Whole Brain Catalog

American Psychosis

What happens to a society that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion?

Image on left by TOM MIHALEK/AFP, on right STILL FROM WRECKING BALL

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The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears [or Miley Cyrus], enthralls the country … despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.

The virtues that sustain a nation-state and build community, from honesty to self-sacrifice to transparency to sharing, are ridiculed each night on television as rubes stupid enough to cling to this antiquated behavior are voted off reality shows. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame, cheered on by millions of viewers, elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Celebrities that can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish. Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.

Our culture of flagrant self-exaltation, hardwired in the American character, permits the humiliation of all those who oppose us. We believe, after all, that because we have the capacity to wage war we have a right to wage war. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food. And the numbers of superfluous human beings are swelling the unemployment offices, the prisons and the soup kitchens.

It is the cult of self that is killing the United States. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Michael Jackson, from his phony marriages to the portraits of himself dressed as royalty to his insatiable hunger for new toys to his questionable relationships with young boys, had all these qualities. And this is also the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is why investment bankers blink in confusion when questioned about the morality of the billions in profits they made by selling worthless toxic assets to investors.

We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. It is this perverted ethic that gave us investment houses like Goldman Sachs … that willfully trashed the global economy and stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. The ethic of Wall Street is the ethic of celebrity. It is fused into one bizarre, perverted belief system and it has banished the possibility of the country returning to a reality-based world or avoiding internal collapse. A society that cannot distinguish reality from illusion dies.

The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture, however, are vanishing for most citizens as we head toward collapse. The ability of the corporate state to pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured goods to the masses is gone. The jobs we are shedding are not coming back, as the White House economist Lawrence Summers tacitly acknowledges when he talks of a “jobless recovery.” The belief that democracy lies in the choice between competing brands and the accumulation of vast sums of personal wealth at the expense of others is exposed as a fraud. Freedom can no longer be conflated with the free market. The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the middle class, especially as unemployment insurance runs out. And class warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to enter an age of prosperity with unfettered capitalism, is returning with a vengeance.

America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8,000 people a day – and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. It refuses to prosecute the Bush administration for obvious war crimes, including the use of torture, and sees no reason to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called “near poverty.” One in eight Americans – and one in four children – depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we continue to be a country consumed by happy talk and happy thoughts. We continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire.

When a culture lives within an illusion it perpetuates a state of permanent infantilism or childishness. As the gap widens between the illusion and reality, as we suddenly grasp that it is our home being foreclosed or our job that is not coming back, we react like children. We scream and yell for a savior, someone who promises us revenge, moral renewal and new glory. It is not a new story. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually, emotionally and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans and will usher America into a new dark age. It was the economic collapse in Yugoslavia that gave us Slobodan Milosevic. It was the Weimar Republic that vomited up Adolf Hitler. And it was the breakdown in Tsarist Russia that opened the door for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to loudmouth talk show hosts, whom we naïvely dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. And as in all totalitarian societies, those who do not pay fealty to the illusions imposed by the state become the outcasts, the persecuted.

The decline of American empire began long ago before the current economic meltdown or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It began before the first Gulf War or Ronald Reagan. It began when we shifted, in the words of Harvard historian Charles Maier, from an “empire of production” to an “empire of consumption.” By the end of the Vietnam War, when the costs of the war ate away at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and domestic oil production began its steady, inexorable decline, we saw our country transformed from one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumed. We started borrowing to maintain a level of consumption as well as an empire we could no longer afford. We began to use force, especially in the Middle East, to feed our insatiable thirst for cheap oil. We substituted the illusion of growth and prosperity for real growth and prosperity. The bill is now due. America’s most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free-market capitalism and globalization. They have dynamited the very foundations of our society. In the 17th century these speculators would have been hung. Today they run the government and consume billions in taxpayer subsidies.

As the pressure mounts, as the despair and desperation reach into larger and larger segments of the populace, the mechanisms of corporate and government control are being bolstered to prevent civil unrest and instability. The emergence of the corporate state always means the emergence of the security state. This is why the Bush White House pushed through the Patriot Act (and its renewal), the suspension of habeas corpus, the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” warrantless wiretapping on American citizens and the refusal to ensure free and fair elections with verifiable ballot-counting. The motive behind these measures is not to fight terrorism or to bolster national security. It is to seize and maintain internal control. It is about controlling us.

And yet, even in the face of catastrophe, mass culture continues to assure us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, by Hollywood or by Christian preachers, is magical thinking. It turns worthless mortgages and debt into wealth. It turns the destruction of our manufacturing base into an opportunity for growth. It turns alienation and anxiety into a cheerful conformity. It turns a nation that wages illegal wars and administers offshore penal colonies where it openly practices torture into the greatest democracy on earth. And it keeps us from fighting back.

Resistance movements will have to look now at the long night of slavery, the decades of oppression in the Soviet Union and the curse of fascism for models. The goal will no longer be the possibility of reforming the system but of protecting truth, civility and culture from mass contamination. It will require the kind of schizophrenic lifestyle that characterizes all totalitarian societies. Our private and public demeanors will often have to stand in stark contrast. Acts of defiance will often be subtle and nuanced. They will be carried out not for short term gain but the assertion of our integrity. Rebellion will have an ultimate if not easily definable purpose. The more we retreat from the culture at large the more room we will have to carve out lives of meaning, the more we will be able to wall off the flood of illusions disseminated by mass culture and the more we will retain sanity in an insane world. The goal will become the ability to endure.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, is the author of several books including the best sellers War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

582 comments on the article “American Psychosis”

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perceptiventity

all is absolutely right but have currently evolved on the topic of 'supreme being' . It does exist and it is You and him and me and our once beautiful planet and freaking everything. But we are only starting to approach things as whole-earth systems. Organised religion and crime are no,nos of course, don't like those

perceptiventity

all is absolutely right but have currently evolved on the topic of 'supreme being' . It does exist and it is You and him and me and our once beautiful planet and freaking everything. But we are only starting to approach things as whole-earth systems. Organised religion and crime are no,nos of course, don't like those

Rich Broderick

I admire Chris Hedges a lot, but as in other of his articles, he takes a position at the dark end of the prophetic spectrum. This does not mean he is wrong -- just that some of his comparisons need to be qualified and that there are other possible outcomes besides the inevitable onset of an American version of fascism.

Take his examples of what happened to Weimar Germany and post-Tsarist Russia circa 1917-1918. It's important to bear in mind that neither Germany nor Russia had much experience with liberal democracy or democratic institutions. Both had long histories of authoritarian rule. During World War I, both also suffered losses that are unimaginable from an American perspective -- five to six million Russians and some three million Germans died during that conflict; in addition, Germany had been effectively dismembered by the Allies and saddled with insupportable war reparations. To find anything comparable in this country's history, we'd have to go back to the losses suffered by the South during the Civil War.

Similarly, while Serbia is a sobering reminder of how quickly a country -- and region -- can plunge into hell, once again the analogy is not exact. Yugoslavia had just been dismantled (and once again, was a place with little experience of democratic rule) and the former republics had engaged in a protracted Civil War before the mass killings in Bosnia and Kosovo.

None of this means that the United States could not take an even darker turn -- nor that there are not elements in this country working toward that end. But, even with our current flawed system, we have a history of democratic institutions and something approaching the rule of law. We have also created the world's most successful multicultural society -- despite all the bumps in the road -- a source of potential pride that we somehow manage to overlook. We certainly have it in our collective power -- and possess inspiring examples from our own history, like the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement -- to turn this around. Hedges is right -- the enemy is corporate consumer capitalism and a mainstream media that is the handmaiden of the longest and most lavishly funded propaganda campaign in the history of the world. But I am convinced that there are still enough of us with the common sense and spine to fight the spreading rot -- and come out on top.

The biggest mistake we can make now is to give in to despair. If we do, the malefactors of great wealth -- and all their packs of flying monkeys -- automatically win.

Rich Broderick

I admire Chris Hedges a lot, but as in other of his articles, he takes a position at the dark end of the prophetic spectrum. This does not mean he is wrong -- just that some of his comparisons need to be qualified and that there are other possible outcomes besides the inevitable onset of an American version of fascism.

Take his examples of what happened to Weimar Germany and post-Tsarist Russia circa 1917-1918. It's important to bear in mind that neither Germany nor Russia had much experience with liberal democracy or democratic institutions. Both had long histories of authoritarian rule. During World War I, both also suffered losses that are unimaginable from an American perspective -- five to six million Russians and some three million Germans died during that conflict; in addition, Germany had been effectively dismembered by the Allies and saddled with insupportable war reparations. To find anything comparable in this country's history, we'd have to go back to the losses suffered by the South during the Civil War.

Similarly, while Serbia is a sobering reminder of how quickly a country -- and region -- can plunge into hell, once again the analogy is not exact. Yugoslavia had just been dismantled (and once again, was a place with little experience of democratic rule) and the former republics had engaged in a protracted Civil War before the mass killings in Bosnia and Kosovo.

None of this means that the United States could not take an even darker turn -- nor that there are not elements in this country working toward that end. But, even with our current flawed system, we have a history of democratic institutions and something approaching the rule of law. We have also created the world's most successful multicultural society -- despite all the bumps in the road -- a source of potential pride that we somehow manage to overlook. We certainly have it in our collective power -- and possess inspiring examples from our own history, like the New Deal and the Civil Rights Movement -- to turn this around. Hedges is right -- the enemy is corporate consumer capitalism and a mainstream media that is the handmaiden of the longest and most lavishly funded propaganda campaign in the history of the world. But I am convinced that there are still enough of us with the common sense and spine to fight the spreading rot -- and come out on top.

The biggest mistake we can make now is to give in to despair. If we do, the malefactors of great wealth -- and all their packs of flying monkeys -- automatically win.

JD

You are absolutely right. Even though things might look bad, Americans will overcome this. I know I'm definitely fighting.

JD

You are absolutely right. Even though things might look bad, Americans will overcome this. I know I'm definitely fighting.

Anonymous

Seriously, I used to love reading AdBusters, but over the past few years it's really gone downhill. It's articles now read like paranoid, nebulous rants thrashing madly at anything to do with American culture written by someone whose building a bomb and has penchant for flowery rhetoric. The author is a talented writer, but his ideas and solutions are no more complex or practical than those of an anarchistic teenager.

Anonymous

Seriously, I used to love reading AdBusters, but over the past few years it's really gone downhill. It's articles now read like paranoid, nebulous rants thrashing madly at anything to do with American culture written by someone whose building a bomb and has penchant for flowery rhetoric. The author is a talented writer, but his ideas and solutions are no more complex or practical than those of an anarchistic teenager.

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