Visionary Chris Hedges Issues Dire Warning about America’s
Impending Demise in Lecture at The College of New Jersey
by Kam Williams
Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges is the author of nine insightful assessments of American culture astutely deconstructing the state of the union from a variety of angles, perhaps most notably, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning,” “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, “and his latest opus, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.” On March 1st, the uncompromisingly-frank visionary delivered a spellbinding, if pessimistic lecture at The College of New Jersey warning of the imminent demise of Western Civilization.
It is Hedges contention that this decline “began when we shifted from an empire of production to an empire of consumption” which “celebrates image over substance,” adding that, in today’s “soundbite society,” reality no longer matters. He prefaced his hour-long remarks with an in-depth post mortem of the macabre spectacle surrounding Michael Jackson’s funeral, offering our obsession with such a terribly troubled soul as proof that the hostile takeover of religion by consumer culture is now complete.
After all, the cult-like worship of Jackson, as a Christ-like figure, ignored the fact that he was a profoundly disturbed individual who couldn’t turn water into wine, just his own black skin and features white. Granted, Michael had never been afforded a normal childhood or a chance to get a sense of himself because he spent his whole life in the limelight, but why would anyone in their right mind choose to idolize such a weirdo, especially when he also freely admitted to sleeping with little boys?
Of far more consequence, Hedges argues, is how such a depraved fascination with pop culture functions as an opiate preventing the masses from properly focusing on its own perilous plight. For, as he puts it, “Collapsing empires always break down due to illusion.” And the danger of illusion, is that like a Peter Pan, or a Michael Jackson, “you never grow up and you stay in this perpetual state of denial.”
He believes that in the U.S., where “an assault on the middle class is underway, class warfare is returning with a vengeance.” Citing the carnage he witnessed while covering Bosnia and other political hot spots as a war correspondent, Hedges reflected on how quickly civilization is capable of crumbling into all-out civil conflict. And “once collapse begins,” he warns, “People with very rosy views of the world don’t live very long.”
A chilling forecast by a brilliant iconoclast intent on sharing his vision of what’s just over the horizon with anybody who’ll listen.Ignore Chris Hedges at your peril.
Video of Chris Hedges lecturing about Empire of Illusion:
Chris Hedges Lecturing About War
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
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Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Nation Books (July 14, 2009)
Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.8 x 1 inches
Read an Excerpt.
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The Illusion of Literacy
Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no other distracting presence. And that image has all the Godly powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is man as God and the ritual involved leads us not to a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source, these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of the electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it.
–John Ralston Saul, Voltaire’s Bastards
We had fed the heart on fantasy,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.
–William Butler Yeats,The Stare’s Nest By My Window
John Bradshaw Layfield, tall, clean-cut, in a collared shirt and white Stetson hat, stands in the center of the ring holding a heavy black microphone. Layfield plays wrestling tycoon JBL on the World Wrestling Entertainment tour. The arena is filled with hooting and jeering fans, including families with children. The crowd yells and boos at JBL, who has had a long career as a professional wrestler. Many chant, “You suck! You suck! You suck!”
“Last week I made Shawn Michaels an offer, and I have yet to hear back from the Heartbreak Kid,” drawls Layfield. Michaels, another WWE wrestler, is a crowd favorite. He is a self-professed born-again Christian with a working-man persona. “So earlier today I made Shawn Michaels an offer that was a lot easier to understand,” Layfield continues. “I challenge Shawn Michaels to a street fight tonight! So Shawn, I know you’re back there. Now what’s your answer?”
“HBK, HBK, HBK!!!” the crowd intones. A pulsing rock beat suddenly shakes the arena as action shots of the Heartbreak Kid flash across the Titantron, the massive screen suspended over the ring. The crowd cheers, leaping up as Shawn Michaels, in jeans and an army-green shirt, whirls onstage, his long, blond hair flying. Pyrotechnics explode. The deafening sound system growls, “I know I’m sexy . . . I got the looks . . . that drive the girls wild. . . .”
Michaels bursts into the ring, fists pumping, stalking back and forth. The ref steps in to begin the match.
“HBK! HBK! HBK!” chants the crowd.
“Hold on, hold on, referee,” Layfield says, putting his hand on the referee’s shoulder. People in the crowd begin to heckle.
“Shawn,” he says, “you got a choice to make. You can either fight me right now in this street fight, or you can do the right thing for you, your family, and your extended family, and take care of them in a financial crisis you never dreamed would happen a year ago today.”
Michaels stands silently.
“You see, I know some things, Shawn,” continues Layfield. “Rich people always do. Before this stock market crashed, nobody saw it coming, except, of course, my wife, but that didn’t help you, did it? See, I was hoarding cash. I was putting money in gold. While most Americans followed the leader–blindly, stupidly followed the leader–I was making money. In fact, Shawn, I was prospering while you were following the herd, losing almost everything, right, Shawn?”
“Fight!! Fight!! Fight!! Fight!!” urges the crowd. Michaels looks hesitantly back and forth between the heaving crowd and Layfield.
“You lost your 401(k). You lost your retirement. You lost your nest egg. You lost your children’s education fund,” Layfield bellows into the mic, his face inches from Michaels’s. “You got to support your extended family, Shawn, and now you look around with all this responsibility, and you look at your beautiful wife, she’s a beautiful lady, you look at your two little wonderful kids, and you wonder: ‘How in the world . . . am I going to send them . . . to college?’ ”
Layfield pauses heavily. Michaels’ face is slack, pained. Small, individual voices shout out from the crowd.
“Well, I’ve got an answer,” Layfield goes on. “I’m offering you a job. I want you to come work–for me.”
“No! No! No!” yells the crowd. Michaels blinks slowly, dazed, and lowers his eyes to the mat.
“See, there’s always alternatives, Shawn. There’s alternatives to everything. You can always wrestle until you’re fifty. You might even wrestle till you’re sixty. In fact, you could be a lot like these has-beens who are disgracing themselves in high school gyms all over the country, bragging about their war stories of selling the place out while they’re hawking their eight-by-tens and selling Polaroids. Shawn, you could be that guy, or you could take my offer, because I promise you this: All the revenue that you’re goin’ to make off your DX T-shirts will not compare to the offer that I . . . made . . . to you.”
He tells the Heartbreak Kid to look in the mirror, adding, “The years haven’t been kind to you, have they, Shawn?” He reminds him that one more bad fall, one more injury, and “you’re done, you’re done.”
The crowd begins to rally their stunned hero, growing louder and louder. “HBK! HBK! HBK!”
“What else can you really do besides this?” Layfield asks. “You get a second chance in life.”
Layfield sweeps off his white Stetson. “Go ahead,” he screams into Michaels’s face. “Ever since you walked out here . . . people have been wantin’ you to kick me in the face. So why don’t you do it? I’m gonna give you a free shot, Shawn, right here.”
The crowd erupts, roaring for the Heartbreak Kid to strike.
“HBK!! DO IT!! DO IT!! HBK!! HBK!!!”
“Listen to ’em. Everybody wants it. Shawn, it’s what you want. You’re twitching. You’re begging to pull the trigger, so I’m telling you right now, take a shot! Take it!”
The Heartbreak Kid takes one step back, his stubbled face trembling, breathing rapidly like a rabbit. The crowd is leaping out of their seats, thrusting their arms in the air, holding up handmade banners.
“HBK!!! HBK!!! HBK!!!”
“Do it, Shawn,” Layfield hollers, “before it’s too late. This is your second chance, but understand this, understand this–”
“HBK!!! HBK!!! HBK!!!”
“–Listen to me and not them! If you take this shot . . . then this offer is off the table . . . forever.”
The crowd stops chanting. Different cries are heard: boos, shouts to attack, shouts to stop. There is no longer unity in the auditorium.
Layfield holds his head outstretched until the Heartbreak Kid slowly turns his back. Layfield leers. Shawn Michaels climbs through the ropes out of the ring and walks heavily back to the dressing room, his dull gaze on the ground.
“Lookin’ forward to doin’ business with ya, Shawn,” Layfield shouts after him.
The crowd screams.
Layfield, like most of the wrestlers, has a long, complicated fictional backstory that includes a host of highly publicized intrigues, fights, betrayals, infidelities, abuse, and outrageous behavior–including goose-stepping around the ring and giving the Nazi salute during a wrestling bout in Germany. But tonight he has come in his newest incarnation as the “self-made millionaire,” the capitalist, the CEO who walked away with a pot of gold while workers across the country lost their jobs, saw their savings and retirement funds evaporate, and fought off foreclosure.
As often happens in a celebrity culture, the line between public and fictional personas blurs. Layfield actually claims to have made a fortune as a stock market investor and says he is married to the “richest woman on Wall Street.” He is a regular panelist on Fox News Channel’s The Cost of Freedom and previously appeared on CNBC, not only as a celebrity wrestler but as a savvy investor whose conservative political views are worth airing. He also has written a best-selling book on financial planning called Have More Money Now. He hosts a weekend talk-radio program syndicated nationally by Talk Radio Network, in which he discusses politics.
The interaction between the crowd and Layfield is vintage professional wrestling. The twenty-minute bouts employ the same tired gimmicks, the same choreographed moves, the endless counts to two by the referee that never seem to get to three without the pinned wrestler leaping up from the mat to continue the fight. There is the desperate struggle of a prostrate wrestler trying to reach the hand of his or her partner to be relieved in the ring. This pantomime, with his opponent on his back and his arm outstretched, can go on for a couple of minutes. There are a lot of dirty shots when the referee is distracted–which is often.
The bouts are stylized rituals. They are public expressions of pain and a fervent longing for revenge. The lurid and detailed sagas behind each bout, rather than the wrestling matches themselves, are what drive crowds to a frenzy. These ritualized battles give those packed in the arenas a temporary, heady release from mundane lives. The burden of real problems is transformed into fodder for a high-energy pantomime. And the most potent story tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin, desperation, and enslavement of a frightened and abused working class to a heart...
American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America
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Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Free Press (January 8, 2008)
Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 0.8 inches
Twenty-five years ago, when Pat Robertson and other radio and televangelists first spoke of the United States becoming a Christian nation that would build a global Christian empire, it was hard to take such hyperbolic rhetoric seriously. Today, such language no longer sounds like hyperbole but poses, instead, a very real threat to our freedom and our way of life. In American Fascists, Chris Hedges, veteran journalist and author of the National Book Award finalist War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, challenges the Christian Right's religious legitimacy and argues that at its core it is a mass movement fueled by unbridled nationalism and a hatred for the open society.
Hedges, who grew up in rural parishes in upstate New York where his
father was a Presbyterian pastor, attacks the movement as someone steeped in
the Bible and Christian tradition. He points to the hundreds of senators and
members of Congress who have earned between 80 and 100 percent approval
ratings from the three most influential Christian Right advocacy groups as
one of many signs that the movement is burrowing deep inside the American
government to subvert it. The movement's call to dismantle the wall between
church and state and the intolerance it preaches against all who do not
conform to its warped vision of a Christian America are pumped into tens of
millions of American homes through Christian television and radio stations,
as well as reinforced through the curriculum in Christian schools. The
movement's yearning for apocalyptic violence and its assault on
dispassionate, intellectual inquiry are laying the foundation for a new,
American Fascists, which includes interviews and coverage of events such as pro-life rallies and weeklong classes on conversion techniques, examines the movement's origins, its driving motivations and its dark ideological underpinnings. Hedges argues that the movement currently resembles the young fascist movements in Italy and Germany in the 1920s and '30s, movements that often masked the full extent of their drive for totalitarianism and were willing to make concessions until they achieved unrivaled power. The Christian Right, like these early fascist movements, does not openly call for dictatorship, nor does it use
physical violence to suppress opposition. In short, the movement is not yet revolutionary. But the ideological architecture of a Christian fascism is being cemented in place. The movement has roused its followers to a fever pitch of despair and fury. All it will take, Hedges writes, is one more national crisis on the order of September 11 for the Christian Right to make a concerted drive to destroy American democracy. The movement awaits a crisis. At that moment they will reveal themselves for what they truly are -- the American heirs to fascism. Hedges issues a potent, impassioned warning. We face an imminent threat. His book reminds us of the dangers liberal, democratic societies face when they tolerate the intolerant.
War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
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Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Anchor (June 10, 2003)
Product Dimensions: 7.8 x 5.1 x 0.7 inches
As a veteran war correspondent, Chris Hedges has survived ambushes in Central America, imprisonment in Sudan, and a beating by Saudi military police. He has seen children murdered for sport in Gaza and petty thugs elevated into war heroes in the Balkans. Hedges, who is also a former divinity student, has seen war at its worst and knows too well that to those who pass through it, war can be exhilarating and even addictive: “It gives us purpose, meaning, a reason for living.”
Drawing on his own experience and on the literature of combat from Homer to Michael Herr, Hedges shows how war seduces not just those on the front lines but entire societies, corrupting politics, destroying culture, and perverting the most basic human desires. Mixing hard-nosed realism with profound moral and philosophical insight, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is a work of terrible power and redemptive clarity whose truths have never been more necessary.