NEW YORK — September 9, 2009. The long and narrow Revolution Bookstore in New York’s Chelsea was packed on September 9th when Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winning foreign correspondent who covered wars all over the world for 20 years, came to launch his new book, EMPIRE OF ILLUSION: THE END OF LITERACY AND THE TRIUMPH OF SPECTACLE. People that could not fit into the store listened outside in the street. He was introduced by Andy Zee who said that the book described today’s culture and the way it trains people not to think critically. He pointed out that in 2007 80% of the homes in this country did not read a book.
Chris Hedges began his presentation by talking about Michael Jackson as an example of the celebrity culture that has (not accidentally) been developed. In a celebrity culture we destroy what we cherish. Michael Jackson “carved his African-American face into a death mask”. He covered his pedophilia and fear of aging with an illusion of endless childhood. His funeral, filled with pop entertainment and watched by 31.1 million people, was a “variety show with a coffin”. The big finale.Stories about Britney Spears and O.J. Simpson are also examples of lurid dramas presented as news, mini dramas with unexpected endings. Human beings turned into a commodity by enablers, professional puppet makers. When you spend your life as a celebrity you never know who you are. We watch this, getting absorbed in the drama, and become totally unmindful of who we are and what our needs are.
The fantasy of celebrity culture is designed to have us chase illusions and divert us from fighting back. Last year 12 million people had plastic surgery. A moral nihilism is created where we want to see others fail. Decency has no value. People are cast aside in reality shows. Life is about the humiliation of those that oppose us. People are commodities to be discarded if they (we) fail. There is an incapacity for remorse. Image over substance. The cult of self, just get wealth and fame. How one gets there is irrelevant. This is the ethic of corporations, of banks, of Wall Street, of unfettered capitalism where freedom equals the free market.
American culture is being destroyed by mass corporate culture and being replaced with junk culture. Junk culture is being replaced with junk politics where nothing changes. Threats from abroad are being maximized and threats at home are minimized. In an inverted totalitarianism the economic dominates the political. The corporate state, he said, is a “slow motion coup d’etat”.
After Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam there was a decline in the American empire. The empire of production became an empire of consumption. Everything possible is outsourced.
When the country elected Obama they were voting for change but we will not get change from “brand Obama” because he will not threaten the core of the state. Those that do threaten are shut out of public view – think of Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich, and Cynthia McKinney. The corporate forces will not allow real reform because it would threaten the military-industrial complex.
Bill Clinton said that the Democrats had to ditch support from the labor unions – their support wasn’t needed because labor would always vote for Democrats. They had nowhere else to go. Clinton would go where the big money was. So, in 1994 we got NAFTA which hurt workers in the U.S. and drove 2 million Mexican farmers off their land. It was supposed to stop illegal immigration but the opposite happened. Many of the desperate farmers came here. The only ones helped by NAFTA were the corporations. Clinton also had a “welfare reform” policy that has been devastating to low income people.
There is a growing economic depression in the U.S. which has provided a pool of broken people who will work for anything. This is good for the corporations. There is a denial of reality – putting more money into the hands of corporations will heal the economy. Meanwhile, sections of this country look increasingly like a third world nation. Washington has become our Versailles. There is increasing political theater as people lose power. Washington is full of political and journalistic “courtiers”, people that will never change or expose anything. They are paid by corporations to represent the “smiley faces” of the corporate state. Look at the nature of the health reform debate – no one is representing the 20,000 citizens who died last year because they had no health insurance and, therefore, couldn’t afford health care.
Our anemic democracy can easily turn into a totalitarian state where the elite live behind walls and the rest of us live in desperation. In real figures one sixth of the country is now unemployed. When faced with a similar situation F.D. Roosevelt was very aware of the danger of unregulated capitalism He knew that fascism existed when the government was owned by a small group and that democracy required an acceptable standard of living. When there is widespread desperation the corporations demand increased security to repress citizens. Internal control means control of us. With today’s technological advancements this task is easier. We wind up with “mafia capitalism” and a “mafia political system”.
What is needed to counteract this, Hedges said, is a strong socialist movement to stand up to corporate power. If we are passive we will have militant totalitarianism. We have to start speaking in the language of class again. Not everyone is “middle class” – there are very many poor people and it is not their fault. Beware of globalization. It is a movement similar to the movement of the Christian right where there is a utopian vision of economic advantage for everyone. And globalization is supported by both parties. But to the power elite it is the “final culmination of their power”.
After the presentation someone asked, “What can we do about what you have just analyzed so well?” Hedges replied, we should step outside the system. We should support third party candidates that reflect our needs and interests. He said that the French believe that it isn’t the left’s job to take power – “our job is to make power afraid of us”.
On a personal note, while I have not read EMPIRE OF ILLUSION yet I have read several of his other books. Chris Hedges is a brilliant analyst who writes with unparalleled literacy and a moral code that may have been learned during his years as a seminary student. What he describes is very frightening. Is he right? Is that why there are so many reality shows on television that take place in courtrooms? Is that why Dr. Phil is so popular? Are the French right – why shouldn’t the left be trying to gain real power? My mind was defensibly searching for ways to negate his words, to calm myself. When I got home I turned on the news to find out what Obama said about health insurance in his address to both houses of congress. As I clicked from station to station I discovered that the lead story was about Derek Jeter breaking Lou Gehrig’s record. Only after that was Obama’s speech mentioned briefly. There was no denying Chris Hedges’ words – we are being distracted by celebrity in order to divert us.