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Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle

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We now live in two Americas. One - now the minority - functions in a print-based, literate world that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other - the majority - is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. To this majority - which crosses social class lines, though the poor are overwhelmingly affected - presidential debate and political rhetoric is pitched at a sixth-grade reading level. In this “other America,” serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins of society. In the tradition of Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism and Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges navigates this culture - attending WWF contests, the Adult Video News Awards in Las Vegas, and Ivy League graduation ceremonies - to expose an age of terrifying decline and heightened self-delusion.

232 pages, Hardcover

First published July 13, 2009

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About the author

Chris Hedges

65 books1,575 followers
Christopher Lynn Hedges is an American journalist, author, and war correspondent, specializing in American and Middle Eastern politics and societies.

Hedges is known as the best-selling author of War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (2002), which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction.

Chris Hedges is currently a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 728 reviews
Profile Image for Kristi  Siegel.
192 reviews594 followers
June 30, 2010

President Obama - "a product of this elitist system" - by Chris I'm-So-Bitter-I-Could-Die Hedges

Just finished Chris Hedges' book, and am irked on so many levels, I'd be hard put to count the ways… Hedges' slim book, rather ponderously entitled, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle places it firmly in the ample literature of visual culture and spectacle. Yet, despite the fact that a) Hedges cites numerous theorists throughout the book, that b) he is well educated - we're told, with a certain ring of bitterness, how he "was sent to boarding school on a scholarship at the age of ten. By the time [he:] had finished eight years in New England prep schools and another eight at Colgate University and Harvard University, [he:] had a pretty good understanding of the game” (98), and that c) he writes a volume that reverberates with the echoes of Roland Barthes (Mythologies, The Empire of Signs), Umberto Eco (Travels in Hyperreality), Jean Baudrillard ( America, Simulacra and Simulations), Guy Dubord (The Society of the Spectacle) , etc., no mention of these theorists is ever made.

The first chapter is especially perplexing. Here, Hedges explores the world of wrestling. Perhaps no writing on semiotics and signs is more famous than Roland Barthes’ essay, “The World of Wrestling” (from Mythologies). It has appeared in so many anthologies, even people unacquainted with theory have often read it. Hedges certainly would be familiar with this work. Like Barthes, Hedges focuses on the spectacle, rather than sport of wrestling. Like Barthes, Hedges provides descriptions of some of the stereotypical types of wrestlers and their various shticks, which create a sign system instantly recognizable by their spectators. Like Barthes, Hedges theorizes that the meaning of the spectacle goes beyond its sheer presence. For Barthes, wrestling is a world simplified, where spectators enjoy the “pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.” Though Hedges sees wrestling in a more tragic light, representing our moral decay, his analysis, like that of Barthes’, is an interpretation of signs: “The idea of permanent personalities and permanent values, as in the culture at large, has evaporated. It is all about winning. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood” (10). Given the sheer number of parallels, Roland Barthes’ absence from the parade of theorists Hedges does reference is downright baffling.

In the second chapter, Hedges turns to the spectacle of pornography and casts a particularly detailed gaze on “gonzo” film pornography, which he explains “push the boundaries of porn and often include a lot of violence, physical abuse, and a huge number of partners in succession” (59). The type of activity in gonzo pornography is not difficult to grasp. Yet Hedges goes on for page after page after page, providing copious illustrations of various women enduring unbearable degradation. Rather than making his point, Hedges’ descriptions veer toward voyeurism. An example would have sufficed. Drowning the reader in semen is overkill.

And finally, what is the point? Male porn stars rate only three or four paragraphs in this detailed chapter. The emphasis is all on women. And Hedges ends heavily, with the pronouncement: “Women, porn asserts, whether they know it or not, are objects. They are whores. These whores deserve to be dominated and abused. And once men have had their way with them, these whores are to be discarded” (87). While Hedges is making a rhetorical flourish here, his repeated emphasis on the word whore, and his relentlessly detailed descriptions perpetuate the damage. Where is the corollary commentary on the male porn stars? Oh, wait. There really isn’t one. While words for promiscuous women abound, the few for men, such as a player, or a man-whore are more laudatory than shameful. The way Hedges constructs this chapter objectifies women as much as the gonzo films he decries. And it may be worse. Theory is a cool medium, and Hedges’ raw details from a hot medium, force us to be spectators to a chapter that is overly visual and under-theorized.

By the third chapter, I was lost in the funhouse. Hedges is all over the map. From gonzo pornography, Hedges switches to higher education. And this may be—given Hedges’ disdain for the workings of elite universities in particular—a logical transition. The chapter roars with broad generalizations. After some sullen commentary about the death of knowledge and the disproportionate amount of money spent on sports (and coaches!), Hedges goes after college professors, and singles out English professors in particular: “In the hands of academics, however, who rarely understand or concern themselves with the reality of the world, works of literature are eviscerated or destroyed. They are mined for obscure trivia and irrelevant data” (97). Given the fact that Hedges provides no facts to support this claim, one wonders whether he “concerns” himself with “reality.” No matter, apparently; Hedges continues on with his generalities, pointing out the shallowness of elite education and positing that the rich are different from you and me (I wonder if Hemingway really did say to Fitzgerald: “Yes, they have more money”).

Hedges then explains how his real love is for his blue collar roots, where people are more real. The cultural divide he creates, so well enacted during our last presidential campaign, is both Palinesque and stupid. While painting his family as somewhat disadvantaged (in contrast to the uncaring elite who can buy their way into college), Hedges explains how his bright son, an “avid reader” did poorer than Hedges preferred on his “critical reading” score. Hedges continues, “And so we did what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive tutor from the Princeton Review—its deluxe SAT preparation package costs $7,000—who taught him the tricks and techniques of standardized testing” (101). Really? This is what most middle-class families do? I’m middle class. My husband is a doctor and I’m one of those shitty English professors Hedges complains about who apparently suck the life out of literature. We bought our four children a study guide for their college entrance exams, which they could choose to use or not. Yet, Hedges refuses to see the privilege in his ability to fork out $7,000 for an expensive private tutor.

And, in this manner, Hedges’ chapter proceeds; more generalizations are made about the uncaring, shallow elite, and little or no evidence is provided to clarify his point or even substantiate his claim. Near the end of the chapter, Hedges simply plops in these statements, “Obama is a product of this elitist system. So are his degree-laden cabinet members. They came out of Harvard, Yale, Wellesley, and Princeton…They speak the same easy language of privilege, comfort, and entitlement” (113). What point is Hedges making? Is this an anomaly? Haven’t most of our modern presidents been products of an elite education who have “degree-laden cabinet members”? Aside from the bitterness that nearly drips off the page, Hedges apparently feels that just making statements stands in for analysis and data.

The last two chapters, treating the power of positive thinking gurus and the decline of the America that used to be the country Hedges “loved and honored” (141) follow the same pattern – many generalizations, but few facts to support his assertions. Hedges’ book is diffuse and scant. The chapters are only loosely connected, and, too often, Hedges either makes no point at all or provides some material and then uses a longish quotation from a well-known theorist to stand in for his own writing.

One star. Theory at its worst.

Profile Image for Jenn.
211 reviews65 followers
December 30, 2014
Empire of Illusion is a good book that’s badly marketed. The type of people who see the title Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle and think, “Oh, hells yes, I am so reading that!” are the type of people who already know just about everything discussed in it. With a title like The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges is guaranteed to be preaching to no one but the choir. What’s sad about that is, the book is written simplistically and entertainingly (despite that it skewers people for reading only simplistically written books and demanding to be constantly entertained); the average amoral entertainment junkie, the type of person who needs to read Empire of Illusion, would be able to comprehend and stick with this short book. But that person who needs to read this book, and who can read this book, won’t read this book. Why? Because it’s freaking called Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Hedges or his editors or whoever is responsible for this book’s title should have called it How Pro Wrestling, Porn, Yale, and the Law of Attraction Are All To Blame For Your Sucktacular Life, with "Your Sucktacular Life" written in huge font and Life in quotation marks. That’s a good title for this book. That title says, “Hey you, you with the People magazine. Come read me,” while telling the person with the stack of Noam Chomsky books, “You can read me too, but don’t expect much.”

Empire of Illusion is a decent overview of what’s wrong with consumer culture, but it’s not groundbreaking and it offers little if any elaboration for each of its many assertions. Most of the people who are attracted to this book because of its title will be disappointed by it. The only chapter that offers any new information is the one on pornography. Chris Hedges brings his experience as a war reporter to a porn convention in Las Vegas and interviews current and retired actresses, producers, and porn enthusiasts. What this discourse reveals is a commodification of women in the porn industry that mirrors the commodification of soldiers in war. The actresses talk about their experiences being degraded on film; the prostitution that many of them do when they’re not filming by selling their bodies to fans of their films and the anxiety that attends not being able to perform in reality the way they appear to perform in porn; the contracting of STIs, including, frequently, HIV; and the producers’ refusal to allow actors to wear condoms, even though condoms can be digitally edited out, because the actors' lives aren’t worth the cost of purchasing an editing program. In many of the women he interviews, Hedges recognizes PTSD.

This is a good introductory book about the illusions we commonly surround ourselves with, and that others surround us with, in order to stave off thinking about real problems. It's not the most in-depth book, but I'd recommend it, along with some other titles that offer more detailed analysis, to someone for whom critical ideas about consumer culture are new or unexplored.
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,541 reviews12.9k followers
April 30, 2017
America is DOOMED! So argues Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges convincingly in Empire of Illusion which critically examines 21st century American culture (or lack thereof!) and how things got this point.

His central thesis is that any civilisation that can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality is in the end stages of its existence. Over five chapters, Hedges touches on subjects like reality TV and politics and the blending of the two which showcase how superficial our values have become, and porn, where people’s perceptions of sex are equally surface-level - sex is relegated to this play and has nothing to do with love or knowing your partner. Hedges also makes the point that the more extreme porn has become reflects a more cruel society, one which runs on control and domination, hatred and humiliation - turning people into objects, making it easier for the viewers to have no empathy for them.

One of the best chapters was on modern higher education, the Illusion of Wisdom, showing how corporatised the schools have become. Universities have been transformed into money-making institutions that fail to produce alumni who are able to think critically, who instead follow pre-approved scripts to graduate and whose teachers are disdainful of honest intellectual enquiry. Fewer people take the humanities now and end up reading less, as well as remaining ignorant of history and becoming more prone to repeating past mistakes.

Without going into everything in the book - and a lot is covered, from positive psychology and corporate mindsets, to the out-of-control US Military industrial complex, the US’ crumbling infrastructure and appalling healthcare system, the coupling of media journalists and politicians, the damaging failures of Clinton and Dubya’s Presidencies, mass unemployment and poverty thanks to the ‘08 crash, a burgeoning prison system, the myriad problems of globalisation, and unending national debt - I’ll just say that Chris Hedges manages to thoughtfully and intelligently join various dots across his book to create a compelling, albeit depressing, portrait of modern America.

What’s also impressive is that, while this book was published in 2009 at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, a lot of the criticisms made then still apply today. As hopeful as many of us were that Obama would magically transform America, he sadly turned out to be a largely ineffective president. Perhaps the rot is too deep at this point for anyone to make real change. And, reading this book, it seems a natural progression that today we’d have fake news everywhere, the universities turned into toxic anti-intellectual swamps of violent hypocrisy and a clueless moron like Trump in the White House, given the culture!

While I fully agree with Hedges’ conclusions, that we all need to be more empathetic towards one another and that love is intrinsically important to humanity’s survival, I can’t help but feel like the people in power who truly need to understand this message either won’t hear it or will ignore it and continue down the path to what will be the inevitable end of the American empire. Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion is grim but important reading - a fascinating, concise snapshot of this troubled time in US history.
Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,310 reviews120k followers
September 8, 2009
It will take me a while to put up a real review here, but overall, I agree with most of what Hedges has to say about the darkness all around us. I was a bit alarmed at his tone in the book, which made him sound like one of those guys parading up and down the street crying "the end is near" or "Soylent Green is people." I agree that we may be entering dark times, but will have to think more on the content before completing this. Hedges is a thoughtful, perceptive and intelligent guy, so whether one agrees or disagrees with his take on things, he is worth listening to.
Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,258 followers
April 15, 2013
Hedges is an over the top and mirthless moral scold, drawing sweeping, damning conclusions not necessarily warranted by the louche behaviors and exhibitions he has assembled as denunciatory evidence herein—and yet he is an effective writer whose energetic choler and keen insight within generalization induced me to read on through each of the five illusions he espies operating their baleful influence upon modern American civilization and reducing the latter to a brittle shell. Notwithstanding that Hedges fulminates opinion cast in the form of inarguable verity, I cannot help but feel that he has gotten a measure of the pulse of our modern ([North] American) cultural turn—that there is something misanthropic and grotesque and irremediably shallow to be found in how we've reacted in the face of abundance and immediacy across a wide variety of spectra; at how our upgraded or displaced faith-form impulses, our hopes and fears, have been warped and weft upon the loom of informational, propagandistic and technological overdrive, wherein the self has been provided for beyond previous measure and yet remains unserved (or unfulfilled) in vital needs even while losing its grip upon some of the humanistic conceptions and convictions of our forebears.

That is to say, I found Hedges to be credible in his bitter polemic without denying that he can be guilty of roseate and selective nostalgic turns, of inconsistency and inaccuracy in both his targeting and his delivery, of being unable or unwilling to think beyond the set piece standards of his black and white redoubt. Much like his oft-quoted forbear John Ralston Saul, Hedges can be hit-and-miss within the same page. His declamations against the cultural, political, and moral slippage he avows has taken place over the past decades are organized around the thematic poles in which he discerns such as America's cultural entrenchment and self-uncentred turn towards the enthused vapidity of celebrity worship (and fantasy) and the enervating aspects of the entertainment industry upon the mass culture it helps engender and manipulate; the pervasive spread of pornography and the growth of its ugliest, most misogynistic elements, these last two symptomatic of our increasing inauthenticity, our willful inability to pursue genuine relationships, emotions, and connexions when we can acquire ersatz ones from the painless and power-assuaging comfort of our cocoons; academic environs turned fully utilitarian and beholden to the centres of power it should be questioning and holding to account; the irresponsible (and unrealistic) promotion of a pseudo-happiness administered via chemical metastasis and a filmy envelopment inside personal support measures in lieu of personal responsibility; and all within a democratic structure threatened by the illiteracy, across a broad front, of a populace held in thrall to distraction and selfish absorption and—in desiring a heroic figure to settle the unsettlement of terrorist threat and economic collapse, of the burgeoning uncertainty of the future itself—unaware or unconcerned about the corporatocratic capture of the political structure and wealth share of twenty-first century America. In this apathetic and yet fearful environment the rule of law and due political process are increasingly viewed as impediments towards, rather than vital constitutive structures of, the proper execution of liberal democracy. Entrapped by the mythological promotions of what Americans were, are, and should be, in such invented states we are falling away from all that is vital for a healthily functioning polity and its citizenry, seduced by the inane blandishments and torporific gaudiness of the Society of the Spectacle and unconcerned about how the two political parties of the United States are serving one and the same interest.

So sayeth the Gus of gloom, and without leaving the slightest room for doubt. Is there lost in the process that which he cannot or will not see? Is he suffering under his own illusion that America ought to be morally, culturally, and politically structured in a manner that Chris Hedges deems appropriate, and any other implementation, around which reasonable people might disagree, simply doesn't cut the standards of his high falutin' and potentially overly-preserved mustard? Does he spread a blame that ought to be more pointed across a mighty thin swathe, even while castigating elites when reason suggests he should allow his acid to splash down upon the ovine masses below? I think yes to all three. But that kind of drilling accuracy is not what the book is intended for—it's rather a high level jeremiad that takes in the view from above and can see that while individual components might be sound as Sunday, the whole is curdling and darkening and taking on some mighty ugly and desperate features, a trend that shows few signs of abating. It all makes for a disheartening and hopeless reading experience, notwithstanding the absurd note of optimism tacked on as the faintest intimation of dawn amid the storm of ruin raging across a deepening darkling night. That there is much one could take issue with, through the entirety, does not, for me, suffice to derail the likelihood that Hedges has acceptably gauged a current that is proceeding in a perilous fashion towards a potentially monstrous cataract. Countermeasures would seem to be called for—but don't look for them to come from the author. Empire of Illusion is purely about the blast, not the clean-up. And it remains that all of it must be set against how many bodies Hedges claims from a single shot, and that dirges of decline such as his have never ceased resounding and echoing since the first society of humans deemed themselves civilized and hence ever threatened by the flood of barbarism from both below and within.
Profile Image for David.
163 reviews528 followers
September 17, 2013
One word sum up Hedge's Empire of Illusion: autology. If you've ever wondered what the word is that describes something which describes itself (think: "multisyllabic" or "trochee" or "portmanteau" or "sesquipedalian, etc.), it is autological. In a book which so fervently rails against "spectacle" it so often falls into the realm of spectacle itself: an area which it never attempts to escape from. The book abounds in broad generalizations, half-truths, cherry-picked narratives which seem to illustrate his points, but ultimately lack in an evidence which would support his points. The book, which carries the grandiose subtitle'The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,' fails to rise above repeated attempts to shock: appeals over and over to emotion, to generalized statements which do more harm than they do inform.

Hedge's argument is broken into five mostly-disparate sections: the Illusions of (1) Literacy, (2) Love, (3) Wisdom, (4) Happiness, and most grandiose of all: (5) America. To anyone who reads my reviews, it is no secret my love for illusions: how they color life, literature, world-view, their benefits and dangers. What was most disappointing in this book is that the "illusions" Hedges refers to are perhaps believed by no one: who believes pornography is about love? who believes that our political systems is independent of our economic and corporate systems? who believes we have not declined in overall literacy levels, in a country where most adults don't read (or read far below their should-be reading level - Hunger Games? Twilight? and perhaps most appalling Fifty Shades of Grey, which lacks basic grammatical coherence?)? I suspect by far most of us, at least those of us who would read this book, are long disillusioned on these points.

And that is what made this book so laborious: there is nothing new. Despite the slim size, the book feels long, it is repetitive, even it's attempts at shock become dull and worn down by overuse. From the almost wholesale appropriate of Barthes' cultural analysis of professional wrestling, to the worn out rhetoric of class warfare, Hedges' rhetoric is visibly recycled at every turn. The discussion of pornography, which fails to convince is actually an illusion of love, is almost completely concerned with women in hetero-normal pornography, ignoring male actors and porn targeted toward LGBT or marginal communities. Is there anything original in the general claim that porn actresses are objectified? or that they come from broken home situations? or that they are often drawn into drugs and prostitution? No - all these ideas have been regurgitated for decades, and Hedges adds nothing to the wealth of the homogeneous bile of generalizations in the topic. The discussion of Wisdom, or rather the ivory tower of university life in America, transcends generalizations to the realm of outlandish, unsubstantiated and flat-out offensive claims. After bitterly censuring universities' large funding of athletics (one can imagine Hedges was not much of an athlete), he goes on to condemn professors as corporate mouthpieces used as tools to suppress student skepticism and inquiry pertaining to the status quo. In addition to being broadly applied with no evidence what-so-ever, it is a disgusting attack on academics, and ironic given his compulsion to remind the reader of the Ivy League pedigrees of his fringe source material. From there he continues his diatribe about the frigidly unfeeling elite class, whose goal is to suppress the bottom "90 percent" of Americans. If you're thinking you have chewed this bland rhetoric before, you have probably read a newspaper in the last half century.

What begins as a pathetically unoriginal philippic on class warfare becomes bizarre propaganda against the demonic "Christian Right" which Hedges claims are going to unstage the present governmental system with a demogogue and turn our country into a feudal state. At about this point I decided to struggle through the remaining 20-or-so pages, to arrive at the saccharine conclusion that "love conquers all" - perhaps the most half-baked, unoriginal platitude produced by our society which so loves platitudes. In addition to ending the book as it began, with a rip-off, Hedges conclusion manages to be the ultimate non sequitur in a book which never fails to "not follow." From loosely distinguished arguments to poor or irrelevant examples, and lack of any evidence, to the bizarre logic holding together the five sections, this book lacks all surprise except for how quickly it can race to the bottom of any philosophical or political insight. The only surprise at all is that Hedges somehow managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction in 2009 for this pulp. It must have been a tight race between this and 101 Ways to Know You're a Gold Digger.
Profile Image for Bob Redmond.
196 reviews70 followers
April 12, 2010

Chris Hedges, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for his war reporting for the New York Times, has written an eloquent screed against the negative effects of our entertainment-driven culture. As a complaint, it's spot-on. As a critique, it falls short: Hedges blames easy targets and fails to offer any sympathetic understanding of his victims (or perpetrators), or a constructive response to the crisis.

After a general opening essay, Hedges examines various ideals which have all been corrupted: love, subverted by the porn industry; wisdom, subverted by the academy; happiness, subverted by modern pharmacology; and society, subverted by our own government.

The reporter Hedges has done his homework: he unmasks pro wrestling, the porn industry, reality TV, the health care industry, wall street, corporations, and politicians in both parties as devious villains who work against the common good.

I, for one (to paraphrase the film Casablanca) am shocked--shocked! to find that anything questionable has been going on in those institutions. But Hedges has also visited the world of True Reality, and is here to tell us we are enslaved. Indeed, his explicit metaphor is Plato's cave, in which people are chained underground, watching shadows of the outside world play upon a wall. The chained people (a) should be aspiring to fully-dimensional forms, (b) should want to break their bonds, and (c) should welcome anyone who tells them about the wonderful world of 3-D ideals outside.

Plato would go on to describe his ideal Republic, in which philosopher kings rule over the stupid hoi polloi, who don't deserve representative democracy. Hedges--to his discredit--won't argue that people are stupid or ignorant or lazy, and chooses instead a Marxist tack that assails corporations and their corruption of the systems of production and finance.


What Hedges describes as a crisis is correct. He makes forensic errors however by opening his diatribe against the entertainment industry with alluring portrayals of pro wrestling and porn stars. He also creates a false dichotomy between "illusion" and "reality" by casting all entertainment as illusion, with no regard to the arts or other creative fields--until the very last paragraph of the book.

But whatever. I'm not going to take the bait and argue the benefits of our current entertainment culture. Indeed, by the time he's done interviewing burned-out porn stars and a disgusting businessman who plays with life-size silicone dolls, it's enough to make you sick. I never needed convincing that higher education was 90% a sham, either.

Nearly a third of our adult population is illiterate or barely literate. (p. 44) "A third of our high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42% of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book… A television is turned on for six hours and forty-seven minutes a day in the average US household… The average person will have spent 9 years in front of a television by the time he or she is sixty-five."

Functional illiteracy is epidemic. The porn industry is degrading. Pro wrestling, and most pro sports these days, are playgrounds for millionaires and serve basically as distractions from an ever-encroaching corporate takeover of our basic civil institutions.

So let his thesis rest: we are in a crisis. But is it a crisis of losing the battle against entertainment, or rather the crisis of something else lost?


Hedges himself casts his argument on the melodramatic side by saying (p. 52) "The advances of technology and science, rather than obliterating the world of myth, have enhanced its power to deceive."

i.e., Television made me do it.

He also says (p. 189-90, emphasis mine) "The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode." I too love the feel of the morning newspaper in my hands, but it remains a fact that Gutenberg has been dead for 500 years, and the machinery of communication has moved on.

He says (p. 15): "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."

This is protesting too much, especially for a writer (but not a script-writer!) who relies on the same marketing, promotion, advertising, college lecture fees, and so much else that he critiques.

Moreover, as obvious as this is to say: television does not kill people. (Or if it does, Hedges does not present any physiological evidence to prove it.) It does, first of all, have an "off" button. We can, moreover, tell different stories through that medium. Hedges could have made a much more compelling appeal to this, and it's surprising that as a Marxist reporter, he does not exhort the oppressed masses to rise up and take control of the means of story production and tell different stories. Indeed, he ignores the capacity for platforms like YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter to produce as well as present opportunities for consumption. Hedges doesn't seem to understand it, so he condemns it, with a puritanical fear of expression and an elitism masquerading as populism.


Hedges makes a case for the corruption of the United States (p. 150-153), specifically the transformation of our economy from a production economy to a consumption economy, and the effects of the "permanent war economy" in effect from the 1940s on.

"Since the end of the Second World War," he writes (p. 153), "the federal government has spent more than half its tax dollars on past, current, and future military operations." (p. 143) "The government, stripped of any real sovereignty, provides little more than technical expertise for elites and corporations that lack moral restraints and a concept of the common good." People have remained "passive, mesmerized by the enticing shadows on the wall" [i.e. entertainment].

Hedges should just go all the way and say that he believes people are stupid, too stupid to realize our government is screwing us, or to figure out what to do about it. Too stupid to get up and change the channel or turn off the television. Too stupid to vote or to vote for the right thing. He should advocate, like Plato, for a benevolent dictator, to make the right decisions for us all.

Or is his screed meant to scare us into doing that? To read more newspapers? To spend more time picking flowers? To send money to Greenpeace? Hedges doesn't say. In his last five paragraphs he tries unsuccessfully to come to some kind of conclusion: he abruptly, almost laughably, starts talking about "the human capacity for love." Yep, everything is terrible, but even in the concentration camps the tyrants could not stamp out love. End of story.


I have a different ending. Or beginning. I think we are not in a crisis of reality, but a crisis of imagination. Hedges--like pretty much any warm body on the earth today--can identify that we are in serious trouble. Most of us would agree that corporations and governments are not going to help us. We might also agree that the porn industry is bad, television not much better, modern pharmacology just a panacea, and education full of problems. If we consider it, we know deep down that we really do have to destroy our neighbor if we want to survive, let alone succeed.

No, wait--that last one was a trick. What if most people really thought they would help their neighbor? What if we're not stupid or greedy or ruthless? What if, presented with a possible future so lush with goodness, we said yes, we said hell yes! We are going to do that! That even if our skyscrapers were bombed, our levees flooded, our skies polluted, our economy collapsing, we were going to find a way to make it work. In fact, what better time to start some things anew?

What if we used our technology to share stories, to share resources, to organize action parties and fix everything that was broken and save everything needing saving? OK, what if none of that happened, but we created a new narrative for our country in which it works? What if we got the 63% of people who won't vote in 2010 to vote? OK, what if that didn't happen, but we created just the possibility that it might? OK, what if that didn't happen, but we tried, a lot of us, just a little bit, to create the opportunity to create the possibility for such a narrative?

Then what might the story be?


WHY I READ THIS BOOK: I saw notice of the title being published, and knew that any book identifying "The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle" was something I had to read. I avoided all reviews of it so I could approach it with a fresh mind. It was clear from the title that the author thought "the Triumph of Spectacle" a bad thing, and indeed, as someone whose job was explicitly to produce "spectacles," I felt interested. A little defensive, sure, but I also have determined that there is a fine line between "imagination" and "fantasy." Hedges is right to rail against the latter, but I was hoping he'd say something substantial about the former.

March 24, 2019
A Thoroughly Recommended Read

I'm pretty sure Hedges is trying to get Americans (and others) more politically active, and not encouraging them to sit in their respective armchairs picking apart just how frustrated they are about the fact that each chapter doesn't connect quite well enough, or how much the authors dour nature irritates them. Perhaps consider his writing a wake up call, as opposed to hoping this happened elsewhere, in a time long forgotten, and we are in fact reading a critique of an ancient civilisation...

...wouldn't that be safe?

I've seen a number of reviews on here that find Chris Hedges writing in this book to be of a slightly distasteful nature, even slightly bizarre. I understand this, and especially empathise with the chapter regarding Pornography. I have read a book called Coming out like a Pornstar which is a collection of memoirs from LGBTQ individuals in the adult entertainment industry. They range from saddening and hurtful, to funny and uplifting. I have read more than a few memories that show how certain inviduals love the industry they are in, as well as feel that they 'belong' and are connected to a new family. Not only that, but they get to express their desires and sexuality openly, which brings them happiness. Some even give the impression that they lead fulfilling lives (contrary to what we may believe). However, this doesn't detract from the effect the industry has had on people as an audience. Not only that, but also how it changes our perception of women (and men, although it's not emphasised in this book). Something Hedges articulates quite profoundly in the second chapter The Illusion of Love.

Yet, as examples go, I couldn't think of a better one than Coming out like a Pornstar in displaying how there's always two sides to a coin. I would highly recommend reading the collection, as the porn industry - like most things in life - is multi facetted and complex in it's existence.

Despite the above mentioned, nothing can detract from the sheer ferocity of truth that Hedges unloads on the reader in Empire of Illusion.

I am not unfamiliar with this author. I have read dozens of his articles on truthdig, blitzed through his book Dispatches On The Myth Of Human Progress and watched (literally) hours of interviews on many topics he has spoken about. Yet through all the potential desensitisation I could have incurred from exposure to this mans writing, I still found the closing chapter of the book a complete gut-punch of depressing moral force.

He predicts the rise of Trump in a scarily accurate manner, chronicles the decay of previous empires - whilst accurately comparing them to the latest American incarnation - and breaks down the corporate state to such a degree that it could be equated to the reader watching a champion boxer obliterate a local drunk. How he did this whilst managing to make a quite poetic end in the process is quite beyond me.

Perhaps it's because I'm an outsider looking into American history and culture (with immense curiosity I might add) that I find what Hedges sais to be prophetic in nature. There really is a repetitive nature to how certain civilisations / empires travel on a certain trajectory when they are handled in a hyper-aggressive manner. They are usually militarily driven, self-congratulatory, incapable of major structural change, unable to halt expansionist habits and are severely weakened at the core by a lack of decent moral compass.

The major difference now is we have little time left and nowhere else to expand or conquer.

I would advise reading not with an "open" mind, but with a pragmatic one. We need to accept this is already happening, and start thinking about what comes next.
Profile Image for AC.
1,721 reviews
December 23, 2009
This book is not as flawless or as originally brilliant as American Fascists; also, there are passages that are more rant than analysis, and places where is lack of familiarity with the full spectrum of issues shows through -- as in some of his discussions of the economic crisis, and of Universities. But these are quibbles. The book is a powerful indictment of the rise (and triumph) of corporatism in the United States. It is grim, the picture he paints.

His main focus, though, is not on the political or on the economic, but on the psychological -- the marketing of illusion that has been crammed down the mouth of the American public, who is now essentially functionally illiterate, whose critical faculties have been undermined by a constant diet of images -- a culture drowning in rhetorical and mythological modes of thought. As such the book follows on the work of Neil Postman, Boorstein, and Walter Lippmann - and attempts to show -- with considerable success - that we have, as a nation, lost the capacity for democratic self-governance -- and that corporatism has won.

He also understands the similarity of this state of affairs not only with Huxley's Brave New World, but with the process of fascistization in Italy and in Germany (for the latter, see vol. II of Evans; there are books, but none ideal that I know of, for Italy...

The book is essentially pamphlet, and so can be read in a day.
Profile Image for Marissa Morrison.
1,755 reviews18 followers
September 11, 2009
Chris Hedges argues that we now live in two societies: One, the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world, that can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth. The other listens to and watches a lot of crap.

Hedges starts with an overview of WWE plotlines and analysis of the increasingly misogynistic porn market (torn anuses and worse). Those chapters were eye-openers for me.

I must admit that I was just as ignorant of some aspects from the final chapter--which looks at the U.S. financial and political situation from a mid-2009 viewpoint. One-sixth of the nation was effectively unemployed as of May 2009, although the official number is about half that. People who had jobs (or pensions) with cost-of-living wage increases tied to the Consumer Price Index were cheated by those in government who twist the numbers to artificially lower the rate of inflation.

"Financial collapses lead to political extremism. The rage bubbling up from our impoverished and disenfranchised working class presages a looming and dangerous right-wing blacklash....Unless we rapidly re-enfranchise our dispossessed workers into the economy, unless we give them hope, our democracy is doomed."

Along the way, Hedges also touches on America's damaging TV addiction, the decreasing focus on developing minds at American universities, and dangerous applications of happiness science. All in all, this is a very good read! I wish it had been twice as long and covered even more topics.
Profile Image for A.J..
Author 2 books20 followers
December 29, 2009
Let us cut to the chase: corporation = bad, military = bad, pornography = bad, television = bad, pictures = dumb, reading = smart, America = a mess, love = good; this is Empire of Illusion distilled.

This is a book I'd like to love, but I can't, and the reason is that the book really isn't much more complex or nuanced or more elegantly argued than the summary above.

The ideas are broadly attractive. Literacy is declining. Television does function as a theatre of cruelty. Pornography has carried its antifeminist subtexts into the mainstream. (Does it have a text for the subtext to underlie?) Universities are slowly becoming glorified trade schools. The psychology of happiness is a load of feel-good bunk peddled by snake-oil salesmen. I want to agree with all these propositions.

But they all have caveats, which Empire of Illusion fails to address or even to recognize. Literacy may or may not be declining, depending on how you measure it. As reality television grew, we experienced also a renaissance (assuming there was ever a naissance) of quality television drama; the medium is perhaps now more serious than ever before. As pornography moves to the mainstream, feminist porn rises as an alternative. And so on.

In short, our culture is much more diverse than Hedges is willing to admit. His arguments are simplistic -- sometimes, indeed, collapsing into the shorthand use of "corporate" as a general-purpose pejorative -- and as such, fail to get to the real meat of the matter. Contradictions, counterarguments, caveats: Hedges pretends that they don't exist, and consequently his investigation of the subject never digs beneath the superficial.

The finest chapter is the second, which deals with pornography. Here, Hedges relies on concrete evidence to make his case. He avoids, for example, suggesting that if corporations profit from it, it must be bad; instead, he points to the human costs of gonzo porn and questions the complacency of a culture that allows itself to be duped into believing this is all harmless good fun, and "empowering" for its participants. His argument here is free of holes large enough to allow the passage of trucks, ocean liners, or large aircraft. The only weakness in this chapter is its selectiveness: it does not address the full breadth of its subject. But it does focus on the pornographic mainstream, so a failure to address feminist porn as an alternative is forgiveable.

But as the book progresses, trucks, ocean liners, passenger aircraft and other large means of mass transportation carry their cargoes through the numerous gaps in Hedges' argument; entire subway systems operate below the level of his superficial investigations. He pretends that the decline of the university into a trade school is a problem only affecting "elite" institutions. He consistently ignores the value of any art outside the written word; pictures, he insists, are not worthy of intelligent consideration. Television, in Hedges' world, only carries "reality" programming and Jerry Springer. No one in the field of psychology ever questions the notion that happiness is an absolute good. And when all else fails, he simply applies the adjective "corporate" to that which he wishes to discredit.

The corporate media, Hedges tells us, will not allow us to hear voices that question the status quo or corporate control of the state.

I know this, of course, because I read it in Hedges' book, published by a division of Bertelsman AG -- to wit, the corporate media.

Voila: the self-exploding argument.

It's a sad irony that a book bemoaning the decline of literacy fails to engage its subject at anything but a superficial level.

Perhaps it's a sign of the times.
Profile Image for Scott.
292 reviews317 followers
November 23, 2015
I love a good rant. I especially love a good, well written rant. But best of all is a good, well-written rant that hits the mark, which is an apt description this book. Hedges explores several areas of modern society and it's failings, from pornography, the education system, the corruption and dilution of democracy and the dominance of corporate interests.
He explores why our governments and elites aren't up to dealing with the challenges our societies face, and why the mass of our population seek solace in shallow entertainment and celebrity culture. It's an enlightening, if sometimes disheartening read, enlivened by Hedges' sharp, clear prose.
Profile Image for Lauren Albert.
1,809 reviews161 followers
January 15, 2011
The world has been ending since it began--over and over and over again. Hedges needs to read more history if he thinks that this is the first time that people have claimed that the "no nothings" have taken over and civilized thought and life is coming to an end.

Where to begin--first of all, the book is a mishmosh of topics put together simply because the writer thinks they are "bad"--he mostly makes no attempt to show that they are connected in any other way.

I guess I'll give my criticisms where I have them a chapter at a time.

Chapter 1: Celebrity--here's another phenomenon that is new all over again. Maybe Hedges should read Tom Payne's "Celebrity--What the Classics Tell Us About Our Cult of Celebrity."

Chapter 2: Here I agree with reviewer Ellen--Hedges dwells on the gruesome details of "gonzo" porn (Porn verite as he defines it) at such excruciating and repetitive length that you have to wonder if he isn't enjoying it just a wee bit. He also gives us no evidence that the incredibly degrading and violent porn he describes is "typical" of the porn industry. He writes as if this is the only kind of porn that is selling when it could be selling to a very small segment of the consumer base. If there are 5 devil-worshiping serial killers in the country, you can't use it as proof of a general melt down....But since Hedges wants to see meltdown, meltdown he sees.

Chapter 3: Being a former academic, Hedges totally lost me when he wrote "In the hands of academics...who rarely understand or concern themselves with the reality of the world, works of literature are eviscerated and destroyed." (97) How many academics does he know exactly? The irony here is that there have been many other "end of civilization as we know it" books that claim that literature is being over-politicized by the academy. I agree with a fair amount of what he says in the chapter, especially about the crushing of the humanities, but he's not really making a case for saving them here, is he?

Professors have to pay bills, watch the value of their retirement funds fall, watch the cost of living go up, just like the rest of us. They have to try to protect their children from the worst of popular culture just like everyone else. And they are, every day, confronted by the realities of the changing culture in the form of their own students. So don't tell me they don't concern themselves with the reality of the world. For every "absent minded," "ivory tower" professor who hasn't read a newspaper in years there are thousands of hard working and politically-concerned faculty.

Chapter 4: Ironically enough, I have been (by chance) also reading "The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work." Hedges makes no attempt to distinguish between empirically-oriented psychologists and self-help gurus. When I was very young, I came across the work of Abraham Maslow, the first "positive" psychologist. What he said made so much sense to me and still does--he wanted to know why psychologists only studied the ill, the dysfunctional. He thought it important to study the mentally healthy, the happy as well (not instead of). I'd like Hedges to tell me exactly what is wrong with trying to understand what makes a human being happy. And frankly, if corporations discover that making employees happy is good for business, I don't begrudge them the extra income. The book I am reading doesn't describe a corporate world intent on convincing miserable people that they are really happy. His goal when he works with corporations is to help them make their employees genuinely happy. For instance, he emphasizes the importance of letting employees socialize and have downtime.
Hedges also tries to makes some kind of a connection between coercive persuasion and attempts to increase employee motivation. He blurs important differences here. Perhaps he needs to open and run a small business and to learn first hand why a company would want to increase employee motivation and job satisfaction and why it doesn't have to mean brainwashing.

What I see here is what I've seen in a lot of jeremiads of late--a blurring of differences and a lumping together of what should be distinguished. But perhaps that is just one more example of the loss of reason in the triumph of spectacle.
7 reviews1 follower
October 11, 2010
If you look at the title of this book and read the jacket synopsis and think, "Yeah, this sounds like something I will agree with," then put the book down and don't waste your time. For a book so clearly aimed at the literate, it offers nothing new.
The recounting of professional wrestling seems less like an exposé and more like classist gossip.
His opinions of pornography are fatalistic; ALL porn is exploitative and abusive; ALL consumers of porn are bound to eventually seek vile and violent materials.
In one chapter he complains that the vocabulary of mass culture is crude and simplistic, and in the next chapter that the vocabulary of academia is overcome with alienating jargon. At this point the book acquires a whining sentiment akin to "Why can't everybody be like me?"

The cover of the book reminds us that Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize winner, as if to suggest that this text if of Pulitzer Prize caliber; it certainly is not. Reading this helped me understand my liberal-minded friend who enjoys listening to conservative talk radio: it is far more frustrating to hear someone you'd generally agree with simply whine and complain.
Profile Image for Kurt.
570 reviews55 followers
November 26, 2010
One of my favorite quotes comes from one of my favorite writers, Edward Abbey, who said, "Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion." Over the years as I have witnessed and learned about the decline of our civilization and our society I have noticed that most people prefer the comfortable delusions. The delusions come in the form of mindless entertainment, increasingly opinionated and sensationalistic "news", eagerness to blame complex problems on simplistic bogeymen, and an unwillingness to read or research issues to learn the complex and often inconvenient truths.

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Chris Hedges addresses this sentiment in Empire of Illusion. A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies, he claims. Those who cling to fantasy in times of despair and turmoil inevitably turn to demagogues to entertain and reassure them -- to tell them what they want to hear. And these demagogues, as they have throughout history, inevitably lead the crowd toward despotism and totalitarianism.

The last chapter is really the essence of this book. The preceding four chapters focus on specific examples of how Americans choose to occupy their time and their minds with illusions and spectacles of fantasy and well-being that divert their attention from their own often unpleasant reality. The examples include professional wrestling, pornography, the modern American University, and the self help and positive psychology industries.

The first four chapters seemed a little too detailed and too anecdotal. They were also mostly just quotes from experts on the subject. The chapter on pornography was especially puzzling. We all know what pornography is, yet the author wrote page after page describing specific disturbing and even repulsive examples which really did nothing to promote his thesis, other than make readers aware of how severe this particular problem has become.

The last chapter is gold, though. It should be read and re-read by everyone.
Profile Image for Michael Herrman.
Author 1 book14 followers
February 26, 2013
Hedges doesn’t present many new ideas in this book, but the synopsis doesn’t promise any. Rather, he gathers otherwise disparate data points, anecdotal observations, and events into an argument that most of what passes for American culture has devolved into an oblivious form of aggressive stupidity. I gave it 2 stars for being accurate, at least according to my own understanding; 1 star for a passionate delivery --that Hedges believes what he says isn’t in doubt-- and a fourth star for accomplishing what it set out to do.

Numerous posts here describe the book’s structure in detail, so I’ll skim that and break it down into the main ideas presented in each section:

1) Mass Culture as collective catharsis (Illusion of Literacy)
2) Pornography as an expression of misogyny and violence (Illusion of Love)
3) Education as a war on the humanities and the stifling of creativity (Illusion of Wisdom)
4) Corporate and religious sponsored programs that promote magic thinking (Illusion of Happiness)
5) Hijacking of the political and economic processes by the Military/Industrial, Energy and Financial sectors (Illusion of America)

Some of these sections make broad sweeps and gather some pretty convincing data for Hedges' arguments, while others focus on narrower bands of information, anecdote, opinion and even modest doses of hyperbole; but, really, a complete lack of hyperbole makes for a dull screed.

In my opinion, he could have axed much of the first four sections, though his observations on so-called ‘reality TV’ and a culture that embraces it have merit. Yes, we know that people love the Coliseum. Always have. That’s what escapism and false empowerment are about. I also suspect that most adults have an inkling of the facts around pornography, with the split being between those who are bothered by them and those who aren’t.

His assertions on modern post-secondary education are certainly true; that corporate money has infiltrated those institutions is beyond a doubt. His other assertion, that colleges and universities are geared to crank out systems managers rather than sensible, imaginative thinkers may be true, but intelligent people will always be intelligent, by definition, regardless of their education or indoctrination. Still, it’s an indisputable fact that dullards can navigate the system and, with those degrees in hand, take their roles in the corporate and governmental world.

By way of example, he notes that Literature programs regularly pass students who can list the plot points in Conrad’s HEART OF DARKNESS, but who can’t say exactly what the book is actually about (the evils spawned by imperialism) because a corporatist, imperialist culture isn’t terribly keen on introspection, a trait which manifests itself in the educational system.

The final section, the Illusion of America, should be required reading for every high school senior and promoted to every adult, as this section illuminates just how deep the corporatist rot in government has gone.

Of course, even if this chapter were turned into a tract and handed out to every household, too many wouldn’t or couldn’t read it, understand it, or care, but that’s pretty much what he’s driving at in this book.

If you’re uncertain why things are as they are, or if you have an idea and simply need clarification, this book is for you.

If you’re a dedicated right wing fanatic, you’ll have no use for it.

Maybe 3 1/2 stars is what I’m feeling, but even if that’s so I’ll keep it at 4 if only because Hedges has the courage of his convictions.

33 reviews1 follower
May 18, 2011
Everybody should read at least the last chapter of this book ("The Illusion of America") which opens "I used to live in a country called America. . . .but only the shell remains." Hedges' pessimistic rant about the coming collapse of our society is unrelentingly dire, but his summation of our current situation seems accurate and (two years after it was written) prescient. Whether or not we are on the verge of complete and utter national collapse, as Hedges claims, our collective appetite for escapist fantasies has aided and abetted greedy elites in cannibalizing America. The Democrats aren't going to save us, and the Republicans sure as hell aren't going to save us, and meanwhile we seem to have lost the capacity to care about anyone but ourselves. Though Hedges may not convince anyone but the already-convinced (he must be aware of the irony of writing a book bemoaning a-literacy), he offers an angry elegy for the land of broken promise. The mournful ending reads like a final epistle, a sad scroll set before lonely souls huddled beneath their reading lamps at the onset of a great cultural darkness.
Profile Image for Donald Powell.
559 reviews35 followers
March 22, 2020
Frightening, depressing, saddening, this book is a realistic, no-holds barred assessment of our culture and government. It is a very important book which will prove itself true because its message challenges those in power. I doubt anyone but the "choir" has read it. Those in power will abhor and try to discredit it. The media should be studying and atoning because the media is an essential element of making things better, a faint ray of hope.
Profile Image for Paul.
815 reviews45 followers
January 14, 2017
This book is like a moral voice crying in the wilderness of the modern corporate state. Hedges is brilliant in the manner of Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, Socrates, and Ralph Nader. The more capitalist society decays, the more spectacular the diversions from the truth are. This is a hard book to read, but very cathartic. Lost your job? No matter: look at these celebrities and their glitzy lives. Unknown and unappreciated? No sweat: You can be the next American idol or dance with the stars.

A necessary and revelatory book about our dismal culture.
Profile Image for Mark.
404 reviews14 followers
October 19, 2022
Fellow Americans? This one is gonna hurt.

Chris Hedges loves us, as only an advocate personality can, but this book reveals some of the very worst of mainstream American culture, including a deeply disgusting dissection of the pornography industry—the logical conclusion of the culture of radical American white male egoism.

Just try to take his critique of the average American's indifference to "reality", with much of our waking time lost in the fictional drama of movies and Netflix and Youtube and Facebook, etc., while we neglect books and thoughts to examine reality, with the spirit in which it is presented. Hedges is lamenting, as appropriate.

But it's not just a poignant lament for what is lost. There is some hope remaining. We can maybe still turn the tide (it *could* still be possible). Maybe.

If we, for example, demand and carry out as a society a restoration of equal education as an American institutional ideal. It's never been a reality--we all know that. Not even close. What about instituting a national curriculum in the early grades and massive funding of education at the federal level? Did you know that the US government pays less than 10% of US education costs these days, down from closer to 80% as late as the '70s--when the average American was generally enjoying the fruits of his/her labor far more than the average American does today.
Profile Image for Ben.
179 reviews13 followers
October 16, 2009
This book is not for the faint of heart, but it really nails so much about wrong with the wonderful global economy we live in that I found it to be an essential read. Coming from a background of both divinity school and covering war zones for two decades for the New York Times, Hedges has the journalistic and intellectual chops that too many leftie screeds described as books lack. That said, he may come off as hammering readers over the head a bit hard in his critique of the society of the spectacle, especially in his critique of professional wrestling and trashy Hollywood movies. But while he may occasionally paint his attack with overly broad brush strokes, he does back up his arguments pretty exhaustively in most cases. If the opening about professional wrestling comes off as a bit self-righteous or humorless, I recommend sticking with it anyway, the critique of the financialization of the U.S. economy is right on time and gives so much good useful detail for understanding where we are now that it's a must read. Also a good resource for tightening one's arguments when there are opportunities to fight back against the current status quo.

The chapter on porn is really depressing and hard to read -- I had to skim it. But even though I live in the "I'm empowered by stripping" capital of the U.S. (San Francisco), I have to say I agreed with Hedges's conclusions about the intrinsically destructive nature of the "sex industry" whole-heartedly.

The critique that it didn't offer solutions doesn't sing to me, as I'm sort of tired of simplistic lefty templates that push one course of action or another. Though I understand how it might sound corny to the point of being intolerably cloying, I felt his championing of the ultimate power of love despite all convincing. I was glad he didn't insult his readers's intelligence by implying that there is one true alternative path that will save us.
Profile Image for K.
341 reviews3 followers
March 2, 2017
Hedges is blistering, he is right, and I already knew all that stuff.

He also overblows his rhetoric to make his points, which he doesn't need to do, and ignores nuances and any details that might threaten his iconoclasm. He doesn't need to water anything down to still be right, but he seems to cut a few corners getting us where he wants us to go. Sometimes he's sloppy and tries to get away with things that my 7th grade teacher wouldn't have allowed in an essay. Your evidence (or as Mrs. Todd used to call them - "concrete details") should support the point you are making. If not, you need to change your evidence, or change your point.

For example, Hedges gives lots of direct quotes from a man who views his RealDolls as companions and has sex with them. Hedges writes about how the man carefully washes and dresses them, in a tender way. He quotes the man as saying "Your job is to keep them comfortable. I am always a gentleman around them. I never have sex without asking permission. I sleep with them. I cover them with an electric blanket."

In the next paragraph Hedges wants to make a point about how women have been turned into a commodity in our culture. The image of a silent and cartoonishly sexual woman who exists purely as an object to be used, is pervasive in our media and our porn. He compares porn stars to the dolls, to show how women are dehumanized (Mrs. Todd used to call this "commentary.")

He writes about the dolls, "You can spit on their faces, slap them around, verbally abuse them, as is done with women in porn films, but with the dolls there is no chance of rebellion or complaint." I see where he's going with that, and that *could* be true, but the evidence he presented was of a man being affectionate with his dolls, not violent. And from my personal experience, most men who use those dolls are very loving with them.

Hedges wants to highlight that real live human women (who are not kinky and don't enjoy it, another distinction Hedges fails to make) are battered on camera and then those images are broadcast far and wide- as they are absorbed by the viewers those images are turned into the viewers' conceptions of "what sex is" and "how to treat women" and "what the ideal woman is like." That's a good point about disconnection from the reality of suffering and how spectacle is morally bankrupting us.

But the evidence Hedges gave doesn't flow as nicely and tidily into his linear "logic" as he would like. He fudges a bit, when he didn't need to. The men who live with RealDolls don't get them to abuse them. They get them to simulate affection and be warm and close with someone. It is just as heartrending that these very lonely men want to feel connection so badly that they try to make simulacrums more human, while at the same time society is doing it's damnedest to make women less human. Spectacle and reality are just as perversely confused. Genuine human connection is thwarted in both cases.

The real tragedy is that we are sold the porn and sold the dolls, not to mention we are sold all the beauty products and plastic surgery. Corporations have placated people so thoroughly and made us so distracted and confused and lonely, that we believe the only way to a sense of pleasure and connection is to buy, buy, buy. That goes to the themes of this whole book, and I wonder at the times Hedges makes choices to elide like that, because he doesn't need to.

Other people might not, but I forgive him for these foibles, because what he has to say overall is just so crucial for us all to understand. Whenever he talks about "literacy," he seems to be using that word as a synonym for "enlightened love." He is trying to lash us awake so we can learn to use our hearts. In the process he can be vicious about the ways we are complicit in our own destruction. He won't let us look away or make any excuses. To read this book you have to be willing to trust that all his judgeyness has our best interest at heart. And it does.

This is a cruel book about love.

From when I first started it: Why did I pick yet another book to read? ... I've been dreaming of bees and hummingbirds. Right now I like dipping into each book, one by my bed, one in the bathroom, one for the bus, one in the living room, and one for reading aloud. There's a she-devil with a powerful vibe, some inter-species space-war, a lonely sensei, a parade of piercing block-quotes, and one novel that is "exactly what they're like" from 42 seconds in on What's Wrong With Books? ... I'm cross-pollinating.
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
1,009 reviews603 followers
December 3, 2018
I have no idea if people think pro-wrestling, ‘Survivor’, celebrity culture; feel good seminars, positive mental attitude seminars, Jerry Springer Show, and so on are anything but an illusion. I really don’t care. Let people have their distractions that help us all ease the problem with living. The author is somewhat nasty the way he is telling the story by mocking each illusion by letting the illusion tell its own story in its own words. Perhaps the voyeurs know that it’s all theater, perhaps they don’t, but either way don’t mock them. In the end, let people decide how they want to be distracted. Is my time really better spent reading shitty little books like this one?

I’ll mock anyone who says ‘alternative facts are real, or ‘all news that disagrees with my cult is fake news’, or ‘climate change is a Chinese Hoax’, or ‘both sides are to blame when Nazis ram their car into protestors’, or ‘Hitler was rational and made good points’ (Jordan Peterson last week), ‘creationism should be taught in school’. All those are worthy of being mocked or ridiculed, and none of them are entertaining in anyway, and ultimately undermine society and tolerance and understanding are not required. Other than these kinds of examples, let people have their harmless distractions.

I did something I never did. I skipped a part of a book in this case the part on the Porn Industry. It just went on and on and used the porn industry’s own words for justifying itself thus showing how awful they really were. That was the author’s modus operandi for the first two thirds of this book for all the illusions he wanted to belittle.

In the last third of the book the author goes in a different direction. I get so sick and tired of privileged people criticizing the young people of today for not studying humanities as this author thinks they should. The author bemoans students and colleges for facing reality. Life is tough, not everyone has a father who’ll pay $7000 for their son to take a SAT prep class as the author did for his son, some of us know that the world is a tough taskmaster and we don’t have the luxury to let our guard down and striving for the ideal education has to be put on hold so that we can at least tread water when we are on our own.

The author also had topical meanderings from 10 years ago about the bailouts, Ralph Nader, capitalism and economic anxiety. That made the book somewhat tedious reading for today. He really didn’t know shit about the bailouts, but he felt it was necessary to talk about them in his simplistic emotional way.

If you want a book that makes you feel superior to others because you don’t indulge in the popular illusions of today and feel like mocking people who do, you’ll find this book right up your alley. Those who want to feel superior mock others’ entertainment choices; those who want to be superior do not mock others for their harmless entertainment choices.

Profile Image for Justin.
347 reviews15 followers
August 7, 2009
This book reads as the roadmap to the demise of American culture. It is an increasingly illiterate culture obsessed with celebrity, distracted by propaganda and pseudo events, disconnected from reality and dominated by corporations and the elite. The book is incredibly depressing at times because it is all too true. Reading it at a time when "birthers" get airtime to spew their nonsense and corporate lobbyists organize mock outrage in order to torpedo any hopes for significant health care reform makes it all the more depressing.

Hedges is clearly pessimistic about the future: "At no period in American history has our democracy been in such peril of 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." Having read through a book that articulated so many of my own frustrations and fears left me equally down.

The one thing keeping me from giving this powerful book a higher rating is that the last 2-3 pages in which Hedges tries to inspire hope for a turnaround seem incredibly forced.
Profile Image for Merilee.
329 reviews
October 23, 2009
A very perceptive, if depressing read. A bit too much detail about the spectacles of professional wrestling and the porn industry, but the 3rd chapter, The Illusion of Wisdom, about the dumbing down and corporatization of our elite colleges, is definitely worth reading.
Profile Image for Ryan.
1,010 reviews
March 11, 2012
Carl Sagan once said that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Chris Hedges would have done well to heed that advice when writing Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle.

Hedges draws our attention to five pervasive illusions within American culture in the aftermath of the recession: the illusions of literacy, love, wisdom, happiness and America.

The first chapter is terribly organized and would have benefited from careful editing. And a preface.

The second chapter discusses "the illusion of love," and Hedges analyzes pornography. He suggests that it has, in postmodern fashion, created a spectacle of sex that has displaced the act it was meant to simulate. Consequently, Americans no longer love. Hedges is on firmer ground pointing out, in journalistic fashion, the ways that women are physically abused in this industry. He is on shakier ground when he broadly claims that Americans only worship a "cult of the self" that will ultimately lead to "death." This is the language of the polemic, which I have always felt is the academy's form of the spectacle.

How ironic.

In his chapter on post-secondary education, "the illusion of wisdom," Hedges argues that the spirit of inquiry, which is to question authority, has been subverted by universities that cater to corporations and military funding contracts. The students challenge their professors' grades, but are otherwise incapable of questioning authority. The professors speak in a jargon designed to separate them from the masses, whom they clearly look down upon.

Let's take a second to think. Hedges chastises Americans for being illiterate because wrestling is popular, he chastises politicians for the elementary reading level of their discourse, and then chastises academics for not speaking in the language of the common citizen. There are nuances that Hedges would do well to acknowledge, but he never does, perhaps because he is so busy making bold claims.

Further, Hedges rarely acknowledges the history of the subjects he discusses. His treatment of wrestling neither acknowledges the history of spectacle, nor Roland Barthes' analysis of wrestling. Hedges suggests that women are objectified in today's society, and he implies that this is the first time women have been objectified. Readers could speculate that he is suggesting that activists for women's rights have made great strides and are now suffering from a sort of backsliding. However, readers do not have that responsibility. It is the Hedges' responsibility to acknowledge that he is making a claim and then to substantiate it. Consequently, even when I found myself sympathizing with Hedges' concerns -- and I think many readers that pick up this book will sympathize with his concerns -- I was still disappointed by what I found to be lazy work.

(I'll note that I found "The Illusion of Happiness" to be more convincingly argued, and "The Illusion of America" is argued in more detail. Sadly, the "illusion" of America is the least controversial argument in the book.)

Unfortunately, I worry that Hedges would simply label me and other skeptical readers as illiterates whose minds have been subverted by the corporate/ military industrial complex that manipulates us into staring at the shadows on the walls of the cave we have been so carefully provided. However, I felt that Hedges should have spent more time in the library, which I suppose he would argue is just another cave (or would he?). He seems to be caught up in the problems posed by a postmodern society in the grips of a recession, but he is woefully ill-equipped to sort through them.

However, I did find myself thinking that every journalist and self-proclaimed "intellectual" should write a book like Empire of Illusions as they near the end of their career. Here's why: the journalist, ostensibly, tries to maintain an objective perspective while reporting. Intellectuals quite likely censor many thoughts in order to protect their careers. It seems to me that they must eventually have quite a backlog of opinions that they want to let out but do not want to spend a year or longer researching. This appears to be what Hedges has done, and viewed as a sort of unloading, Empire of Illusions is quite fascinating.

Viewed as an analytic work for the dwindling minority of literate readers, Empire of Illusions is, at best, approached as an interesting failure.
2,149 reviews29 followers
August 25, 2010
If there's one non-fiction book I've read this year that I would select as the best written and most important one, it would probably be this one (I say "probably" because the year isn't over and I'm still reading). Empire of Illusion is scary good. The news that Hedges has for us is not good news. Much of what was solid, meaningful, and substantial in our lives, according to Hedges, has become illusion, including love, happiness, and yes, even the United States. We are lving in a decaying civilization and Hedges provides more than enough evidence to support his conclusions. So much, in fact, that we are tempted to quit making plans for the future.

Hedges writes, "But not since the Soviet and fascist dictatorships, and perhaps the brutal authoritarian control of the Catholic Church in the Middle 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 on reading, fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded" (Page 45).


"Our elites - the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street, and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and busines schools - do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Inded, 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 out 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" (Page 111).


"There are powerful corporate entities, fearful of losing their influence and wealth, arrayed against us. They are waiting for a moment to strike, a national crises that will allow them, in the name of national security and moral renewal, to take complete control. The tools are in place. These antidemocratic forces, which will seek to make an alliance with the Radical Chritian Right and other extremists, will use fear, chaos, the hatred for the 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, anc clutching the Christian cross. By then, exhausted and broken, we may have lost the power to resist" (Page 189).

To his credit Hedges does finish on a positive note, but only the last couple pages, and that after nearly 200 pages of strong observation and documentation of our crumbling civilization and democracy, doesn't really resonate strong enough to let the reader walk away with a spring in his step. But it's the kind of bad news we need to hear. Don't miss it.
116 reviews2 followers
July 29, 2009
"Chris Hedges charts the dramatic and disturbing rise of a post-literate society that craves fantasy, ecstasy and illusion." If you don't want a blow-by-blow description of the spectacle of professional wrestling (ch. 1) and the porn industry (ch. 2), skip the first two chapters. I understand that they are there to demonstrate how this country is living on illusion rather than reality, but it is very graphic and disturbing. The rest of the book is worth reading and makes some good, although still very disturbing, observations. One comment (p. 17) particularly resonates: "We all have gods, Marting Luther said, it is just a question of which ones." This hearkens back to Deuteronomy 11:13-21. In fact, I would agree that we worship many false gods in this country and that certainly has led us into a world of illusion, even in the area of big box religion (referring to a concept present by Neal Gabler, "celebrity culture is...a hostile takeover of religion by consumer culture." (p. 16)

His criticism of contemporary education ("assault against the humanities") is that the universities are no longer a place for exploring what is morally relevant, but rather, vocational training plants for specific success oriented skills, without thought to the implication of one's actions on society and the world - a "retreat by
elites into specialized ghettos". (p. 97). He points out that the new academic elites "...are not capable of asking the broad, universal questions, the staples of an education in the humanities, which challenge the deepest assumptions of a culture and examine the harsh realities of political and economic power". (p. 103) He also addresses the focus on standardized, multiple choice tests, that have led us away from an education that leads to thought. Quoting Deresiewicz, "it forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers". (p. 307) This chapter is certainly important reading for any educator.

Chapter V ("The Illusion of America"), while offering many truthful observation, is also very depressing, but an important read. He points out that our health care system is going to continue to be non-functioning as long as there is not public option and, in general, that our country will not succeed until it is no longer run by the corporations. All to true, but depressing. Is conclusion, on the last page or two is that there is hope, through the power of love - altruism - but in fact, this brief "illusion" in a sea of disillusion, with no road map for change, gives little hope.
Profile Image for Bob Prophet.
65 reviews45 followers
January 19, 2010
Recently finished the latest book by Chris Hedges and I agree with the man's words through and through. Some may feel he left off on a weak note, when really wishing us greater love for one another and the ability to make the necessary sacrifices to pull through is the most realistic (and heart-felt) solution anyone can offer, especially at this point. It may sound like a cop-out to those who don't grasp love's significance. Love is the common denominator, and I don't care how corny that may read on here.

But this is not a fluffy book with pretty topics. Chris Hedges hits hard in his commentary and effectively calls attention to common illusions we've come to embrace. The section on the porn video industry was particularly disturbing to me, not that I'm ignorant of the smut they're peddling these days. The author does a good job of illuminating the underlying problem of the sex industry: the direction it's taken is sado-masochistic, humiliating, degrading, and increasingly violent and damaging, both in the fantasy concocted and to the real actresses and actors involved. It's a serious shame that pornography should become so filthy and cruel. My heart goes out to the women involved, many of whom enter that profession at tender ages where they can't possibly predict how it will impact them 10+ years down the road. That we would choose to treat our daughters and sisters in such a selfish, cold-hearted manner, all in the name of men's entertainment and money, is something we're going to have to atone for as a society and a people. We know we're wrong, letting manufactured consent assuage our guilty consciences, telling ourselves all is fair under capitalism.

Chris Hedges goes on to talk about Positive Psychology and how it's being used to further corporate interests by enhancing social control and monitoring workforces via "engineered happiness."

The author covers a lot of ground is this short book and includes many references to related reading material to flesh out the argument he's making. Books he referenced that I too have read and recommend are: Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism," Jared Diamond's "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed," Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World," and George Orwell's "1984." A few titles he listed I hope to read soon.

This is a fantastic book, and I hope people take its message seriously.
Profile Image for Donna.
1,519 reviews80 followers
January 11, 2010
It's rare that I give one star to a book I actually finish, but in the end that is what this book deserves.

The author's thesis is that in the current culture we mistake illusions (of love, of happiness, of wisdom) for reality to the point at which we are now facing the end of the American democracy and Western Civilization as we know it. Page after page, chapter after chapter Hedges decries all of the ills in society; and because he believes the education system is broken, education itself cannot be a corrective. I actually was waiting to learn what his solution to the ills of society was and not until the last 3 pages does he say that love, hope and random acts of kindness are the only way out. Yes, that's right, love of each other will conquer all.

Now in some respects I really wanted to like this book. I, too, have severe concerns over a society that thinks Jon Stewart is the most trusted newsman in America and maintains the ratings for Jerry Springer. What in the world do people see in WWF bouts? What is the attraction of Las Vegas? I have not believed in the vast corporate conspiracy nor the manipulations of the Trilateral Commission, but something does seem to be controlling our nation and culture...taking it in directions I do not understand nor support. Hedges does report on some of those negative influences.

But do not read this book if you have any tendancy toward depression; there is no redeeming final act that will pull you out of the depths of despair the author sends you. I was disturbed to the point of anger as the book progressed that all Hedges could do was report on the negative influences in our society but could offer no solutions or way out of the abyss. Not, as I noted above, until he says at the very end that only love (agape not eros or even philia) is the hope that will save us. Even quite valid complaints, one piled on the other, become unbearable without any hint of hope. Even righteous anger ought to point the way toward the light.

His complaints may be true, but depressing...very depressing.
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