by Chris Hedges edited by O Society 02 02, 2020
If what happens in courtrooms across the country to poor people of color is justice, then what is happening in the Senate right now is a fair trial. If the blood-drenched debacles and endless quagmires in the Middle East are victories in the war on terror, our military is the greatest on earth. If the wholesale government surveillance of the public, the revoking of due process and having the world’s largest prison population are liberty, we are the land of the free.
If the president, an inept, vulgar, and corrupt con artist, is the leader of the free world, we are a beacon for democracy and our enemies hate us for our values. If Jesus came to make us rich, bless the annihilation of Muslims by our war machine, and condemn homosexuality and abortion, we are a Christian nation. If formalizing an apartheid state in Israel is a peace plan, we are an honest international mediator.
If a meritocracy means three American men have more wealth than the bottom 50% of the U.S. population, we are the land of opportunity. If the torture of kidnapped victims in black sites and the ripping of children from their parents’ arms and their detention in fetid, overcrowded warehouses, along with the gunning down of unarmed citizens by militarized police in the streets of our urban communities, are the rule of law, we are an exemplar of human rights.
The rhetoric we use to describe ourselves is so disconnected from reality, it induces collective schizophrenia. America, as it is discussed in public forums by politicians, academics and the media, is a fantasy, a Disneyfied world of make-believe. The worse it gets, the more we retreat into illusions.
The longer we fail to name and confront our physical and moral decay, the more demagogues who peddle illusions and fantasies become empowered. Those who acknowledge the truth—beginning with the stark fact we are no longer a democracy—wander like ghosts around the edges of society, reviled as enemies of hope.
This mania for hope works as an anesthetic. The hope Donald Trump would moderate his extremism once he was in office, the hope the “adults in the room” would manage the White House, the hope the Mueller report would see Trump disgraced, impeached and removed from office, the hope Trump’s December 2019 impeachment would lead to his Senate conviction and ouster, the hope he will be defeated at the polls in November are psychological exits from the crisis—the collapse of democratic institutions, including the press, and the corporate corruption of laws, electoral politics and norms that once made our imperfect democracy possible.
The embrace of collective self-delusion marks the death spasms of all civilizations. We are in the terminal stage. We no longer know who we are, what we have become, or how those on the outside see us. It is easier, in the short term, to retreat inward, to celebrate nonexistent virtues and strengths and wallow in sentimentality and a false optimism. In the end, this retreat, peddled by the hope industry, guarantees not only despotism but, given the climate emergency, extinction.
Substitution of lies for factual truth is not the lie will now be accepted as truth and truth be defamed as a lie, but rather the sense by which we take our bearings in the real world—and the category of truth versus falsehood is among the mental means to this end—is being destroyed,” Hannah Arendt writes of totalitarianism.
This destruction, which cuts across the political divide, leads us to place our faith in systems, including the electoral process, that are burlesque. It diverts our energy toward useless debates and sterile political activity. It calls on us to place our faith for the survival of the human species in ruling elites who will do nothing to halt the ecocide. It sees us accept facile explanations for our predicament, whether they involve blaming the Russians for the election of Trump, or blaming undocumented workers for our economic decline. We live in a culture awash in lies, the most dangerous being these we tell ourselves.
Lies are emotionally comforting in times of distress, even when we know they are lies. The worse things get, the more we long to hear the lies. Yet cultures who can no longer face reality, who cannot distinguish between falsehood and truth, retreat into what Sigmund Freud calls “screen memories,” the merger of fact and fiction. This merger destroys the mechanisms for puncturing self-delusion.
Intellectuals, artists and dissidents who attempt to address reality and warn about the self-delusion are ridiculed, silenced, and demonized. There are, as Freud noted in “Civilizations and Its Discontents,” distressed societies whose difficulties “will not yield at any attempt at reform.” This is too harsh a truth for most people, especially Americans, to accept.
America, founded on the evils of slavery, genocide, and the violent exploitation of the working class, is a country defined by historical amnesia. The popular historical narrative is a celebration of the fictional virtues of white supremacy. The relentless optimism and reveling in supposed national virtues obscure truth.
Nuance, complexity and moral ambiguity, along with accepting responsibility for the holocausts and genocides carried out by slaveholders, white settlers, and capitalists, never fit with America’s triumphalism. “The illusions of eternal strength and health, and of the essential goodness of people—they were the illusions of a nation, the lies of generations of frontier mothers,” F. Scott Fitzgerald writes.
In decay, however, these illusions are fatal. Powerful nations have the luxury of imbibing myth, even if decisions and policies based on the myth inflict damage and widespread suffering. But nations whose foundations are rotting have little latitude to do such. The miscalculations they make, based on fantasy, accelerate their mortality.
Joseph Roth was one of the few writers in the 1930s in Germany who understood the consequences of the rise of fascism. In his essay “The Auto-da-Fé of the Mind,” which addresses the first mass burning of books by the Nazis, he counseles his fellow Jewish writers to accept they are vanquished:
“Let us, who were fighting on the front line, under the banner of the European mind, let us fulfill the noblest duty of the defeated warrior: Let us concede our defeat.”
Roth knows the peddling of false hopes in a time of radical evil is immoral. He has no illusions about his own growing irrelevance. He is blacklisted in the German press, unable to publish his books in Germany and his native Austria, and thrust into dire poverty and often despair. He is acutely aware of how most people, even his fellow Jews, find it easier to blind themselves to radical evil, if only to survive, rather than name and defy malignant authority and risk annihilation.
“What use are my words,” Roth asks, “against the guns, the loudspeakers, the murderers, the deranged ministers, the stupid interviewers and journalists who interpret the voice of this world of Babel, muddied anyhow, via the drums of Nuremberg?”
“It will become clear to you now we are heading for a great catastrophe,” Roth, after going into self-exile in France in 1933, writes to the author Stefan Zweig about the ascendancy of the Nazis. “The barbarians have taken over. Do not deceive yourself. Hell reigns.”
Yet Roth also knows resistance is a moral if not a practical obligation in times of radical evil. Defeat might be certain, but dignity and a determination to live in truth demand a response. We are required to bear witness, even if a self-deluded population does not want to hear, even if truth makes certain our own marginalization and perhaps obliteration.
“One must write, even when one realizes the printed word can no longer improve anything,” Roth explains.
This battle against collective self-delusion is a battle I fear we will not win. American society is fatally wounded. Its moral and physical corruption is beyond repair.
Hope, real hope, names the bitter reality before us. Yet it refuses to succumb, despite the bleakness, to despair. It cries out to an indifferent universe with every act carried out to name, cripple, and destroy corporate power. It mocks certain defeat. Whether we can succeed or not is immaterial. We cannot always choose how we will live. But we often can choose how we will die. Victory is about holding on to our moral autonomy. Victory is about demanding, no matter the cost, justice. Victory is speaking the truths the ruling elites seek to silence. A life like this is worth living. And in times of radical evil these lives—ironic points of light, as W.H. Auden writes—impart not only hope, but the power of the sacred.