In the first chapter, “The Illusion of Literacy,” Chris Hedges summarizes plot lines from WWE, or World Wrestling Entertainment. He shows how these plots mirror the fears and fantasies of American culture at large. For example, during the Cold War, there were wrestlers who took on personas of stereotyped Cold War adversaries. In the recession, the villains of the WWE take on the role of the capitalists who “walked away with a pot of gold while workers across the country lost their jobs, saw their savings and retirement funds evaporate, and fought off foreclosure.”
Wrestling is but one example of Americans' obsession with “celebrity culture,” and it exemplifies how “the line between public and fictional personas blurs.” Hedges argues that
established truths...rules, and authenticity mean nothing. Good and evil mean nothing. The idea of permanent personalities and permanent values...has evaporated. It is all about winning.
Hedges compares this to Plato’s allegory of the cave. People in contemporary society stare at illusions, mistaking these shadows for reality. Hedges explains how “Plato feared the power of entertainment, the power of the senses to overthrow the mind, the power of emotion to obliterate reason.” In today’s society, people are described by the author as
chained to the flickering shadows of celebrity culture, the spectacle of the arena and the airwaves, the lies of advertising, the endless personal dramas, many of them completely fictional, that have become the staple of news, celebrity gossip, New Age mysticism, and pop psychology.
Hedges suggests that there is a great danger posed to any society that obsesses with these shadows. Hedges then identifies the people who create the shadows that “dominate our lives”:
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In the second chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” Hedges examines America’s pornography industry. Hedges emphasizes the ways that pornography treats women as commodities. He travels to the Adult Video News (AVN) expo in Las Vegas, where he interviews several women who were porn stars. There, he learns that many of the women that star in pornography are subjected to cruelty and brutality. It is not uncommon for women to suffer from sexually transmitted diseases and physical injuries such as vaginal and anal tears. Other women are sold as prostitutes to men who want to have sex with a porn star. Pornography, Hedges concludes, “precludes intimacy and love.”
Many women in pornography, though they might initially feel “glamorous," take drugs to dull the pain that they feel. The way that one woman who starred in porn films describes her experiences—such as the way her “eyes take on a dead, faraway look" and the way her tone becomes "flat, numbing"—recalls symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that Hedges has seen in “victims of atrocities in war.” Hedges also notices a recent change in the way that pornography is made. In particular, "gonzo" pornography exacerbates the abuse of women. Whereas pornographic films might once have had scripts (however brief) with plot lines and dialogue, gonzo pornography is more likely to have just the sex act. Hedges points out:
There is no acting because none of the women are permitted to have what amounts to a personality. The one emotion they are allowed to display is an unquenchable desire to satisfy men, especially if that desire involves the women’s physical and emotional degradation.
Further, Hedges learns, there are more women available for pornographic features, which means that women are expected to engage in more derogatory and physically painful acts than before.
Hedges is not surprised to find that the Adult Video News (AVN) expo is held in Las Vegas, which he describes as “a city built on illusions” and “the corrupt, willfully degenerate heart of America.” The spectacles offered by Las Vegas distract people, but interestingly, Las Vegas is actually more honest than the rest of the country because
it is all about taking your money, and when the money runs out, you might as well not exist. Las Vegas, unlike the rest of the culture, is brutally honest about its exploitation.
In this chapter, “The Illusion of Wisdom,” Hedges turns his attention to the academy. He suggests that the problems the Western world faces, ranging from the economic to the erosion of human rights to political turmoil in the Middle East, are largely because of the failure of the academy and its obsession with things that are unrelated to true intellectual discourse.
Hedges argues that by definition, education is skeptical of authority. However, the academy has become co-opted by its alliance with a variety of organizations of power. Hedges points to educational institutions that actively seek out military and corporate funding as evidence of the way that structures of power have co-opted intellectual discourse in the West. The ongoing project of securing funds prevents the academy from fostering the ability to think critically or to seek out new systems of thought in students because objecting to these power structures may compromise the financial security of the organization.
Furthermore, thinkers such as Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader who question authority and power structures within both the political and academic domains are systematically marginalized to prevent them from harming the back and forth that the academy enjoys with the military and the corporation.
Hedges explains that he would prefer to see higher education focus more on values, and he reminds his readers that it is only by studying such values that mistakes like the Holocaust can be prevented from being repeated. Rather than rising up against this illusion of wisdom, Hedges notes, academics instead have retreated into areas of specialized thought in which their ideas are foreign to what happens in the day-to-day world within which one might find the majority of society.
The common person cannot interact with "intellectual" thought, let alone allow it to interact with them. These academics may treat the world with contempt, but Hedges argues that the academics are actually functionally illiterate because their ideas are recorded in a jargon so arcane that no one who reads it can understand it. Worse, the jargon becomes a language that is meant to remove the common person from the "intellectual" debate that only the powerful can engage in.
If the academy was ever meant to foster a sense of wisdom in students, it can no longer claim to do so. Contemporary higher education is devoted to profit and to creating a subservient population incapable of questioning and challenging the power structures around it. Unfortunately, the system cannot maintain itself because it is unsustainable.
In this chapter, titled “The Illusion of Happiness,” Hedges turns his attention to positive thinking and positive psychology, concepts whose validity is reinforced by the psychologists of the academy.
Hedges is skeptical of the cult of optimism, particularly the notion that it can become a permanent mental state that spreads throughout all apsects of society. Nevertheless, many organizations of power, including corporations and the United States Navy, have adopted programs that pay homage to the power of optimism, and these organizations insist that members of their organization also pay homage.
Hedges suggests that corporations, for example, rely on this obsession with positive thinking to induce their workers to merge their identity with that of the corporation. By adopting an optimistic outlook at all times, workers will always second guess their own dissatisfaction, no matter how genuine it may be. Instead of questioning the merits of the organization, they will question themselves.
Worse, if they do question the merits of the organization, their concerns can be turned back upon them as a lack of positivity. These concerns on the part of the worker can now be labeled "counterproductive" because a positive worker is better than a skeptical one. There is a desire within the corporation for people to believe that anything is possible: profits will always increase if workers believe.
Hedges argues that the corporation's obsession with positive thinking is similar to Nazi Germany's obsession with eugenics. Hedges also cautions that although some workers may actually accept the tenets of positive thinking, this acceptance should never be confused with reality.
Hedges points to the work of philosopher David Jopling, who argues that eventually reality will intrude upon the "dream world" of positive thinking—eventually the illusion of happiness will collapse. Regardless of whether or not the reality collapses the illusion, Hedges warns that the purpose of positive psychology is clear: it is a form of manipulation. It teaches people to conform rather than to question.
He further warns that it is not the first time that psychology has been co-opted by organizations of power. For example, when psychologists developed the system Survive Evade Resist Escape (SERE) to help American soldiers endure interrogation techniques, that system was soon compromised by the military. Rather than allowing the knowledge of resistance to survive intact, the military went on to reverse-engineer SERE to break prisoners during interrogation.
The ultimate purpose of positive thinking is to further reinforce and secure power structures and the totalitarian elements of structures of power within society against questioning and against reality.
In “The Illusion of America,” Hedges recalls that he used to live in a country called America. He does not suggest that the past was idyllic, but he does remember that although some were disadvantaged, there was nevertheless hope that things might some day improve.
America paid its workers good wages, and it granted these workers health care and pensions. The state provided public goods such as education, the rule of law, and a respect for human rights.
This America, Hedges argues, is all but lost, and America's ideals have become little more than empty phrases. For example, the government does not rule by the governed's consent. Rather, power has been co-opted by oligarchs, corporations, and the...
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