Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Collaboration

“Say to yourself at break of day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and ungrateful men. All these vices have fallen to them because they have no knowledge of good and bad. But I, who have beheld the nature of the good, and seen that it is the right; and of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong; and of the wrongdoer himself, and seeing that his nature is akin to my own - not because he is of the same blood and seed, but because he shares with me in mind and a portion of the divine - I, then, can neither be harmed by any of these men, nor can I become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, or eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another and turn away from him is surely to work against him.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1

I expect that I will share more from Meditations as I found that it speaks to me. I do not agree with all of his philosophy, but I think that most of what he writes is still applicable today.

Meditations is organized into books and chapters. Each chapter is only a paragraph or two long. The first book is an acknowledgment to writers, teachers, friends and relatives of Aurelius and how they influenced him. This selection is then actually the opening words of his book.

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, Wordsworth Classics of World Literature, 1997; translated by Robin Hard with Introduction and Notes by Christopher Gill. Marcus lived from 121 to 180 AD (CE).

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The educational value of creative disobedience

“The principle goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply of repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive and discoverers” –Jean Piaget

Very interesting article and discussion: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/07/07/the-educational-value-of-creative-disobedience/

It seems to me that if you are going to do work (of any kind including art), you need at least four things - information (data,knowledge,insight,foresight,etc), tools and the skills to use them, a value system, and thinking styles (abstract, analogical, analytic, concrete, digital, holistic, intuitive, linear, logical, non-rational, non-temporal, nonverbal, rational, spatial, symbolic,synthetic, temporal, verbal, etc) - together with a body capable of implementing the work. Digital storage is really good for data.

Education has a role to play in all of these areas including the body.

Implanted chips can provide humans a great service when they can restore or augment a loss of or weakened function - cochlear implants, pacemakers, defibrillators, insulin pumps, artificial limbs, etc.

Turning humans into cyborgs is not a future I would wish on humanity, especially since there are other viable alternatives.

I remember the work of Simon on creativity a number of years ago. he concluded that creativity required the crossing of a threshold of storage of information in the brain for the person to be creative. He called that threshold 50,000 chunks of information (or some such similar expression). With the present day Internet and the availability of mobile devices to access the Internet with its ever growing data base of information, and perhaps 1 billion other humans, all of the information required to be creative does not have to reside in one person's brain. However, we have an enormous amount of work to do the learn how to use this capability. One of the roles of education has got to be to figure out how to enable and facilitate the use of this tool to advance human progress.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Law of Requisite Variety

Some time ago I wrote about matching the complexity of a system with the way you manage it. (http://insights-foresight.blogspot.com/2010/03/simple-complicated-or-complex.html). I was unaware of the Law of Requisite Variety posed by Ashby. I recently came across another mention of this concept and its use by Stafford Beer on complexity in Watt-Works.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

Elders Better at Strategy

USA: Elders better at strategy, shows study
LONDON, England / Daily Mail / News / September 23, 2011

Why you really SHOULD listen to your elders:
Study shows old people really do have more wisdom

By Daniel Bates

It is what people of a certain age will say they have always known.

Experience makes us wise, research shows. Men and women of at least 60 years old are better at making decisions which will reward them in the long term.

Those in their 20s and 30s, however, are interested only in instant gratification and cannot see the benefits of planning.

Read More

Scientific Article

Well, maybe there is still hope for me.
Link

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Leaders and Non Zero-sum Logic

"Leaders who can harness non-zero-sum logic to draw people into cooperative effort prevail in competition for status and other social resources, inviting future leaders to do the same on a larger scale." Robert Wright

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reality, TX

What they are talking about here is the result of the erratic behavior of a complex system.

Reality, TX from The Butler Bros on Vimeo.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Creating Jobs

It’s very frustrating listening to all the political talk, commingled with chest thumping, about creating jobs. As it reflects our society, it’s all about increasing, decreasing or allocating taxes and regulations. We’ve created a financial industry based on the same concept – manipulation of money and regulation – that brought us to our knees when the house of cards collapsed, and we’re still in the same position.

The way to create jobs is through innovation that creates wealth and improves the common weal. This requires the ennobling, enabling, empowering and encouraging of the people.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Corporations are very profitable and are sitting on a pile of cash. Invest that money by hiring Americans to work on innovations that create value throughout the world. (Are they sitting on that cash and not investing it because they want an even more laissez faire government?)
  • Invest in innovations that enable American workers to create value through innovation
  • Reduce the inequity in wealth and income in America so that Americans can buy houses, consume goods and invest in the future
  • Stop being a tool of business and start using business as a tool
  • Establish the ethos that a corporation is a form granted by and for the people
  • Hold business responsible for taking the easy way of reducing costs by out sourcing and off shoring. Have them innovate to reduce costs and invest in the people to produce new value through innovation.
  • Just like American citizens have to renounce all other citizenship, American business should be required to pledge allegiance to America.
The first part of this post was published 9/8/11. The following was posted on 9/23/11.

Listen to this interview of Michigan's former Governor Jennifer Granholm. She is the first person I've heard that speaks clearly about the problem of creating jobs and makes sound suggestions about how to accomplish that objective.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Exclusive - Jennifer Granholm Extended Interview Pt. 1
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook


And, then here's some comments from Elizabeth Warren, former Special Advisor for the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Clarity: Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Car

Any comments on the chemistry, physics or ecology of this car?



Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sublime Collaboration

An innovative and beautiful demonstration of international collaboration.










In a moving and madly viral video last year, composer Eric Whitacre led a virtual choir of singers from around the world. He talks through the creative challenges of making music powered by YouTube, and unveils the first 2 minutes of his new work, "Sleep," with a video choir of 2,052.

Lux Arumque

Sleep

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Importance of Mistakes in Complex Systems

Tim Harford argues for making intelligent mistakes in order to understand and imrove compex systems.









Economics writer Tim Harford studies complex systems -- and finds a surprising link among the successful ones: they were built through trial and error. In this sparkling talk from TEDGlobal 2011, he asks us to embrace our randomness and start making better mistakes.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Scaling in Biological, Business and Social Systems

There are some extremely powerful and useful concepts only introduced here. This requires more study to really absorb. As I understand it one of the implications of this work is that innovation is key to the survival of cities, but doesn't help much for companies.









Physicist Geoffrey West has found that simple, mathematical laws govern the properties of cities -- that wealth, crime rate, walking speed and many other aspects of a city can be deduced from a single number: the city's population. In this mind-bending talk from TEDGlobal he shows how it works and how similar laws hold for organisms and corporations.

Language as the Root of Cooperation and Intellectual Property



Biologist Mark Pagel shares an intriguing theory about why humans evolved our complex system of language. He suggests that language is a piece of "social technology" that allowed early human tribes to access a powerful new tool: cooperation.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Complexity vs. Randomness

History as the battle between complexity and randomness. Insightful!



Backed by stunning illustrations, David Christian narrates a complete history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the Internet, in a riveting 18 minutes. This is "Big History": an enlightening, wide-angle look at complexity, life and humanity, set against our slim share of the cosmic timeline.

Big History

Friday, August 5, 2011

Delivering Happiness

This appears to be customer delight redux from our book in 1994: Innovate: Straight Path to Quality, Customer Delight and Competitive Advantage. To read about our model read:

Stop Trying to Delight Your Customers...Not!

Friday, June 10, 2011

Rethinking Growth

Herman Daly is an ecological economist and co-founder and associate editor of the journal Ecological Economics. As the World Bank’s senior environmental economist from 1988 to 1994, Daly focused on Latin American poverty and development and helped to establish the discipline of ecological economics. Today, based at the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, Daly spoke with Seed editor Maywa Montenegro about growth, technology, happiness, and the steady-state economy.

Read Article

A Moral Operating System for Technology?

At TEDxSiliconValley, Damon Horowitz reviews the enormous new powers that technology gives us: to know more -- and more about each other -- than ever before. Drawing the audience into a philosophical discussion, Horowitz invites us to pay new attention to the basic philosophy -- the ethical principles -- behind the burst of invention remaking our world. Where's the moral operating system that allows us to make sense of it?

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Mere Smoke of Opinion

Bill Moyers and John Stewart had a great conversation on the Daily Show a few days ago about what's wrong with "journalism" and "politician speak". For journalism, Moyers made the clear distinction between what's immediate and what's important. News is now about what's immediate and very few journalists seek to find what's important, i.e. facts that will affect our future. Instead the media are full of opinion. Moyers recalled a quote from Thoreau "the mere smoke of opinion." In today's world politician's have to avoid the truth in a cloud of deceptive phrases ('the language of keeping things hidden").

You can watch the interview here: Part 1 and Part 2.

What follows is the complete quote and surrounding paragraphs from Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Please read it slowly and carefully.

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.

When we consider what, to use the words of the catechism, is the chief end of man, and what are the true necessaries and means of life, it appears as if men had deliberately chosen the common mode of living because they preferred it to any other. Yet they honestly think there is no choice left. But alert and healthy natures remember that the sun rose clear. It is never too late to give up our prejudices. No way of thinking or doing, however ancient, can be trusted without proof. What everybody echoes or in silence passes by as true to-day may turn out to be falsehood to-morrow, mere smoke of opinion, which some had trusted for a cloud that would sprinkle fertilizing rain on their fields. What old people say you cannot do, you try and find that you can. Old deeds for old people, and new deeds for new. Old people did not know enough once, perchance, to fetch fresh fuel to keep the fire a-going; new people put a little dry wood under a pot, and are whirled round the globe with the speed of birds, in a way to kill old people, as the phrase is. Age is no better, hardly so well, qualified for an instructor as youth, for it has not profited so much as it has lost. One may almost doubt if the wisest man has learned anything of absolute value by living. Practically, the old have no very important advice to give the young, their own experience has been so partial, and their lives have been such miserable failures, for private reasons, as they must believe; and it may be that they have some faith left which belies that experience, and they are only less young than they were. I have lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors. They have told me nothing, and probably cannot tell me anything to the purpose. Here is life, an experiment to a great extent untried by me; but it does not avail me that they have tried it. If I have any experience which I think valuable, I am sure to reflect that this my Mentors said nothing about."

You can find an annotated text of the book here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Patterns of Social Unrest, Complexity, Conflict, and Catastrophe

Linkby John L. Casti, Album, Der Standard, April 16, 2011
(reprinted with permission of author)

Social Unrest
On February 24, 2010 Greek police fired tear-gas and clashed with demonstrators in central Athens after a march organized by unions to oppose the government’s program to cut the European Union’s biggest budget deficit. The president of a large union stated, “People on the street will send a strong message to the government but mainly to the European Union, the markets and our partners in Europe that people and their needs must be above the demands of markets. We didn’t create the crisis.” Later, air-traffic controllers, customs and tax officials, train drivers, doctors at state-run hospitals and school teachers walked off the job to protest government spending cuts. Journalists joined into the strikes as well, creating a media blackout.

Fast forwarding a year, we’ve recently seen long-standing regimes in both Tunisia and Egypt sent packing literally overnight, with Libya now being torched by the very same revolutionary flames as rebels battle the entrenched Qaddafi government in an attempt to overturn forty years of oppression.

On the surface, these types of civil disturbances give the appearance of arising out of the public’s discontent with their government over high unemployment, rising food prices, lack of housing, and other such necessities of everyday life. But such explanations are facile and superficial, failing to address the “root” cause of the societal collapse. The real culprit resides much deeper in the social system. It is a widening “complexity gap” between the government and its citizens, revolution breaking out when that gap can no longer be bridged.

Complexity Mismatches
Some years back, American archaeologist Joseph Tainter put forth the idea that societies respond to crises by adding complexity in order to solve problems they encounter. But each unit of resource the society adds―energy or money, usually―yields less return than the previous unit. So the additional layers of complexity bought by this expenditure consume resources with no corresponding return until the marginal return on investment in social complexity turns negative. But since the society knows how to solve problems only by adding complexity, it then begins to collapse under its own weight.

In Egypt (and now Libya) the added complexity is not just any sort of complexity, but as noted by futurist Ramez Naam it is a very special type: parasitism. This is one of the worst forms of complexity, as it consumes more and more of society’s resources without producing any value at all.

For example, Egypt had a state-controlled economy that was wildly mismanaged for decades. Even the noticeable improvement in recent years has been a case of too little, too late. Moreover the country is monumentally corrupt, as crony capitalism runs rampant throughout the entire social structure. Such a system of corruption relies upon bribes to officials to get contracts,
obtain jobs or to find adequate housing. One rumor had it that in Egypt the drug Viagra was kept off the market because its manufacturer, Pfizer, failed to pay a large enough bribe to the Egyptian Minister of Health for its approval.

This type of parasitic mismanagement and corruption doesn’t really add constructive complexity to the government, but simply works to freeze in place an already low-complexity system. But modern communication and social networking services like Twitter and Facebook do act to dramatically increase the social complexity―but the increase is in the complexity of the population, at-large, not an increase in the complexity of the government. This is why governments routinely act to shut off these services when they’re under attack, as more voices are heard and more and more highly-connected social networks are formed.

At some point the complexity gap between the stagnant level of government complexity and the growing level of general-public complexity becomes too great to be sustained. Result: Ouster of the Mubarak regime, and the likely downfall of the Qaddafi government as well.

A complex system theorist recognizes immediately the principle at work here in narrowing the complexity gap. It’s is called the Law of Requisite Variety (Complexity). The Principle states that in order to fully regulate/control a system, the complexity of the regulating system has to be at least as great as the complexity of the system to be controlled. An obvious corollary is that if the gap is too big (in either direction) you’re going to have trouble. And in the world of politics, “trouble” is often spelled “r-e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n”!

Examples of such mismatches abound: ancient Rome is one case that always comes to mind, where the ruling classes used political and military power to control the lower classes and to conquer neighbors in order to extract tax revenues. Ultimately, the entire resources of the society were being used to maintain an ever-growing, far-flung empire that had grown too complex to be sustained. The ancient Mayan civilization is another good case in point. Some
scholars, like historian Paul Kennedy, have argued that the American Empire is in the process of coming undone for much the same reasons.

This type of complexity gap is not confined just to the political and governmental domains either, as evidenced by the ongoing social unrest in Japan arising out of the radiation spewing forth from the reactors damaged by the March 11 earthquake. The ultimate cause of this unrest is a “design basis accident,” in which the tsunami overflowed retaining walls designed to keep the water out. The overflow then damaged backup electrical generators intended to supply emergency power for pumping water to cool the reactor’s nuclear fuel rods. This is a two-fold problem: First, the designer’s planned the height of the walls for a magnitude 8.3 quake, the largest that Japan had previously experienced, not considering that a quake might someday exceed that level, and what’s even worse, (2) they placed the generators on low ground where any overflow would short them out. So everything ultimately depended on the retaining walls doing their job―which they didn’t! This is a case of too little complexity in the control system (the combination of the height of the wall and the generator location) being overwhelmed by too much complexity in the system to be controlled (the magnitude of the tsunami).

Who’s Next?
When a society collapses, be it ancient Rome, the United State tomorrow or Egypt and Tunisia yesterday, it quickly loses complexity. All institutions, laws and technologies become simpler, a lot simpler. Moreover, the range of social roles and behaviors open to the population of such a society dramatically shrink.

These factors lead to a rapid reduction in living standards, since without complex institutions, infrastructures, technologies and social roles, large populations cannot be sustained at their previous standard of living. Consequently, people consume far less, stay at home, turn inward, and die much sooner.

What can we expect to over the next year or two? A good guess is that as people lose confidence in the ability of their governments to solve the financial crises and experience other social stresses that increase the government-public complexity gap, they’ll break out into violent protests and/or assaults on those they see as responsible for their misery. This group will certainly encompass government officials and bankers, but may well also include immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, landlords, and even corporate managers and bosses.

If you want to be grimly impressed, start putting pins on a map where such violence has already broken out. Cities like Athens, Sofia (Bulgaria), Port-au-Prince, Riga (Latvia) and Vilnius (Lithuania) are on the map, and even much larger cities like Moscow, Rome, Paris and Dublin have seen huge protests over rising unemployment and declining wages. But security police in these cities have managed to keep the protests orderly, if not peaceful (so far). While it’s very likely such societal disruptions will be confined to specific locales, we cannot entirely discount the possibility that as the global economic situation worsens, some of these localized incidents will overrun national borders and become far more widespread and long-lasting events. Armed rebellions, military coups, and even wars between states over access to resources cannot be excluded.

Early-Warning Indicators
All civil disturbances have the same general two-part structure: a lack of confidence in the ability of established institutions to solve the problems at hand, and fear of the future. So any methodology purporting to provide earlywarning signals of social unrest will have to embrace these two factors. It turns out that a theoretical foundation for just such a theory was put forth by American political scientist James C. Davies more than fifty years ago.

Like all great insights, Davies big idea is simple: Social unrest takes place when a society’s rising expectations are suddenly dashed. In other words, a society’s mood, how they regard the future, grows increasingly positive as the society gets richer. But when the rug is pulled out from under citizen’s hopes for a brighter future, things turn ugly―fast. And as the gap between expectations
and reality widens, the mood of the population moves deeper into negative territory until it finally erupts into violence and revolution.

To illustrate Davies thesis, let’s take an item from the “It Can’t Happen Here” department. In a recent article in Vanity Fair magazine, Nobel-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz noted that in terms of income inequality, the United States today lags behind every country in Europe, ranking down with Russia and its oligarchs and Iran in the category of countries where the top 1% of the population control 40 percent or more of the nation’s wealth. As with the situations in the North African and Arab lands today, there are again two systems in conflict. But in the developed countries like the USA, the systems are not the government and the public; rather, they are the “haves” and the “have nots.”

In a society like the USA that is sharply divided in terms of wealth, the rich lead a high-complexity style of life that doesn’t rely on government to supply common needs like parks, education, security or medical care. The “haves” can supply all these things for themselves. In fact, this high-complexity life-style strata of society is one that worries a lot about strong government, especially a government that would reduce its complexity by doing things like raising taxes.

This attitude ultimately leads the have-nots to see the already low complexity of their lives become even lower, as a sense of living in an unjust system with shrinking opportunities creates feelings of alienation. Does this sound familiar?

Rising food prices, growing youth unemployment and lack of adequate housing and education are exactly the surface causes of the revolutions taking place today in Africa and the Middle East. Question: When will it come to America?

We’d like to be able to develop procedures for anticipating when that gap between the rich (read: high complexity lifestyles) and the not-so-rich (low complexity lives) will widen to an unsustainable level. How to do that?

The first step in identifying the “danger zone” where the gap between expectations and reality is reaching a critical level is to measure the society’s expectations, what we might term its “social mood”. This is the view the society holds about its future, optimistic (positive) or pessimistic (negative) on various time scales, weeks, months, years, or more. We then look for the turning points in this mood as an indicator of where society will move from one overall psychological mindset to another. Of course, the danger zone is the point at which the social mood begins to roll over from positive to negative, since that’s the point at which the society can “tip” from hope to despair. This is precisely where Davies’ theory suggests a civil disturbance becomes much more likely than not.

John L. Casti (casti@iiasa.ac.at) is a Senior Research Scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg bei Wien, und Founder of the Kenos Circle, a Vienna-based society for exploration of the future. His most recent book is Mood Matters: From Rising Skirt Lengths to the Collapse of World Powers (Copernicus Books, New York, 2010).

To print a copy of this article, click here.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Who Increased the National Debt?

I first saw the chart below on this subject on Facebook from Left Action. It purportedly came from the Democratic leader of the House.Link



I found the results so surprising that I verified the data for myself. I did not want to perpetuate a lie based on false data. I also wanted to go back further in history to see how earlier presidents fared on this measure. Of course we realize that it’s congress that actually spends the money but it very popular right now to identify debt by the president and his administration.

My source for data was the OMB (Office of Management and Budget), specifically their Historical Tables, Table 7.1 Federal Debt at the End of the Year 1940 -2016. The data for 2010 was still estimated when I did this analysis. Gross Federal Debt is the sum of Public Debt and Debt Held by Federal Government accounts (other agencies).

The results I got are shown below:



While the actual numbers differ a bit from the chart on Facebook, the overall trends are the same. Reagan still is the greatest contributor on a percentage basis of any of the presidents from 1940 to the end of 2010.

I wondered what the chart would like rationalized by the GDP (Gross Domestic Product). The results are shown below:



Our national debt was over 90% of the GDP at the end of 1940, and it fell steadily until the Reagan administration. It’s been growing ever since except for the Clinton administration when it decreased.

When these data are looked at in the same way as the increase in debt, the results are shown below:



From this perspective Clinton’s financial management appears remarkable.

Other sources of information:
National Debt by Presidential Terms, Wikipedia
Presidents and the Federal Debt, zFacts
National Debt by President, The Big Picture


Click here to print a copy of this analysis

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Texas on the Brink

Texas on the Brink: How Texas Ranks Among the 50 States
February 2011 ~ Fifth Edition

"Since 1836, Texas has stood as an icon of the American dream.

Blessed with land, rivers, oil, and other abundant natural resources, early Texas welcomed everyone from cattle ranchers to braceros, from cotton farmers to Chinese railroad workers. These pioneers built a great state, and together we fulfilled a destiny.

From humble beginnings, we built a state with the firm belief that every Texan might rise as high and as far as their spirit, hard work, and talent might carry them. With education and determination every Texan might achieve great success – home ownership, reliable healthcare, safe neighborhoods, and financial prosperity.

In Texas today, the American dream is distant. Texas has the highest percentage of uninsured children in the nation. Texas is dead last in the percentage of residents with their high school diploma and near last in SAT scores. Texas has America’s dirtiest air. If we do not change course, for the first time in our history, the Texas generation of tomorrow will be less prosperous than the generation of today.

Without the courage to invest in the minds of our children and steadfast support for great schools, we face a daunting prospect. Those who value tax cuts over children and budget cuts over college have put Texas at risk in her ability to compete and succeed.

Let us not forget that the business of Texas is Texans. To ‘Close the Gap’ in Texas, we must graduate more of our best and brightest with the skills to succeed in a world based on knowledge. If we invest in our greatest resource – our children – Texas will be the state of the future. If we do not, Texas will only fall further behind.

Texas is on the brink, but Texas can do better. The choice is ours."

The video below is one I made from the rankings given in this report. It's ten minutes long.

Texas, Our Texas from Paul Schumann on Vimeo.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When Truth Hurts

When Truth Hurts: How to Have an Honest Conversation about the Future Without Losing Hope, Robert Jensen, Utne Reader

"We live in the midst of multiple crises—economic and political, cultural and ecological—posing a significant threat to human existence at the level we have become accustomed to. There’s no way to be awake to the depth of these crises without emotional reactions, no way to be aware of the pain caused by these systemic failures without some dread and distress.

Those emotions come from recognizing that we humans with our big brains have disrupted the balance of the living world in disastrous ways that may be causing irreversible ecological destruction, and that drastically different ways of living are not only necessary but inevitable, with no guarantee of a smooth transition.

This talk, in polite company, leads to being labeled hysterical, Chicken Little, apocalyptic. No matter that you are calm, aren’t predicting the sky falling, and have made no reference to rapture. Pointing out that we live in unsustainable systems, that unsustainable systems can’t be sustained, and that no person or institution with power in the dominant culture is talking about this—well, that’s obviously crazy.

But to many of us, these insights simply seem honest. To be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one’s own condition in the world but for the condition of the world, for a world that is in collapse. What to do when such honesty is unwelcome?"

As a result of his research Jensen reports on several reactions to concerns about the future:

  • "First, we often feel drained by it."
  • "Second, we encounter those who don’t want to face tough truths. Many wrote about isolation from family and friends who deny that there are reasons to be concerned."
  • "Sometimes people accuse those who press questions about systemic failure and collapse of being the problem."
Daniel Boorstin had something to say about this 50 years ago. He wrote in The Image, "We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions." And, illusions cannot be broken by the truth.

He wrote, "Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.

We are ruled by extravagant expectations:
  • Of our power to shape the world. Of our ability to create events when there are none, to make heroes when they don't exist, to be somewhere else when we haven't left home. Of our ability to make art forms suit our convenience, to transform a novel into a movie and vice versa, to turn a symphony into mood-conditioning. To fabricate national purposes when we lack them, to pursue these purposes after we have fabricated them. To invent our standards and then to respect them as if they had been revealed or discovered.
  • Of what the world holds. Of how much news there is, how many heroes there are, how often masterpieces are made, how exotic the nearby can be, how familiar the exotic can become. Of the closeness of places and the farness of places.
By harboring, nourishing, and ever enlarging our extravagant expectations we create the demand for the illusions with which we deceive ourselves. And which we pay others to make to deceive us. "

The result of this expectation is an acceptance of pseudo-events and illusion:

"The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.

Pseudo-events from their very nature tend to be more interesting and more attractive than spontaneous events. Therefore in American public life today pseudo-events tend to drive all other kinds of events out of our consciousness, or at least to overshadow them. Earnest, well-informed citizens seldom notice that their experience of spontaneous events is buried by pseudo-events. Yet nowadays, the more industriously they work at "informing" themselves the more this tends to be true. "

Patrick Henry understood this about the nature of man when he wrote:

It is natural for man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts... For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth, to know the worst, and to provide for it.

Read More:
When the Truth Hurts
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin, Vintage Books, 1961, 319pp

The Corporate State Wins Again

The Corporate State Wins Again, Chris Hedges, CommonDreams

"When did our democracy die? When did it irrevocably transform itself into a lifeless farce and absurd political theater? When did the press, labor, universities and the Democratic Party—which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible—wither and atrophy? When did reform through electoral politics become a form of magical thinking? When did the dead hand of the corporate state become unassailable?

The body politic was mortally wounded during the long, slow strangulation of ideas and priorities during the Red Scare and the Cold War. Its bastard child, the war on terror, inherited the iconography and language of permanent war and fear. The battle against internal and external enemies became the excuse to funnel trillions in taxpayer funds and government resources to the war industry, curtail civil liberties and abandon social welfare. Skeptics, critics and dissenters were ridiculed and ignored. The FBI, Homeland Security and the CIA enforced ideological conformity. Debate over the expansion of empire became taboo. Secrecy, the anointing of specialized elites to run our affairs and the steady intrusion of the state into the private lives of citizens conditioned us to totalitarian practices. Sheldon Wolin points out in “Democracy Incorporated” that this configuration of corporate power, which he calls “inverted totalitarianism,” is not like “Mein Kampf” or “The Communist Manifesto,” the result of a premeditated plot. It grew, Wolin writes, from “a set of effects produced by actions or practices undertaken in ignorance of their lasting consequences.”

Corporate capitalism—because it was trumpeted throughout the Cold War as a bulwark against communism—expanded with fewer and fewer government regulations and legal impediments. Capitalism was seen as an unalloyed good. It was not required to be socially responsible. Any impediment to its growth, whether in the form of trust-busting, union activity or regulation, was condemned as a step toward socialism and capitulation. Every corporation is a despotic fiefdom, a mini-dictatorship. And by the end Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil and Goldman Sachs had grafted their totalitarian structures onto the state."

***

"We live in a fragmented society. We are ignorant of what is being done to us. We are diverted by the absurd and political theater. We are afraid of terrorism, of losing our job and of carrying out acts of dissent. We are politically demobilized and paralyzed. We do not question the state religion of patriotic virtue, the war on terror or the military and security state. We are herded like sheep through airports by Homeland Security and, once we get through the metal detectors and body scanners, spontaneously applaud our men and women in uniform. As we become more insecure and afraid, we become more anxious. We are driven by fiercer and fiercer competition. We yearn for stability and protection. This is the genius of all systems of totalitarianism. The citizen’s highest hope finally becomes to be secure and left alone."

Chris Hedges writes a regular column for Truthdig.com. Hedges graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was for nearly two decades a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He is the author of many books, including: War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, What Every Person Should Know About War, and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America. His most recent book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

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All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

This book by Dreyfus and Kelly was enjoyable to read. However, it was difficult to comprehend.

The book covers the following topics:
• Our Contemporary Nihilism
• David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism
• Homer’s Polytheism
• From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise
• From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy
• Fanaticism, Polytheism and Melville’s “Evil Art”
• Conclusion: Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age

The authors begin the book with a quote from Melville’s Moby Dick, a novel that plays a critical role in their analysis:

If hereafter any highly cultured, poetical nation shall lure back to their birthright, the merry May-day gods of old; and livingly enthrone them again in the now egotistical sky; on the now unhaunted hill; then be sure, exalted to Jove’s high seat, the great Sperm Whale shall lord it.

This is a good summary of the book. The authors trace the development of the great philosophical ideas through the writings of Western authors from the polytheism of Greece to the monotheistic religions of the Mid East to the nihilism of the modern West. They end the book with a new type of polytheism appropriate to our times that the authors believe will restore purpose to our lives.

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Free Press, 2011, 254 pp


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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Before the beginning of the book, Hedges quotes James Baldwin. “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.”

The purpose of this book is to attempt to awaken the conscious of America to its true reality. He covers five topics:

• The Illusion of Literacy
• The Illusion of Love
• The Illusion of Wisdom
• The Illusion of Happiness
• The Illusion of America

His message is urgent, as he writes later in the book, “Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die.”

At the beginning of the first chapter he quotes two other writers:

Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no other distracting presence. And that image has all the Godly powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is man as God and the ritual involved leads us not to a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source, these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of the electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it.” John Ralston Saul, Voltaire's Bastards

“We had fed the heart on fantasy,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare.”
William Butler Yeats, The Stare's Nest By My Window

His metaphor for study the illusion of literacy is professional wrestling, and how the story being told has changed over time. I found this a very effective and convincing metaphor.
He also uses Plato and Boorstin effectively:

In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness. Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world above are thrown. They believe these flickering shadows are reality. If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain. Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness. But eventually his eyes adjust to the light. The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated. He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality. The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes. But he is despised when he returns to the cave. He is unable to see in the dark as he used to. Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.

Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. No admirer of popular democracy, Plato said that the enlightened or elite had a duty to educate those bewitched by the shadows on the cave wall, a position that led Socrates to quip: “As for the man who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow lay their hands on him and kill him, they would do so.”

We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the end-less personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology. In The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, Daniel Boorstin writes that in contemporary culture the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stage-craft. Americans, he writes, increasingly live in a “world where fantasy is more real than reality.”

He warns:

“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. We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience.”
Boorstin goes on to caution that

“An image is something we have a claim on. It must serve our purposes. Images are means. If a corporation's image of itself or a man's image of himself is not useful, it is discarded. Another may fit better. The image is made to order, tailored to us. An ideal, on the other hand, has a claim on us. It does not serve us; we serve it. If we have trouble striving towards it, we assume the matter is with us, and not with the ideal.”

Those who manipulate the shadows that dominate our lives are the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion. They are the puppet masters. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries. The sole object is to hold attention and satisfy an audience. These techniques of theater, as Boorstin notes, have leached into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare, and crime. The squalid dramas played out for fans in the wrestling ring mesh with the ongoing dramas on television, in movies, and in the news, where "real-life" stories, especially those involving celebrities, allow news reports to become mini-dramas complete with a star, a villain, a supporting cast, a good-looking host, and a neat, if often unexpected, conclusion.

This has faint echoes of Marshal McLuhan, although the author never mentions his work. In The Wave of the Future I summarized McLuhan’s work. Of interest here is his discussion of the three great ages – preliterate, literate and post literate. An excerpt from The Wave of the Future:

"In fact we can look back at 3000 years of differing degrees of visualization, atomization and mechanization and at least recognize the mechanical age as an interlude between two great organic eras of culture. The age of print, which held sway from approximately 1500 to 1900, had its obituary tapped out by the telegraph, the first of the new electric media, and further obsequies were registered by the perception of curved space and non-Euclidean mathematics in the early years of century (20th), which revived tribal man's discontinuous time-space concepts - and which even Spenger dimly perceived as the death knell of Western literate values. The development of telephone, radio, film, television and the computer have driven further nails into the coffin. Today, television is the most significant of the electric media because it permeates nearly every home in the country, extending the nervous system of every viewer as it works over and molds the entire sensorium with the ultimate message. It is television that is primarily responsible for ending the visual supremacy that characterized all mechanical technology, although each of the other electric media have played contributing roles," observes McLuhan. (Note this is a quote from him in 1969.)

Tony Schwartz summed this change succinctly. "Since the introduction of the telephone, radio and television, our society has undergone a dramatic qualitative change: We have become a post-literate society. Electronic media, rather than the printed word, are now our major means of non-face-to-face communication."

I don’t think that there is any question that we are a in a post literate world.

In The Illusion of Love, the author uses the example of pornography to make his point. I am not a prude, but I found this chapter hard to read. It’s not the sexual explicitness of the discussion but the utter and absolute degradation of the women through the $96B pornographic industry (13,000 porn films made every year in America) and the abysmal self esteem the women have.

The porn films are not about sex. Sex is airbrushed and digitally washed out of the films. There is no acting because none of the women are permitted to have what amounts to a personality. The one emotion they are allowed to display is an unquenchable desire to satisfy men, especially if that desire involves the women's physical and emotional degradation. The lighting in the films is harsh and clinical. Pubic hair is shaved off to give the women the look of young girls or rubber dolls. Porn, which advertises itself as sex, is a bizarre, bleached pantomime of sex. The acts onscreen are beyond human endurance. The scenarios are absurd. The manicured and groomed bodies, the huge artificial breasts, the pouting, oversized lips, the erections that never go down, and the sculpted bodies are unreal. Makeup and production mask blemishes. There are no beads of sweat, no wrinkle lines, no human imperfections. Sex is reduced to a narrow spectrum of sterilized dimensions. It does not include the dank smell of human bodies, the thump of a pulse, taste, breath or tenderness. Those in the films are puppets, packaged female commodities. They have no honest emotions, are devoid of authentic human beauty, and resemble plastic.

Pornography does not promote sex, if one defines sex as a shared act between two partners. It promotes masturbation. It promotes the solitary auto-arousal that precludes intimacy and love. Pornography is about getting yourself off at someone else's expense.

In the Illusion of Wisdom, Hedges criticizes the elitism of the universities. He begins this chapter with a quote from Sinclair Lewis, “Men die, but the plutocracy is immortal; and it is necessary that fresh generations should be trained to its service.”

I’m going to quote a long section of this chapter because he summarizes his views in it:

The multiple failures that beset the country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredding of Constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the door of institutions that produce and sustain our educated elite. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, the University of Toronto, and the Paris Institute of Political Studies, along with most elite schools, do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think. They focus instead, through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers. Responsibility for the collapse of the global economy runs in a direct line from the manicured quadrangles and academic halls in Cambridge, New Haven, Toronto, and Paris to the financial and political centers of power.

The elite universities disdain honest intellectual inquiry, which is by its nature distrustful of authority, fiercely independent, and often subversive. They organize learning around minutely specialized disciplines, narrow answers, and rigid structures designed to produce such answers. The established corporate hierarchies these institutions service-economic, political, and social-come with clear parameters, such as the primacy of an unfettered free market, and also with a highly specialized vocabulary. This vocabulary, a sign of the "specialist" and, of course, the elitist, thwarts universal understanding. It keeps the uninitiated from asking unpleasant questions. It destroys the search for the common good. It dices disciplines, faculty, students, and finally experts into tiny, specialized fragments. It allows students and faculty to retreat into these self-imposed fiefdoms and neglect the most pressing moral, political, and cultural questions. Those who critique the sys-tem itself-people such as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Dennis Kucinich, or Ralph Nader-are marginalized and shut out of the main-stream debate. These elite universities have banished self-criticism. They refuse to question a self-justifying system. Organization, technology, self-advancement, and information systems are the only things that matter.

In 1967, Theodor Adorno wrote an essay titled "Education After Auschwitz." He argued that the moral corruption that made the Holocaust possible remained "largely unchanged" and that "the mechanisms that render people capable of such deeds" must be uncovered, examined, and critiqued through education. Schools had to teach more than skills. They had to teach values. If they did not, another Auschwitz was always possible.

"All political instruction finally should be centered upon the idea that Auschwitz should never happen again," he wrote:

This would be possible only when it devotes itself openly, without fear of offending any authorities, to this most important of problems. To do this, education must transform itself into sociology, that is, it must teach about the societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms.'

If we do not grasp the "societal play of forces that operates beneath the surface of political forms," we will be cursed with a more ruthless form of corporate power, one that does away with artifice and the seduction of a consumer society, and wields power through naked repression.
I had lunch in Toronto with Henry Giroux, professor of English and Cultural Studies at McMaster University in Canada. Giroux was for many years the Waterbury Chair Professor at Penn State. He has long been one of the most prescient and vocal critics of the corporate state and the systematic destruction of American education. He was driven, because of his work, to the margins of academia in the United States. He asked the uncomfortable questions Adorno knew should be asked by university professors. Giroux, who wrote The University in Chains: Confronting the Military-Industrial-Academic Complex, left in 2004 for Canada.

"The emergence of what Eisenhower had called the military-industrial-academic complex had secured a grip on higher education that may have exceeded even what he had anticipated and most feared," Giroux tells me. "Universities, in general, especially following the events of 9/11, were under assault by Christian nationalists, reactionary neoconservatives, and market fundamentalists for allegedly representing the weak link in the war on terrorism. Right-wing students were encouraged to spy on the classes of progressive professors, the corporate grip on the university was tightening, as was made clear not only in the emergence of business models of governance, but also in the money being pumped into research and programs that blatantly favored corporate interests. And at Penn State, where I was located at the time, the university had joined itself at the hip with corporate and military power. Put differently, corporate and Pentagon money was now funding research projects, and increasingly knowledge was being militarized in the service of developing weapons of destruction, surveillance, and death. Couple this assault with the fact that faculty were becoming irrelevant as an oppositional force. Many disappeared into discourses that threatened no one, some simply were too scared to raise critical issues in their classrooms for fear of being fired, and many simply no longer had the conviction to uphold the university as a democratic public sphere."

The moral nihilism embraced by elite universities would have terrified Adorno. He 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 and embraced a childish hypermasculinity.

"This educational ideal of hardness, in which many may believe without reflecting about it, is utterly wrong," Adorno wrote. "The idea that virility consists in the maximum degree of endurance long ago became a screen-image for masochism that, as psychology has demonstrated, aligns itself all too easily with sadism."

Sadism dominates the culture. It runs like an electric current through reality television and trash-talk programs, is at the core of pornography, and fuels the compliant, corporate collective. Corporatism is about crushing the capacity for moral choice and diminishing the individual to force him or her into an ostensibly harmonious collective. This hypermasculinity has its logical fruition in Abu Ghraib, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our lack of compassion for our homeless, our poor, the mentally ill, the unemployed, and the sick.

"The political and economic forces fueling such crimes against humanity-whether they are unlawful wars, systemic torture, practiced indifference to chronic starvation, and disease or genocidal acts are always mediated by educational forces," Giroux says. "Resistance to such acts cannot take place without a degree of knowledge and self reflection. We have to name these acts and transform moral outrage into concrete attempts to prevent such human violations from taking place in the first place."

But we do not name them. We accept the system handed to us and seek to find a comfortable place within it. We retreat into the narrow, confined ghettos created for us and shut our eyes to the deadly super structure of the corporate state.

In The Illusion of Happiness, Hedges criticizes positive thinking and positive psychology:

Positive thinking, which is delivered to the culture in a variety of forms, has its academic equivalent in positive psychology. Cooperrider touts what he calls Transformational Positivity. Transformational Positivity, he says, is the future of organizational change. Optimism can and must become a permanent state of mind. He has designed a corporate workshop that promises to bring about this change. It is called "Appreciative Inquiry." Appreciative Inquiry, he assures the audience, will spread happiness around the world.

Appreciative Inquiry promises to transform organizations into "Positive Institutions." "It's almost like fusion energy," Cooperrider explains. "Fusion is where two positive atoms come together, and there is an incredible energy that is released." His clients include the U.S. Navy, Wal-Mart, Hewlett-Packard, United Way, Boeing, the American Red Cross, the Carter Center, and the United Nations.3 Celebrities such as Goldie Hawn also promote positive psychology, designing workshops and curriculums for children and corporate workers. And Appreciative Inquiry, which is supposed to make workers into a happy, harmonious whole, is advertised as a way to increase profits.

Cooperrider, excited and at times sputtering, stands before a Power-Point demonstration. He slips into obscure and often incomprehensible jargon: "Positive Institutions are organizations, including groups, families, and communities, designed and managed for the elevation and the engagement of signature strengths, the connected and combined magnification of strengths, and ultimately, the coherent cross-level refraction of our highest human strengths outward into society and our world" [emphases are Cooperrider's]. He compares Appreciative Inquiry to a solar concentrator.

Happiness, Cooperrider explains, is achieved through "a progressive concentration and release of positivity-a 'concrescence' or growing together-whereby persons are 'enlarged,' and organizational or mutual strengths, resources, and positive-potentials are connected and magnified, where both (person and organization) become agents of the greater good beyond them.

"In other words," he continues, "institutions can be a vehicle for bringing more courage into the world, for amplifying love in the world, for amplifying temperance and justice, and so on."
He ends by saying that this generation-presumably his ~ most privileged generation in human history. It is a generation t channel positive emotions through corporations and spread throughout the culture. The moral and ethical issues of corporatism, from the toxic assets they may have amassed, to predatory lending, to legislation they may author to destroy regulation and oversight, even to the actual products they may produce, from weapons systems to crushing credit-card debt, appear to be irrelevant. There presumably could have been a "positive" Dutch East Indies Company just as there can be a "positive" Halliburton, J. P. Morgan Chase, Xe (formerly Blackwater), or Raytheon.

Corporate harmony means all quotas can be met. All things are possible. Profits can always increase. All we need is the right attitude. The highest form of personal happiness comes, people like Cooper-rider insist, when the corporation thrives. Corporate retreats are built around this idea of merging the self with the corporate collective. They often have the feel, as this conference does, of a religious revival. They are designed to whip up emotions. In their inspirational talks, sports stars, retired military commanders, billionaires, and self-help specialists such as Tony Robbins or Cooperrider claim that the impossible is possible. By thinking about things, by visualizing them, by wanting them, we can make them happen. It is a trick worthy of the con artist "Professor" Harold Hill in The Music Man who insists he can teach children to play instruments by getting them to think about the melody.

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. The corporations are the powers that determine identity. The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become. And the corporations offer the only route to personal fulfillment and salvation. 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."

Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis. Positive psychology-at least, as applied so broadly and unquestioningly to corporate relations-is a quack science. It throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed. Those who preach it serve the corporate leviathan. They are awash in corporate grants. They are invited to corporate retreats to assure corporate employees that they can find happiness by sublimating their selves into corporate culture.

Some of the author’s strongest criticism is in the chapter on The Illusion of America.

The words consent of the governed have become an empty phrase.

Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system. During this plundering we remained passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall, assured our tickets to success, prosperity, and happiness were waiting around the corner.

The government, stripped of any real sovereignty, provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations that lack moral restraints and a concept of the common good. America has become a facade. It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions. It represents a power and a democratic ethic it does not possess. It seeks to perpetuate prosperity by borrowing trillions of dollars it can never repay. The absurd folly of trying to borrow our way out of the worst economic collapse since the 1930s is the cruelest of all the recent tricks played on American citizens. We continue to place our faith in a phantom economy, one characterized by fraud and lies, which sustains the wealthiest 10 percent, Wall Street, and insolvent banks. Debt leveraging is not wealth creation. We are vainly trying to return to a bubble economy, of the sort that once handed us the illusion of wealth, rather than confront the stark reality that lies ahead. We are told massive borrowing will create jobs and re-inflate real estate values and the stock market. We remain tempted by mirages, by the illusion that we can, still, all become rich.
The corporate power that holds the government hostage has appropriated for itself the potent symbols, language, and patriotic traditions of the state. It purports to defend freedom, which it defines as the free market, and liberty, which it defines as the liberty to exploit. It sold us on the illusion that the free market was the natural outgrowth of democracy and a force of nature, at least until the house of cards collapsed and these corporations needed to fleece the taxpayers to survive. Making that process even more insidious, the real sources of power remain hidden. Those who run our largest corporations are largely anonymous to the mass of the citizens. The anonymity of corporate forces - an earthly Deus absconditus - makes them unaccountable. They have the means to hide and to divert us from examining the decaying structures they have created. As Karl Marx understood, capitalism when it is unleashed from government and regulatory control is a revolutionary force.

Hedges is not exactly positive about our future.

Mass culture is a Peter Pan culture. It tells 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, Hollywood, or Christian preachers, is a form of 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 off-shore penal colonies where it openly practices torture into the greatest democracy on earth.

The world that awaits us will be painful and difficult. We will be dragged back to realism, to the understanding that we cannot mold and shape reality according to human desires, or we will slide into despotism. We will learn to adjust our lifestyles radically, to cope with diminished resources, environmental damage, and a contracting economy, as well as our decline as a military power, or we will die clinging to our illusions. These are the stark choices before us.
But even if we fail to halt the decline, it will not be the end of hope.

The forces we face may be powerful and ruthless. They may have the capacity to plunge us into a terrifying dystopia, one where we will see our freedoms curtailed and widespread economic deprivation. But no tyranny in history has crushed the human capacity for love. And this love-unorganized, irrational, often propelling us to carry out acts of compassion that jeopardize our existence-is deeply subversive to those in power. Love, which appears in small, blind acts of kindness, manifested itself even in the horror of the Nazi death camps, in the killing fields of Cambodia, in the Soviet gulags, and in the genocides in the Balkans and Rwanda.

And, he ends on a message of hope:

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, including our own. Hope exists. It will always exist. It will not come through structures or institutions, nor will it come through nation-states, but it will prevail, even if we as distinct individuals and civilizations vanish. The power of love is greater than the power of death. It cannot be controlled. It is about sacrifice for the other-something nearly every parent understands-rather than exploitation. It is about honoring the sacred. And power elites have for millennia tried and failed to crush the force of love. Blind and dumb, indifferent to the siren calls of celebrity, unable to bow before illusions, defying the lust for power, love constantly rises up to remind a wayward society of what is real and what is illusion. Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.

The Wizard of Oz endures because of the fundamental allegory it represents. Dorothy (representing the common man), joins with the Tin Man (who represents business without a heart who, by the way, requires oil to work), the Straw Man (who represents the farmers without a brain) and the Lion (who represents leaders and politicians without any courage) go off on an adventure along the yellow brick road (gold) to find the Wizard in the Emerald City (money). The Wizard represents the elite in Hedges book of illusion, the ones who know it all and control everything through fear. In the movie, it is the dog, Toto , who pulls back the curtain to reveal that the wizard is a “humbug”. Ah, if it were only that simple.

Well, who among us will step forward to pull back the curtain? Actually many writers are doing that including Chris Hedges. More importantly, who or what within us will “pull back the curtains of our minds” to allow us to perceive the reality that confronts us?

In Edgar Allen Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom”, the main character is on a boat in the grip of a giant maelstrom (whirlpool). The ship is helplessly caught in the flow downward and its destiny is destruction. His brother lashes himself to the mast assuring his death. However, the main character observes that some smaller items caught in the maelstrom are not being sucked down and are rising. He ties himself to an empty barrel and jumps from the ship. The barrel moves upwards and he escapes the maelstrom.

It’s his powers of observation and insight that allows him to survive.

I’m in no position to critique this book. I don’t know if we’re past the tipping point and are on the avalanching down slope. I don’t think we are on all the issues facing us. What I do know is if we do nothing to alter our perception of reality and then act accordingly we will be in an irreversible slide. So I am committed to continue the process of self awakening, and to share what insights I may have.

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges, Nation Books, 2010, 232pp

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