Chris Hedges: Requiem for the Reading Republic

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Chris Hedges. (37 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Chris Hedges is “Mr. Bad News” in our time, the obituary writer for our economy, our culture, our democracy, our media. When I got to the New York Times (some years before Chris Hedges) in the late Sixties, Alden Whitman had the bad news moniker, writing obits of great figures for the paper of record. When Alden Whitman knocked on your door for a long interview about your life, you were supposed to know it was almost over. It’s Chris Hedges’s gig now, observing all of us. After most of 20 years as a war correspondent with the Times, Chris Hedges in 2003 charged his paper and others with “shameful cheerleading” for the war in Iraq, and left to study up again on ancient history, theology and classic literature, and to write his own classic, War is a Force that Gives us Meaning. In his new jeremiad, Empire of Illusion, pro wrestling and pornography are the bookend spectacles in a parody culture all around us now — the grotesque joke representations of power and eros in the end times. I find these resonant arguments, from the rare daily-news ace who’s trained himself also in the long view:

To believe somehow that we are the culmination, that time is linear, that we are progressing morally, is to ignore human history and human nature, and essentially to remain in a state of infantilism. That’s what illusion is about. If we had an understanding of what the dying days, the twilight hours of great civilizations were like we would be able to see all the flashing lights, the warning signs around us. But I think that the illiteracy which has gripped the country (a third of this country is either illiterate, or is technically literate but doesn’t read anymore); that shift from a print based culture into an image based culture, the belief that how we are made to feel is a form of knowledge, propaganda being a kind of ideology — these are the hallmarks of a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states are image based, spectacle based states.

We have set the ground for a seamless transfer from a democracy into a kind of corporate state. With the corporate state always comes the rise of the surveillance or the security state. We lack the capacity, having been unmoored from print, and relying on skillfully manipulated images, to fight back… We see it in the environmental crisis; we are literally destroying the ecosystem that sustains the human species; the gap widens between the illusion of the world we think we live in, and the reality of that world.  What you’ve done is render huge segments of the population into a kind of childishness which makes them emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unprepared for what it is they are about to face. They will react like all children, which is to reach out for demagogues who promise a new glory, vengeance and moral renewal.

CL: What survives of American hegemony if in fact it’s over?

CH: Well, it is over. We can’t continue to borrow, to sustain either a level of consumption or the empire that we demand. It’s just a question of when, and how do we respond. I don’t think learning to live without the piles of junk that have been bequeathed to us by consumer culture is going to impoverish our lifestyle. I don’t think that learning a new humility as empire is dismantled is a negative. We will have to learn another language other than the language of force by which we speak to most of the rest of the world, certainly those in the Middle East. It doesn’t necessarily mean the end of hope or a life of meaning or a life of richness; it just means a different kind of life. The danger is not grasping this reality. That’s the danger. if we’re not prepared for this reality, if we continue to live as the most delusional nation on the planet, than we we will end up like Yugoslavia. The war in Yugoslavia was caused by the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia — it vomited up figures like Slobodan Milosevic; the Weimar republic did the same; did the collapse of Czarist Russia…

What remains? I think that unfortunately American culture (or cultures, for we once had many cultures with their own iconography and aesthetic, and a decentralized press that gave expression to local communities) was dismantled and destroyed in the 20th century and replaced with mass corporate culture… The drive of corporate culture was to implant the need for consumption as a kind of inner compulsion. Drawing on Freud, it was about manipulating people, appealing to subliminal desires and anxieties, often creating those anxieties, to fuel a kind of wild orgy of consumable products that were supposed to sort of ameliorate our alienation and atomization and loneliness and despair. And all of that is falling down around us. And yet we haven’t recognized that reality. It’s not unique. There’s that emotional incapacity to understand how fragile the world is around us and how rapidly it can disintegrate. I think having been a war correspondent, and having lived in societies that did disintegrate, I’m much more conscious. I can walk in my supermarket and imagine all the windows knocked out and the shelves bare and the neon lights hanging, because I’ve seen it. There’s that dual capacity to see how swiftly and quickly any society can collapse.

CL: We elected a president who promised literally a kind of transformation. I don’t want to to argue Obama politics, so much as just to ask: is transformation an illusion?

CH: Well, we elected a brand. We elected a presidential candidate who campaigned, like his rival, primarily on a personal narrative. You had rallies where people were chanting slogans like “yes we can,” which they stole by the way from FedEx-Kinko’s. It was campaign by experience: it was a very effective way of making us feel a certain way about a candidate. But Obama does not threaten the core of the corporate state anymore than George W. Bush threatened the core of the corporate state.  That has been more than evidenced by Obama’s willingness to continue the looting of the American treasury, the largest transference of wealth upwards in American history. In the 17th century in England, speculators were hung. In our society they are given tens of billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars in taxpayer bailouts, and they run the government.

Chris Hedges in conversation with Chris Lydon, October 8, 2009.

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  • “What you’ve done is render huge segments of the population into a kind of childishness which makes them emotionally, intellectually and psychologically unprepared for what it is they are about to face.”

    Reminds me of how I felt after watching the new ‘where the wild things are’ movie.

  • Sounds like he read Jared Diamond’s Collapse but has a more anthropology-compatible approach to “The Decline of the American Empire” as we’ve been calling it in Quebec. He also seems to use something of a critical thinking approach, trying to get away from groupthink. But he’s still assigning a vague trustworthiness to specific sources instead of taking everything with varied numbers of grains of salt.

    Fairly stimulating, on average. But something more conversational (and polyvocal) might address the fact that many of illusions are culture-specific.

  • Vilcxjo BLANKA

    Ireland never was contented.

    Say you so? You are demented.

    Ireland was contented when

    All could use the sword and pen,

    And when Tara rose so high

    That her turrets split the sky,

    And about her courts were seen

    Liveried Angels robed in green,

    Wearing, by St. Patrick’s bounty,

    Emeralds big as half a county.

    -Landor,Walter Savage

    ‘Ireland never was contented’.

    I don’t know why this podcast reminded me of this poem, but that’s

    what I thought at first. I think Hedges is pining for a past in which

    we never lived, but in which all were literate and thoughtful. I think

    it’s probably the case that the US is in for a world of hurt, but I’m

    not sure it’s ever been better in the far past. It’s maybe been better

    in the near-term past, say since the 2nd world war, but there was

    no golden age of philosopher kings.

    I think he’s also right that we need to speak a new language, one

    not of force but of power. By power and violence I mean the

    distinctions that Hannah Arendt famously drew, for which Google,

    of course, is your friend.

  • Druthers

    Just as Chris Hedges articles are always pertinent and to the point so in his interview he informs us, laying out one by one all the signs of our present degradation and rapidly crumbling society. Has any empire ever come back once on the decline?

    I just read “Early India” by Romila Thapar in which she describes the ebb and flow of kingdoms and empires from Kabul to the tip of India over a period of three thousand years. Nothing remains of the power of these once established entities. Perhaps what has changed is the speed with which they collapse.

    The temptation of illusion and the rejection of the evident are tempting. Every time I see “Three Sisters,” and I have seen at least ten different productions of this play, I find myself hoping against hope that Tchebouytkine will tell Irina that the Baron is going to a duel with Soloni, that he will be saved but we see the Dr is weak and wants Irina to stay to take care of him, that he will say nothing, that Tousenbach will die

    There is one thing more worrisome with our failing state than with former hegemonic empires and that is the power of the military, the stock pile of nuclear weapons in the hands of an evangelical air force. Some of these people are not only on the “dark side” but on the crazy side.

  • Ed

    While I agree with much of what he says, he seems unfocused and has an evangelical vibe. For example, I don’t watch tv much either, but I wouldn’t characterize it as responsible for mass infantilization. Some people just like watching Seinfeld.

    He reminds me of the peak oil guys. I agree we are going to run out of oil. The question is what can we do about it? If your answer is – nothing, I don’t need a whole book detailing how bad it’s going to get. No doubt I’ll find out in good time. If there are alternatives, that’s what we should be looking at.

  • Diane Varney

    Thank you for broadcasting this interview. Seemed like a cogent argument and helps explain my mother and brother’s views. I agree with much of what he said.

    Thank you!

  • Springerrr

    Pinocchio on Fire II


    In the snapping air, he comes home.

    Blindly running through the early dusk made earlier by the rising land.

    Past puppets asleep in the trunks against which he

    Smashes his fists, arms, face.

    “Wake up! Wake up! You are dying!”

    His howl rebounds, jumping back to him

    From the unsurprised gray face of the valley.

    Above the thrashing toy.

    The sigh of red, yellow, brown

    Deepens. Expands.

    And the branches unshoulder their load.

    Softly covering the weeping boy.

    Curled upon the ground.

  • Good conversation. Very meaningful. Thanks both.

  • Potter

    From Alphonse de La Martine’s “Les Preludes” posted again – from my comment on the Rosanna Warren interview (more apt here?) :

    What after all is our life but a series of preludes to that unknown song whose 1st note is sounded by death? Was there ever a man whose happiness was not threatened by stormy fates, whose illusions were not tattered, whose altar was not destroyed by deadly lightning ray.

    And was there ever a soul that did not seek solace in nature after such harrowing tempest.

    But still, when the trumpet’s alarm is heard he hurries to the forefront of the battle and regains his feelings of strength and self.


    I agree with much of what Chris Hedges says about where we are today from insight that came out of his war experiences. I choose to not want to live so apart and hopeless about inevitabilities. We die, empires and civilizations die. We need our illusions to go on. We need acceptance to go on.

    Those who have been so traumatized, especially from war, are changed people forever and if they can’t quite integrate into our world of illusions/delusions so easily maybe they all should be Cassandras. But did the Greeks listen?

    Wikipedia says about her She is a figure both of the epic tradition and of tragedy, where her combination of deep understanding and powerlessness exemplify the tragic condition of humankind.

    Greek tragedy this may all be. Globalization, the rise of corporations and their networks, global warming, scientific advancement, war and the use of advanced weaponry– those can’t somehow stop or manifest only through “desirable” aspects of human nature. What do you do with the observation (or law) that suffering and destruction forces awakening?

    The other day while following links on the internet, the wonders of the internet, I discovered a fascinating talk given in 1974 by historian Lewis Hanke, about the beginnings of modern historical writing, an appreciation of a missionary, a Franciscan, Bernardino de Sahagún, who, after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, in the mid to late 1500’s immersed himself in the study and writing about Aztec culture with great interest and I would say love, which grew to respect and concern for it’s, Indian culture’s, survival. This was the first oral history project in America:

    The result was a carefully organized mass of text and 1,850 illustrations on the spiritual and material aspects of the life of the ancient Mexicans as the Indians remembered them. It was decidedly not, like so, much of the transatlantic literature of the period, a European view masquerading as a description of far-off peoples, but a remarkable collection of oral literature that expressed the soul and life of the Aztec people at the time of their greatness, one of the finest sources known for ethnohistory.20 While some other Spaniards were fanatically destroying Indian culture, Sahagún methodically brought together documentation on the functions, ceremonies, legends, and traditions of the many gods of the Aztecs, on astronomy, astrology, the calendar, and the calculation of the recording of time, which was of great importance to them. Sahagún also included their superstitions, rhetoric, philosophy, ideas of mortality, songs to the gods, and hymns to the sun, the moon, the stars, and the wind. The ancient rulers received much attention, as did their merchants and judges. The education of the children in the home and school was treated, as well as information on botany, zoology, and the animal and plant life of Mexico, mineralogy, agriculture, the preparation and preservation of edible plants, sculpture, painting, melting of metals, the jeweler’s trade, house building, the raising and care of domestic animals, road building, and temple construction. The final book described the conquest of Mexico as seen by the conquered.

    This is also how we meet, unfortunately through war and conquering… a very bad, increasingly bad, habit.

  • “Harvard is a very powerful corporation.”

    Chris Hedges, upon my meeting him after his reading of “American Fascists” at Wellesley College, when I informed him he probably would find the city where he attended seminary very changed indeed. That’s all I said. Didn’t mention Harvard at all.

    So — which is it, Chris? Harvard, or OUR delusions, that are most powerful? Or are the delusions foisted upon us by defense contractors such as Harvard and MIT the real enemy here? Charles Ogletree said Barack and Michelle Obama were “conservative” students of his, but Cambridge was SWARMING with Obama supporters, who told us he was the antidote to the Bush regime. And now, in the public discourse, all we see is opposition to him as a socialist (when he’s really as big a tool as Reagan, Bush, Sr., Clinton, and Bush, Jr.). I’m still waiting to have that conversation — with you, or Chris Lydon.

  • Potter

    I have thought from the first that we put too much hope onto Obama; he was a tabula rasa for those of us who were despondent from the last 8 years. Disappointment was inevitable.

    But I really came back to say thank you for mentioning and praising the Robert Frank exhibit at the MMA in NYC -we are headed there and I had forgotten we wanted to see that very much.

    Also I agree about the thumbs up for Ha’aretz.

  • Matthew

    First, thank you CL and CH.

    There’s a military component to this conversation that might be satisfied by reading/listening to Charlmers Johnson (

  • Very much in line with what I’ve been trying to teach in my philosophy course, where we look at Postman, Boorstin, Gitlin, McChesney, Dewey, Borgmann, and often McKibben.

    It’s so daunting to find a line to make these ideas really clean and clear because it’s so hard to untangle untangling the politics from the media from the consumerism from the corporatization of everything.

    And at the root of all this nonsense is the pervasive sense that people are wasting their lives while they harm others and the planet. I’m not one to go for talk of souls, but let’s give a shout out to Aristotle’s urgent attempts to call humanity ever toward eudaimonia, or a life-which-flourishes.

  • In the past few days I have been talking with somebody who mentions Chris Hedges at least once an hour. The name sounded familiar so I thought to check if there was an interview of him in the archives, and of course this comment would not exist if there wasn’t.

    Relistening to the show, I was surprised by how much of it I had internalized even if I had not remembered Mr. Hedges’s name, I had internalized its content. In conversation with this Hedges enthusiast, I had brought up the idea “I discovered on Open Source” about totalitarianism and image based states. When my grandmother tells me stories of rationing in the United States during the second world war, I try to ask questions that can help me better understand what changed between the war and Jimmy Carter encouraging the use of sweaters.

    The decline of the American empire is why I am abroad. I went to be able to learn to live abroad in case my family or anyone I came to know online needed help. I came to the Philippines specifically in the hopes that I might better understand both the Spanish and American empires, and to understand why a once rich country has become so poor. I went to learn to live without things I would have assumed I needed while I lived in the United States. I went because I thought I might be able to find ways of helping America’s empire wind down more peacefully, make the shift in America’s position easier to accept for my fellow American, when I come back to the United States.

    Like the commenter “Vilcxjo BLANKA,” this show reminded me of something I want to share. During the 2008 election, I was reading the second edition of Ernest Becker’s “The Birth and Death of Meaning,” which was published in 1971. But I found a passage I felt could have been written when I was reading it.

    “Whole societies which fail to act on real priorities for their own survival can be said to be psychotic. Take, for example, a society which puts on one side of the decision-sheet the following priorities: potential environmental collapse, possibilities of atomic and germ war on a global scale, possible economic collapse, rumbling social revolutions by dispossessed minorities, actual collapse of the traditional hero-system; and on the other side of the sheet, escalation of a life-sapping and losing war costing billions of dollars per year, in a small, unimportant country of no real strategic value. The psychotic choice in this matter would be on the second side of the sheet and for the past half-dozen years we have seen one of the greatest world powers annually make a choice which completely fouls reality and puts into jeopardy its own survival and well-being.”

    Becker, in his final books, tried to address this question of why an empire would be completely unable to address its real problems.

    It’s a bit more than I’m actually prepared to do tonight to summarize Becker’s approach to psychoanalysis, and how it can help us understand much of the problem America faces. I like writing these comments at night, but I keep on finding myself needing to sleep before I have said all I wanted (and feel up to the task of proofreading). I also really want to write a comment on the Taleb show (which was fantastic), but to say everything I want to say I would actually need to make about a dozen comments, I probably won’t get to that tonight either. So, for tonight, let me just thank you for always offering such wonderful opportunities to think.