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”

Displaying 91 - 100 of 582

Page 10 of 59

aVeteran

Unions built this country. So did the slaves and the poor. Even an illegal farm worker who works one 14 hour day picking fruit or vegetables so that you can eat produces more than all the corrupt thugs on Wall Street in their lifetimes. But you worship wealth and despise the poor. You love corporate predators and hate its victims. And I suppose you are cheering on BP and the oil gushing into the Gulf because that is what unregulated capitalism looks like. You can worship your beloved corporations and listen to your right wing radios, but you are wrong. And if you believe the verbal puss that flows from conservatives you are evil as well.

aVeteran

Unions built this country. So did the slaves and the poor. Even an illegal farm worker who works one 14 hour day picking fruit or vegetables so that you can eat produces more than all the corrupt thugs on Wall Street in their lifetimes. But you worship wealth and despise the poor. You love corporate predators and hate its victims. And I suppose you are cheering on BP and the oil gushing into the Gulf because that is what unregulated capitalism looks like. You can worship your beloved corporations and listen to your right wing radios, but you are wrong. And if you believe the verbal puss that flows from conservatives you are evil as well.

James Random

I don't know much about America. I have never been there. But I do have many American friends that I have made through one fashion or another. One such friend lives in LA and has, in the past, spoken off the so-called Tent City.

As the casual outside observer I am it often amazes me as to how a Tent City of the homeless (something akin to Hooverville of the 1930's) could exist in a town as famous as Los Angeles. The picture that forms in my mind is one of a hill with two sides. One one side there is the rich and famous. Drinking deeply of champaign and spending their great wealth on the things you can't take with you when you die. On the other side of the hill there is the poor, desperately hungry cold and isolated. Neither side cares about the other. The Poor resent the rich for being so uncaring and the Rich resent the poor for being so resentful - at least when they're not ignoring the poor completely.

I am perplexed as to how a society such as America, with all its advocates of progress and prosperity, can allow such a Tent City to even exist in the first place? What sort of Government does not expend every effort to get people out of tents and into homes of any fashion. I'm aware that crime is rife in LA, but crime is only rife in LA because of the level of scarcity. When people have nothing, they will sometimes resort of any means to acquire something more.

The picture America is painting for itself - to me and to many others - is not good. There is what is rapidly becoming the largest oil spill in history and threatens to surpass even the Kuwait Oil Spill of 1991 in size. And what is the American System doing? Playing the blame game.

Here is the perspective of the outsider.

Who is to blame? There is no question of blame. The Buck stops with the President. Not as a matter of fault, but as a matter of responsibility. He is charged with the welfare of a country whose Louisiana coastline is being damaged by Oil as well as other surrounding areas. As the one who is charged with the responsibility to care for the country, he should be making every effort and sparing no expense to assist BP in every way to stem the well. Yet it seems to me that he is sat idly by observing under the notion of being sure that BP know what they are doing.

If one were the Captain of a vessel and the Engineer (for whatever reason) punctured the Hull. It is the Captains responsibility to exhaust every effort in directing his crew to repair the hole immediately. He does not sit in his office with the complacent attitude that he's sure his engineer team know what they are doing. He is on the scene, directing and giving orders effectively so that his crew work efficiently to fix the hole.

Being the President of a Country should be - in essence - no different from being Captain of a ship when it comes to these sorts of disasters. And the fact that this is not being done leaves one to question whether the American Government would be able to effectively handle a wider national crisis that would affect more americans in any number of ways.

So. As Captain Obama sits in his office unconcerned and confident that the Engineer can fix the problem, the hole in the Hull is gradually getting bigger. I wonder how much longer the good ship America can stay afloat?

So. Perhaps the feature article is more accurate than most are willing to admit?

Other posters have commented that it is bad form that one of those two stock photos has its origin in Canada. I say that it is more relevant being from Canada than if it were taken in America.

Consider the woman in the left hand picture. Ecstatic and overcome with joy at being given a crown that is probably all real diamonds. Very expensive. Very Lavish. She is on TV and has reasonable good looks. She will be recognized and inspire Awe in the Sofa Generation. Do you really think she cares about that poor man in Canada lying on the street?

Do you really think Hollywood Bigwigs care about starvation in Africa and China?

It is not just the fact that the Illusion of progress and wealth is alive and well whilst everything slides the other way entirely is affecting America. It is affecting every single human being across the planet. It is not just America that is in decline, it is the Earth.

That's right: The Earth. That planet of which we only get one. And when it's gone. When every resource has been plundered and every war has been fought for those resources and there is nothing left. Where is it you plan on living?

James Random

I don't know much about America. I have never been there. But I do have many American friends that I have made through one fashion or another. One such friend lives in LA and has, in the past, spoken off the so-called Tent City.

As the casual outside observer I am it often amazes me as to how a Tent City of the homeless (something akin to Hooverville of the 1930's) could exist in a town as famous as Los Angeles. The picture that forms in my mind is one of a hill with two sides. One one side there is the rich and famous. Drinking deeply of champaign and spending their great wealth on the things you can't take with you when you die. On the other side of the hill there is the poor, desperately hungry cold and isolated. Neither side cares about the other. The Poor resent the rich for being so uncaring and the Rich resent the poor for being so resentful - at least when they're not ignoring the poor completely.

I am perplexed as to how a society such as America, with all its advocates of progress and prosperity, can allow such a Tent City to even exist in the first place? What sort of Government does not expend every effort to get people out of tents and into homes of any fashion. I'm aware that crime is rife in LA, but crime is only rife in LA because of the level of scarcity. When people have nothing, they will sometimes resort of any means to acquire something more.

The picture America is painting for itself - to me and to many others - is not good. There is what is rapidly becoming the largest oil spill in history and threatens to surpass even the Kuwait Oil Spill of 1991 in size. And what is the American System doing? Playing the blame game.

Here is the perspective of the outsider.

Who is to blame? There is no question of blame. The Buck stops with the President. Not as a matter of fault, but as a matter of responsibility. He is charged with the welfare of a country whose Louisiana coastline is being damaged by Oil as well as other surrounding areas. As the one who is charged with the responsibility to care for the country, he should be making every effort and sparing no expense to assist BP in every way to stem the well. Yet it seems to me that he is sat idly by observing under the notion of being sure that BP know what they are doing.

If one were the Captain of a vessel and the Engineer (for whatever reason) punctured the Hull. It is the Captains responsibility to exhaust every effort in directing his crew to repair the hole immediately. He does not sit in his office with the complacent attitude that he's sure his engineer team know what they are doing. He is on the scene, directing and giving orders effectively so that his crew work efficiently to fix the hole.

Being the President of a Country should be - in essence - no different from being Captain of a ship when it comes to these sorts of disasters. And the fact that this is not being done leaves one to question whether the American Government would be able to effectively handle a wider national crisis that would affect more americans in any number of ways.

So. As Captain Obama sits in his office unconcerned and confident that the Engineer can fix the problem, the hole in the Hull is gradually getting bigger. I wonder how much longer the good ship America can stay afloat?

So. Perhaps the feature article is more accurate than most are willing to admit?

Other posters have commented that it is bad form that one of those two stock photos has its origin in Canada. I say that it is more relevant being from Canada than if it were taken in America.

Consider the woman in the left hand picture. Ecstatic and overcome with joy at being given a crown that is probably all real diamonds. Very expensive. Very Lavish. She is on TV and has reasonable good looks. She will be recognized and inspire Awe in the Sofa Generation. Do you really think she cares about that poor man in Canada lying on the street?

Do you really think Hollywood Bigwigs care about starvation in Africa and China?

It is not just the fact that the Illusion of progress and wealth is alive and well whilst everything slides the other way entirely is affecting America. It is affecting every single human being across the planet. It is not just America that is in decline, it is the Earth.

That's right: The Earth. That planet of which we only get one. And when it's gone. When every resource has been plundered and every war has been fought for those resources and there is nothing left. Where is it you plan on living?

Anonymous

Money's the source of the problem. Industrial revolution was a big bad mistake. Once again the fault of the lazy White-man. Hate to bring race into the conversation but it's true. There's no need for all the waste involved with Capitalism and Money. Eliminating the waste is what people do best. Human innovation has to boundaries. Let's realize where the problem has been time and time again. And find a way to eliminate it. Money's the problem. That sounds cliche but Every problem with the world leads back to it time and time again, so why are we still stuck with it? Hm?

Anonymous

Money's the source of the problem. Industrial revolution was a big bad mistake. Once again the fault of the lazy White-man. Hate to bring race into the conversation but it's true. There's no need for all the waste involved with Capitalism and Money. Eliminating the waste is what people do best. Human innovation has to boundaries. Let's realize where the problem has been time and time again. And find a way to eliminate it. Money's the problem. That sounds cliche but Every problem with the world leads back to it time and time again, so why are we still stuck with it? Hm?

Phil E. Drifter

This is no accident. The entire federal government is corrupt, they've hired lawyers for decades to spin up legalese je ne sais quoi, change a few words and you can override or invalidate the Geneva Conventions. "Oh, they're not enemies, they're 'enemy combatants, they don't deserve the protections of the Geneva Conventions,' and the public is too busy paying attention to their latest big screen tv, their super-hi-fi stereo, their favorite sports teams to care about what the government is doing.

Corporations are, thanks to a constitutional amendment that was ratified long before I was born, now 'artificial persons,' and the supreme court recently decided that 'enemy combatants' are not (real) persons and therefore not eligible to constitutional protections of consultation with an attorney, jury of their peers, etc. Combine that with state-sanctioned 'education' and they keep the people stupid, because studies prove beyond a doubt that the more intelligent a person is, the less likely they are to believe in a 'supreme being.' (There isn't one. Evolve. Please.)

Phil E. Drifter

This is no accident. The entire federal government is corrupt, they've hired lawyers for decades to spin up legalese je ne sais quoi, change a few words and you can override or invalidate the Geneva Conventions. "Oh, they're not enemies, they're 'enemy combatants, they don't deserve the protections of the Geneva Conventions,' and the public is too busy paying attention to their latest big screen tv, their super-hi-fi stereo, their favorite sports teams to care about what the government is doing.

Corporations are, thanks to a constitutional amendment that was ratified long before I was born, now 'artificial persons,' and the supreme court recently decided that 'enemy combatants' are not (real) persons and therefore not eligible to constitutional protections of consultation with an attorney, jury of their peers, etc. Combine that with state-sanctioned 'education' and they keep the people stupid, because studies prove beyond a doubt that the more intelligent a person is, the less likely they are to believe in a 'supreme being.' (There isn't one. Evolve. Please.)

Virginia Bryant

re, "supreme being"

there is one.

it just might be, and certainly the evidence would indicate,
that it is beyond human comprehension, in the material sense, though not in the spiritual realm,
where the only hope of change lies because it either connects with or is "supreme".

the largest and most important evolution we can participate in now is to value and care for the human spirit, (ALL of ours!)
instead of continuing to support a value system that worships money, fame and riches at the expense of what is essential to peace and joy, and the strong spirits of all.

one of the corner stones of spiritual growth is gratitude.
to what? who cares?

Must everything be justified, documented, researched and surrounded by incomprehensible volumes of "law"?
isn't THAT part of the problem?

perhaps since we are so spiritually stunted, whatever force created all this is best shrouded in mystery.

just because we do not know what it is does not mean it does not exist.

again, the crux of the problem is lack of a spiritual value system.

Virginia Bryant

re, "supreme being"

there is one.

it just might be, and certainly the evidence would indicate,
that it is beyond human comprehension, in the material sense, though not in the spiritual realm,
where the only hope of change lies because it either connects with or is "supreme".

the largest and most important evolution we can participate in now is to value and care for the human spirit, (ALL of ours!)
instead of continuing to support a value system that worships money, fame and riches at the expense of what is essential to peace and joy, and the strong spirits of all.

one of the corner stones of spiritual growth is gratitude.
to what? who cares?

Must everything be justified, documented, researched and surrounded by incomprehensible volumes of "law"?
isn't THAT part of the problem?

perhaps since we are so spiritually stunted, whatever force created all this is best shrouded in mystery.

just because we do not know what it is does not mean it does not exist.

again, the crux of the problem is lack of a spiritual value system.

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