In Essays & Poems

Spectacle Over Substance in the New Myth

The Op-Ed was published in the San Antonio Express-News on July 14, 2021.

Dennis Patrick Slattery, Ph.D.

When we take a well-earned break from the onslaught of news that bombards us daily, we might wonder, as we should, how fantasies of reality have gained such strength and support in these past years and seem to coagulate today with greater concentration?

I returned to a book I had read in 2012, published in 2009 by foreign correspondent of 20 years and a New York Times writer for 15 years, Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. His cultural diagnoses have become more prescient and more ubiquitous with time.

On the inside dust jacket is a pair of steely sentences: “A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies. And we are dying.” His book then details carefully and with abundant supporting sources how this stark diagnosis can be grasped. His bibliography carries a cargo of 120 sources.

I chose just a few of his insights to share in this article.

1. “We are a culture that has been denied or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality.” As an educator of 53 years, I have found the most challenging and rewarding task with students to encourage and foster critical and imaginal levels of discernment with the material we are studying. Reading and thinking with discernment are both challenging and rewarding gifts to ourselves throughout our lives.

  1. In the vacuum created by #1 above, “television has become a medium built around the skillful manipulating of images, ones that can overpower reality.” It is not only our primary form of mass communication, it is more: a large segment of the audience receive not just their news from television news but their reality as well.
  2. In the engineered new power center of our culture, “propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology.” For many, Hedges continues, “it is the final arbitrator for what matters in life.” Anyone who knows and enjoys the rewards of reading understands the often pale representation of television over the written word, where one can pause, consider, not be told what to think and draw conclusions from a base line of the material read.
  3. “My feelings” become the acid test of what is real and true. But we might ask if one’s feelings are in fact largely composed of my assumptions, fears, prejudices and fantasies that create a virtual Parliament of emotions that one construes as a true reality and not a private feast of fetishes and apprehensions.
  4. Hedges proposes that “it is style and story, not content and fact, that inform mass politics.” He goes on to cite another writer’s term, “junk politics,” a phrase that “personalizes and moralizes issues rather than clarifying them.” Again, the emphasis is on the private feelings and baked-in beliefs that largely have as their ends security and safety, whatever that might cost.

Such a posture can shield one from the ambiguous and unknown future as well as insulate one from the past, from history, from the wisdom of our ancestors, and from a more panoramic view of one’s present reality. Such a condition can be reinforced, Hedges argues, by those seeking power and self-interest to create an appearance of intimacy with one’s supporters while not actually possessing the qualities they boast about possessing.

Lastly, an important question for any of us thinking critically about these issues might ask: Who in fact is creating or recreating our “public mythology”—Hedges’ term—and for what ends?

Dennis Patrick Slattery.

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