Chris Hedges worries that American culture is in precipitous decline. His book, Empire of Illusion (Nation Books, 2009) argues that the end of literacy constitutes a triumph of spectacle and illusion over reality. Only 20% of the public reads even one book in a given year. A society captive to images prizes effortless entertainment over substance. It gives up its intellectual tools for coping with real-world complexities.
The problem, Hedges argues, applies specifically to war. “The chasm between movie exploits and the reality of war, which takes less than a minute in a firefight to grasp, is immense. The shock of realty brings with it the terrible realization that we are not who we thought we were” (p. 20). The actual experience of soldiers and marines entering combat explodes “the mythic narrative of heroism and patriotic glory sold to the public by the Pentagon’s public relations machine and Hollywood” (p. 21).
Such experiential knowledge does not translate well in a consumer-celebrity culture that indulges fantasies, stereotypes, and clichés. Critics of empty culture, junk politics, and chauvinism are shunned or simply ignored.
Supposedly, we fight our ongoing wars to protect and preserve freedom and democracy. Tyranny is America’s designated enemy. But what if we are our own worst enemy? What if the biggest threat comes from within, not from freedom being crushed but from our own lack of interest?
Hedges captures this possibility well with a quotation from Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death (Penguin 1985, p. 80). Postman observes that George Orwell “feared . . . those who would ban books,” while Aldous Huxley feared that no one would want to read a book. Orwell “feared those who would deprive us of information,” while Huxley feared that too much information would reduce us to “passivity and egoism.” Ultimately, Orwell “feared we would become a captive culture,” while “Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture” because of our “almost infinite appetite for distractions.”
Hedges is correct, I think, to worry us over a “public mythology” that undermines open society by trivializing the world. War culture thrives on simplistic imagery.