In describing the use of illusion as a distraction from the reality of our lives, it is not surprising that Hedges quotes one of the first recorded metaphors which explained this distinction, Plato's cave dwellers, who thought the shadows on the wall were the actual reality. Illusion vs. Reality; Illusion as a deliberate distraction from Reality - issues that have been with us for a long time. Hedges has written an angry polemic against the Illusions that dominate American life; those that succumb to them, and those that promote them. Have the use of illusions in our society become more prevalent today than 100 years ago? Hedges does not really say. But what he does focus on is the here and now and how it could be so much different.
Hedges account is richly anecdotal; certainly the one I will always remember, and Hedges provides the references, is that 42% of college graduates never read another book in their lives (p 44). What he does not mention, and the reader can do their own informal survey, is the quality of books that are read by the other 58%. A casual perusal of an airport bookstore, or even the top 100 books, in terms of sales, at Amazon, can be disheartening. "The Illusion of Literacy" is a fitting title for the first chapter.
And in that first chapter the author managed to "draw me in" by discussing the illusion that is the "drama" of the World Wrestling Federation. I used to watch it with my son, when he was 9-10 years old, and even then he realized it was hokey. But Hedges brings out how many adults are still enthralled with its carefully stage-managed antics, and how they have evolved over time, to correspond with society's larger concerns, from the absolute bad-guys that represented the Soviet Union to the more nuanced changing roles of the groups who battle each other today. Then Hedges goes to Las Vegas, the city that personifies illusions, to attend the AVN (Adult Video News) expo. The chapter is a thoroughly depressing review of the porn industry. I felt it was a deft touch to cover this industry just prior to an even more depressing read, the following chapter on so-called higher education, "The Illusion of Wisdom." I felt this was the strongest chapter in the book, with observations such as: "You can see this retreat into specialized, impenetrable verbal enclaves in every academic department and discipline across the country. The more the universities churn out these stunted men and women, the more we are flooded with a peculiar breed of specialist who use obscure code words as a way to avoid communication." Latter, Hedges makes the following point: "but grabbing what you can, as John Ruskin said, isn't any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists."
The last two chapters cover the "feel-good industry," that is, the power of positive psychology, and it is hard to feel good after reading that chapter - how the promoters tell you that all you have to do is change what is in your mind, and everything else will be OK. In the final chapter, Hedges looks at America as a whole, and conjures up the spectra of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and mentions an author I've only recently become aware of, Joseph Roth, who said in The Emperor's Tomb (Works of Joseph Roth)
that "...at the very end of the empire, even the streetlights long for morning so that they could be extinguished."
Hedges did a good job of convincing me that I needed to revisit some authors I have not read in a long time, specifically, C. Wright Mills, and Aldous Huxley. On page 39 there is a good comparison between Huxley and Orwell, and it clearly appears that Huxley predicted the future better: "What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one...Huxley feared that the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance."
Hedges book is definitely not "feel-good," and some other reviewers have knocked him for that. And it does not offer us a way out of our current situation, and perhaps there isn't one. The book is not a systematic portrait of American society, but rather randomly chosen anecdotal topics. Still, I found it quite thought-provoking, and am glad it was he and not I would delve deeper into the WWF and the "feel-good" movements. A solid, 5-star polemic.
(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on February 19, 2010)