Notes on “Empire of Illusion”, Chapter 1., and Bad TV

Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does many things. He is the author of the forthcoming book "The Paris Bureau" from Dio Press (early 2021).

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15 Responses

  1. Bob says:

    Rufus, when you first mentioned this project, on the post that has been taken down, I, sort of in jest, mentioned two illusions that I thought he might consider – religion and lower taxes. While I see the lower tax trope offered by the right as an illusion, bromide, I was not serious in suggesting that it might be a topic considered by Hedges. On the other hand, I was serious when I suggested religion as a source of illusion.

    I have stayed away from any sort of research while reading the book so I did not know that Hedges was a former seminarian, that fact is not mentioned in the short bio on the dust jacket.

    As I read the book I underlined. I also noted the times he mentioned, broadly, religion. In the first chapter I noted ten occurrences. None of these were complimentary. I will note only the first on page 6. “It is the stuff of classical myths, including the narrative of Jesus Christ.”

    So, I was happy enough to see him address a subject I see as a source of illusion, although it is not a major point of discussion.

    I have no idea what Hedges believes regarding the soul but I have a pretty good idea that he has little use for religion.

    The term you use, Jeremiad, to describe the book is accurate. Polemic also works.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Bob says:

      @Bob, I’ve been sort of wondering if we could contact him. I have some other questions about the book. It’s a good point that he’s likely a lapsed former seminarian and quite likely a non-believer. However, I still see the soul and its health, as well as the divine, as sub-themes in the text. He gets more explicit about why he sees all of these things as spiritually destructive in the last chapter and, having read that about fifteen minutes before writing this, that was probably in the back of my mind.

      I don’t know that he discusses lower taxes, as such, but he does seem to think that the country is fairly screwed economically. Quite a bit of that last chapter deals with the “illusion of the free market” and, if I’m not mistaken, he really seems to think the economy will collapse and disillusionment will be a matter of accepting that America is doomed.Report

      • Rufus in reply to Rufus says:

        @Rufus, Actually, it just occurred to me tonight that I’ve read another book by Hedges- “American Fascists” was about the rise of the Christian right in America, and I read it one afternoon in the library. All I remember is that it was also polemical and I didn’t really care for it. But he must talk about his religious beliefs there. He also did a book called “I Don’t Believe in Atheists”, which took on Hitchens et al.Report

  2. As Rufus notes, “…this is a jeremiad, instead of journalism“. Another take I briefly entertained on the book, and this most reminds me of it:

    Chapter 1: “You watch too much television! It’s going to rot your brains!”

    Chapter 2: “You [masturbate] too much! Go out and have a real relationship with a real person instead!”

    Chapter 3: “You don’t study enough, and you don’t study the right subjects! Get a real education!”

    Chapter 4: “Don’t just listen to people who tell you who great you are, and then not do anything about making your crappy life any better than it is.”

    Chapter 5: “Don’t believe what other people tell you, especially about politics and economics; make up your own mind and speak up for yourself instead of just going along to get along.”

    All of this is probably true and good advice. But none of it is even remotely new, either on a qualitative or a quantitative level.Report

    • @Transplanted Lawyer, No, it’s not new, but I think he’s also saying the problems have become more intense as a smaller percentage of the population reads books. This is, of course, a hard argument to prove, but an easy argument to sell within a book to readers. It reminds me of a tee shirt I once saw that said “I hate illiterates”.

      I think the use of a book like this is to send up a flare for others who might be thinking the same things. For me, the first thing that came to mind when reading this chapter was a party me and my wife attended recently with people our age (mid-30s) none of whom seemed able to chat about anything but Tiger Woods’s wayward penis. Finally, someone asked my wife what she thinks about it and she said, bless her heart, “Oh, I don’t give a shit what he does with his dick! I just want golfers to play golf well.”

      And, if the argument inspires a few readers to be more aggressive about not wasting their time on useless twaddle, I think maybe that’s what Hedges is going for.Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    I am, you may not be surprised to find, a fan of professional wrestling.

    It was interesting reading the portion that opened the book… because, yes, I watched those shows on Monday Night Raw. It seems to me that he got quite a lot wrong about motivations even as he was describing things fairly accurately. He talked about how we identify with the underdogs, or the working man, or the American, or whomever who happens to be fighting against The Man, The Man, or The Foreign Man and that’s why we cheer for the faces and boo the heels.

    But there’s a story that he didn’t tell that I think demostrates that he missed something.

    They did a “WWE Idol” segment on the show a while back. They had an employee who was releasing a CD (I think it was Lilian Garcia) and they wanted to get a couple of singers out first for the crowd to boo before they sent out the singer with actual talent for the contest.

    They brought out Jillian Hall who got the crap booed out of her. (Funny moment: William Regal giving his best Simon Cowell and saying “Tonight’s Main Event has been changed to Roe vs. Wade because *THAT* was an abortion.”)

    Then they brought out Howard Finkel who gave a speech from 20 years prior. “Mr. Volkov asks that you please rise for his rendition of the Soviet National Anthem.”

    Back in 1987, this, of course, would have resulted in boos and chants of USA. The bookers probably thought that it would again…

    There were only a few boos, though… instead, most everybody stood up and sang along phonetically. This was a crowd that had grown up with wrestling… and had heard the first two lines of the Soviet National Anthem dozens or hundreds of times (before the boos drowned it out of course).

    The audience didn’t hate Nikolai Volkov back in the 80’s… the audience *PRETENDED* to hate Nikolai Volkov back in the 80’s. And, 20 years later, they remember hating him fondly to the point where they were willing to sing along rather than start booing the heck out of him.

    I hesitate to call it an “ironic” appreciation of wrestling, because it feels fairly genuine. I know it’s “fake” (has anyone pointed out that Inception is fake yet?) and that is, far from being a drawback, a major selling point. I could watch MMA if I wanted to watch people legitimately trying to hurt (if not harm) each other but I find such to be tremendously depressing.

    The wrestling allows the audience the joys of cheering, of booing, of seeing their favorites win… but also knowing that no one is going to get hurt (indeed, it’s downright scandalous when someone does).

    As for the rest of the chapter, I’ve never watched Jerry or The Swan or any of those other Dalit shows and I don’t think I’ve seen more than one episode of the slightly more middlebrow ones like Survivor… but it sure as hell felt like he was making sweeping generalizations about “our culture” based on Dalit culture when, for any given show out there with a decent rating, it has fewer people watching (by an order of magnitude) than would have been watching at the time that folks would have been booing Nikolai Volkov instead of fondly singing along with him.Report

    • Rufus in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, A number of my friends are really into wrestling and they get together fairly regularly to drink beer and watch the matches. When we were roommates I often joined them. None of them think pro wrestling is “real”, but they all find it entertaining for the quality of the storylines, the grandiose characters, and the unexpected twists in the plot, as well as the choreography involved. One of my friends actually keeps up with the message boards that the wrestlers comment on and the real fans often know well in advance how certain matches are going to play out. He also seems to know a lot of the inside dirt including which wrestlers are gay and living together.

      ‘Ironic’ probably isn’t the right word, but they appreciate wrestling for its cartoonishness and the clever storylines, and not because they take it as reality or are emotionally invested in the characters in the same ways that Hedges, it seems to me, is suggesting. As for Jerry Springer, I knew plenty of people who watched that show- none of whom took it entirely seriously. Hedges sounds to me like he’s saying viewers take these shows as seriously as people once took books.

      It’s a bit like the Glenn Beck debate to me. Lots of people watch his show because it’s so over-the-top and nutty, without actually taking it seriously. But whenever the show is discussed, I hear people say, “Okay, I don’t take it seriously, but what about the people who do?! What are they like?!” I feel like Hedges is speculating about the mythical Jerry Springer viewer who relates to the show on a deeper level.

      Some of the “reality” shows are harder for me to understand. One of the last shows I watched, and it was probably why I stopped, was a program called “Cheaters” that was on about the same spiritual plane as bear baiting or rolling drunks. It was hard for me to understand even an arch or unserious appeal to that show. I watched one episode and felt like I’d just had an unwanted sexual experience with a used car dealer in a box car. Another example would be something like the “Bumfights” DVDs. I don’t know many people who don’t wonder, when they see media products like that if they don’t “say something” pretty disturbing about segments of the population. What they might say, I’m not sure. And, like you, I’m not sure Hedges has quite nailed it.Report

    • @Jaybird, I confess I hadn’t really thought about wrestling as a participatory melodrama, though, with the paying audience members playing the part of people booing the evil Soviet wrestler. I confess that I’m at a loss as to whether that renders wrestling either deeper or shallower than Hedges’ unflattering analysis.

      What I’ve noticed about wrestling fans is that they all harbor conscious awareness that their chosen entertainment is fake “scripted,” but they are usually annoyed when you point that out to them. Of course, movie fans do this sort of thing sometimes too. (I still don’t know if the linked video is a spoof or not.)Report