Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (Nation Books, 2009, 240 pgs.): Unless relentlessly bleak political screeds and social forecasting are your thing, steer clear of Hedges’s monotonous doling out of everything terrible in America. I came to this book after having read a few excerpts online and Sheldon Wolin’s Democracy, Incorporated, which I’d heard Hedges describe before (and which he references in this book), though for all the hoo-haw Hedges makes about our illusory lives, Empire of Illusion is itself rather short on substance. The long and short of the book can be summed up thus: corporations have infiltrated virtually every aspect of our lives, and their insatiable thirst for power and capital drives them to warp everything in our waking existence to bend to its advantage, and when it has exhausted us and all the resources on the planet it will collapse and leave in its wake the destruction of all we hold dear. Melodramatic, sure. But the premise isn’t so far-fetched. Of course, if you are of the opinion that this is not true, or if you have real doubts about it, Hedges’s dispatches are unlikely to change your mind.
I say this not because I don’t believe in Hedges’s ability as a writer, doubt his sincerity, or think he lacks the intellectual wherewithal to state his case; he is a fine writer, is morally sound, and is very bright. But the book is largely filled with anecdotal observations—about professional wrestling, about pornography, about positive psychology—concerning the vapidity of a dying culture and quotes from books Hedges obviously agrees with, only occasionally throwing in a hard statistic or historical trend that makes you do a double-take. That’s not to say none of it is affecting—it is, very much so. The second section, ‘The Illusion of Love,’ features interviews with several ex-porn stars whose accounts of the industry are too horrifying to repeat here, and these disgusting details dovetail with the questionable nature of those involved with the scandal of nude photos of Abu Gharaib prisoners as well as a number of seemingly normal males you interact with every day. And Hedges’s heavy-handed and doomsday-riddled rhetoric repeats often enough that even the brightest optimist will cower in cynicism once the drumbeat becomes too loud to ignore.
Yet there is a part of me that wants not to say that Hedges is completely wrong, but that perhaps he overstates his case. If elite universities such as Harvard and Yale are replete with uncritical and unimaginative automata being trained to be ‘systems managers,’ then I don’t know what to make of my much more modest university experience or what a creative individual might even look like. Other minor claims serve Hedges’s narrative but are, at least on the face of things, questionable at best. Hedges cites a Princeton Review article comparing the vocabulary level used at the 1858 Lincoln-Douglass debates with more recent presidential debates and shows a marked decline (Lincoln and Douglas spoke at levels understandable to high school graduates, whereas George W. Bush spoke on the level a seventh grader could understand). This, of course, ignores that in the 1860 election, only white men could vote (and despite abolition of property requirements, many landless white men still couldn’t vote). The speeches obviously were not broadcasted across television, internet, and radio, and were only then available to those literate enough to find a transcript of the debate (or at least some semblance of a write-up) in a newspaper. Not to mention that many, if not most, in the audience were, presumably, well-educated, a part of the elite Hedges so despises. While noting that politicians such as Bush and Gore and Clinton spoke at lower literacy levels than their predecessors can be indicative of the corporatization of elections and the dumbing down of the American populace, someone playing devil’s advocate could easily argue that to include more people in the democratic process a lower vocabulary level must be employed, especially since Hedges offers no elucidation on this quick point.
This book must be taken for what it is—a morose lecture on the dangers that unattainable decadence induces, the indistinguishability between the real and unreal, and the grave future we face if we do not peel back the layers of simulation that have been cemented in the American life. Hedges is an alarmist, no doubt, and sometimes in his scribblings borders on the conspiratorial with his endless references to abstract entities such as ‘the elite’ or ‘the corporations,’ both of which are comprised of human actors, but he is nevertheless an engaging voice, one that won’t be silenced anytime soon.