Book Review: “Empire of Illusion”

I recently finished a short little book (more of a long essay, really) by Chris Hedges, entitled “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”  Generally I prefer my polemics to be of a more easily digestible length, but this was recommended by a friend, so I stuck it out, growing progressively more frustrated along the way.

Hedges’s position — not uncommon amongst a certain breed of scholars, both liberal and conservative — is that America is in an irreversible state of decline.  His book is divided into five sections: “Literacy” (which attacks Jerry Springer and professional wrestling), “Love” (which takes on pornography), “Wisdom” (attacks higher education), “Happiness” (positive psychology), and “America” (obvious).  Each section is guilty of the same sins — no facts, lots of anecdotes, and a pervasive fatalism that infects every sentence (until the very end, a seemingly tacked-on two-page meditation on how we will all be saved by the milk of human kindness, or something).

Hedges’s over-arching narrative is that the world, and America in particular, has lost its intellectual head, has given in to baser instinct and allowed itself to be ruled by something other than reason.  The grave problem, however, is that Hedges himself refuses to let facts get in the way of his narrative.  He tosses around qualifiers like “many,” “most,” “few,” and “more,” without ever quantifying what those might mean.  He tells us that “many” porn stars suffer from STDs, particularly HIV — not an unbelievable statistic, but what does “many” mean?  Ten percent?  Ninety percent?  How do those figures compare to the general population?  What percentage of those who are HIV positive continue to work in a sex trade after learning their status?  Does HIV status impact rates of condom use in pornography?  These are relevant questions, but in Hedges’s book, the facts become secondary to his judgment; ironically, this is the very same charge he levels against those he criticizes.

It’s too bad, because in principle, there are many points on which I find myself inclined to agree with the book — but that agreement is undermined by his fact-free hyperbole.  For example, in the section on higher education, Hedges bemoans Harvard, Yale, and Stanford in particular as elite institutions that serve only an insulated elite class, using their sky-high tuition as a mechanism to keep out anyone from the working class — completely overlooking the fact that both Harvard and Yale are now completely free to anyone from a family with an annual income of $60,000 or less.  Moreover, because their admissions are need-blind, it is possible (though unlikely) that either school could accept an entire class of working-class students attending courtesy of the school’s endowment.  It is hard to square such facts, or rising rates of college attendance amongst women, minorities, and lower-income students, with Hedges’s contention that “traditional” routes to status and achievement are being closed off.  (Although Hedges is a white man, so perhaps the tragedy is simply that his traditional hegemony over such routes is being encroached upon.)  Similarly, discussing politics, Hedges goes on at great length about the apathy and disengagement of young people, completely ignoring the record voter turnout and campaign involvement amongst youths during the 2008 election.  Such inconvenient data would require a more nuanced and complex portrayal of contemporary society — something which, for all his finger-pointing at those in power, seems to be beyond the author.

Technology is not an unmitigated good (although as a signpost for intellectual decline, it’s also uneven — yesterday I downloaded Tolstoy for free off Google Books), and there are deep-seated social problems that face us all.  Solutions rarely lie in polemics, however; honest, factual assessments and serious engagement with problems hold much more promise than rants about the kids today, no matter how well-intentioned.  For a better, more informed discussion on similar themes (from a similar perspective), I’ll take Paul Krugman or Robert Reich any day over Hedges — at least their pessimism is solution-oriented and backed up by real data, not hand-picked, anecdotal “research.”

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