Thrilled to Death
Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion occupies the mind
I will never look at porn (the same way) again. Not after reading Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges’ timely polemical tome Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. For that matter, I’ll never look at pro wrestling, “Top Chef," higher education, corporate America or much of anything else in quite the same light as I once did. I’ll be too busy stocking my underground bomb shelter with blankets and canned goods ... and books.
Yes, Empire of Illusion is that frightening. While Hedges isn't the first to posit that the biggest threat to America is Americans—as opposed to terrorism, nuclear proliferation by non-allies, illegal immigration or any of the usual laundry list of bogeymen—his may be the most compelling argument yet. Not only are up to a third of Americans functionally illiterate, we’re also blissfully unaware of our own reality.
"We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity," writes Hedges. He’s not just talking the talk. In addition to his Pulitzer Prize and Amnesty International Global Award for Human Rights Journalism, Hedges has been jailed in the line of activism. He and 16 other protesters were arrested in New York City on Nov. 3 outside Goldman Sachs headquarters. (Hedges was also arrested outside the White House in December 2010 for protesting the war in Afghanistan.)
"We have transformed our culture into a vast replica of Pleasure Island, where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun,” he continues. Those same grossly undereducated individuals who can’t read, much less comprehend, the classics—roughly two in five of us, if we are to believe the author—choose instead to exist in a sort of never-never land between reality and the Magic Kingdom.
The magical thinking that pervades American society, according to Hedges, stems from the gradual shift since the ’60s from a literary-based culture to one in which technology has made reading, writing, study, exploration, education and critical thinking obsolete. This intellectual purgatory, Hedges writes, is fed to us 24/7, 365 via reality TV, the “infotainment” brokers that are the mass media, and, of course, Internet porn, online role-playing games and even prestigious higher education institutions. Schools once regarded as meccas of enlightenment are now as much about selling the most Coca-Cola and political hackery as Coke and politicos themselves. As a society, we are entertaining ourselves to death.
At times, Hedges’ fire-and-brimstone ranting is so fierce it nearly leaps from the page to smash the reader right between the eyes with its extreme leftist rhetoric. "Our power elite has a blind belief in a decaying political and financial system that has nurtured, enriched and empowered it," writes Hedges. The elite, he explains, “know only how to feed the beast until it dies. Once it is dead, they will be helpless. Don't expect them to save us. They don't know how. They do not even know how to ask the questions."
But it’s not just anger, brute force and a hint of socialist sympathizing that dominates Empire of Illusion. There’s plenty of historical, literary and scientific basis for Hedges’ overarching argument, and he’s not exactly sparing with the annotations. Citing everyone from Socrates to Steinem, Hedges manages to ratchet up the terror factor by several degrees per chapter so that, by the end, the reader is at least exhausted, if not completely defeated.
The book is shock and awe of a different variety. Empire portrays Western society as a dying civilization marked by the evaporation of its capacity for empathy, the progressively wider socioeconomic gaps between rich and poor, and an escapist view of “reality” that convinces its middle class that they really have a shot at wealth and celebrity—that they even deserve it. The quest for 15 minutes of fame has become a life sentence for an obscene percentage of Americans and, increasingly, modern societies the world over. "When the most valued skill is the ability to entertain," writes Hedges, "the world becomes a place where lies become true, where people can believe what they want to believe."
Even with the not-so-thinly veiled veneer of socialism stripped away, Hedges’ arguments are difficult to ignore, and the sense of doom is palpable. As I finished the final page and swiped closed my iPad, I began to wonder how long it had been since I actually picked up a physical book. The thought was fleeting, though, as the latest offer for free Internet whatever pinged my inbox, and I was off on another surfing trip toward the destruction of all humanity.