My review of “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” By Chris Hedges

Layout 1Chris Hedges is angry.

Angry at the decline of America. Hedges writes that the country he “loved and honored” was at once imperfect and sometimes cruel, and yet always a land where workers were paid fairly; decent public education was available; human rights, democratic values and the rule of law — including international law — were respected and upheld, and above all else where these things did not exist there was hope that someday they would.

In Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Hedges’ anger is never far below the surface as he addresses our relatively recent decline, but his words are crafted with iciness and precision. The prose never screams, even when the author levels his most devastating critical comments at our current state of affairs:

We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality. We have traded the printed word for the gleaming image. Public rhetoric is designed to be comprehensible to a ten-year-old child or an adult with a sixth-grade reading level. Most of us speak at this level, are entertained and think at this level. …

A third of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.

— Hedges, Chris (2009-07-14). Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (p. 44). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

Hedges lays blame for this decline primarily on the shoulders of what he calls the “educated elites” who created and now exist to serve the corporations that are the real power in America. Corporations, as any first-year university business student can tell you, solely exist to make money for their shareholders. Corporations do not care about the well-being of you or I, beyond their need for us to be able to pay for their products and services.

In chapters examining the Illusions of Literacy, Love, Wisdom, Happiness and ultimately America itself, Hedges shines a dazzlingly bright light at how far the country has fallen. He visits World Wrestling Federation events, the Adult Video News Awards, Ivy League schools and training seminars for the unbelievable-that-it-is-considered-an-actual science of Positive Psychology. His dire predictions of collapse are at times somewhat off-putting, but there is unsettling power in the questions he asks and the facts he presents to support his claims about our decline.

When did the slide begin? When America stopped being a country that produces and became instead a nation that consumes. Our culture now insists anyone can be rich, anyone can be a movie star, and anyone can live in a mansion, despite the fact that real wages have shrunk and jobs are disappearing. The political parties and media don’t address the real facts, instead relying on spectacles designed to confirm our delusions and distract us from seeking the ugly truth — a truth that would hasten the inevitable collapse of our culture.

The earth is strewn with the ruins of powerful civilizations that decayed— Egypt, Persia, the Mayan empires, Rome, Byzantium, and the Mughal, Ottoman, and Chinese kingdoms. Not all died for the same reasons. Rome, for example, never faced a depletion of natural resources or environmental catastrophe. But they all, at a certain point, were taken over by a bankrupt and corrupt elite. This elite, squandering resources and pillaging the state, was no longer able to muster internal allegiance and cohesiveness. These empires died morally. The leaders, in the final period of decay, increasingly had to rely on armed mercenaries, as we do in Iraq and Afghanistan, because citizens would no longer serve in the military. They descended into orgies of self-indulgence, surrendered their civic and emotional lives to the glitter, excitement, and spectacle of the arena, became politically apathetic, and collapsed.

The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans, celebrities, and a lust for violence, the more we are destined to implode.

— Hedges, Chris (2009-07-14). Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (pp. 189-190). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

I filled my Kindle copy of this book with highlighted text (as I’m sure you can tell), and could fill several blog posts with passages. Do I agree with everything he writes? No. Maybe. The older I’ve gotten the more I view with skepticism anyone who believes in something — religion, sports, politics, causes, theories — too much. Where there is fanaticism, there is concern. Fanatics are not open to other views and so of course quotes and bibliographies are selected to bolster, not confront, their views.

I’m not sure I consider Hedges to be a fanatic, per se — his biography reveals a highly educated man who has direct experience in the areas he addresses in Empire of Illusion. Holder of a Masters of Divinity degree from Harvard, Hedges was a foreign and war correspondent, winner of the Pulitzer Prize while a reporter with the New York Times, and has taught at Columbia University, New York University and Princeton. He left the Times after being reprimanded for denouncing the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq — abandoning the journalist’s requirement to be impartial, something I hold dear.

Still, there is a powerful truth to statements such as this:

Television journalism is largely a farce. Celebrity reporters, masquerading as journalists, make millions a year and give a platform to the powerful and the famous so they can spin, equivocate, and lie. Sitting in a studio, putting on makeup, and chatting with Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, or Lawrence Summers has little to do with journalism. If you are a true journalist, you should start to worry if you make $ 5 million a year. No journalist has a comfortable, cozy relationship with the powerful. No journalist believes that serving the powerful is a primary part of his or her calling. Those in power fear and dislike journalists— and they should. Ask Amy Goodman, Seymour Hersh, Walter Pincus, Robert Scheer, or David Cay Johnston.

— Hedges, Chris (2009-07-14). Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (p. 169). Perseus Books Group. Kindle Edition.

I enjoyed this book, and believe I learned quite a bit from it. I don’t agree with all of what Hedges has to say, but I do believe it is worth reading, thinking about and discussing his views.  If you are interested in more from Hedges, he writes a weekly column at



5 responses to “My review of “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle” By Chris Hedges

  1. “A third of high-school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives”

    If you had seen my jaw drop at reading that Thomas, you probably would have laughed. Now that is both terrifying and tragic. Part of it is a failure of parents to get their children interested in reading and literature and the rest of the blame lies with the school system that teaches you a book must be a classic in order to have literary value.

    *takes deep breaths*

    I could probably start a great big long rant right now, but I shouldn’t. There’s a time and a place. So thanks for the in-depth review! I may just have to pick up this book.

    • It was eye-opening in that much of what Hedges had to say are things I know to be true, have seen to be true, but ignored or misunderstood. There were more than a few “Ahhhh!” moments for me as the light bulb went off. As I wrote, too, much of the book is quotable, there are long passages of rat-a-tat prose that I highlighted. Still, my inner skeptic won’t let me fully embrace his views; perhaps I’m too far gone down the rabbit hole. 🙂

      By the way … Thomas? 🙂

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