Welcome to the Tipping Point! The End Times. The Bizarro Hall of Mirrors. The Funny Farm. The Monkey House.
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
By Chris Hedges
Hardcover: 232 pages
Publisher: Nation Books (2009)
If you’re looking for one of those treacly Oprah books—The Secret, and its variants—avoid this one. Those books nourish like potato chips and leave most people more confused, more desperate, more thirsty for fantasies than before. No amount of wishing, earnest yearning, visualizing and New Age mysticism is going to get us out of the morass we’re in. In Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges takes a sober look down our hall of distorting mirrors. The son of a minister, with a degree in theology from Harvard, a columnist for Truthdigger.com, Hedges has worked as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. His books include War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and American Fascists. He was part of the New York Times team that won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for the paper’s coverage of global terrorism. Here are some of the pertinent facts he contemplates:
- The top 1% of Americans now control more wealth than the bottom 90% combined.
- World-wide porn revenues, including in-room movies at hotels, sex clubs, and the Internet, topped $97 billion in 2006—more than that of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, eBay, Yahoo!, Apple, Netflixs, and EarthLink combined.
- The football coach is the University of California-Berkeley’s highest paid “employee”; he makes about $3 million a year. Nationwide, full-time faculty positions have been disappearing, replaced by adjunct positions, with itinerant instructors barely making living wages.
- Collapsing and overwhelmed sewage systems release more than 40,000 discharges of raw sewage into our drinking water, streams and homes each year.
- One-third of our schools are in such a severe state of disrepair that it interferes with the delivery of instruction.
- We spend $8.9 billion on ICBM missile defense systems that would be useless in stopping a shipping container concealing a dirty bomb.
- A family of 4 now pays about $12,000 a year in premiums for healthcare—up about 90 percent from 2000 to 2006. About 50 million Americans are uninsured; another 25 million are “under-insured.”
- We have 2.3 million of our citizens behind bars. With less than 5% of the world’s popultion, we have 25% of the world’s prisoners (1/2 for non-violent drug crimes).
Any wonder there’s been a flight to fantasy? But, more profoundly, what’s the connection between fantasy and our decaying culture? How did we get here? Digging beneath the statistics, we find an increasing number of warm-blooded humans suffering like they never have before: lost in a world of promises broken; the American Dream of endless consumption and fulfillment–nightmarishly evinced.
“A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies,” Hedges writes. “And we are dying now. … Those who cling to fantasy in times of despair and turmoil inevitably turn to demagogues and charlatans to entertain and reassure them. …” As bad as things are now—the disconnectedness, fragmentation, loneliness, im– and a-morality–we can extrapolate, interpret the trend lines, read history, and find worse to come. Hedges dissects “our cultural embrace of illusion and the celebrity culture that has risen up around it” in five comprehensive chapters:
The Illusion of Literacy
The Illusion of Love
The Illusion of Wisdom
The Illusion of Happiness
The Illusion of America
At his best, Hedges has a “true” journalist’s (i.e., the careful observer’s, the truth-digger’s) eye for detail, and a novelist’s ear and sense of flow. His book is a compilation of some of the best thinking on corporate power, the Corporate State, the decline of the American empire—deftly knitted together with wit and a lively writing style. (His chapter on the “Illusion of Love,” focusing on pornography, is both funny and poignantly sad.)
Empire begins with spectacle. We’re in a wrestling ring with jeering fans chanting at the villainous “tycoon” actor-wrestler, John Bradshaw Layfield: “You suck! You suck! You suck!” Layfield is pitted against the “Heartbreak Kid,” the crowd favorite, a working-class hero. “You lost your 401(k). You lost your retirement. … You lost your children’s education fund,” Layfield taunts the Kid and the audience. Then, he offers the Kid a job—working for him! All the Kid has to do is leave the ring. Humiliated, that’s just what the Kid does. And in their identification with their fallen hero, in their vicarious humiliation, the anger and resentment of the audience is stoked against the tycoon. They hunger for vengeance.
“The bouts are stylized rituals,” Hedges writes, “public expressions of pain and a fervent longing for revenge. The lurid and detailed sagas behind each bout, rather than the wrestling matches themselves, are what drive crowds to a frenzy. … And the most potent story tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin … and enslavement of a frightened and abused working class.” This mirroring of the “ emotional wreckage of the fans” is the “appeal of much of popular culture, from Jerry Springer to ‘reality television’ to Oprah Winfrey.” It succeeds “because we ask to be fooled.”
Celebrities become our “vicarious selves” who provide us with release from anonymity and drudgery—“ultimate fulfillment before death.”
Given his background, its no small wonder that Hedges would spend much of his book wrestling with the angel. “Morality is the product of a civilization,” he writes; but, in “a society that has less and less national cohesion, a society that has broken down into warlike and antagonistic tribes where ‘winning is all that matters,’ morality is seen as ‘irrelevant.’”
Ours is a culture of manipulation, one of “inverted totalitaianism.” Hedges borrows the phrase from Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy Incorporated. “Inverted totalitarianism,” Hedges writes, “unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the Corporate State. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, and the Constitution while manipulating internal levers. … Political candidates are elected in popular votes by citizens, but candidates must raise staggering funds to compete. They are beholden to armies of corporate lobbyists … who author the legislation. … Corporate media control nearly everything we read, or hear. It imposes a bland uniformity of opinion. It diverts us with trivia and celebrity gossip. …In classical totalitarian regimes … economics was subordinate to politics.” In America, economics is dominant.
“The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to keep us from fighting back.” We need not stretch ourselves, I imagine. The hero of The Matrix will stretch for us. So will Plastic Man or Batman or Superman. In our culture of distractions and manipulations, Aldous Huxley “feared that what we love will ruin us.” Citing Neil Postman, he reproduces a dialectic between the authors of 1984 and Brave New World:
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.
I put it this way: We need not worry that Big Brother is watching us; we need worry about our dual fascinations with watching Big Brother—and with being watched! In fact, we’ve become a nation of double voyeurs: we watch people on “reality shows” who are being watched and monitored by the unblinking camera recording their humdrum lives.
We are what we eat and we’ve been eating a lot of baloney. It comes to us in various forms including the petrochemical-sprayed food we eat, the Big Pharma pills we take to keep us drugged, numb and complaisant. We watch our celebs gulping it and pitching it back at us. Our politicians sprinkle it with mustard and daub it with relish.
Conditioning. … Both those geniuses—George and Aldous–were trying to deal with it: the whole spectrum of the Propaganda State grown up around the theories of Edward Bernays—Freud’s nephew. They both understood the necessary concomitants of fear, repetition, tribal identity and group conformity. They gave it different expressions, but they grounded it in the imperative of psychological re-structuring and transformation. Orwell with the gut-wrenching fear of our worst chimeras; Huxley with mind-numbing lullabies to babies, easy, commitment-free sex from puberty onward, and lots of soma.
Hedges’ chapter on the “Illusion of Happiness” addresses the issue of psychological conditioning. It would be amusing if it weren’t so tragic. It has the same tenor of pathos as his chapter on sex, in which one enthusiast waxes eloquent about his $7500 anatomically correct silicone dolls. (He has eight, with removeable heads, and he exults over the simulated veins in the feet and the dorsal venous arch—“really, really cool.”)
The silicone pitch in academia is “positive psychology,” or what Professor Cooperrider at Case Western Reserve University calls, “Transformational Positivity.” According to the professor, “Institutions can be a vehicle for bringing more courage into the world, for amplifying love in the world … temperance and justice, and so on.”
And so on it goes. Just think positive. (Remember that Indian guru who beguiled the Beetles? “Just be happy!” ) All we need is “appreciative inquiry” in order to “transform organizations into ‘Positive Institutions’.”
Cooperrider is hardly alone. There are more than a hundred courses on positive psychology on college campuses. The University of Pennsylvania offers a Masters of Applied Positive Psychology, and Claremont Graduate University offers Ph.D. and M.A. concentrations in “The Science of Positive Psychology.” Such degree programs are also available in England, Italy and Mexico. They focus on “cultivating strengths, optimism, gratitude, and a positive perspective.” Think positively and positive things will happen. Sound familiar? Perhaps we should call such programs, “Becoming Oprah.”
Hedges lifts his lens high enough to kindle fire here: “The purpose and goals of the corporation are never questioned. To question them, to engage in criticism of the goals of the collective, is to be obstructive and negative. … If we are not happy, there is something wrong with us. Debate and criticism, especially about the goals and structure of the corporation, are condemned as negative and ‘counterproductive.’” And he’s a good pitbull here:
“Positive psychology is to the corporate state what eugenics was to the Nazis.” It’s a “quack science” that “throws a smokescreen over corporate domination, abuse, and greed.”
So, if you’re looking for treacle, look elsewhere.
My one cavil is with the ending of the book, the last part of the last chapter. Hedges can be polemical and he does repeat himself. The last chapter needs less polemicism and summary arguments. And I can’t help but wonder: What is the other side? Is there any way to avoid catastrophe? Perhaps an interview with one of those heroes whose names pepper this important book would have sharpened the quill: people like Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney, Father Roy Bourgeois, Kathy Kelly, Amy Goodman, Bill Moyers, Jim Hensen—what sustains them, keeps them going?
Also missing in action is Marshall McLuhan, whose Understanding Media of some forty years ago established the scientific foundation of critiquing the media—the mesmeric effect of mentally connecting pixiles; the alpha waves generated in a half-waking, half-sleeping state.
Morris Berman and Derrick Jensen have argued that we’re already past the “tipping point.” NASA scientist Jim Hensen says we should have started yesterday to bring down C02 levels or face global cataclysm.
In the last couple of pages, Hedges seems to pull his punches for a gentle caress: “No tyranny in history has crushed the human capacity for love,” he writes. “The mediocrities who mask their feelings of worthlessness and emptiness behind the façade of power and illusion, who seek to make us serve their perverse ideologies, fear most the power of love. … Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.”
I don’t know. I’m not sure. The power of love is cold comfort to the corpses and the wasted lives. Love without wisdom, like freedom without wisdom, has caused as much mischief and grief as the genuinely malignant spirits and ideologies among us. Perhaps the overriding question now is how best to organize collective action against the tyranny of corporatism, the relentless pulsations of conformity. How do we return to a “literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas”?
One book cannot do it all, of course. Hedges has trained a brilliant light on our confused and murky, rather bizarre culture. In the last couple of pages he leaves us with another powerful idea, probably as good as love. He alludes to Rostand’s Cyrano: “The ability to stand as ‘an ironic point of light,’ that ‘flashes out wherever the just exchange their messages,’ is the ability to sustain a life of meaning.”