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.

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7 thoughts on “Empire of Illusion, Ch. 4: Shiny, Happy People Vs. Chris Hedges

  1. I agree with you on this chapter. Hedges is great when he is on target but he is to often generally dyspeptic. There is a lot of poo in The Secret and positive psych, but he can’t seem to bring himself to admit that there may be positive things about being positive. I noted one spot where he, in his curmudgeonly way, noted employers tend to rate employees who are positive and cheerful better then others. I can’t argue with that, but then again …no duh. People tend to like can do people for the obvious reason they are more likely to get things done then can’t do people. I’ll note that i fell out of favor with an ex-boss for continually pointing out how our plans were flawed, were likely to fail and that they were failing. So i am down with the uses of being “negative.”

    He comes down hard on Martin Seligman, a prominent psychologist. What he doesn’t mention is that Seligman has been a , totally aside from his pos psych stuff, a pioneer in developing proven effective therapy methods. That seems to be a good thing. Part of Seligman’s, and others in his area, theories are that cognition ( how we think) is crucially important to mental health.

    Like i said Hedges is great at times, but he only states the cases that prove his point.

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    • @gregiank, Yeah, for me it’s a bit easier to join with Hedges when his example of delusion is some porn enthusiast who has convinced themselves that women like to be roughed up during sex than it is when the example of delusion is some poor sap whose life is a mess and they think things will improve if they keep a positive attitude.

      I keep thinking of a family I’m friends with. They got screwed really hard in the recession- lost the family business and their house and are trying to scrape together the money for a trailer now, in their early 60s, and really none of what happened was their fault in any stretch of the imagination. So we do what we can to help them, and when the mother sends me those “good luck emails” expecting me to forward them, I don’t really feel the need to dissuade her of the notion.

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      • @Rufus F., ouch. I always remember a quote from wayny gretzky, which I’m paraphrasing, that you don’t make any of the shots you never take. I used to think of that last time i was dating many years ago. Having some hope and belief that things will work out is so necessary for life.

        I thought of the Springsteen song The River, his depressing song about young folks trying and failing to make it. There is a lyric “Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
        Or is it something worse”

        It’s a bit cryptic, but i always understood it as the “something worse” was that the young couple was always fucked, they never had a chance to make a life no matter what they did. If its a choice between that and feeling hope, there really isn’t much of a choice.

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  2. I’ve never understood why believing in things like “The Secret” actually makes people happy. So the idea is that you can cause wonderful things to happen in your life by believing sufficiently fervently that you’re an amazing person who wonderful things happen to, right? Doesn’t that make it basically your fault that you’re not rolling in money and married to the hot movie star of your choice? And isn’t the fact that its your fault your life is so much worse than it could be deeply depressing?

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    • @Simon K, Well yeah that is the obvious problem with The Secret. I think the powerful factor that drags people in is that it gives them a feeling of control. We hate, hate , hate to feel powerless. Even if you may end up blaming yourself for something bad at least you had some measure of efficacy instead of just being at the whim of fate in an indifferent universe. And a lot people just believe a strategy of clap harder is a cure all for everything from personal problems to wars.

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    • @Simon K, I think most of us have pretty mixed luck. I just went and saw a super low budget movie screening and won a DVD in the door raffle, even though only about five of us actually bought raffle tickets. Then I ate dinner from the convenience store on the way home and got sick. You could probably interpret that either way. So I think the people who think positively will have reinforcement and those who think negatively will feel the same. The ones I feel bad for are the ones who solidly believe that they’re putting out positive energy and will get it back from the universe and then get diagnosed with cancer or something. At least I can just figure that life’s a bitch, you know?

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  3. Ah the seductiveness of “The Illusion”. If one declares that things and beliefs are all an illusion, one escapes responsibility. The words “ought to” no longer apply and now I’m in control of all. Ah the glorious illusion and I pray and give alms to the alter of No Responsibility.

    Greginak’s reply to Simon K. on being in control and not understanding reminds me of teaching young adults about Wiesel at Auschwitz and enjoying a bowl of gruel, or on teaching the acts of heroism by everyday people in our community. Why would they sacrifice for an Illusion, I would ask. Having been an embittered, angry man I can say that some of the principles of The Secret and others gave me the tools to change my mind (neurology to be accurate) and no longer live a life filled of anger. Very brief summary of those books: take responsibility for your thoughts – no more passing the buck.

    The mind is a powerful force that can give life as well as take life. If you choose to live and worship at the alter of “Everything is an Illusion” then you will succeed in finding that which you seek. Again having taught on this subject, I ask what is the difference between the Illusion and Irresponsibility?

    Which leads me to the quote the political satirist P.J. O’Rourke:

    “Cats are irresponsible and recognize no authority, yet are completely dependent on others for their material needs.”

    Kind of says it all. Food for Thought.

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