Pulitzer winner warns of ‘unfettered capitalism’

Journalist and author Chris Hedges argued that the ‘celebration of image over substance’ in American society is contributing to a national downfall. (Tim Lee/Photo Editor)

An expectant silence fell over the Library Auditorium. A College representative had just introduced the night’s speaker, rattling off a list of his journalistic and authorial achievements, publications to which he contributed and places to which he had traveled. The audience sat at attention, waiting to see the face behind the cadre of experience — or, perhaps more importantly, waiting to hear the voice.

Chris Hedges, acclaimed journalist, author and war correspondent met a packed library auditorium on March 1 to deliver a lecture based on his latest in a series of political bestsellers, “Empire of Illusion.” Hedges worked for The New York Times as a war correspondent, spending years in El Salvador, South America and the Middle East, before he resigned in 2003 after refusing to heed the paper’s admonition to stop disclosing his political opinions to the public. He has since authored several books primarily concerned with extrapolating upon and sharing those opinions.

Hedges certainly didn’t intend to keep his political musings cloaked at the College. His lecture, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” was publicized as a reflection on the “dramatic and disturbing rise of a post-literate society that craves fantasy, ecstasy and illusion.”

However, though the lecture was grounded in an exploration of this perceived cultural shift, the author also divulged his thoughts on corporate capitalism, consumerism and governmental deceit, issues he deemed relevant to the United States’s changing society.

He began by discussing Michael Jackson.

“In celebrity culture, we destroy what we worship,” Hedges said.

He described Jackson as a victim of the “moral nihilism and personal disintegration” that our society has ascribed to celebrity culture. “He was a reflection of us in the extreme,” he said.

Hedges talked about how the “lurid drama of Jackson’s personal life” played out on television screens throughout Jackson’s own life and the lives of millions of people. He suggested that celebrity culture devalues human life and “licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s pain.” He described how Jackson, as a celebrity under constant scrutiny, was objectified.

“Human beings are used and discarded in a commodity culture,” Hedges said. “It is the celebration of image over substance.”

His lecture then took a sharp turn toward the political. Hedges held that a society based on illusion is apt to believe anything thrown its way, and that that naïveté would preclude political and economic progress, especially during times of economic crisis. He believes the root of the problem is what he refers to as “unfettered capitalism.”

“The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture are collapsing as we head towards collapse,” he said. “The jobs we are shedding are not coming back. Freedom can no longer be equated with a free market … It is the rapaciousness and the savagery of unfettered capitalism that is being seen now.”

Hedges’s lecture berated the current state of democracy, the American population’s willingness to buy into what he referred to as “political brands” and corporations.

“We must opt out of the mainstream. We must stand firmly and unequivocally on the side of working men and women. We must become as militant as those seeking our engagement. If we remain passive, we will become serfs,” Hedges said. “If we fight back, we have a chance.”

He concluded his lecture by tying his political opinions back to his thoughts on celebrity culture.

“The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain us,” he said. “It is designed to keep us from fighting back.”

Students in attendance had mixed reactions to Hedges’s often-incendiary speech.

Some loved it. “I thought it was incredible,” Andressa Leite, sophomore international studies major, said. “I wish everyone got a chance to listen to this guy, besides just the people that agree with him.”

Others admired the lecturer’s storied journalistic past. “I think he captures the political climate in a very nuanced way, with an eloquence that speaks to his unparalleled experiences as a war correspondent,” Mike Tracy, senior political science major, said.

Some were more critical. “It brought to light a lot of things people should be considering. I think the only thing it was lacking was an action plan,” senior accounting major Matt Ravaioli said. “He talked a lot about problems, but he didn’t offer up any solutions.”

“In order to promote his populist agenda, Chris Hedges delivered a sermon that relied heavily on grandiose doomsday rhetoric,” Kyle Greco, freshman open options major, said in an e-mail. “It poorly hid the gaping logical holes in his shocking argument.”

Whatever attendees took from the lecture, one thing is for certain. Chris Hedges had a lot to say, and he is no longer keeping quiet.