Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges, argues that we are heading for economic, environmental, political, and moral collapse, as a once-proud nation becomes an empire. According to Hedges, corporations are using mass entertainment to sell us the illusion of meaning, while we are kept apathetic about the decline of our culture, the erosion of education, and the systematic loss of our liberties.
This review will start with a synopsis of the book, and I’ll draw some conclusions at the end.
Chapter by Chapter
In Chapter 1, “The Illusion of Literacy,” beginning with the popular appeal of professional wrestling and reality TV, the author traces how media creates illusions of life, or pseudo-events, which overlay reality in the minds of those who follow them. These pseudo-events become more important than our real-world problems. “The success of professional wrestling, like most of the entertainment that envelops our culture, lies not in fooling us that these stories are real. Rather, it succeeds because we ask to be fooled. We happily pay for the chance to suspend reality.”
Moving through an detailed panorama of media, the cult of celebrity, and shows like American Idol, The Swan, Big Brother, and Survivor, Hedges uncovers the messages behind these shows. “They leave us chasing vapors. They urge us toward a life of narcissistic self-absorption. They tell us that existence is to be centered on the practices and desires of the self rather than the common good.”
This assaults literacy, not just our ability to read, but also our capacity to think deeply about issues.
A culture dominated by images and slogans seduces those that are functionally literate but who make the choice not to read…Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideals. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel. Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality.
This is most important in the area of politics.
Those captive to images cast ballots based on how candidates make them feel. They vote for a slogan, a smile, perceived sincerity, and attractiveness, along with the carefully crafted personal history of the candidate…Truth is irrelevant. Those who succeed in politics, as in most of the culture, are those create the most convincing fantasies.
In chapter 2, “The Illusion of Love,” Hedges addresses the issue of the growing use of pornography in the last 40 years. He shows the horrors of the porn industry, its abuse of women and the industrialization of rape. He allows porn actors to speak for themselves, focusing on those who share their victimization by soulless companies whose only concern is profit; in porn they are commodities, not people. Hedges pulls no punches in letting them tell their stories. The testimonies here are stark and sexually detailed, certainly not for the faint-hearted. In other interviews with people who support the industry you can hear the hollowness of their justifications of abuse and torture.
He has a section of interviews with Shelly Lubben and some of her team at a porn convention. Shelly is an ex-porn star and is now a Christian crusader against the industry. Her mission is to rescue women from porn and show them the gospel of Jesus Christ. The author never openly commends her work against the industry, though he seems to share her viewpoint. Hedges does not write from a Christian perspective, and given his other railing against Christians (especially the “Christian Right”) this is a compliment.
There are few conclusions or recommendations for how to deal with this scourge on the mental landscape of our citizens. Instead, the author leaves us to draw our own from the descriptions of how pornography victimizes both users and producers. He rightly sees pornography as disassociated from relationships, intimacy, and real sex, and more about power and violence. Hedges uses our cultures fascination with porn, and the way that it has become mainstreamed into other media, to show how we have replaced real love with an illusion. Porn is a reflection of the violence that we have come to accept as entertainment, as figured in the Abu Graib abuses.
Chapter 3, “The Illusion of Wisdom,” is about higher education, specifically the schools of the elite, like Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Cambridge—the very schools where most of those in political and corporate power receive their education. Admission to these schools, like a country club membership, is only available to the rich and powerful, who make colossal donations to gain admittance for their children. Diversity is cultural and ethnic, but there is no diversity of class. Intelligence and analytical skills are the only traits prized in these cloisters of privilege, and those students and faculty who question the status quo are shunned. Hedges contrasts this to an earlier time when enrollment was open, and where students questioned what they were hearing, rather than simply regurgitating facts.
“These elites are not capable of asking the broad, universal questions, the staples of an education in the humanities, which challenge the deepest assumptions of a culture and examine the harsh realities of political and economic power…Instead the elite are taught skills which prepare them for careers in business and politics. If business and political institutions are going the wrong way, these skills will not enable them to see what is wrong, or show any way to correct them…The unstated ethic of these elite institutions is to make as much money as you can to sustain the elitist system…By the time they graduate, they are superbly conditioned for the drudgery of moving large sums of money around electronically or negotiating huge corporate contracts.”
The consequence of this shift in education over the last 100 years is that the people making the biggest decisions about what kind of country and economy the rest of us will inherit are those unprepared to question authority and the status quo, and unlikely to set aside the interests of the rich and powerful to build a better world for all Americans. The moral and ethical dimensions of business and public policy will not just be ignored, but intellectually unavailable to them.
Chapter 4, “The Illusion of Happiness,” is about positive psychology and social engineering. Positive psychology believes that happiness can be engineered. “By thinking about things, by visualizing them, by wanting them, we can make them happen.” As preposterous as this con artistry seems, this is a prevailing philosophy being sold to major corporations. “The corporations tell us who we are and what we can become…If we are not happy there is something wrong with us.”
This ties in with the picture that Hedges is painting of our culture of illusion.
Once we adopt a positive mind, positive things will always happen. This belief, like all the other illusions peddled in the culture, encourages people to flee from reality when reality is frightening or depressing… This flight into self-delusion is no more helpful in solving real problems than alchemy. But it is very effective in keeping people from questioning the structure around them that are responsible for their misery. Positive Psychology gives an academic patina to fantasy.
These positive psychologists sell their services to corporations, who then build a culture where productivity at work, based on an illusion of happiness, not family or church, becomes the highest ethical goal for an individual. As this fails to produce real fulfillment and leads to isolation, the person who rebels against his keepers is passed over for promotion, or “downsized.” The person who is cowed into submission flees into the fantasy of spectacle on television or pornography to validate a life that should have been lived for a higher calling than next year’s annual report. Either way this accomplishes the corporation’s goal of profit, either by producing more brake pads, or downsizing those who don’t want to play the game.
Positive psychology, like celebrity culture, the relentless drive to consume, and the diversionary appeals of mass entertainment, feeds off the unhappiness that comes from isolation and the loss of community. The corporate teaching that we can find happiness through conformity to corporate culture is a cruel trick, for it is corporate culture that stokes and feeds the great malaise and disconnect of the culture of illusion.
The final chapter, “The Illusion of America,” sums up the rest of the book with the opening line, “I used to live in a country called America.” Hedges tells us that, though we use the same language of freedom, rights, liberty, and justice for all, we are left with only the illusion of these things in a country that cruelly treats those who are poor, laid off, and whose homes have been foreclosed, while those who have engineered their demise on Wall Street take home 10 million dollar bonuses. Ironically, the government we elected to promote liberty and to protect our people never steps in to interrupt this greed. There are slogans of hope and change, but the real hope is for the rich to get richer, and the change is just another coat of paint on the same collapsing edifice that was once a great and proud nation.
I challenge you to read that chapter for yourself. It’s not fun. Whether or not all that Chris Hedges says is true, there is certainly the ring of authenticity to someone born in the early 50s who grew up looking forward to a brighter future and a better America. Perhaps the most chilling statement is, “At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism as real.” In the 70s I wondered, as I read Revelation 13, how the prediction of an evil world ruler could ever be bought and sold in America. Francis Schaeffer’s words were prophetic: “History indicates that that at a certain point of economic breakdown people cease being concerned with individual liberties and are ready to accept regimentation. The danger is obviously greater when [the] two main values so many people have are personal peace and affluence.”
The Time Is Short
The Bible tells us that things will go from bad to worse, that “people’s love will grow cold,” that rather than following the radical truth of the Bible “they will accumulate for themselves teachers according to their own desires, wanting to have their ears tickled.” While they are shouting their favorite slogan—“peace and safety”—destruction will come upon the system that Satan has engineered, and Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island will sink into the ocean of God’s judgment.
In the movie, The Matrix, the character dubbed Morpheus tells Neo, “The Matrix is…the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.” That’s what Satan’s kingdom is. What the Bible calls the kosmos, the world system, is the topic of The Empire of Illusion. It’s a worthwhile book, because it reminds us, “this world is passing away, and also its lusts.”
The question for the follower of Jesus is this: as our country and our world are propelled toward the final destruction of Satan’s kingdom, how invested in it will we be? Will the church be living lives of radical devotion to the kingdom of God, to love and fellowship, to good deeds that adorn the gospel, to the preaching of the gospel of Jesus to every nation and tribe, or will we be cheering on the next contestant on American Idol, playing our video games, watching our porn, while those Christ died for perish in the house next door. Empire of Illusion reminded me of how short the time is.