Saturday, January 30, 2010

Empire of Illusion - a review

Window sticker: I get along with God just fine; It's his fan club I can't stand.
Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009

ISBN 978-0-307-39846-8

203 pages.

In the 8th Century BC, writing during a golden age of Israel, the prophet Hosea issued a warning that all was not well. The New English Bible records it thus:

Hear the word of the Lord, O Israel;
for the Lord has a charge to bring against the people of the land:
There is no good faith or mutual trust,
no knowledge of God in the land,
oaths are imposed and broken, they kill and rob;
there is nothing but adultery and licence,
one deed of blood after another.
Therefore the land shall be dried up . . ..

Readers familiar with the style and message of the prophets may be reminded of Hosea and his fellows when they read Empire of Illusion. Chris Hedges portrays—often in lurid detail—the signs of decay in American culture and sounds the siren of warning: America is on skids, headed for disaster.

Empire of Illusion begins with an analysis of the changes that Hedges sees in the themes dominating professional wrestling. There was a time when audiences responded to images of a Russian being pummelled and defeated by a heroic figure. Now, “the idea of permanent personalities and permanent values has evaporated. It is all about winning. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood (10).” This theme re-echoes in TV and movies, shows like American Idol or Survivor where the nation watches as one victim after another is “voted off the island” until only one remains. An illiterate society is seduced by the fantasy, each cheering spectator dreaming of him/herself in the place of the victor, oblivious to the sham of such a perverted scenario.

America has become a nation of fantasizers and wishful thinkers, and the pursuit of knowledge and the skill of acquiring it (literacy) have decayed in direct proportion to the rise of spectacle and illusion. “ . . . endless, mindless diversion is a necessity in a society that prizes entertainment above substance. Intellectual or philosophical ideas require too much effort and work to absorb. Classical theatre, newspapers, and books are pushed to the margins of cultural life, remnants of a bygone, literate age. They are dismissed as inaccessible and elitist unless they provide . . . effortless entertainment. The popularization of culture often ends in its total degradation (43).” Hedges illustrates this point with a lurid tour of the world of pornography, an industry burgeoning as a consequence of the internet and the decay of fixed standards of conduct generally. He’s saying, basically, that the brutalisation of women and the victimization inherent in professional wrestling spectacles are peas and carrots in the same soup.

Of greatest interest to me was the chapter called “The Illusion of Wisdom,” possibly because the classroom has been my life. Hedges makes the linkages among the various prestige colleges in the USA and the political and corporate elites of the nation who are products of these colleges. Education in schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Oxford, Cambridge, he says, “focus instead (of teaching critical thinking), through the filter of standardized tests, enrichment activities, AP classes, high-priced tutors, swanky private schools, entrance exams, and blind deference to authority, on creating hordes of competent systems managers (89).” The decline in education is evident in the growth of training institutions that are career-oriented along with the decline in the study of language, antiquities, history and the arts, for instance. Education as a branch of career planning rather than education as a preparation for living well in a free, functioning and egalitarian society.

Hedges echoes the voices out there that decry the manipulation of the population by the “elites.” Most of us—I guess—were appalled to learn about the details of the corporate greed and bungling resulting in the most recent economic collapse. What is even more appalling is what we’re seeing now: a return to the same corporate/political “business as usual” phenomenon, and so soon after the taxpayers bailed out the privileged. This may be the most blatant sign that the US, particularly, has passed the point of no return. The health reform bill of President Obama now appears to be a lost hope, evidence again that the privileged classes in the US are neither willing nor capable of reinventing themselves. They were never educated for repentance, were taught only how to manage privilege.

Hedges sees little distinction between the two political monoliths in America. Reading his assessment, one could come to the conclusion that the reins of power have been systematically, successfully hijacked by the corporate/political structure. It takes millions to mount a successful run at a senate seat; that effectively cuts out all the riff-raff and ensures that the economy will always remain in the privileged hands of the establishment.

According to Hedges, America is on the verge of turning into a fully-fledged tyranny, and tyranny succeeds best when the peons are illiterate, and to speed them down this slope, nothing works better than the propagation of fantasies, the cult of celebrity, the provision of endless, on-demand entertainment. If necessary, even the news can be turned into entertainment, hence the rise of tabloid journalism.

Empire of Illusion paints a dark picture of the US today. While that nation purports to be a beacon for democracy around the world, it has squandered its abundant resources on colonial forays into places where it doesn’t belong, has created or tolerated injustice to meet corporate goals and finally, built up a culture of celebrity and fantasy while allowing its educational institutions to decay. The warning is timely.

“Because this nation has rejected the waters of Shiloah, which run so softly and gently, therefore the Lord will bring up against it the strong, flooding waters of the Euphrates (Isaiah 8: 6 & 7a).”

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