  They don't know how....and when it all collapses, when our rotten financial system with its trillions in worthless assets implodes and our imperial wars end in humiliation and defeat, the power elite will be exposed as being as helpless, and as self-deluded as the rest of us" (114).  
IV. The Illusion of Happiness

This part's about the push for forced happiness.  I recently finished reading Oliver Burkeman's excellent book, The Antidote, which comes to the same conclusion, i.e. this movement is bullshit.  But Hedges goes further to suggest it's insidious bullshit.  "Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis" (117) and relates it to "coercive persuasion" or brainwashing.  Get the citizens individually, and of their own free will, to practice techniques to help them forget the world and focus on the present and their own personal happiness, and you've created a populace that won't rebel.  They won't care what the government might be doing because it could harsh their mellow!   And we can't have that.  Happiness must be the goal, not justice, kindness, nor equity, but unwavering personal bliss.

And it's not entirely a personal endeavour.  Some corporations have established "family awareness training" and leadership seminars that focus on positive thinking, and are "subjected to sessions resembling 'cult programming' during management and diversity training sessions" (135).
"The corporate teaching that we can find happiness through conformity to corporate culture is a cruel trick, for it is corporate culture that stokes and feeds the great malaise and disconnect of the culture of illusion....There is a dark, insidious quality to the ideology promoted by the positive psychologists.  They condemn all social critics and iconoclasts, the dissidents and individualists, for failing to surrender and seek fulfillment in the collective lowing of the corporate herd....The nagging undercurrents of alienation and the constant pressure to exhibit a false enthusiasm and buoyancy destroy real relationships.  The loneliness of a work life where self-presentation is valued over authenticity and one must always be upbeat and positive, no matter what one's actual mood or situation, is disorienting and stressful....Here, in the land of happy thoughts, there are no gross injustices, no abuses of authority, no economic and political systems to challenge, and no reason to complain" (138-9).  
V. The Illusion of America

"America...is so diminished as to be unrecognizable" (142).  And we all know Canada's in the same boat - and then some.
"The dying gasps of all empires, from the Aztecs to the ancient Romans to the French monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have been characterized by a disconnect between the elites and reality.  The elites were blinded by absurd fantasies of omnipotence and power that doomed their civilizations...And unless we radically reverse this tide, unless we wrest the state away from corporate hands, we will be dragged down by the dark and turbulent undertow of globalization....We are entering an era in which workers may become serfs, no longer able to earn a living wage to sustain themselves or their families, whether in sweatshops in China or the industrial wasteland of Ohio" (143-4).  
Then Hedges asks the question that I've been dwelling on for some time:  "How will we cope with our decline?" (145).  Can we transform our system or are we too far down the rabbit's hole to see what's real anymore?  Tons of writers have been warning us for decades about this, but we keep thinking if we ignore these problems, somehow they'll just all go away.

Sheldon Wolin, in Democracy Incorporated, explains his theory of "inverted totalitarianism" which doesn't revolve around a charismatic leader, like classical totalitarianism, but "finds expression in the anonymity of the corporate state...while manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions.  Political candidates...are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists.... Corporate media control nearly everything we read, watch, or hear....Economics dominates politics - and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness" (146).

Wolin laments "the lack of social unrest" (149), but Hedges' thesis makes it clear why that's the case.  When people protested the Iraq war or the 1%, they were "dismissed and ignored by the corporate media...If protestors are characterized as cranks or fringe groups, if their voices are never heard, the state will have little trouble suppressing local protests" (149).

Wolin suggests, "They can't keep throwing money at this.  They have to begin structural changes that involve a very different approach from a market economy.  I don't think this will happen" (150). Hedges adds, "The decline in the American empire began when we shifted from "an empire of production to an empire of consumption [near the end of the Vietnam war]....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 foundations of our society" (151).  "These corporations, especially the oil and gas industry, will never allow us to achieve energy independence....It would wipe out tens of billions of dollars in weapons contracts" (152).  "The growing desperation across the U.S. is unleashing not simply a recession...but rather a depression unlike anything we have seen since the 1930s.  It has provided a pool of broken people willing to work for low wages without unions or benefits.  This is excellent news if your are a corporation....Our elites manipulate statistics and data to foster illusions of growth and prosperity.  They refuse to admit they have lost control since to lose control is to concede failure.  They contribute, instead, to the collective denial of reality by insisting that another multibillion dollar bailout or government loan will prop up the dying edifice" (166).

"The assault on the American working class...is nearly complete" (167).  Journalists are no longer asking hard questions, but make millions giving a platform to the powerful.  "If you are a true journalist, you should start to worry if you make $5 million a year" (169).  Then he lauds Jon Stewart, a comedian, for taking a few journalists to task for this over the years.



There's another problem with the direction we're heading: "dislocation between the short-term interests of elites and the longer-term interests of the societies the elites dominate and exploit....Those who suffer the consequences of this mismanagement lose any loyalty to the nation and increasingly nurse fantasies of violent revenge" (183).  Karl Polanyi "warned that a financial system always devolved, without heavy government control, into a Mafia capitalism...which is a good description of our power elite" (184).  "We face an environmental meltdown as well as an economic meltdown....Those who run our corporate state have fought environmental regulation as tenaciously as they have fought financial regulation....Democracy and capitalism are antagonistic entities.  Democracy, like individualism, is based not on personal gain but on self-sacrifice" (185).

Ralph Nader says, "Bankrupt corporate capitalism is on its way to bankrupting the socialism that is trying to save it....That is the end stage.  If they no longer have socialism to save them, then we are into feudalism.  We are into private police, gated communities, and serfs with a twenty-first-century nomenclature" (187).  And Orwell wrote, "A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial....when its ruling class has lost its function but succeeds in clinging to power by force or fraud" (188).

Historically, in dying empires, leaders "increasingly had to rely on armed mercenaries...because citizens would no longer serve in the military.  They descended into orgies of self-indulgence, surrendered their civic and emotional lives to the glitter, excitement, and spectacle of the arena, became politically apathetic, and collapsed.  The more we sever ourselves form a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode" (190).  So the future looks grim.

Grasping our inner strength and having faith in ourselves is not going to solve any problems.  "Our culture of illusion is, at its core, a culture of death.  It will die and leave little of value behind.  It was Sparta that celebrated raw militarism, discipline, obedience, and power, but it was Athenian art and philosophy that echoed down the ages to enlighten new worlds....Hope exists...It is about sacrifice for the other...rather than exploitation" (193).

Then he gets into a "love conquers all" bit that feels like it undermines everything else he just said, so I'm just going to ignore the last page!   Rather than lay our hopes on love, we need to WAKE UP to the reality of our times, and get active, and not stop until the government extricates itself from corporate control.  That's how I would have ended it!

Charlie Kaufman, as always, has another way to look at it all:

5 comments:

  1. Excellent review, Marie. Thank you. You have added a lot of helpful context to Hedges' book. I have it, heavily annotated, in my bookshelf although I can't remember when I bought it. Your review, in any case, invites me to read it again.

    Hedges has an unnerving power to force us not to look away, to accept things we would rather not see.

    Have you read his book, "American Fascists"?

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  2. To be honest, I just heard about Hedges a couple months ago! I'm playing catch-up. I'll try American Fascists next!

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  3. footnotes are an anachronism? not complainin', just askin'

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  4. I typically include page numbers beside the quotations instead of a list at the end. They're all from the same book, so only page numbers are necessary. I don't find them intrusive within the text (no more than a footnote number, and it can make it easier to search when the reference follows directly. It's just a matter of taste.

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  5. Hedges has an unnerving power to force us not to look away, to accept things we would rather not see.

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