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Hedges - Empire of Illusion (2009) - Synopsis

Hedges - Empire of Illusion (2009) - Synopsis

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Published by Mark K. Jensen
Synopsis of Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation Books, July 2009). -- Discussed at Digging Deeper (www.ufppc.org) on September 7, 2009.
Synopsis of Chris Hedges, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (New York: Nation Books, July 2009). -- Discussed at Digging Deeper (www.ufppc.org) on September 7, 2009.

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Published by: Mark K. Jensen on Sep 05, 2009
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04/16/2013

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UFPPC (www.ufppc.org) — Digging Deeper XCIV: September 7, 2009, 7:00 p.m. 
Chris Hedges,
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
(New York: Nation Books, July 2009).
[
Thesis.
America is only a shell of whatit was; its core values have beenbetrayed by an oligarchic elite that hasfostered an ever more pervasive cultureof illusion that serves its interests while itdistracts those it exploits. The culture of illusion is an aspect of imperial declineand manifests itself in manycomplementary ways, ultimatelyundermining democracy and renderingAmericans incapable to responding toreality.]
Ch. 1: The Illusion of Literacy.
WorldWrestling Entertainment bouts are“virtualized battles” in which those in“small stations in life . . . engage in aheroic battle to fight back” (5; 1-6). Fromthe 1950s to the 1980s, bouts evokedevil foreigners; then they shifted to evokeclass disparities (6-8). Now they are “allabout winning . . . about personal pain,vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others.It is the cult of victimhood” (10; 8-11).Authorities are sleazy and corrupt (11-12). Women are sexually objectified (12-14). Celebrity culture is like Plato’s cave(14-15). Daniel Boorstin’s
The Image
(1961) foresaw the danger of livingwithin illusory images (15). Neil Gablerargues that celebrity culture is a hostiletakeover of religion by consumer culture(16). Hollywood and the HollywoodForever Cemetery in L.A. suggest that “inAmerican society our gods arecelebrities” (17; 16-20). The exploitationof three soldiers (Rene Gagnon, IraHayes, and John Bradley) in the famousphoto of Iwo Jima shows how “[i]llusion,especially as presented in movies, canreplace reality” (20; 20-22). It “workedbecause it was what the public wanted tobelieve about themselves. It was whatthe government and the military wantedto promote” (21-22). The internet cultureof connectivity has common roots in thecontemporary “terror of anonymity” (22-24). Exaltations of superficiality,cosmetic surgery, New Age mysticism,pop psychology, motivational speakers,success gospel evangelism, and TVshows like
 American Idol
and
The Swan
,are expressions of celebrity culture,which condemns reality “as the work of Satan, as defeatist, as negativity, or asinhibiting our inner essence and power”(27; 23-29).
Survivor 
expresses themoral nihilism of celebrity culture, inwhich human beings becomecommodities (29-34). Degradation asentertainment, as in
The Jerry Springer Show
, is the “squalid underside to theglamour of celebrity culture” (34; 34-37).Using distraction from reality, celebritiessell products we do not need (37-38).“The fame of celebrities, wrote [C.Wright] Mills, disguises those whopossess true power: corporations and theoligarchic elite” (38).
Brave New World 
was a more prescient dystopia than
1984
(39). Reality TV (39-40). Jade Goody, aBritish ignoramus made a celebrity by
Big Brother 3
, whose death from cancerwas marketed for entertainment (42-44).American culture is giving up the tools todeal with complexity; illiteracy isrampant (7m illiterate; 27m can’tcomplete a job application; 30m can’tread a simple sentence; 50m read at 4
th
-or 5
th
-grade level; nearly 1/3 of the U.S.population “is illiterate or barelyliterate”) (44). A third of high-schoolgraduates never read another book forthe rest of their lives, and neither do 42percent of college graduates. In 2007,80 percent of the families in the UnitedStates did not buy or read or a book”(44). Television dominates (44-45).Celebrity culture produces “junk politics”that markets feelings and narratives,which need not be true (45-48). “In an
 
age of images and entertainment, in anage of instant emotional gratification, weneither seek nor want honesty or reality.Reality is complicated. Reality is boring”(49). An expression of democracy,celebrity culture has undermineddemocracy by making it defenselessagainst propaganda (49-53). “The flightinto illusion sweeps away the core valuesof the open society” (52). “Blind faith inillusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again” (53).
Ch. 2: The Illusion of Love.
A pornindustry convention in Los Vegas;pornography promotes masturbation, notsex (55-57). The U.S. pornographyindustry makes 13,000 films a year in theU.S.; “worldwide porn revenues” are$97bn (58). The trauma of womeninvolved in the industry (58-60). Scriptsturned to “greater male control andcruelty” in the 1980s (61). Degradation(61-63). Las Vegas is “the corrupt,willfully degenerate heart of America,” a“monument to pseudo-events” (63; 63-66). Many porn films evoke reality TV orsitcoms (66-67). Stars are expensiveprostitutes on the side (67-68). Anexample: Arianna Jollee (68-72). Pornhas “devolved” into “the physical abuse,even torture, of women”; it expresses“the endemic cruelty of our society” (72;72-74). Male porn professionals (75-78).Medical problems (78-79). The Internetas “the curse and salvation of theindustry,” providing easy access butconstantly upping the ante (79; 79-82).“Porn is about reducing women tocorpses. It is about necrophilia” (82).Silicone dolls, $7500 each (82-85). “Pornhas evolved to its logical conclusion”(86). It shares in what war glorifies:domination and cruelty (87). “[Porn] isthe disease of corporate and imperialpower” (87).
Ch. 3: The Illusion of Wisdom.
Ourelite universities are to blame for thenation’s multiple failures to sustain itsvalues (89). They “disdain honestintellectual inquiry” and instead“organize learning around minutelyspecialized disciplines, narrow answers,and rigid structures designed to producesuch answers” (89). Specializationfragments (90). Adorno’s essay,“Education after Auschwitz” (90).Interview with Henry Giroux, author of 
The University in Chains
(90-92).Corporations have tamed and nowexploit UC Berkeley, home of the FreeSpeech Movement (92-96). Ouracademic specialists in the humanitiesare “illiterate” by “any standardcomprehensible within the tradition of Western civilization” (John Ralston Saul)(96). Our elites use “a private dialectthat is a barrier to communication as wellas common sense” (97). Professors of literature are “disempowering andemasculating the very works they study”(97). Though literature is “a tool toenlighten societies about their ills,”academics have “eviscerated anddestroyed” its works (97). Classics isneglected (97-98). The elite educationalsystem instills the delusion of superiorityand entitlement in its products (98-100).Hedges admires more the values of his“working-class family in Maine” (101).Supposedly interested in diversity, eliteinstitutions ignore class and favor theirown (101-02). Having neglected andthen undermined the humanities, theelites lack a capacity for critical reflection(103). They are “products of a moralvoid” (103). They exalt analytic, morallyneutral intelligence, and determine worthby wealth (104). Students are socializedto obey and seek good grades (105). They internalize competitiveness and theneed to network (106-07). Only aminority see education as an intellectual journey (108). “Only 8 percent of collegegraduates, or about 110,000 students,now receive degrees in the humanities”(108, citing Frank Donoghue’s
The Last Professors
). Higher education has beenunder assault by corporate forces for acentury (109). At least 200 small liberal-arts colleges have folded since 1990
 
(110). Employment of adjunct professorsis undermining the integrity of the faculty(110). Expert professionals havereplaced a humanistically educated elite(110-12). Elite institutions produce notmorally autonomous individuals butmanipulative characters (112-13).Barack Obama and his cabinet areproducts of this system (113). Theywon’t know how to save us when “ourrotten financial system . . . implodes”and “our imperial wars end in humiliationand defeat” (113-14).
Ch. 4: The Illusion of Happiness.
Theideology of positive thinking servescorporate interests; the quack science of “positive psychology” mirrors it andserves them (115-19). Realism isregarded as an illness; people areencouraged to change their attitude, nottheir real circumstances (119-20). MartinSeligman, author of 
 Authentic Happiness
(2002) (120-21). MihályCsíkszentmihályi, author of 
Flow
(121-22). Psychologists (Shelley Taylor,Dacher Keltner, Barbara Frederickson,Christopher Peterson & Nansook Park,Kim Cameron) who believe thathappiness can be measured arepromoting self-delusion as beneficial(122-28). “Most positive psychologistsbelong to the 148,000-member AmericanPsychological Association (APA), whichhas lent its services for decades to themilitary and intelligence communities toresearch and perfect techniques forinterrogation and control” (128; 128-29).Positive psychology, like the “NewIndustrial Relations” of the 1980s thatwas used by GM and Toyota, is an“assault on community andindividualism” by an oppressive systemof power (129-35). Its use at FedExKinko’s (135-37). Like celebrity culture,positive psychology “feeds off theunhappiness that comes from isolationand the loss of community” (137-38). Ina culture where, as Robert Lane showedin
The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies
(2000), happiness is indecline, it has “a dark, insidious quality”that comforts “totalitarian andauthoritarian structures” (138-39).
Ch. 5: The Illusion of America.
Hedges no longer lives in the America he“used to live in” and that he “loved andhonored” despite its “imperfections,” helives in a “shell” of that country, whichhas been “hijacked by oligarchs,corporations, and a narrow, selfish,political, and economic elite, a small andprivileged group that governs, and oftensteals, on behalf of moneyed interests,”having “systematically destroyed ourmanufacturing sector, looted thetreasury, corrupted our democracy, andtrashed the financial system” (141-42). The government “has become thegreatest illusion in a culture of illusions”(143). Corporate power holds thegovernment “hostage,” using it for“technical expertise” (143).Infrastructure decay (144). War andmilitarism (144-45). Outsourcing of jobs(145). Totalitarianism in America is a realpossibility; many observers have seen itcoming (Wolin, Saul, Bacevich, Chomsky,Chalmers Johnson, Korten, Naomi Klein,McKibbin, Berry, Nader, Riesman, Mills,William H. White, Mellman, Boorstin,Niebuhr) (146). Interview with SheldonWolin (
Democracy Incorporated,
2008)(146-50). The American empire is indecline (150-51). Corporate forces willnot allow true reform (151-52). Themilitary-industrial complex has thesystem in a firm grip, having created a“permanent war economy” (SeymourMellman’s phrase) (152-55).Corporations dictate the government’sactivity in every sector of the economy(155-57). Democrats have abdicated justas much as Republicans (157-59). It isthe less well-off who pay “[t]he cost of our empire of illusion” (159; 159-62). The nature of the corporation; corporatepersonhood (162-64). We are falling intoa depression that is disguised by themanipulation of statistics (164-68).Dislocation is little reported; instead, we

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