Decline and fall
Decrying our abandonment of the values of literacy and intellectual rigor for reality TV and fantasy thinking
Like everything but Twitter and unemployment, polemic is in decline. The genre that sustained the likes of Martin Luther, Emma Goldman, and George Orwell seems tired today, a shell of its once-formidable self. Perhaps it’s a victim of this post-Freudian, post-’60s age: It’s tough to smack slumbering readers awake when discontent is the new content, and the bourgeois shock themselves with fetishistic abandon.
The truth is, polemic is difficult. Born in anger, to succeed it must transcend the wrath that inspires it. The smart polemicist knows that rather than inviting us to share smugly her disdain, we must feel the bite of its keen edge ourselves; however subtly, the integrity it impugns must ultimately be our own. It’s a fraught path - one marked out neither by logic nor statistics, but by sheer cunning. The trope of decadence (which I deploy above) makes for especially petty polemic; for thousands of years, would-be gadflies have warned their fellows that the best years are behind them and the end is nigh.
It’s for this reason that Chris Hedges’s “Empire of Illusion’’ falls short of the high mark he has set in a storied career. I agree with almost everything Hedges alleges here, but I dislike myself for it. I want this courageous journalist to exhort me, to compel me to change my life; instead, I’m left with a tepid sensation, a smug hopelessness.
Hedges’s thesis is familiar: In the bosom of the richest, most powerful country the world has ever known, we’re gorging on bread and circuses, amusing ourselves to death, living in a medium-is-the-message simulacrum, caught between a mandarin elite and the not-so-discreet charms of the booboisie. If this sounds like a bundle of clichés, well it is, and make no mistake. Throughout “Empire of Illusion,’’ Hedges’s rhetoric reminds us that moral disdain breeds on the left as well as the right - that progressives hate the lumpenproletariat as much as conservatives do. But while the left once knew how to appeal to the wants and needs of the masses, the poles are now reversed; it is now the right who pull the crowd’s strings, while a middlebrow left looks on in supercilious dismay (with happy exceptions to be found among the comedians).
Hedges flirts with originality and surprise in the reportorial catalog of scenes and figures through which he anatomizes our melancholy: From the spectacles of professional wrestling and pornography he moves on to the seductive appeals of higher education and pop psychology before searching out their grand synthesis in a corporate culture rife with faux freedoms. The transitions can be jarring, abrupt: By switching abruptly from porn to elite schools, he leaves the reader with the sense that one somehow begets the other. Like a plot line for an adult film, the logic here is cracked but compelling. Hedges is better by far when picking apart “positive psychology,’’ a quasi-discipline compounded of corrupt scientism and new-age optimism. By tracing the corporate speaking gigs and dubious funding of positive psychologists, Hedges uncovers the dark side of their feel-good ideology. “Those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes, no matter the external reality, are in some ways ill’’ by positive psychology’s lights, he explains. “Their attitudes, like those of recalcitrant Chinese during the Cultural Revolution, need correction.’’
But trenchant moments like this drown in the lugubriousness of the book as a whole. “Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die,’’ Hedges concludes, adding that “the dying gasps of all empires . . . have been characterized by a disconnect between the elites and reality.’’ Surely this is true in some simple sense - but only in a simple sense. Many empires, after all, thrived for centuries on the basis of illusions religious, political, military, and cultural. What in the end is a culture but a tissue of illusion? It may by turns be elegant, tawdry, or downright ugly, but none of these qualities predicts a culture’s fate. The necessary conclusion - not cynical, merely Darwinian - is that societies need not be good or beautiful in order to survive. For Hedges, however, our society’s problems are chiefly aesthetic ones; his solution, although demanding, is not much more complex than positive psychology. We must stop “sever[ing] ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance,’’ he tells us, and cling to love, a principle that is forever “indifferent to the siren calls of celebrity, unable to bow before illusions, defying the lust for power.’’ Joe the Plumber solaces himself with guns and religion; for Hedges’s audience, it’s love and the New Yorker.
Hedges has reported with courage and wisdom from the most dangerous places on Earth; he’s witnessed the worst human acts and limned their significance, showing that even our seemingly-formless fears and angers have shape and meaning. Compared with the horrors of war, all of our vanities and desires are but shadows on the wall of the cave. Bringing this hard-won perspective to the work of polemical cultural criticism is a feat that “Empire of Illusion’’ does not quite accomplish.
Matthew Battles is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain.