Saturday, January 30, 2010

Empire of Illusion - a review

Window sticker: I get along with God just fine; It's his fan club I can't stand.
Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

ISBN 978-0-307-39846-8

203 pages.

In the 8th Century BC, writing during a golden age of Israel, the prophet Hosea issued a warning that all was not well. The New English Bible records it thus:

Hear the word of the Lord, O Israel;
for the Lord has a charge to bring against the people of the land:
There is no good faith or mutual trust,
no knowledge of God in the land,
oaths are imposed and broken, they kill and rob;
there is nothing but adultery and licence,
one deed of blood after another.
Therefore the land shall be dried up . . ..

Readers familiar with the style and message of the prophets may be reminded of Hosea and his fellows when they read Empire of Illusion. Chris Hedges portrays—often in lurid detail—the signs of decay in American culture and sounds the siren of warning: America is on skids, headed for disaster.

Empire of Illusion begins with an analysis of the changes that Hedges sees in the themes dominating professional wrestling. There was a time when audiences responded to images of a Russian being pummelled and defeated by a heroic figure. Now, “the idea of permanent personalities and permanent values has evaporated. It is all about winning. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood (10).” This theme re-echoes in TV and movies, shows like American Idol or Survivor where the nation watches as one victim after another is “voted off the island” until only one remains. An illiterate society is seduced by the fantasy, each cheering spectator dreaming of him/herself in the place of the victor, oblivious to the sham of such a perverted scenario.

America has become a nation of fantasizers and wishful thinkers, and the pursuit of knowledge and the skill of acquiring it (literacy) have decayed in direct proportion to the rise of spectacle and illusion. “ . . . endless, mindless diversion is a necessity in a society that prizes entertainment above substance. Intellectual or philosophical ideas require too much effort and work to absorb. Classical theatre, newspapers, and books are pushed to the margins of cultural life, remnants of a bygone, literate age. They are dismissed as inaccessible and elitist unless they provide . . . effortless entertainment. The popularization of culture often ends in its total degradation (43).” Hedges illustrates this point with a lurid tour of the world of pornography, an industry burgeoning as a consequence of the internet and the decay of fixed standards of conduct generally. He’s saying, basically, that the brutalisation of women and the victimization inherent in professional wrestling spectacles are peas and carrots in the same soup.

Of greatest interest to me was the chapter called “The Illusion of Wisdom,” possibly because the classroom has been my life. Hedges makes the linkages among the various prestige colleges in the USA and the political and corporate elites of the nation who are products of these colleges. Education in schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, he says, “focus instead (of teaching critical thinking), 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 (89).” The decline in education is evident in the growth of training institutions that are career-oriented along with the decline in the study of language, antiquities, history and the arts, for instance. Education as a branch of career planning rather than education as a preparation for living well in a free, functioning and egalitarian society.

Hedges echoes the voices out there that decry the manipulation of the population by the “elites.” Most of us—I guess—were appalled to learn about the details of the corporate greed and bungling resulting in the most recent economic collapse. What is even more appalling is what we’re seeing now: a return to the same corporate/political “business as usual” phenomenon, and so soon after the taxpayers bailed out the privileged. This may be the most blatant sign that the US, particularly, has passed the point of no return. The health reform bill of President Obama now appears to be a lost hope, evidence again that the privileged classes in the US are neither willing nor capable of reinventing themselves. They were never educated for repentance, were taught only how to manage privilege.

Hedges sees little distinction between the two political monoliths in America. Reading his assessment, one could come to the conclusion that the reins of power have been systematically, successfully hijacked by the corporate/political structure. It takes millions to mount a successful run at a senate seat; that effectively cuts out all the riff-raff and ensures that the economy will always remain in the privileged hands of the establishment.

According to Hedges, America is on the verge of turning into a fully-fledged tyranny, and tyranny succeeds best when the peons are illiterate, and to speed them down this slope, nothing works better than the propagation of fantasies, the cult of celebrity, the provision of endless, on-demand entertainment. If necessary, even the news can be turned into entertainment, hence the rise of tabloid journalism.

Empire of Illusion paints a dark picture of the US today. While that nation purports to be a beacon for democracy around the world, it has squandered its abundant resources on colonial forays into places where it doesn’t belong, has created or tolerated injustice to meet corporate goals and finally, built up a culture of celebrity and fantasy while allowing its educational institutions to decay. The warning is timely.

“Because this nation has rejected the waters of Shiloah, which run so softly and gently, therefore the Lord will bring up against it the strong, flooding waters of the Euphrates (Isaiah 8: 6 & 7a).”

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pleasure for sale

A few years ago, our family spent the Christmas weekend at the spa in Moose Jaw. Our room looked down on the casino next door and I was amazed at the traffic in cars and people at that place, even on a Sunday.

Aboard a cruise ship to Alaska on another occasion, I noticed the prominent placement of the casino on board. Psychology was my minor in College and I learned there that the most effective “training regime” for animals or humans consists of intermittent reward doled out at random. In other words, the pushing of the button on the VLT will reward the player sometime; he just doesn’t know which push will be the big one. A contemplation of that event is apparently a very, very intoxicating sensation for many, a source of addictive euphoria, a pleasure-stroking. A high.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the one who provides the means for people to access this road to pleasure is doing the work of a pimp. Pimping of this sort, furthermore, has become more and more acceptable. I stopped giving to the Red Cross when they began raising money by offering tickets to be drawn for cars, cash and other enticing stuff. Provincial coffers depend on pimping revenue, and First Nations in the US and Canada have latched onto pimping as an occupation that pays.

There are legitimate community interests at stake here. Money extracted by the pimping industry is money that could have circulated locally and done some good for the “commonwealth”. Instead, it’s often siphoned off to who-knows-where. In effect, it distorts the economy to a greater degree than we probably realize and it’s quite likely that the only remedy for this will be some dramatic changes in the way economies are governed.

Unfortunately, there’s no way to clean up an economy if the participants in it are unable or unwilling to act communally. It’s apparent that the rise in the pimping industries (those that cater primarily for pleasure seekers) will succeed more often where community spirit has been eroded and the “amateur” entertainments and pleasures have ceased to function. Where hockey is no longer a community sport, the door is open to professional hockey to retail its kind of spectacle. People who no longer go out on Friday nights for bridge are more likely to wander down to the casino for the relief of their boredom. Enter the pimp.

I bowl with friends every Wednesday evening in winter. The cost for the entire season is roughly the same as a mid-range ticket for ONE Toronto Maple Leafs game. Our bowling fees provide a neighbour—the woman who owns, runs and cleans the place—with a living. Talk about a bargain!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Legal pro******ion 101

Our cat, Horatio, loved being brushed, eating people food and having the area under his chin stroked. There was no doubt that these things triggered intense pleasure in him; cat owners will know what I mean.

Like cats, people are seekers of pleasure, whether in the form of entertainment, sensual “stroking”, relief from pain, vicarious conquest, etc., etc. Sometimes the stroking of our pleasure points is free, as in having someone scratch your back right where it itches. Sometimes, it costs, as in an aroma therapeutic session or a great movie.

Professional stroking is a huge business and frequently illegal as in prostitution, drug dealing, etc. Mostly, though, it’s considered legitimate business; think of professional sports, professional entertainment, cruise ship operation, casino operation, etc.

By some definitions, anyone who provides pleasurable “stroking” for a fee could be considered a prostitute. The debate about which is OK and which isn’t could be really interesting. It impinges on the questions of legalizing drug use and prostitution, for instance, and might well spill over into other realms, like the gouging of the public by offering the stroking they crave for an exorbitant fee.

A case in point: The internet is full of speculation on drug companies’ involvement in the recent swine flu “pandemic.” The reasoning goes like this: the word “pandemic” incites fear; a vaccine relieves the pain of this fear; the purchase of massive amounts of the vaccine means big profits for drug corporations; ergo, the drug companies were probably behind the pronouncement of a pandemic. By itself, the argument is, of course, incomplete. WHO could have raised the spectre without the drug companies’ urging and the profits could have been a windfall for the drug manufacturers, much like the tow truck operator benefits from a blizzard without having had a hand in causing it.

Sometimes when I see the shameless fast-food ads, see the euphoria on the faces of the actors in an ad for a pill, hear about the obscene remuneration paid to professional athletes, film actors, singers, etc., I have to wonder if we've nailed down the right forms of prostitution for prohibition.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Wilderness temptation

Grand Canyon wilderness
Sunday Morning. Hallelujah, schoener Morgen, Heute muss Ich nicht besorgen! We used to intone this perversion of a familiar German hymn (Halleluiah, what a morning, I don’t have to help with the chores today!) We still have some of those feelings. Sunday relieves us of our obligations for a short time. Ironically, on dairy farms that surrounded me when I was a kid, Sunday chores looked a lot like the chores of any other morning.

Our Sunday School discussion will focus on Matthew’s telling of the story of Jesus’ wilderness temptation. Dorothy Jean Weaver wrote the student book, I wrote the teacher’s manual and my friend E.T. will guide the discussion. The discourse will likely run the usual course, namely that the story illustrates Jesus’ temptations to chuck his messianic mission in favour of an easier road to power, self-gratification or personal comfort. If it stays there, however, it will miss an important other aspect: the legend of the wilderness temptation is a teaching parable, and we do well to interpret it more personally.

Take the temptation to turn stones into bread. Taking shortcuts to ensure that we in the West will always have food security—indeed the right to gluttony—is illustrated by this wilderness temptation. We have put our faith in chemicals, artificial fertilizers and technologies to such a degree that we are poisoning our environment in the interest of profits and food security while much of the world starves.

Take the temptation to hurl oneself off the pinnacle of the temple in a show of magic and the favour of God and His angels. The US went into Iraq with the “shock and awe” slogan and the prayers that God should “bless America.” While the citizenry cheered—especially the right wing of the Christian Church—the administration and the military “hurled themselves from the pinnacle of the temple” in a show of might and God’s favour. This will turn out to have been an evanescent dream; the evidence is there before us already.

And then there’s the worship of Satan as a route to ultimate power. Much of Christianity doesn’t get Satan as a mythological stand-in for the evil that all of us humans are capable of. At the root of much of our temptation is not a literal “worshipping of the devil,” but a very human “love of money,” and we are currently living through a depression whose very root is that evil, the worship of that “Satan.” It certainly grants power, this obeisance to that demon, but it is, in the end, a power founded on an evil preoccupation. This temptation is very strong and tests all of us one way and another. Our government has currently told us that “the economy is people’s main concern now,” not the environment or the Afghani detainees, one might add.

Matthew’s parable of the temptation is not actually about Jesus, it’s about you and me.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

New wine - old wineskins

The sermon this morning was based on Jesus’ metaphor of new wine in old wineskins. As a whole, it was a petition to us all to consider whether or not new priorities can be pursued successfully through old institutions. An example used was a book by Dambisa Moyo called Dead Aid, in which she apparently argues that African poverty is not so much in spite of foreign aid, but rather because of it. I haven’t read the book yet, but I did hear part of an interview with her in which she said that the governments of many African countries find it easier to obtain handouts than to work to develop their countries infrastructure so that self-sufficiency might one day be achieved. This phenomenon results in guaranteed poverty for the citizens, although the politicians never fail to fatten themselves at the foreign aid trough.

Moyo—we were told—doesn’t condemn all aid; help that is pointed specifically toward the self-sufficiency of targeted individuals, families and communities has an important role to play, as does disaster relief. Government to government foreign aid, however, Moyo maintains, is doing more harm than good.

What do you do when a panhandler holds out his hat to you in the street? “Got any spare change, my friend?” I generally walk right by. Most of the time, I have “promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep,” and that serves as a handy, Frostian, excuse to ignore the supplicant. I sense intuitively that a loony won’t make an appreciable difference to the man’s state of affairs, but at the same time, I expect the hot cup of coffee the loony might buy would be comforting in the short term.

So here’s the new wine. Charity is only given where it saves lives in an emergency, where it contributes directly to the goal of individual, family and community self-sufficiency and where there is no chance of fraud. If dignity, self-respect and self-sufficiency become our goals, then what new wineskin is needed to hold this new wine?

A very pertinent question, don’t you think?