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Saturday, 22 January 2011

Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges

In a series of events best described as curious serendipity, I bought Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges this week. Curious because my cousin Maureen had told my mother that I had recommended it. Which I hadn’t, but that’s something I want to correct now and, in doing so, thank Maureen for the roundabout recommendation. I bought it … and have read it in less than a day.

Hedges’ book, published in 2009 is an extended essay, written (it seems to me) in a white heat of passion and indignation at everything that is sick in our society. Its basic premise is that our contemporary culture and society are in a state of terminal decay. We have replaced literacy with instant tasteless spectacle, individual moral responsibility with feel-good illusion, and constructive critical thinking with conformist conditioning. Our possibilities for real democratic involvement and reflective engagement have been hollowed out and left meaningless by a continuous subversion by a small elite of the rich and powerful, driving a global grasp for total control by supremely irresponsible corporations.

Hedges is writing about America in particular, but most of his criticism can be applied one-to-one to Western Europe as well. In the first four chapters he examines the moral and intellectual vacuity in the TV-driven media, the porn industry, the academic establishment and what can best be described as the psychology industry. From a German perspective, things don’t look all that different here. Europe is perhaps more fortunate in that public state involvement in the education area has not been pared back as drastically as in the USA; on the other hand, this does not mean that education is particularly healthy in Europe, Britain being a prime example. Hedges’ fundamental concern over what he calls “the assault on the humanities” is one that I have shared for a long time. The interesting thing here is that this has not been to the benefit of the hard science and engineering and technology; in fact many of the countries in the developed world are having trouble finding enough college applicants with the sufficient secondary school qualifications for studies in this area – in marked contrast to the emerging industrial and economic giants of India and China.

Today the most desired places and consequently those most difficult to get into (right up there with medicine and law) are those in the whole area known as “business studies.” This is not surprising in a culture in which getting rich has been elevated to the highest attainable value but it has drastic long-term consequences. Instead of exposing the cleverest and most talented young intellects we produce to an academic environment which would encourage the widening of their intellectual boundaries, the growth of their moral and cultural sensibilities, the fostering of their creativity, they are being encouraged to devote themselves to an arcane world of amoral pseudo-science, the new quasi-religious orthodoxy whose deeply-rooted fallibility has been amply demonstrated in the past few years. While I am not so na├»ve and idealistic as to argue that the securing of basic material security is a not a prime issue – indeed right – for everybody, at the same time I would argue that other values, above all basic moral sense but also cultural creativity, are also essential to society and are areas worth engaging our most talented young people in.

And we are not. Hedges’ opening chapter on the desolate, all-encompassing world of the modern mass-media is particularly powerful. The cult of celebrities, the worship of image, the 24/7 obsession with cruel triviality, as exemplified by Jerry Springer, Big Brother and all the other “reality soaps” is pilloried in all its shallowness. Real engagement in the depth, the complexity of issues has become non-existent. It is exploitative “bread and circuses” at its most sensationalist banal, appealing frequently to the worst in us and finding a ready echo. The disrespect and cruelty towards others often involved is a theme he expands in the following chapter on pornography. Indeed, the comparison between present-day America – I would expand this to cover much of what globally goes under the name of mass culture – and the degenerate late days of various previous empires comes frequently to mind. Late in the book, Hedges himself draws the comparison explicitly:

“Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die. 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.” (p. 143)

In a world where Paris Hilton is an icon and people make pilgrimages to the tomb of Elvis, where Michael Jackson can generate a billion dollars in revenue after his death and the second-long exposure of his sister’s nipple causes a US-wide controversy, it’s hard to deny him.

And yet … At times, reading the book I found myself feeling slightly irritated. While I wholeheartedly recommend it, this doesn’t mean that I completely agree with it all. Empire of Illusion is the work of a moralist, someone so indignant at and disgusted with what he sees in the world that he feels himself to make an impassioned statement in the sense of Zola’s J’accuse. Everything he says is true, yet there is perhaps more truth to which he does not give sufficient weight. While mass media culture is increasingly illusionary, mindless, trivial and sensationalist, there are other realities too. The internet can be seen as a platform for the extension of this pabulum, with Twitter and Facebook as its current apotheoses, but much more also happens on these platforms. The whole WikiLeaks phenomenon and the millions of supporters who galvanised in its support, movements like Avaaz and Direct Action which have specialised in organising support on-line are, perhaps, signals of new counter-(mass)cultural possibilities. Text-messages, twitter and internet seem to have played an important role in the almost successful revolution in Iran in 2009 and in the recent events in Tunisia. And, perhaps beyond the main-stream, there is a an awful lot of serious analysis, dialogue and creativity going on all over the web – in discussion groups and blogs and all sorts of other forums.

The problem is that the more serious, the deeper, the more nuanced and critical disappears in the cacophony of the vastness of triviality. It used to be the case that other, critical opinions had to be censored or forbidden; this is no longer necessary. The small controlling elites and the corporations in parasitic relationship with each other control nearly all the means of mass access – their critics, like Hedges (and Nader and Chomsky and all the others), must no longer be silenced, they can simply be ignored because their voices are no longer heard above the orchestrated symphony of mass-marketed illusion.

Yet even in the particular US context which is Hedges’ focus, there is more. In the heat of the mid-term elections last autumn, over 200,000 Americans attended the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington. It was basically, for nearly all who attended it, an appeal for reason and decency in public discourse. It is, perhaps, indicative in another way of the deep dysfunction in society Hedges is addressing, that the rally had to be called and organised by Jon Stewart, someone who is basically a comedian. But it can also be seen as some sort of sign of hope.

Hedges’ deepest criticism is that the professed, public values to which we give lip-service have long been hollowed out and made meaningless by corporate capitalism. Democracy has become a ritualistic farce and public morality has been emasculated in favour of the profit motive. Lulled by illusions, brutalised by sensationalism, controlled by manipulative shallow psycho-techniques, we collaborate in our own exploitation and the rape of our world. And we do. But we also resist and – at least to an extent – seek to empower ourselves by other means.

At the end of the book Hedges too recognises this and professes his belief in the ultimate supremacy of hope and love. “Love will endure, even if it appears that darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.” (p. 193) Perhaps I am just more optimistic by nature, but I would like to hope that this can happen before nothing but wreckage remains. It is true that the stakes are becoming horrifyingly high and that the (inevitable) fall of empires is usually accompanied by vast suffering and misery. But we have to try, if only for our children and grandchildren. Hedges’ conclusion is too apocalyptic for me. Maybe the best we can hope for is that we somehow continue to muddle on, still balancing on the knife-edge. After all, who would have taken bets in October 1962, at the height of the Cuba Missile Crisis that we would still be here today, over forty eight years later?

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