With Chris Hedges
Directed and produced by Amanda Zackem
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
Beauty, grief, death, the struggle with our own mortality, the search for a life of meaning, love, the capacity for transformation, those forces are ones that make us stop and become introspective and think, and look within ourselves to see who we are and where we're going. And that's what any totalitarian state seeks to crush. And yet, we kind of blissfully have checked out.
Most people have no concept of how fragile their environment is. I think you have to, as I have done, live in societies that collapse to realize how quickly they go down and how fragile they are. And so, there's a kind of emotional incapacity to understand collapse, even when it's facing you.
I spent 20 years outside the United States, and I had covered, as a foreign correspondent, totalitarian cultures, everything from the East German Stasi state to Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia. So I know how totalitarian systems work, I know the kind of dark emotions they evoke, I know the mechanisms they use to shut down dissent. And when I came back, it was utterly apparent that the country had gone collectively insane in a very frightening way, not only their misunderstanding of the wider world, something as a foreign correspondent I was very cognizant of, but their misunderstanding of who they were and where they were going.
The discipline of the humanities is subversive, it's meant to be subversive.
The nature of illusion is that it's designed, at least at the moment, to make you feel good about yourself, about your country, about where you're going. In that sense, it functions like a drug. Those who question that illusion are challenged, not so much for the veracity of what they say, but for puncturing those feelings. Attempt to get up and question where we're going and who we are, and the critique will be that you're such a pessimist, that you're such a cynic, that you're not an optimist. Optimism becomes a kind of disease. It's what created the financial meltdown, where you have this kind of cheerful optimism in the face of utter catastrophe, and you plow forward based on an optimism that is no longer rooted in reality. If hope becomes something that you express through illusion, then it's not hope, it's fantasy.
The cult of the self is, in biblical terms, a form of idolatry. Everything is about you, whether it's the worship of power or money, it all goes back to the self. It all goes back to creating little monuments to yourself. All investment into any particular goal of self-aggrandizement is a kind of pathetic attempt at self-exaltation in a kind of maybe even subconscious way to immortality. We have replicated the patterns that pass civilizations in collapse; underwent an elite that is no longer connected with the real, that retreats into their bubbles, like the Forbidden City or Versailles, and yet has total economic and political power; the crumbling of infrastructure, civilizations always decay, their cities go first, we've already done that, the retreat into illusion. The danger is that this time when we go down, the whole planet is going to go with us.
The corporate state has made a war against critical thinking and in particular humanities, because the humanities at their best are about teaching people how to think rather than what to think. They're about teaching people to challenge assumptions and structures. The discipline of the humanities is subversive, it's meant to be subversive.
"It's why the Nazi Party made sure every single household got a free radio." Cartoon by Dan Piraro. [o].
The other thing that the failure to think critically does is it creates a very frightening historical amnesia. So you don't know how you got here, you don't know where you came from. And again, that is something that popular culture, let's call it, totalitarian capitalism, seeks to put in place, so that people interpret their problems as personal problems rather than political or social problems. When you don't understand what's going on, when you imbibe the illusion that you're fed, the belief that reality is never an impediment to what you desire, that you can have everything you want, that blinds you, it keeps you from seeing what's happening around you. Then, because you are intellectually and emotionally unprepared, you scream for moral renewal and a new savior and a demagogue and vengeance. And at that point, you vomit it up, these very frightening figures. So the lunatic fringe of our political establishment, which is often laughed at by even a majority of the populace in moments like that, suddenly seizes power.
You can oftentimes in moments of breakdown, have a society clamor for their own enslavement. The cost that we're paying is that the forces arrayed against us are going to kill us. Unfettered, unregulated capitalism is a revolutionary force, as Karl Marx understood. It exploits everything. Everything becomes a commodity. Human beings become commodities, the natural world becomes a commodity, that it exploits until exhaustion or collapse. And that's why the environmental crisis is intimately twinned with the economic crisis. 40% of the summer Arctic sea ice melts, and that becomes a business opportunity for Shell, that's up there dropping half a billion dollar drill bits down into the Arctic Sea. It's insane. When societies reach the kind of end stage, the language they use to describe their own economic and political and social and cultural reality bears no resemblance to that reality, which is where we are. The language of free market, laissez faire capitalism is what they feed business students and the wider public, but it is an ideology that bears absolutely no resemblance to the reality and that gets back to the fact of living in the kind of culture warped by pervasive illusion and self-delusion.
Creating community — Freud wrote about it, Karl Popper wrote about it — brings with it a kind of anxiety and a kind of responsibility.
Totalitarian societies, by their nature, are hyper-masculine cultures and seek to banish empathy. They not only ignore the vulnerable and the weak, but they ridicule them and persecute them. They celebrate supposed values of force, strength, violence, and empathy is seen as weakness. I mean, in a free market society, all of those companies like Goldman Sachs would have gone into bankruptcy. But we don't live in a so-called free market. We live in a kind of bizarre species of corporate socialism. So in the end process of decayed states you have forces in essence cannibalizing the state itself, which is where we are. I mean, a poor person of color on the streets of Camden, New Jersey are worth nothing to the state; put them behind bars, they're worth 40 or $50,000 a year to prison contractors and food service companies and phone card companies; and that is something that is very real, but often not even understood by the victims themselves.
Totalitarian societies seek to funnel all intellectual and emotional energy into spectacle, into the super bowl, into celebrity saga. It's why the Nazi Party made sure every single household got a free radio. And now you sit there and watch Basketball Wives; you see Jay Z's crib and how many cars he has, and it's the great kind of pacifier. I wrote a book called Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, which is about the danger of unplugging yourself from a print based culture. So I actively resist the attempts by popular culture, which of course is largely dominated by for profit corporations, to give me a language by which I speak, and an understanding of the world. Underneath the guise of consumerism is unadulterated hedonism. I mean, it's infected everything, including spirituality, which in its real form has nothing to do with us, it has to do with our neighbor. I mean, the whole point of — and again, I speak as a seminarian — a life of commitment is picking up a cross, it's not a pleasant experience. It's one that gives one a sense of meaning, a sense of purpose. So I think that, again, it goes back to values which are largely an anathema to the consumer society. Those are our values that are rooted in self-sacrifice. It's about giving, it's about self-effacement. It's about understanding that a life of fulfillment comes through service, not through the attainment and acquisition of money, wealth and things. And I think that that wisdom, which sort of crosses all religious traditions is real.
"Those are our values that are rooted in self-sacrifice. It's about giving, it's about self-effacement." [Still from the film.]
I mean, creating community — Freud wrote about it, Karl Popper wrote about it — brings with it a kind of anxiety and a kind of responsibility. And Freud would argue even a level of neurosis, because there's always that tension between individual desire and community responsibility. And I think that that tension is real, but one that's necessary, and the consumer society plays very well on that, magnifies that anxiety to push people into behavior which is not only destructive to the community, but finally deeply self-destructive.
I covered the revolutions in Eastern Europe. I saw how lonely acts of defiance to totalitarian regimes, which at the moment are considered futile, kept alive another narrative, ironic points of light. That's what acts of conscience, acts of rebellion do. It appears often at the moment that it's meaningless, but when you stand up to decayed systems of power, systems of evil, and you speak a truth, even people within those systems hear your voice. And that's why the state is pushing through one draconian law after another, whether it's the wholesale spying and eavesdropping, monitoring, photographing of every American citizen, whether it's the use of the Espionage Act to shut down whistle-blowers, whether it's the National Defense Authorization Act Section 1021, for which I sued the President in Federal Court and won, which permits the US military to seize US citizens and hold them indefinitely without due process in military facilities. They're all doing this for a reason. They know what's coming. And I've covered uprisings all over the world. You know when the tender is there. You never know what's going to trigger it. You never know when it's going to come. You never know how it's going to express itself. But you know it's there, and it's definitely here.
Film director and co-founder of American Canary, Amanda Zackem. [o]
The corporate state knows no limits at this point. It has no regulation, it has no government control, it writes its own laws, it writes its own legislation so that the rise of popular culture and the obliteration of real culture is part of this entire corporate totalitarian assault on beauty and truth. And that's what they have to seek to eradicate, because those forces are ones that remind us about how we should live and about what it means to be able to be human.
Going into Sarajevo, which I did during the war where 2000 children have been shot, forty-five of my own colleagues have been killed, four to five dead a day, two dozen wounded a day, constant sniper fire wasn't pleasant, but it was meaningful. And one I think has to begin to make that decision whether they want to life that means something, or whether they want to leap from one hedonistic high to another.
You can't talk about hope if you can't see reality, and reality is pretty bleak, but that's the starting point. ≈ç
CHRIS HEDGES is a journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact. His most recent book is America: The Farewell Tour (2019).
AMANDA ZACKEM is a director and cinematographer from Buffalo, N.Y., and a co-founder of American Canary. She has previously taught at the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in the Multimedia, Photography and Design Department. In 2019 Amanda left her career in film and opened a practice North Node Holistic, where she offers energy healing, mediumship and spiritual counselling sessions. View Amanda’s site.