Thursday 19 May 2016

Chris Hedge: Empire of Illusion

I came across Chris Hedge’s Empire of Illusion: the end of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle (2009) by chance some days ago. Although written nearly 8 years ago, some of his findings illustrate why Donald Trump is such as success. 

Functional illiteracy in North America is epidemic. There are 7 million illiterate Americans. Another 27 million are unable to read well enough to complete a job application, and 30 million can’t read a simple sentence. There are some 50 million who read at a fourth- or fifth-grade level. Nearly a third of the nation’s population is illiterate or barely literate–a figure that is growing by more than 2 million per year. A third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book. 


Television, a medium built around the skillful manipulation of images, ones that can overpower reality, is our primary form of mass communication. A television is turned on for six hours and forty-seven minutes a day in the average household. The average American daily watches more than four hours of television. That amounts to twenty-eight hours a week, or two months of uninterrupted television-watching a year. That same person will have spent nine years in front of a television by the time he or she is sixty. Television speaks in a language of familiar, comforting cliches and exciting images. Its format, from reality shows to sit-coms, is predictable. It provides a mass, virtual experience that colors the way many people speak and interact with one another. It creates a false sense of intimacy with our elite—celebrity actors, newspeople, politicians, business tycoons and sports stars. And everything and everyone that television transmits is validated and enhanced by the medium.

The worse reality becomes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it, and the more it distracts itself with a squalid pseudo-events of celebrity breakdowns, gossip and trivia. These are the debauched revels of a dying civilization. The most ominous cultural divide lies between those who chase after these manufactured illusions, and those who are able to puncture the illusion and confront reality. More than the divides of race, class, or gender, more than rural or urban, believer or unbeliever, red state or blue state, our culture has been carved up into radically distinct, unbridgeable and antagonistic entities that no longer speak the same language and cannot communicate. This is the divide between a literate, marginalized minority and those who have been consumed by an illiterate mass culture. 

Some of his conclusions are questionable. But his analysis is largely correct, and since 2008 things have only gotten worse. 

(c) Philip Ammerman, 2016

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