“Empire of Illusion – the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” by Chris Hedges, 2009
Chris Hedges is famous for writing the anti-war book, “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” He has a working-class background, but also found his way into the seminary, so the bit of moralism exhibited in that book comes from a familiar source. In “Empire of Illusion” Hedges follows up with a totally different subject – the dance of shadows that is bourgeois culture. I was expecting a full-blooded analysis of various cultural mirages that work upon the American people, and a defense of reading. After all, entertainment has replaced religion, and ranks right up with alcohol as the ‘opium’ of the people. Instead, the book only partly covers that issue, while mostly being a familiar jeremiad against all things Bush and all things Democratic Party.
Hedges covers some parts of the empire of illusion – for instance, the role of wrestling as cultural marker. Wrestling was first analyzed by Roland Barthes from a Marxist point of view, and so this is an update. Hedges shows how class is now one of the markers in the U.S. ring. Hedges stops by to look at TV and journalism briefly; spends two large chapters on pornography as the unreal and humiliating replacement for sex; analyzes ‘positive psychology’ in its quest to blind people to the condition of the real world, and covers the decay of scholarship in corporate universities, and its replacement by training. All of these things help people avoid looking at the reality all around them. However, the largest sections of the book are redundant attacks on corporate America, abandoning his main topic. For my money, the pornography chapters are the most valuable.
Reading is the source of the deepest ‘formal’ knowledge. Personal experience, the experience of friends and family, scientific experiments, and the experience of organizations are intimate. More formal knowlege comes from incidents covered on television, then in films, or documentaries, and on to reading newspapers, magazines and the net, and finally in massive detail, in books – all make up a spreading pool of knowledge. Hedges says little about this, except to decry the obvious aliteracy, limited literacy and illiteracy of a majority of people in the US – and the dangers this poses to democracy. The fact that no present major figure even discusses this proves his point.
Hedges brushes on the failed culture of bourgeois journalism; the ubiquitous nature and consistently deceptive content of television, such as reality television; the powerful effect of the shared myths in films; and most potent of all - the mass spectacle of sports. These areas seem to fit into the culture of illusion – but, curiously enough, they are for the most part absent from the book. He frequently cites Neil Postman’s excellent 1985 book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” showing his book to be in this tradition of sociological critiques of U.S. culture. His frequent lapses into political rhetoric are the only thing that mar this volume.
“Culture of Fear – Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things,” by Barry Glassner, 2009
This book links to Hedges book in the sense that they both talk about how bourgeois culture’s nearly full-time role is to hide the realities behind the scenes. The Wizard of Oz is a powerful ogre until his curtain is pulled aside. Both Hedges and Glassner attempt to pull back the curtain of U.S. culture. Glassner has a more scientific approach and keeps on topic. He catalogs in a factual manner all the ‘mis-direction’ that the American media issue to hide the reality that cannot speak its name. That reality – poverty, hunger, homelessness, unemployment, lack of health care, the tyranny of corporations, lack of democracy, war, foreclosures – cannot be feared, because fearing them would make the population face their real problems. To avoid this is the essence of creating fake problems, which mostly lead people to ‘blame the victims’ or concentrate on the wrong things.
Glassner essentially describes the press-driven scares of the 90s, and shows how they bear little resemblance to reality by citing science and facts. Fear of decreasing crime, fear by whites of black men, hatred of teen-age moms, fear of ostensible killer children, mysterious ‘metaphoric’ microbes, road rage, Gulf War syndrome, infrequent plane wrecks, asbestos, house mold, foreign terrorists, illegal drugs, ‘political correctness,’ breast implants, date rape drugs, rap music, child abduction, cyber-smut, pedophiles, Halloween candy – all these outsize fears come in for a lashing. He is an equal-opportunity critic – liberal fears like Gulf War Syndrome and breast implants also get lambasted,
Glassner thinks there are 5 things that make a good ‘fear’ story in the U.S. 1, it has to have some anecdotal evidence – tearful mothers, catching personal testimony. 2, it has to have some shaky but repeated secondary scientific ‘authority’ to promote it. 3, it has to be endorsed and repeated by important news or political persons. 4, it has to have some statistic that looks good on the surface until you look under the hood. And 5, most importantly, it has to reflect some more deep-seated concern that the fake fear displaces, and therefore hides.
Take implants. While, according to Glassner, most science indicated they were not responsible for the many serious and varied problems they were blamed for, feminists used this matter to attack the masculine medical industry, which would insert bags into womens’ bodies for men’s pleasure. This was at a time when the issue of abortion was being hammered by the Right, and the ability to have an abortion was starting to disappear. People angry about the Gulf War could direct their anger about the war into the GWS issue – and not the issue of imperialist militarism. According to Glassner, GWS had no definitive medical insignia. I myself think Gulf War syndrome will show up in latent cancers, based on exposure to radiation from depleted uranium, so I am not as happy as Glassner to call it a fraud.
While these two were liberal issues, most of the other issues are conservative ones. The constant talk about crime, for instance, even when statistics show it is declining, indicates that ‘fear’ and the local news are twins. Television is crowded with programs that feature various grisly murders and the ‘heroic’ people that solve them. Fear of other people is at the heart of most conservative scares. It is designed to get people to distrust anyone other than immediate family members and friends, and break down any social solidarity that might develop. These fears are just part of the culture wars waged by the Right. It is what they point to as the ‘decay’ of civilization. Glassner would agree – but it is not these ridiculous issues that are ruining the U.S.
Glassner shows a bit too much faith in any scientific testing – even going on to say at one point that tests on their own products sponsored by the medical industry are as accurate as any other. Anyone familiar with the practice of science in the United States knows that even scientists can be bought; can alter statistics; can structure a test to prove a pre-determined point. Skepticism when it comes to corporate ‘tests’ is a necessity, as it has been shown that companies have changed or hidden results. But for the most part Glassner stays on-course, and teaches us to be wary of the fake fears promoted by politicians, neurotics and the news media.
And I bought them at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, 2/25/2010