Chris Hedges’ book “Empire of Illusions: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle”

Having read a number of Chris Hedges’ books, including American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Losing Moses on the Freeway, I Don’t Believe in Atheists, his 2010 book titled Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle is another I’d like to offer up to others, though I wouldn’t recommend beginning with reading this one, this book being more of a summary and broad treatment of a collection of problems facing society. Hedges hits several major points, from our tantalization with Jerry Springer-esque forms of entertainment to the personal and societal destructiveness of hardcore pornography; from the dangers of corporatism and the realities and consequences we face today, as a nation and a people, politically, socially, and economically, to the power of love. This man does a great job of telling it like it is!

I’ll include some excerpts below, beginning on pages 14-15:

In The Republic, Plato imagines human beings chained for the duration of their lives in an underground cave, knowing nothing but darkness. Their gaze is confined to the cave wall, upon which shadows of the world above are thrown. They believe these flickering shadows are reality. If, Plato writes, one of these prisoners is freed and brought into the sunlight, he will suffer great pain. Blinded by the glare, he is unable to see anything and longs for the familiar darkness. But eventually his eyes adjust to the light. The illusion of the tiny shadows is obliterated. He confronts the immensity, chaos, and confusion of reality. The world is no longer drawn in simple silhouettes. But he is despised when he returns to the cave. He is unable to see in the dark as he used to. Those who never left the cave ridicule him and swear never to go into the light lest they be blinded as well.

Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the sense to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason. No admirer of popular democracy, Plato said that the enlightened or elite had a duty to educate those bewitched by the shadows on the cave wall, a position that led Socrates to quip: “As for the man who tried to free them and lead them upward, if they could somehow lay their hands on him and kill him, they would do so.”

We are chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staples of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology.

On porn and profits, page 58:

There are some 13,000 porn films made every year in the United States, most in the San Fernando Valley in California. According to the Internet Filter Review, worldwide porn revenues, including in-room movies at hotels, sex clubs, and the ever-expanding e-sex world, topped $97 billion in 2006. That is more than the revenues of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflix, and Earthlink combined. Annual sales in the United States are estimated at $10 billion or higher. There is no precise monitoring of the porn industry. And porn is very lucrative to some of the nation’s largest corporations. General Motors owns DIRECTV, which distributes more than 40 million streams of porn into American homes every month. AT&T Broadband and Comcast Cable are currently the biggest American companies accommodating porn users with the Hot Network, Adult Pay Per View, and similarly themed services. AT&T and GM rake in approximately 80 percent of all porn dollars spent by consumers.

[Bold emphasis mine.]

Broaching the topic of the fall of the United States of America on page 142:

The country I live in today uses the same civic, patriotic, and historical language to describe itself, the same symbols and iconography, the same national myths, but only the shell remains. The America we celebrate is an illusion. America, the country of my birth, the country that formed and shaped me, the country of my father, my father’s father, and his father’s father, stretching back to the generations of my family that were here for the country’s founding, is so diminished as to be unrecognizable. I do not know if this America will return, even as I pray and work and strive for its return.

The words consent of the governed have become an empty phrase. Our textbooks on political science and economics are obsolete. Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow, selfish, political, and economic elite, a small privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of moneyed interests. This elite, in the name of patriotism and democracy, in the name of all the values that were once part of the American system and defined the Protestant work ethic, has systematically destroyed our manufacturing sector, looted the treasury, corrupted our democracy, and trashed the financial system. During this plundering we remained passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall, assured our tickets to success, prosperity, and happiness were waiting around the corner.

Chris Hedges includes substantiating literature on the topics discussed, listed in the bibliography, with a few titles and authors specifically mentioned on page 146:

There were some who saw it coming. The political philosophers Sheldon S. Wolin, John Ralston Saul, and Andrew Bacevich, writers such as Noam Chomsky, Chalmers Johnson, David Korten, and Naomi Klein, and activists such as Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, and Ralph Nader warned us about our march of folly. In the immediate years after the Second World War, a previous generation of social critics recognized the destructive potential of the rising corporate state. Books such as David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd, C. Wright Mills’s The Power Elite, William H. White’s The Organization Man, Seymour Mellman’s The Permanent War Economy: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, and Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History have proved to be prophetic. This generation of writers remembered what had been lost. They saw the intrinsic values that were being dismantled. The culture they sought to protect has largely been obliterated. During the descent, our media and universities, extensions of corporate and mass culture, proved intellectually and morally useless. They did not thwart the decay. We failed to heed the wisdom of these critics, embracing instead the idea that all change was a form of progress.

In his book Democracy Incorporated, Wolin, who taught political philosophy at Berkeley and at Princeton, uses the phrase inverted totalitarianism to describe our system of power. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, and the Constitution while manipulating internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens, but candidates must raise staggering amounts of corporate funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists in Washington or state capitals who author the legislation and get the legislators to pass it. Corporate media control nearly everything we read, watch, or hear. It imposes a bland uniformity of opinion. It diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. In classical totalitarianism regimes, such as Nazi fascism or Soviet communism, economics was subordinate to politics. “Under inverted totalitarianism the reverse is true,” Wolin writes. “Economics dominates politics—and with that domination comes different forms of ruthlessness.”

[Italicized emphasis his. Bold emphasis mine.]

Excerpts don’t do this book justice. I agree so much with this author. The man makes a great deal of sense, especially when I read this book in conjunction with other books like Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Chris Hedges’ American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Richard L. Rubenstein’s The Cunning of History: Mass Death and the American Future, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, as well as Ron Paul’s End the Fed (not that I personally share Ron Paul’s exuberance for returning to a gold standard).

Here is a review of Empire of Illusion in The Cleveland Leader. I don’t share the reviewer’s disappointment with the ending, lamenting that “Hedges didn’t conclude his work with some small glimmers of hope.” Au contraire. Mr. Hedges ended on the most hopeful message one can offer: that we learn to love one another and make the necessary sacrifices to pull through. Love is no small matter. It may be all we really have…all that will ever set things right.

Below is an interview of Chris Hedges on GRITtv (July 2009):

A glimpse into police misconduct

Switching gears this evening from transcribing, which I will return to periodically, I’d like instead tonight to focus on a few examples of misconduct by authority figures, in this instance, the police.

In a new lawsuit, Angel Dobbs and her niece Ashley Dobbs, of Irving Texas, say they were searched inside their underwear by female Texas Trooper, Kelley Helleson, after a routine traffic stop in Dallas in July.

The trooper who pulled them over, David Farrell, says on tape he saw them throw a cigarette butt out the window and smelled marijuana when he pulled them over. No drugs were found and they were released with a warning. The [relatives] say the trooper who performed the search used the same pair of gloves on both women.


Here is the same video as that above, this time un-edited and full length (though glitchy to where it repeats in places).

Here’s a link to the WFAA-TV news story on that presented above. And here’s a link to the lawsuit filed by the women in the above video against Texas State Trooper David Ferrell (dated December 2012). An excerpt from the lawsuit follows:

“This intrusive cavity search occurred on the side of a public freeway illuminated by lights from the police vehicle in full view of the passing public,” the lawsuit reads. “Moreover, this roadside body cavity search was done without her consent.”


Damn. And all because that trooper claims he smelled marijuana in the car. That’s it and that’s all.

Next, we have the case of “Breakfast in Collinsville (with Michael Reichert),”a well-made video containing the original police video footage that led to a well-deserved lawsuit for an illegal search:

The gist: On December 4th 2011, StarTrek fans Terrance Huff and Jon Seaton are stopped illegally after a StarTrek Exhibition for suspected drug transportation in Collinsville, Illinois. Award winning filmmaker Terrance Huff does a breakdown of an illegal traffic stop and subsequent search involving a K9 Officer who has a questionable past.


How much bullshit was that traffic stop? Talk about blatantly violating this man’s civil rights. Think this shit is rare? Think again. There are good police officers, and there are bad ones, and in a system that’s increasingly putting the squeeze on people with integrity—that is, quality, law-observing police officers—how long can we assume it will be before decent people no longer comprise the majority of officers on the force?


“No one can be good for long if goodness is not in demand. — Bertolt Brecht


At what point do we as a citizenry start getting real with ourselves and one another on the direction our society is taking? There’s a lot to take in today, and an indecipherable, complicated profusion of laws on the books combined with the degraded state of law enforcement is a very significant concern confronting our society. With law books rendered unnecessarily complicated by a ceaseless stream of new laws introduced, plenty of which are unneeded and/or unenforceable, we’re put in a situation where individuals cannot possibly keep up with what all is legal or illegal, and thereby we are hindered and compromised when it comes to protecting and legally defending our rights and interests. This, of course, involves various outlying factors that further complicate the situation, including the debased state of our political system and the impact economics have on all sectors of society, but that’s beyond the scope of today’s post.

Carrying on…

After Angela Garbarino was arrested in Shreveport, Louisiana last November [2007?] on suspicion of drunk driving, she wound up lying on the police station floor in a pool of her own blood with two black eyes, a broken nose, two broken teeth, and other cuts and bruises.

Garbarino says that Officer Wiley Willis beat her up after turning off the police video camera. Willis’s attorney insists that Garbarino slipped and fell when Willis tried to prevent her from leaving the room. However, Garbarino says that the extent of her injuries are proof that she was beaten.


Here’s the 2011 case of Florida Trooper Watts pulling over Miami Police Officer Fausto Lopez abusing the power of his position by traveling off-duty to his side job at speeds purportedly surpassing 120 mph:

Feeling sorry for the Miami cop in the video above? Consider the following video of Miami cops mistreating a peaceful protester and then laughing about it later on camera:

Continuing on…

That’s enough of that for now. A topic to be revisited another day.

On Defective Individuals and Sick Societies — an excerpt from Erich Fromm’s book “The Sane Society”

Tonight I will be transcribing from Erich Fromm’s book The Sane Society (1955), beginning with Chapter 2, titled “Can a Society Be Sick?—The Pathology of Normalcy,” beginning on page 21:

To speak of a whole society as lacking in mental health implies a controversial assumption contrary to the position of sociological relativism held by most social scientists today. They postulate that each society is normal inasmuch as it functions, and that pathology can be defined only in terms of the individual’s lack of adjustment to the ways of life in his society.

To speak of a “sane society” implies a premise different from sociological relativism. It makes sense only if we assume that there can be a society which is not sane, and this assumption, in turn, implies that there are universal criteria for mental health which are valid for the human race as such, and according to which the state of health of each society can be judged. This position of normative humanism is based on a few fundamental premises.

The species “man” can be defined not only in anatomical and physiological terms; its members share basic psychic qualities, the laws which govern their mental and emotional functioning, and the aims for a satisfactory solution of the problem of human existence. It is true that our knowledge of man is still so incomplete that we cannot yet give a satisfactory definition of man in a psychological sense. It is the task of the “science of man” to arrive eventually at a correct description of what deserves to be called human nature. What has often been called “human nature” is but one of its many manifestations—and often a pathological one—and the function of such mistaken definition usually has been to defend a particular type of society as being the necessary outcome of man’s mental constitution.

Against such reactionary use of the concept of human nature, the Liberals, since the eighteenth century, have stressed the malleability of human nature and the decisive influence of environmental factors. True and important as such emphasis is, it has led many social scientists to an assumption that man’s mental constitution is a blank piece of paper, on which society and culture write their text, and which has no intrinsic quality of its own. This assumption is just as untenable and just as destructive of social progress as the opposite view was. The real problem is to infer the core common to the whole human race from the innumerable manifestations of human nature, the normal as well as the pathological ones, as we  can observe them in different individuals and cultures. The task is furthermore to recognize the laws inherent in human nature and the inherent goals for its development and unfolding.

This concept of human nature is different from the way the term “human nature” is used conventionally. Just as man transforms the world around him, so he transforms himself in the process of history. He is his own creation, as it were. But just as he can only transform and modify the natural materials around him according to their nature, so he can only transform and modify himself according to his own nature. What man does in the process of history is to develop this potential, and to transform it according to its own possibilities. The point of view taken here is neither a “biological” nor a “sociological” one if that would mean separating these two aspects from each other. It is rather one transcending such dichotomy by the assumption that the main passions and drives in man result from the total existence of man, that they are definite and ascertainable, some of them conducive to health and happiness, others to sickness and unhappiness. Any given social order does not create these fundamental strivings but it determines which of the limited number of potential passions are to become manifest or dominant. Man as he appears in any given culture is always a manifestation of human nature, a manifestation, however, which in its specific outcome is determined by the social arrangements under which he lives. Just as the infant is born with all human potentialities which are to develop under favorable social and cultural conditions, so the human race, in the process of history, develops into what it potentially is.

The approach of normative humanism is based on the assumption that, as in any other problem, there are right and wrong, satisfactory and unsatisfactory solutions to the problem of human existence. Mental health is achieved if man develops into full maturity according to the characteristics and laws of human nature. Mental illness consists in the failure of such development. From this premise the criterion of mental health is not one of individual adjustment to a given social order, but a universal one, valid for all men, of giving a satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.

What is so deceptive about the state of mind of the members of a society is the “consensual validation” of their concepts. It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth. Consensual validation as such has no bearing whatsoever on reason or mental health. Just as there is a “folie à deux” there is a “folie à millions.” The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same forms of mental pathology does not make these people sane.

There is, however, an important difference between individual and social mental illness, which suggests a differentiation between two concepts: that of defect, and that of neurosis. If a person fails to attain freedom, spontaneity, a genuine expression of self, he may be considered to have a severe defect, provided we assume that freedom and spontaneity are the objective goals to be attained by every human being. If such a goal is not attained by the majority of members of any given society, we deal with the phenomenon of socially patterned defect. The individual shares it with many others; he is not aware of it as a defect, and his security is not threatened by the experience of being different, of being an outcast, as it were. What he may have lost in richness and in a genuine feeling of happiness, is made up by the security of fitting in with the rest of mankind—as he knows them. As a matter of fact, his very defect may have been raised to a virtue by his culture, and thus may give him an enhanced feeling of achievement.

An illustration is the feeling of guilt and anxiety which Calvin’s doctrines aroused in men. It may be said that the person who is overwhelmed by a feeling of his own powerlessness and unworthiness, by unceasing doubt as to whether he is saved or condemned to eternal punishment, who is hardly capable of genuine joy, suffers from a severe defect. Yet this very defect was culturally patterned; it was looked upon as particularly valuable, and the individual was thus protected from the neurosis which he would have acquired in a culture where the same defect gave him a feeling of profound inadequacy and isolation.

Spinoza formulated the problem of the socially patterned defect very clearly. He says: “Many people are seized by one and the same affect with great consistency. All his senses are so strongly affected by one object that he believes this object to be present even if it is not. If this happens while the person is awake, the person is believed to be insane. . . . But if the greedy person thinks only of money and possessions, the ambitious one only of fame, one does not think of them as being insane, but only as annoying; generally one has contempt for them. But factually greediness, ambition, and so forth are forms of insanity, although usually one does not think of them as illness.”

These words were written a few hundred years ago; they still hold true, although the defects have been culturally patterned to such an extent now that they are not even generally thought any more to be annoying or contemptible. Today we come across a person who acts and feels like an automaton; who never experiences anything which is really his; who experiences himself entirely as the person he thinks he is supposed to be; whose artificial smile has replaced genuine laughter; whose meaningless chatter has replaced communicative speech; whose dulled despair has taken the place of genuine pain. Two statements can be made about this person. One is that he suffers from a defect of spontaneity and individuality which may seem incurable. At the same time, it may be said that he does not differ essentially from millions of others who are in the same position. For most of them, the culture provides patterns which enable them to live with a defect without becoming ill. It is as if each culture provided the remedy against the outbreak of manifest neurotic symptoms which would result from the defect produced by it.

Suppose that in our Western culture movies, radios, television, sports events and newspapers ceased to function for only four weeks. With these main avenues of escape closed, what would be the consequences for people thrown back upon their own resources? I have no doubt that even in this short time thousands of nervous breakdowns would occur, and many more thousands of people would be thrown into a state of acute anxiety, not different from the picture which is diagnosed clinically as “neurosis.” If the opiate against the socially patterned defect were withdrawn, the manifest illness would make its appearance.

For a minority, the pattern provided by the culture does not work. They are often those whose individual defect is more severe than that of the average person, so that the culturally offered remedies are not sufficient to prevent the outbreak of manifest illness. (A case in point is the person whose aim in life is to attain power and fame. While this aim is, in itself, a pathological one, there is nevertheless a difference between the person who uses his powers to attain this aim realistically, and the more severely sick one who has so little emerged from his infantile grandiosity that he does not do anything toward the attainment of his goal but waits for a miracle to happen and, thus feeling more and more powerless, ends up in a feeling of futility and bitterness.) But there are also those whose character structure, and hence whose conflicts, differ from those of the majority, so that the remedies which are effective for most of their fellow men are of no help to them. Among this group we sometimes find people of greater integrity and sensitivity than the majority, who for this very reason are incapable of accepting the cultural opiate, while at the same time they are not strong and healthy enough to live soundly “against the stream.”

The foregoing discussion on the difference between neurosis and the socially patterned defect may give the impression that if society only provides the remedies against the outbreak of manifest symptoms, all goes well, and it can continue to function smoothly, however great the defects created by it. History shows us, however, that this is not the case.

It is true indeed that man, in contrast to the animal, shows an almost infinite malleability; just as he can eat almost anything, live under practically any kind of climate and adjust himself to it, there is hardly any psychic condition which he cannot endure, and under which he cannot carry on. He can live free, and as a slave. Rich and in luxury, and under conditions of half-starvation. He can live as a warrior, and peaceably; as an exploiter and robber, and as a member of a co-operating and loving fellowship. There is hardly a psychic state in which man cannot live, and hardly anything which cannot be done with him, and for which he cannot be used. All these considerations seem to justify the assumption that there is no such thing as a nature common to all men, and that would mean in fact that there is no such thing as a species “man,” except in a physiological and anatomical sense.

Yet, in spite of all this evidence. the history of man shows that we have omitted one fact. Despots and ruling cliques can succeed in dominating and exploiting their fellow man, but they cannot prevent reactions to this inhuman treatment. Their subjects become frightened, suspicious, lonely and, if not due to external reasons, their systems collapse at some point because fears, suspicions and loneliness eventually incapacitate the majority to function effectively and intelligently. Whole nations, or social groups within them, can be subjugated and exploited for a long time, but they react. They react with apathy or such impairment of intelligence, initiative and skills that they gradually fail to perform the functions which should serve their rulers. Or they react by the accumulation of such hate and destructiveness as to bring about an end to themselves, their rulers and their system. Again their reaction may create such independence and longing for freedom that a better society is built upon their creative impulses. Which reaction occurs, depends on many factors: on economic and political ones, and on the spiritual climate in which people live. But whatever the reactions are, the statement that man can live under almost any condition is only half true; it must be supplemented by the other statement, that if he lives under conditions which are contrary to his nature and to the basic requirements for human growth and sanity, he cannot help reacting; he must either deteriorate and perish, or bring about conditions which are more in accordance with his needs.

That human nature and society can have conflicting demands, and hence that a whole society can be sick, is an assumption which was made very explicitly by Freud, most extensively in his Civilizations and Its Discontents.

[Italicized emphases his; bolded emphases mine.]

That’s enough typing for one evening, leaving off on page 27.  (The rest of the chapter was transcribed later on and can be found here.)

Touching on the subject of evil

For days I’ve wanted to write on here but haven’t known where to pick up and begin. So much has been on my mind in recent times. Three days ago a young man killed his mother before walking into an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut and shot and killed 26 people, 20 of whom were young children, before allegedly turning his gun on himself. I’m told there was a shooting at a mall up in Oregon as well. A friend mentioned a shooting in Las Vegas also.

Tonight I came across the unbelievable story of Jaycee Lee Dugard, a woman about my age who was kidnapped by Phillip and Nancy Garrido back in 1991 when she was only 11 years old, holding her captive in their backyard for 18 years. During that time she birthed and raised two daughters fathered by Phillip Garrido, a convicted sexual predator on parole who repeatedly managed to get away with this crime despite 60 visits to his residency over those years by parole officers.

What do all of these crimes, and so many others, share in common? They all point toward that which we call “evil.” Leaving aside for the time being any religious claims on the subject, how might we understand evil in the hearts of people and within our culture? How might we grapple with this concept in the 21st century?

That’s been a question on my mind for a long time now. I’ve read a good deal on the topic, and one author whose words and ideas have had a great influence on my thinking is the late psychoanalyst Erich Fromm. He is reported to have been an early member of the “Frankfurt School,” a loosely associated group of dissident neo-Marxist theorists involved in a unique interdisciplinary approach to social theory. I’ve read all of his books that I could get my hands on, including The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness, Man For Himself: An Inquiry Into the Psychology of Ethics, Escape From Freedom, The Sane Society, Psychoanalysis and Religion, The Heart of Man: Its Genius For Good and Evil, The Art of Loving, and The Art of Being. Going forward I intend to transcribe excerpts from his books to illuminate his teachings for others who may be interested.