Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
a book by Chris Hedges
(our site's book review)
Chris Hedges, author of the brave and brilliant books Unspeakable and Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, says we now live in two Americas. One—now the minority—functions in a print-based, literate world that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other—the majority—is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority—which crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected—presidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level. In this "other America," serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of society. In the tradition of Christopher Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism and Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges navigates this culture—attending WWF contests, the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, and Ivy League graduation ceremonies—to expose an age of terrifying decline and heightened self-delusion.
Chris Hedges navigates our declining culture and writes about it—attending WWF contests, the Adult Video News Awards, and Ivy League graduation ceremonies and exposing self-delusion
Hedges's book starts strong—with WWF spectacles—but quickly peters out as the author abandons coherent explanations in favor of Progressive epithets. He spent the book dealing out the shocking or disgusting, and he used the Progressives' favorite evils "Corporatism", "Capitalism", "The Uninhibited Free Market", and "The Christian Right" as general catch-all culprits to blame our culture's degeneration on. But alternating from shock to cliches is a far cry from the reasoned explanations readers looked forward to with vintage Hedges' books like those mentioned above. He proved the known: people who are really into wrestling are really into wrestling. But he did not prove anything that will lead us to insights about solutions. Does he expose an age of terrifying decline and heightened self-delusion as he claims? Yes. But he basically handed out maps in the land of the blind. Many of them will simply walk off cliffs.
Hedges's book handed out maps in the land of the blind—many of them will simply walk off cliffs
Ralph Young’s Dissent: The History of an American Idea, says “In a century that is only in its second decade, we cannot foresee the scope and extent of future protest movements, but if the history of the past four hundred years has taught us anything, it has taught us that dissent and protest in all its numerous manifestations are not going away and will continue to shape the United States.” But what if modern surveillance techniques and perfected manufactured consent, the bread and circuses spectacles of Hedges' nightmare visions, the endless distractions of election farces and social media and caterwauling talking heads spreading fake news and infotainment have all anesthetized us to the point of having no energy left to apply to dissent—or even thought itself? This is Hedges' concern and we share it. By the time the citizens become so outraged at the excesses of the oligarchs and neocons that they wish to dissent, what if they look around blinking and discover that while they whiled away their years texting drivel, screaming at WWF matches and football games on the boobtube, and admiring Kim Kardashian's butt on the internet, the corrupt neocon slime actually running things had issued equally corrupt executive orders permanently abolishing our right to either dissent or rebel? Oops!
What if the bread and circuses spectacles of Hedges' nightmare visions have so exhausted our energy that we are too tired to dissent?
What if watching too many caterwauling talking heads spreading fake news and infotainment have anesthetized us to the point of having no energy left to apply to dissent?
The book enlightens anyone who wants to know (but doesn't know) what is happening in and to our American culture. It is going downhill. But the book leaves it to us to figure out how to go back uphill. As one reviewer tells it, "This book just made me glad once again that I am sixty-three and not sixteen. This country is full of people who are brainwashed and don't even know what that means." Or, to paraphrase, since it is all hopeless, I'm glad I'm old enough so I won't have to put up with it that much longer. Too bad no one has any constructive ideas about how to reverse course.
Pointing fingers at "Corporatism", "Capitalism", "The Uninhibited Free Market", and "The Christian Right" doesn't lead to answers, but to polarization, depression, and the blame game. Noam Chomsky's wonderful book Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power isn't that crammed with answers either, but it makes up for it by giving us richly contextualized and highly organized principles of EXACTLY how the game is rigged (so we know the precise things to minimize, fight against, and resist in every way we can). This puts us in a good position to act, albeit in small ways. Hedges's book's boogeymen "Corporatism", "Capitalism", "The Uninhibited Free Market", and "The Christian Right" are vague, nebulous targets for action. I.e., how do we fight against "Corporatism"?
If we were of a rightwing bent, we'd say "love it or leave it" to someone making our country seem so bleak and ugly (the underbelly of the U.S. has always been ugly: racism, sexist, paternalism, Calvinism, greed, slavery, classism, etc). But we are neither right nor left, preferring good clear thinking-for-ourselves to playing "me too" and lining up behind the platforms and ideals of political parties. Hedges has proven the underbelly is as ugly as ever, but does he make a case that it is uglier than before or is he merely describing a different type of ugliness? So we'd say "love it or fix it—and THEN love it" to Hedges. His book is very thought provoking but why get us disgusted and depressed just to see if he could? Our website has lots of research into symptoms but also very specific and detailed answers, a plan, and even a novel to give you an easy way to see the solution in action.
Hopefully Hedges' future books will look harder for fixes. We realize the country is kind of a mess, but our humanism pushes us to try to help it. His is trying to do the same, shocking us into pulling a U-turn and start going uphill rather than downhill. But his own book details why such a tactic could never succeed. People are too ignorant, delusional, selfish, misinformed, and brainwashed to do U-turns. They need handholding, guidance, and clear answers. Most of them expect the government to fix it when it is broken, which they know it is. But most of them also know that—far from "fixing" anything—the government just keeps making it worse. See Psychological Dysfunction.
One Amazon reviewer says: "I almost felt suicidal after reading it. The remarkable feature is not having a plan; a hope; a suggestion, of how our worldly condition may be improved upon." But there are ways . . .
Another reviewer said "Truth is being replaced with falsity on many levels and Hedges is able to concisely and compellingly describe this counterfeit reality. It's a reality that signals a new age of feudalism that is coming."
Feudalism—serfs carry royalty
In the meantime, Hedges is the kid pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes.
Hedges is the kid pointing out that the emperor wears no clothes
We, however, would prefer that he was at least the boy keeping his finger in the dike to save the town.
We, however, would prefer that Hedges was at least the boy keeping his finger in the dike to save the town
Even as the author sounds a warning that the pervasive moral decay of our ruling elite has finally caught up with us, and the entire house of cards is crashing down, he needs to remember that we have heard similar warnings many times in the U.S., and the citizens have rallied to the cause. Presidents (Lincoln, FDR) have sometimes led such rallying in the past, but more often individuals have rallied from the grassroots (women's suffrage, union formation, civil rights, environmentalism, pollution, and antiwar rallies). We challenge Hedges to figure out a grassroots plan and either lead it or empower others to do so before "the entire house of cards comes crashing down."
The author is sounding a warning that the pervasive moral decay of our ruling elite has finally caught up with us, and the entire house of cards is crashing down
Is Hedges trying to incite an unreasonable fear in those around him? No, he is trying to shock us into changing our ugly ways into something better.
"The sky is falling!" features prominently in the story of Chicken Little, and it has passed into the English language as a common idiom indicating a hysterical or mistaken belief that disaster is imminent. Versions of the story go back more than 25 centuries, and it continues to be referenced in a variety of media. People have been alarmed that the end is near for 25 bloody centuries. And yet humanity is still going strong—the sky didn't really fall. In the story, the sky falling was a prediction precipitated by a leaf falling on Chicken Little's tail. The moral to be drawn changes, depending on the version—there are many versions. Where there is a "happy ending", the moral is not to be a chicken but to have courage. In other versions where the birds in the story are eaten by the fox, the fable is interpreted as a warning not to believe everything one is told. Is Hedges trying to incite an unreasonable fear in those around him? He seems to imply things are hopelessly screwed up, so we should panic and do something about it or the sky is falling will be accurate. He is trying to shock us into changing our ugly ways into something better. But it is social movements that have proven capable of changing things, not shock. People need guidance, organization, initiative, and wisdom, which good grassroots leaders can provide.
Social movements in the 1900s transformed a progressive income tax, a federal minimum wage, old-age insurance, dismantling of Jim Crow laws, the eight-hour workday, and many other radical ideas from the margins to the mainstream, and from polemics to policy, but it took many years to do it. The 1900s are a remarkable story of progressive accomplishments triumphing against overwhelming odds. We realize the author is pointing out moral decay which is less addressable by social movements. Or is it? See the MC movement.
"Each generation of Americans faces a different set of economic, political, and social conditions. There are no easy formulas for challenging injustice and promoting democracy. But unless we know this history, we will have little understanding of how far we have come, how we got here, and what still needs to change to make America (and the rest of the world) more livable, humane, and democratic. . . . [Peter Dreier's social movement and community organizing] classes put more emphasis on 'how to' aspects of fighting for social change" (Source: Social Movements: How People Make History, Peter Dreier, Mobilizing Ideas)
The author says that "the single most important quality needed to resist evil is moral autonomy. As Immanuel Kant wrote, moral autonomy is possible only through reflection, self-determination, and the courage not to cooperate. Moral autonomy is what the corporate state, with all its coded attacks on liberal institutions and 'leftist' professors, have really set out to destroy." Astutely put. Sadly true. He goes on: "Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations, and a narrow selfish, political, and economic elite, a small and privileged group that governs, and often steals, on behalf of 'moneyed interests.' These interests have no interest, so to speak, beyond money." He says love must triumph over evil, which everyone agrees with. He cites the hostile corporate takeover of democracy in the United States as a vital, urgent concern.
Hedges cites the hostile corporate takeover of democracy in the United States as a vital, urgent concern—when corporatocracy prevails, democracy takes it on the chin
The hostile corporate takeover of democracy in the United States by neocons and oligarchs is greed gone mad: they want to kill our precious democracy to increase profits since democracy's regulations lower profits
Hedges, lacking plans or solutions, calls upon—in addition to dissent and rebellion—the power of basic values like love, hope, sacrifice, and honoring of the sacred to overcome the wreckage created by raw power, militarism, discipline, and obedience. If only telling someone to become more moral than they truly are would help. Sadly, it doesn't. It just frustrates and produces guilt or depression. For hints about increasing character and morals, see The Forest Through The Trees, The Responsive Communitarian Platform, Flat-gradient Nurturance versus Steep-gradient Nurturance, and WHY Register for MC Search and Match?.