Friday, March 11, 2011

The Culture of Illusion

Occasionally I want to post excerpts from my reading that are a little 'deeper' than some of the subjects I deal with here on my blog.  One of the more impressive and controversial of the thinker/writers of our time is the former New York Times journalist Chris Hedges.  After covering war for about two decades all over the world, he came back to his native United States with new eyes.  And he has been writing about it as a social critic prolifically every since. 

I'm reading one of his recent books now, entitled Empire of Illusion, and here he presents his thesis that our American culture has become an illusional culture, where "the fabricated, the inauthentic, and the theatrical have displaced the natural, the genuine, and the spontaneous, until reality itself has been converted into stagecraft."  Hedges quotes historian Daniel Boorstin, who writes that "Americans increasingly live in a world where fantasy is more real than reality....We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so 'realistic' that they can live in them.  We are the most illusioned people on earth." 

What is follows is a more extensive excerpt that has the ring of truth to me.
We all have gods, Martin Luther said, it is just a question of which ones.  And in American society our gods are celebrities.  Religious belief and practice are commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities.  Our culture builds temples to celebrities the way Romans did for divine emperors, ancestors, and household gods.  We are a de facto polytheistic society....In celebrity culture, the object is to get as close as possible to the celebrity.  Relics of celebrities are coveted as magical talismans.  Those who can touch the celebrity or own a relic of the celebrity hope for a transference of celebrity power.  They hope for magic.  (P. 17)

We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality.  We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image.  Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level.  Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level.  We have transformed our culture into a vast replica of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island, where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun. They were all, hoever, turned into donkeys--a symbol, in Italian culture, of ignorance and stupidity....

Television, a medium built around the skillful manipulation of images, ones that can overpower reality, is our primary form of mass communication. A television is turned on for six hours and forty-seven minutes a day in the average household. The average American...will have spent nine years in front of a television by the time he or she is sixty-five. Television speaks in a language of familiar, comforting cliches and exciting images. It provides a mass, virtual experience that colors the way many people speak and interact with one another....It is the final arbitrator for what matters in life.

Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we are bombarded with the cant and spectacle pumped out over the airwaves or over computer screens by highly-paid pundits, corporate advertisers, talk-show hosts, and gossip-fueled entertainment networks. And a culture dominated by images and slogans seduces those who functionally literate but who make the choice not to read. There have been other historical periods with high rates of illiteracy and vast propaganda campaigns. But not since the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, and perhaps the brutal authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages, has the content of information been as skillfully and ruthlessly controlled and manipulated. Propaganda has become a substitute for ideals and ideology. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel. Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality. And in this preciptous decline of values and literacy, among those who cannot read and those who have given us reading, fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded.

The culture of illusion thrives by robbing us of the intellectual and linguistic tools to separate illusion from truth....Those captive to images cast ballots based on how candidates make them feel.  They vote for a slogan, a smile, perceived sincerity, and attractiveness, along with the carefully crafted personal narrative of the candidate.  It is style and story, not content and fact, that inform mass politics. (pp. 44-46)

Those captivated by the cult of celebrity do not examine voting records or compare verbal claims with written and published facts and reports. The reality of their world is whatever the latest cable news show, political leader, advertiser, or loan officer says is reality. The illiterate, the semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present....

The most essential skill in political theater and a consumer culture is artifice. Political leaders, who use the tools of mass propaganda to create a sense of faux intimacy with citizens, no longer need to be competent, sincere, or honest. They need only to appear to have these qualities....Those who are best at deception succeed.

An image-based culture communicates through narratives, pictures, and pseudo-dramas. Scandalous affairs, hurricanes, untimely deaths, train wrecks--these events play well on computer screens and television. International diplomacy, labor union negotiations, and convoluted bailout packages do not yield exciting personal narratives or stimulating images. A governor who patronizes call girls becomes a huge new story. A politician who proposes serious regulatory reform or advocates curbing wasteful spending is boring....Kings, queens, and emperors once used their court conspiracies to divert their subjects. Today cinematic, political, and journalistic celebrities distract us with their personal foibles and scandals. They create our public mythology. Acting, politics, and sports have become, as they were Nero's reign, interchangeable. In an age of image and entertainment, in an age of of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion.

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