Empire of Illusion, Ch. 4: Shiny, Happy People Vs. Chris Hedges
As any blog-reader can attest, there’s something very satisfying about a good thorough debunking. Seeing a smart critical thinker beating back the tide of bulldada is invigorating; and now that ideas have been unmoored from any notions of “respectable” or “unrespectable” it’s great to have a few sheriffs in town, ready to unload their writing irons on some deceitful cuss. But I get this feeling, sometimes, that the best minds of my generation are spending most of their time doing battle with falsehoods and mass emailed nonsense, instead of helping us to see where truth lies. I hope our legacy will be more than some really great fiskings.
I suspect this is why the fourth chapter of Empire of Illusion strikes me as its weakest. Here Chris Hedges works to debunk a school of “psychology” that already sounds like transparent bunk. “Positive psychology”, as Hedges describes it, is the latest iteration of the “power of positive thinking” notion that thinking happy thoughts brings happy results by sympathetic magic. Usually, they add something like, “Quantum mechanics proves it!” Actually, we have a friend who is a bit too enamored (i.e. at all) with The Secret, which is the same brand of happy face bullshit. Positive thoughts bring positive outcomes. We’re all directly responsible for our own fate… Except, you know, not always. I’m not quite ready to pin the Holocaust on Jewish negativity just yet.
Probably the people who believe this stuff wouldn’t either. Chances are they’ve never thought much about these ideas, nor the fact that over-privileged Westerners who’ve won the birth lottery pay exorbitant sums of money to go to seminars in which people tell them that success comes to those who look on the bright side. That most of these “positive energy waves” books aren’t exactly fact-based doesn’t really faze our friend. The Secret makes her happy. Chris Hedges would say she’s deluded.
And she probably is. But maybe I’m deluded in believing there’s a metaphysical force of love between me and my wife. And many people could be deluded in thinking the Divine has a special interest in their life and prayers. And my mother is probably deluded for thinking her pet cat has a deep bond of love and respect with her. And maybe we’re all deluded in thinking there’s anything at all to life aside from dicking around for eighty or so years and rotting in the ground. But, don’t most of us live and die by our myths?
In Hedges’s defense, he’s madder at the corporations who try to control their workers with this nonsense than the people who choose to believe it. This might be an American thing- my wife, a Canadian therapist, has never heard of “positive psychology”, nor have I, but an Alternet story claims the U.S. Army is planning to require all its soldiers to take this sort of training so they’ll choose death before negativity. Semper fi, smile or die!
Still, I take it a goal of this book is to disillusion those clinging to illusions. It’s not clear to me how much we gain in disillusioning people who believe in silly things. Hedges, I think, hews to the Marxist idea of false consciousness- if people actually knew how bad things are in the capitalist countries, they’d not stand for it. But his last chapter seems to suggest that things are so bad we’re doomed and it’s just a question of facing up to that honestly. So it’s hard to muster up the strength to disavow my friend of The Secret. And I’m not sure that the sort of delight Hedges has described viewers taking while watching some deluded chump humiliated on a reality television show or porno movie is so far removed from us chuckling at his descriptions of the deluded chumps who think happy thoughts will save them. Those earlier delusions seemed cruel and arrogant; this one is more heartrending.
Moreover, what is the benefit of having bright people like Chris Hedges busy debunking bullshit, instead of coming up with good ideas of their own? Increasingly, I feel like Hedges is doing an excellent job of diagnosing the symptoms of an illness and suggesting an underlying cause, without pointing towards a cure.