Read the selected part of the book(page 44-53) Empire of Illusion write a one-page paper to discuss the following question

Read the selected part of the book(page 44-53), Empire of Illusion, write a one-page paper to discuss the following question:
What, according to Hedges, has caused us all to be so “dumbed down” and what is the price we pay for it?

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Empire of Illusion
The End of Literacy
and the Triumph of Spectacle
CHRIS HEDGES
NATION
BOOKS
Copyright © 2009 by Chris Hedges
Published by Nation Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group
116 East 16th Street, 8th Floor
New York, NY 10003
Nation Books is a co-publishing venture of the Nation Institute
and the Perseus Books Group
All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of
this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written
permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical
articles and reviews. For information, aIDress the Perseus Books Group,
387 Park Avenue South, New York, NY 10016-8810.
Books published by Nation Books are available at special discounts for
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Department at the Perseus Books Group, 2300 Chestnut Street, Suite 200,
Philadelphia, PA 19103, or call (800) 810-4145, extension 5000,
or e-mail special.markets@perseusbooks.com.
Design and composition by Cynthia Young.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Hedges, Chris.
Empire of illusion:
the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle / Chris Hedges.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-56858-437-9
1. Mass media—United States. 2. Popular culture—United States.
1. Title.
P92.U5H365 2009
302.23 dc22
2009013585
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Eunice,
soles occidere et redire possvnt: nobis cvm semel occidit brevis
Ivx, nox estperpetva vna dormienda. da mi basia mille.
People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite
their own destruction, and anyone who insists on
remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence
is dead turns himself into a monster.
—JAMES BALDWIN
Contents
i
The Illusion of Literacy 1
II
The Illusion of Love 55
III
The Illusion of Wisdom 89
IV
The Illusion of Happiness 115
V
The Illusion of America 141
Notes 195
Acknowledgments 205
Bibliography 209
Index 217
I vii
1 The Illusion
of Literacy
Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the
image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We
are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no
other distracting presence. And that image has all the Godly
powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It
dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is
man as God and the ritual involved leads us not to 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.
—JOHN RALSTON SAUL, Voltaire’s Bastards’
We had fed the heart on fantasy,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.
—WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS,
The Stare’s Nest By My Window
JOHN BRADSHAW LAYFIELD, tall, clean-cut, in a collared shirt and
white Stetson hat, stands in the center of the ring holding a heavy
black microphone. Layfield plays wrestling tycoon JBL on the
World Wrestling Entertainment tour.2 The arena is filled with hooting
and jeering fans, including families with children. The crowd yells and
/ 1
and perhaps as educational as well. There are many great authors of
the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is
still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining
version of what they have to say.23
We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic
and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion
from reality. We have traded the printed word for the gleaming
image. Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-yearold
child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. Most of us speak
at this level, are entertained and think at this level. We have transformed
our culture into a vast replica of Pinocchio’s Pleasure Island,
where boys were lured with the promise of no school and endless fun.
They were all, however, turned into donkeys—a symbol, in Italian culture,
of ignorance and stupidity.
Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic. There are 7
million illiterate Americans. Another 27 million are unable to read well
enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can’t read a
simple sentence.24 There are some 50 million who read at a fourth- or
fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or
barely literate—a figure that is growing by more than 2 million a year.
A third of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest
of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007,80
percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a
book.25 And it is not much better beyond our borders. Canada has an
illiterate and semiliterate population estimated at 42 percent of the
whole, a proportion that mirrors that of the United States.26
Television, a medium built around the skillful manipulation of
images, ones that can overpower reality, is our primary form of mass
communication. A television is turned on for six hours and fortyseven
minutes a day in the average household. The average American
daily watches more than four hours of television. That amounts to
twenty-eight hours a week, or two months of uninterrupted television-
watching a year. That same person will have spent nine years in
front of a television by the time he or she is sixty-five. Television
4 4 / EMPIRE OF ILLUSION
speaks in a language of familiar, comforting cliches and exciting
images. Its format, from reality shows to sit-coms, is predictable. It
provides a mass, virtual experience that colors the way many people
speak and interact with one another. It creates a false sense of intimacy
with our elite—celebrity actors, newspeople, politicians, business
tycoons, and sports stars. And everything and everyone that television
transmits is validated and enhanced by the medium. If a person is not
seen on television, on some level he or she is not important. Television
confers authority and power. It is the final arbitrator for what matters
in life.
Hour after hour, day after day, week after week, we are bombarded
with the cant and spectacle pumped out over the airwaves or over computer
screens by highly-paid pundits, corporate advertisers, talk-show
hosts, and gossip-fueled entertainment networks. And a culture dominated
by images and slogans seduces those who are functionally literate
but who make the choice not to read. There have been other historical
periods with high rates of illiteracy and vast propaganda campaigns.
But not since the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, and perhaps the brutal
authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the MiIDle Ages,
has the content of information been as skillfully and ruthlessly controlled
and manipulated. Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas
and ideology. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel.
Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality. And
in this precipitous decline of values and literacy, among those who cannot
read and those who have given up reading, fertile ground for a new
totalitarianism is being seeded.
The culture of illusion thrives by robbing us of the intellectual and
linguistic tools to separate illusion from truth. It reduces us to the level
and dependency of children. It impoverishes language. The Princeton
Review analyzed the transcripts of the Gore-Bush debates of 2000, the
Clinton-Bush-Perot debates of 1992, the Kennedy-Nixon debate of
i960, and the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. It reviewed these transcripts
using a standard vocabulary test that indicates the minimum
educational standard needed for a reader to grasp the text. In the Lincoln-
Douglas debates, Lincoln spoke at the educational level of an
eleventh grader (11.2), and Douglas aIDressed the crowd using a vocabulary
suitable (12.0) for a high-school graduate. In the Kennedy-Nixon
CHRIS HEDGES / 45
debate, the candidates spoke in language accessible to tenth graders. In
the 1992 debates, Clinton spoke at a seventh-grade level (7.6), while
Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.8), as did Perot (6.3). During the
2000 debates, Bush spoke at a sixth-grade level (6.7) and Gore at a high
seventh-grade level (7.6).27 This obvious decline was, perhaps, raised
slightly by Barack Obama in 2008, but the trends above are clear.
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 narrative of the
candidate. It is style and story, not content and fact, that inform mass
politics. Politicians have learned that to get votes they must replicate
the faux intimacy established between celebrities and the public. There
has to be a sense, created through artful theatrical staging and scripting
by political spin machines, that the politician is “one of us.” The politician,
like the celebrity, has to give voters the impression that he or she,
as Bill Clinton used to say, feels their pain. We have to be able to see
ourselves in them. If this connection, invariably a product of extremely
sophisticated artifice, is not established, no politician can get any traction
in a celebrity culture.
The rhetoric in campaigns eschews reality for the illusive promise
of the future and the intrinsic greatness of the nation. Campaigns have
a deadening sameness, the same tired cliches, the concerned expressions
of the sensitive candidates who are like you and me, and the
gushing words of gratitude to the crowds of supporters. The metaphors
are not empty. They say something about us and our culture. Changes
in metaphors are, as the critic Northrop Frye understood, fundamental
changes.
“Are we going to look forward,” asked candidate Obama at an
“American Jobs Tour” rally in Columbus, Ohio, on October 10, 2008,
“or are we going to look backwards?”
AUDIENCE: Forward!
OBAMA: Are we going to look forward with hope, or are we going
to look backwards with fear?
AUDIENCE: Hope! Forward!
OBAMA: Ohio, if you are willing to organize with me, if you are
willing to go vote right now—we’ve got—you could go to the
46 / EMPIRE OF ILLUSION
early voting right across the street, right on—right there.
[Cheers and applause.] If every one of you are willing to grab
your friends and your neighbors and make the phone calls and
do what’s required, I guarantee you we will not just win Ohio,
we will win this general election. And you and I together, we will
change this country and we will change the world. [Cheers and
applause.] God bless you. God bless the United States of America.
[Cheers and applause.]
Celebrity culture has bequeathed to us what Benjamin DeMott calls
“junk politics.” Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation
of rights. It personalizes and moralizes issues rather than clarifying
them. “It’s impatient with articulated conflict, enthusiastic about
America’s optimism and moral character, and heavily dependent on
feel-your-pain language and gesture,” DeMott notes. The result of junk
politics is that nothing changes—”meaning zero interruption in the
processes and practices that strengthen existing, interlocking systems
of socioeconomic advantage.” It redefines traditional values, tilting
“courage toward braggadocio, sympathy toward mawkishness, humility
toward self-disrespect, identification with ordinary citizens toward
distrust of brains.” Junk politics “miniaturizes large, complex problems
at home while maximizing threats from abroad. It’s also given to
abrupt, unexplained reversals of its own public stances, often spectacularly
bloating problems previously miniaturized.” And finally, it “seeks
at every turn to obliterate voters’ consciousness of socioeconomic and
other differences in their midst.”28 Politics has become a product of a
diseased culture that seeks its purpose in celebrities who are, as
Boorstin wrote, “receptacles into which we pour our own purposelessness.
They are nothing but ourselves seen in a magnifying mirror.”29
Those captivated by the cult of celebrity do not examine voting
records or compare verbal claims with written and published facts and
reports. The reality of their world is whatever the latest cable news
show, political leader, advertiser, or loan officer says is reality. The illiterate,
the semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate
are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present.
They do not understand the predatory loan deals that drive them into
foreclosure and bankruptcy. They cannot decipher the fine print on the
CHRIS HEDGES / 47
credit card agreements that plunge them into unmanageable debt.
They repeat thought-terminating cliches and slogans. They are hostage
to the constant jingle and manipulation of a consumer culture. They
seek refuge in familiar brands and labels. They eat at fast-food restaurants
not only because it is cheap, but also because they can order from
pictures rather than from a menu. And those who serve them, also
often semiliterate or illiterate, punch in orders on cash registers whose
keys are usually marked with pictures. Life is a state of permanent
amnesia, a world in search of new forms of escapism and quick, sensual
gratification.
Celebrity images are reflections of our idealized selves sold back to
us. Yet they actually constrain rather than expand our horizons and
experiences. “One of the deepest and least remarked features of the Age
of Contrivance is what I would call the mirror effect,” Boorstin wrote.
Nearly everything we do to enlarge our world, to make life more
interesting, more varied, more exciting, more vivid, more “fabulous,”
more promising, in the long run has an opposite effect. In the extravagance
of our expectations and in our ever increasing power, we
transform elusive dreams into graspable images within with each of
us can fit. By doing so we mark the boundaries of our world with a
wall of mirrors. Our strenuous and elaborate efforts to enlarge experience
have the unintended result of narrowing it. In frenetic quest
for the unexpected, we end by finding only the unexpectedness we
have planned for ourselves. We meet ourselves coming back.30
The most essential skill in political theater and a consumer culture
is artifice. Political leaders, who use the tools of mass propaganda to
create a sense of faux intimacy with citizens, no longer need to be competent,
sincere, or honest. They need only to appear to have these qualities.
Most of all they need a story, a personal narrative. The reality of
the narrative is irrelevant. It can be completely at oIDs with the facts.
The consistency and emotional appeal of the story are paramount.
Those who are best at deception succeed. Those who have not mastered
the art of entertainment, who fail to create a narrative or do not have
one fashioned for them by their handlers, are ignored. They become
“unreal.”
48 / EMPIRE OF ILLUSION
An image-based culture communicates through narratives, pictures,
and pseudo-drama. Scandalous affairs, hurricanes, untimely
deaths, train wrecks—these events play well on computer screens and
television. International diplomacy, labor union negotiations, and
convoluted bailout packages do not yield exciting personal narratives
or stimulating images. A governor who patronizes call girls becomes a
huge news story. A politician who proposes serious regulatory reform
or advocates curbing wasteful spending is boring. Kings, queens, and
emperors once used their court conspiracies to divert their subjects.
Today cinematic, political, and journalistic celebrities distract us with
their personal foibles and scandals. They create our public mythology.
Acting, politics, and sports have become, as they were in Nero’s reign,
interchangeable. In an age of images and entertainment, in an age of
instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or
reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or
unwilling to handle its confusion. We ask to be indulged and comforted
by cliches, stereotypes, and inspirational messages that tell us
we can be whoever we seek to be, that we live in the greatest country
on earth, that we are endowed with superior moral and physical qualities,
and that our future will always be glorious and prosperous, either
because of our own attributes or our national character or because we
are blessed by God. In this world, all that matters is the consistency of
our belief systems. The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have
surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles, gives lies and
mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped
in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition. We are fed words and
phrases like war on terror or pro-life or change, and within these narrow
parameters, all complex thought, ambiguity, and self-criticism
vanish.
“Entertainment was an expression of democracy, throwing off the
chains of alleged cultural repression,” Gabler wrote. “So too was consumption,
throwing off the chains of the old production-oriented culture
and allowing anyone to buy his way into his fantasy. And, in the
end, both entertainment and consumption often provided the same
intoxication: the sheer, endless pleasure of emancipation from reason,
from responsibility, from tradition, from class, and from all the other
bonds that restrained the self.”31
CHRIS HEDGES / 49
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.
Our national discourse is dominated by manufactured events,
from celebrity gossip to staged showcasings of politicians to elaborate
entertainment and athletic spectacles. All are sold to us through the
detailed personal narratives of those we watch. “The pseudo-events
which flood our consciousness are neither true nor false in the old
familiar senses,” Boorstin wrote. “The very same advances which have
made them possible have also made the images—however planned,
contrived, or distorted—more vivid, more attractive, more impressive,
and more persuasive than reality itself.”32
In his book Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann distinguished
between “the world outside and the pictures in our heads.” He defined
a “stereotype” as an oversimplified pattern that helps us find meaning
in the world. Lippmann cited examples of the crude “stereotypes we
carry about in our heads” of whole groups of people such as “Germans,”
“South Europeans,” “Negroes,” “Harvard men,” “agitators,” and
others. These stereotypes, Lippmann noted, give a reassuring and false
consistency to the chaos of existence. They offer easily grasped explanations
of reality and are closer, as Boorstin noted, to propaganda
because they simplify rather than complicate.33
Pseudo-events, dramatic productions orchestrated by publicists,
political machines, television, Hollywood, or advertisers, however, are
very different. They have the capacity to appear real, even though we
know they are staged. They are capable because they can 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 aIDs to its fascination
and its 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-
50 / EMPIRE OF ILLUSION
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.
A public that can no longer distinguish between truth and fiction
is left to interpret reality through illusion. Random facts or obscure bits
of data and trivia are used either to bolster illusion and give it credibility,
or discarded if they interfere with the message. The worse reality
becomes—the more, for example, foreclosures and unemployment
sky-rocket—the more people seek refuge and comfort in illusions.
When opinions cannot be distinguished from facts, when there is no
universal standard to determine truth in law, in science, in scholarship,
or in reporting the events of the day, when the most valued skill is the
ability to entertain, the world becomes a place where lies become true,
where people can believe what they want to believe. 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 redefine 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.
The old production-oriented culture demanded what the historian
Warren Susman termed character. The new consumption-oriented
culture demands what he called personality. The shift in values is a shift
from a fixed morality to the artifice of presentation. The old cultural
values of thrift and moderation honored hard work, integrity, and
courage. The consumption-oriented culture honors charm, fascination,
and likeability. “The social role demanded of all in the new culture
of personality was that of a performer,” Susman wrote. “Every American
was to become a performing self.”34
Totalitarian systems begin as propagandistic movements that
ostensibly teach people to “believe what they want,” but that is a ruse.
The Christian Right, for example, argues that it wants Intelligent
Design, or creationism, to be offered as an alternative to evolution in
public-school biology classes. But once you allow creationism, which
CHRIS HEDGES / 51
no reputable biologist or paleontologist accepts as legitimate science, to
be considered as an alternative to real science, you begin the deadly
assault against dispassionate, honest, intellectual inquiry. Step into the
hermetic world of many Christian schools or colleges and there are no
alternatives to creationism offered to students. Once these systems have
control, the Christian advocates’ purported love of alternative viewpoints
and debates is replaced by an iron and irrational conformity to
illusion.
Pseudo-events, which create their own semblance of reality, serve
in the wider culture the same role creationism serves for the Christian
Right. Pseudo-events destabilize truth. They are convincing enough
and appear real enough to manufacture their own facts. We carry
within us feelings and perceptions about politicians, celebrities, our
nation, and our culture that are mirages generated by pseudo-events.
The use of pseudo-events to persuade rather than overtly brainwash
renders millions of us unable to see or question the structures and systems
that are impoverishing us and in some cases destroying our lives.
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
52 / EMPIRE OF ILLUSION
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.
“People whose governing habit is the relinquishment of power,
competence, and responsibility, and whose characteristic suffering is
the anxiety of futility, make excellent spenders,” wrote Wendell Berry in
The Unsettling of America. “They are the ideal consumers. By inducing
in them little panics of boredom, powerlessness, sexual failure, mortality,
paranoia, they can be made to buy (or vote for) virtually anything
that is ‘attractively packaged.’”35 And there are no shortages of experiences
and products that, for a price, promise to stimulate us, make us
powerful, sexy, invincible, admired, beautiful, and unique.
Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being
born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our
birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent.
They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping
into our hiIDen, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down
before the cult of the self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their
mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate
state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate. The culture of
illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in
the beneficence of power, means we sing along with the chorus or are
instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show.
CHRIS HEDGES / 53

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