In 2009’s Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges takes an angry look at various “illusions,” distractions, and diversions that he argues are employed to keep people from noticing and responding to the real problems they face. He takes readers on a tour of various spectacles, from professional wrestling to pornography to so-called “reality” TV, which are, he claims, more about escapism and the importance of symbolic imagery than anything else.
After such a thorough, convincing, and insightful tour of the illusory, it makes sense that Hedges (this time accompanied by fellow journalist and excellent image-maker Joe Sacco) would guide readers through the real: real people, real places, real stories, all carefully reported and documented. Focusing on Pine Ridge, South Dakota; Camden, New Jersey; Welch, West Virginia; and Immokalee, Florida before ending at the occupy protests in New York City, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt is filled with interviews, vivid descriptions of the landscapes, and mini-histories for contextualization of the current state of affairs. On top of that, often fitting awkwardly into the larger scheme of things, is Hedges’ energetic, angry side-commentary and analysis, as if the truth weren’t able to speak for itself.
And that is the first of two major problems with the book (or books—more on that in a moment). Empire of Illusion works as an exposé and as an argument because the entire project is based on arguable claims about the intentionality and effects of the culture industry. There, Hedges’ fiery tone and sense of outrage work to make the argument more compelling. But here, when simply showing the sad truth ought to be enough, his sense of outrage crowds in on the reporting, standing as an obstacle readers must pass through in order to begin taking in the material and forming their own judgments and responses. If you want more on that, check out Philip Meyer’s review of the book.
This is part of why I don’t understand Joe Sacco’s contribution of comic book style segments that appear in between Hedge’s prose. While these work well to provide further detail about the various people and places, their tone and style of presentation is so different from Hedges’ writing that switching back and forth between the two is disorienting and detracts from the book’s overall impact. The two distinct styles and two distinct approaches are mashed together, and, unfortunately, each weakens the presence of the other. Better to present them as what they are—two very different representations of the same reality (better off in two separate books).
The other (more important) reason why I don’t understand the incorporation of Sacco’s images and writing here is because their presence undermines the argument Hedges made just a few years ago: that we have become an image-based, image-obsessed culture that is, to use Hedges’ own words, happy to “pay for the chance to suspend reality.” And now, only three years later, Hedges’ writing appears in between pages and pages of imagery, as if readers can’t be trusted (or aren’t literate enough) to get the picture on their own—as if the power of words alone weren’t enough to convey the full grimness of our current situation. As tragically optimistic as Hedges seems to be about the direction of the Occupy movement, it’s disheartening that he doesn’t seem to have as much faith in his previous arguments or in his audience’s ability to absorb them.
But his past arguments about the role of images in our culture aren’t the only thing Hedges appears unaware of here. In its clear, pointed focus on reportage and on the specifics of each area, it seems as if Hedges has forgotten that other people have been chronicling and analyzing the situation too. (And for quite some time.) Sure, the situation may be worsening, but if one were to take Hedges’ word, one might think the conditions he describes are a relatively new development. In actuality, these are the same conditions explained, in detail, by Walter Rodney and Manning Marable in the 70s and 80 and, more recently, by Elaine Brown in her amazing, requisite The Condemnation of Little B. The hopeless, desolate, impoverished areas Hedges terms “sacrifice zones” are the same areas George Jackson was calling “internal colonies” over thirty years ago.
Likewise, it seems that any discussion of Pine Ridge could benefit from putting itself in dialogue with the likes of Jack D. Forbes, whose incredible Columbus and Other Cannibals has much to say, and much insight to offer, about the history and current situation that Hedges and Sacco set out to explore (and beyond).
As smart and well-informed as Hedges is, why isn’t he drawing on the important work that has come before? While he recognizes the history of each area of the country, there is no mention of the history of work already done on these problems at large. His inability to place his ideas in direct conversation with even one other similar work is part of what makes the book so much less compelling and powerful than it might otherwise be. Hedges writes as if there weren’t already entire social movements and organizations focused on this. Are the works they’ve written not safe enough to mention in front of the white liberals browsing Barnes & Noble’s shelves? Do we really need an assessment of things that is so detached from the analysis of critically influential radical figures (which surely aren’t on Barnes & Noble’s shelves, anyway. They will have to be special ordered). What uses could such a cleaned up, decontextualized, purified version have?
There is a lot about this book that is all right. It gives a personal, manageable, tangible face to problems that can otherwise seem so large and nebulous that they’re impossible to digest (although this might be counterproductive in terms of motivating people to respond). But it’s frustrating that Hedges doesn’t seem to think that people will be able to do the digesting on their own. Even more frustrating is that, even as the book ends with a hopeful call to action and increased collaboration, it hasn’t taken much notice of the other people who have been drawing attention to these problems, analyzing the situation, and formulating responses for decades.