Thursday 19 May 2016

Chris Hedge: Empire of Illusion

I came across Chris Hedge’s Empire of Illusion: the end of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009) by chance some days ago. Although written nearly 8 years ago, some of his findings illustrate why Donald Trump is such as success. 

Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic. There are 7 million illiterate Americans. Another 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can’t read a simple sentence. There are some 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate–a figure that is growing by more than 2 million per year. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book. 


Television, a medium built around the skillful manipulation of images, ones that can overpower reality, is our primary form of mass communication. A television is turned on for six hours and forty-seven minutes a day in the average household. The average American daily watches more than four hours of television. That amounts to twenty-eight hours a week, or two months of uninterrupted television-watching a year. That same person will have spent nine years in front of a television by the time he or she is sixty. Television speaks in a language of familiar, comforting cliches and exciting images. Its format, from reality shows to sit-coms, is predictable. It provides a mass, virtual experience that colors the way many people speak and interact with one another. It creates a false sense of intimacy with our elite—celebrity actors, newspeople, politicians, business tycoons and sports stars. And everything and everyone that television transmits is validated and enhanced by the medium.

The worse reality becomes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it, and the more it distracts itself with a squalid pseudo-events of celebrity breakdowns, gossip and trivia. These are the debauched revels of a dying civilization. The most ominous cultural divide lies between those who chase after these manufactured illusions, and those who are able to puncture the illusion and confront reality. More than the divides of race, class, or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or unbeliever, red state or blue state, our culture has been carved up into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities that no longer speak the same language and cannot communicate. This is the divide between a literate, marginalized minority and those who have been consumed by an illiterate mass culture. 

Some of his conclusions are questionable. But his analysis is largely correct, and since 2008 things have only gotten worse. 

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2016

Wednesday 18 May 2016

Martin Wolf on the Elites in US Elections

One conversation I have been having more and more frequently these days is whether the US political system, having been so decisively broken, can ever be put together again. 

The role of money in politics; the revolving door between the administration and the private sector; the obviously wasteful public spending policies; the real lack of basic common sense; the distortions introduced by shibboleths such as gun control = independence or government = bad; the highly sophisticated voter targetting techniques; the willingness of political operatives to do "whatever it takes" to distort a message or an opponent; the very obvious disconnect between political rhetoric and reality: all these are factors that suggest to me that the American Republic is quickly becoming an Empire in the same way the Roman Republic transitioned first to a "national security / political effectiveness" empire, then into a simple hereditary empire. 

On this subject, Martin Wolf had an absolutely brilliant article in the Financial Times today on the role of elites in the US election. Failing elites are to blame for unleashing Donald Trump - 17 April 2016. 

A very quick extract: 

In addition, elites on both sides promoted economic changes that ended up destroying trust in their competence and probity. In this, the financial crisis and consequent bailouts were decisive.

Yet by then the middle classes had suffered decades of real income stagnation and relative income decline. Globalisation has brought huge benefits to many of the world’s poor. But there were significant domestic losers. Today, the latter believe that those who run the economy and polity impoverish, exploit and despise them.

Even Republican elites have become their enemy and Mr Trump has become their saviour. It is no surprise that he is a billionaire. Caesar, aristocratic leader of the popular party, brought forth “Caesarism”, the rule of the charismatic strongman that Mr Trump wants to be.

A healthy republic does not require equality, far from it. But it does require a degree of mutual sympathy. Sudden wealth from new activities — conquest in ancient Rome, banking in medieval Florence — can corrode social bonds. If civic virtue vanishes, a republic becomes ripe for destruction.

Well worth the read. 

It is very obvious that the rise of Donald Trump is only the latest manifestation in a long and sorry history of political action over the past 20 years. Even if he will be defeated (and I cannot claim to support the Democratic alternative), the tactics he has left behind will live on. 

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2016