Research Cycle

 Vol 6|No4|June|2010
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Book Review

Empire of Illusion:
The End of Literacy
and the Triumph of Spectacle

By Jamie McKenzie

Chris Hedges' book is full of piercing insights and astute observations. Anyone who cares about the future of American democracy and culture should give this book a thoughtful read — but be forewarned that his concerns about the drift of culture take on a severity that turns this book into a doomsday tract toward the end. I found the opening chapters more judicious and convincing than the final chapters. Even so, many of his observations about entertainment, illusion and spectacle ring true, and his comments about the decline of thought, reading and literacy seem spot on.

By Jamie McKenzie
About Author © 2010, all rights reserved

Celebrities and Actors command
more attention on most days
than world leaders and world events

of staggering importance.

Empire of Illusion is published by Nation Books, New York, NY (2009). Order from Amazon


Illusion is a basic theme of Hedges' book. Each of the five chapters includes the word in its title:

  1. The Illusion of Literacy
  2. The Illusion of Love
  3. The Illusion of Wisdom
  4. The Illusion of Happiness
  5. The Illusion of America

Hedges claims that most citizens prefer illusion to reality — with endless wars, bank bailouts, home foreclosures and the erosion of good paying jobs making fantasy and denial infinitely less painful.

Hedges documents this preference for illusion and spectacle with a chapter on professional wrestling and a chapter on pornography. These are tough chapters to read — confronting the distorted human behaviors portrayed by his sharpened pen. The applause for sickening violence is a form of pornography in itself - an obscenity that is not unlike the crowd in the Roman Circus voting with screams and down-turned thumbs for a gladiator's death.

Hedges warns in later chapters that tens of millions of Americans have been so alienated by their falling incomes and loss of jobs that they might easily be mobilized by political extremists to reject the existing system in favor of some new regime that promises much that is missing. It happened to Weimar Germany and could happen again.

A brief scan of the political horizon lends some weight to his fears. Strident rhetoric dominates the airwaves while civility lies bleeding in the alley. The emotional appeals of demagogues stir the crowd while reason is shoved aside or simply ignored.

The Focus of the Media

On any given day, the media provide a menu of stories dominated by scandal, celebrities, the outrageous and the absurd. It is rare when CNN includes more than 10-20% true news stories in this daily listing.

On the 16th of June 2010, CNN offered the following stories:

Latest news

* Last meal for inmate facing firing squad
* U.S. sanctions target Iran nuke program
* Doctor: Bin Laden hunter is mentally ill
* Van der Sloot's Peru prison 'hell'
* Cop on video hitting woman reassigned
* 'Female Viagra' results unexciting
* Cell users to get radiation warning
* Ticker: GOPer's surprise past revealed
* Bristol Palin 'co-parenting' with Levi
* 'American Pie's' Chris Klein arrested
* Shaun White soars in video game
* Boy comes face to face with bear
* Host S. Africa loses

In addition to these items, there were six devoted to the Gulf Oil Spill:

Gulf oil disaster

* Obama: No cap on BP's $20 billion fund
* No more BP dividends in 2010 Fortune
* LIVE: See oil gush into the Gulf
* Cafferty: Vacation on Gulf Coast?
* Carville: Obama's now getting it right
* Spill estimates: 1K to 60K to ???

June 16 was a day with more "news" reported than usual, but there were probably at least 200 "true" news stories never reported or mentioned by CNN and most of the media. True news is an endangered species.

The crew below filming a segment for ER had tied ducks to anchors in the park to give the appearance of a tranquil pond filled with waterfowl, knowing that real ducks would have fled the hectic scene if given the choice.

Photoshopping reality has become a central theme of this culture.

Original photograph by Jamie McKenzie in Paris. Camera crew filming scene for the TV program ER. © 2006, Jamie McKenzie

This cultural drift is ominous. If we have so little tolerance for what Michael Leunig calls “the difficult truth,” (see his poem Verity at then how can we hope to wrestle with reality?

As Beth Orton sings . . .

“Reality never lives up to all that it used to be.”
Later she adds, “The best part of life, it seemed, was a dream.”

Lyrics from “Best Bit” on her album Pass in Time (2003)

The Focus of the Schools

Because of the current fascination with test scores and accountability, American schools must struggle with narrow definitions of schooling, curriculum and information, reverting to the factory style of learning portrayed in Pink Floyd's Another Brick in the Wall. As long as both political parties stress testing over capacity building and the full funding of schools, the current policy defeats any broadly defined literacy agenda — the dozen or more literacies that would counter the dark forces outlined in Empire of Illusion.

The Illusion of the Race to the Top

Sadly, the fanfare and rhetoric associated with the Obama administration's Race to the Top is an example of spectacle shoving aside reality.

State and local budget shortfalls are severely damaging the foundations of schooling as teachers and school librarians are laid off nearly everywhere. The quality of US Education is under severe attack by these reductions. We are decaying and collapsing — not racing to the top.

The focus on test scores, accountability and wild experimentation offered by Obama's and Duncan's Race to the Top is flawed and all too reminiscent of the Bush administration's damaging strategies. We are fiddling while schools and schooling decline.

Secretary Duncan's highly touted reform efforts in Chicago have failed to pass muster when evaluation reports have surfaced. It turns out that his Chicago miracles are cousins of the Texas miracles claimed by the previous administration.

Politicians of both parties, it seems, are quick to embrace simple solutions to complex problems, offering the public sound bites, gimmicks and mind candy rather than the difficult truth.


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