July 18, 2010

The Illusion Of Progressivism

At the suggestion of Ordinary Gentleman Rufus F., I undertook to read Chris Hedges’ new book The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. I found it a seductively-written polemic, lacking in scholarly research but offering enough generalizations which I could not readily question that I was willing to read the whole thing and see what he had to say.  Like all polemicists, Hedges' great sin in the book is that he takes the worst examples of what he would criticize and conflates those to the whole -- it is a view of the world through a sharply polarized lens, one that permits of little nuance or shades of gray.  It is in those missing shades of gray that Hedges' book ultimately fails (although the last page or so, which speaks of the enduring and triumphal power of love, also is something of a polemic failure).

Hedges is an unabashed political progressive and a remarkably keen wordsmith. He offers five chapters, such as “The Illusion of Literacy,” “The Illusion of Wisdom,” and “The Illusion of America.” There are some piercing and incisive observations in each of them. The core thesis is that our society has produced illusions of things so pleasurable and enrapturing that we have come to prefer them to reality, with the result that we now occupy the bulk of our time in our entertainments while the elites who create and sell these entertainments pull the strings of our society and government so as to control and exploit us. Hedges’ book aims to pull this curtain of illusion aside, and expose the Great And Powerful Oz. 

Hedges’ unarticulated premise is that he is speaking clearly and directly about culture, government, and economics in fulfillment of the imperatives set out in George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. He sees in the entertainments, comforts, and mythologies of the modern world – or more exactly in the immersive, pervasive, all-consuming sense he claims they are consumed – nothing less than the seeds of our society’s own self-destruction:
Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die. The dying gasps of all empires, from the Aztecs to the ancient Romans to the French monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have been characterized by a disconnect between the elites and reality. The elites were blinded by absurd fantasies of omnipotence and power that doomed their civilization.
I’m enough of a student of history that I question the veracity of each of those examples. The Aztecs may have initially thought Cortez was a god from their own legends, but it didn’t take them very long to figure out that no, he was a man from a place far away, and the danger he posed to them was not divine but martial in nature in that he was able to find friends and allies in the various peoples the Aztecs had previously subjugated. The Romans also had no illusions about their place in the world in the waning days of their Empire; they no longer harbored beliefs that they were superior to their “barbarian” foes, most of whom used Roman-style battle tactics, weapons, and armor, and many of whom had served in the legions. Similarly, the Austro-Hungarians had seen their influence and territories erode to the point that they were no longer the continent-striding giants they had been under their ancestors and become one of five members of the “Concert of Europe” which they knew all along could not remain balanced with the emergence of a unified Germany. The pre-revolutionary French nobility may not have perceived the growing threat to the ancien regime before the Tennis Court Oath, but they certainly did not consider themselves immune to internal threats or fail to appreciate the ideological threat that republicanism represented to either their own status as elites or France’s strength and wealth.

The most telling chapter is also the most difficult to read, the second chapter called “The Illusion of Love.” In it, Hedges advances the claim that pornography is taken for love when it is only an illusion. It is a manufactured product, sold to us to make us feel less lonely and to appeal to our appetite for sex, and thus becomes a poor substitute for the real value in life we should be pursuing, which is a happy, healthy relationship with chosen life partners that might include sex. Pornography is, Hedges claims, not only an empty vessel in which no true love can be found, a look at the way it is produced and the motives of its producers reveals a profound contempt of humanity and a crass desire for profit, profit, profit.

A far better topic for Hedges to make his point that our society only offers the illusion of love and not its reality would be to point out how, in movies and television, sex is used as a substitute for love. Characters who seem to dislike each other have sex, and then they are in love. Indeed, the rapid mutual dislike to sexual tension to sexual release to pair-bonding dynamic is so common it has become a predictable trope of most movie plots. From there, Hedges would need to take the next step and demonstrate how this shallow, unrealistic, and shopworn writer’s shorthand bleeds out from the screen into real life. Were he able to do this, he would more effectively and penetratingly illustrate the elevation of sex over love, indeed over happiness itself.

True love, as those who enter into long term relationships know, is not a constant rush of overwhelming passion and lust. To be sure, passion and lust are there and sometimes they reach to the top in often-enjoyable episodes of real life. But true love is also about partnership and understanding and accommodation. These things are harder for screenwriters to work in to twenty-three minute episodes of television shows with two or three dramatic “spikes” to keep the audience watching during commercial breaks. That is because working together with the one you love to build a life together is a process, not always a conflict, and one which at best lends itself to the dramatic model of a “slow burn”.  “Slow burn,” alas, is hard to write and harder to film, at least in a compelling way.

More to the point, it is also not something for which Hedges can find a clear, direct, and most of all, viscerally shocking anecdote with ease. Instead, he points to pornography. Even there, we can infer by omission that he cannot find something good enough within the boundaries of “mainstream” porno, and instead looks to gang bang films and love doll vendors. With a Puritanic streak that seems in stark contrast to the rest of his generally liberal diatribe, Hedges offers the claim that all pornography is about the degradation of the women, that they must be seen as being physically harmed (as in rape porn), fools to be exploited and deceived (in the “gonzo” videos), or rendered into disgusting untouchables (as in gang bang videos).

The issue that Hedges ignores here is the same one that he only barely acknowledges in his first chapter, and to which he pays scant attention elsewhere – all of the phenomena he finds so awful are driven by the market. In pornography, the “mainstream” of work is one guy and one girl getting it on. This may not be nearly as sexy to create as the finished product might indicate; there are certainly elements of guy-girl porn which can be described as exploitative and no sane person ought to confuse what is depicted in a porno video for love. Perhaps most interestingly from a cultural point of view is the suggestion of porno that sex is a glorious activity which bring rapturous pleasure to both (or all) parties participating therein, which is something of an exaggeration, indeed, sometimes a considerable one.

It ignores the fact that (at least according to my source) about a quarter of all porno produced is gay porn, depicting sex between men. With no women involved at all in gay porn – at least in front of the camera – it is difficult indeed to understand how gay porn exploits and degrades women.

Hedges would like to suggest that something new and very dangerous is going on in our society. He wants to point to pornography as a manifestation of this phenomenon, and in his last chapter we find out what that really is – the reduction of America to a corporate feudalism, albeit a feudalism based on economic loyalties rather than geographic location. (He also describes the “desired” end state of this process as a fascism, which is perhaps closer to the mark in that there are people out there who advocate what seems to be a fascist state in all but name today. More about this below.) Pornography, he points out, is sold by large and “mainstream” corporations like Time Warner and General Motors. Therefore, it must be bad, it must be aimed at ultimately tricking us to willingly enslave ourselves to… something.

And this point is ultimately one that Hedges could not make. If pornography is the use of visual images as a sexual stimulant, then is something that has been around for as long as there has been writing and illustration, it is something that societies around the world and throughout history, and in particular Western civilization, has been able to tolerate and indeed incorporate into their cultural ascents. Some kinds of literature and art have been considered pornographic when produced – D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover, or Titian’s Venus of Urbino depicted as she is in what can only be called a masturbatory pose. No one has been economically or politically enslaved by this kind of art, and indeed some of this art is understood to be of profound importance to our society.

There are more subtle points to make about pornography.  Perhaps there are those who become addicted to pornography, and this is surely a bad thing.  But there are also those who become addicted to alcohol or tobacco or other substances, coincidentally also manufactured and sold by big corporations for many generations, and freedom has not become systemically endangered thereby even if individual lives have been degraded. But even if Hedges wanted to go down the rabbit hole of discussing the harm to individuals done by pornography addiction, it is a big stretch academically to say that this harm has a broader social effect; such research is inconclusive at best and subject to substantial refutation in most cases. And he wouldn't get to gross out his readers with his depiction of the aftermath of filming a particularly atrocious and unsexy piece of porno.  It is ironic indeed that he makes this journalistic choice immediately after he had so effectively excoriated the mass media industry for selling sensation over substance.

The corporations which produce it are also hardly a uniformly moral weight on society and not a danger to it. To be sure, especially in his description of pornography, Hedges finds some pornographers who make morally questionable, if not indefensible, statements. But the larger point is one which Hedges glosses over in his first chapter, with his references to Aldous Huxley, and misses the focal point of. In his references to Huxley, Hedges acknowledges and then fails to revisit the point later that we are willing participants in the creation of all of the illusions he so bitterly condemns. The focal point that he misses is that these illusions are things that people want and the “evil” corporations simply react to the demands of the marketplace.

If Hedges wanted, he could re-iterate the well-known fact that corporations are sociopathic and engender sociopathic decision-making by their officers. Corporations exist to maximize profit for their shareholders. There is perhaps no better way to make this point than a point Hedges does make, which is to point out that the CEO who chooses a smaller profit margin so that the corporation can have, for instance, a less deleterious environmental impact on the world is exposing himself to a substantial risk of being sued for millions of dollars by shareholders hungry for the extra profit that his decision caused them to forego. At the same time, such a point ignores the fact that such a corporation is likely already the target of such litigation, and most such litigation fails because of the highly deferential “reasonable business purpose” defense.

The corporations that make and sell pornography, professional wrestling, and indeed any other sort of entertainment or quasi-entertainment media are responding to a market demand. If people demanded “hard news,” corporations would produce it. Indeed, people do demand hard news. Corporations like Reuters, the New York Times, the BBC, and the Associated Press meet that demand. It is a legitimate and important question to ask how they go about producing that news and how they go about selling it to us. In a world where the business model supporting that activity is one where the news itself is given away for free and supported by paid advertising, a legitimate fear can and should be articulated that the news product becomes distorted; Hedges might point to, for instance, Fox News as an example of how the substance of the news becomes tailored to meet the market demands perceived by the profit-seeking controllers of the organization.
Ultimately, Hedges reveals his real orientation towards the end of his book, and while he would claim it is anti-capitalist, it is in fact ultimately anti-democratic:
Democracy and capitalism are antagonistic entities. Democracy, like individualism, is based not on personal gain but on self-sacrifice. A functioning democracy must often defy the economic interests of elites on behalf of citizens, but this is not happening.

Democracy seems best to Hedges when people make the same choices that he does. Were people to read the same kinds of news he does, watch the same kind of culturally-rich entertainments he does, and most of all were they to elect the kinds of progressive politicians he favors, America and by extension the world would be a much better place. Alas, democracy also compels those who lose elections to accept and live with the results, and not everyone always votes your way.  Sometimes the results are not to your liking and sometimes the people as a whole do not choose self-sacrifice.  This does not make the selfish (and thus capitalistic) choice any less democratic.  Less wise, perhaps.  Hedges does not acknowledge, but seems to trace, the long-worn objection of Plato to democracy, which is that eventually a democracy necessarily will deteriorate into a tyranny.  Nor does he acknowledge the fact that the results of democracy are that the American people have consistently chosen capitalism -- thus, his tut-tuts about the unwashed masses who continue to choose things that Hedges in his wisdom pronounces destructive and evil.

Hedges rails against the American polity as a whole, and Democratic party of Bill Clinton in particular, for failing to adopt the kinds of laws which would weaken what he sees as the creeping corporate state, which he alternatively describes as either feudal or fascistic.  The “fascism” moniker strikes closer to home because the real horrors of fascism are not so far removed in historical time from our own experience. Moreover, there are those who seem to advocate fascist kinds of governmental structures for the United States, although they do not use that label to describe the strong-state solutions to perceived problems they identify. The Republicans, by implication, seem to Hedges to have sold out so long ago and so completely that it’s not worth taking the time to describe them as anything other than jackbooted warmongering stormtroopers:
…the right today is a fundamentally illiberal and authoritarian movement. It endorses the systematic use of torture. It defends unchecked presidential power of matters of national security. It excuses massive violations of Americans’ civil liberties committed in the name of fighting terrorism. It supports bloated military budgets, preventive war, and open-ended, nation-building occupations. It calls for repressive immigration policies. Far from being anti-statist, it glorifies and romanticizes the agencies of government coercion: the police and the military. It opposes abortion rights. It opposes marriage equality. It panders to creationism. It routinely questions the patriotism of its opponents. It traffics in outlandish conspiracy theories. If you’re serious about individual freedom and limited government, you cannot stand with this movement.
There is truth to each of these accusations. But once again, Hedges identifies the worst of something and attributes it to the whole. He ignores the significant strains of libertarianism still extant within the Republican party because that would create ambiguity; his point is much stronger when the GOP is nothing but a bunch of Jerry Falwell acolytes and press representatives of defense contractors rather than the reality, which is that the GOP, like the Democratic Party, is a broad coalition of people with diverse interests and priorities who try to find some degree of common ground in the process of selecting and electing candidates to office.

However, he has no love for the Democrats, either. He accuses Democrats, acting under Bill Clinton’s leadership and continuing through to the Presidency of Barack Obama, of selling themselves out to the creeping corporate hegemony and thus placed us at risk of becoming within our lifetime a nation of mentally-numbed slaves. And our current economic travails are, in Hedges’ opinion, the most dangerous element of all, possibly leading to the specter of a statist, pro-corporate, fascist revolution under the hands of a Democrat claiming to act on behalf of the interests of the people as a whole:
It was the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia that gave us Slobodan Milosevic. It was the collapse of the Weimar Republic that vomited up Adolf Hitler. And it was the breakdown in czarist Russia that opened the door for Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. Financial collapses lead to political extremism.
But if we have an ineffective government in which there is no substantial difference between the parties who nevertheless do not communicate with each other, Hedges ignores the possibility that this is the result of society reaching a consensus on the issues he cares about and therefore this is the government that we the people have actually chosen.

After all, we like our big corporations. We participate in them by buying stock in them. More than once I’ve heard people talk about “my” grocery store, even though they only shop in it rather than owning stock in it. More people register as, and in recent elections vote for, Democrats than any other political affiliation. Barack Obama may not be as liberal as Hedges would have hoped but he is, in fact, a different kind of President than John McCain would have been and our country is in a different place now than it would have been had the election produced the other result. True, the differences may in some cases be incremental rather than qualitative and in some cases not as dramatic as sensationalist media might depict, but there are nevertheless important differences still out there.

And finally, Hedges comes very close to imputing an intentionality behind what he sees as the creeping corporate takeover of America. He flirts with paranoid conspiracy theories in so doing; while fun, such thoughts have so very little to do with reality that they are not worthy of serious consideration. There is no cabal of corporate titans having secret meetings to plot a generations-long takeover of the United States. That is not to say there are not now, nor never have been, corporate conspiracies with political implications; it is to say that the kind of massive conspiracy Hedges portrays is a bogeyman with no corporeal reality. Hedges hints at but stops short of avowing its existence, but no such intentionality exists. Hedges argues, more explicitly, that the intentionality is the result of class stratification and the elites of our society going to the same schools which are the effective preserve of the elites, running in the same elite social circles, and having large amounts of money.

Again, there are good points to be made here because it is true that our elites suffer from a homogeneity in their backgrounds, a homogeneity which is not shared with the unwashed masses Hedges claims to champion despite their disinterest in the form of his championship. And in each chapter, Hedges scores good and important points – too many of our people do consider entertainments to be more important than reality; too many of our schools, including allegedly elite universities, fail to properly educate students particularly in critical thinking skills; too many of our people are not involved in government and public policy, which gives disproportionate power to those who have a direct economic incentive to not be so passive about politics. He is right to complain that there is so little political dialogue:
More than the divides of race, class, or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or nonbeliever, red state or blue state, our culture has been carved up into radically distinct, unbridgeable, and antagonistic entities that no longer speak the same language and cannot communicate.
* * *
What counts today isn’t engaging the other side with reasoned arguments; it’s building a rabid fan base by demonizing the other side and stoking the audience’s collective sense of outrage and victimization. And that’s a job best performed not by serious thinkers but by hacks and hucksters. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Joseph Farah, Ann Coulter, Michelle Malkin: they adorn the cathedral of conservatism like so many gargoyles.
While Hedges is right to complain that this phenomenon of polarization is dangerous – because it is – and that charismatic quasi-entertainers like Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity are guilty of perpetrating and encouraging that polarization for the purpose of lining their own pockets, he fails pointedly to note that the phenomenon has a mirror image on the other side of the coin – figures like Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and Dan Rather are as guilty of neglecting reality and offering propaganda instead of substance. The reason for this is that there is little appetite in the public for subtlety, nuance, or ambiguity. “Moderates” have no place in the world because “moderates” are characterizes as the other side of the debate whenever they disagree with your side of the debate – witness how U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, for example, is depicted as a “conservative” by liberals and as a “liberal” by conservatives. Kennedy is in reality a moderate who seeks to forge his own way and make up his own mind and is not a reliable vote for any “side” of an issue. He is likely to be the last of his kind in his institution for the foreseeable future – because, ultimately, the public has little appetite for moderation.

But if Hedges is the champion of the willingly-deluded masses (and I’m not so sure that they have lost the ultimate ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality as he is) he is a figure like Peter Romanov, attempting to pull the people towards his version of enlightenment while they kick and scream and object the whole way. Disturbingly, Hedges points to the failure of the government to take action to stop all of this – when “all of this” consists of the aggregation of millions of choices made by millions of people all purely voluntarily.

Hedges may think he’s doing it for the good of a free society, but at the end of the day, his impulses are as elitist and anti-democratic as those whom he condemns. We’ve been making bad choices, Hedges says, and it’s high time that the government intervenes and starting having us make better choices. It leaves me with the impression that Hedges would become a William Calley of our modern culture, destroying individual freedom in order to save it.

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