Chris Hedges' new book, Empire of Illusions, strikes out at many basic aspects of American culture: the 'star' culture; the addiction to war; the (positive) psychologists who make a good living from teaching and propagating the illusion of happiness, to a world that has lost its opportunity for work; the transformation of the culture into just another "brand" including the president; the corporate culture that marginalizes any talk of negativity from the "up-beat"presentations of corporate retreats; the government contracts (including Pentagon contracts) that guarantee all cost over-runs.Hedges was interviewed by Allan Gregg on TVO earlier this evening.
His book is one I can't wait to read since it brings together many of the experiences I witnessed first hand during four years working in the U.S.
Even the churches have fallen victim to the culture of "corporate growth" as their template for judging the effectiveness of clergy. The more money that was being collected and the more bottoms sitting in the pews, obviously the more successful was the person "responsible" for the congregational transformation so went the thinking of the vacuuous church leadership.
It was a pragmatic and completely rational method of evaluation. In fact, I was once offered a church in a town adjacent to the ministry of a husband and wife team that had been so effective they had "drawn" all the parishoners from the church in the town where I was being advised to work. It was as if their success had now destroyed the parish, and some fool was needed to repair the damages. Yet, the budget of the duet ministers had grown from $25,000 to $175,000 and there were now two services each Sunday morning where they used to be only one barely attended.
The American culture has been transformed into a corporatist one where individuals are no longer people; they are merely consumers looking for another product, service including another emotional fix like the one I just witnessed on CTV with the Dali Lama in Vancouver attended by well-meaning people from a variety of walks of life all seeking inspiration, motivation and resources for enhancing their level of compassion in their work and in their lives.
Teachers wanted, through courses in positive psychology, to develop compassion and empathy in their elementary students; drug and community workers wanted to sustain their own efforts in the face of many tragic and seemingly inevitable stories that laid their hearts waste to the devastation of, for example, a man lying twitching in a public park where there were hundreds of people, yet no one did anything, and unfortunately he died later the same day. Even a corporate executive wanted to "broaden" his efforts at compassion and ended by recommending to his family that, in cooperation with Free the Children, they go to a third world country and help build a school.
It is not that these individual efforts are not commendable; they are! It is rather that the notion of compassion, like the notion of leadership, can be taught, by external people whose example "inspires" others to do some good.
Surely we have all experienced a level of disappointment, discouragement, even injustice in our lives that moves us in the direction of empathy and compassion for others since we do not wish them to have to go through what we have endured.
I wonder if the Canadian culture of non-engagement, non-involvement in the lives of others, for fear of being considered "invasive" or intrusive or meddling, isn't partly responsible for the low energy level of compassion and empathy in our towns and cities, unless there is a crisis which seems to free us of our repressions and give us permission to take action.
Maybe we need some conferences on liberating Canadians from their cultural isolation and "silo" lives so that the expression of compassion, not in the abstract for a nameless and faceless third world person, but for the hungry and the lonely and the desperate in our own towns and cities can and will be released and create healthy social policy and more than 50% voter turn-out at elections.
Chris Hedges is currently a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City. He spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than fifty countries, and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News, and The New York Times, where he was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years.
In 2002, Hedges was part of the team of reporters at The New York Times awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper's coverage of global terrorism. He also received in 2002 the Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism. He has taught at Columbia University, New York University and Princeton University. He currently writes a column for Truthdig and is married to actress Eunice Wong. They have one son together and Hedges has two children from a previous marriage.