Knowledge vs spectacle

Alternet ran a good piece recently about the media circus and the price viewers will pay by believing everything they see (breaks added).

Mass entertainment plays to the basest and crudest instincts of the crowd. It conditions us to have the same aspirations and desires. It forces us to speak in the same dead clichés and slogans. It homogenizes human experience. It wallows in a cloying nostalgia and sentimentalism that foster historical amnesia. It turns the Other into a cartoon or a stereotype.

It prohibits empathy because it prohibits understanding. It denies human singularity and uniqueness. It assures us that we all have within us the ability, talent or luck to become famous and rich. It forms us into a lowing and compliant herd. We have been conditioned to believe—defying all the great moral and philosophical writers from Socrates to Orwell—that the aim of life is not to understand but to be entertained.

If we do not shake ourselves awake from our electronic hallucinations and defy the elites who are ruining the country and trashing the planet we will experience the awful and deadly retribution of the gods.

Oh, there’s no need to bring silly god beliefs into this. Our own hubris and ignorance will bring us down, just wait. I don’t know who ordered the bread and circuses but you’d think at some point people would start to wonder what else there was to eat and do. At some point you’d think…wouldn’t you? Or are people forgetting how to do that, if they ever properly learned in the first place?

I read a book by Chris Hedges, the author of the above article, some weeks ago and I’m just getting around to writing about it now. It’s called Empire of Illusion: the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle. It’s a fairly short book and he breaks it down into five different illusions: literacy, love, wisdom, happiness and America.

About literacy from page 44:

Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic. There are 7 million illiterate Americans. Another 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can’t read a simple sentence. … A third of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.

And don’t be thinking Canada’s doing better; he claims 42 percent of Canucks are in the same semi-literate boat. That’s appalling.

When writing about the illusion of love, he focuses on the reality of the porn industry. It doesn’t matter that women are often paid far more than men (who make a third of the cash a woman can according to page 77) to take it up the pussy or the ass. What is the continued support of this industry doing to women and the men who objectify and abuse them? Page 87:

Porn glorifies the cruelty and domination of sexual exploitation in the same way popular culture … glorifies the domination and cruelty of war. It is the same disease. It is the belief that “because I have the ability to use force and control to make others do as I please, I have a right to use this force and control.” It is the disease of corporate and imperial power.

He gets a little godly again here by claiming that instead of sacred pursuits, humans “worship power, control, force, and pain” and replace “empathy, eros, and compassion with the illusion that we are gods. Porn is the glittering façade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.”

Wouldn’t he be a fun guy at a party? I don’t disagree with him, though.

Wisdom is next. He relays an anecdote about doing three years of seminary but still being unable to grok what a classmate said about the related work she was doing. Real wisdom is getting replaced with buzz words and esoteric turns of phrase that mean fuck all. Private dialects, language and terminology reserved for the “elite” segregate people into those who can Know and those who can’t. Even educators are stripping the history and reality out of the very books they claim to be teaching. Page 97:

Writers from Euripides to Russel Banks have used literature as both a mirror and a lens, to reflect back to us, and focus us on, our hypocrisy, moral corruption, and injustice. Literature is a tool to enlighten societies about its ills. … In the hands of academics, however, who rarely understand or concern themselves with the reality of the world, works of literature are eviscerated and destroyed.

He’s hard on ivy league schools and other institutions that pride themselves on their architecture over what their kids should be learning inside. He points to the pursuit of wealth over intelligence as the biggest problem. If success is determined by the size of our bank accounts instead of how well we actually do across the board, then we’re getting a skewed perspective of what’s most important.

Happiness isn’t what’s most important either. I dog-eared page 117 when I read that page and it must have been because of the positive psychology paragraph. Corporations wind up spending a shit load of money on conferences and getaways where the whole purpose of them is to try to teach their people how to think positive and create success through the tricks of positive thinking. There are scads of business books where that’s all that’s in them for advice – catchy slogans and pithy pseudo-smart phrases that look enlightening and helpful but mean squat.

On pages 119-120 He calls this all a

flight into self-delusion [that] is no more helpful in solving real problems than alchemy. But it is very effective in keeping people from questioning the structures around them that are responsible for their misery. Positive Psychology gives an academic patina to fantasy.

By page 129 he’s explaining another reason why this is problematic.

The promotion of collective harmony, under the guise of achieving happiness, is simply another carefully designed mechanism for conformity. Positive psychology is about banishing criticism and molding a group into a weak and malleable unit that will take orders. Personal values, those nurtured by an independent conscience, are gently condemned as antagonistic to harmony and happiness.

So basically, if you refuse to fit in, you’re out. Out of synch, out of a job. They play on the fear of unemployment to really drive this business. It was never meant to be a mood booster. He’d probably call it a corporate conspiracy.

He’s hard on corporations in the last part of the book. Corporations have a stranglehold on the American government, he claims, and not just in terms of defense contracts. NAFTA made setting up shop across borders easier for corporations but the result of that was job losses in every town that relied on those industries to survive. Social services like health care and welfare systems are also in jeopardy. He mentions a book (and film) called The Corporation where they’re compared to the list of attributes usually reserved for psychopaths. They’re also treated like individuals with the same legal rights to donate to candidates, fund lobbyests and advertise how great they are compared to competition (if there is any). Page 182:

Individualism is touted as the core value of American culture, and yet most of us meekly submit, as we are supposed to, to the tyranny of the corporate state. We define ourselves as a democracy, and meanwhile voting rates in national elections are tepid, and voting on local issues is often in the single digits. … Our corporate elite tell us government is part of the problem and the markets should regulate themselves–and then that same elite plunders the U.S. Treasury when they trash the economy. … There is a vast and growing disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do. We are blinded, enchanted, and finally enslaved by illusion.

Which is where I’ll leave off quoting. He finishes the book with the same advice Madeleine L’Engle used to end A Wrinkle in Time, and it sounded just as hokey when I was twelve, as it does now: love conquers all.

Doesn’t make him wrong about the power of that, though. Hope and love and bravery. A willingness to do what’s right in the face of adversity. To show we care about other people, demonstrate that we want to change how things are to make the world better for everyone, no matter what personal risk we’d be under when we attempt to do it. But we’d have to do more than just say it.


Additional: I’m not the only one writing about this topic today. Via Hurtling Through Space I learn of Seth Rogan’s Blog and his take on it.

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