Empire of illusion: the end of literacy and the triumph of spectacle
by Chris Hedges
Alfred A. Knopf Canada 2009, 240 pages, $29.95
ISBN 978-0-307-39846-8In law, there is a principle known as “fruit of the poisonous tree,” which holds that if a taproot is nourished by poisonous soil, the fruit it produces will be tainted. But what if our entire society is built upon a set of deadly illusions—an elaborate house of cards that propels us toward catastrophe? This is precisely the premise of Chris Hedges’ compelling new book. The result is a brilliant, not-to-be-missed critique of “a society in precipitous decline.” Some 80 per cent of households in our society never buy or read a book over the course of a year; instead, the average household has a television turned on for nearly seven hours a day. When it comes to war, popular culture most often offers up the illusion of “a ticket to glory, honour and manhood.” Elsewhere, we are force-fed the lie that each of us may rise up from the undifferentiated masses to take our very own place in the sun. In the process, we come to believe that “real life, our own life, is…next to the life of celebrities…inadequate.” Is it any wonder, then, that we hang onto every word of every “expert” who seeks to seduce us with the illusion that our very own “extreme makeover” is just around the corner? Then there’s pornography, which has become ubiquitous on the Internet as it strives to excite ever-more jaded consumers with images of once-unimaginable degradation. Meanwhile, our Ivy League post-secondary schools make it their chief business to condition students “to placate and please authority, never to challenge it.” It means glorifying undisciplined self-interest. It means accumulating money and power without heed to conscience or social values. For Hedges, democracy is in greater peril than it has ever been. Widespread unemployment, wanton de-industrialization, declining real incomes, the alarming erosion of basic civil liberties, costly (and probably futile) foreign wars, wildly unsustainable levels of public and private debt, the conversion of North American economies from production to consumption and a cutthroat variant of capitalism that remains unrepentant and grossly unregulated even in the aftermath of financial calamity—all these point to a society heading for a fall. When that happens, the siren call of a homegrown totalitarianism dressed-up in patriotism may prove irresistible for the beleaguered, disillusioned masses. “Individualism is touted as [our] core value….Yet most of us meekly submit…to the tyranny of the corporate state.” It’s time to forgo our illusions about the world of limitless prosperity. If we are to avert calamity, we need to push unregulated corporatism aside in favour of democracy—”a democracy based not on personal gain but on self-sacrifice”—and the common good. For “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29). ΩJohn Arkelian is a writer, professor of media law and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.Copyright © 2010 by John Arkelian.