The American journalist and author Chris Hedges addressed the culture of consumption, the perils of unfettered free-market capitalism and America’s obsession with celebrity culture before a packed conference room at Fresno State’s Henry Madden Library Wednesday night.
Hedges has been a foreign correspondent for two decades, covering conflict in over 50 countries, and was part of a group for the New York Times that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for their coverage of global terrorism.
Hedges sought to explain some of the key concepts from his recent book, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle.”
Hedges argued that the perverted ethic of celebrity culture, most commonly seen in reality television, is fostered by the ethic of corporatism and the delusion of a self-regulating free-market economic system, and has thus produced a majority culture that is unable or unwilling to separate truth and substance from fantasy and illusion.
“The cult of self, which [Michael] Jackson embodied, dominates our culture,” Hedges said after depicting the spectacle surrounding Jackson’s life, public persona and his eventual death. “This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, self-importance, a need for constant stimulation; affection for lying, deception and manipulation, and the incapacity for remorse.”
This ethic promoted by corporate culture and marketing breeds passive citizens that internalize these cult-of-self messages, argued Hedges.
“The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed to simply entertain, it is designed to drain us emotionally, confuse us about our identity, condition us to chase illusions of unachievable fame and happiness, and to keep us from fighting back.”
In the face of economic and political turmoil, fraud and deception, this infatuation with a promotion of self-worth personified by spectacles of the unreal, Hedges claimed, has created a populace “that is unprepared intellectually, emotionally and psychologically” for such crises.
“Even in the face of catastrophe, mass culture assures us if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will become harmonious and complete,” said Hedges. “This cultural retreat into illusion that are peddled by positive psychologists, Hollywood or Christian preachers, is a form of magical thinking.”
The ethic of commodity culture that reveres homogeneity under the guise of different “brands” is pervasive in our political culture, Hedges argued.
This ethic has enslaved Washington to the interests of corporations, lobbyists and globalization, and has left many Americans blind to how political parties are different brands of the same anti-democratic forces.
“Brand Obama is about being happy consumers,” said Hedges. “We feel entertained, we feel hopeful, we like our president, we feel he is like us.”
This false reality, he said, blinds Americans from acknowledging how little difference exists between the Bush and Obama administrations, because the corporate structure and celebrity ethic is still in place, and will always dominate so long as it is intact. The “Obama Brand” has diverted our attention from how he has continued the security state, corporate welfare, aggressive imperialism and human suffering at the expense of democracy and the American working class.
“Obama has given $12.8 trillion to Wall Street and insolvent banks to re-inflate the economy,” he said. “He has appropriated $1 trillion in defense related spending. He will not prosecute [George W.] Bush for war crimes…He has simply made the defiance of domestic and international law bi-partisan.”
Hedges added that the “so-called health care reform bill” is an illusion that not only maintains, but also promotes the corporate structure by throwing $400 billion in subsidies at private, for-profit health insurance companies, who are still permitted to raise co-payments and premiums.
“For-profit health care, like the defense industry, makes money from death and suffering. It is legally permitted to hold a sick child hostage, while their families frantically bankrupt themselves to save their child. Any discussion of health care should acknowledge that our for-profit health care system is the problem and should be destroyed.”
Media’s implicit submission to the corporate structure is a product of being corporate forces themselves, and Hedges deems American media as “pork ears”— individuals or groups whose primary role is to parrot official propaganda.
“The media has evolved into a class of pork ears. The Democrats, like the Republicans, are mostly pork ears. We are captivated by the hollow stagecraft of political theater. Pork ears do not defy the elite or question the structure of the corporate state, and these corporations, in return, employ them and promote them as celebrities or elected officials. Pork Ears are hedonists of power. They are the smiley faces of the corporate state.”
The institutionalized pork ears of America, Hedges said, downplay the negative consequences of the corporate state.
“Our actual unemployment rate, when you include those who have stopped looking for work, and those who can only find poorly paid part-time jobs, is not 10 percent. It is somewhere between 17 and 20 percent; a sixth of the country is unemployed, and shedding more jobs than we did after the 1929 crash.”
Hedges added that in such crises as the ones we face currently, pork ears continue “a sort of coup d’etat in slow motion” that preys on the despair and futility of citizens.
“These anti-democratic forces will use fear, chaos and hatred of the ruling elites and a specter of left-wing dissent and terrorism,” he said. “While they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, prophesying law and order, and crutching the Christian cross.
Totalitarianism, as George Orwell pointed out, is not so much an age of faith, but an age of schizophrenia. A society becomes totalitarian when its structure becomes flagrantly artificial.”
When asked by an audience member about the future of American education, Hedges held particular despair because the university system has gone completely corporate.
“As funds are cut, as universities further resemble for-profit entities, the only things they value are departments that make money, raise money, grant money, corporate money. That makes it really tough if you are in the English or philosophy department.”
This adulterated priority has been underway for quite some time, said Hedges.
“There has been an assault against the humanities since the beginning of the 20th century, and the reason is they see the humanities as subversive—and they’re right. That is why Socrates was put to death. The role of the humanities is to ask the broad moral questions to challenge assumptions and structures, and what the corporate state wants are vocational schools that produce systems managers that go into the corporate state. They don’t want people questioning the social, political and economic system by which it operates.”
Hedges tells his students to avoid personal debt, which he acknowledges is difficult for students who need loans for school. But other countries have circumvented this dilemma.
“If you told French-university students they had to pay 30, or 40 or 50 thousand dollars a year to go to college, they’d shut the country down. You shouldn’t have to pay a dime to go to school.”