Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges

When I finished this book, I wasn’t sure whether I should cry or start stockpiling assault rifles and canned food.  Hedges argues that while Americans were busy being entertained and pleasured, corporations and the industrial-military complex have brought American democracy to its death bed.  Yes, in the past tense, as in we’re almost done and we don’t even know it.  If Hedges is correct, it is already too late to change the system.  I don’t agree with all of Hedges politics, but I think he has definitely reported what will likely be the demise of the U.S.

Hedges divides his argument into five sections.  The first deals with Americans’ obsession with entertainment.  Hedges argues that we have become a polytheistic society worshiping celebrities, athletes, and charismatic politicians and preachers, because they represent what we wish to be. We no longer want to deal with the complexities of reality.  We don’t want to have to think too hard about complex issues.  We want to live in the fantasy world of celebrities, reality TV, and sports. We want to be lied to, because the lie makes us feel so much better about our lives.  We have created a culture of illusion.

Hedges next section deals with the porn industry in America and what he calls “the illusion of love.”  I felt this section was unnecessary and didn’t flow with the rest book.  Basically it is a more extreme example of what is discussed in the first chapter.  The illusion men get from the product is that they can control and use women as commodities.  Interesting stats- porn made $97 billion in 2007, and GM and AT&T rake in 80 percent of the profits from porn made in the U.S. Hedges connects the moral decay and desensitizing nature of porn to Abu Ghraib and war in general.  It destroys compassion and empathy and creates a feeling in the user that he/she is a god.

In the third section Hedges attacks what he calls the “elite” schools of higher education.  Hedges argues that Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the like create the next leaders of corporations and government; however, these schools have failed society by become corporatist themselves.  They no longer teach true critical thinking. Professors who question the system or challenge the status quo are ostracized.  Morality and the common good are not mentioned.  Finding solutions to maintain the current corporate systems and defense projects are the top priorities.

The next section attacks “positive psychology,” which many corporations and institutions, including the United Nations, are adopting.  Essentially, there are psychologists who make a living from teaching/brainwashing people to lie to themselves. It is terrifyingly similar to Huxley’s Brave New World where citizens walk around quoting happy slogans they’ve been taught from birth totally unaware that they live in a totalitarian state.  Scary stuff.

The last section encapsulates everything and deals the death blow.  While we have been watching coverage of Michael Jackson’s death, fantasizing about “gonzo” porn, and repeating the new happy slogan we learned at work; corporations and the industrial-military complex have bankrupted the country and are preparing for a police state.  Almost everything you see, read, and hear is controlled by 5 or 6 corporations.  Hedges states that they are already under-reporting how bad the economic crisis is and will be.  The Obama administration has no power against these forces.  In fact, no one is allowed to run for President in this country without millions of dollars from the corporations.  It sounds like doomsday prophesies, but Hedges’ evidence is very convincing.  He quotes reports from the Senate Armed Services Committee and the U.S. Army War College, among many other credible sources.  What I found most convincing is the reminder that history shows us that after the economic collapse in the 1930s, America experienced the most extremism it has ever seen.  When the Wiemar Republic collapsed economically, Adolf Hitler came to power.  When Czarist Russia failed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power. What kind of demagogue will America produce?  We are not prepared to face that kind of reality. I’m afraid we will embrace any illusion presented to us, no matter how immoral or deadly.