The print media is dying -- is anemic. Television no longer makes any serious attempt to report news in the sense that a traditional journalist would understand it. We are diverted by trivia, gossip, celebrity scandal, whether that is revolved around a lunatic fringe figure that want to burn Korans, or Tiger Woods' sexual escapades, or John Edwards' meltdown. There are these constant narratives that dominate the news cycles and make it impossible for those of us who care about actually reporting news and investigating serious issues to even find a place any more.
I spent the last fifteen years of my life as a journalist with the New York Times, which I think attempts to retain those values of news gathering. When you talk about the traditional media -- what's left of it -- they lie, the commercial media, but they are primarily lies of omission. It's what they don't tell you, it's not what they do tell you. It's what they leave out. And they leave it out for a reason. They leave it out in the name of objectivity. They leave it out in the name of impartiality because it would anger the power elite. Remember that these institutions thrive on access and they don't want that access cut off. And they are sustained economically by corporate advertisers who they don't want to alienate. And so the commercial, traditional commercial media has always been deeply problematic. But what we're seeing is actually even more catastrophic than the corruption of the media. Of the traditional media -- but it's actual replacement with a kind of faux or pseudo-journalism that revolves around celebrity gossip and pseudo-events. And by pseudo-event, I mean created events. Events which are created solely to evoke a public reaction and attract the media. The burning of the Korans would be a perfect example of that.
Kall: So the media is not much of a help. Is there anything that we can do to change these? Yesterday I interviewed Rick Sanchez from CNN. He has a new book out that talks about how he's integrated twitter and social media into the news. Do you think that's something significant? Do you think that's something that will make a difference, having the news become more of a two-way conversation?
Hedges: No, because people don't actually communicate ideas as they communicate in cliche's and sound bites. I think for those of us who are very pro-active, the internet is a wonderful tool, in the sense that I can read the English edition of an Israeli newspaper Haaretz, I can read the Guardian, I have instant access to a variety of news sources but I have to go looking for them.
Most people receive their information passively. They rely on roughly a half dozen corporations: Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, Disney, Viacom, General Electric, who control almost everything Americans watch, see, listen to, or read. And that's what's so dangerous.
For those of us who seek out independent sources of information, the internet is a valuable tool, but I think most people use the internet to reinforce their own belief systems. They retreat into intellectual ghettos where verifiable fact is irrelevant. Anything that bolsters their own world view or their own opinions is accepted as true. And that's very dangerous. It is part of the deterioration of a print-based society and by that I mean, a society where reporters report fact, investigate. Editors edit fact, and that you work to put out information that, while it may be incomplete, and while there may be things you leave out, at least is basically trustworthy.
And that is -- as print dies, as print is replaced by an image-based culture, we essentially have a culture where we confuse knowledge with how we are made to feel. And that really, if you read great philosophers like Hannah Arendt is the definition of a totalitarian system. So I think we're in the midst of a huge cultural shift, which is extremely detrimental for those of us who value the sanctity of truth, and believe that truth is a possibility. We live in a culture where opinion and fact are interchangeable. Where lies have become true, where people believe only what they want to believe. And that's exceedingly dangerous, because it's very hard to penetrate.
You know, we're sitting here in Philadelphia. For all of the many faults of the Philadelphia Inquirer, there's a democratic quality to newspapers in the sense that you get news you didn't ask for. It creates a kind of common narrative. That is obliterated by the internet where those who have certain belief systems -- and the left is as guilty with this as the right -- retreat into their own enclaves. And it fuels a strange kind of mentality where you have an external enemy that you're fighting, but you also have the internal enemy. That person within the virtual group who refuses to hate with enough venom somehow shows some kind of compassion or understanding for that force, or those figures who are defined as the enemy. So there's a dynamic where you're constantly attacking the external force that you're fighting -- you know, that could be in the case of the Christian Right, people defined as Islamo-fascist. And then you're fighting those people within the group who refuse to accept this absolutist ideology, this demonization, who question. And the effect of that is to essentially perpetuate, or further a kind of frightening extremism or radicalism.
So I think the internet is, while it's certainly been useful for those of us who look for alternative sources of information, at the same time it has reinforced the belief systems of people who embrace a frightening degree of chauvinism, and bigotry, and racism and intolerance.
Kall: There's a new book out called "The Shallows: How the Internet is Affecting our Brains"
(actual title: The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains") and Nicholas Carr, who wrote it, suggests that it's making us shallower. We can't pay attention. We don't pay attention. We flit around, going from one Google result to another. Do you see that this ties in with the problem that you're talking about?
Yeah, very much so. And because the only way to deal with complex thought is through print. It's why I don't own a television. It's why I read, usually two to three hours a night.
The more you sever yourself from print and retreat into the kind of short, staccato-like sound bites that the internet throws at you -- and remember the internet doesn't throw sort of short verse of words at you, but even the New York Times website throws moving images in there and I think it's extremely dangerous because thought requires contemplation.
I remember when I was twenty years outside the United States, I moved back to New York City, and I was overwhelmed by the electronic hallucinations that bombarded me in my public and private space. And so, I retreated into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I could contemplate objects or paintings that didn't move.
And the more I think -- I haven't read the book yet -- but I think he's right, in the sense that you need to step back from movement. You need to spend significant amounts of time with print material to grasp complex thoughts, and that requires silence. It requires an absence of noise. It requires an absence of moving images. And the less we do that, the more -- the shallower or the more manipulated we become.
If you want to understand the nature of totalitarianism, then you better invest time in reading the great works on totalitarianism. "The Origins of Totalitarianism", Karl Popper, "The Open Society and Its Enemies", and if you don't do that -- Sheldon Wolin's "Democracy Incorporated" -- you can't begin to understand what's happening to you. And I think that there are powerful forces in this culture -- and I think Carr is on to something -- that intrude into our space to such an extent that we've stopped thinking. And I find it frightening.
Kall: This is not a choice, though, this is what's happening. I've talked to a good number of brain researchers and scientists, and they all agree. The brain is changing, and it's getting more distractible. And it's having more difficulty going into deep attentive states, and less and less people read print. The percentage of people under 30 who read newspapers -- my God! It's frightening.
Hedges: Well then, that's just what the corporate state wants. And they're getting it. They want us to be constantly distracted. And what's happening to us as a country as we are distracted.
Our U.S. Treasury is being looted. We are racking up deficits to fund wars that not only can't be won, but that we can never pay for. We have created a kind of permanent underclass of unemployed. One in four children need food stamps to eat. We have destroyed our manufacturing base so that the jobs that made a prosperous working and middle class possible will never come back.
We have allowed the national security state to suspend habeas corpus, carry out warrantless wiretapping and eavesdropping on millions of Americans. I think it's like 1.3 billion emails are stored a day by a national security state.
And meanwhile, we're all wrapped up in whether Tiger Woods' mistress has bought a condo in New York. You know, it has a kind of Kafkaesque or absurdist quality to it. But it's not accidental. And it replicates in a much more sophisticated form, precisely what happened in the Roman arena. Cicero spent a lot of time writing about it. The emotional and intellectual life of the Roman public as Rome became despotic was invested in the arena, until essentially, the Roman public was enslaved and the Republic itself collapsed into despotism, corruption, and finally, ruin. I think that the human heart remains a constant . Technology changes and we're seeing exactly the same phenomena within American society.
Kall: It's the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 am, sponsored by Op Ed News.com. I'm speaking with Chris Hedges, and we're driving on I-95, coming from a fundraiser for getting a flotilla together from the United States to go to Gaza, to help free Gaza.
Chris, this morning I wrote an article called "F the first". Basically, I was watching "Morning Joe", with Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and Donie Deutsch is one of their regulars, and he was advocating to do whatever it took to get Federal marshals in to arrest Pastor Jones, the guy who was threatening to burn the books. And a number of the other people, the regulars on the show, were saying "How can you do that? Every time somebody raises the issue that there's a threat to the troops by somebody doing something, you're going to arrest them?"
But this guy was adamant and he had Pat Buchanan throwing irrelevant historical references at him. What's your take on how this has come down? The whole book-burning thing which you've already described as a distraction, of course.
Hedges: Well, it's exactly what the commercial media thrives upon. It's a non-story, non-event. So Whack Job wants to burn Korans in his back yard, or in front of his church with fifty of his followers. Is that a national news story? Is that a reason for the Secretary of Defense to call him up and Obama to respond? I mean --
Kall: And Hillary, too. And it was their involvement that made it a story.
Hedges: Of course. Well, but it was the media. They love that stuff. And that, I think, is an example of how irresponsible the media has become. It is all about emotionally driven narratives that play out like kind of soap operas on news channels and they will seize on any narrative, whether it's Brittany Spear's meltdown, or you know, we got more Michael Jackson coverage with his death, it was about a month of it... I mean, that's what they do, and I think, when I talk about the corruption or corrosion within the commercial media, that's precisely that. That during the old days of Walter Cronkite and Roger Mudd, this would have never happened.
But essentially -- the electronic media, which only cares about rating, attracting viewers and attracting of course, most importantly corporate advertisers, have jettisoned the news for trash, junk, tabloid-like garbage. And you know, as soon as this one blows over, they'll find another one. So I really, I fault the media. There was no reason for the media to focus and build on this if it was attempting to actually responsibly deal with news. But news has become anachronistic.
Kall: Is it possible to tap into this narrative pattern that the, quote, entertainment news organizations are working to tell the stories that are important. Like tonight, when you gave your talk about Gaza, about that story, you created a narrative for it.
Hedges: Right. But they'll never give -- first of all, they're never going to offend powerful interests that could hurt their commercial liability, firstly.
Secondly, the narrative that I presented tonight was too long for any, a television
would pull 30 seconds, 45 seconds at best, and they would again reduce my message to that kind of cliche'. Because television speaks in the language of euphemism, jargon, and cliche'. Essentially, the language of about a sixth grader. And they've taught the rest of the country to speak in the same language. That's why the presidential debates literally use the vocabulary of a sixth grade level. That's about a ten-year-old.
So I think the failure on the part of the left is that it should have read Marshal McLuhan and Dwight MacDonald and a few others who warned that if you try to conform to the requirements of the media, that they will ultimately determine the message. And I think you see it on the shout fests on television, where there is no exchange of ideas. It's an exchange of quickly understandable cliche's, which obliterates the possibility of nuance and turns everyone into a kind of caricature. It's always a kind of Punch and Judy, or a cartoon show because television absolutely refuses to deal in complexity or nuance or with any kind of depth.
And that's why I won't go on Fox News. I mean, for years, Fox was begging me to go on Fox News. But I won't do it. Because I can't win in that situation. The first question an O'Reilly asks is, "well, OK, do you want to win in Iraq? Well, just answer the question. Do you want to win?" When you're reduced to speaking like a 3-year old, which is what TV does, and in fact, having spent seven years in the Middle East, and being an Arabic speaker, and many months of my life in Iraq, you can't cope with people who reduce human complexity to sound bites. The only way you can cope with them is to also respond in sound bites, and then at that moment, they've won.
Kall: You've mentioned a couple of times over the course of the evening that you speak Arabic. Recently there have been some conversations, and really, they're going back a long time to Walter Ong and others, that the language you speak, the language you grow up learning, affects the way you see things, the way you look at things. Has your experience with Arabic shown you any differences between English-speaking and Arabic-speaking ways of seeing and knowing?
Hedges: Yeas. That's very true. I mean, Arabic is a very ornate and poetic language filled with a lot of politesse . You know, if someone brings you a plate of food, you say "iss la moo-ey date?" (phonetic) "May God bless your hands" and the response is "ee day kee" (phonetic), "and may your hands also be blessed".
You never say "no" to an Arab. It is considered the height of discourtesy. You keep talking around it until they realize that it's "no".
You see it in French or Spanish, with the heavy use of the subjunctive, that kind of sense of ambiguity. The first sentence of Marcel Proust's "In Search of Lost time" "Longtemps je me suis couche' de bonne heure" is untranslatable in English. Because in French, you don't know whether he still goes to bed early or he only went to bed early in the past. In English, there is no way to translate that ambiguity. It becomes -- it's translated as, "for a long time I went to bed early". It has a kind of concreteness to is that a Latin language doesn't have.
I think when you speak other languages, and of course, as I did, live in other cultures, you become sensitive to other forms of communication, other ways of viewing reality, other ways of looking at the world, that I think often expose your own -- the paucity of your own vision. You're widened. You understand your own impoverishment when you have those experiences.
Unfortunately, with the dumbing down of American society, with fewer and fewer people who are culturally or linguistically or historically literate, we become deaf and dumb. It's like the joke about the American tourist who thinks that if he speaks loudly in monosyllables, some foreigner is going to understand him. Well, that ends up being sort of how we speak to the rest of the world. And that creates all sorts of problems. Because, essentially, it's a miscommunication based on hubris and it's getting us into tremendous amounts of trouble.
Kall: Do you see how this affects peace negotiations, or the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians?
Hedges: Well, there is no serious effort on the part of the Israelis to create a viable Palestinian state. The Israelis will say and sign anything you hand them and then continue the ruthless attempt to dispossess Palestinians of their land and their rights. And I don't think that is necessarily a linguistic fault. I think it is just the rank cynicism of a Netanyahu government and following, and on the heels of other right-wing Israeli governments, that is determined to crush any possibility of a Palestinian entity on the West Bank, and then of course the long term policy among the Israeli government is to shove Gaza into the unwilling hands of Egypt. That hasn't changed. I don't think that's a linguistic problem. I think that is more a moral problem.
Kall: Brute force.
Hedges: Well, the Israelis speak in the same language we use to speak to the rest of the world, which is violence.
Kall: That'll give me a pause of silence. The language of violence... So you've talked in a lot of ways that are about things that are fairly -- I hesitate to say hopeless -- but not very hopeful. Where do you see hope? Or do you?
Hedges: Well, you know, I was a war correspondent for a long time. We didn't use words like pessimism or optimism. You made a very sober assessment of the weapons systems around you and what their capacity to do you harm were, and then you acted accordingly. You can't talk about hope until you grasp reality.
As long as you have a utopian vision of a society around you, and you build responses around that utopian vision, then what you do is futile. As long as the left continues to think that voting for Barack Obama or the Democratic Party is the solution, we remain impotent. Barack Obama is a brand. Barack Obama serves the interest of the corporate state and the permanent war economy as assiduously as George W. Bush. If you are a Muslim in the Middle East, absolutely nothing has changed under Barack Obama in many cases, of course.
Kall: He talks more sweetly to you.
Hedges: Sure, but Bush used a lot of the same rhetoric... yeah, it's... I think we have to begin to understand that there's been a kind of coup d'etat in slow motion on the part of corporations and they've won and we've lost. And then we have to begin to build resistance movements based on that knowledge. And we're not there yet.
Kall: Build resistance movements? You want to --
Hedges: Well, in the sense of rebellion in the way that Camus wrote about rebellion. Rebellion is something that is carried out because it's a way to protect our own integrity. A way to make a moral choice and that we don't necessarily become concerned about where it's going. This is also the ethos of the radical religious left as embodied by figures like Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan. And I think that's right. I think that ... and rebellion is not the same as revolution. Revolution is about replacing one state power system with another. Rebellion is about a kind of permanent alienation from power. I think Camus has a lot to say to the modern age.
Kall: What did he write that he says that in?
Hedges: Oh, in "Rebellion" and "The Myth of Sisyphus"... "The Plague". I mean, in most of Camus' writings.
Kall: Do you see any beginnings of that happening here?
Hedges: No, I think people still place their faith in electoral politics, very naively. Although the Democratic Party has long betrayed the interests of not only the country, but the working class. But I think that those of us on the left -- that our failure to defy the Democratic Party in 1994 with the passage of NAFTA created a rift between us and the working class which has rendered us irrelevant. We failed to stand up for the working class at a moment when they really needed someone to stand up for them. We continued, despite the rhetoric of caring about the working class to vote for politicians who are betraying the working class, Bill Clinton being one of the first. And therefore, we've cut ourselves off from the most potent social force within the country that can affect change, and that's working men and women.
Kall: This is the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show WNJC 1360, Washington Township. I've been speaking with Chris Hedges. The sponsor is Op Ed News.com. Chris regularly publishes his articles at TruthDig.com.