When I finished this book, I wasn’t sure whether I should cry or start stockpiling assault rifles and canned food. Hedges argues that while Americans were busy being entertained and pleasured, corporations and the industrial-military complex have brought American democracy to its death bed. Yes, in the past tense, as in we’re almost done and we don’t even know it. If Hedges is correct, it is already too late to change the system. I don’t agree with all of Hedges’ politics, but I think he has definitely reported what will likely be the demise of the U.S.
Hedges divides his argument into five sections. The first deals with Americans’ obsession with entertainment. Hedges argues that we have become a polytheistic society worshiping celebrities, athletes, and charismatic politicians and preachers, because they represent what we wish to be. We no longer want to deal with the complexities of reality. We don’t want to have to think too hard about complex issues. We want to live in the fantasy world of celebrities, reality TV, and sports. We want to be lied to, because the lie makes us feel so much better about our lives. We have created a culture of illusion.
Hedges’ next section deals with the porn industry in America and what he calls “the illusion of love.” I felt this section was unnecessary and didn’t flow with the rest of the book. Basically, it is a more extreme example of what is discussed in the first chapter. The illusion men get from porn is that they can control and use women as commodities. Porn has increasingly become more extreme and fetish-like since the industry’s boom in the 1970s. Hedges connects the moral decay and desensitizing nature of porn to Abu Ghraib and war in general. It destroys compassion and empathy and creates a feeling in the user that he/she is a god.
In the third section, Hedges attacks what he calls the “elite” schools of higher education. Hedges argues that Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the like create the next leaders of corporations and government; however, these schools have failed society by become corporatist themselves. They no longer teach true critical thinking; they teach business problem solving. Professors who question the system or challenge the status quo are ostracized. Morality and the common good come second to profits. Finding solutions to maintain the current corporate systems and defense projects are the top priorities.
The next section attacks “positive psychology,” which many corporations and institutions, including the United Nations, are adopting. Essentially, there are psychologists who make a living from teaching/brainwashing people to lie to themselves. It is terrifyingly similar to Huxley’s Brave New World where citizens walk around quoting happy slogans they’ve been taught from birth, totally unaware that they live in a totalitarian state. It is another instance of self delusion. Scary stuff.
The last section encapsulates everything and deals the death blow. While we have been fascinated with the coverage of Michael Jackson’s death and Jon and Kate, fantasizing about “gonzo” porn, and repeating the new happy slogan we learned at work, corporations and the industrial-military complex have bankrupted the country and are preparing for a police state. Hedges states that the corporate controlled media, which is almost all media according to Hedges, is already under-reporting how bad the economic crisis is and will be. The Obama administration has no power against these forces. In fact, no one is allowed to run for president in this country without millions of dollars from the corporations.
It sounds like doomsday prophesies, but Hedges’ evidence is very convincing. He quotes reports from the Senate Armed Services Committee and the U.S. Army War College, among many other credible sources. What I found most convincing is the reminder that history shows us that after the economic collapse in the 1930s, America experienced the most extremism it has ever seen. When the Wiemar Republic in Germany collapsed economically, Adolf Hitler came to power. When Czarist Russia failed, Lenin and the Bolsheviks came to power. Hedges fears what kind of demagogue America will produce. We are not prepared to face the reality of economic failure and the sacrifice that will require. Hedges’ thesis and supporting evidence is chilling, and he doesn’t offer much hope. Empire of Illusion is a dark read, but it is eye-opening.