Reality Check 

Chris Hedges' Cautionary Empire of Illusion

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In the span of two years, Chris Hedges—formerly a foreign correspondent for publications like The Christian Science Monitor and the New York Times, currently a Princeton-based columnist and a senior fellow at the Nation Institute—wrote two seemingly contradictory books on religion and politics. American Fascists (2007) examined the similarities between the present American Christian right and European fascism a century ago; I Don't Believe in Atheists (2008) compared the overreaching secularity of some on the left to their Christian fundamentalist counterparts.

It's to Hedges' credit that these apparent contradictions never came to my mind when reading his previous books, nor his newest, Empire of Illusion. Rather, this ability to observe from divergent perspectives only bolsters his credibility as a journalist and author. (My only objection to Empire of Illusion concerns his very few references to "morality" and "values," which muddy an otherwise lucid and accurate commentary.)

Empire of Illusion is divided into five sections: "The Illusion of Literacy" (investigating the damaging effects of celebrity), "The Illusion of Love" (pornography), "The Illusion of Wisdom" ("elite" educational institutions), "The Illusion of Happiness" (the "power" of positive thinking), and "The Illusion of America" (government and nationalism). All are part and parcel of an ascendant rat's nest fueled by a mainstream aversion to reality. Whether examining the world of professional wrestling or corporate America's insistence that happiness stems from conformity, Hedges imparts that ignoring "reality" begets self-destruction: "Cultures that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality die. The dying gasps of all empires, from the Aztecs to the ancient Romans to the French monarchy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have been characterized by a disconnect between the elites and reality."

Platonic references are prevalent, as the unenlightened cave denizens' fixation on the "illusions" of reality provides a seamless link to the book's subject matter. Hedges reserves the most derision, though, for those who lack self-awareness. It makes no difference that he himself sought education at Harvard, which he criticizes as perpetuating "blind deference to authority," or that he condemns the contemporary US war occupations while claiming not to be a pacifist. The little hope there is in Empire of Illusion is reserved for those of us who, like everyone else, adhere to the cult of illusion, but do not yet bow down to the cult of the self.

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