Review: ‘Empire of Illusion’ by Chris Hedges

“Remarkable, bracing and highly moral”


090728_bookLike Christopher Hitchens, in so many ways his opposite number, Chris Hedges occupies an isolated and occasionally lonely spot on the ideological spectrum, angering progressives as much as conservatives. He may be a socialist and the author of American Fascists (2007), the title of which pretty much sums up what he thinks of the Christian right in his country. But he’s also a religion-friendly guy—the son of a Presbyterian minister, and the possessor of both a master’s degree in theology and a firm belief that spiritual seeking is hard-wired in humans—a stance that provokes many on the militant atheist left. In fact, Hedges is as much a throwback as a revolutionary: an old-fashioned, passionate, moralist America-Firster. And none of that is meant as criticism.

Hedges is not likely to win a lot of new friends with his latest work, Empire of Illusion (Knopf). The “illusion” part of the title is made clear in Hedges’ savage assault on celebrity/pop culture that focuses on two soft, but richly deserving targets, pro wrestling and the porn industry. Wrestling he uses to symbolize the vacuity of celebrity culture, how Americans (and, increasingly, the rest of the world) are “bombarded with cant and spectacle” that robs them of “the intellectual and linguistic tools to separate illusion from truth.” Celebrity culture is one of images and sound bites, he writes, one that both drives and is enabled by, functional illiteracy. (He cites studies estimating the illiterate and semi-literate proportion of the U.S. and Canadian populations to be about 42 per cent.) If the Lincoln and Douglas debates of 1858 were carried on at a high-school graduate level, George W. Bush was down to Grade 6 vocabulary in 2000, and Al Gore, his supposedly pointy-headed intellectual opponent, debated at a seventh-grade level. And, like porn—which Hedges convincingly shows to be a far more vicious, victim-rich industry than liberal thought likes to imagine—celebrity culture provides new gods to distract us. (Remember Hedges’ conviction about our intrinsic natures.)

But distract us from what? Ranting against pop culture is generally the territory of the political right, but Hedges does not deliver his polemic in order to call Americans back to a faux Rockwell-esque world of unquestioning faith and jingoism, as many Christian conservative commentators do. For him, high-flying televangelists are part of celebrity culture, not an antidote to it. No, the “illusion” serves the other half of his title, the “empire,” the corporate and military forces that he believes profit from the impoverishment, moral and financial, of his countrymen. It prevents Americans from seeing what is done in their name or even what is done to them. What seems to truly drive Hedges’ rage is his conviction that no republic has ever survived the acquisition of empire, and that his own will be no exception. The U.S. is in a death spiral, he believes, inextricably trapped in other nation’s lives and in “a culture of illusion that is, at its core, a culture of death—it will die and leave little of value behind.” Remarkable, bracing and highly moral, Empire of Illusion is Hedges’ lament for his nation.


Review: ‘Empire of Illusion’ by Chris Hedges

  1. So what else is new – see Rome bread and circuses man! and as for porn the oldest known artifact that clearly shows humankinds desire for art and sex – are hundreds of these little feminine figurines (at one site only not to mention all the others) and they all with exagerated thighs and hordes of breasts which I think would qualify and confirm Hedges premise.

  2. Hedges' book is an excellent observation of how American society has squandered privilege, fixating on trivial, rewarding celebrity and spectacle, greed and deception. Indeed, most of the population would be unaware that historically dominant empires rose and fell to factors not unlike those extant in America today. That's because people are not educated; they're trained to limit their thinking. Thanks, Chris Hedges, I hope this wakes up our government and education systems.

    • This has to be one of the worst TYPICAL books I've ever read. Just some other whiney, insulting, attempting to be sarcastic and completely failing, writers I wish did not exist. Hedges goes on and on, being annoyingly repetitive and never gives ANY solution, like every damn best seller that you can find in any book store (generally on sale and for the piece of crap it is should be for free and used as toilet paper.) And he fails to truly define and compare the three main terms in his title "illusion," "literacy" and "Spectacle." Instead he does the run around. It was a waste of two days of my life I'll never get back.

      • ‘writers I wish did not exits’ – what an interesting statement. There have been many cultures that have fostered attitudes among their citizenry to eliminate undesirables from their midst. Mao and Stalin used such powers to murder intellectuals, the National Socialists murdered jews and many others – again through the lens of vetting those that deserve to exist and those that don’t. And now, Liz, you and many like yourself wish for your own set of humans to cease to exist. In a way, you are the perfect example of what this book is about, and your inability to see this, to believe your own illusions, is proves the author’s thesis better then any words I can write. Thank you.

  3. I lived in Florida for a while and It is amazing what happened to people's values downthere. Sex is everything and there is no respect for women at allll.Guys are discusting ,women are all big breasts and stupid but they think they are the most clever thing around ,everybody uses everybody for sex and money.And nobody sees anytthing wrong with that. That is amazing. I met women whom their husbans were paying for weird lookind extra large breasts thousands of dollars but not for university education.

  4. I am saddened to say that this was probably the worst book I have ever encountered. The author's arguments are completely illogical, one hundred percent repetitive and completely unorganised. Greater works have been written on the same subject matter, I would never advise anyone to read this.

  5. Quite the contrary to TetkaB1's comment, I found Chris Hedges' book offers one of the clearest clarion calls not only to America but the western world. His observations of prevailing narcissistic nihilism are firmly rooted in the works of Allan Bloom and Christopher Lasch who wrote in the late seventies and early eighties, 'Closing of the American Mind' and 'Culture of Narcissism' respectively. 'Empire of Illusion' is a sobering read.

  6. I heard the guy reading from his book on the radio in my car returning from the gym. When I got home I sat in my car in the driveway for 30 minutes listening to him speak because I couldn't pull away I was so enthralled and flabbergasted. I think a lot of people are going to have a SEVERE sobering experience if they take to heart what he is revealing and are honest with themselvs. Many people are not going to want to hear this wake up call for fear of what they really might see the next time they look in the mirror, but this guys stuff is full of real substance and amazing insight that reminds us of the moral values we have lost track of and are rapidly deserting. Not quite sure what book TetkaB1 read, but like I said, not everyone can handle going down this rabbit hole.

  7. TetkaB1: Please enlighten us on the better books you have read on a similar subject matter. I'm sure we would all be interested to look into other readings on the subject.
    I don't think it was the most amazingly written book. You may be interested in reading World on Fire or Day of Empire by Amy Chua. She is an amazing writer, similar subject. I am however finding arguments and insights in Empire of Illusion I have yet to come across and it is a really compelling book and would definitely recommend it.

  8. Actually, Hedges himself sites many better writers on the subject including Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Lionel Trilling, and Neil Postman.. and, for what it's worth, those thinkers are hardly on the political right as the author of this article suggests. (Lasch could be considered conservative — he is mentioned in the book 'Anatomy of Antiliberalism'. Frankly, I think Culture of Naricissm was a few notches worse than this book… Psychoanalysis as a tool for cultural explanation is just a terrible idea.)
    This book's flaw, rather, is that is uses some really extreme examples to point to cultural erosion such as the trashiest porn, Jerry Springer, wrestling, etc…
    But flaws aside, books like the ones by Hedges and Lasch are still seriously important. They are moralists during decades of decadence, fighting for literacy and human dignity while others are navel gazing… I mean sipping mocha lattes inside the cave, riveted by glowing images. So, yes, it's still worth the read, and so are all the other books on the topic. But don't expect to start smashing your flatscreen after reading it.

  9. For those of us who have read this book and others like it, what to do? Having the knowledge of an upcoming collapse is not only a cause of deep rooted anxiety, but a real buzz-kill on any ambition to climb the socio economic ladder. Knowing the corporatist state grows stronger with every legislative bill and objective skepticism is decaying without representative media coverage, what is a blue collar guy to do? Reading this book should be empowering, but where is the debate on executing a major structural change of government on behalf of socialism? Laughable. Good book, thanks for the warning Chris, see you in a soup line soon.

    • I agree that this thought provoking book does a great job raising the fundamental issues that confront modern society today, but stops short on what the solutions might be. Executing a major structural change of government is indeed long overdue, but to advance literacy, civility, citizen participation and democracy, not another "ism", please!

  10. I find it amusing that many of the commenters here seem to think Empire of Illusion is gospel. It isn't.

    There is a lot of ranting and hyperbole, which is supposed to show us that economic, political and moral collapse is upon us. Um, no.

    Consider the porn chapter, which I found the least convincing. I wonder why there is so much obsessive detail? Why focus on straight porn rather than gay porn? Is this chapter about the impact of porn on young male minds or the abuses of female performers in the industry? No real evidence is presented on either point, just a lot of weird anecdotes and unanswered questions. Oh, and lots and lots of descriptions of gaping and sore orifices… so porn must be evil, right?

    I agree most with Hedges when he laments the loss of critical thinking and the emergence of a timid, cowed and confused population. Too bad many people reading Hedge's book are proving him right.

  11. It’s too bad America won’t be able to either A) Read this book, or B) Understand this book, or C) Want to read and understand this observation within this book. Even if it only meant to disagree with it, because right now, there’s something really good on A) TV, or B) the internet or C) texting….

  12. Am just reading this book now. Am finding nothing new, but it is does crystalize a lot of my own belief regarding the vapid nature of our culture. This helps. That said, I find it massively demoralizing on another level. There seems like no alternative but to wait for everything to burn to the ground. My even deeper fear is that it won’t. 

  13. Some time in 2008 I read an article on the “national post” entitled “From flat world to free world.” The writer was apparently disappointed that “The lack of an intellectual defence of Capitalism has left free markets vulnerable” and was calling for “ethics revolution.” Imagine! as if there is no more than enough apologist in the academia!
    “Empire of illusion” is not just an embodiment of sharp observation and intellectual honesty. It is a call to save the essence of being human by way of challenging the campaign to create unconsciousness!

  14. some- where higher,the values that enrich the majority…..we need to find them or re-discover them

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