AN ELOQUENT SCREED
Chris Hedges, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his war reporting for the New York Times, has written an eloquent screed against the negative effects of our entertainment-driven culture. As a complaint, it's spot-on. As a critique, it falls short: Hedges blames easy targets and fails to offer any sympathetic understanding of his victims (or perpetrators), or a constructive response to the crisis.
After a general opening essay, Hedges examines various ideals which have all been corrupted: love, subverted by the porn industry; wisdom, subverted by the academy; happiness, subverted by modern pharmacology; and society, subverted by our own government.
The reporter Hedges has done his homework: he unmasks pro wrestling, the porn industry, reality TV, the health care industry, wall street, corporations, and politicians in both parties as devious villains who work against the common good.
I, for one (to paraphrase the film Casablanca) am shocked--shocked! to find that anything questionable has been going on in those institutions. But Hedges has also visited the world of True Reality, and is here to tell us we are enslaved. Indeed, his explicit metaphor is Plato's cave, in which people are chained underground, watching shadows of the outside world play upon a wall. The chained people (a) should be aspiring to fully-dimensional forms, (b) should want to break their bonds, and (c) should welcome anyone who tells them about the wonderful world of 3-D ideals outside.
Plato would go on to describe his ideal Republic, in which philosopher kings rule over the stupid hoi polloi, who don't deserve representative democracy. Hedges--to his discredit--won't argue that people are stupid or ignorant or lazy, and chooses instead a Marxist tack that assails corporations and their corruption of the systems of production and finance.
THE SKY IS FALLING
What Hedges describes as a crisis is correct. He makes forensic errors however by opening his diatribe against the entertainment industry with alluring portrayals of pro wrestling and porn stars. He also creates a false dichotomy between "illusion" and "reality" by casting all entertainment as illusion, with no regard to the arts or other creative fields--until the very last paragraph of the book.
But whatever. I'm not going to take the bait and argue the benefits of our current entertainment culture. Indeed, by the time he's done interviewing burned-out porn stars and a disgusting businessman who plays with life-size silicone dolls, it's enough to make you sick. I never needed convincing that higher education was 90% a sham, either.
Nearly a third of our adult population is illiterate or barely literate. (p. 44) "A third of our high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42% of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book… A television is turned on for six hours and forty-seven minutes a day in the average US household… The average person will have spent 9 years in front of a television by the time he or she is sixty-five."
Functional illiteracy is epidemic. The porn industry is degrading. Pro wrestling, and most pro sports these days, are playgrounds for millionaires and serve basically as distractions from an ever-encroaching corporate takeover of our basic civil institutions.
So let his thesis rest: we are in a crisis. But is it a crisis of losing the battle against entertainment, or rather the crisis of something else lost?
TELEVISION DOESN'T KILL PEOPLE
Hedges himself casts his argument on the melodramatic side by saying (p. 52) "The advances of technology and science, rather than obliterating the world of myth, have enhanced its power to deceive."
i.e., Television made me do it.
He also says (p. 189-90, emphasis mine) "The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode." I too love the feel of the morning newspaper in my hands, but it remains a fact that Gutenberg has been dead for 500 years, and the machinery of communication has moved on.
He says (p. 15): "Those who manipulate the shadows that dominate our lives are the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion. They are the puppet masters."
This is protesting too much, especially for a writer (but not a script-writer!) who relies on the same marketing, promotion, advertising, college lecture fees, and so much else that he critiques.
Moreover, as obvious as this is to say: television does not kill people. (Or if it does, Hedges does not present any physiological evidence to prove it.) It does, first of all, have an "off" button. We can, moreover, tell different stories through that medium. Hedges could have made a much more compelling appeal to this, and it's surprising that as a Marxist reporter, he does not exhort the oppressed masses to rise up and take control of the means of story production and tell different stories. Indeed, he ignores the capacity for platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to produce as well as present opportunities for consumption. Hedges doesn't seem to understand it, so he condemns it, with a puritanical fear of expression and an elitism masquerading as populism.
ARE PEOPLE STUPID?
Hedges makes a case for the corruption of the United States (p. 150-153), specifically the transformation of our economy from a production economy to a consumption economy, and the effects of the "permanent war economy" in effect from the 1940s on.
"Since the end of the Second World War," he writes (p. 153), "the federal government has spent more than half its tax dollars on past, current, and future military operations." (p. 143) "The government, stripped of any real sovereignty, provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations that lack moral restraints and a concept of the common good." People have remained "passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall" [i.e. entertainment].
Hedges should just go all the way and say that he believes people are stupid, too stupid to realize our government is screwing us, or to figure out what to do about it. Too stupid to get up and change the channel or turn off the television. Too stupid to vote or to vote for the right thing. He should advocate, like Plato, for a benevolent dictator, to make the right decisions for us all.
Or is his screed meant to scare us into doing that? To read more newspapers? To spend more time picking flowers? To send money to Greenpeace? Hedges doesn't say. In his last five paragraphs he tries unsuccessfully to come to some kind of conclusion: he abruptly, almost laughably, starts talking about "the human capacity for love." Yep, everything is terrible, but even in the concentration camps the tyrants could not stamp out love. End of story.
A CRISIS OF IMAGINATION
I have a different ending. Or beginning. I think we are not in a crisis of reality, but a crisis of imagination. Hedges--like pretty much any warm body on the earth today--can identify that we are in serious trouble. Most of us would agree that corporations and governments are not going to help us. We might also agree that the porn industry is bad, television not much better, modern pharmacology just a panacea, and education full of problems. If we consider it, we know deep down that we really do have to destroy our neighbor if we want to survive, let alone succeed.
No, wait--that last one was a trick. What if most people really thought they would help their neighbor? What if we're not stupid or greedy or ruthless? What if, presented with a possible future so lush with goodness, we said yes, we said hell yes! We are going to do that! That even if our skyscrapers were bombed, our levees flooded, our skies polluted, our economy collapsing, we were going to find a way to make it work. In fact, what better time to start some things anew?
What if we used our technology to share stories, to share resources, to organize action parties and fix everything that was broken and save everything needing saving? OK, what if none of that happened, but we created a new narrative for our country in which it works? What if we got the 63% of people who won't vote in 2010 to vote? OK, what if that didn't happen, but we created just the possibility that it might? OK, what if that didn't happen, but we tried, a lot of us, just a little bit, to create the opportunity to create the possibility for such a narrative?
Then what might the story be?
WHY I READ THIS BOOK: I saw notice of the title being published, and knew that any book identifying "The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle" was something I had to read. I avoided all reviews of it so I could approach it with a fresh mind. It was clear from the title that the author thought "the Triumph of Spectacle" a bad thing, and indeed, as someone whose job was explicitly to produce "spectacles," I felt interested. A little defensive, sure, but I also have determined that there is a fine line between "imagination" and "fantasy." Hedges is right to rail against the latter, but I was hoping he'd say something substantial about the former.