Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Night-table Terrors

jer·e·mi·ad (jěr'ə-mī'əd)
n. A literary work or speech expressing a bitter lament or a righteous prophecy of doom.

I was up late reading last night, which, in and of itself, is not unusual. My curiosity and desire to see a story unfold has battled with common sense and the certain knowledge of an implacable, headache-stained dawn since I was a boy, but this was different.

There was no enjoyment in the reading, for one thing. My frantic desire to complete the work was based on two things: the catharsis of having read it, and the hope that something hopeful or uplifting might emerge before the end.

The book is Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle by Christopher Hedges, which I requested from Edmonton Public Library some weeks ago, and like all of his fresh works, was in high demand. I've read three of Hedges' other works, my favourite being American Fascists, in which he outlines the rise of an American right-wing determined to turn America into a theocracy.

The premise of Empire of Illusion as stated by his publisher, Random House, is hard to refute:
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, a growing majority, is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic. In this “other society,” serious film and theatre, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins.

Chapter 1, The Illusion of Literacy, opens with a drama being played out in the World Wrestling Entertainment ring, but moves to incorporate reality TV and a number of other mediums. Throughout the chapter he points out examples of delusional empowerment, the importance of self over society, and the cult of victimization where nothing is ever the fault of the individual; they are helpless, as we are all often intended to feel by those in power.

Chapter 2, The Illusion of Love, is a harrowing read, dealing as it does with pornography. For the record, I don't have a large problem with consenting adults watching other consenting adults share intimacy, but Hedges deftly points out that porn is no longer about intimacy or eroticism, if indeed it ever was. Modern pornography focuses almost exclusively on the degradation and objectification of women, where women and their genitalia are a resource or commodity to be exploited as fully as possible before disposal, which exemplifies a culture in its death spiral.

Hedges goes on to address concerns in education (especially the devolving of our universities from centers of knowledge and exploration into expensive vocational schools), and happiness (and how positivity is being perverted into a tool to stifle worker concern and dissent) before his conclusion, which makes a very strong case for comparing our neighbours to the south to other failed empires such as Imperial Rome.

And before we get too smug here in our enclave of civility and sanity north of the 49th parallel, he also documents declining literacy rates in Canada, to the order of around 42% of our population being sub-literate. The number of people who never again touch a book after leaving school is absolutely staggering, and more than a little depressing. Make no mistake, this is not a fun book to read.

So why stay up so late reading it? Fear, mostly. Frankly, Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Harris have nothing on Chris Hedges in terms of freaking the hell out of me late at night. I can't remember the last time I stopped reading a book long enough to consider how long it would take me to obtain a firearm and a stock of non-perishable food. I kept hearing Tony Randall's gremlin character solemnly telling a brokerage client "we're telling everyone to put everything into canned food and Shotguns." Looking back in the clear light of day, I still cannot call this an overreaction, especially when I consider the insights he presented in American Fascists. No other work has ever made me so concerned about the world my daughters will be growing up in.

If there is a criticism, a lot of Hedges' arguments sound like like exemplars from the 'Get Off My Lawn' manifesto, and he doesn't really address the democratization of information and the challenging of ideas through the Internet, despite having a regular column on TruthDig. Given the level of discourse that dominates the medium, however, it is perhaps harder to fault him for excluding it. From a debating standpoint, he doesn't always draw a strong conclusion from the evidence he presents, but that certainly doesn't stop the reader from drawing depressingly similar conclusions.

As an individual who believes in positivity but not at the expense of reality or critical thought, I was resistant to a lot of ideas in the chapter entitled "The Illusion of Happiness", more out of defensiveness than anything else. Once I realized that he is not necessarily opposed to individuals trying to see things in a generally positive or constructive light, but how organizations have used positivity to obtain consensus through intimidation, I found it a little easier to take, and I probably owe that chapter a re-read at some point in the future.

The speculative future he draws where some form of crisis, either real or imagined, results in a large portion of the American working class turning to elements of the conservative right to validate their victimization, re-affirm their uncontested right to success and happiness regardless of effort or ability and mete out appropriate revenge for the mess they were complicit in creating, and you may not be quite so dismissive of the next Sarah Palin news article you come across.

(I should mention that the left does not escape the author's gaze either, and he takes a number of democrats to task, especially Bill Clinton, for failing to address the inequities of the current system and taking an "if you can't beat'em, join 'em" attitude to things like the corporatization of government and campaign finance reform.)

So is it all doom and gloom? Well, mostly, to be frank, but not all. The best hope that Hedges can hold out to the reader is that history is replete with examples of where totalitarian forces have tried to establish total dominance over a population and have been undone, time and time again by nothing more than love. Simple, human, unpredictable, and often nonsensical love. And that is a very encouraging thought for the long term, if not short term, future.

Despite the fact that it is not a pleasant read, I strongly recommend this book for everyone with concerns about democracy, entertainment, children, economics, and the future, which, it strikes me, is practically everyone I know.


  1. My oldest daughter doesn't like to read for fun, despite our best efforts. Yet she's getting honours in math, and indeed most of her subjects. Literacy per se isn't the issue, but rather critical thinking. Not as many people may read for fun, but I think overall reading has gone up, especially among younger people. Admittedly, most of that is trash websites, facebook and tweets, but it's still something.

  2. I received this book at Christmas which made for fun, holiday reading. It's an important book but I don't think it's Hedges' best.

    I enjoyed your precis of the book. I've gone from "Empire" to "The Spirit Level" which is certainly an excellent follow-on and I find even more important.

    "Spirit Level" is written by prominent British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. It addresses the corrosive impacts of income inequality in First World countries by examining half a century of data to compare the consequences of inequality on crime, teen pregnancy, obesity, mental illness and social stagnation. Relying on 50-years of research into data from these nations they compare the relative impacts of income equality across the spectrum from most to least equal. They do the same comparison in the United States on a state by state basis. Not surprisingly the results are virtually identical.

    "Spirit Level" reveals that income inequality is utterly toxic to maintaining a healthy, productive society. The authors demonstrate how the impacts aren't confined to the poor but equally affect the well off.

    The authors, being epidemiologists, present their studies and findings in a somewhat clinical manner but the points they make are well researched and powerfully compelling.

    Governments in North America have been whores to social darwinism witnessed in the burgeoning wealth gap between rich and poor in both the United States and Canada over the past thirty years. Our leaders have refused to get drawn into this issue and our countries are imperilled by their neglect.