Empire of Illusion and the End of Literacy


Empire of IllusionI don’t know whether to feel vindicated, delighted, frightened or depressed as I read through Chris Hedges’s book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Much of what he says reflects many of my own observations and opinions. I started reading this book in part as research for my upcoming conference speech on social media, but it has kept me mesmerized, like seeing a train wreck before your eyes, something you can’t quite turn away from.

I suppose we like to read books that reinforce our world view (those of us who read, that is – literacy in Canada is declining)*, but it’s sometimes uncomfortable to have those nagging doubts about the decay of society made public by someone else. Having another say it or write it seems to confirm our darkest nightmares. We all sometimes think we’re the only ones who recognize the issues, who see the fly in the ointment, but Hedges makes it clear we’re not alone.

And, yes, our wildest fears are true: the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Or at least that’s the way Hedges plays it, to my cynical and jaded eyes.

It’s hard not to agree with his argument. He thinks our culture is dying, driven from its heights to an abyss of reality TV, celebrity watching, contrived spectacle, self-exposure, self-indulgence, corporate greed, gossip, the lack of critical thinking, and crass self-interest.** He is a modern Virgil, guiding us through the Inferno of Western culture towards the inevitable Ninth Circle of moral, economic and political collapse.

Hedges writes,

The cult of self dominates our cultural landscape. This cult shares within it the classic traits of psychopaths; superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation, a penchant for lying, deception, and manipulation and the inability to feel remorse or guilt. This is, of course, the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. In fact, personal style, defined by the commodities we buy or consume, has become a compensation for our loss of democratic equality. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy, and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Once you get there, those questions are no longer asked.

Cheery stuff. But hard to slough off as mere pessimism. Just turn on the TV. The schedule for the “Discovery Channel” – a channel ostensibly about science and technology but instead is crammed with “reality” show, anti-intellectual dreck – is a good example of the extreme dumbing-down and trivialization of TV.

Or read the comments on any national news website. Or a local blog. Our sense of entitlement makes us believe that everyone has the right to comment, that every opinion is valuable – and technology gives all opinions the same apparent value and weight, even when many are simply digital noise that confounds, rather than contributes to, the conversation. No wonder we see the rise of superstition, pseudoscience, emotion and gawking over fact, science, respect and common sense. The wheat and chaff are irrevocably mixed online.

Our way of life is over. Our profligate consumption is finished. Our children will never have the standard of living we had. This is the bleak future. This is reality.

This doom-and-gloom is hardly new. The imminent implosion of modern culture has been described and predicted at least since Socrates, who griped, “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

My parents lamented my generation’s irrevocable slide into a moral and social morass when they heard Bill Haley and the Comets. It was confirmed when they heard the Beatles. Their parents fretted over Rudy Vallee and Ruth Etting, then over talking pictures. In part this is the natural gap between generations, the difference between youth and middle age, between the new and the old.

Civilization did not collapse, despite the dire warnings from each subsequent generation. But that was then, this is now. Things have changed, and changed so rapidly, so deeply that society has not had the time to adapt effectively. We’re on a rollercoaster now, not a walk in the cultural park.

Chris HedgesMass media plays the big role here: it lies underneath the changes like a super-volcano waiting to explode and consume us all. Until the 21st century, all of the elements for a true collapse have not aligned so well and so efficiently. Not until this age of mass communication, mass corporate control, mass commercialism and consumerism had the indicators all pointed to doom so clearly.

It’s a short trip back in human history to reach the pre-mass-culture period. The first radio stations were born in the mid-1920s, the first TV networks in the late 1940s.*** The internet in the mid-1990s. These alone aren’t the axe that chops at civilization’s trees. The clear-cutting of culture has have been compounded by the increasing control of media into a small corporate circle, and the rise of a celebrity-obsessed culture and an obsessive sense of self-entitlement. Not to mention the widening economic gap between haves and have-nots, which encourages elitism and authoritarianism by eliminating many educational, social and cultural opportunities for those not in the 1%.

People turn to entertainment for solace, for reinforcement, for distraction and for ideological support. And mass media provides it in copious amounts, much of it brainless and ideologically motivated. Hedges quotes from Neil Postman’s 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,

“But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another–slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.”

Postman died in 2003, which sadly left us without his acerbic observations on social media and the rise of such activities as tweeting and twerking, or selfies and Instagram porn. But Postman’s prescient take on the cultural mudslide we’re in is matched in Hedge’s angst-ridden jeremiad. Hedges sees morals, personal and collective, plummeting hand-in-hand with culture into the abyss. But it seems he is most upset over our deliberate, self-inflicted anti-intellectualism that denies us the ability to think critically, objectively and honestly. He writes:

We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality. We traded the printed word for the gleaming image.

Social media gives weight to Andy’ Warhol’s prediction that in the future we’d all be famous for 15 minutes. We have the tools and technology for everyone to be heard, to be seen, on the global stage, to make ourselves known and visible, kings and queens of our own domains pontificating to the masses. We feel entitled to do so, too, despite what education, skills or talents we may lack in doing so. We can weigh in on issues and events without the slightest understanding or experience to support our claims.

Empirical data get lost in the noise. Innuendo and lies have equal weight in the uber-democratic internet where all words are equal. All that matters is the emotional impact of those words, their emotional weight, how they make us feel, not their veracity. In fact, it’s easier to build an audience with exaggeration, hyperbole, slander, rumour and even lies because perceived scandal is like the staged nipple-slip: it draws the eyes and the attention. Truth and fact are dull, boring, elitist and intellectual. Not titillating.

Truth and fact take too much brain power to understand and distract us from gawking at the celebrities’ wardrobe malfunctions. Hedges writes:

The ability to amplify lies, to repeat them and have surrogates repeat them in endless loops of news cycles gives lies and mythical narratives the aura of uncontested truth. We become trapped in the linguistic prison of incessant repetition.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who can read an echo of local events in those lines.

Empire of Illusion is a lament for his nation, America, more than a polemic about the decay of culture and civilization. The point of his tirade is like the legal phrase, “cui bono?” – who benefits? For Hedges, it’s the old military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned us about back in 1961. Ike warned:

We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.

Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades.

But his “alert and knowledgeable citizenry” has been co-opted, controlled, hoodwinked and seduced by mass media. Willingly so, as Huxley predicted. A culture that spends more time watching Jersey Shores, Duck Dynasty, American Pickers or the Kardashians than trying to understand the political, economic, scientific and social issues of the day is ripe for manipulation. A culture that turns its back on reading, learning and self-education is doomed to the shallow world of bread and circuses. And, like Huxley warned, they will go happily to enslavement as long as no one changes the channel.

Neil Postman also wrote,

“Books, for example, are an excellent container for the accumulation, quiet scrutiny and organized analysis of information and ideas. It takes time to write a book, and to read one; time to discuss its contents and to make judgments about their merit, including the form of their presentation. A book is an attempt to make thought permanent and to contribute to the great conversation conducted by authors of the past. Therefore, civilized people everywhere consider the burning of a book a vile form of anti-intellectualism.”

While I agree with Hedges’s meta-view about our descent from literacy into mass ignorance, his point gets made rather often, to the point of tediousness at times. It’s a bit like self-flagellation: after a few chapters it starts to feel painful, not pleasurable, to be whipped again. In fact, some of his stories to illustrate the moral and social decay are difficult to read, simply because they are like harsh klieg lights on our sorry, seedy selves. It’s the kind of book I feel I have to put down and pick up another now and then, to wash myself with some classic literature, some distant history, some coldly neutral science before I can plunge back in.

Not only that, but it’s a very American viewpoint. As a Canadian, I can sometimes sit back and assume a superior stance by saying “that’s not here.” Not often, because mass culture permeates borders, dragging down IQs, morals and cultural standards regardless of nationality. I take small solace that we don’t have the same gun madness here, our federal politicians may be inept but are not steeped in the corruption that infects America’s (with perhaps the exception of our Senate), that the porn industry doesn’t have such a visible and aggressive presence here.

But then I look at the regular schedule for either Bell or Rogers TV networks, and feel shame at our own crass and anti-intellectual mass media (not that there aren’t good shows, smart, witty and intellectual shows, on TV – just that they’re as rare as hen’s teeth in the squalid catalogue of pap and reality programming). I agonize over the dwindling literacy and reading for pleasure among my fellow Canadians. What Hedges writes about is happening here, perhaps different only in some small degree.

When a nation becomes unmoored from reality, it retreats into a world of magic. Facts are accepted, or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained cosmology. The search for truth becomes irrelevant. Our national discourse is dominated by manufactured events from celebrity gossip to staged showcasings of politicians to elaborate entertainment and athletic spectacles.****

One of the criticisms of the book is, that after all the hand-wringing analyses, Hedges fails to offer up any significant solutions. I don’t think that’s the point: I think his point is to identify the problems so we can have a dialogue about them. We need to discuss his conclusions, find a consensus on what’s right and wrong, then collectively figure out what if anything we can fix.

It’s a disquieting, challenging read, one that brooks no neutrality. You may try to dismiss him for ideological reasons, but I’ll bet his arguments (and conclusions) will haunt you if you try. What is most important is that you try to read his book. If nothing more, it will get you away from the TV set for a few hours.

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* It’s a confusing, even contradictory view as to what literacy actually means. To some, it’s just the ability to read words. As the Globe & Mail reported in 2011, for others the quality and depth of our reading is the concern:

At the functional level, Canadian literacy is doing fine: Recent international test scores show 15-year-old Canadian students, when compared with their peers in other developed countries, continue to perform above average as readers. There has been some slippage in the reading scores measured by the Program for International Student Assessment in some provinces, but Statistics Canada has warned against reading too much into comparisons between the 2009 and 2000 studies. Other Canadian literacy and reading studies of recent years don’t ring many alarm bells either.

The concern at the Reading Summit, however, is the quality of that reading.

“In rich countries most of us tend to be complacent and assume because we are literate we will be readers,” said Patsy Aldana, founder of the children’s press Groundwood Books and co-chair of the National Reading Campaign that hosts the summit. “[But]we don’t have a functional view of it, we have a civic view of it … It’s not whether you can read a newspaper, it’s wanting to read a newspaper.”

Aldana is particularly concerned by signs that children are losing pleasure in reading: For example, on surveys attached to Ontario’s standardized tests, there has been a dramatic drop during the past decade in the number of students in Grade 3 and Grade 6 who report they “like to read.” She blames an education system that has focused on producing workers rather than citizens, encouraging functional performance rather than joyful reading.

“Teaching has become test performance instead of reading for its own sake. We are not just cogs in a machine,” she said.

Advocates believe reading creates more engaged citizens – in the United States, a 2006 National Endowment for the Arts study found literary readers were also more likely to be volunteers and participants in outdoor activities – and fear that children who read just to get through school will drop the habit after graduation.

The CBC also reported on these surveys here. The National Reading Campaign distributed 40,000 books in Canada in 2011, noting sadly that “many of those books went to homes that did not have a single book otherwise.” The Campaign also reported that, “…amongst many other statistics, that 37% of Canadian adults do not read for pleasure.”

By pleasure, I assume that self-education and learning outside the necessities of school or work, is also considered a pleasure.

This decline in reading is paralleled by an accelerating increase in TV watching: the average Canadian watched 30 hours per week, according to a recent survey by BBM Canada (see the Huffington Post story), up from the 28.5 hours a week reported in 2012. Canadians will see more than 25,000 ads in a year during their TV watching time. No wonder we can’t tell what’s real, what’s meaningful and what’s important in the world. No wonder we can’t tell the difference between science and superstition, between fact and rumour, between proof and innuendo. TV is sucking our ability to think into its anti-intellectual black hole.

Some future post I’ll address literacy issues and how reading can make us smart again.

** It seems extreme self-indulgence and narcissism may be a brain malfunction. As the National Post reported,

New research out of Wilfrid Laurier University, however, suggests narcissism might be simpler than that. More than just a moral failing or psychiatric symptom, narcissism might reflect a basic mechanical failure of the brain’s natural tendency to mimic.

Intriguingly, it also suggests that narcissism’s opposite, empathy, might even improve with practice.

At the heart of the project was mimicry, the tendency to inadvertently copy others in social situations, which is a human trait with two competing explanations. One is that it evolved as a means of social cohesion. The other, which lead author Sukhvinder Obhi prefers, is that it is learned individually on a much shorter time-frame…

“Narcissists don’t imitate automatically,” he said. “It could be one of the reasons why narcissists in real life often do have trouble in social relationships.”

Professor Obhi suggested that, “…narcissism can be lessened by training in empathy, based on this theory of mimicry.” I can think of some former politicians who might benefit from this training.

*** There are people alive today born before today’s mass communication and mass culture was created: anyone born before 1926, when the first radio network was created; before 1947 when the first TV network was launched; before 1960 when the first inexpensive transistor radios arrive from Japan and helped expand media’s reach through portability. One can often tell the difference in behaviour: pre-mass media people are able to engage face to face and socialize more effectively, can conduct a mature, civil debate, and don’t share that sense of righteous self-entitlement that younger generations raised on TV have.

**** “…Our national discourse is dominated by manufactured events…” This is true on all levels, from local up. On a slow news day, media are as likely to turn non-stories into scandals, and listening to the national news sometimes makes me wonder what happened to the news editors of the past. Worse, polarizing ideology has so permeated the national media that one can pretty much predict how a  story will be presented by identifying the news agency first. The sorry tale of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is a prime example of such polarized – and thus suspect and yellow – journalism.