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Monday 12 December 2011

Chris Hedges' "Empire of Illusion"

Reading comes to me in waves; in the downtime I listen to music, watch movies, and do my best to pretend I'm still literate by recommending books I read years ago. Occasionally, though, I'll pick up a humdinger that sets me off on a white-hot reading streak. I finally got around to picking up Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, something I've been meaning to do since it came out in 2009. The book's subtitle is "The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle," and I feel doubly guilty for waiting this long since it's such an urgent, insistent read.

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of nine books of political commentary. Empire of Illusion, as the title suggests, looks at the way in which popular culture encodes selfish and violent values with the intent to distract and deceive the public. Worse yet, it looks at how the deception and the reflection of the public comes to dovetail. The message might be familiar, but Hedges has a knack for illuminating just the right moments to show how depraved "ordinary" entertainment can be, or how low the debate has stooped. He examines the World Wrestling Federation's distillation of cultural values and the porn industry's emphasis on violence, building to a wholesale critique of North American politics. Lofty as it sounds, Hedges has the chops to execute that goal intelligently. Although he repeats himself occasionally, Hedges has a rare gift as a polemicist and makes you feel the subject deeply.

As potent as the writing is, Hedges is not a manipulator. Instead he champions intellectual inquiry with the kind of vigour that makes it seem worth defending. He takes a chapter to analyze the problems of contemporary academia and observes that the traditional outposts of intellectual exploration have become cloistered, compartmentalized, and compromised. If I'd had his critique during my undergrad, I might've been a lot less lonely. As I've mentioned here on the blog before, I have a particular interest in understanding mediocrity, and in interpreting what if anything is below the surface of the banal. Chris Hedges makes me think maybe I've put that goal too mildly, but at least he's given me some new angles to interpret. If you want to practice, you can warm up by watching Kevin O'Leary belittle Hedges' defense of the Occupy movement as "pretty nothing burger" and accuse Hedges of being "a leftwing nutbar" on the ostensibly civil CBC (or you can dismiss it as a distraction, as Hedges would probably prefer you do).

Sometimes after reading a particularly good book, I feel like I've been jarred awake out of the long, meandering nap I call my life. Unfortunately, being awake means I get an inkling of how sick our society really is. If you're feeling sluggish yourself, by all means read Empire of Illusion. If you're wary of downers, then you might be even more desperately in need of this book. Punishing as it can be, I like the way it ends. Too many political or environmental books spend nine chapters prophesying doom, before titling the tenth "Hope" and briefly sketching a few unexplored avenues for optimism. If Hedges' ending isn't exactly cheery, he concludes on a moral and philosophical note that is uplifting without engaging in self-deception. If I hadn't been reading it in a crowded cafeteria, I might've cried. Instead I looked out over the of blaring tv screens and the crowd of young people, and realized I didn't have a clue what to expect.

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