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Illusions of Grandeur

December 29, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges; Knopf Canada, 232 pp.

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, because its argument really isn’t much more complex or nuanced or more elegant 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. Universities are slowly becoming glorified trade schools. The psychology of happiness is a load of feel-good bunk peddled by snake-oil salesmen. Right?

Right — but with numerous 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 first 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 and complex than Hedges is willing to admit. Contradictions, counterarguments, caveats: Hedges pretends that they don’t exist. He does not explore his subject; he rants.

The book’s best chapter is the second, which deals with pornography. Hedges 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 good, harmless fun for all involved. His argument does suffer a certain selectiveness: he does not address the full breadth and range of pornography. But his focus is on the mainstream, so the omissions can be forgiven.

As the book progresses, however, the holes in the argument gape wide enough to allow passage of trucks, ocean liners, passenger aircraft and other large means of mass transportation; entire subway systems operate below the level of his superficial investigations. His selectivity with the evidence becomes obvious, and becomes steadily less justifiable.

He pretends that the decline of the university into a trade school is a problem only affecting “elite” institutions, which, he asserts, have been taken over by corporations that do not permit criticism of their interests. Never mind the question of declining literacy, the problem he goes after in his preamble; this is all about corporations controlling the agenda.

And this is how things really fall apart. When all else fails, he simply applies the adjective “corporate” to that which he wishes to discredit. We know the psychologists are up to no good when Hedges informs us, apropos of nothing, that they’re dressed in “business” attire.

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

I know that the corporate media silences dissent, of course, because I read it in Hedges’ book, which was published by a division of Bertelsman AG — to wit, the corporate media.

That one must have snuck out of Mordor while Sauron’s all-seeing eye was distracted.

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.

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