The central thesis of this book is that we have as a society become so detached from reality that we’ve lost any ability to influence our political or economic destiny. The author asserts that this detachment is no accident. It’s a product of corporate efforts to alter the culture in such a way as to enhance their short-term interests. Various tactics are employed including: mis-directing the anger of the economically alienated; distracting the public with celebrity obsession; manipulating the educational process so as to encourage compliance and discourage debate; brainwashing employees under the guise of “positive psychology” training techniques; corrupting the political process through campaign financing abuse, blitzkrieg lobbying, and lucrative post-government employment; and domination of the political dialogue through the use of “expert” news commentators. All of these efforts combine to create a disempowered public too distracted, apathetic, cynical or deluded to resist expansion of corporate power, even when that power is being used to drag down the standard-of-living of most American citizens.
Hedges maintains that the loss of the critical skills of literacy have led us to become incapable of thinking for ourselves. We have become as malleable as children. In his effort to convince readers of the severity of the problem of low literacy, Hedges employs a dramatic style that some might call hyperbole. Others might accuse him of mucking about in the sewers to dig up the worst aspects of society in professional wrestling and the porn industry. There’s no question that Hedges is calling our attention to all sorts of unpleasant realities. He believes in the necessity of dealing with reality, despite its unpleasantness. He also understands our reluctance to do so. He writes, “The worse reality becomes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it ...”
I’d say that I’ve arrived at similar conclusions as Mr. Hedges regarding the issue of literacy. However, my concept of “marketing literacy” is less grandiose than what he’s advocating. Mine is a more functional literacy with no need for references to dead philosophers. Marketing literacy is something that could be taught in high schools, junior colleges, or the local learning annex. Students don’t need much in the way of pre-requisites to be able to inoculate themselves against deceptive marketing techniques. The main obstacle is one of overcoming the tradition of “exploitive leadership” in which charlatans try to build their own credibility by decrying other charlatans. I believe that capable followship is possible provided we start with some honest leadership.
To the list of illusions that Mr. Hedges provides, I’d like to add one more: the illusion of inclusion. This is the illusion that we all have whereby we believe that we will be included among the fortunate few because misfortune happens only to those who deserve it. There are plenty of people who understand that the corporate model is one in which there are squeezers and those who are to be squeezed. This model requires a plantation economy morality that exalts the insiders and denigrates the outsiders. Those content with this arrangement obviously view themselves as insiders even when they work for companies that are actively shedding employees. Many of these people are happy to be making good money for digging shallow graves, never stopping to wonder if maybe someday one of those graves might be their own.
This is a disconcerting book and Mr. Hedges seems to believe that we have good reason to be disconcerted. I tend to agree although he may have painted a picture that’s gloomier than the reality it’s meant to depict. There are still millions of people actively critiquing the politico-economic culture of this country and this book is a valuable tool to help in doing so.