Saturday, January 9, 2010

Citizens of the Empire of Make Believe: Three Books by Three White Men--you may want to read one of them, or more



With a great deal of care, intellectual time, and soulful energy as well as impeccable research, Derrick Jensen produced a very compelling heart-rending book titled The Culture of Make Believe, primarily but not only about white supremacist racism in the United Rapes of Amerikkka. His familially unrelated and only slightly older politically allied brother, Robert Jensen, came out with a related manuscript, perhaps more intellectual than visceral in its effect. It is also a valuable book titled Citizens of The Empire, and is largely about the ethical responsibilities that come with being a gender- and race-privileged U.S. American. Last year a far more rushed, and far less thoughtful book, Empire of Illusion, by Chris Hedges came out with a similar title. If you only read one, read Jensen's. If I wrote a book, it'd probably be a lot more like Hedges, because I'd want to write it fast. But politically, it would be far more like what the Jensens have produced in their bodies of work. I'm glad those Jensen guys are writing so that I can rest knowing a lot of what I'd say has already been said by white men. Thank you Robert and Derrick: many years of health and well-being to you both.

When the sexually, economically, racially, and gender-privileged classes are in moral distress, imagine what the least privileged are experiencing! An alarm is sounding that Indigenous people and many, many women of color, and some white feminists, have been sounding for decades, often as their last uttered words. Some might argue, cynically, when white men are calling us to pay attention to some of the same matters, we must REALLY be up shit creek without a paddle. But it's more like the Western World is up CRAP Creek without a soul or a will to know and act responsibly and sustainably.

Will we listen when white men speak? I hope we listen to someone. Preferably those who know the most due to where they are located structurally in the world. I prefer to know what's going on as directly as possible, not in books mediated by white men. And I live in a country that will, one way or another, even if through the politics of a language called English, translate what is known. These three men are very privileged: Derrick much less so than the other two, Robert less so than Chris. If you pick from this list, pick the one that speaks most to you. But don't forget--and Derrick will be most likely to remind you--this warning has been sounding for some time. It's only because white male supremacist Amerikkka doesn't really care what womanists, feminists, and women of color generally have to say that these white men must write the books they write. And I believe they do so earnestly. And I'm glad they are writing.

Of these three white men, my political allegiances are far more with the Jensens than with Hedges. But different books appeal to different people, and the more U.S. conservative approach you'll find in the Hedges book will likely outsell the other two because it isn't exactly radical--it doesn't challenge heteromale or white supremacy as their roots. Of the three, only Derrick's is radically pro-Indigenist. But Robert's whole body of work, relative to Derrick's--and certainly compared to Chris's--is more overtly pro-feminist (pro-woman). Given this, I hope the other two books continue to be read a lot. I also hope that you'll search the bibliographies of the two Jensen books and note the women authors whose work is referenced, and read them as well.

What follows is from Amazon.com's reviewers of the Hedges book only.
Chris Hedges' newest book may be a screed, but it's an uncomfortably accurate one, delving into the addictive, corrupting hold of comforting & distracting illusion over too many [U.S.] Americans. From the even vaster wasteland of TV, brought to us by endless channels, to the drug of sensation at its lowest common denominator from the porn industry, to the "think happy thoughts" snake oil of both New Age & fundamentalist belief systems --

But you have to stop & catch your breath, or else be swept away by the torrent of mediocrity & cheerfully willful ignorance that passes for contemporary culture & thought. Once you're aware of how thoroughly blanderized & infantilized our culture has become, it's all too easy to succumb to despair or cynicism. And with good cause!

Hedges wisely selects just a few specific examples as indicators of something far more pervasive & widespread. Particularly disturbing is the chapter on the so-called "adult" entertainment industry, which is anything but adult. The graphic description of the ways in which women are used & discarded as commodities is sickening, yet we're clearly just getting the tip of a very slimy iceberg.

And Hedges connects this aspect of dehumanization to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, showing how sexuality & torture intertwine. Most disturbing of all is how accepted & mainstream this sort of "entertainment" has become -- we're not talking about erotica or old-fashioned porn, which at least portrayed sex as mutually enjoyable for men & women; what we see now is humiliation, suffering, pain, almost all of it inflicted on women for the pleasure of emotionally stunted men.

More than that, though, Hedges explores the ways in which reason & literacy -- the humanities -- are shunted to the margins in favor of a utilitarian mindset, one that boils down to, "What's in it for me, right now, and how can I get the most of it as quickly as possible?" And that "most" is wealth, status, power, and the illusion of importance -- a humanity measured in things, rather than in being.

From that point, we're shown how these personal illusions contribute to & help sustain a national, even global, illusion of power, self-righteousness, corruption & control. It's bread & circuses for the masses, with digital soma mainlined at every waking moment. Meanwhile, the real elites, the corporate masters of our world, do whatever their insatiable appetites demand. This invariably requires bloodshed & suffering inflicted upon those least able to resist it.

Is Hedges overwrought? Is he exaggerating the crisis at hand? If so, it's not by very much. As a war correspondent of some 20 years, he's seen the brutal results of illusionary thinking first-hand. This book is born of bitter experience, as Hedges bears witness to the ongoing destruction of the human soul, which is lost in a world of glittering superficiality which can't conceal its innate cruelty, ugliness & emptiness.

Not a reassuring book by any means, but certainly an eye-opening one -- most highly recommended! --William Timothy Lukeman
Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" and "I Don't Believe in Atheists", is back with another diatribe about our morally-bankrupt society. Whether you agree with all of his assertions or not, "Empire of Illusion" is a necessary, thought-provoking work on the role of entertainment in American culture.

Particularly fascinating is Hedges's take on professional wrestling. Whenever an academic brings up wrestling, it is usually as an example of low-brow culture. Hedges doesn't snub his nose, however: He merely observes and reports.

His thesis that wrestling storylines have "evolved to fit the new era...by focusing on the family dysfunction that comes with social breakdown" is on the money: Gone are the simple bouts of good vs. evil. "Morality is irrelevant," he writes. "Wrestlers can be good one week and evil the next. All that matters is their own advancement." The "illusion" here isn't that wrestling is fake. The "illusion" is that the wrestlers are idealized versions of what we want to become. He asserts that this mirrors a fundamental change in society.

Hedges traces this change through other American institutions (reality television, celebrity culture, the adult industry ["the adult industry"? Talk about politically neutralising an industry requiring sexual slavery and rape by giving it a meaningless name! -- JR], universities, psychologists), arguing that we are "unable to distinguish between illusion and reality". We forgo morals for an elusive and unattainable happiness. He states that we "will either wake from our state of induced childishness...or continue our headlong retreat into fantasy".  -- Andrew Shaffer, Davenport, Iowa
Chapter 2 is about porn. Porn actresses are portrayed by porn mediums as nothing more than wild beasts whose only desire is to satisfy the sadistic fantasies of men. Most porn actresses are heavy drinkers and drug addicts as a result of the mental pain and serious physical damage to their private areas, front and back, caused by their line of work. Most of them appear to work in escort services on the side. Hedges give an account of one porn movie featuring an actress who engages in the very unhealthy activity of engaging in sex acts with 65 different men over the six hour shoot of the film. Porn is one of the biggest industries in this nation; a great many of our male citizens appear to take pleasure in the degrading and brutal version of sex found in modern porn. [...]

While the annual compensation packages of CEOs soar well into the tens of millions of dollars, the median American family income has declined in inflation adjusted terms since the early 70's. We call ourselves a free market economy but a leading pillar of our economy is the taxpayer funded military-industrial complex, powering companies like Lockheed Martin. Hedges notes the example of the US government's annual provision of 3 billion dollars of taxpayer funds to the dictatorship in Egypt, 1.3 billion dollars of which (taxpayer dollars) is required to be used for purchasing weapons from private American defense companies. The US uses half of its annual discretionary spending on the military and spends more on its military than all the other countries in the world combined. [...]

Hedges gives a great deal of space to quoting various scholars and philosophers in order to back up his sociological observations. Other topics he discusses positive psychology, the destruction of higher education and the willingness of corporate media hacks to take at face value the words of the powerful.

Hedges suggests possible future scenarios where most Americans are virtual corporate slaves [as opposed to the non-virtual, actual slaves of which there are more now on Earth than ever, many being serially raped while enslaved -- JR], controlled and monitored by the ever expanding power of law enforcement. He fears that the biggest contrast in this country will be between a marginalized literate minority on the one hand and on the other a barely functionally literate or functionally illiterate majority enchanted by corporate entertainment and the vacuous PR spectacles and slogans of politicians. He fears that as social conditions worsen, right wing demagogues will make great headway. He is very worried about future environmental catastrophes. However he ends his book with the hope that decent human values can be utilized to confront our growing corporate tyranny.-- By Chris (Washington state, USA)

4 comments:

questcequecest22 said...

I'm about 3/4 of the way through Hedges's book, and I tend to agree with your description of it as more rushed and less thoughtful than other books. It's a decent primer, but I was somewhat troubled by how his examples tended to skew (in perception, if not in reality) to the young (wrestling, Jerry Springer) and/or female (Gossip Girl, Sex and the City). While he offers some analysis for the young men's situation, he has relatively little to say about the situation of women even though there's a whole chapter on pornography. I thought Kimmel did a better job of exploring how men interact with women and with porn in Guyland, but I wish both of them had done more to contextualize it within the longer history and broader system of women's oppression.

Julian Real said...

Hi questcequecest22,

If you ever write a longer review, or a piece on Hedges, Kimmel, Jensen and Jensen, I'll surely publish it here. GREAT insights and observations. Thank you SO MUCH for taking the time to read and share what you observed.

Brilliant, I say!!

Rj said...

Do you have an email address?

Julian Real said...

Hi Rj.

Yes, I do.

I don't make my email address public, however, which is why it is not linked to this blog. But if you'd like to correspond, just send me a comment here marked "not for publication" with your email address, and I'll write to you by email and won't publish the comment.