Transcript: Chris Hedges, "Empire of Illusion", 21 July 2009
Thom interviews Chris Hedges about his book "Empire of Illusion", 21 July 2009
Thom: Is the world dying? Is our culture dying? Is this mess one that we have created ourselves? Is this something that is unique to the United States? Is it planet wide? What’s going on here? Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winner, his new book, "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle." And for our listeners in Portland, listening on AM 620 KPOJ, Chris is going to be at Powell’s tonight on Burnside, the legendary bookstore, at 7:30 tonight, and it should be a lot of fun. But he’s in the studio with us live here today. Chris, welcome to the show.
Chris Hedges: Thank you, Thom.
Thom: So great to have you here. In synopsis you paint a rather dire portrait of a bread and circus America.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. It’s the story of an America that has transferred its allegiance to spectacle, to pseudo-events, that no longer can determine what is real and what is illusion, that confuses how they’re made to feel with knowledge, that confuses propaganda with ideology, and that’s exceedingly dangerous. All totalitarian societies are image-based societies, and that’s what our society has become.
Thom: Already. We’re past the point of saying we’re at a threshold. You’re saying we have passed the threshold.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. I think that you can easily, there’s enough indicators within the culture, to illustrate that print-based culture, those people who deal in nuance and ambiguity and ideas are a minority.
Chris Hedges: Sure, but the fact is shows like yours, in the cultural mainstream, are marginal.
Thom: We’re anomalies. We’re the exception that proves the rule.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. You’re not interrupting me, you’re not insulting me, you’re not shouting. It’s not carnival barking. You use the airwaves to actually try and discuss ideas and allow your guests to flesh out opinions, opinions that you may not even agree with. That’s very different from almost everything we see. And look, newspapers are dying, the publishing industry is dying, you have 42 million Americans who are illiterate. You have another 50 million Americans who are semi literate, meaning they read at a 4th of 5th grade level. And then you have people who are functionally literate, but they don’t read. There are tremendous consequences for that, because as you well know, having worked in the advertising industry, these images are not benign. They are skillfully orchestrated and manipulated by for-profit corporations to get us to do a lot of things that are not in our interests. And of course, this all ties into the rise of celebrity culture, well on display with our 3 week coverage of the death of Michael Jackson.
Thom: Right, yeah, the whole circus around him. So how do we fix this? How do we recover some sense, I mean you read DeTocqueville, you know, DeTocqueville's story, Democracy in America is the title, 1838. And he only spent 6 months here, he was in his late 30s, French nobleman, came over, looked around, blew his mind. The average farmer was as literate as the average scholar.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. That’s the tragedy, isn’t it?
Thom: Yeah. And I would submit to you that while we could go back to the founding of the modern P.R. industry, and Woodrow Wilson, and you know all that kind of stuff, in the 19 teens, that the idea of corporate personhood has played a big role in this. The rise of corporate dominance and the theft of human rights, essentially, has played a big role in this. And that it really began going downhill fast when the Reagan administration came to power. And particularly when they decided that they were going to change our schools.
Chris Hedges: Yeah. Although I think that, you know, it’s been decades in the making. And I think that we have seen profound cultural transformation in American culture, or cultures. Because, you know, we once had distinct regional and ethnic cultures, these were all systematically destroyed in the early part of the 20th century by corporate interests who used mass communications as well as an understanding of human psychology to turn consumption into an inner compulsion. And with that we lost the old values of thrift, of regional identity that had it’s own iconography, esthetic expression and history, as well as diverse immigrant traditions.
Thom: But, you know, Chris, I guarantee it there’s somebody listening right now going, “These young kids these days! They don’t understand!” You know, kind of thing. And is it possible that there is some redeeming value in this new culture that has been created out of corporatocracy and what I would argue is a form of fascism, basically an external control of our government? Or is it something that we just need to pull down and start over? And if so, how?
Chris Hedges: Well, Sheldon Wolin, the great political philosopher who taught at Berkeley and later Princeton, now 86, has written his sort of magnum opus called, “Democracy Incorporated.” And he argues that we live in a system that he calls inverted totalitarianism. The classical totalitarianism, in classical totalitarianism, like fascism or communism, economics is always subordinate to politics. But in inverted totalitarianism, politics is subordinate to economics. And with a rise of the consumer society, with the commodification of everything, including human beings and natural resources, you have built into it a form, an inevitable form of self annihilation. Because nothing has intrinsic value when society is no longer recognized as sacred. You exhaust everything for their, for its ability to make money. No matter how much human misery you create, no matter how much you go, how far you go to destroy the ecosystem that is sustaining the human species. And that with the rise of celebrity culture, of consumer culture, and on federate capitalism, you get what Benjamin Demott has called, I think quite correctly, junk politics.
Thom: Yeah. And we have a junk politics junk culture. And I think perhaps the most important point you just made is, and we just talked about for the last hour, is this loss of a sense of the sacred. And, you know, it’s interesting, I think some months ago I had you on, and I was taking the atheist position and we were having this debate because in the previous hour I had had an atheist on and I had taken the religious position and had a debate, my reality is a little bit of both, and between heart and mind, I guess, to use Jefferson’s old letter to his girlfriend in France. How do we, it seems to me that we are wired for the sacred. And that there is still, within the zeitgeist of America, within the soul of America, there is still this belief, that for example, the constitution is something that is sacred. That the founding ideals of the enlightenment are sacred. And I’m using that word in its broadest sense. Secular religion of America, as it were. Some people call it American exceptionalism and ridicule it, but I think that in that, setting aside the two major parties, in that in citizen movements, we can perhaps recapture those original dreams. Am I just being hopelessly optimistic?
Chris Hedges: No, no. The sacred, understanding the sacred, is absolutely key. And although I don’t like the new atheists, you know, I must throw in that almost any orthodox believer would consider me an atheist and lead, the London Review of Books when they reviewed "I Don't Believe in Atheists" began by saying I was a non-believer.
Chris Hedges: But what does tie me to, and to you, is that utter importance of the sacred. And you know Karl Polanyi, this great economist in 1944, wrote a book called "The Great Transformation" in which he said that a society that no longer recognizes the sacred, that exhausts everything for profit, always kills itself. And I think that’s what we’re seeing. And as an economist, he actually used the word sacred. That human beings have an intrinsic worth, that the natural world has an intrinsic worth, beyond it’s potential to generate profit.
Thom: And this has nothing to do with religion.
Chris Hedges: No.
Thom: That’s why I said. This is resacrilizing America.
Chris Hedges: Right.
Thom: And thus, perhaps, to the extent that we’re an example to the world, perhaps saving the world. I mean these are big words.
Chris Hedges: We live in a corporate state. We live in a state that no longer responds to the interests of its citizens, but does the bidding of corporations. There is no shortage of examples of that, from the largest transference of wealth upwards in American history, to the so-called healthcare debate, where for profit healthcare industries are literally profiting off of death, any debate about healthcare must begin from the factual understanding that the for profit healthcare industry is the problem. Then we can debate what we do. But unfortunately, and many, many citizens know that, across the floor, but we can’t have it because we are completely controlled. We’ve undergone a kind of coup d‘etat in slow motion. We live in a kind of inverted totalitarianism where the façade of democracy and the constitution are held up as an ideal but the actual levers of power are driven by very destructive forces.
Thom: And we need to take them on. Chris Hedges, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” And for our listeners in Portland, he’ll be tonight at Powell’s on Burnside, 7:30. “Empire of Illusion”, brilliant book. Chris, thank you.
Chris Hedges: Thank you, Thom.
Thom: Thanks for dropping by. Coming up next, did Congressman Steve Buyer really suggest a tax or a surcharge on sex? We call it the republican sex tax. We’ll be right back.
Thom: And back to Chris Hedges' point, and the larger point of is the planet melting down, are we melting down, and is it because of the way we think? Is it because of our culture? And if so, how do we fix our culture, frankly? This story, from Agence France Presse, Fish are shrinking in response to global warming." "Fish have lost half their average body mass and smaller species are making up a larger proportion of European fish stocks." Why? Well originally they thought it was because we were over fishing, we were pulling out the big fish. Turns out, it may be true in some places, but what’s happening is that say the 5 year old fish or 10 year old fish that 20 years ago used to be, at 10 years old used to be a 10 pound fish, now at 10 years old it’s a 7 pound fish. "Smaller fish tend to produce fewer eggs," they write in this article on AFP, "They also provide less sustenance for predators."
Now, for those of you not familiar with scientific language, that’s you and me. We are predators in the fish chain, fish food chain. That’s us. "They also provide less sustenance for predators - including humans - which could have significant implications for the food chain and ecosystem". And human life. "A similar shrinking effect was recently documented in Scottish sheep and Daufresne said," this is the researcher, Martin Daufresne of the Public Agricultural and Environmental Research Institute in Lyon, France. He said, "it is possible that global warming could have "a significant impact on organisms in general." "
Life, in order to adapt itself to our presence, our toxic presence, at 7 billion people, or 6 and change, is getting smaller, we’re getting bigger. We are the largest mass of protoplasm, single species mass of protoplasm on this planet, and that by the way has only been the case for about 25 years. Before that, it was termites. Termites were the largest single species mass of protoplasm on the planet. You don’t see so many of them, but there’s a whole lot of them underground. But we are now, there is more human flesh than any other kind of flesh, as it were, on Earth.
"Earlier research has already established that fish have shifted their geographic ranges and their migratory and breeding patters in response to rising water temperatures. It has also been established that warmer regions tend to be inhabited by smaller fish". And the big fish are the cold water fish. Are we moving to a planet of guppies and minnows? "long-term surveys of fish populations in rivers, streams and the Baltic and North Seas" and studies on plankton and bacteria have found all these things. "They found the individual species lost an average of 50 percent of their body mass over the past 20 to 30 years". That’s scary stuff.
Transcribed by Suzanne Roberts, Portland Psychology Clinic.