Saturday, May 7, 2011

#24: Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

 232 pp, New York: Nation Books, 2009

Why is Jerry Springer always held up as one of the symbols of the downfall of Western Civilization? Probably because he is the most visible symptom. I have read most of the books Hedges draws on in this text (Boorstin's The Image, Neal Gabler's Life: The Movie, and Chris Rojek's Celebrity being the most used) and agree with him on three points:

1. Life in this country is dominated by Boorstin's pseudo-event. A pseudo-event is an event pulled together to be reported on. It exists to draw attention and is not spontaneous. The ubiquitous "photo op" of today's politics is a pseudo event. The "red carpet reporting" and self-congratulation of the academy awards shows are a pseudo event. Perhaps the academy awards itself is, I do not know. Boorstin was highly critical of the artificiality of these events, as is Hedges, as am I.

2.Gabler, as quoted by Hedges, wrote that "everyone acts as if they are a star in their own movie." Hedges zeroes in on the selfishness of this and only in the latter half of the book gets into the problems this creates with awareness outside of our own little bubbles. Most people, when it comes right down to it, are clueless to the plight of their fellow man. Is this their fault? Not exactly.

3. Rojek differentiates between "ascribed" and "achieved" celebrity, the former from bloodlines and the latter from achievement. Both are frustrated because of the mass media and public relations departments. Think of the Kardashians and their father, Bruce Jenner. Bloodlines may have once made these people somewhat famous (for you kids out there, Jenner was a 1976 gold medal winner in the decathlon), but the non-stop bombarding of Kardashian ass, clothes, clothes with ass, ass without clothes, sex tapes, perfume and "reality" shows have conspired to make all of them famous.

Hedges describes the societal effects as he sees them. These are varied:  the rise in pornography as men are increasingly immune to the effects of bukkake films, gangbangs on the women who "act" in them, the emasculation of the Democratic party as "Bill Clinton led them to the corporate feeding trough" (157) and "diversity based on race and ethnicity but not class" in higher education. (101). What ties all of these things together is pure and simple: alienation and a loss of hope. This goes for blowhards on the Left and Right, contributing to a media landscape where programs like TMZ and The 700 Club are both categorized as "bona fide newscasts" by the FCC. (168)

Hedges overall point is not that the media has failed (even though they are courtiers; read Nixon's Shadow for a discussion of the "established" reporters view of the story of Watergate), but that Americans are beset by a cultural divide that transcends the "red state/blue state" business. People will move to control what they can, and what they can control from day to day is choice over what TV show to watch, what frozen treat to buy, what Starbucks to go to or what porn clip to whack off with in the evening. Hedges writes "Mass culture is Peter Pan culture. It tells us if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want...our lives will be harmonius and complete." (190)

What separates this text from most media/celebrity bashing tomes is Hedges insistence that we are not visualizing something that will benefit the most people; not just the rich with their SUVs, not just the 14% of Yale students who are legacies (102), not just the limo liberals who don't want to pay taxes but want services for the poor. As majors in the humanities have dropped since 1970 (in 2001, only 4% of BAs were in English, 10% on social sciences) BAs in Business rose to 21.7% in 2001. Business ethics courses are rare and in some cases not required; Hedges quotes no less a person than Kant: "Moral autonomy is only possible through reflection, self-determination, and the courage not to cooperate." (112). Corporate culture hates the troublemaker and psuedo-events single out those who do not play the game for the paparazzi and the media.

As studies of Ethics (which Aristotle defined as how individuals should best live) went the way of English, Social Sciences and Mathematics, amorality has become commonplace. This is the real takeaway from Hedges book. We are ceasing to become a nation of people who can make up their own minds. That is why the crowds on Springer chanting "slut! slut! slut!" at some moderately overweight woman wriggling in spandex in a last chance attempt to win back her husband from the boy toy in the next trailer are so frightening. No one asks any of the people involved "What were/are you thinking? Why did you do this?" We make judgments in the absence of reflection and throw out names. Newspeople, bloggers, opinion writes make judgments in the absence of reflection and call it news. This is why I had a jack ass in a bar once tell me that "Woodrow Wilson is the most successful socialist president in US History" and why Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann and Anne Coulter sell books. 

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