Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion; The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation Books, 2009), 232pp.
The America that past generations has known and loved is gone, and it's not coming back. The specter of totalitarianism is very real: "Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. This is the bleak future. This is reality. There is little that President Obama can do to stop it. It has been decades in the making. It cannot be undone with $1 trillion or $2 trillion in bailout money. Nor will it be solved by clinging to the illusions of the past" (145).
Chris Hedges grew up as a pastor's kid in rural upstate New York. After graduating from Colgate University he served for two years as a pastor in the violent ghetto of Roxbury in metro Boston, an experience so unsettling that he left the church and seminary. After a year in South America he completed his degree at Harvard Divinity School, though not without caustic opinions about his liberal professors who romanticized the poor whom they had never met, and the lectures which he experienced as "intellectual shell games." Then, for twenty years, he covered a dozen wars in Central America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. These life experiences deeply inform Hedges's increasingly strident writing. He's best read as a polemicist who unmasks the idols we eagerly worship — the state, nation, especially in its glorification of war and legitimation (even sacralization) of violence, race, religion, ethnicity, gender, and class. At a graduation speech that he delivered at Rockford College in May 2003 the audience booed him from the stage for his critical remarks about the Iraq war.
We now live in a culture "seduced by death," a theme that draws upon his book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002). Images have replaced words, simplistic narratives distort complex problems, and illusions have supplanted reality. Hedges's current book explores five illusions. Our celebrity culture of entertainment belies the illusion of literacy. Think Jerry Springer, Howard Stern, Glenn Beck, and professional wrestling. Hedges visits the Adult Video News expo in (where else?) Las Vegas to contemplate how pornography exemplifies the illusion not only of love but also of sex. Rather, pornography epitomizes the commodification and exploitation of women, and the glorification of cruelty and degradation. Most of our country's problems can be laid at the door of our elite universities that foster the illusion of wisdom while feeding at the trough of the corporate-military complex. They utterly fail at fostering honest intellectual inquiry, much less moral or aesthetic reasoning. The quack science of "positive psychology," which now has endowed chairs at prestigious universities and is endemic in corporate culture, peddles the illusion of happiness. In his final chapter Hedges concludes with the "illusion of America" as seen in the military, health care, corporatism, etc.
Many readers will not agree with Hedges's bleak conclusions about the death and disintegration of American culture, much less his strident tone. He makes no attempt to give a "balanced" treatment. At times he pings from topic to topic in a stream of consciousness invective. At the end of his 200-page lament for our "terrifying dystopia" (191), his last page insists that nothing at all can crush "the human capacity of love." I believe that's true, but it feels very much like a tacked-on moralism that's left unrelated to the problems raised throughout the book, if not an irrelevant point altogether. I'd love to see Hedges turn his considerable talents, experiences, and passion toward that supreme human virtue in his next book.