Every once and again I come across a book that is so spot-on, so illuminating, so captures the Zeitgeist, that I’m almost jealous I didn’t write it myself. This feeling quickly subsided as I began to revel in the fact that someone so talented gave form, shape and substance to feelings I’ve long harbored. Such is the case with Pulitzer Prize-winner Chris Hedges’ most recent work, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. The book reeks of bestseller.
Ninety seconds on television and I’m now “somebody.” Who the hell was I before?
Hedges’ argument is elegant in its simplicity: “A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies.” I know, I know: there is almost an “end times” cottage industry that has sprung up, with authors, commentators, and religious kooks of every ilk and stripe warning us, like a bunch of Chicken Littles, that it’s all going to come crashing down on our heads—probably in our lifetimes. Hedges, most assuredly, is not joining the ranks of those charlatans and demagogues with this slim, powerful volume. Indeed, his message is counter to their nihilistic theme.
Citing figures that state illiteracy in North America is epidemic (a fact that sends chills of trepidation down the spines of wordsmiths like yours truly), Hedges posits that we are increasingly dependent on forms of mass communication (especially television) to provide us with information; however, instead of getting usable facts, we are force-fed a diet of digitally-enhanced pabulum, “where trivia and gossip pass for news and information … where our goal is not justice but an elusive and unattainable happiness…” And the real kicker, according to the author, is that we’re absolutely loving it; begging for—nay, actually demanding—more and more of it.
Thus narcotized, one-third of barely literate Americans have been nodding off in a rose-colored stupor while corporations “have ruthlessly dismantled and destroyed our manufacturing base and impoverished our working class,” according to Hedges.
Some readers might rightly observe that many thinkers throughout history have bemoaned the mores, values and work ethics of succeeding generations, and caustically argued that the youth of the day (pick any day, any era or epoch) is taking society to hell in a hand basket. But the truth, as Hedges sees it, is that youth in previous times didn’t have access to such a dizzying array of instantaneous gadgetry to hypnotize them and cause sensory overload.
The accuracy of the author’s argument was recently brought home to me in sharp relief. The fact is, I’ve been toiling away at my craft as a writer for close to fifteen years now, attempting to turn out what I hope is insightful, credible work—all in relative obscurity. But, due to a piece I recently penned for the Beast regarding Skip Gates, I was asked to appear on CNN and the Today show.
Presto! I’m now an instant celebrity; as one long-time friend embarrassingly gushed when I encountered her in the supermarket, “You’re famous!” Yeah. Right. Ninety seconds of banality (trust me, all you can do in one of those truncated TV sound bites is come off banal) and I’m now “somebody.” Who the hell was I before?
Hedges sums it up succinctly: “And everything and everyone that television transmits is validated and enhanced by the medium. If a person is not seen on television, on some level he or she is not important.”
I have to admit to being a tad disappointed that Hedges didn’t conclude his work with some small glimmers of hope, but then, the reason for that just might be that there really aren’t any—unless we are willing to give up our illusions and come back to reality. Hopefully, if and when that happens, we’ll still know it when we see it.
Mansfield Frazier is a native Clevelander and former newspaper editor. His regular column can be seen on CoolCleveland.com. An avid gardener, he resides in the Hough neighborhood of Cleveland with his wife Brenda and their two dogs, Gypsy and Ginger.