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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