Sunday, September 20, 2009

Book Review: Empire of Illusion

All through this book I was trying to think of where I had heard of its author before. Then in the final chapter he admits, "As I was writing my book American Fascists on the Christian Right ... " and everything fell into place. This screed, at times spot on but just as often over the top and vague, was written by the same fellow who used to be a foreign correspondent and now likens conservative Christians to fascists. I'm glad it took me that long to figure out why his views were so extreme, because I'm well aware of his previous work and I may have listened a bit less if I knew he was the type not to really listen to conservative Christians. I'm not all that conservative myself but I am tired of those on the left who will not really listen to them/us. And Hedges is one of those.

So this book is a mixture of easy targets, good honest jeremiads, and old liberal tropes dressed up in the latest news of Spring 2009 when the book apparently went to press. In the past few months things have turned around enough -- while they are still shaky -- that the apocalyptic pronouncements in the last chapter about the coming systemic collapse ring hollow, although, he's right, you never know. I just find the book format to be too unresponsive, and the last chapter itself colors the rest of the book as not taking the long view.

An outline of the criticized institutions:
1.) Wrestling/television/celebrity culture: I thought the comparison of celebrity worship to ancient gods is actually useful and helpful, and there were some things I didn't know about wrestling, but you know, I really don't think the "uncensored" episodes of Jerry Springer are anything but the most extreme edge of TV ...
2.) Pornography: The thrown-away too-old actresses are the angle here, and the absolute abuse that is endemic to the industry. Probably the most-agreed with chapter on my part, although the repetition does get absolutely sickening. I think a stronger theology of sin and the body would strengthen this chapter.
3.) College: Even Berkeley's too hung up on football. Well, there is a reorganization of priorities going on right now, and if it's not a real re-org, colleges will go the way of the newspapers. But I have hope that there's lots of things we do better than anyone else in this area.
4.) Positive thinking: Now that Dan Brown has revealed he is on the side of the "positive thinkers" I am absolutely sure I'm against it. Some useful observations in Hedges chapter but also an easy target.
5.) Politics: By the time he started quoting Nader extensively I started reaching for my David Brooks as an antidote. The good-to-not ratio was way down in this chapter and the citations of Spring 2009 data way up.

So Jeremiads are always readable, but not always right. I really wish this had more about where to go with all this beyond three pages about love tacked on the end. Too many times it doesn't offer an alternative after trashing what rightfully should be trashed and the end is downright alarmist. Hedges, you had me for the first half but then you lost me. Too bad, because I think if you'd stop calling them fascists that the church would agree with you on quite a bit. Up until you get to decrying elites while at the same time deploring pretty much everyone else in politics. Isn't that a bit elitist?

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