Friday, August 28, 2009


As I had mentioned in my Post “Chris Hedges and Illusions” of August 23, I was going to read Chris Hedges’s new book, “Empire of Illusions”.

That’s done, and it’s prompted many thoughts.

He opens by quoting 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”.

It is a natural human tendency to want to ease one’s way through this Vale of Tears by not-thinking about the worst stuff. In fact, one of the great questions facing the Framers – and an indication of just how much of an ‘experiment’ their vision of America really was – is this: are most human beings ‘avoiders of reality’ by natural predisposition or is it that any and many might in a period of difficulty retreat from ‘reality’?

Thus: Are you expecting to build a democratic Republic – where The People keep an eye on the government that works for them – on a bunch of human beings (the citizens) most of whom are really not suited to facing reality and avoid it as a matter of temperament and natural predisposition? Or on a bunch of folks who are more or less up to the tasks of facing reality except in periods of significant stress?

They never solved this. They tried to construct a governmental machinery of checks and balances, setting significant boundaries by which neither public passions nor government schemes would break loose and run away with the whole country.

It’s here that one of my favorite images – that of the captain and crew of a ship – seems highly relevant. On a ship you are surrounded by ‘reality’ and you really can never forget it. The ship is a fragile thing with lots of moving parts that break or fail or a hull that can be punctured so that water can get in. And it is even more fragile and puny compared to the huge forces surrounding it: the sea and its moods and awesome power, the weather and (with sailing ships especially) the wind.

Each of these possibilities – or several of them acting in concert or in sequence – can bring immediate consequences of a potentially fatal nature, and any problems have to be spotted, acknowledged, and successfully dealt with immediately. There’s no room for ‘civilian’ or ‘landlubber’ dawdling in avoidance or distractions; nor even any margin for error by taking the wrong action to solve the problem(s).

In that way, life on the sea and aboard a ship ‘keeps you honest’, in a very existential sense. You have to keep an eye on all the interacting factors that can affect you, you have to take the right action as soon as a problem is identified – and you’d best identify it sooner rather than later, and you have to keep at the task no matter how much your ‘feelings’ might prompt you to run away or despair.

And there’s nowhere to run away to anyway.

Passengers, on the other hand, are a different breed. Many are landlubbers and civilians and not familiar with the hard realities of the sea. They may simply assume – strange as it may seem – that they are merely on something as solid and reliable (for those who have never experienced an earthquake) as ‘land’, and see no reason to allow the sterner realities and emotions required of sea-going life to interfere with their more relaxed, laid-back ‘land’ attitudes and their leisure and their comforts and their customary recreations. And their many distractions. And their many preoccupations which have never had to yield in their awareness to vital and urgent emergencies demanding from them significant exertions under life-threatening pressure.

It is the passengers who may well elect to deal with a storm at sea by retreating to the ‘saloon’ or the deep innards of the ship – the larger she is the more opportunity for ‘hiding’ – and keeping up the appearances of their ‘normal’ life and awareness until things calm down outside. And surely in our commercialized leisure industry, cruise ship companies try to sell the sailing experience as if it were a ‘land’ vacation with all the familiar amenities, recreations, distractions … and security that one might expect at, say, Disney World.

The question for the American Republic and its democracy is whether the citizenry are merely passengers along for the ride (the government being the crew, the President perhaps the ‘captain’), or whether the passengers are indeed part of the crew (indeed, in the Constitutional vision, the passengers are actually the ‘owners’ of the vessel).

The generations of the ages before commercial steel motorized vessels, those who made their crossings in small wooden sailing vessels, would have realized the vitality of this imagery: there are few places to hide from the challenges posed by oceanic ‘reality’ on a small wooden ship, and if things take a bad turn every human being on the ship – every ‘soul’ – would be expected to help keep her afloat.

This is a bit of wisdom ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ to earlier generations that is not available to more recent generations.

And of course, part of the ‘discipline’ of the sea is that you cannot simply keep your eyes and mind alert for when a problem arises; you have to train yourself and keep yourself and your skills at a rather high and sharp level of competence so as to prevent many potential problems from developing in the first place.

It’s not a bad way to conduct one’s life as a Citizen, really. Nor is it a bad way to conduct one’s life as a mature and adult human being.

But since most folks don’t actually travel on the sea – except for sailors, merchant and naval – then in these modern times it would require some training and education into this ‘mystery’ and its ‘disciplines’.

But a lot of elements, especially nowadays, interfere with that: First, there’s that matter of whether most folks are capable of living life so intently and intensely and with such acute and abiding awareness of the risks and potential threats and problems and challenges, and – indeed – of the ‘stakes’ which genuinely make human life itself an actual ‘drama’. There is a built in ‘adventure’ to conducting a human life – marshaling your own self so as to be ready to deal with the myriad challenges posed by weakness (your own or others’) and great forces moving according to their own or unknown dynamics – and sometimes acting together in concert.

Second, there are the many opportunities for distraction, especially in a mass society with an emphasis not on disciplined production but rather on creating and consuming leisure opportunities. Even if you aren’t predisposed to distraction, it’s all around you.

Third, there is government’s natural tendency – if left to its own devices by its citizens – to want to be left alone to pursue its use of its powers without interference.

Fourth, there is ‘elitism’, whereby certain groups might feel that they ‘get it’ and know best how things are to be done, and – if left to their own devices – will want to pursue their illuminations and visions for the population unhindered by the ignorant, un-elite ‘sheep’ of the citizenry.

Fifth, there is an emphasis away from adulthood, maturity, and what used to be called ‘character’. Character is that thing that keeps adults working to fulfill a responsibility or even a duty even when the ‘average’ person would simply say To hell with it or Whatever and then simply walk (or run) away … into distraction and illusion, perhaps.

This, of course would be especially lethal if an ‘alternative’ knowledge was raised up to the effect that adulthood and maturity and character are merely illusions themselves, and insidious ones, designed by oppressors to keep the oppressed oppressed.

And if all or most of these things managed to come together, working in a synergy, then the ‘ship’ would be in big trouble indeed: there would be many lethal problems aboard her, and it becomes that much harder to solve them and stay seaworthy.

Then of course, if ‘outside’ there were storms and rocks and shoals – international events and developments – then things would get even more dicey. Lethally so.

And of course, there is a terribly large possibility that the worse things got, the more folks aboard – including perhaps crew and even captain and command staff – would seek the cheap and quick consolations of distraction – through illusions. Like the tyke who faces a real challenge by closing the eyes, blocking the ears, and repeating ‘it’s not there, it’s not there’. Perhaps if the challenge were merely a bad dream, that would be true – but if the challenge is a speeding car or a mad dog charging across the yard … well, you see the problem.

Hedges fears that far too many in American society are now mired – and willingly – in illusion. In order to escape from the challenges of sustaining a self that can sustain a constructive and effective response to very real challenges in the modern world. And, of course, the more one retreats into illusion, the less competent society becomes and the worse the real problems – not only unsolved but ignored and avoided.

I can’t see how he’s wrong.

And worse, he quotes Yeats: “We had fed the heart on fantasy, the heart’s grown brutal from the fare”.

In an age when there is so much concern for the effect of junk food – especially on the young – it stuns to see just how much intellectual and – I’ll say it – spiritual junk-food is force-fed to the young, and to all of those who are vulnerable to the sugary seductive confections of Illusion and its sibling, Appearance (they rate a capital letter the way they’re being used here).

And what Yeats is driving at is a huge chunk of wisdom that has been tossed overboard: there is junk-food in the moral and spiritual realm.

Worse, a steady diet of it can deform the human spirit, individually and in a society. And not simply deform it into some victimized and ‘unfulfilled’ unripe half-adult, but rather into a brutal being operating at the level of the more bestial human potentials rather than at the level that the more ‘evolved’ or ‘mature’ human being is capable of.

But of course then, if this is so and Yeats is onto something here, then that implies that there is a better place within the human self: that within the self there exist many potentials, and that some are closer to bestial and others are higher up – closer to engaging the powers and potentials of the best that the human spirit – and certainly those marvelous frontal lobes – can offer.

All of this, to elite ears nowadays, sounds rather ‘hierarchical’ and ‘essentialist’ and – gack! – Idealist. But there it is.

To refuse to see such complexity in the human spirit – and thus in the dynamics required for its full and mature flowering – is to engage in an Illusion to fundamental as to be toxic and even lethal to any possibility that individual humans and their societies and cultures have of improving human affairs. Because the old materialist idea – espoused by Marx among many others – that one can only improve the human estate through political and material action – at whatever cost – is wrong. And has proven itself bloodily wrong in the past century.

Marx has a lot of accurate insights and diagnoses of modern (not even he could have imagined post-modern) society, but his solutions leave much to be desired. His Materialism – applicable to both individuals and societies – was among the most toxic of his solutions. His Materialism – applicable to both individuals and societies – was among the most toxic of his solutions. He thought that all of this life can be reduced to the material world – the world accessible to the five physical senses, the world that we can see (the world Plato would have called the world of Appearances, flickering on the Cave wall).

Surely, the Flattening of the human ‘world’ is the most essentially wrong and toxic. If the human self has no vertical dimension within – no ladder or hierarchy of possibilities which has to be climbed if maturity is to be achieved – then the human self is Flattened. And with it any genuine ‘drama’ and ‘agon’ through which a self is tempered and tested and ripened and matured.

And if the world of human affairs has no vertical dimension, then it too is Flattened.

Of course, if there is a vertical within the human, then is there not also a vertical outside of the human? If there is some higher potential and possibility in the human, then is there a higher dimension of reality beyond the material world itself?

This brings you quickly to the matter of ‘God’ or at least some Ideal dimension (Plato’s theory) which can anchor this material world. Perhaps even, in the Christian take on it, an Ideal that is also personal (not just a Force), and mature (not one of the whacky or petty Greek gods), and benevolently disposed toward humans (as opposed to demon-gods and destructor-gods … and goddesses).

Surely, the elimination of God – in the realm of elite conceptions anyway – serves only to Flatten the human self and the human world.

And to un-ground them, un-anchor them.

Leaving the human spirit with no solid Ground, which reduces it to the brutal and to its own latent bestialness.

Because if there is no higher potential in the self, the human self remains mired in its ur-primalness and primitiveness and bestialness. And if there is no higher potential than the material world, then why go through all the effort to mature anyway? A Flat world almost guarantees a Flat and bestial individual self, since there is no reason or motivation to climb the ladder.

The two Flatnesses feed each other in an increasingly bestial synergy.

And if there is no authority or power other than the human in this dimension, then the human is saddled with a vast and unbearable burden: the burden of not only controlling or guiding human events, but of generating and sustaining their ultimate meaning.

This is an impossible task for humans. And for governments – which are merely human organizations. Although they may delude themselves into thinking that they are superhuman in their competence and authority. Which they are not. Though they may try like Hell.

Hedges brings up Plato’s allegory of The Cave from “The Republic”: a bunch of humans who have been born into a cave, chained there on short chains, in the darkness; their only awareness of ‘reality’ is from flickering images they see on the inner wall of the cave, thrown there by the light of a world they have never known and do not know exists. Hedges notes that “they believe that these flickering images are reality”.

If, Plato says, one of these folks – prisoners, truly – manages to get free and get to the entrance to the cave, he is in for a world of pain. First, he has to adapt himself to the painful light, and then the shock of seeing that there is a larger, brighter, wider world beyond anything he had ever imagined.

But then second, if he then goes back down into the cave and reports what he has seen – then his pain will really begin. He will be disbelieved. Worse, he will be assaulted – in retaliation for his assault on the beliefs that have held together the lives of the other prisoners. Robert Frost, I think, didn’t quite get all of it when he said that there’s something in humans that doesn’t like a fence or a wall. If the fence and the wall are all a human has ever known, s/he isn’t going to take kindly to have that wall or fence taken away – even if it’s being taken away enables the revelation of a larger world. Perhaps especially if it reveals a wider world.

Because there’s something in humans – in their less mature potentials – that doesn’t like shock and exertion – including the type that liberates the self into a wider and more accurately perceived reality.

Because each liberation requires exertion. Which is not something that the ‘liberators’ of recent times like to mention. ‘Liberation’ – the liberation that they in their elite wisdom choose to impose – can come on the cheap, for nothing, with no heavy lifting.

How can it be surprising that the government is continuously and with increasing boldness encroaching on ‘privacy’ when there are fewer and fewer mature individuals who have achieved a ‘private life’ at all? It was precisely the revolutionary aim of Lenin and Stalin and Mao, and the Fascist aim of Hitler and Mussolini, that there be no ‘private life’ – that the life of the ‘community’ and of the Volk (so much more easily controlled by the government) would squash out that mysterious and unpredictable realm wherein the human spirit, communing with itself and with God knows what ‘spirits’ or Spirit, might bring forth from its treasure-house Truth.

Because in the empire of illusion, Truth is treason and the enemy of the powers of this Flattened world. And a lot of folks would like to keep it that way.

The Brits knew that when in 1940 Churchill offered them the “broad, sunlit uplands” of a strengthened freedom, they were going to have to climb up to them. And, in the event, when they got there, they then faced … 1946. Which posed its own challenges and its own hard slog.

So Plato figured that most humans would prefer to remain in their Cave(s).

Which is why he wasn’t much for democracy – there weren’t enough hardy human spirits to sustain it.

And why he was against ‘the arts’: they were simply distractions, potentially seductive illusions. And Illusion was the great enemy of humanity’s greatest potentials. Theater, poetry, painting, sculpture – he feared what humans would do with them: run from their real challenges deeper into illusion. Away from ‘character’ and into ‘celebrity’, away from the hard slog of living and developing and sustaining your own life and the lives of your society-mates and into the escapist fantasy of your illusions and delusions, your avoidances and escapes ‘from it all’. There’s something in humans – unless they are really committed to their own Mastery and Command* - that accepts slavery to Illusion, and to those who would claim – through the most treacherous illusion – that they could protect everyone else from the hard slog and the shocks and the challenges.**

Slavery is – alas – preferable to genuine personal exertion, he thought, for the vast majority of humans.

Orwell saw as much in ‘Animal Farm’.

But Hedges then usefully contrasts Orwell with the lesser known (to Americans, certainly – a movie was never made about his work) thinker, Aldous Huxley, a relative contemporary of Orwell.

Where Orwell feared that government would try to keep information from people, Huxley feared that people would be so saturated with illusory ‘information’ that they wouldn’t know they were being deprived. Where Orwell feared that government would ban books, Huxley feared that people wouldn’t want to read them. Where Orwell feared that truth would be concealed, Huxley feared that truth would be drowned in peoples’ fears of learning the truth. Where Orwell feared a culture captive to government, Huxley feared a people captive to triviality (precisely a point – triviality, even among the wealthy – that piqued Edith Wharton’s acute and incisive vision).

And where Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us, Huxley feared that what we (wrongly) love will ruin us.

In an American and Western culture where celebrity and ‘entertainment’ and ‘spectacle’ are widely popular, and reinforced by a corporate and consumerist pandering to people’s lowest potentials, and a government desire to keep people ‘happy’ and distracted … Huxley’s concerns seem terrible in their prescience (as was Ben Franklin’s: You’ve got a democracy … if you can keep it).

Indeed, it can well be said now that Orwell’s controlling government has found that pandering to those lower potentials that Huxley saw is the way to ‘govern’.

God save the United States.

But perhaps God is an illusion. And then who will save Us?

The reviewer I had considered in my Post about Hedges on August 23 was disappointed that Hedges hadn’t made him feel good. And as I said in that Post, it’s quite possible that a too-simple ‘optimism’ would be exactly the wrong thing to offer at this point in Our national saga.

We do not at this point need ‘positive psychology’. The problems – and their name is Legion – now bethumping Us are verrrrry real, and it can’t be a matter of making things feel better by – well, feeling better.

‘Attitude’ is indeed important, but it’s got to be an attitude that embraces True Grit, if I may. Blood, toil, tears and sweat – We must be prepared to go up on deck, see what’s happening and what’s already happened, and resolve to expend a great deal of all of those. Otherwise We shall “meanly lose” this marvelous America that was entrusted to Us.

Forget ‘good times’. It is enough to seek for Our “finest hour” – and with a ‘reality’ drama like that, there will be no need to indulge in the profoundly weird national obsession with escaping from ‘reality’ by wildly embracing the pathetic posturings of ‘reality-TV’.


*There is a book called “The Art of Prison” that spells this out at great length. It was an on-demand book from a decade or so ago.

**I don’t agree with Plato’s conclusion about the arts. He’s right about how they can be misused, and how cheap ‘art’ can indeed pander to the lowest form of entertainment. But genuine art can call humans to their higher potentials – and that makes it indispensable and invaluable to the human project and to any human society and culture. Nor should a government ever be allowed to take over ‘art’; society and culture, rooted in the individual human spirit’s attraction to its own higher potentials, should never yield to such government intrusion.

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