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

Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
Chris Hedges
Nation Books
240 pages
October 2010
rated 3 of 5 possible stars

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This book begins with a howl of anger and ends with a shriek of anguish. Chris Hedges, a former distinguished war correspondent for the New York Times and Pulitzer Prize winner, doesn’t pull any punches in this fevered attack on contemporary U.S. culture. Indeed, by the end of the book, this reader was feeling punch drunk.

The first chapter is an impressive tour de force, using professional wrestling as a metaphor to examine what has happened to U.S. popular culture, which peddles a perverted morality in which the only thing that counts is winning by whatever means necessary. Wrestlers, the author says, are minor figures in a society in which traditional religion has been replaced by the adoration of celebrities. That trend reaches its bathetic apotheosis in reality TV – the morally worthless pursuit of celebrity by people with nothing to offer but their looks, whether beautiful or grotesque.

The second chapter examines the U.S. pornography industry and is possibly even more powerful than the first. A consummate reporter, Hedges uses all his powers of observation to take us into the heart of the pornographic movie industry – a world in which women are casually and cynically used, brutalized, routinely infected with HIV, vaginally and anally raped - and then thrown away like garbage. Like professional wrestling, Hedges says, pornography taps into the currency of torture. From pornography, he argues, it is but a short step to the indignities of Abu Ghraib. In fact, there was a striking similarity between the images of tortured Iraqi prisoners taken at Abu Ghraib and those peddled by pornographic movies.

The rest of the book is weaker – and Hedges more and more begins to indulge in political rants instead of relying on his talents as a reporter. In the final chapter, the author’s political agenda reveals itself. “Our nation has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations and a narrow, selfish, political and economic elite,” he states. “America has become a façade. It has become the greatest illusion in a culture of illusions… (a society) of masters and serfs… The country’s moral decay is manifested in its physical decay.” Soon, Hedges prognosticates, the downtrodden classes will rise up, and the United States could be plunged into “a long period of precarious social and political instability.”

It sounds a lot like classical Marxism, mixed by a profound nostalgia for a past age that may never have existed. This conservatism becomes clear when Hedges declares:

“The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode.”
Ah, bring back the world of newspapers and books and all will be well. Unfortunately, it’s not going to happen.

Against this doomsday scenario, Hedges has precious little practical to offer. His political heroes – Denis Kucinich, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader – are all marginal figures with tiny followings. And if capitalism has brought us to our current sad state, socialism with all its Soviet excesses hardly offers a viable alternative. The book ends in a miasma of despair.

Read this book for the brilliant first two chapters to admire a wonderful reporter at the top of his game. Skip the rest to avoid the miserable rants of a frustrated socialist pining for a lost world that never was.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. © Alan Elsner, 2009

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