Amid the hoopla over Barack Obama’s “historic” presidency, Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize winner and author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (PublicAffairs, 2002) and American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2007), offers a grim prognosis for American democracy. Hedges asserts that our culture is based entirely on illusions, which we consume through mass entertainment, and he foresees only further decadence, like the bread and circuses occupying the Roman masses in the last days of their empire. Hedges makes a persuasive case that we have reached a similar stage.
Hedges’ achievement is to connect economic conditions with our appetite for sensational popular culture. As the economy worsens and inequality increases, Americans’ appetite for fantasy grows; this in turn leads to further economic deterioration, because people get disengaged from the public processes that might improve their lives. To make progress, first we must establish the truth. Hedges argues that in a culture driven by illusion, truth is always up for grabs. Celebrity culture reigns—and Obama is the final conquest of celebrity culture.
In Hedges’ early chapters, he illustrates the degradation of culture by focusing on professional wrestling and pornography. Here a Puritan censoriousness interferes with his argument. Hedges argues that wrestling is a vehicle for revenge fantasies of the resentful working class; the villains transform according to the needs of the time. Hedges visits the awards ceremony of the porn industry, letting porn stars explain how they serve increasingly grotesque demands. Beneath the judgmental tone he argues that porn, like other manifestations of the culture of illusion, must become more and more bizarre to turn viewers on. He also assumes, questionably, that degradation of women in real life follows from degradation in porn. But when he identifies the similarities between the Abu Ghraib images and some debased forms of pornography, he is on terra firma. The sadism is similar.
A different way to put it is that in politics, as in porn, the consumer—formerly the voter, now the passive spectator—demands increasingly grotesque entertainment. If we accept that politics has been remade as a branch of entertainment then we face the consequences of our impotence as citizens.
Similarly, the politician can be successful only to the extent that he imitates the precepts of celebrity culture. It may have seemed innocuous when Obama, at an October 2008 rally, asked, “Are we going to look forward with hope, or are we going to look backwards with fear?” But rhetoric free of content gives the politician license to heed special interests—and authorize more troops for Afghanistan, for instance—while speaking in platitudes. Regardless of what a politician does in office, he can’t break with his celebrity image, which acquires a life of its own. We protect them, they protect us: At no point do politicians interfere with what Hedges calls the “consistency of our belief systems,” as we don’t interfere with the consistency of their image.
Hedges takes aim at elites as well, arguing that our top universities “do only a mediocre job of teaching students to question and think,” focusing instead “through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers.” Corporations, which finance questionable research, have made deep inroads at our best universities. Economists, literature professors and political scientists all employ “obscure and incomprehensible language” to maintain the illusion that all is well and real advances in knowledge are being made.
What happens to the educated elite once they leave their training grounds? Certainly, they don’t want to rock the boat, since their privilege is contingent on the system continuing. “Obama is a product of this elitist system,” Hedges says. “So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They come out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley, and Princeton. Their friends and classmates made huge fortunes on Wall Street and in powerful law firms. They go to the same class reunions. They belong to the same clubs. They speak the same easy language of privilege, comfort, and entitlement.” They are not creative enough to think their way to a new system. Echoing Walter Kirn’s recent criticisms in Lost in the Meritocracy, Hedges reserves his sharpest barbs for how the elites spend “their entire lives in a state of total self-delusion and perpetual childhood,” protected from the travails that the rest of us face.
Hedges knows well that those who “grasp the hollowness of celebrity culture” will be condemned for being too pessimistic. Barbara Ehrenreich has recently written, in Bright-sided, about the pervasiveness of false optimism, which prevents realistic assessment of our personal and public dilemmas. Hedges provides pessimism in large doses. The credibility of his claims may be gauged by the degree of change in this, the first year of our Era of Hope. Most people’s income continues to erode. Inflation and unemployment are severely understated. Ehrenreich and Hedges criticize “positive psychologists” for preaching optimism to laid-off workers and university students. The Washington bureaucracies echo various forms of “false enthusiasms.” Hedges quotes Ralph Nader on the financial bailout: “Bankrupt corporate capitalism is on its way to bankrupting the socialism that is trying to save it.”
Hedges is the rare voice proclaiming the accelerating moral death of our empire. We desperately need to hear what he has to say.
Anis Shivani is a fiction writer, poet and critic in Houston. His latest collection of short stories is Anatolia and Other Stories, Black Lawrence Press/Dzanc Books.