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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Anonymous

What everyone seems to be forgetting here is that though we have problems, and I'll be the first to admit that, that if the wheel is broken you don't try to reinvent it, instead you fix the parts of it that are broken. In any situation there are numerous viewpoints to the problem as well as solutions to the problem.

One great example of this is the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. There are three blind men who all have heard of an Elephant and so they go to see what one is actually like. One of them is at the front of the Elephant and feels its trunk saying. "It is like a large snake." Another is standing next to its legs and feels its legs saying. "No it is more like a tree." the third is behind it and feels its tail and says. "You're both wrong it is lke a large rope." In actuality all of them are correct it is that and much more. Much like the truth the truth in any matter is often a combination of viewpoints.

As human's our experiences and the sum of our whole being affect how we perceive the world around us. The way that we perceive the world is also how we perceive the truth. Often times the truth is a combination of all of our views, the middle ground if you will, because out perception shapes the truth and gives it meaning in our lives, which is not the truth for others.

Some of the greatest minds in the world throughout time understood that every person is valid in their opinions and views and that in order to truly solve an issue you bring all the conflicting parties together and find the common middle ground in order to find a solution that doesn't alienate a group of people just because they have differing opinion. Perfect examples of this are Jesus and Buddha who taught harmony and understanding, these concepts are in fact the building blocks of finding common ground so that we can learn to co-exist in harmony though our upbringing, culture and education might be completely different.

Instead of remaining dead set in your ways, saying that there is nothing right about what's going on and screw anyone who doesn't agree how about we try to come together to find the best possible solution to the problem at hand. Though there are many corrupt people who make it into office there are also those how truly are their to help the citizens and try their hardest to do what their constituents wish them to do.

That said being a politician is a hard job. You have to be able to compromise with others and not do some things that you would like to do because no matter who you are, in this life we can not always get everything that we want because it conflicts with things that other people want. You have to be able to let certain battles go and allow others to get things that they want just as much as you get what you want. We can't have our cake and eat it to and there are sometimes that you have to say no to things. Ask any of your state representatives, the ones working at the state congress or otherwise and they will tell you that all anybody ever asks them for or comes to them for is money. Whether for increased funding for saving rabbits or for saving children, each different policy can be backed up with statistics of the good impact that they can have and the horrible things that happen without the support. We do not have unlimited resources though and eventually you have to say no to something.

In the end instead of becoming apathetic and saying that the system is broken and there's no way to fix it so we should all put our heads between our legs and kiss our ass goodbye let's try to retroactively fix the problems that we have to the best of our ability. Instead of being regressive and apathetic let's be progressive and solution orientated. I preach this time and time again but it seems that no one wants to listen. So I will continue to preach it.

In the end I know that I am a good person, and that my ideas are just as valid as anyone else's. I know that I want to support my friends and family and as Lynyrd Skynyrd said, be a simple kind of man that you can love and understand. Whether any of you agree with that philosophy is up to you. However, I know that understanding and cooperation are the only way that we are going to pull ourselves out of this mess. Playing the blame game, labeling others as evil because they don't agree with you and having the foolhardy notion that there is no way but your way only further exasperates the situation and offers no solution to any problem. Belittling others and belligerently assuming you are righteous and they are not further entrenches conflict between the parties and negates any type of negotiation and conflict resolution. You have to look no further than the middle east to see this in action.

Anonymous

What everyone seems to be forgetting here is that though we have problems, and I'll be the first to admit that, that if the wheel is broken you don't try to reinvent it, instead you fix the parts of it that are broken. In any situation there are numerous viewpoints to the problem as well as solutions to the problem.

One great example of this is the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. There are three blind men who all have heard of an Elephant and so they go to see what one is actually like. One of them is at the front of the Elephant and feels its trunk saying. "It is like a large snake." Another is standing next to its legs and feels its legs saying. "No it is more like a tree." the third is behind it and feels its tail and says. "You're both wrong it is lke a large rope." In actuality all of them are correct it is that and much more. Much like the truth the truth in any matter is often a combination of viewpoints.

As human's our experiences and the sum of our whole being affect how we perceive the world around us. The way that we perceive the world is also how we perceive the truth. Often times the truth is a combination of all of our views, the middle ground if you will, because out perception shapes the truth and gives it meaning in our lives, which is not the truth for others.

Some of the greatest minds in the world throughout time understood that every person is valid in their opinions and views and that in order to truly solve an issue you bring all the conflicting parties together and find the common middle ground in order to find a solution that doesn't alienate a group of people just because they have differing opinion. Perfect examples of this are Jesus and Buddha who taught harmony and understanding, these concepts are in fact the building blocks of finding common ground so that we can learn to co-exist in harmony though our upbringing, culture and education might be completely different.

Instead of remaining dead set in your ways, saying that there is nothing right about what's going on and screw anyone who doesn't agree how about we try to come together to find the best possible solution to the problem at hand. Though there are many corrupt people who make it into office there are also those how truly are their to help the citizens and try their hardest to do what their constituents wish them to do.

That said being a politician is a hard job. You have to be able to compromise with others and not do some things that you would like to do because no matter who you are, in this life we can not always get everything that we want because it conflicts with things that other people want. You have to be able to let certain battles go and allow others to get things that they want just as much as you get what you want. We can't have our cake and eat it to and there are sometimes that you have to say no to things. Ask any of your state representatives, the ones working at the state congress or otherwise and they will tell you that all anybody ever asks them for or comes to them for is money. Whether for increased funding for saving rabbits or for saving children, each different policy can be backed up with statistics of the good impact that they can have and the horrible things that happen without the support. We do not have unlimited resources though and eventually you have to say no to something.

In the end instead of becoming apathetic and saying that the system is broken and there's no way to fix it so we should all put our heads between our legs and kiss our ass goodbye let's try to retroactively fix the problems that we have to the best of our ability. Instead of being regressive and apathetic let's be progressive and solution orientated. I preach this time and time again but it seems that no one wants to listen. So I will continue to preach it.

In the end I know that I am a good person, and that my ideas are just as valid as anyone else's. I know that I want to support my friends and family and as Lynyrd Skynyrd said, be a simple kind of man that you can love and understand. Whether any of you agree with that philosophy is up to you. However, I know that understanding and cooperation are the only way that we are going to pull ourselves out of this mess. Playing the blame game, labeling others as evil because they don't agree with you and having the foolhardy notion that there is no way but your way only further exasperates the situation and offers no solution to any problem. Belittling others and belligerently assuming you are righteous and they are not further entrenches conflict between the parties and negates any type of negotiation and conflict resolution. You have to look no further than the middle east to see this in action.

Singingcowboy674

Agreed. You may have hit on two key points to get on the path to where we need to be. I fear my remarks could have seemed as I was painting with a broad sweeping brush of damnation. Though I do believe we are in for a dark time in our country the likes we've never seen, damage mitigation is key. And if by a glorious act of God we can stop this freight train ready to jump the track, the only way we will be able to accomplish this is by working together.

A couple obstacles though. One is to get people involved. I'd venture to say that 70% of our population, and forgive me for the brashness, couldn't give a rat's ass about the political structure of our country. But the political structure of our country is the very steering mechanism by which this country is directed. SO, it is very true that people need to awake. But, most people who do need to awake are not going to be found on here. They will be found at the sports arenas, in front of ABC, NBC or CBS watching the aforementioned television shows and places like shopping malls. I believe all of us from any background on here believes something needs to be done. But unless we can awake the masses, it will be exceedingly difficult, dare I say impossible to complete that shift. And I do recognize by the way that there are people that hold political office who are not all evil. This is referring to the "movers and shakers" of politics. My apologies for my inference.

Obstacle two: The remaining 30% of us who ARE politically outspoken/active are for the most part polarized. We/they are so entrenched by the programming of the media that the opposing opinion means no less than the destruction of America, that communications have been systematically locked down for years. We all resort to pointing out why the other is wrong and then set in pounding it into the ground, or I should say, our opponent. Yes there is great debate, but, no longer is it of salt. No longer is there challenge and point for point idea exchange. It's either yelling and screaming with neither listening to what the other is saying or well....I digress.

Another interesting point that you make is that you can't "Ok" everything. I agree with you completely. But it seems as if our leaders in the House and Senate on the federal level have not been made aware of this. Bush was given a blank check to fund the war by the Republican Congress. Likewise, Soetoro has been given a blank check to fund his social programs.

I THINK the best 2 things that we can do to get this country back on track if it is doable, is to bring in the Fair Tax (which is not going to happen with this congress because it takes away the power from the Senators and Congressmen) and also, along those same lines, we need to float enough bonds to pull the corporatist America back out of bankruptcy, that it entered into in I believe 1933, and give the straw man back to it's rightful owners. The people. Regain this nation's sovereignty. Buy us back out of servitude.

If we can do that, THEN we can go back to "Common Law" which is originally what this country had in the first place until it was replaced with corporate law. If you are a politician I'm sure you are familiar to what I refer. Bills should in no way require more than 10 pages and should be easily understood by anybody with a 10th grade education. Otherwise, in all honesty, ignorance of the law IS a defense.

Singingcowboy674

Agreed. You may have hit on two key points to get on the path to where we need to be. I fear my remarks could have seemed as I was painting with a broad sweeping brush of damnation. Though I do believe we are in for a dark time in our country the likes we've never seen, damage mitigation is key. And if by a glorious act of God we can stop this freight train ready to jump the track, the only way we will be able to accomplish this is by working together.

A couple obstacles though. One is to get people involved. I'd venture to say that 70% of our population, and forgive me for the brashness, couldn't give a rat's ass about the political structure of our country. But the political structure of our country is the very steering mechanism by which this country is directed. SO, it is very true that people need to awake. But, most people who do need to awake are not going to be found on here. They will be found at the sports arenas, in front of ABC, NBC or CBS watching the aforementioned television shows and places like shopping malls. I believe all of us from any background on here believes something needs to be done. But unless we can awake the masses, it will be exceedingly difficult, dare I say impossible to complete that shift. And I do recognize by the way that there are people that hold political office who are not all evil. This is referring to the "movers and shakers" of politics. My apologies for my inference.

Obstacle two: The remaining 30% of us who ARE politically outspoken/active are for the most part polarized. We/they are so entrenched by the programming of the media that the opposing opinion means no less than the destruction of America, that communications have been systematically locked down for years. We all resort to pointing out why the other is wrong and then set in pounding it into the ground, or I should say, our opponent. Yes there is great debate, but, no longer is it of salt. No longer is there challenge and point for point idea exchange. It's either yelling and screaming with neither listening to what the other is saying or well....I digress.

Another interesting point that you make is that you can't "Ok" everything. I agree with you completely. But it seems as if our leaders in the House and Senate on the federal level have not been made aware of this. Bush was given a blank check to fund the war by the Republican Congress. Likewise, Soetoro has been given a blank check to fund his social programs.

I THINK the best 2 things that we can do to get this country back on track if it is doable, is to bring in the Fair Tax (which is not going to happen with this congress because it takes away the power from the Senators and Congressmen) and also, along those same lines, we need to float enough bonds to pull the corporatist America back out of bankruptcy, that it entered into in I believe 1933, and give the straw man back to it's rightful owners. The people. Regain this nation's sovereignty. Buy us back out of servitude.

If we can do that, THEN we can go back to "Common Law" which is originally what this country had in the first place until it was replaced with corporate law. If you are a politician I'm sure you are familiar to what I refer. Bills should in no way require more than 10 pages and should be easily understood by anybody with a 10th grade education. Otherwise, in all honesty, ignorance of the law IS a defense.

Anonymous

Birthers.

I was interested in what I believed was a set of Americans that actually did not lump into the mass media of hysteria and redundancy. But as I can see you are just...

Birthers.

Enough said.

Anonymous

Birthers.

I was interested in what I believed was a set of Americans that actually did not lump into the mass media of hysteria and redundancy. But as I can see you are just...

Birthers.

Enough said.

ETNIKS

"Only the small secrets need to be protected,
the big ones are kept secret by public incredulity"
Marshall McLuhan

ETNIKS

"Only the small secrets need to be protected,
the big ones are kept secret by public incredulity"
Marshall McLuhan

Darj

It's rather easy to sit back and blame corporations, the rich, either political party, and certain groups, but why not put the same energy into helping others? I mean, obviously our system is not working. We are way too far in debt and still have a large group of poor citizens, and we don't seem to be moving in the right direction toward fixing either problem. Will taxing the richer people more help? The current data do not support that conclusion. Will lower tax rates help? Same story. Will going after billion dollar corporations help? Nope... It's not exactly a winning situation for us.

The only answer to the problem lies in the private sector. I believe that the Adbusters campaign is great as long as its founders are true to its colors. Unfortunately, this "cultural subgroup" has been a bit too hypocritical in the past. Hopefully this movement will stick to its guns and set an example for all the hipsters out there!

Darj

It's rather easy to sit back and blame corporations, the rich, either political party, and certain groups, but why not put the same energy into helping others? I mean, obviously our system is not working. We are way too far in debt and still have a large group of poor citizens, and we don't seem to be moving in the right direction toward fixing either problem. Will taxing the richer people more help? The current data do not support that conclusion. Will lower tax rates help? Same story. Will going after billion dollar corporations help? Nope... It's not exactly a winning situation for us.

The only answer to the problem lies in the private sector. I believe that the Adbusters campaign is great as long as its founders are true to its colors. Unfortunately, this "cultural subgroup" has been a bit too hypocritical in the past. Hopefully this movement will stick to its guns and set an example for all the hipsters out there!

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