Empire of Illusion. Chris Hedges.

Hedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion. Vintage Canada 2009. NF;5/12.

I don’t know who Chris Hedges is, but he’s presented on the book jacket as Pulitzer prize-winning senior academic, although he is a journalist-correspondent. This looked intriguingly like a bright exposé of modern life, but when the showboat performance is over there isn’t much left for me except standard left-wing canon. And insincere-sounding at that. It’s disguised only by that performance, a threadbare staging of academia or deaf angry protest. Mostly.

Literacy (replaced by TV wrestling), love (replaced by pornography), wisdom (replaced by Ivy League college meal tickets), and happiness (replaced by pop psychology) are tackled in each of the chapters as examples of the main idea that falling-apart America is rushing to falsehoods to replace its fundamental values. Some of his examples are better than others.

He’s at his best for me in the middle of the “Literacy” one, but he hits the mark only quoting other authors. Someone called Neil Postman says that while Orwell feared that books would be banned, Huxley feared that there would be no reason to ban a book as there would be nobody who wanted to read one. In 1984 people are controlled by inflicting pain, whereas in Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. Hedges quotes Hannah Arendt (a philosopher I’ve read a bit of): “There are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say.” He gets the idea, but the best versions aren’t his.

Less impressive is the love-pornography chapter, where he doesn’t handle the sexuality well (who does, really, on this kind of a public stage? The subject is a famous burial ground for otherwise great fiction-writers and I guess the same is true for journalists). He defaults to prissy and yellow journalism. Dishes up with a 5 gallon pail all the filthy dirty things that get done to women for money. It’s a pretty hard Women’s Studies or Baptist fundamentalist who can read his accounts of semen-coated girls without some wee bit of “prurient interest”. Definitely the minority of readers. This abuse takes place because we’ve replaced love with viciousness is the idea, but reading on to see how outrageous the next example will be is what would prevent many readers from skipping to the next chapter.

Just to clarify what I mean, in this irresolvably complicated territory, the two necessary straight shots missing for me are 1) romantic love is erotic, always will be, and 2) dirty sex for money is nothing new and probably isn’t going to go away either. Still of course we get the point and wish with Mr. Hedges that the most exciting sex could coincide with happy committed kindly respectful love without regard for any quid pro quo, involving either gender. I’d prefer to have seen him honestly admit it’s an unsolvable problem and come up with some sort of synthesis. Or leave it alone!

I like the take-down of university education. I can feel the difference between the climate when I was there in the 70s and my perception of what it is now, and remember how surprised and disappointed I was when (in about 1978) returning to reading about humanities and social science after about eight years of nothing but biology and medicine, I discovered that far from settling the left-right issue which dominated things during my arts years in the 60s, the academics had just retreated to a completely unrealistic far-left redoubt and given up the real struggle, leaving coming to grips with reality more remote than ever. Hedges of course demonizes the “right”, although I think both sides are to blame.

Speaking of the 60s, Hedges reminds me of my friend Gabor Mate, when in the final chapter (“The Illusion of America”) he sides with the easy complainers damning the wars and facile doomed “solutions” to economic problems, without (or at least without presenting) any understanding of how complicated these problems are.

Overall, too much glitz and not enough “literacy, love, wisdom, and happiness”. 6.3

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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