704 of 723 people found the following review helpful
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Chris Hedges' newest book may be a screed, but it's an uncomfortably accurate one, delving into the addictive, corrupting hold of comforting & distracting illusion over too many Americans. From the even vaster wasteland of TV, brought to us by endless channels, to the drug of sensation at its lowest common denominator from the porn industry, to the "think happy thoughts" snake oil of both New Age & fundamentalist belief systems --
But you have to stop & catch your breath, or else be swept away by the torrent of mediocrity & cheerfully willful ignorance that passes for contemporary culture & thought. Once you're aware of how thoroughly blanderized & infantilized our culture has become, it's all too easy to succumb to despair or cynicism. And with good cause!
Hedges wisely selects just a few specific examples as indicators of something far more pervasive & widespread. Particularly disturbing is the chapter on the so-called "adult" entertainment industry, which is anything but adult. The graphic description of the ways in which women are used & discarded as commodities is sickening, yet we're clearly just getting the tip of a very slimy iceberg.
And Hedges connects this aspect of dehumanization to the horrors of Abu Ghraib, showing how sexuality & torture intertwine. Most disturbing of all is how accepted & mainstream this sort of "entertainment" has become -- we're not talking about erotica or old-fashioned porn, which at least portrayed sex as mutually enjoyable for men & women; what we see now is humiliation, suffering, pain, almost all of it inflicted on women for the pleasure of emotionally stunted men.
More than that, though, Hedges explores the ways in which reason & literacy -- the humanities -- are shunted to the margins in favor of a utilitarian mindset, one that boils down to, "What's in it for me, right now, and how can I get the most of it as quickly as possible?" And that "most" is wealth, status, power, and the illusion of importance -- a humanity measured in things, rather than in being.
From that point, we're shown how these personal illusions contribute to & help sustain a national, even global, illusion of power, self-righteousness, corruption & control. It's bread & circuses for the masses, with digital soma mainlined at every waking moment. Meanwhile, the real elites, the corporate masters of our world, do whatever their insatiable appetites demand. This invariably requires bloodshed & suffering inflicted upon those least able to resist it. .
Is Hedges overwrought? Is he exaggerating the crisis at hand? If so, it's not by very much. As a war correspondent of some 20 years, he's seen the brutal results of illusionary thinking first-hand. This book is born of bitter experience, as Hedges bears witness to the ongoing destruction of the human soul, which is lost in a world of glittering superficiality which can't conceal its innate cruelty, ugliness & emptiness.
Not a reassuring book by any means, but certainly an eye-opening one -- most highly recommended!
319 of 331 people found the following review helpful
on July 20, 2009
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Hedges describes how corporate entertainment encourages people to desire to be rich and famous, devote themselves to material things, reckless self-gratification and reckless consumer spending. It encourages people to care much more about news relating to celebrities than genuinely important news. Hedges analyzes episodes of WWE wrestling, Survivor, The Swan and Jerry Springer to back up his arguments about pop culture.
Chapter 2 is about porn. Porn actresses are portrayed by porn mediums as nothing more than wild beasts whose only desire is to satisfy the sadistic fantasies of men. Most porn actresses are heavy drinkers and drug addicts as a result of the mental pain and serious physical damage to their private areas, front and back, caused by their line of work. Most of them appear to work in escort services on the side. Hedges give an account of one porn movie featuring an actress who engages in the very unhealthy activity of engaging in sex acts with 65 different men over the six hour shoot of the film. Porn is one of the biggest industries in this nation; a great many of our male citizens appear to take pleasure in the degrading and brutal version of sex found in modern porn.
The last chapter is a sort of general overview of the dismal state of this country. Hedges writes that our financial crisis is rooted in the destruction of American manufacturing since the 1970's. An example of the decline of American manufacturing ability, he observes, occurred when the city of New York in 2003 offered a several billion dollar contract for a company to build subway cars. No American company took the offer, which was eventually given to Canadian and Japanese companies. Since the 1970's our economy has rested on the accumulation of un-unsustainable amounts of corporate and house-hold debt, used to a large extent not for productive investment but for participation in speculative bubbles and consumption to support luxurious living. Our economy is kept afloat by the willingness of foreigners to buy up this debt. As government social services are continuously slashed, the bailouts of 2008/2009 have only strengthened the stranglehold of corporate America on our economy and government resources.
While the annual compensation packages of CEOs soar well into the tens of millions of dollars, the median American family income has declined in inflation adjusted terms since the early 70's. We call ourselves a free market economy but a leading pillar of our economy is the taxpayer funded military-industrial complex, powering companies like Lockheed Martin. Hedges notes the example of the US government's annual provision of 3 billion dollars of taxpayer funds to the dictatorship in Egypt, 1.3 billion dollars of which (taxpayer dollars) is required to be used for purchasing weapons from private American defense companies. The US uses half of its annual discretionary spending on the military and spends more on its military than all the other countries in the world combined.
While trillions of dollars are spent on weapons and foreign occupations, our health care costs spiral out of control. Hedges writes that our private health care system is nearly twice as expensive as the national health services "in countries like Switzerland."Hedges notes how the percentage of budget devoted to overhead and administrative costs in our for profit health system is so vastly greater than the same costs in traditional government run Medicare. According to the Institute of Medicine, 18,000 people die every year because they can't afford health care. 46 million Americans have no health insurance and 25 million more are under-insured. Half of all bankruptcies in the US are due to health care costs overwhelming family budgets. Americans pay 40 percent more than Canadians for prescription drugs. Our politicians, Obama included, do everything they can to accommodate the for profit health care companies. In his overview of health care problems, I wish Hedges would have included some comparisons of a few health indicators between the US and some of the countries that have the most efficient socialized medicine systems.
Meanwhile, our politicians have covered up our unraveling. According to Hedges, the Consumer Price Index is constructed to under-estimate the real rate of inflation. Ronald Reagan lowered his unemployment rate by including members of the military in the employment count. Bill Clinton lowered the official unemployment rate of his reign by excluding from the employment count people who had stopped looking for work and also by counting low wage under-employed workers as employed. American jobs have gone to the low wage third world. Hedges notes that, contrary to Clinton's prediction in 1993, NAFTA has thrown 2 million Mexican farmers off the land and many of them have ended up in the US. Even more illegal immigrants have come from Mexico as northern Mexican factories have closed down and relocated to the even lower wage and even lesser regulated paradise of China.
Hedges gives a great deal of space to quoting various scholars and philosophers in order to back up his sociological observations. Other topics he discusses include positive psychology, the destruction of higher education and the willingness of corporate media hacks to take at face value the words of the powerful.
Hedges suggests possible future scenarios where most Americans are virtual corporate slaves, controlled and monitored by the ever expanding power of law enforcement. He fears that the biggest contrast in this country will be between a marginalized literate minority on the one hand and on the other a barely functionally literate or functionally illiterate majority enchanted by corporate entertainment and the vacuous PR spectacles and slogans of politicians. He fears that as social conditions worsen, right wing demagogues will make great headway. He is very worried about future environmental catastrophes. However he ends his book with the hope that decent human values can be utilized to confront our growing corporate tyranny.
220 of 231 people found the following review helpful
Chris Hedges, the Pulitzer-Prize winning author of "War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning" and "I Don't Believe in Atheists", is back with another diatribe about our morally-bankrupt society. Whether you agree with all of his assertions or not, "Empire of Illusion" is a necessary, thought-provoking work on the role of entertainment in American culture.
Particularly fascinating is Hedges's take on professional wrestling. Whenever an academic brings up wrestling, it is usually as an example of low-brow culture. Hedges doesn't snub his nose, however: He merely observes and reports.
His thesis that wrestling storylines have "evolved to fit the new era...by focusing on the family dysfunction that comes with social breakdown" is on the money: Gone are the simple bouts of good vs. evil. "Morality is irrelevant," he writes. "Wrestlers can be good one week and evil the next. All that matters is their own advancement." The "illusion" here isn't that wrestling is fake. The "illusion" is that the wrestlers are idealized versions of what we want to become. He asserts that this mirrors a fundamental change in society.
Hedges traces this change through other American institutions (reality television, celebrity culture, the adult industry, universities, psychologists), arguing that we are "unable to distinguish between illusion and reality". We forgo morals for an elusive and unattainable happiness. He states that we "will either wake from our state of induced childishness...or continue our headlong retreat into fantasy".
The subtitle--"The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle"--is somewhat of a misnomer. Even with the alarming illiteracy rate in this country, it's a stretch to say that literacy has literally come to an end. "The Triumph of Spectacle" is a more accurate description of the book's contents.
"Empire of Illusion" is a snapshot of America, circa 2009 AD. Some of the precepts that it touches on--such as universities churning out morally-dubious graduates--are already coming under populist fire due to the banking crisis. WWE, wrestling's most popular promotion, has toned down the sex and violence in recent years. The once-popular Jerry Springer Show limps along on basic cable, its cultural relevancy having long since expired.
Hedges believes that the financial crisis "will lead to a period of profound political turmoil and change." In a recent Truthdig article, he wrote that "Those who care about the plight of the working class and the poor must begin to mobilize quickly or we will lose our last opportunity to save our embattled democracy." "Empire of Illusion" makes a strong case to be the much-needed cry for arms.
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2009
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This book is superb, I really can't say enough good things about it. Take a couple quotes: "When a nation becomes unmoored from reality, it retreats into a world of magic. Facts are accepted or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained cosmology. The search for truth becomes irrelevant." (p. 50) "The specialized dialect and narrow education of doctors, academics, economists, social scientists, military officers, investment bankers, and government bureaucrats keeps each sector locked in its narrow role. The overarching structure of the corporate state and the idea of the common good are irrelevant to specialists. They exist to make the system work, not to examine it." (p. 98) I could go on and on citing terrific passages.
Though this book is a screed, it is a spot-on screed. Hedges hits, what I believe, are the major reasons why we Americans are essentially locked into a downward spiral as a culture and country. He starts with Pro-wresting as a prime example of how media panders to the me, me, me attitude infilitrating popular culture. Reality TV, celebrity narcissism and how Americans, in general, are becoming a functionally illiterate society. Hedges then moves into explaining how the Porn industry has lead to an entire sub-culture that promotes a 'women-as-objects' mentality, which destroys some men's ability to have meaningful relationships (Warning: this chapter, to me at least, was pretty raw). Next, Hedges points out how a cycle sustains itself between elite educational institutions (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc.), the Government (think Congress in particular) and Corporations. Ivy league schools basically turn-out lackies that do whatever is necessary to maintain their elite, self-absorbed status. The last chapter is entitled, "The Illusion of America," and this is where Hedges does a fantastic job of pulling together all the elements of this disfunctional society we live in. You could probably read a dozen books about each of these elements and put them together yourself, or save yourself the trouble and read this one. It's short enough to give to a friend and not have them give you the "evil eye;" yet, it's long enough so that nothing is glossed over. I can't recommend this book enough.
Here's a list of some of the more popular books Hedges cites: Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and StickYou with the Bill),The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power,The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (American Empire Project),The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities,Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?,Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessDemocracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2010
This is one of the clearest and best focused discussions I have seen on the problems of modern society that are leading us to self-destruction. Chris Hedges is an American journalist, author, and war correspondent. In 2002, Chris Hedges was part of the team of reporters at The New York Times who were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the paper's coverage of global terrorism.
Anyone who has wondered why the world is in the mess it is in today will come away vastly enriched by this book. Hedges has a brilliant clarity of understanding of complex issues and a clear, succinct way of explaining them. There is no doubt that this experience was helpful to him in appreciating the chief perpetrators of terrorism in the world today. Can you guess who these are?
Hedges builds on the images of the spectator lives that most people in the modern Western world live - fed by the media, which have come to define for us what is real and what is desirable in our lives. The average person spends over four hours daily watching TV - which means that many people spend far more than that time in rapt absorption of whatever is placed before them.
The media have systematically studied how to influence viewers to buy into their presentations - conceptually, emotionally and with their media-molded purchases. More insidiously, those who control the media have systematically manipulated our social structures so that the manipulators actually control our perceptions of reality and can thereby manipulate our behaviors for their benefit and profit - not just in the marketplaces, but in the social and political arenas of our lives as well.
Those who manipulate the shadows that dominate our lives are the agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion. They are the puppet masters. No one achieves celebrity status, no cultural illusion is swallowed as reality, without these armies of cultural enablers and intermediaries. The sole object is to hold attention and satisfy an audience. These techniques of theater, as Boorstin notes have leeched into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare, and crime. The squalid dramas played out for fans in the wrestling ring mesh with the ongoing dramas on television, in movies, and in the news, where "real-life" stories, especially those involving celebrities, allow news reports to become mini-dramas complete with a star, a villain, a supporting cast, a good-looking host, and a neat, if often unexpected, conclusion. p. 15-16
Those who are in control are the ones who have the money to buy media time, to purchase and thereby control media outlets, to pay for lobbyists to influence politicians, to bribe politicians, and thereby create a global consumer society that is primarily focused on accumulating ever more material objects. And our focus on objects is dehumanizing, because within this system people have become objects for manipulation for ever greater profits rather than living beings.
The veterans [of WW II] saw their wartime experience transformed into an illusion. It became part of the mythic narrative of heroism and patriotic glory sold to the public by the Pentagon's public relations machine and Hollywood. The reality of war could not compete against the power of the illusion. The truth did not feed the fantasy of war as a ticket to glory, honor, and manhood. The truth did not promote collective self-exaltation. The illusion of war peddled in the Sands of Iwo Jima, like hundreds of other Hollywood war films, worked because it was what the public wanted to believe about themselves. It was what the government and the military wanted to promote. It worked because it had the power to simulate experience for most viewers who were never at Iwo Jima or in a war. But as Hayes and the others knew, this illusion was a lie. p. 21-22.
We consume countless lies daily, false promises that if we spend more money, if we buy this brand or that product, if we vote for this candidate, we will be respected, envied, powerful, loved, and protected. The flamboyant lives of celebrities and the outrageous characters on television, movies, professional wrestling, and sensational talk shows are peddled to us, promising to fill up the emptiness in our own lives. Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as possession unique if unacknowledged gifts. p. 26-7.
Celebrity is the vehicle used by a corporate society to sell us these branded commodities, most of which we do not need. Celebrities humanize commercial commodities. They present the familiar and comforting face of the corporate state. p. 37.
Hedges clearly explains the processes whereby our social structures have shifted from serving the people to serving corporate interests. Our schools increasingly prepare people to be uncritical, unthinking consumers. Our politicians, responding to corporate inducements, favor short-term interests, motivated by goals of immediate corporate profits. The interests of individuals, and long-term collective interests are ignored - including the health and welfare of humans and other living beings, environmental concerns, and fiscal responsibility.
Reporters, especially those on television, no longer ask whether the message is true but rather whether the pseudo-event worked or did not work as political theater. Pseudo-events are judged on how effectively we have been manipulated by illusion. Those events that appear real are relished and lauded. Those that fail to create a believable illusion are deemed failures. Truth is irrelevant. Those who succeed in politics, as in most of the culture, are those who create the most convincing fantasies.
This is the real danger of pseudo-events and why pseudo-events are far more pernicious than stereotypes. They do not explain reality, as stereotypes attempt to, but replace reality. Pseudo-events redefines reality by the parameters set by their creators. These creators, who make massive profits selling illusions, have a vested interest in maintaining the power structures they control. p. 50-1.
The flight into illusion sweeps away the core values of the open society. It corrodes the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense tell you something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to grasp historical facts, to advocate for change, and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways, and structures of being that are morally and socially acceptable. A populace deprived of the ability to separate lies from truth, that has become hostage to the fictional semblance of reality put forth by pseudo-events, is no longer capable of sustaining a free society.
Those who slip into this illusion ignore the signs of impending disaster. The physical degradation of the planet, the cruelty of global capitalism, the looming oil crisis, the collapse of financial markets, and the danger of overpopulation rarely impinge to prick the illusions that warp our consciousness. The words, images, stories, and phrases used to describe the world in pseudo-events have no relation to what is happening around us. The advances of technology and science, rather than obliterating the world of myth, have enhanced its power to deceive. We live in imaginary, virtual worlds created by corporations that profit from our deception. Products and experiences - indeed, experience as a product - offered up for sale, sanctified by celebrities, are mirages. They promise us a new personality. They promise us success and fame. They promise to mend our brokenness. p. 52-3.
We have all seen the growth of a culture of lies and deception in politics, banking, commerce and education. Hodges points out how this has been facilitated by our abandoning the teaching of values and analysis in our schools.
The flight from the humanities has become a flight from conscience. It has created an elite class of experts who seldom look beyond their tasks and disciplines to put what they do in a wider, social context. And by absenting themselves from the moral and social questions raised by the humanities, they have opted to serve a corporate structure that has destroyed the culture around them.
Our elites - the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street, and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools - do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of how to replace a failed system with a new one. They are petty, timid, and uncreative bureaucrats superbly trained to carry our systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions that will satisfy the corporate structure. Their entire focus is numbers, profits, and personal advancement. They lack a moral and intellectual core. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they believe, is a secondary product of the free market - which they slavishly serve. p. 111.
I quote Hodges at some length because of his cogent, clear summaries of the problems leading us to self-destruction and to ways we might someday restructure society to be supportive and healing to the individual - rather than exploiting people and viewing them only as valuable as they can be manipulated into being gullible consumers.
This is one of the clearest and best focused discussions I have seen on the problems of modern society that are leading us to societal suicide
28 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on October 21, 2009
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
This is a simultaneously cogent (if a bit strident) and disturbing view of America. I'd rather not believe that we're headed to as dark a place as this book indicates, but there is little to dispute here. I think all Americans should read this, but with 80% of us never picking up a book over the course of a year, it seems unlikely that will happen. Eminently readable, alarmingly logical account of where we are and where we are likely headed.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
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This is a stunning piece of journalism at its very best and a book that any responsible citizen has to read. I absolutely loved this book (except Chapter 2, which seemed like it was taken from a completely different book and can be resumed as "Pornography bad, Dworkin good, sex scary, intimacy comforting.") I suggest that this chapter be skipped altogether in favor of the brilliant political analysis of the rest of the book.
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle is an angry book. Hedges, one of the very few remaining journalists in the US who do actual journalism instead of regurgitating washed out mantras handed to them by their keepers, is not afraid of hurting the public's tender sensibilities by the truth. He realizes the gravity of our current situation and is unafraid of telling the readers that our economic and political future looks bleak. The way our government tries to address the collapse of the economy, which it coyly terms "a recession", by throwing taxpayers' money at the problem is wrong and self-destructive.
None of these so-called measures are working. Endless bailouts and stimulus packages that have indebted us in an unheard of way have failed to jumpstart the economy and move the country out of this crisis. Still, nobody is proposing any alternatives to this failed system. The economy of the US operates in exactly the same manner as the unsustainable Soviet economy. Nobody, however, is willing to recognize it. People believe that if you call this perversion "capitalism" and "free market economy" often enough, it will actually turn into capitalism and free market economy. Reality has been substituted by illusion in so many areas of life, Hedges observes, that people often refuse to see and identify what is right in front of their faces. This rejection of reality in favor of illusion haunts all spheres of our lives.
The reason for this resistance to acknowledging the reality that lies right in front of us is that the very few of us possess the intellectual, psycholigical, emotional, and linguistic tools needed to perform this task. Rather than decipher the incomprehensible, confusing, and often painful reality around them, people prefer to escape into the world of cliches and make-belief. Who wants to dedicate their lives to addressing complex, important issues, if you can happily escape into the world of triviality?
One would expect, of course, our system of higher education to help students acquire the intellectual and linguistic tools needed to analyze the failings of our poitical and economic systems. This, however, does not happen. As anybody working in the higher education system knows all too well, our universities have been undergoing the process of transforming themselves into robot-churning factories. Hedges's understanding of the way the higer education system has been appropriated by the military-industrial complex is profound.
Our universities have become nothing but "high-priced occupational training centers." Graduates are incapable of approaching their reality in a critical way. All they are trained to do is to service the system as efficiently as possible. Now that the system itself is in dire need of a rehaul, there are very few people around who would be at least capable of recognizing this fact, let alone do something about it.
193 of 240 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2009
Empire Of Illusion is a tour of the fractured American Id, a study of social breakdown in the Decline and Fall model, and a barely muted howl.
That's a lot of freight to load on to one train. Sometimes it works, especially when Hedges in on areas he knows well, especially the corporatization and "dumbing up" of the university environment (where certain skill sets and bodies of knowledge are heavily emphasized and others are marginalized and neglected)....
At other times it is grotesque and morbidly depressing, as when he details, at length, how the adult entertainment industry really works and what it does to the minds, bodies, and souls of those who choose to work there or have no other options but to work there. Perhaps it could be metaphorically described as a slaughterhouse of the emotions. Industrial scale soul rape. It's pretty nauseating and if you would rather think about other things, you might want to pass up reading this book.
However, Hedges claims that the primary audience for the open porn sites are preadolescent to adolescent boys, roughly ages 11-17. It is hard to imagine constant and unfettered exposure to hard core pornography in this developmental window NOT having severe adverse long term effects on these young minds.
Hedges would have vastly improved his analysis if he had stepped back and drawn historical parallels which might help understand how societies are changed by destabilizing inputs such as these. For example, during the Vietnam war, Ho Chi Minh (does anyone under 50 even know who "Uncle Ho" was, or do they care ?) made a strategic decision to supply American troops with as much high quality dope as they could consume, particularly tropical strength cannabis, opium, and heroin, including the notorious Double Uoglobe 98% pure smack that was being shpped back to the USA in the body cavities of troop corpses by Air America. Ho Chi Minh fully undcerstood that a society could be brought to its knees by flooding it with substances that it didn't have the will or the resources to control.
One might see an ominous parallel with porn flooding in the twenty first century and dope flooding in the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, Empire Of Illusion doesn't give us any illuminating historical cross referencing of that sort which might help contextualize current events in the light of historical events. Everything is seething and crumbling in the Big Now.
Professional Wrestling comes from a long tradition that includes Roman gladitorial spectacles, medieval morality plays, medicine shows, vaudeville acts, and cinematic weirdness like Three Stooges or hideous daytime effluvia like Queen For A Day...once rated in the Guiness Book Of World Records as the worst television program ever produced.
Again, we are provided a present moment snapshot of WWF style wrestling without a satisfying understanding of how it came about or how it, and related spectacles operate in and on the American psyche.
Somehow, this work may have been better served by the ironic detachment and sense of absurdity that one finds in Hunter Thompson or the sociology of Erving Goffman. Walter Kirn, in his _Lost In The Meritocracy_ gives a much better feel from the inside of the fine details of higher education
as a training in Upper Newspeak.
When economic subjects arise, we would have been better served if those economic claims were substantiated with charts, tables, and other evidentiary materials that would allow us to connect Hedges' reasonings and his affective responses in our own minds. If one is going to grandly proclaim the imminent collapse of the western economic scaffolding, I'd like to see some darn convincing analysis of why one ought to believe this, rather than possibly we're going through one of our periodic economic (and societal) troughs which tinctures our thinking with darkness and gloom.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on May 13, 2011
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
Hedges cogently and systematically dismantles the most pernicious cultural delusions of our era and lays bare the pitiful truths that they attempt to mask. This book is a deprogramming manual that trims away the folly and noise from our troubled society so that the reader can focus on the most pressing matters of our time.
Despite the dark reality Hedges excavates, his screed is a liberating tonic against the crazy-making double-speak and the lies Americans are sold by our country's elite in order to distract us from the true threat and nature of the Corporate State, from the cult of celebrity, to how our nation's Universities have been hijacked to serve the interests, not of the public, but of our corporate overlords. It explains the self-same conditions in all aspects of our society and culture that we now must face, the ever-shrinking flame of enlightenment being exchanged for the illusory shadows on a cave wall.
As a twenty-something caught in the death-throes of American Empire and culture, I have struggled to anticipate where our country and our world are heading, why, and what sort of life I can expect to build for myself. Hedges presents the reader with the depressing, yet undeniable truth of the forces that have coalesced to shape the world in which we now find ourselves. The light he casts is searing and relentless. He fearlessly and incisively calls us out on the obvious farce our democracy has become, how we got here, and highlights the rapidly closing window in which we have to do something to correct it. It is a revelation, and yet he merely states the obvious. The empire has no clothes.
One of the most powerful aspects of this book was in regard to how our Universities are run these days. I may be in the minority, but I experienced a life-changing disillusionment when I gained entrance to a prestigious "elite" University. Instead of drawing the best and the brightest, or being a place where scholarship was valued, where students were taught critical thinking skills, the University I attended was nothing more than an expensive diploma mill for the children of the wealthy. In the eyes of the University, students were not minds to be empowered and developed, but walking dollar signs.
Instead of critical thinking, students were taught to OBEY, not to question authority, and then handed a piece of paper admitting them to the ruling class that is destroying America without a moral compass. Selfishness, deceit, disregard for the common good, and a win-at-all-costs attitude were rewarded. Empathy, curiosity, dissent, and an honest, intellectually rigorous evaluation of ourselves and our world were punished. Obviously I am not the only one to whom this was cause to fear for the future of our country.
Five stars is not enough. Ever since I began reading Empire of Illusion, I have insisted friends and family pick up a copy, too. Everyone in America should read this incredibly important book.
The truth shall set us free.
18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
Despite this book being disjointed, uneven, repetitious, and perhaps overstated in places, it is hard to disagree with its main sentiment that American society is living a lie; fantasy, illusion, and escapism infuse our society, economy, and political system with severe consequences. The most pernicious illusion is that corporate capitalism, including the shift to a dominating financial sector, if left unregulated and allowed to expand at will across the globe, will produce undreamed of benefits for all. For the last one hundred and fifty years, the massive, periodic meltdowns of the economy, including the recent financial crisis triggered by the irresponsibility of Wall St. executives, have not impacted this fiction. In spite of that willful obliviousness, the social costs to tens of millions of people, due to the machinations of corporations solely concerned with profits, buttressed by government enablers, have become so significant that the author is alarmed that not only is our society dying a slow death, but along the way is likely to descend into fascism or totalitarianism.
How can the United States have gotten to this deleterious situation with an open, democratic society and political system? A democracy requires knowledgeable citizens and hopefully altruistic elites. Sadly, huge portions of our society are in thrall or susceptible to mind-controlling diversions and propaganda that effectively conceal the true nature of our society and economy. The author notes the inordinate hours devoted to corporate-produced entertainment, spectacles, pseudo-events, and non-stop images, many of them inviting celebrity worship, but none remotely concerned with reality. Ironically, some of those distractions, such as rancorous wrestling shows or xxx-rated images, provide an inconsequential outlet for frustrations without confronting the real source of hardships. And then there is the pseudo-academic community that promotes the power of positive thinking, as though one can simply will away, or even reverse, the devastation of being unemployed with no health insurance. Supposedly bastions of reason and free thought, universities have become corporate research arms and training grounds for future corporate employees who have no interest in upsetting that order. Both students and professors interested in social inquiry are marginalized. Journalists and elected representatives, who in theory dig beneath the superficial and do what is best for the citizenry, have become mere "courtiers" for the power elite. The author is adamant that democracy and corporate capitalism cannot co-exist - powerful elites will always overwhelm the less powerful, directly or indirectly.
In addressing the potential for individuals looking at structural reality in any realistic sense, he alludes to those in Plato's cave allegory who are content with shadows on the wall. Removal from the cave is viewed as highly stressful: sunlight, that is, reality, is too much to take. Likewise in the US, illiteracy dooms tens of millions to visuals of pseudo-reality. The author suggests that perhaps a majority of Americans, though not illiterate, would not have the language skills to follow the exchanges of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In the face of this living in the shadows of reality, perhaps even preferring to, where is the hope for American society turning around the corporate agenda? Some place their hopes in the Obama administration. However, virtually all of his high-level appointees are former members of the very corporations that have caused so much destruction. There is no possibility of them advocating needed structural changes. Obama undoubtedly has as much ability as any president in history, yet his elitist ties, both educational and professional, preclude his attempting to take on the monumental project of revamping the economy.
The author brings to bear relevant insights from any number of individuals: C. Wright Mills, Sheldon Wolin, Ralph Nader, Karl Polanyi, Jared Diamond, and the like. In an interesting exchange, the author replicates an interview conducted by Bill Moyers of Tim Russert, the moderator of Meet the Press, in his interview of Dick Cheney concerning the justification for going to war with Iraq. Russert, in complete abdication of journalistic credibility, allows Cheney to refer to a story that he planted in the NY Times as evidence that Hussein was engaged in pursuing nuclear material - a perfect example of the sycophancy of those entrusted to keep the public informed.
The author notes that Jared Diamond, in his book "Collapse," claims that the collapse of civilizations invariably comes down to elites who fiercely hold onto the status quo if there is any chance that their status could be undermined by tackling a crisis at hand, even one with catastrophic implications. In addition, the author speaks to the kind of reactions that could be spawned if personal and economic despair do not abate. He suggests that corporate elites will "seek to make alliance with the radical Christian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for ruling elites, and the specter of left-wing dissent and terrorism to impose draconian controls to extinguish our democracy. And while they do it, they will be waving the American flag, chanting patriotic slogans, promising law and order, and clutching the Christian cross." (189) Given trends over the last thirty years, that scenario is not as far-fetched as may seem at first glance.
As stated, the book has some unevenness. For one, the author wants to believe that America once had some sort of golden era, referring to the calm, prosperous 1950s. He should know that era was an anomaly in our history. He had it right when he notes the incompatibility of democracy and capitalism. Furthermore, in the end, he clings to a belief that love will prevail, even if "darkness has swallowed us all." And that is comforting? Basically the book is entirely pessimistic; spectacle has triumphed. The author presents some interesting bits. There is always a new outrage. But it would seem that he is preaching to the choir. Those who would appreciate this book don't need convincing. Others are likely to see the book as little more than a tirade against the deserving.