Author Targets Pop Culture's 'Empire Of Illusion' Vapid talk shows, celebrity gossip, empty promises that you, too, can be happy and rich. Writer Chris Hedges took on war and the Christian right. Now, he targets pop culture and what he calls the cultural embrace of fantasy.
NPR logo

Author Targets Pop Culture's 'Empire Of Illusion'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106853619/106853618" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Author Targets Pop Culture's 'Empire Of Illusion'

Author Targets Pop Culture's 'Empire Of Illusion'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/106853619/106853618" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

NEAL CONAN, host:

In his new book, Chris Hedges argues that American culture has been emptied out and replaced by fantasy. The worse reality becomes, he writes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it; the more it distracts itself with squalid pseudo events of celebrity breakdowns, gossip and trivia. He attacks the debasement of popular culture on TV, in professional wrestling and pornography - what he describes as the moral nihilism of our elite universities and junk politics that personalizes and moralizes issues rather than clarifying them. Chris Hedges distinguished himself as a foreign correspondent for, among others, The New York Times and. for a time. NPR News.

He is also a former divinity student, taught at Princeton and is now a senior fellow at the Nation Institute. His new book is called "The Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle". Later in the program former war crimes prosecutor David Crane talks us -to talk about his new role as part of a cast of journalists and former special forces soldiers tracking down terrorists for the new TV program "The Wanted."

But first, "The Empire of Illusion" will bring callers into this a bit later. Joining us now from member station KOPB in Portland, Oregon, is Chris Hedges and Chris always nice to have you back in the program.

Mr. CHRIS HEDGES (Author): Thanks Neal.

CONAN: And there is a chapter called "The Illusion of America" which begins, I used to live in a country called America. Do you really see such a decline that is no longer America to you?

Mr. HEDGES: Yes. I think we have completely up ended the values that were once cherished by American culture. That's been a long process. It began in the early part of the 20th century with the rise of the advertising industry, which of course came right out of World War I, the Creel Commission and the creation of consumer culture, the turning of consumption into an inner compulsion had to replace something else. And what it replaced were these old values and I saw it, you know, among the generation of my grandparents in the small town in Maine where my family is from, of fifth(ph) - thrift.

We had multiple cultures within America, ethnic and immigrant cultures; regional identities with their own iconography and aesthetic expression and history - these diverse traditions of strong sense of self-sufficiency, a press that was decentralized to provide citizens with a voice in their own communities. All of these were destroyed to create mass corporate culture and with that came new desires and habits that were implanted by corporate advertisers to replace the old. And now we are paying the price for it because the economic meltdown is making it the illusion of America - creating a massive chasm between the illusion that we have of ourselves and the country in the reality.

CONAN: A lot of people would look back at America 100 years ago and say alright, there's been some homogenization of culture, it's hard not to argue that - of course there is mass media that didn't exist a 100 years ago either. But for the most part, people live longer, people are wealthier, people are better off.

Mr. HEDGES: For a period of time I think that was true. If you look at the, you know, certainly the economic situation for the working class in this country, real wages have been on the steady decline since the early 1970s. Many of those who are employed, at either part time employment -which is considered by the Bureau of Labor to be 21 hours a week or 28 hours a week - are living below the poverty line.

So, I think that that's a good example of how the hollowing out, or the destruction of our manufacturing base, has in fact created a situation where the managed capitalism that once characterized American society, that provided workers with benefits, pension plans and ability to bring home, if not an exorbitant salary, a salary that could sustain a family, allow them to buy a house, that's all gone.

We will cling to that illusion that American society provides that, but I think its now been arguably a few decades since that was true.

CONAN: Yet most people still do own their homes.

Mr. HEDGES: Well most people still own their homes, but the foreclosure rates are staggering. I think UBS is arguing that within one or two years, 12 percent of the American population will be forced from their homes and you're right in that - that level of income and that lifestyle was able to be sustained. But it was sustained through borrowing and credit. And now that credit and borrowing is vanishing. And that was part of the illusion of our economy - that we could borrow our way towards continued prosperity.

And all of that is ending. I think Charles Mayor, the historian at Harvard, correctly pointed out that there was a radical shift in American society a few decades ago, from a culture of production to what he calls a culture of consumption. And once that happened, we had built, within that system, as we dismantle our manufacturing base, an inevitable crisis - which, of course, we're now confronting.

CONAN: And I want to ask you about how this manifests itself in a couple of very different areas. The first of which is the narratives that are told in the professional wrestling ring, and this was when you and I grew up and watch this on…

Mr. HEDGES: Yeah.

CONAN: …Saturdays, this was pretty much straight forward good versus evil.

Mr. HEDGES: Yeah. Exactly my grandfather was a big fan of this stuff. And it was, as you remember, the, you know, the Russian Bear and that was…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEDGES: … a heavy undercurrent of racism, of course, because, you know, the hero was sort of Aryan and American and played fair and the Iron Sheikh was dirty and perfidious and…

CONAN: And a little bit of xenophobia. Yeah.

Mr. HEDGES: And that narrative changed, yeah. Yeah, I mean I'm not - I'm not defending the endemic stereotyping and but it did have clearly, to hug clearly to find narrative, which has changed radically. I spent a lot of time, you know, wondering around WWE and now it is - and I begin the book with talking about one of the major stars of the WWE, a wrestler name the Heartbreak Kid, his real name is Shawn Michaels. And he - the narrative that spun out and these back narratives are huge.

I mean and I think that is probably more of a draw for many of the fans then the actual sort of choreographed bouts within the ring. He's been completely broken. He's lost his home. He's lost his retirement. He's been completely wiped out by the economic crisis, and he is now a tool of a very dark corporate oligarchic figure, within the sort of storyline of the WWE, named JB.

And, you know, the emotions that this narrative incites - I mean I saw it in Madison Square Garden - are intense because people are playing having their own lives played out in the ring. The - you know, the whole so many of the bouts are about, you know, brother against brother. There is a bout about - there is a - and these are long running sort of stories, with their own storylines - but there is a bout between former prison guard and a constant challenge between one of his prisoners who appears in the ring in an orange jumpsuit who he - who suffers post traumatic stress disorder. Constant infidelities, constant of course women now are infused into the show, you know, and everybody cheats. There is no morality.

CONAN: Huh.

Mr. HEDGES: Every time the referee turns their back, even the supposed good guys will let their tag team partner climb over the ropes and pound some poor hapless wrestler on the floor. So the - and that's why I spent time with it, because I think we see in those changing narratives a change within American society itself. And you talked about moral nihilism. I think it begins to illustrate the moral nihilism that has descended on us courtesy of this commodity or consumer culture.

CONAN: And the part of the book that Chris Hedges is talking about, there's an excerpt from it on our Web site. You can go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. But the moral nihilism phrase was actually about not the Madison Square Garden but the groves of academe, and you argue there that our culture is just as debased and pointless and empty as it is in the professional wrestling ring.

Mr. HEDGES: Yes, and you know, I think you can see it in the financial sector. So many of these elite universities, and I attended some of them and have taught at others, have been about creating systems managers, people who are not trained to ask those broad questions that the humanities force students to ask, questions or meaning, to challenge assumptions, to challenge structures.

Instead, it's become increasingly narrow, and we see it in the kind of testing and winnowing process that students go through in order to get to these universities.

We celebrate a very peculiar kind of intelligence, which is analytical intelligence, and we denigrate, or we don't value, I think - at least within our elite systems - moral intelligence, creative intelligence, a kind of intuitive understanding of human nature, and that's very dangerous because these people, while certainly very bright and very competent, are trained only to sustain a dying system, and that's precisely what's happening with this largest transference of wealth upwards in American history, towards Citibank and AIG and Goldman Sachs and everything else. And the, you know, the assault that has been carried out by supposedly, you know, by many forces against supposedly liberal, you know, institutions and liberal professors, I think is really an assault against moral autonomy, against those who would teach people to back off.

I think, you know, real intellectual investigation and inquiry is, by its nature, subversive because it questions the injustice of structures and systems themselves, and that has been largely banished, even among our elite schools.

You know, only 100,000 students last year got degrees in the humanities, and I think that the kind of anemic decay of the humanities across our country again plays into the kind of moral nihilism that has led to criminal activity on the part of most of these financial institutions and the rise of Benjamin DeMott correctly calls junk culture and junk politics.

CONAN: A development which Chris Hedges describes as the increasing vocalization - not vocalization - vocationalization of our elite education system. And I just want to read this email from Kevin: The original American dream was life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This has been supplanted by the dream of independent wealth, which is an oxymoron.

I hear Neal say that people are wealthier and so better off - I did add healthier - as if we don't know that wealth seldom brings happiness to those who have it and often brings misery to those who are exploited to deliver that wealth to a few.

We're talking to Chris Hedges about his critique of American culture today, "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle." Well, what is it about American culture that gives you pause? What is it that gives you, well, promise? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. In his new book, Chris Hedges writes: Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we are bombarded with the cant and spectacle pumped out over the airwaves 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 are functionally literate but who make the choice not to read.

There is a vast and growing disconnect, he argues, between what we say we believe and what we do. We are blinded, enchanted and finally enslaved by illusion.

You can read more from Chris Hedges' book, "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle," at our Web site. It's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

What about American civilization, American culture, gives you despair? What gives you hope? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. There's also a conversation at our Web site. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Chris, we'll get some callers on the line shortly, but I did want to ask you who you think is behind this? From time to time in the book you use the phrase puppet masters.

Mr. HEDGES: I think it is clearly tied to the rise of the public relations and advertising industry after World War I, and there was a fundamental understanding on the propagandists, the Creel Commission or Committee for Public Information, set up by Wilson during the war.

You know, Edward Bernays, most of the great public relations figures of the 20th century came out of the Creel Commission, where they grasped, courtesy of Freud and others, that people were not, in fact, moved by facts. They could manipulated, especially if you learned how to, you know, appeal to these sort of subliminal desires, how to eroticize products like the car, and the - after World War I, most of these figures - well, all of the Creel Commission was disbanded almost immediately after the Armistice, and these people all went off to Madison Avenue, and corporations began to, for the first time, invest tremendous amounts of money and resources into saturating the culture with messages designed to perpetuate consumption and consumer culture.

So these are the people who I would describe as the puppet masters. This, of course, bled into government, the use of propaganda by government. Edward Bernays, for instance, was actually hired to carry out the publicity that made it possible to carry out the 1954 coup in Guatemala against Arbenz, and that has been something that I think mainstream media as long(ph) as the public has been reeling from ever since.

I think the bulwark against it was the high rates of literacy and the capacity to be literate. Now we are seeing, you know, with the death of newspapers, of newsprint, with the decline in the publishing industry, a culture that is increasingly shifting towards an image-based culture, one where they confuse how they're made to feel with knowledge. And in image-based cultures - I mean which totalitarian societies are in essence image-based cultures - it's very hard to distinguish between propaganda and ideology, especially when you become unmoored from literacy.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners in on the conversation, 800-989-8255. Gene is on the line from Fresno.

GENE (Caller): Hello, love the discussion, and I'm sure to buy the book soon. Your major argument, doesn't - isn't it preceded by the Enlightenment and of course people before that such as William of Okman(ph), who actually theologically broke away from several church tenets and created much more focus on individualism, and isn't this probably more of the focus that naturally would have happened within the context of modernity and what you're focusing on?

CONAN: Chris, let's not go too deeply into the divinity…

Mr. HEDGES: I feel like I'm back at my oral - at my orals at seminary. I think that - I guess I would - I mean, the whole critique of the Enlightenment, which I guess if people really want to go see it, they should read Reinhold Niebuhr's "The Nature and Destiny of Man," which is probably the most prescient critique I've seen.

There certainly was a dark side to the Enlightenment, but the cult of the self, which is really at the engine of consumer society and which now dominates our culture, is something that I think was not a gift of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, for its sort of, I think, its mistaken celebration of total rationality as the solution to all problems nevertheless, you know, was a great proponent of education and of course of literacy and did so much, I mean, in terms of issues of sanitation and everything else.

Europe freed the Jews from the shtetls, and the cult of the self is very different. It's - you know, and Christopher Lasch wrote about this in his book, "The Culture of Narcissism." It is about a kind of breakage of community.

You know, if you look at - and of course, this is what consumer society is about. It's about creating anxieties quite consciously, and fears, and then we pay these corporations in order to make ourselves more beautiful or more popular or identify with brands as a kind of mistaking brands with democratic egalitarianism. And this cult at its core - and we saw it on display in the very tragic life of Michael Jackson - is really about - it has many of the classical traits of psychopaths.

It's about superficial charm. It's about grandiosity and self-importance, a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying and deception and manipulation, and an incapacity for remorse and guilt.

It's about presentation; it's not about integrity. It's about image, and this is exceedingly dangerous, and this is an ethic that has just been, I think, has poisoned American civil discourse and American self-identity.

GENE: But in (unintelligible) isn't that just a vacuum or a structure that was created by, say, people like Nietzsche, who were searching for something? And so in that sense, yes.

CONAN: Gene, I'm going to answer - yes - and move along because we want to give somebody else a chance here. Thanks very much for the phone call. Here's an email we have from Patrick in Prescott, Arizona. A hundred years ago blacks were being lynched and could not vote or go to decent schools. Women could not vote. A lot of people might argue our culture has gotten less course and vile as a result.

Mr. HEDGES: Well, you know, certainly there has been moral progress, you know, both collectively and individually, and that's undeniable. But you know, societies also make moral reverses, and I think that we could argue that the disenfranchisement of the American working class, the kind of Weimarization of the American working class, the decision to use taxpayer - I think $12.8 trillion in promises and guarantees and printed money and loans and everything else by the federal government to prop up a financial sector is not an advancement. I think it's a reverse.

So I don't - certainly I - you know, acknowledge many of the great social movements that have propelled us forward towards a better society, but I think also there have been movements and systems that are damaging a country that, you know, I care very deeply about.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ryan. Ryan with us from Flagstaff.

RYAN (Caller): Yeah, I would - first, I would like to commend his argument on behalf of academia. I really do believe, as a student myself at university, that the critique of liberal education is really a sort of Trojan horse in order to insert anti-intellectualism into the discourse, and I do have sympathy for his arguments about the consumerization of society.

However, as the email from Prescott pointed out, you know, as a society, American in many ways was founded on an acquisitive, you know, acquisitive basis where we used the engine of capitalism in order to enslave people, in order to marginalize Native Americans. And when Mr. Hedges talks about this idealized past, it seems to me that he's treading a very thin line towards a reactionary tendency where you sort of, you eliminate in the past what is negative, and you sort of look at what you had, like what he had in Maine with his family and all these things.

But this we that he speaks of, or this America that we speak of, was such a fundamentally pluralistic thing that I think that it's difficult to, you know, just melt it down to that and then say that we have become baseless from that.

I think that capitalism itself has done this as a process over the last 500 years. I'll take my answer off the line. Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Ryan, thanks very much.

Mr. HEDGES: I think the caller makes a good point, and you know, as you know, Neal, I was very clear when I began that last chapter to recognize the injustices that the nation was founded on, not only against Native Americans and African-Americans but women and others, and - so all of that is true, and I don't in any way want to idealize the past. But I think that capitalism has made a very significant shift from managed capitalism to unregulated capitalism. And once we allowed capitalism to become unfettered, that created a new kind of configuration in American society. We built - you know, the state that I think, however, imperfectly, and certainly was imperfect, as your caller points out, the state had a capacity to respond to the interest of citizens that is no longer there.

I'll just take the example of the first bailout, $700 billion. Constituent calls running 100 to 1 against that bailout across the political spectrum. Some of the most impassioned speeches against the bailout were delivered from right-wing Republicans from Texas on the House floor, and yet it passed anyway, as far as the reform act did and other bills. And why? Because once the corporate state has a lock on the government, once we descend into what the political philosopher, Sheldon Wolin, calls inverted totalitarianism, the interest of citizens no longer matter, even when they're expressed as they were, for instance, on the issue of the bailout, even as they are expressed on the health care industry. I mean, any debate about health care should begin from the factual understanding that the for-profit health care industry is the problem, then you can go on and debate about how you want to do health care.

But because these forces have a powerful lock on the advertising industry, are able to sort of disseminate images which are lies, you know - in essence, a society awash in lies because candidates require funds from corporations in order to run, we - the government - you know, we've undergone, I think, a kind of coup d'etat in slow motion.

And so, I think that we've had a change in capitalism, which has been very pernicious for citizens and very good for corporations. And I think managed capitalism was a system that worked pretty well. And unfettered capitalism, as Karl Polanyi wrote in "The Great Transformation," has built within it a kind of collective suicide because it commodifies everything: human labor, as well as the natural environment. And it exhausts those resources until it crushes them. And that's what's happened with our working-class and that's what's happening with our ecosystem. I mean, remember, it's corporations that are literally destroying the ecosystem on which the human species survives.

CONAN: Chris Hedges' new book is the "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle."

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Chris, you could be vulnerable to a criticism that this is a very elitist argument. You're talking about the rest of us marching like sheep toward this totalitarian future. What makes you uniquely able to see through this scrim of illusion?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, it's elitist until you read my chapter on higher education. I think that there are certainly - and I think your show is one of the examples of it. I mean, there are, of course, you know, a significant segment of American society that retains the capacity for critical thought and serious discussion, but there's a vast difference between what you do and what these shoutfests do on these cable network shows. I mean, I don't think at this point it has almost any connection with the attempts that NPR and other serious news organizations are making. And coming out of the newspaper industry, it's - and being very in touch with what's happening, including at my own former paper, The New York Times - it's terrifying that when you see these other cultural forces ascendant. And I think those forces that have struggled to give a voice to different sides, different opinions have the capacity for self-criticism.

I mean, the great thing about a newspaper, a big-city newspaper, is that it gives you news you may not want. There's a democratic quality to newspapers. And as it becomes clear that newspapers are not going to migrate to the Internet and when we are going to see major metropolitan cities that no longer have a daily newspaper, this is, I think, a good example of how diminished our cultural and intellectual life is becoming.

CONAN: Let's get one last caller in. This is Christina(ph). Christina with us from Greeley, Colorado.

CHRISTINA (Caller): Hi, Chris. I was wondering - I was one of those hundred thousand humanities graduates last year and continuing in graduate school in humanities. And I was wondering what your solution is - my program maybe cut because our university wants to move to more - to sciences and how do we maintain humanities at this time?

Mr. HEDGES: Well, this is, of course, you know, the slashing of the humanities because they don't bring in the kinds of profits that other departments bring in. The emphasis on, quote, unquote, "vocational training" is an assault that is happening even at elite schools like Princeton. You know, I think, what, one percent of students last year majored in foreign languages. There's a kind of folding in on our self. And again, it is, I think, tied into the cultural shift that I am attempting to write about.

I don't know that I have an easy solution, except that other than standing up and sort of carrying the banner that these things are incredibly important, that the diminishing of the humanities has a direct correlation to, I think, the economic and political morass that we have stumbled in, that this is not simply, for instance, an economic crisis, but it's a moral crisis.

CHRISTINA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HEDGES: And we have to regain - I mean - and you've done it, and so you've done your part. But I, you know, I'm very, very worried about the decline of the humanities because it does precisely ask those broad and important questions that allow societies to carry out self-corrective forces, to criticize structures rather than retreat into very narrow and myopic forms of specialization, which become excuses for disengagement from serving the common good.

CHRISTINA: Thank you.

CONAN: Christina, good luck to you.

CHRISTINA: Thanks.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And Chris, thank you as always for your time today.

Mr. HEDGES: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Chris Hedges is the author of the new book "Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle." He joined us from KOPB, our member station in Portland, Oregon.

When we come back, we're going to be talking about a new television program - hunting terrorists and war criminals, and digging up criticism in the process. We'll talk with one of the cast members of the NBC news program "The Wanted." Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.