Not Oprah’s Book Club: Empire of Illusion

Chris Hedges’ War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning was a book that really changed the way I thought about, well war, for starters, but also about the kinds of choices we make as human beings in search of purposeful lives. After years of war reporting, and then divinity school, he seemed uniquely equipped to comment on the death and destruction that is war, but also the ways in which it becomes a “meaningful project” for people.
So I was really looking forward to reading his new book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Unfortunately, what worked so well for me in War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning–Hedges’ compassion for people and deep understanding of what makes us tick on a psychological, spiritual level–is almost completely absent from this new book. He takes readers through five grand illusions: of literacy, of love, of wisdom, of happiness, and of America. Each one is more depressing and argued with less empathy than the next.
In the Illusion of Love, for example, he reports on the proliferation of porn, re-traveling ground that so many smart feminist thinkers have already tread without half the insight. “Porn is about reducing women to corpses,” he writes. Um, okay. And what about it? It was insufferable to read page after page about “face fucking” without any new learning. Why are men and women drawn into this world? What does it really say about our larger culture and their inner psychology? None of this is really explored. It becomes one big shock-and-awe session. Trust me Hedges, most of us feminist readers already been done shocked and awed.
I agree with a lot of what Hedges is arguing here. I’ve also written, for example, against the cultish embrace of the power of positive thinking because it invisbilizes systemic inequality (think The Secret, in which a gay guy who was being sexually harassed by homophobes is suddenly freed from oppression by just imagining them being nicer to him). But unfortunately, Hedges presents his arguments in such an insufferable, unempathic tone, that the reader just ends up feeling preached to, judged, or bored to death. I hope that Hedges manages to reclaim some of his earlier empathy, because it’s really what set him apart as an extraordinary writer. In this book, he’s more of a ranter.

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