Chris Hedges’ chilling essay: ‘Above all else, never lie to yourself’

These are the first two paragraphs of a fine, brave, chilling essay on Truthdig by Chris Hedges:

“Cultures that endure carve out a protected space for those who question and challenge national myths. Artists, writers, poets, activists, journalists, philosophers, dancers, musicians, actors, directors and renegades must be tolerated if a culture is to be pulled back from disaster. Members of this intellectual and artistic class, who are usually not welcome in the stultifying halls of academia where mediocrity is triumphant, serve as prophets. They are dismissed, or labeled by the power elites as subversive, because they do not embrace collective self-worship. They force us to confront unexamined assumptions, ones that, if not challenged, lead to destruction. They expose the ruling elites as hollow and corrupt. They articulate the senselessness of a system built on the ideology of endless growth, ceaseless exploitation and constant expansion. They warn us about the poison of careerism and the futility of the search for happiness in the accumulation of wealth. They make us face ourselves, from the bitter reality of slavery and Jim Crow to the genocidal slaughter of Native Americans to the repression of working-class movements to the atrocities carried out in imperial wars to the assault on the ecosystem. They make us unsure of our virtue. They challenge the easy clichés we use to describe the nation — the land of the free, the greatest country on earth, the beacon of liberty — to expose our darkness, crimes and ignorance. They offer the possibility of a life of meaning and the capacity for transformation.

Human societies see what they want to see. They create national myths of identity out of a composite of historical events and fantasy. They ignore unpleasant facts that intrude on self-glorification. They trust naively in the notion of linear progress and in assured national dominance. This is what nationalism is about — lies. And if a culture loses its ability for thought and expression, if it effectively silences dissident voices, if it retreats into what Sigmund Freud called ‘screen memories,’ those reassuring mixtures of fact and fiction, it dies. It surrenders its internal mechanism for puncturing self-delusion. It makes war on beauty and truth. It abolishes the sacred. It turns education into vocational training. It leaves us blind. And this is what has occurred. We are lost at sea in a great tempest. We do not know where we are. We do not know where we are going. And we do not know what is about to happen to us.”

And here are the last two:

“’What must I do to win salvation?’” Dimitri asks Starov in ‘The Brothers Karamazov,’ to which Starov answers: ‘Above all else, never lie to yourself.’

And here is the dilemma we face as a civilization. We march collectively toward self-annihilation. Corporate capitalism, if left unchecked, will kill us. Yet we refuse, because we cannot think and no longer listen to those who do think, to see what is about to happen to us. We have created entertaining mechanisms to obscure and silence the harsh truths, from climate change to the collapse of globalization to our enslavement to corporate power, that will mean our self-destruction. If we can do nothing else we must, even as individuals, nurture the private dialogue and the solitude that make thought possible. It is better to be an outcast, a stranger in one’s own country, than an outcast from one’s self. It is better to see what is about to befall us and to resist than to retreat into the fantasies embraced by a nation of the blind.”

The full piece is here.

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Comments (11)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 07/10/2012 - 11:43 am.

    I love Chris Hedges. To see more of what he’s getting at here everyone should read “Death of the Liberal Class” –

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/10/2012 - 12:49 pm.

    The evolution of our ability to create/destroy has outstripped the evolution of our empathetic selves.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/11/2012 - 08:59 am.

      And how could it be otherwise?

      The survivors are the people who push the others out of the way and grab the last chunk of bread, steal the last cup of water, shove their way onto the lifeboat, kill their neighbors for their land, etc, etc.

      Those are the survivors that pass on their genes.

      The people who focus on their own survival and prospering.

      • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 07/11/2012 - 09:40 am.

        Perhaps this explains the current efflorescence of the “survival of the fittest” of the Republican party.

        It is clear that the easy times are behind us and great difficulty is ahead of us.

        They want that last cup of water and last chunk of bread.

  3. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/10/2012 - 07:22 pm.

    Climate change

    I respect Chris Hedges very much both in his writings and for his courageous civil disobedience opposing the Keystone tar sands pipeline and his stand on climate change. His is a much needed voice against the corruption of our materialistic culture. His tone is ominous which is necessary to reach the far too many deluded people on this planet who think business as usual can continue indefinitely. His essay here, like others he has written, and like those of others who share his passion for truth and justice, don’t leave enough room for hope and don’t give enough credit to the many of us who perform small acts of heroism every day. We should be mindful that while we live in a cave viewing the images and shadows projected on the screen by the corrupt guardians of our culture, many of us understand the lie and that the truth and justice lies beyond these false illusions.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 07/10/2012 - 07:58 pm.


    Chris Hedges thinks he’s the last liberal standing.

    It’s amusing yet instructive that the vast array of liberal institutions he lists that he was counting on to fight the good fight against the evil capitalists have all seemed to have lost their willingness to engage the enemy, having succumbed to the wealth and rewards that can only be made possible through … capitalism. Yet Hedges sees this as a bad thing.

    What’s a real liberal to do? When Bill Clinton ran for president back in 1992, I remember one particular campaign event where he bragged about all the Fortune 500 CEOs who were supporting him, more than were supporting George H W Bush, and he called on them to join him on stage. It was eye-opening to say the least.

    Not so ironically, I left corporate America a few years ago, sickened by the invasion of liberals fresh from the same law and business schools that Hedges indicts, bringing with them their obsession with process over results, diversity over competence, cooperation over competition, political correctness run amuck, complete with speech codes, wellness czars, child care centers, obligatory social events and mandatory community service. Today, the Fortune 500 is run by the biggest socialists in America. Because as it turns out, Big Government is good for Big Business and vice versa.

    It’s a far cry from the warrior class, entrepreneurial meritocracy I remember from my youth.

    My point is, if Chris Hedges is really bummed about the loss of the liberal class, he’s going to be crushed when he finds out that they can be found running corporate America for the evil capitalists.

  5. Submitted by Peder DeFor on 07/11/2012 - 08:52 am.

    Corporate Capitalism

    Can someone connect the dots for me in the way that ‘Corporate capitalism…will kill us’? In the health care debate, those in favor of single payer systems will happily point to health comparisons with other countries. The health comparisons between capitalistic systems and others (communist, pre-capitalist) are very stark. Even from a historical standpoint, the quality of life for mankind has risen dramatically right in hand with the adoption of capitalism. But now, Chris Hedges warns that it will kill us.
    Btw, I’m not arguing that there should be no corporate regulation, so anyone who wants to fight that strawman can kindly have that fight without me.

  6. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 07/11/2012 - 11:00 am.

    Connecting the dots

    I don’t think Hedges is talking about health insurance though his point does bear upon health care and access to it. It is true that capitalism has raised the “quality of life” for many of us but still far too few benefit from it. The trend of things over the past thirty years has been away from improving the quality of life for the many to the fewer.

    But I think what Hedges means by “corporate capitalism killing us” is that our mindless quest for material comfort will be our collective undoing. Corporate capitalism wants us to forget that we have decimated the oceans of fish, and are destroying the ability of the planet to sustain life. There’s a whole lot of denying going on about the Alberta tar sands, the destruction of the rain forests in South and North America, the poisoning of our aquifers by fracking, overfishng and overharvesting of many natural resources. Unless we all get on board to face the grim reality, it’s going to be curtains for homo sapiens.

    • Submitted by Peder DeFor on 07/11/2012 - 01:10 pm.

      Quality of Life

      “It is true that capitalism has raised the “quality of life” for many of us but still far too few benefit from it. The trend of things over the past thirty years has been away from improving the quality of life for the many to the fewer.”

      Your second sentence is flat out wrong, both globally and locally. Quality of life has made tremendous strides throughout the third world, mostly due to increased capitalism. This is especially true in places like sub-Saharan Africa and the poorest parts of India. These are areas that various governments worked at helping for decades with no result. In comes corporations with jobs and products, and life improves.
      Quality of life has greatly improved here in the US too. My family’s income is very similar to what my parent’s income was thirty years ago. Thanks in large part to various corporations, I have tremendous advantages in technology today. I have access to more information and entertainment than we would have dreamed of back then.
      Through Amazon (a hated corporation!) alone, I have more books available to me now than any library had thirty years ago. That’s both through my Kindle but also through delivery. I grew up in outstate Minnesota and if our one small bookstore didn’t have it, it was hard to get. Today I can have virtually anything in print at my door in a few days.
      Travel is cheaper today, thanks to corporations. Communication is (much!) cheaper today, thanks to corporations. More medicines are available. My over the counter allergy medicine is cheaper and easier to get now than it was back then.
      I can do a nearly endless list of examples of the many ways that corporations, fueled by their desire for profits, have improved quality of life.

  7. Submitted by Greg Gaut on 07/11/2012 - 11:16 am.


    Since Chris Hedges’ original piece is in part a plea for grounding education in the reading of literature, it’s too bad he bungled the Dostoevsky reference, which has now been removed from the original article on Truthdig. The idea about being honest with yourself may have been expressed in the novel, but probably by Father Zosima and directed at Fyodor, the father. In any case, Hedges is right to see nationalism as a major factor clouding critical thinking. But he would be better off leaving Dostoevsky, a reactionary, anti-Semitic, Russian nationalist, out of it.

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