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.