Chris Hedges, who spoke at the Illahee lectures in 2008, was in town last week talking about his new book “Empire of Illusion.” He started off with a lengthy riff on the media’s obsession with Michael Jackson, what this may have done to Jackson, and all the important stuff we’re missing while we obsess on the Michael Jacksons of the world.
The book itself is vintage Hedges. Morally grounded, polemical, and engaging in its keen eye for detail. Hedges’ core thesis is that we’ve fallen into an information idiocy trap that’s going to be very difficult to climb out of.
Hedges looks at professional wrestling, the porn industry and the Ivy League, among other things, as symptomatic of our culture of narcissism and infantilism.
He recalls the days when professional wrestling was all about heroes and villains – Captain so-and-so versus the bad guys. In the 1950s and 1960s, the villains were German and Japanese. In the 1970s, U.S. hero wrestlers fought Soviet Bloc foes, and by the 1980s red-blooded American were going up against “the sheik” and other crafty Muslims. Of course it was all an illusion. Off stage, these mortal enemies were colleagues, if not always friends. They had to be or someone would be seriously hurt. But the kids and underdeveloped adults in the audience bought into the fantasy.
Fast-forward to 2009, when we don’t worship pro wrestlers as heroes, but rather identify with them. Their maudlin trials and tribulations are staged to reflect our own challenges, as they wander from one dysfunctional relationship to another, usually with each-others’ public paramours, hit the depths of self-destruction and depression, and then rise Phoenix-like to conquer their personal demons and their foes in the ring. It’s no longer about good and evil. Instead it’s personal journey meant to mirror the triumphs and (mostly) fuck-ups of the sad sacks in the audience. The WWF (silly me, at first I thought “what’s the World Wildlife Fund got to do with wrestling?”) is designed to be a fun-house mirror for our culture to stare into, slack-jawed and transfixed. And it’s doing record business in an otherwise dismal economy.
Chris went on to describe the adult video industry, complete with his visit to what amounts to the academy awards of porn. It’s a brutal industry in which the women, who make far more than the male “actors,” burn out early and usually come to a bad end. Like wrestling, the main audience is adolescent guys, and men who never grow up. And like wrestling, it’s all illusion and infantilism.
Pro-wrestling and porn wouldn’t concern Hedges if they were minor back-roads on America’s cultural interstate. But they’re not. They occupy major lanes and are joined by countless other equally vacuous, morally bankrupt information channels – reality shows where viciousness and backstabbing and raunchy behavior are rewarded, extreme makeovers that validate people for appearance instead of character, talent searches that humiliate the less gifted, string along the mediocre, and eventually crown a winner based on the dubious votes of millions of cultural troglodytes.
So where do we turn for real information in this stew of information slop? Well – back to our last post – we used to tune into Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Our heroes used to be astronauts and scientists and serious public intellectuals. Now we listen to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly battle it out with Keith Olbermann. Our ‘serious’ public intellectuals, the ones who point out the absurdity of Fox News and the networks, are comedians like Daily and Colbert. They interpret for mass consumption the deeper thinkers like Hedges who deconstruct the mashing together of “War” and “Iraq” or “bailout” and “Wall Street.” We still have Bill Moyers, valiantly filling this role, but with so many information channels, we don’t see him front and center, like we should.
But forty years ago we didn’t need comedians to spoon-feed us the real news. Cronkite, with two-dozen years of real reporting under his belt, would visit Vietnam, and come back and say, “I think we’re screwed.” And that was it. If he were still around and made similar visits to Wall Street or the Treasury Department or Madison Avenue, he’d come back and say about the same thing, and if we were still a grown-up culture, that’s all we’d need.
Not any more, according to Hedges. Now we need to be entertained. Say it in thirty seconds and say it with images, or we’ll hit the remote or link to a sexier image. Meanwhile the real news – we’re passing peak oil, we’re waaaay overextended as a nation, and our political/economic system is stuck – can’t seem to break into the twenty-four hour infotainment cycle.
What to do? Hedges exhorts us to get off our butts and think. Don’t accept the news that’s fed to you. Look elsewhere, to sources outside the mainstream, and especially, outside the United States (Hedges likes the BBC for information and Al Jazeera for perspective). Don’t accept the assumptions of a consumption culture.
OK, that’s fine for the two hundred of us who heard Hedges the other night. Or the 50,000 that may read his book. But what about the other 300 million? That’s the tough question. How do we scale up? How do we overcome powerful inertia to achieve change?
It seems kind of hopeless. Just as it did to abolitionists in 1787, and women suffragists in 1848, and labor organizers in 1865 and civil rights advocates in 1935 and environmentalists in 1955.
Hedges didn’t get around to addressing this, maybe because he assumes that the people who listen to him and read his stuff already know: don’t succumb to a culture of instant gratification; keep at it; this may take a while.