Pass the Soma: A review of Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion


What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumble-puppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

The above passage comes from Neil Postman’s 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business and is quoted in Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Hedges is not referring to literacy in a functional sense (i.e. can you identify and recite the words on the page and tell us their meaning?), but rather as a faculty of thinking, namely the ability to “read between the lines” and separate fact from fiction in the media that we consume. This is commonly referred to as critical thinking, determining what stands behind the material we read, hear and see, decoding its message and subsequently analyzing the meaning of its content.

At its very core, this type of critical literacy means not simply passively consuming something and taking it only at face value, but additionally understanding the structures and forces that put that message together and thus cutting to the reality of it. For a trivial example, imagine a book is released espousing the many wonderful benefits of smoking. Rather than simply accepting this as gospel, we might first want to know how the author reached his conclusion, namely what studies he employed and perhaps also who this author really is. Upon finding out that all the studies cited in the book were all sponsored by the tobacco industry and that the author was a shareholder in a major tobacco company, we might not take his conclusions so seriously after all. This is the faculty that Hedges fears we as a culture are losing, that of going beyond the image that we are fed and thinking deeply about what undercuts that image. Fearing the implications of this, and rightfully so, Hedges laments the power of the image in a society so inundated with media. On the very first page of his book, Hedges quotes John Raulston Saul, who states in Voltaire’s Bastards,

The electronic image is man and God and the ritual involved leads us not ot a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source, these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of the electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it.

Dividing his book into five chapters, with the title of each starting with “The Illusion of…” Hedges takes his thesis that we are inundated with superficiality and frivolity, which we are unable to counter with critical thinking, and covers the topics of literacy, love, wisdom, happiness, and America. Each of these chapters can very well merit their own independent examination given the detailed and multifaceted nature of Hedges’ writing. The most striking aspects of Empire of Illusion upon my reading, however, were the sections in which Hedges comments upon our obsession with celebrity culture and the farce that is mainstream journalism. The author subtly illustrates how celebrity culture and news reporting have in fact become virtually indistinguishable. Both of these horrid facets of our culture feed into one another.

While journalists have no interest in doing work that is anything more than superficial and kissing the collective ass of those in power, we the citizens seem perfectly happy to consume these inanities because we would rather be amused than informed or perhaps because we simply lack the ability to see said inanities for the farce that they are. The superficialities, rather than being something fed to us as the manifestation of a series of complex forces and actors with vested interests, simply become reality. Several examples from recent events serve to illustrate this.

The reign of the superficial is marked by what Hedges refers to as the triumph of pseudo-events, wherein false and distracting narratives are staged by Hollywood, advertisers, journalists, television shows, etc. These are the powerful images that Hedges says come to be reality and dominate public discourse, which in turn becomes shallower, having been dominated by these concoctions. Hedges writes of pseudo-events,

They have the capacity to appear real, even though we know they are staged. They are capable because they evoke a powerful emotional response of overwhelming reality and replacing it with a fictional narrative that often becomes accepted as truth. The power of pseudo-events to overtake reality was what plunged the marines who returned from Iwo Jima into such despair. The unmasking of a stereotype damages and often destroys its credibility. But pseudo-events are immune to this deflation. The exposure of the elaborate mechanisms behind the pseudo-event only adds to its fascination and power. This is the basis of the convoluted television reporting on how effectively political campaigns and candidates have been stage-managed. 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 theatre. Pseudo-events are judged on how effectively we have been manipulated by the 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.

The passage is lengthy, but Hedges makes it crystal-clear what a pseudo-event is and there is no doubt that we are familiar with them. John Edwards’ marital infidelities is a pseudo-event. Though Edwards was one of the more sincere and thoughtful 2008 presidential candidates when it came to issues like health care and poverty, the substance of his message is eschewed in favour of his personal life. The typical excuse is that he is a major political figure, though this is in itself questionable, considering that his best finish in the 2008 Democrat primaries was his 2nd place finish in Iowa. Aside from that, he was the running mate on the 2004 losing presidential campaign and only served one term in the Senate which ended six years ago. This hardly merits being a major political figure, though if it does make him so, we might ask why his actual policy positions are not closely examined and given thought – isn’t this the proper way to treat a “major political figure”? Dick Cheney, in contrast, actually held the office of vice-president, yet there doesn’t seem to be too much obsession over his antics while in office.

Barack Obama’s bowling skills is also a pseudo-event, just as endless talk of socialism during the health care debates was a pseudo-event, jettisoning any substantial examination of the actual tenets of the bill. And this is a problem which runs both ways. Constant obsession with Obama’s charisma and uniqueness also glosses over the more alarming aspects of his actual record as president, including his administration’s targeting of US citizens for assassination, a disturbing proclivity for prosecuting whistle-blowers who enforce accountability, and the disastrous abuse of international law at Bagram prison, just to cite a few examples. There is little to no nuanced coverage of Barack Obama’s presidency in mainstream coverage, which merely fluctuates between the extremes of idol worship and petty and malicious character assassination. We’d much rather hear easy to consume, black and white narratives which echo the stories that typically characterize coverage of our favourite athletes and film stars

Sarah Palin, of course, is a walking, talking (unfortunately) pseudo-event. The former governor of Alaska seems to have stopped bothering to actually take any substantial positions on any issue, instead travelling from one Teabagger rally to the next to spout talking points which get the crowd riled up and wanting their country back from that uppity nigger in the White House. While spending an entire campaign attacking Obama as nothing more than a style over substance brand rather than an effective statesman, Palin herself now appears to be nothing more than a fountain for gossip and mindless chatter. The news media and we as their consumers eat it up whenever Ms. Palin posts one of her vulgar, nonsensical and occasionally xenophobic manglings of the english language on twitter. Similarly, every twist and turn in her daughter’s love life is front page material and another excuse to engage in pointless gossip.

Why, then, wouldn’t most politicians and anyone in a position of power simply adore most mainstream media outlets? Surely, no idiotic attack on Obama’s character or “agenda” will do him any real harm in terms of electoral viability. And why would Sarah Palin bother with anything other than fake outrage and simplistic, pandering talking points when they keep her in the spotlight? Hedges seems to be on to something when he asserts that journalism as it currently stands only serves those in power, rather than acting as a critical or adversarial force working in favour of citizens.  The author is perhaps correct when he writes that,

Television journalism is largely a farce. Celebrity reporters, masquerading as journalists, make millions a year and give a platform to the powerful and the famous so they can spin, equivocate, and lie. Sitting in a studio, putting on makeup, and chatting with Joe Biden, Hilary Clinton, or Lawrence Summers has little to do with journalism.

Certainly, it is difficult to recall the last time a guest on Meet the Press or This Week was not an advisor to the administration in power, a “political consultant” to one of the two major parties, or an elite journalist who never spoke or wrote a critical thought in their entire careers. This gossip and superficial lens becomes the driving force of public discourse, replacing substantial journalism and discussion among both reporters and those who consume their work. When we take the approach to serious political issues that we usually take to celebrity culture, the two become one and the same, as we are reduced to the mindless and juvenile chatter that pervades popular culture when discussing the issues that determine the very future and nature of our society. Hedges is not under any illusion that what we see today in the majority of news reporting is journalism or that what we are indeed engaged in anything that deserves to be called discourse. Hedges, in his section on journalism, concludes,

The most egregious lie is the pretense that these people function as reporters, that they actually report on our behalf. It is not one or two reporters or television hosts who are corrupt. The media institutions are corrupt. Many media workers, especially those based in Washington, work shamelessly for our elites. In the weeks before the occupation of Iraq, media workers were too busy posturing as red-blooded American patriots to report. They rarely challenged the steady assault by the Bush White House against our civil liberties and the trashing of our Constitution. The role of courtiers is to parrot official propaganda. Courtiers do no defy the elite or question the structure of the corporate state.

Such is the state of information and citizenship in a culture that chooses to ignore anything close to truth and reality, instead opting for frivolity and fabricated narratives. Media outlets are happy to avoid meaningful work, and we are often happy to consume their easy to swallow confections. We are, after all, a culture obsessed with celebrity, a fact which Hedges makes sure to acknowledge. Hedges, a graduate and former faculty member at the Harvard Divinity School, draws a parallel between religion our obsession with celebrity. Hedges writes,

We all have gods, Martin Luther said, it is just a question of which ones. And in American society our gods are celebrities. Religious belief and practice are commonly transferred to the adoration of celebrities. Our culture builds temples to celebrities the way Romans did for divine emperors, ancestors, and household gods. We engage in the same kind of primitive beliefs as older polytheistic cultures. In celebrity culture, the object is to get as close as possible to the celebrity. Relics of celebrities are coveted as magical talismans. Those who can touch the celebrity or own a relic of the celebrity hope for a transference of celebrity power. They hope for magic.

Indeed, only in a culture so obsessed with and worshipful of celebrities is the existence of someone like Paris Hilton even acknowledged. Only in such a culture do those who are barely qualified to flip burgers at the local McDonald’s get signed to multimillion dollar deals for “reality” shows which document their idiocy. It  only gets worse when those religious aspects of celebrity get projected back on to religion itself. This is the point when people like Joel Osteen, themselves massive celebrities who live in splendour and excess, turn Christ himself into a celebrity when they preach the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Gone is the difficulty and the complexity of understanding the Gospels and putting them into practice, which ought to require a lifetime of work and mistakes and learning, and replacing it is the simple message that Jesus wants to make your rich. It’s hard to see the distinction between this type of thinking and the pining after celebrities, dreaming that one day we will be lucky to have the material wealth which they lord over the rest of us. The humble preacher from Nazareth starts to look a lot like Tony Robbins.

The ethos of celebrity, which replaced both religion and public discourse, has also now fused with both of them. We want vapidity in our culture and when it is fed to us by journalists we savour it, only perpetuating a very vicious cycle. We are indeed, as Huxley feared we would be, inundated with pleasure and fantasy, removing us from reality. One can’t help but fear that we have painted ourselves into a very unfortunate corner to say the least. As we are less inclined to literacy, we are only further swallowed up by spectacle, a fact which Hedges documents in devastating detail. There are some sections of his book which one might read as conspiratorial or alarmist, but Empire of Illusion is nonetheless an astute and refreshingly bold assessment of our culture.

It is easy to fear that Hedges’ account is too late, but the author somehow maintains hope in the face of all that he had seen in researching and writing this book. I leave you with the last paragraph of this fantastic and must-read book for anyone who wishes to understand our culture and where it may be going. Here Hedges is offering one last comment on the warlike culture of America and the lack of compassion he has come to see pervading his country, but it holds true for the ruthlessness of celebrity worship and the type of journalism that shows no concern for the citizen’s well being.

Our culture of illusion is, at its core, a culture of death. It will die and leave little of value behind. It was Sparta that celebrated raw militarism, discipline, obedience, and power, but it was Athenian art and philosophy that echoed down the ages to enlighten new worlds, including out own. Hope exists. It will always exist. It will not come through structures or institutions, nor will it come through nation-states, but it will prevail, even if we as distinct individuals and civilizations vanish. The power of love is greater than the power of death. It cannot be controlled. It is about sacrifice for the other – something nearly every parent understands – rather than exploitation. It is about honouring the sacred. And power elites have for millennia tried and failed to crush the force of love. Blind and dumb, indifferent to the siren calls of celebrity, unable to bow before illusions, defying the lust for power, love constantly rises up to remind a wayward society of what is real and what is illusion. Love will endure, even if it appears darkness has swallowed us all, to triumph over the wreckage that remains.

***

Chris Hedges writes a regular column at the political blog Truthdig, which can be found here.

Here is Mr. Hedges discussing the book on TVO with Alan Gregg (YouTube video).

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4 Comments

  1. Igor

     /  September 4, 2010

    “While journalists have no interest in doing work that is anything more than superficial and kissing the collective ass of those in power, we the citizens seem perfectly happy to consume these inanities because we would rather be amused than informed or perhaps because we simply lack the ability to see said inanities for the farce that they are. The superficialities, rather than being something fed to us as the manifestation of a series of complex forces and actors with vested interests, simply become reality. Several examples from recent events serve to illustrate this”.

    This is reminiscent of consumptive nihilism. In contemporary society, it is better for the agent to consume something, even if it is devoid of all thought, meaning, and value, than not to consume anything at all. This form of political culture has become the daily spectacle, as well as the nightly illusion, that fills the gnawing void of our social existence. Empty political rhetoric is projected into ‘essential’ debates about nothing, which are frequently cloaked in ideological catchwords. When vested political interests purport to represent general interests, the gap between reality and illusion becomes that much smaller. As a critical thinker once noted: “just because he was nothing, he could signify everything”.
    This way, it is more convenient for us to recite cherished slogans in the face of real struggles that are quickly deemed quaint, impossible, and as distant as the stars. Lest these phantoms can shake a certain edifice–without which a certain “While journalists have no interest in doing work that is anything more than superficial and kissing the collective ass of those in power, we the citizens seem perfectly happy to consume these inanities because we would rather be amused than informed or perhaps because we simply lack the ability to see said inanities for the farce that they are. The superficialities, rather than being something fed to us as the manifestation of a series of complex forces and actors with vested interests, simply become reality. Several examples from recent events serve to illustrate this”.

    This is reminiscent of consumptive nihilism. In contemporary society, it is better for the agent to consume something, even if it is devoid of all thought, meaning, and value, than not to consume anything at all. This form of political culture has become the daily spectacle, as well as the nightly illusion, that fills the gnawing void of our social existence. Empty political rhetoric is projected into ‘essential’ debates about nothing, which are frequently cloaked in ideological catchwords. When vested political interests purport to represent general interests, the gap between reality and illusion becomes that much smaller. Indeed, “just because he was nothing, he could signify everything”.
    This way, it is more convenient for us to recite cherished slogans in the face of real struggles that are quickly deemed quaint, impossible, and as distant as the stars. Lest these phantoms can shake a certain edifice–without which a certain speicies of power could not exist.

    Reply
  2. Igor

     /  September 4, 2010

    Sorry a technical problem:

    This is reminiscent of consumptive nihilism. In contemporary society, it is better for the agent to consume something, even if it is devoid of all thought, meaning, and value, than not to consume anything at all. This form of political culture has become the daily spectacle, as well as the nightly illusion, that fills the gnawing void of our social existence. Empty political rhetoric is projected into ‘essential’ debates about nothing, which are frequently cloaked in ideological catchwords. When vested political interests purport to represent general interests, the gap between reality and illusion becomes that much smaller. As a critical thinker once noted: “just because he was nothing, he could signify everything”. This way, it is more convenient for us to recite cherished slogans in the face of real struggles that are quickly deemed quaint, impossible, and as distant as the stars. Lest these phantoms can actually shake a certain edifice–without which a certain species of power could no longer exist.

    Reply
  3. This is superb writing and thinking. Very good. Thank you.

    Reply
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