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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. Her latest book is Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland's ill health. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 08/02/2011 | 2 Comments

I have just read a deeply disturbing book by an American Pulitzer prize winning author, and ex-war correspondent, Chris Hedges called Empire of Illusion: The end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle. His argument is that corporate consumer capitalism and celebrity culture are completely destroying America's literate and print-based culture. In this world of spectacle, illusion and reality are becoming harder and harder to distinguish. This is a culture of junk politics where news is manufactured and is often no more than trivial gossip. Anyone who visits America or digests what passes as news (outside a few serious but steadily declining newspapers) could not deny the veracity of Hedges' claim.

But Hedges goes further than this and deconstructs the meaning and values of much of celebrity culture. He shows how it is a grotesque world not just of traditional winners and losers but of humiliation and revenge. Hedges' chapter on the pornification of American culture (not just the industry but the content of many music videos and adverts and the exhibitionism of modern life) is gut wrenching stuff. He argues that the material produced by the porn industry has become harder and harder and is not about eroticism but misogyny and violence against women. Even some in the industry admit that much of it is about 'the torture of young girls' and has to do with men's 'lost dreams' - getting even with unattainable women.  Sadly porn is becoming such an everyday feature of American society that Faye Wattleton, the president of the Center for the Advancement of Women even asks: "Why do deep down within we'd all like to be porn stars at one point of our lives or another?'

Some of the incidents Hedges tells of modern day wrestling (and their 'back-stories') are disturbing and distasteful as are the accounts of some of the stories of what happens to people on reality tv shows. (Of course, we can see similar trends in the UK but they have not, as yet anyway, become as commonplace in our media though this is the journey we are on.) It is very difficult to read all these stories of humiliation and revenge and not see this as the dark shadow of 'the American dream'. In a society where nothing matters more than money, success, fame and feeling good about yourself, how do people who have none of these things cope with failure? In part Empire of Illusion gives us the disturbing answer. 

In the USA huge numbers of people fill their minds with such irrelevant, soul-destroying crap, yet the country faces huge challenges. Indeed the  outpourings of celebrity culture appear to be the modern day equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. Hedges here, and elsewhere, takes us through how bad some of America's problems are: for example, the continual scandal of poor educational standards and rising illiteracy despite the political will to do something about it (see my previous blog on the film Waiting for Superman);  the banking crisis and financial meltdown; the loss of jobs for America's working classes as a result of globalization; the increase in poverty with around 36 million Americans now classed as going without food on a regular basis; the huge amount of debt millions of ordinary Americans have had to chalk up to keep consuming or paying their bills; the cuts to basic social security provision; the lack of basic healthcare for millions of Americans; and  the increasing power and wealth of a small elite who continually put their own short-term interests before those of the wider society.

When we put these alongside the environmental challenges of overuse of  resources and global warming, the dysfunctional nature of much of American politics which grows more nasty and tribal by the day, and China's ownership of much of America's huge national debt we can see why Hedges believes not only that this is a 'dying culture' but also a society on the verge of collapse. It may not be imminent but, according to Hedges, this is the trajectory the USA is now on. Indeed a potential  title for his book is Apocalypse Soon. In this respect Hedges is one of a number of thinkers who are warning of the likely collapse of Western hegemony with the USA as particularly vulnerable. (See, for example, Rebecca Costa's The Watchman's Rattle.)

What could make a difference – would stop the slide into inevitable catastrophe – is facing these crises head on by encouraging a flow of accurate information and criticism and the application of sound reasoning. None of this is central to what America is now about.

This is a short book of only five chapters and yet one of them is devoted to 'the illusion of happiness'. This chapter is not about positive thinking in general, the guru Tony Robbins (though he gets a quick mention) or The Secret,  it is mainly about the thinking behind academic positive psychology – Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi, Barbara Frederickson, Tal Ben-Shahar, Chris Petersen, David Cooperrider and Kim Cameron are all individually mentioned.  Basically Hedges argues that positive psychology is ultimately preaching a ideology which will result in 'total social conformity' and encourages people away from a reallistic analysis of the current world.

Throughout the whole chapter there is the strong implication that positive psychologists are lackeys or running dogs of the corporate state; that they are the willing agents of social control. I have met personally all but one of the names on the list above and I don't recognise this description. They are psychologists who genuinely believe that their research and perspective can improve people's lives. This may be wrong but I believe they act in good faith.

Secondly, Hedges hones in on the use of positive psychology within organisations. Two of the names in the list are involved primarily with organisations (Cooperrider and Cameron) but generally positive psychology is much more interested in the individual and his or her personal happiness. What's more, Seligman, the movement's leader, is much more concerned with young people than corporations and particularly promotes (as he did in the recent Radio 4 programme) his optimism training programme in schools. His attention is now on his multi-million dollar contract  with the military on the resilience of service personnel.

However, I think there is something in Hedges' fear that the emphasis on feeling good, happiness and positive emotions essentially leads to social conformity and an inevitable, though perhaps unwitting, support for the status quo.This is something I have previously blogged on.

Hedges  finishes his book with some hope talking about the enduring power of 'love'. One thing he completely misses is that there is amidst the positive psychology research some important lessons about human beings and what we need to thrive. Some of this is valuable research which is well worth paying attention. But for those who genuinely want to change the world this research needs to be embedded within a broader framework or movement for social, political and spiritual renewal. Social justice must be at the core. 

If you would like to hear Chris Hedges talk about his ideas this a good clip on youtube.

If you would like further evidence of the blurring of fact and fantasy in American culture but would like to think there may be a positive buried in there somewhere watch
Jane McGonigal's TED talk on how gaming can make a better world.


Comment By Comment
Luke Devlin
Joined: 11/07/2010

Comment Posted: 10/02/2011 18:31
Chris Hedges is great. His essay 'Zero point of systemic collapse' for Adbusters is worth reading here: http://www.adbusters.org/magazine/88/chris-hedges.html?page=3 as is his book 'War is a force that gives us meaning'.

Did you read Barbara Ehrenreich's Bright-Sided, published in the UK as Smile or Die? It has an excoriating interview/encounter with Seligman.

Looking forward to seeing what you do with the integral section of the website
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