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OpEdNews Op Eds    H1'ed 10/20/20

Chris Hedges: The Politics of Cultural Despair

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From Scheer Post

It is despair that is killing us, eating into the social fabric, rupturing social bonds, and manifesting in self-destructive pathologies.


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A Talk by Chris Hedges / Video and Text

The physical and moral decay of the United States and the malaise it has spawned have predictable results. We have seen in varying forms the consequences of social and political collapse during the twilight of the Greek and Roman empires, the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires, Tsarist Russia, Weimar Germany and the former Yugoslavia. Voices from the past, Aristotle, Cicero, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Joseph Roth and Milovan Djilas, warned us. But blinded by self-delusion and hubris, as if we are somehow exempt from human experience and human nature, we refuse to listen.

The United States is a shadow of itself. It squanders its resources in futile military adventurism, a symptom of all empires in decay as they attempt to restore a lost hegemony by force. Vietnam. Afghanistan. Iraq. Syria. Libya. Tens of millions of lives wrecked. Failed states. Enraged fanatics. There are 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, 24 percent of the global population, and we have turned virtually all of them into our enemies.

We are piling up massive deficits and neglecting our basic infrastructure, including electrical grids, roads, bridges and public transportation, to spend more on our military than all the other major powers on Earth combined. We are the world's largest producer and exporter of arms and munitions. The virtues we argue we have a right to impose by force on others human rights, democracy, the free market, the rule of law and personal freedoms are mocked at home where grotesque levels of social inequality and austerity programs have impoverished most of the public, destroyed democratic institutions, including Congress, the courts and the press, and created militarized forces of internal occupation that carry out wholesale surveillance of the public, run the largest prison system in the world and gun down unarmed citizens in the streets with impunity.

The American burlesque, darkly humorous with its absurdities of Donald Trump, fake ballot boxes, conspiracy theorists who believe the deep state and Hollywood run a massive child sex trafficking ring, Christian fascists that place their faith in magic Jesus and teach creationism as science in our schools, 10-hour long voting lines in states such as Georgia, militia members planning to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia and start a civil war, is also ominous, especially as we ignore the accelerating ecocide.

All of our activism, protests, lobbying, petitions, appeals to the United Nations, the work of NGOs and misguided trust in liberal politicians such as Barack Obama have been accompanied by a 60 percent rise in global carbon emissions since 1990. Estimates predict another 40 percent rise in global emissions in the next decade. We are less than a decade away from carbon dioxide levels reaching 450 parts per million, the equivalent to a 2 degree Celsius average temperature rise, a global catastrophe that will make parts of the earth uninhabitable, flood coastal cities, dramatically reduce crop yields and result in suffering and death for billions of people. This is what is coming, and we can't wish it away.

I speak to you in Troy, New York, once the second largest producer of iron in the country after Pittsburgh. It was an industrial hub for the garment industry, a center for the production of shirts, shirtwaists, collars, and cuffs, and was once home to foundries that made bells to firms that crafted precision instruments. All that is gone, of course, leaving behind the post-industrial decay, the urban blight and the shattered lives and despair that are sadly familiar in most cities in the United States.

It is this despair that is killing us. It eats into the social fabric, rupturing social bonds, and manifests itself in an array of self-destructive and aggressive pathologies. It fosters what the anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls "poisoned solidarity," the communal intoxication forged from the negative energies of fear, suspicion, envy and the lust for vengeance and violence. Nations in terminal decline embrace, as Sigmund Freud understood, the death instinct. No longer sustained by the comforting illusion of inevitable human progress, they lose the only antidote to nihilism. No longer able to build, they confuse destruction with creation. They descend into an atavistic savagery, something not only Freud but Joseph Conrad and Primo Levi knew lurks beneath the thin veneer of civilized society. Reason does not guide our lives. Reason, as Schopenhauer puts it, echoing Hume, is the hard-pressed servant of the will.

"Men are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked," Freud wrote. "They are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. As a result, their neighbor is for them not only a potential helper or sexual object, but also someone who tempts them to satisfy their aggressiveness on him, to exploit his capacity for work without compensation, to use him sexually without his consent, to seize his possessions, to humiliate him, to cause him pain, to torture and to kill him. Homo homini lupus. Who, in the face of all his experience of life and history, will have the courage to dispute this assertion? As a rule, this cruel aggressiveness waits for some provocation or puts itself at the service of some other purpose, whose goal might also have been reached by milder measures. In circumstances that are favorable to it, when the mental counter-forces which ordinarily inhibit it are out of action, it also manifests itself spontaneously and reveals man as a savage beast to whom consideration towards his own kind is something alien."

Freud, like Primo Levi, got it. The moral life is a matter of circumstances. Moral consideration, as I saw in the wars I covered, largely disappears in moments of extremity. It is the luxury of the privileged. "Ten percent of any population is cruel, no matter what, and 10 percent is merciful, no matter what, and the remaining 80 percent can be moved in either direction," Susan Sontag said.

To survive, it was necessary, Levi wrote of life in the death camps, "to throttle all dignity and kill all conscience, to climb down into the arena as a beast against other beasts, to let oneself be guided by those unsuspected subterranean forces which sustain families and individuals in cruel times. "It was, he wrote, "a Hobbesian life," "a continuous war of everyone against everyone." Varlam Shalamov, imprisoned for 25 years in Stalin's gulags, was equally pessimistic: "All human emotions -- of love, friendship, envy, concern for one's fellowman, compassion, a longing for fame, honesty -- had left us with the flesh that had melted from our bodies during our long fasts. The camp was a great test of our moral strength, of our everyday morality, and 99% of us failed it...Conditions in the camps do not permit men to remain men; that is not what camps were created for."

Social collapse will bring these latent pathologies to the surface.

But the fact that circumstances can reduce us to savagery does not negate the moral life. As our empire implodes, and with it social cohesion, as the earth increasingly punishes us for our refusal to honor and protect the systems that give us life, triggering a scramble for diminishing natural resources and huge climate migrations, we must face this darkness, not only around us, but within us.

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

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