Book Review: Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges
Have you heard of Chris Hedges? The dude’s a rebel! A former New York Times reporter with a Master of Divinity designation from Harvard rebel. On a radio interview in July 2011, he talked about how he was “never a careerist” because those reporters who were closest to the most powerful figures in the government, military or whatever would also generally acquiesce to those figures of power. This was never his interest, as he says, and it shows in his work. His stories in the New York Times were never the “big” policy pieces, but more concerned with talking to the soldiers on the ground and their stories from the field rather than decision-makers at CENTCOM. Overall, I found Empire of Illusion to be a dark, probing look into what is taking hold of America and its citizens.
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle is Hedges’ second-most recent book, published in 2009. I found much of Hedges’ assessment of American society and culture (or its lack thereof) to be fascinating and disturbing. The book warns in the most dire tone of the imminent end of the American Empire, which can sometimes feel downright uncomfortable for those of us raised on the snarky and cheeky view of politics a la Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Hedges touches on the state of affairs in literacy, love, education, happiness and the country in general, and his overall assessment is that we have been cast down the wrong path by those in power, and that power continues to become more and more concentrated at the detriment of the majority of the people. More simply, Hedges says we’re all getting stupider, the institutions that once served the people are a joke, and pornography is some twisted, freaky business. Below are a few great quotes from each section of the book, which was divided by the different illusions (and delusions) we suffer under.
The Illusion of Literacy: We’ve rewarded reality television, fake wrestling, and the ostentatiously rich.
The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult has within it the classical traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity, and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation, and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism.
The Illusion of Love: I want to believe the best of Hedges, but I am not sure why he “had” to attend the Adult Video News (AVN) Awards in Las Vegas to write this section, which is the biggest event of the pornography industry, complete with convention, after-parties and every big name in porn in attendance. His intention is to expose the violence and cruelty that women are exposed to within these films and this section is more graphic than a Bret Easton Ellis novel. You might skip these detailed descriptions of violent, commercialized and soulless sex, but even creepier is the tale of the man who lives with eight silicone dolls:
Dr. Z hides his hobby from most of his friends. He keeps the dolls locked in his bedroom closet. He positions them around the house, including in his bed, when he is alone. He shops for their clothing. He poses them for photo shoots. He carefully applies their makeup. And he talks to them. He began using blow-up dolls when he was married…He kept his habit secret from his wife. He is now divorced. “Hey,” he says, “I wasn’t cheating.”
The Illusion of Wisdom: This section focused on the shift in higher education away from true intellectual inquiry and the fact that even the our elite, private universities are focused on creating systems managers and not people who are going to think critically and challenge the systems in place. Having attended an elite, private university myself, I had to assess my own education in a different light than the warm-and-fuzzy views I’ve given my school since graduation. Business has become the most popular major (also my major) and careers on Wall Street are some of the most sought after positions for new graduates (also true on my campus where the big Wall Street firms came to recruit, wine, and dine the business, economics and accounting majors). Hedges sums up the future imagined by these kinds of graduates as dim:
They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one. They are petty, timid, and uncreative bureaucrats superbly trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions that will satisfy the corporate structure. Their entire focus is numbers, profits, and personal advancement…The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they believe, is a secondary product of the free market-which they slavishly serve.”
The Illusion of Happiness: Hedges cites corporate culture and positive psychology as tools that are used to promote social conformity within society, the workplace, and every other institution. I think anyone who has worked for any company with over 50 employees can relate to this section, where an example of a meeting held at FedEx Kinko’s reminded me of Office Space. A “woman from corporate” brings toys, candy and markers to get the employees involved and keeps an upbeat attitude even though the employees are initally reluctant to get involved. In the end, this scene feels uncomfortable because the employees are being “spun” to think they are happy to work for the company.
Positive psychology, like celebrity culture, the relentless drive to consume, and the diversionary appeals of mass entertainment, feeds off the unhappiness that come from isolation and the loss of community.
The Illusion of America: Hedges looks back at America with nostalgia, because, he says, what is still here is not really America anymore. The quote I want to cite here actually comes from economist Jared Diamond, who lists five factors that lead to social decay:
1) a failure to understand and to prevent causes of environmental damage; 2) climate change, 3) depredations by hostile neighbors; 4) the inability of friendly neighbors to continue trade; and 5) finally, how the society itself deals with the problems raised by the first four factors.
In case you were wondering like I was, depredation means an act of attacking or plundering. Although I think that the depredation going on in the United States is mostly carried on by internal forces.
Overall, I thought Empire of Illusion was a great read. I learned about some disturbing trends in each section that Hedges focused on, and the overall message that the people are being distracted and entertained with spectacle and noise while the country and the environment is plundered is definitely a thesis I can agree with. But I’m always weary of books that prophesy apocalypse and offer nothing in return to a reader. Although Hedges ends on a note of hope (“The power of love is greater than the power of death”), he doesn’t offer a path to readers which I think would include education that encourages critical thinking, less apathy overall within the United States, and an inclusive society that offers a larger percentage of people a path to a middle class lifestyle. I guess in the end, I have an unbounded (and maybe unreasonable) optimism that’s hard to dampen, even though I respect Hedges’ way of presenting the story.
Have you read any works by Chris Hedges? What do you guys think?