Sunday, August 23, 2009


I’ve just come across a review of a new book by the always-worthwhile Chris Hedges. The book is entitled “Empire of Illusions: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle”.

I have ordered a copy, will read it as soon as it comes in, and I’ll Post on it.

But meanwhile the review itself offers enough for a few comments.

The reviewer – a free-lance writer – notes that “It’s tough to smack slumbering readers awake when discontent is the new content”.

Who can deny it? What had originally started out forty or so years ago as a little increased emphasis on folks’ feelings just to grab readers’ or viewers’ attention has now bloated into ‘feelings as news’. You can see it on TV news: at a large fire, reporters who no longer know what an ‘alarm’ is or how to tell an ‘engine’ from a ‘ladder’ company, spend their time – often long after the fire is out – getting “reactions” from the bystanders. How many times is it news to hear “It was terrible” or “I can’t believe it?” … ?

Any reportorial analysis of the significance of the event must take a back-seat to playing up the “reactions”. Indeed, there may be no analysis at all; whatever conclusions you make or whatever facts you report or whatever dots you connect may ‘offend’ somebody: an advertiser, a public agency whose PR office you depend on for the faxes that the station or the paper calls ‘news’ now, or this or that segment of your ‘consumers’ who don’t like what they’re hearing and seeing. But you’re always safe just letting folks repeat – as will ever be – that it was ‘terrible’ or ‘unbelievable’.

So you go for ‘spectacle’ rather than for ‘content’ until you reach the point where the public – after several generations of kids have been raised on this stuff and learn no substantive history in school let alone any critical thinking skills – can’t tell the difference between a ‘feeling’ and a ‘thought’, ‘content’ and ‘spectacle’.

And it doesn’t take long – and didn’t in America’s case – before some shrewdies were purposely manufacturing ‘spectacles’ just to keep the feeling-besotted public under the greatly mistaken impression that it is keeping on top of the news by joining in the electronic feel-fest.

A public that can no longer analyze and think, that can no longer judge, is no longer a Citizenry and cannot function as The People.

And as I’ve said before, if you don’t have a People, do you need a Constitution to curb and channel the voracious power of ‘government’? Do you even need a Republic? If all of these folks are such befuddled and addled lumps, do you even need a democracy?

This is an age-old problem. Can people be trusted to function reliably as The People? On the one hand, since the beginning of Western political thought there has been an awareness that most folks never really to achieve a level of intellectual and personal maturity that permits them to be entrusted with serious and large matters. Even Freud – musing on just how many folks might actually use his new-fangled psychoanalysis to achieve a certain amount of freedom from their psychologically hobbling interior dynamics – decided that most folks would in that regard remain “trash”.

Woodrow Wilson, for all his high thoughts about America, didn’t have too much confidence in Americans – and saw it as the moral responsibility of the country’s ‘elites’ to take the reins of the growing government authority of the early 20th century.

Of course, nowadays being ‘elite’ means that you ‘get it’, and the Left and the Right all along have had their own versions of just who qualifies as ‘elite’. But there was a time within living memory when it was neither the Robber Barons nor the Progressives who were ‘elite’; instead, the commonly accepted ideal was closer to some sort of serious adult maturity and awareness, rather than any mere externally-derived ‘status’ or badge that denoted you as being ‘elite’.

But the past forty years have pretty much put paid to all that. Now you are ‘elite’ depending not on maturity (we recall the recent Henry Louis Gates tantrum, which that worthy proclaimed as being in the service of “the downtrodden of the earth”) but rather on your status and which ‘side’ you are on and whether you ‘get it’ or you ‘just don’t get it’. Whether what you ‘get’ is some Left version of Correctness or some Fundamentalist version of Jeeezuzzz or some Rightist version of interminable military adventure is not really the issue in matters of eliteness now.

But the Framers were nervous about ‘elites’ – as opposed to sober maturity and a certain amount of what they ‘quaintly’ called ‘character’. Not that most of them harbored any illusions about the foibles of humanity and the numerous weaknesses to which the species is heir. With the exception of the ever-optimistic Thomas Jefferson, they were skittish about ‘democracy’.

But they were even more skittish about, indeed implacably opposed to, that tyranny that only an organized government can exercise, whether headed by a King or an oligarchy or what-have-you.

To imagine a feeling-addled ‘mobocracy’ in thrall to an engorged government that was merely the political plaything of this or that ‘elite’ … that would have been Fright Night For Real to the Framers.

Lincoln made much of The People. Not that each and every citizen was capable of sitting in the Executive Office.* Rather, that Lincoln trusted in the ability of the majority of them to perceive what is Right and Good, and that when deliberating together and then casting their individual votes, there was a decent chance that they would choose rightly. And at any rate, he like the Framers realized that there was no chance of a ‘perfect’ government in this world or among this imperfect species, and that the best that could be soberly hoped for was that decent and mature folk, individually and as a deliberating community, were the best chance in a risk-ridden History of decently grounding the affairs of a nation and its government.

That was the risk inherent in the Framers’ challenge and in their solution. It was no ‘risk-free’ world, no risk-free History, in which they were operating.

Life, they saw, was Risky Business from the get-go. And so was History.

Our present unhappy state of affairs comprises an increasingly addled and incompetent citizenry beset by ‘elites’ of either Left or Right, appealing to the feelings of the crowds in order to stampede them in the desired direction. And these ‘elites’ are convinced that since there is no Right and no Wrong, then political power is all – and if there is going to have to be political power in the country, than they want their ‘elite’ thought and policy to prevail.

So the arranging of serviceable ‘spectacle’ is the order of the day. If folks cannot completely be distracted by the soap-opera adventures and doings of assorted celebrities, then soap-opera type ‘spectacles’ will be manufactured to reduce large public matters to something that will help stampede the herd in the desired direction.

The reviewer notes approvingly Hedges’ flailing of “positive psychology” – that particular brand of American optimism, often shading over into outright hucksterism and quackery, that assures folks that they only have to ‘feel good about themselves and about things’.

Well, confidence is a good thing. And if you’ve achieved a certain level of maturity then you’re going to notice that you now have it. And with that confidence you can face the challenges – personal and national – that each day brings. But there is no short-cut to it. And while there are many pills that will claim – with more or less honesty – to dispel ‘depression’, there is no pill that will induce ‘maturity’. Nor is there any guarantee that as they are freed from ‘depression’ individuals will automatically become more ‘mature’. If indeed “ripeness is all”, then there is no magic elixir to eliminate ‘un-ripeness’.

The reviewer quotes Hedges: “Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die”. As do individuals.

Of course, We can legitimately ask a variant of Pontius Pilate’s question: And what is Reality?
Is it what is there for the five physical senses to perceive and nothing else? Does it include anything that is not accessible to the five physical senses? Are Ideals part of Reality or are they a form of Illusion?

Even if you say that Ideals are a form of ‘necessary’ or ‘constructive’ Illusion, you’ve still cut the ground out from under any justification for humans to strive towards them. Humans are notoriously unable to sustain motivation towards fantasies – unless they’re a bit gaga.

And are all Idealistic persons gaga? (I won’t even get into what happens when you go beyond Idealism as a philosophical proposition and get into spiritual beliefs.) Are all Visions merely the result of “an undigested bit of beef”?

Can you sustain a nation – can this nation and this People sustain ongoing life – merely on the basis of a consciously-embraced mass delusion? The last serious effort in recent world history was supposed to last a thousand years and barely made it past twelve, if you recall.

If it is all illusion, no matter how constructive, then why fight for it? Why struggle for it? Why work for it? Why defend an illusion of liberty from government encroachment? Why stand up for an illusion of a self?

The reviewer concludes by sharing a disappointment: Hedges has neither encouraged nor exhorted. Indeed, to read Hedges is to get a whiff of the odiferous awareness of decline. And shouldn’t a good writer – especially an American one – ‘encourage’?

I’ll let you know what I think about that when I’ve read the book (in a couple of days, then).

But it would be less than mature to avoid pointing out to everyone, as Hedges apparently does, that We are in a heepa-trubble. And while it’s not time for the lifeboats (there aren’t any anyway), nobody aboard Our great ship can do anybody any good by simply trying to ‘think positive’. Damage has been done that cannot be repaired merely by adjusting one’s attitude, by changing one’s perceptions. The tilt of the deck cannot be made level simply by holding your head at precisely the Correct angle.

Which cuts the bottom out of the illusions of a number of ‘elites’.

Which probably isn’t a bad thing at all.


*A very large and prestigious Roman Catholic religious Order recently elected a new Superior General. The outgoing SG, a pleasant old person, surrounded by the elite members who came to Rome from all over the world to participate and hob-nob and elect, burbled words to the effect that ‘there are x-thousand members of the Order, and half of them could do the job of General’. Which makes you wonder why the Order then had to spend millions to go through an election process; a mail-in lottery would have worked as well.

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