Monday, August 10, 2009

Dark-tinted spectacles

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges argues that American Culture is a Force with No Meaning

The following review was published on the Books page of the History News Network on Saturday night.

According to Chris Hedges, American civilization is coming apart at the seams. The masses are corrupted by deadening vices like professional wrestling an
d violent pornography. Higher education has become a craven handmaiden to corporate power. Happiness has been conflated with adjustment to the relentlessly capitalist status quo. And a tottering economy is on the verge of bringing a self-indulgent society to the point of collapse.

But the most self-indulgent figure in Empire of Illusion may well be Hedges himself.

Don't get me wrong: many of the social ills that Hedges, whose urgently eloquent 2002 book
War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning has become one of the most influential and widely cited works of its kind in recent years, are real enough. (That's part of the problem: much of what he describes here has been discussed at length elsewhere.) And he brings a reporter's immediacy to many of the scenes he describes; his on-the-ground accounts at wrestlin
g matches or interviews with X-rated film actors are often painstaking -- and at times just plain painful -- in their attention to detail. But he also brings a sledgehammer sensibility to making sense of the phenomena he describes, and forfeits his credibility with his hectoring tone and refusal to consider alternative arguments. He also shows a surprising ignorance in his use and understanding of history.

Take, for example, his rant against celebrity culture. In the space of less than a page, he jumps from a tawdry crowd at a female wrestling match to citing Plato's Republic -- a how-far-we-have-fallen rhetorical gambit that sidesteps Plato's hostility to democratic values that Hedges himself upholds, not to mention the not-exactly-prudish sexual culture of the Greeks -- and then jumps to citing Daniel Boorstin's 1961 book
The Image: A Guide to Psuedo-Events in America.

Now, Boorstin's book is an important document of its time, and his observations about popular culture are not without ongoing relevance (even if his politics were a good deal more conservative than those Hedges, which it's not clear he understands). But to uncritically use a source like that as a self-evident description of reality a half-century later strikes me as lazy thinking. For Hedges, television means reality shows like Survivor or The Jerry Springer Show. He never acknowledges that television also means The Sopranos and Mad Men, never mind Bill Moyers or Charlie Rose. And while he complains that the level of discourse in the Lincoln-Douglas debates were about twice as high as that of the 2000 presidential debate, he overlooks the often mind-numbing repetition, innuendo, and explicit racism of St. Abraham himself in 1858, evident to anyone who has actually read those debates.

Again: the coarseness, even brutality, Hedges describes in modern popular culture is real and may even be growing in relative prominence. But most of the culture of any time and any place is mediocre at best, and if Hedges assumes that the viewers of pornographic movies or wrestling matches uncritically accept everything they're shown as a transparent description of reality, he betrays a lack of respect for ordinary Americans not all that different from conservative critics of popular culture (like Jose Ortega y Gasset, also unselfconsciously invoked here) who are at least clear in their own minds about their contempt for the masses whose culture they decry.

At the other end of the social spectrum, Hedges's critique of the academy is similarly ham-fisted. "Our elites replicate, in modern dress, the elaborate mannerisms and archaic forms of speech employed by calcified, corrupt, and dying aristocracies," he writes. "They cannot grasp that truth is often relative. They base their decisions on established beliefs, such as the primacy of the unregulated market or globalization, which are accepted as unquestioned absolutes." Maybe so. But most critics of university culture would say that if there is one thing that characterizes academic life in the humanities, at least, it is skepticism about the market economy and a doctrinaire insistence on the constructed nature of reality, a form of relativism that Hedges
also decries (indeed he's quite bitter about the state of the humanities on this and other counts). He also manages to lump together the oft-commented upon narcissism of our contemporary meritocratic elite of Ivy-League universities with the old-boy network of George W. Bush -- a conflation of two admittedly unattractive, but hardly interchangeable, demographic segments.

Part of what makes all of this hard to take is the severe and remorseless tone of Hedges's indictment of American society. Take this paragraph of unsupported assertions unrelieved even by the mercy of a comma:

At no period in American history as our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. This is the bleak future. This is reality. There is nothing President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with $1 trillion or $2 trillion in bailout money. Nor will it be solved by clinging to the illusions of the past.

Well, then, what should we do? In a general sense, it's clear enough: Wean ourselves from our attachment to materialism and self-gratification and learn to accept a life of limitations. Yet there's a curiously abstract quality to this prescription, because Hedges never seems to describe a three-dimensional country in which such a vision might approach reality. His native land seems to consist of rapacious corporate executives and their victims. The only thing in between seems to be the world of his grandparents, hard-working New England folk who knew the value as well as limits of a dollar, and of learning -- and who appear to be invisible in any recognizable form today.

Frankly, I'm puzzled by Hedges. As a war correspondent in places like Latin America and the Balkans, he's seen the worst human beings can do to each other. I'm not such an exceptionalist that I assume it would be self-evident that the state of our union would be a simple inversion of, say, the Serbia of Slobodan Milosevic. But he seems incapable of registering any distinctions. He argues at the end of the book, quite plausibly, that economic distress is really the single most important factor in political disintegration. But he seems to treat cultural decay, which dominates the opening of the book, as a cause rather than a symptom. I wonder whether it is either. In any case, the inexorable economic logic of imperial decline would seem to make complaining about the state of American pornography beside the point.

Which brings me another source of confusion. Hedges was trained as a seminarian, and a fierce moral energy is what gave
War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning is intensity. Righteous anger has its place, and it really worked there. He has also written jeremiads against evangelical Christians and atheists alike. At some point, though, it seems to me that an effective social critique has to move beyond complaining about what you hate and describing what you love, because, as Hedges made clear in that book, love is a force that gives us meaning, too. The power of positive example -- in generous and engaged writing no less than in the subject of that writing -- can furnish a powerful lesson in its own right. After all these years on the front lines, I really wish Chris Hedges would finally come home to the place that made him -- and the place that sustains him still. If he could map those coordinates, perhaps a few more of us would find ourselves with him.