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Book Excerpt: ‘Empire of Illusion’
Posted on Jul 30, 2009
By Chris Hedges
The “dream team” burst into applause again. “Well, you owe this to yourself,” said Byram. “But you also owe it to these fantastic experts. Guys, come on in.”
The crowd of smiling experts closed in on their creation, clapping as they approached.
At the end of each episode the two contestants were called before Byram to hear who would advance to the pageant. The winner often wept and was hugged by the loser. Byram then pulled the loser aside for “one final surprise.” The double doors opened once more, and her family was invited onto the set for a joyful reunion. In celebrity culture, family is the consolation prize for not making it to the pageant.
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
By Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 240 pages
The Swan’s transparent message is that once these women have been surgically “corrected” to resemble mainstream celebrity beauty as closely as possible, their problems will be solved. “This is a positive show where we want to see how these women can make their dreams come true once they have what they want,” said Cecile Frot-Coutaz, CEO of FremantleMedia North America, producers of The Swan. Troubled marriages, abusive relationships, unemployment, crushing self-esteem problems—all will vanish along with the excess fat off their thighs. They will be new. They will be flawless. They will be celebrities.
In the Middle Ages, writes Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety, stained glass windows and vivid paintings of religious torment and salvation controlled and influenced social behavior. Today we are ruled by icons of gross riches and physical beauty that blare and flash from television, cinema, and computer screens. People knelt before God and the church in the Middle Ages. We flock hungrily to the glamorous crumbs that fall to us from glossy magazines, talk and entertainment shows, and reality television. We fashion our lives as closely to these lives of gratuitous consumption as we can. Only a life with status, physical attributes and affluence is worth pursuing.
Hedonism and wealth are openly worshipped on shows such as The Hills, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, My Super Sweet 16, and The Real Housewives of ... The American oligarchy, one percent of whom control more wealth than the bottom ninety percent combined, are the characters we envy and watch on television. They live and play in multimillion-dollar beach houses and expansive modern lofts. They marry professional athletes and are chauffeured in stretch limos to spa appointments. They rush from fashion shows to movie premieres, flaunting their surgically enhanced, perfect bodies in haute couture. Their teenagers throw $200,000 parties and have $1 million dollar weddings. This life is held before us like a beacon. This life, we are told, is the most desirable, the most gratifying.
The working classes, comprising tens of millions of struggling Americans, are shut out of television’s gated community. They have become largely invisible. They are mocked, even as they are tantalized, by the lives of excess they watch on the screen in their living rooms. Almost none of us will ever attain these lives of wealth and power. Yet we are told that if we want it badly enough, if we believe sufficiently in ourselves, we too can have everything. We are left, when we cannot adopt these impossible lifestyles as our own, with feelings of inferiority and worthlessness. We have failed where others have succeeded.
We consume countless lies daily, false promises that if we spend more money, if we buy this brand or that product, if we vote for this candidate, we will be respected, envied, powerful, loved, and protected. The flamboyant lives of celebrities and the outrageous characters on television, movies, professional wrestling, and sensational talk shows are peddled to us, promising to fill up the emptiness in our own lives. Celebrity culture encourages everyone to think of themselves as potential celebrities, as possessing unique if unacknowledged gifts. It is, as Christopher Lasch diagnosed, a culture of narcissism. Faith in ourselves, in a world of make-believe, is more important than reality. Reality, in fact, is dismissed and shunned as an impediment to success, a form of negativity. The New Age mysticism and pop psychology of television personalities, evangelical pastors, along with the array of self-help bestsellers penned by motivational speakers, psychiatrists, and business tycoons, all peddle a fantasy. Reality is condemned in these popular belief systems as the work of Satan, as defeatist, as negativity or as inhibiting our inner essence and power. Those who question, those who doubt, those who are critical, those who are able to confront reality and who grasp the hollowness of celebrity culture, are shunned and condemned for their pessimism. The illusionists who shape our culture, and who profit from our incredulity, hold up the gilded cult of us. Popular expressions of religious belief, personal empowerment, corporatism, political participation, and self-definition argue that all of us are special, entitled, and unique. All of us, by tapping into our inner reserves of personal will and undiscovered talent, by visualizing what we want, can achieve, and deserve to achieve, happiness, fame, and success. This relentless message cuts across ideological lines. This mantra has seeped into every aspect of our lives. We are all entitled to everything.
American Idol, a talent-search reality show that airs on Fox, is one of the most popular shows on American television. The show travels to different American cities in a “countrywide search” for the contestants who will continue to the final competition in Hollywood. The producers of the show introduced a new focus in the 2008-2009 season on the personal stories of the contestants.
During the Utah auditions we meet Megan Corkrey, 23, the single mother of a toddler. She has long dirty-blond hair, and a wholesome, pretty face. A tattoo sleeve covers her right arm from the shoulder to below the elbow. She wears a black, grey, and white dress reminiscent of the 1950s, and ballet flats. She is a font designer.
In an interview Corkrey says, “I am a mother. He will be two in December.” We see Corkrey with a little blond boy, reading a book together on a beanbag chair. Breezy guitar music plays. “His name is Ryder.” We see Corkrey kissing Ryder and putting him to bed. “I recently decided to get a divorce, which is new.” The guitar music turns pensive. “The life I had planned for us, the life I’d pictured, wasn’t going to happen. I cried a lot for a while. I don’t think I stopped crying. And Ryder, of course, you can be crying, and then he walks by, and does something ridiculous, and you can’t help but smile and laugh.” We see Corkrey laughing with her son on the floor. “And a little piece kind of heals up a little bit.”
The montage of Corkrey’s life fills the screen as the rock ballad swells. “I can laugh at myself, while the tears roll down …,” sings the band. We see Corkrey and her son looking out a window. She holds her son up to a basketball hoop as he clutches a blue ball.
“It was kind of crazy, I found out Idol was coming to Salt Lake, and I’d just decided on the divorce, and for the first time in my life it was a crossroads where ANYTHING can happen!! So why not go for what I love to do?”
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