Chris Hedges, the End of Literacy, and the Triumph of Spectacle

by Hugh Hamilton
August 30th, 2009

Chris Hedges speaks with almost evangelical fervor in describing the ambition behind his new book, “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

“It’s a kind of wake-up call,” he tells me. “If we don’t grasp the disparity between what we are and what we think we are, we are going to commit an act of collective self-annihilation.”

And who exactly do we think we are? For that, go directly to his chapter on “The Illusion of America,” wherein Hedges warns that Americans “embrace the dangerous delusion that we are on a providential mission to save the rest of the world from itself, to impose our virtues – which we see as superior to all other virtues – on others, and that we have the right to do this by force.” It is a misguided belief, he writes, that has corrupted both Republicans and Democrats, and one that signals our inability to distinguish between illusion and reality. It is this tragic flaw that has differentiated the dying gasp of every previous empire – from the Aztecs to the Austro-Hungarians. And now it may be our turn.

In “Empire of Illusion,” Hedges introduces us to an America he portrays as floundering  in a state of “moral and physical decay.”  It is an America trapped in an epidemic of functional illiteracy: 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.

“We are a culture that has been denied, or passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity,” he writes. “Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology. And in this precipitous decline of values and literacy …fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded.”

There are moments in this book that blur the already uncertain boundaries between prognostication, prophecy and apocalypticism. But Hedges is uncompromising in the certitude of his pronouncements, as when he warns that “[a]t no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril or the possibility of totalitarianism as real. Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. This is the bleak future. This is reality.”

Perpetual Infantilism

In a conversation lasting just over an hour last Tuesday, I asked Hedges to discuss some of the conditions that have enabled this triumph of illusion over reality.

“The best example would be this perverted ethic that we can have everything that we want if we just dig deep enough within ourselves,” he told me. “It is the idea that if we [believe] we are truly exceptional, reality will never be an impediment to what we desire. That basic message is peddled by the consumer culture, by corporatism, by the Christian Right, by the entertainment industry. And as that chasm widens between who we think we are and what we actually are, it becomes more and more dangerous.”

The pervasiveness of illusion, he explained, has the effect of keeping us in a state of “perpetual infantilism or childishness,” so that when eventually we are forced to confront reality – whether because of a home foreclosure or expired unemployment benefits – we react as children. That’s when we begin “looking for demagogues and saviors, for revenge, for moral renewal. And we can already see signs of that in these proto-fascist movements leaping up around the fringes of American society.”

At 232 pages, Empire of Illusion is not a hefty volume. But the linguistic and intellectual tools for which Hedges is widely renowned are very much in evidence throughout this compact and rigorously crafted work. In chapters separately documenting the pervasiveness of illusion in areas ranging from Literacy, Love and Wisdom, to Happiness and ultimately, America itself, he decries the “bankruptcy of our economic and political systems,” and warns of a looming economic and political Armageddon unless we develop the courage and wherewithal to confront and reverse the stranglehold of the corporate state.

Hedges’ chapter on the Illusion of Love, for example is an X-rated expose on the excesses of the multi-billion-dollar pornographic industry. He travels to Las Vegas for the annual Adult Video News Expo and delivers a ball-by-blow commentary on what passes for life behind and beyond the cameras. Las Vegas, he writes, is  the “corrupt, willfully degenerate heart of America,” a city built on illusions and one that lends itself to the commodification of human beings as depicted in the horrifying degradations of the porn industry. Porn, he writes, is about reducing women to corpses; it is about necrophilia.

“When I would interview the women who are on the porn set, they talked about swallowing handfuls of painkillers, being completely black-and-blue by the time they were finished, about vaginal and anal tears that require surgery,” he told me. “Having suffered from post traumatic stress disorder myself, it became instantly clear when I interviewed these women that I was dealing with people who were victims of trauma. This commodification of women is just one more example of the commodification of everything within our culture. It is about the loss of the sacred -- about the loss of a belief that human beings, like the rest of the natural world, have an intrinsic value beyond a monetary value.”

But Hedges seems to harbor a particular resentment for the Illusion of Wisdom.

“The multiple failures that beset our country, from our mismanaged economy to our shredding of Constitutional rights to our lack of universal health care to our imperial debacles in the Middle East, can be laid at the door of institutions that produce and sustain our educated elite,” he writes. He rails against the retreat by elites into “specialized ghettos,” the assault on the humanities, and the transformation of the nation’s universities into “glorified vocational schools for the corporations.”

Hedges -- himself the holder of a Master of Divinity from Harvard University – brings to this analysis the perspective of an insider who has both studied and taught at some of the country’s most prestigious academic institutions.

“I have taught at some of these schools – including Princeton, Columbia and NYU,” he told me. “They churn out systems managers. They reward a very peculiar kind of intelligence – essentially an analytical intelligence. The danger of this is that people who have emotional, intuitive or creative intelligence are excluded. So what you end up with are essentially drones – people who have the capacity to do a prodigious amount of work but lack the ability or the moral autonomy to question assumptions and structures.”

Real intelligence, he argues, is by its very nature subversive. It is about challenging cultural, political, societal and economic assumptions. But that ability is not taught at universities, and those few professors who do try to teach those values are attacked as being “liberal.”

But Hedges believes that “liberal” is itself a code word. “What they’re really attacking,” he says, is “moral autonomy, the capacity to challenge and think about structures in a new way. And by silencing that ability, by refusing to teach – even among those within elite universities – those broader questions of meaning, purpose, dislocation, inequity and power, they end up producing wave after wave of ‘systems managers’ who lack the capacity to do anything but serve a dying system.”

Roosevelt, Milosevic or Hitler

The road ahead is grim, Hedges warns, and we have few tools left to dig our way out of the looming crisis. He hedged his bets when asked what form the crisis will take – maybe environmental, maybe economic, maybe a confluence of both. But he is concerned that even more important than the crisis itself could be the kind of reaction it engenders if the people are unprepared.

“When societies are unprepared for what is happening around them, then they react as children react. And I think we are already seeing signs of that reaction that are very frightening,” he told me.

“You can in a time of crisis end up with a Franklin Delano Roosevelt, or you can end up with a Slobodan Milosevic or an Adolph Hitler, and I think those are the choices that we face. We have very virulent and powerful forces of hate – many of whom we dismiss naively as buffoons. But in a moment of crisis, to enraged, bewildered and confused people, these demagogues will talk a language of violence that may be all that dispossessed and confused people will be able to understand.”

Ultimately, Hedges has concluded that the only way to avert the threat of collective self-annihilation is to retreat from the rampant consumerism, militarism, and the cult of individualism that have come to define our way of life. It will require that we manage our expectations differently, but it’s the only prescription he has to offer.

“Not consuming at the levels we are consuming and not killing at the levels that we kill may diminish our power and diminish the material goods around us, but it won’t necessarily diminish the capacity for a life of meaning,” he told me. “Learning a new humility, learning to live with less, learning to rebuild a community that has been destroyed by the consumer and commodity culture which perpetuates this cult of the self, can actually create a lifestyle that will be enhanced even though it will be materially deprived.”

A simpler, more modest future, perhaps.

But a future, nonetheless.