American Irrationalism

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Above Photo:  The false values of reality TV have been carried over into the current presidential race. Shown here, Donald Trump on “The Apprentice.” (NBC)

There is no shortage of signs of impending environmental catastrophe, including the melting of the polar ice caps and the rise of atmospheric carbon to above 400 parts per million. The earth’s sixth mass extinction is underway. It is not taking place because of planetary forces. Homo sapiens is orchestrating it. Americans are at the same time bankrupting themselves by waging endless and unwinnable wars. We have allowed our elites to push more than half the U.S. population into poverty through deindustrialization. We do nothing to halt the waves of nihilistic violence by enraged citizens who carry out periodic mass shootings in schools, malls, movie theaters and other public places. The political and financial elites flaunt their greed and corruption. Donald Trump appears to pay no federal income taxes. Hillary and Bill Clinton use their foundation as a tool for legalized bribery. Our largest corporations have orchestrated a legal tax boycott. The judicial system is a subsidiary of the corporate state. Militarized police conduct public executions of unarmed people of color. Our infrastructure, including our schools, roads and bridges, along with our deindustrialized cities, are in ruins. Decay and rot—physical and moral—are pervasive.

We are blinded to our depressing reality by the avalanche of images disseminated by mass media. Political, intellectual and cultural discourse has been replaced with spectacle. Emotionalism and sensationalism are prized over truth. Highly paid pundits who parrot back the official narrative, corporate advertisers, inane talk shows, violent or sexually explicit entertainment and gossip-fueled news have contaminated cultural life. “Reality” television, as contrived as every other form of mass entertainment, has produced a “reality” presidential candidate.

Mass culture, because it speaks to us in easily digestible clichés and stereotypes, reinforces ignorance, bigotry and racism. It promotes our individual and collective self-glorification. It sanctifies nonexistent national virtues. It takes from us the intellectual and linguistic tools needed to separate illusion from truth. It is all show business all the time.

There are hundreds of millions of Americans who know that something is terribly wrong. A light has gone out. They see this in their own suffering and hopelessness and the suffering and hopelessness of their neighbors. But they lack, because of the contamination of our political, cultural and intellectual discourse, the words and ideas to make sense of what is happening around them. They are bereft of a vision. Austerity, globalization, unfettered capitalism, an expansion of the extraction of fossil fuels, and war are not the prices to be paid for progress and the advance of civilization. They are part of the savage and deadly exploitation by corporate capitalism and imperialism. They serve a neoliberal ideology. The elites dare not speak this truth. It is toxic. They peddle the seductive illusions that saturate the airwaves. We are left to strike out at shadows. We are led to succumb to the racism, allure of white supremacy and bigotry that always accompany a culture in dissolution.

We cannot, for this reason, discount the possibility that Trump will be elected president. The election outcome will be decided by whatever emotion Americans feel when they cast their ballots.

Celebrity narratives, manufactured pseudo-drama, sex scandals, natural disasters, insults and invective, mass shootings and war flash before us in a constant jumble of images on ubiquitous screens. The sensory assault obliterates reality. A former congressman who sends a picture of himself in underwear to a woman is a national news story. Sober examinations of our economic, foreign, judicial and environmental policies are dismissed as too complicated and boring. They do not produce engaging images. The electronic media’s sole goal is to attract viewers and advertising dollars. It has conditioned us to demand a nonstop vaudeville act.

Because of this mass indoctrination, we have become infected by what Daniel Boorstin in “The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America” calls “social narcissism.” The bottomless narcissism of Trump and the Clintons caters to this social narcissism. They reflect back to us our desperate longing for, as well as celebration of, entertainment, celebrity, wealth, power and self-aggrandizement. It is not only advertising and public relations, as Boorstin pointed out, that carry out the incessant manufacturing of illusions that feed social narcissism. Journalists, book publishers, politicians, athletes, entertainers, positive psychologists, self-help gurus, the Christian right and talk show hosts all feed the mania for illusion. They all chant the insane mantra that reality is never an impediment to what we desire. We can have anything we want if we work hard, get an education, believe in ourselves, grasp that we are exceptional and see the impossible as always possible. It is magical thinking. And magical thinking is the only real commodity the elites have left to offer us. Make American Great Again. Or American already is great. Take your pick of idiotic clichés.

“We tyrannize and frustrate ourselves by expecting more than the world can give us or than we can make of the world,” Boorstin wrote. “We demand that everyone who talks to us, or writes for us, or takes pictures for us, or makes merchandise for us, should live in our world of extravagant expectations. We expect this even of the peoples of foreign countries. We have become so accustomed to our illusions that we mistake them for reality. We demand them. And we demand that there be always more of them, bigger and better and more vivid.”

The incessant search for instant gratification and the most appealing image, including the image of ourselves we manufacture for others on social media, has robbed us of the ability to examine ourselves and our society. It has extinguished the truth. The terminal decline of the American empire, the utter inability our elites to manage anything important, the climate crisis, widespread poverty and despair do not fit with the illusion. So these realities are blotted from public consciousness. The poor are rendered invisible. The foreign policy debacles will be fixed with more bombs. Only the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, along with the medieval Catholic Church, controlled thought as effectively.

Candidates Trump and Clinton have no plans to halt our slide to oblivion. They are part of the circus. They, like all of the other elites, profit from the system that is destroying us. They lack the incentive and probably the capacity to challenge the structures and assumptions that define corporate capitalism. They function as high priests. They peddle the illusions. They laud our ingenuity and strength. They preach the inevitability of human progress and American exceptionalism. They tell us what we want to hear. They appeal to our emotions, as does all of mass culture. They do not acknowledge reality. That would spoil the show.

We vote for slogans, manufactured personalities, perceived sincerity, personal attractiveness and the crafted personal narratives peddled by candidates. Office seekers create the illusion of intimacy established between celebrities and their audiences. We see ourselves in them; admirers of the “winner” Trump see themselves as becoming him. No politician succeeds without such artifice. Today’s politics is just one more product of a diseased culture. Our political leaders are much like the celebrities who, in Boorstin’s words, “are receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness. They are nothing but ourselves seen in a magnifying mirror.”

The incoherent absurdities mouthed for our amusement induce a state of permanent amnesia. Life is lived in an eternal present. How we got here, where we came from, what shaped us as a society, in short the continuum of history that gives us an identity, are eradicated.

The quest for identity through mass culture is self-defeating. We can never achieve what these illusions tell us we can achieve. We can never be who we want to be. It is a ceaseless chase from one chimera to the next. And this is why at the end we fall into despair and rage. It is why huge parts of the country no longer hold genuine political ideas. It is why people vote according to how they feel. It is why hatred and fear are a potent political platform. It is why we are sleepwalking into oblivion.

 

  • DHFabian

    An American is someone who can sit in his car, engine running, and call out a remark about “polluting my air” to passer-by who is smoking a cigaret. We’ve supported redistributing several trillion taxpayer dollars upward since the 1980s, largely to wealthy corporations, and ended actual welfare aid to the very poor in the 1990s. We simply deny the reality that not everyone can work (health, etc.) and that there aren’t jobs available to all. We’re 20 years deep into a war on the poor, and pretend there are no consequences. Rational?

    Congress began the campaign season by kicking off 2015 with virtually ending food stamps to the elderly poor and the disabled (cut from $115 per month, to $10). This was a clear statement of our government’s priorities and goals. Democrats chose the most anti-poor, pro-corporate empowerment candidate available. Are we racing toward a showdown of the Titan Egos between Clinton and Putin, possible over Syria? Who knows, who cares, we’re more afraid of Trump. Rational?

  • Chris Hedges’ “American Irrationalism” is a protest so powerful it is strongly reminiscent of Allen Ginsberg’s epic Howl, to which I was introduced by a keenly perceptive fellow University of Tennessee student named Thais Smedley whom I met, seemingly by random chance, on a campus sidewalk. It was 1959, when possession of the Howl text anywhere in the South was a felony. Thais was a senior bound for graduate school, I a 19-year-old freshman soon to run out of money and enlist in the Regular Army to fulfill the six-year military obligation the Empire imposed on all save the most financially privileged of its males. But on that hot May afternoon I met Thais, whose raven hair fell below her shoulders in what was then a gesture of bohemian defiance and who was clad in the more subtle rebelliousness of a white linen blouse with matching white shorts and bare-legged black sandals and whose appearance thus drew from me the spontaneous salute of a memorably face-stretching grin, my poverty-imposed denouement was yet five months away in the unknown future, and now I was wealthy with her sudden presence, enchanted by her soft-voiced eloquence, smitten by the uniqueness of her beauty and flattered by the attention of a woman three years older than I. But I was also lost, lost in the dark miasma of contradictions between the undefined but nevertheless implicitly Marxian values with which I had been raised — my father had been a Communist during the 1930s — and the quagmire of incipient fascism in which the anti-intellectualism and lockstep conformity of the Joe McCarthy realm seemed intent on drowning me. Thais somehow sensed my existential quandary, invited me to her dwelling — with its painted stone walls and potted plants it was a study in green and white, the brightest, most airy, most welcoming basement apartment I have ever encountered — and there we talked for perhaps two hours, after which she fed me a bowl of Campbell’s beef noodle soup, gave me her copy of Howl — “I think this will speak to you,” she said; “and I don’t need it anymore,” — then oh-so-gently sent me on my way so she could continue packing for her move to graduate studies elsewhere. She was right, of course; Ginsberg did indeed speak to me, and even at 19 I somehow knew better than to ignore the perceptions of a woman who, like some personification of the Muse, had appeared as if by magic in my life. Howl was for me the doorway to a new consciousness, an eventual synthesis of my father’s Marxism and my own outrage at the casually brutal ignorance of the nyekulturniy state I have since come to damn as “Moron Nation,” and the key that unlocked it — the mechanism of epiphany for which I am forever grateful to Thais — is Howl‘s opening line: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…” Let us hope Hedges’ opening line, “There is no shortage of signs of impending catastrophe…” awakens as many in the millennial generation as Ginsberg’s words awakened in mine;.let us also hope Margaret Flowers’ gift of “American Irrationalism” here via Popular Resistance is as pivotally influential on the multitudes as Thais Smedley’s gift of Howl was to me.

  • Jon

    Thank you Loren for this eloquence of your own, and for that poignant recollection. My problem with Hedges is not that he is wrong, but that so often he sees the glass half empty rather than half full, and the result leads to despair–not a winning strategy. I choose to see the latter, half full, seeing the bold resistance to the oppression and reveling in it. In fact, I use the term REVEL-ution to describe what we are manifesting worldwide.

  • Three points in response:

    (1)-Thank you for the compliment; ;

    (2)-Apropos Hedges, we disagree. Hedges is one of the very few who dare tell us how dire our circumstances truly are. Yes this can cause despair, but if that’s what it takes to awaken Moron Nation to what it has done to itself and is now doing not just to our entire species but to our entire planet, so be it. With its total surveillance technology, its domestic policy of slow-motion genocide (to exterminate all of us who are no longer exploitable for profit), and its doomsday foreign policy, the USian Empire is in hideous truth the most malevolently oppressive regime in our species’ history. I know this sounds pessimistic, but it is in fact the opposite. As Sun Tzu so clearly understood, if we are to evolve an effective response, we must grasp the totality of our enemy’s (oppressive) capabilities and (genuinely evil) intentions. And because I do believe we are capable of evolving such a response, beneath my apparent pessimism lies a profound optimism.

    (3)-Apropos Thias: the only reference to her I could find via Google was of her graduation from Oak Ridge High School in 1955. I have not seen her since 1963, when we were both arrested on civil-rights-related charges, and I would love to contact her to thank her for the enduring influence of her gift. Hence please share your findings.

    Again, thank you. .

  • Jon

    First, Here is a portion of what I found, but it also included an address and phone, which it would be inappropriate to post here, except to cite North Carolina as residence. Both names are so unusual that it is likely she. You may call me at 207 549-7787 for more info.

    Thais Smedley Wiener

    Voter ID: (I deleted) | Status: Active

    Born
    1938/1939

    Age
    77

    Party Affiliation
    Unaffiliated

    Gender
    Female

    Race
    White

    Updated

    October 04, 2016

  • Jon…Again many thanks. Huge time difference between Washington state and Maine, and I’m still running — hobbling, actually — first-of-month errands. Will phone tomorrow around 1 p.m. my time (4 p.m. yours) if that’s ok. (These hours include Sunday’s time change.)

  • Jon

    Loren, I will be at a craft show and then a Green Party meeting in the afternoon. Try me about 6 or 7 PM Eastern (to be) standard time. I look forward to talking with you. Glad t be the “midwife” for the connection,if it happens.