'Empire of Illusion': Pay Attention to the Folks Behind the Curtain

Chris Hedges

“The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power, means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.”

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

Publisher: Nation Books
Price: $14.95
Author: Chris Hedges
Length: 232 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication Date: 2010-10
Publisher's website

This dispiriting chronicle castigates our doltish nation ('ours' being 'America's'), ruled by corporations, dulled by entertainment, and stupefied by magical thinking. Chris Hedges repeats the mournful litany that dominates his previous books condemning the dumbed-down state, its media stooges, and its capitalist manipulators. While never pleasant and rarely the least bit optimistic, Hedges’ wide-ranging survey, with many citations gleaned from his fellow intellectual cadre, assures if nobody else the few literate citizens whom he believes may survive a slide into mediocrity and idiocy that awaits us as a probable American future.

Hedges amasses interviews, citations, what he has read, and what he ponders about the collapse of democracy and literacy. The results here benefit somewhat from wider range of example than his standard journalism, which examines these topics relentlessly if intelligently. These chapters, which often resemble extended and sometimes discrete articles, sum up his cultural concerns, after his two decades as a foreign correspondent and now as a think-tank resident based in Princeton, New Jersey. Although a prep school and Ivy League graduate, his roots in a working-class Maine family widen his perspective. While one never forgets how his erudition and privilege has distanced himself from the common folks he includes alongside the professors and pundits whom he quotes liberally, in more than one sense of the term, Hedges tries to listen to the concerns of everyday people. He transcribes WWE pro wrestlers, porn stars, harried undergraduates, and the unemployed who line up at food banks.

His book opens with an examination of the cult of wrestling, the pull of instant fame, and the lure of “reality” t.v. upon the masses. Hedges decries magical thinking as a “currency not only of celebrity culture, but also of totalitarian culture.” He fights the seductive but blind faith in a secularized version of a born-again solution, which promises tough times never stay for long and recovery always awaits those who believe in themselves.

Next, he reports on the porn industry, stressing the latter term, the production and commodification of the human into the deadened, the corpse, the willingly debased and utterly compliant woman. Her degradation worsens as “gonzo” films for the Net replace the awkward scenarios of “adult movies” from a few decades ago with endless cruelty and graphic violence. As one producer admits, he “makes stupid content for stupid people.” For an audience with short attention spans, porn serves as a synecdoche for a fan base seeking necrophilia, however airbrushed, shaved, and shot. This chapter marks the nadir of Hedges’ dour encounters; he notes in his appendix but oddly does not cite in the chapter David Foster Wallace’s similarly exhaustive examination, published as “Big Red Son” in Consider the Lobster (2005). Both Hedges and Wallace by alienated scrutiny render porn into disembodied form.

This defines Hedges’ strategy: to defamiliarize by meticulous accumulation of facts, interviews, and block quotations. However, by chapter three, in his critique of the educational-corporate complex, this weighty approach threatens to dull the reader. Hedges prefers to lump great chunks of what he has admired by similarly astute observers into his reports. In his contributions to Harper’s or The New York Review of Books, Granta or Mother Jones, such topics in their magnified scale but briefer versions might not diminish one’s attention span. Over dozens of pages, with less variety in tone or perspective, even sympathetic readers may wish for some comic relief, some saving grace of levity.

However, Hedges’ grim recitals linger beneath the stolid prose that often resembles a strong if often impassive honors’ thesis. Now and then, passion breaks through the objective surface. Sadism, he laments, “runs like an electric current” through trashy tv, porn, the “compliant, corporate collective.” Proclaiming a false promise of social harmony for all, driven by markets towards affluence for a very few, today’s elite students prepare to shuffle numbers and negotiate contracts, but they have sold out to any hope of insight morally or intellectually. They fuel an endless war economy that funds so many research institutions. They feed the beasts of Wall Street and White House.

Those from the working classes trying to pay the tuition at lower-tier colleges gain much less notice in Hedges’ collegiate chapter, but they may face franchised dead-end jobs resembling that held by Anthony Vasquez, a UC Berkeley student who worked for FedEx Kinko’s. He describes his forced immersion into the coercive harmony of “positive psychology” peddled by management gurus in universities and before boardrooms. Vasquez regards happy talk as “a euphemism for ‘spin,’” for employees get so disoriented by this cult of work circles and mandatory group-think that “they forget they do the work of three people, have no health insurance, and three-quarters of their paycheck goes to rent.”

How can everyday workers in a crumbling economy off-shored and outsourced compete? Globalization’s leading commodity, furthermore, trades in arms and weapons. Across an increasingly securitized state, Hedges warns of democratic meltdown (this book first appeared in hardcover in 2009). He appears to almost welcome social collapse as a fitting reward for America’s imperial folly.

His final chapter wanders across an America gutted by the rich and lied to by its leaders, some elected, many more invisible to those who represent a citizenry fooled by free-marketeers pretending that deregulation and self-regulated markets (unless Wall Street or Detroit need a bailout) represent the post-Cold War fulfillment of our freedom. He fears that we may not “radically transform our system to one that protects the ordinary citizen and fosters the common good, that defies the corporate state.” Instead, his final pages explore how the Christian far-right may align with the capitalists to “employ the brutality and technology of our internal security and surveillance apparatus to crush all dissent.”

This prediction may be dismissed as scare quotes by some. This book leaves it unclear how our bankrupt ethical, political, social, and financial systems can be saved from those who can patrol the nation. They may censor opposition, distort dissension, and mock protesters, if the media workers as he shows do control the networks through which nearly all our news emerges, according to Hedges.

“We let the market rule, and now we are paying for it,” he insists. He quotes Charlotte Twight’s summary of our charade of voting, where for many in our nation today, the winner of American Idol matters more than who wins an election, as “participatory fascism.” That is, the common people are given the pretense of entering a game in which the true winners are those who remain the real elite, hidden in the curtains, behind the glitz.

Decrying a “Peter Pan culture”, Hedges believes neither in a saving deity nor a secular system. He asks for his readers to trust in love, and simple verities that outlast chaos and the collapse of civilization. He returns to his favorite theme, that the true divide is not between red and blue states; neither is it between race, class and gender, nor rural and urban. What separates a saving remnant from the rest? A few will remain literate and marginalized, apart from those who have given into the illiterate masses.

This conclusion may leave readers wondering what readers can do. Awaiting the apocalypse, he finds no solutions, no twelve-step plans to salvation. He does not deliver any platitudes about hope and change.

Hedges despairs at the pain that awaits those of us who stand up and demand humane alternatives to the dystopian spectacle broadcast by the wealthy and funded by the corrupt. He forces us to tally up the damages for unchecked environmental destruction, diminished resources, and a decline in incomes, prestige, and lifestyle. America's buy now, pay never mentality racked up debts financial, spiritual, intellectual, and emotional which demand reckoning. As in his earlier books, Hedges shouts a wake-up call after our long national binge. He ends with only a fragile defense of hope against all these power elites can summon against the human spirit, which stumbles blearily on a chilly morning after the party’s over.


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