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Book Excerpt: ‘Empire of Illusion’
Posted on Jul 30, 2009
By Chris Hedges
Corkrey enters the audition room. The judges—Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, and Kara DioGuardi—are seated behind a long table in front of a window. They each have large red tumblers with “Coca-Cola” printed on them. They seem charmed by her exuberant presence. She sings “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from Show Boat. Her performance is charismatic and quirky. She improvises freely and assuredly with the rhythms and notes of the song, beaming the whole time.
“I really like you,” says Abdul. “I’m bordering on loving you. I think I’m loving you. Yeah, I do. Simon?”
“One of my favorite auditions,” says Cowell in a monotone.
“Yess!!” grins Corkrey.
“Because you’re different,” continues Cowell sternly. “You are one of the few I’m going to remember. I like you, I like your voice, I mean seriously good voice. I loved it.”
“You’re an interesting girl. You have a glow about you, you have an incredible face,” says DioGuardi.
The judges vote.
“Absolutely yes,” says Cowell.
“Love you,” says Abdul.
“Yes!” says DioGuardi.
“One hundred percent maybe,” smiles Jackson.
“You’re goin’ to Hollywood!” cheers DioGuardi as the inspirational rock music swells.
“YESS!!! Thank you, guys!” Corkrey screams with delight. She runs out of the audition room into a crowd of her cheering friends. The music plays as she dances down the street waving her large yellow ticket, the symbol of her success.
Celebrities, who often come from humble backgrounds, are held up as proof that anyone, even we, can be adored by the world. These celebrities, like saints, are living proof that the impossible is always possible. Our fantasies of belonging, of fame, of success and of fulfillment, are projected onto celebrities. These fantasies are stoked by the legions of those who amplify the culture of illusion, who persuade us that the shadows are real. The juxtaposition of the impossible illusions inspired by celebrity culture and our “insignificant” individual achievements, however, eventually leads to frustration, anger, insecurity, and invalidation. It results, ironically, in a self-perpetuating cycle that drives the frustrated, alienated individual with even greater desperation and hunger away from reality, back toward the empty promises of those who seduce us, who tell us what we want to hear. We beg for more. We ingest these lies until our money runs out. And when we fall into despair we medicate ourselves, as if the happiness we have failed to find in the hollow game is our deficiency. And, of course, we are told it is.
Human beings become a commodity in a celebrity culture. They are objects, like consumer products. They have no intrinsic value. They must look fabulous and live on fabulous sets. Those who fail to meet the ideal are belittled and mocked. Friends and allies are to be used and betrayed during the climb to fame, power and wealth. And when they are no longer useful they are to be discarded. In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s novel about a future dystopia, people spend most of the day watching giant television screens that show endless scenes of police chases and criminal apprehensions. Life, Bradbury understood, once it was packaged and filmed, became the most compelling form of entertainment.
The moral nihilism of celebrity culture is played out on reality television shows, most of which encourage a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness, and betrayal. Education, building community, honesty, transparency, and sharing are qualities that will see you, in a gross perversion of democracy and morality, voted off a reality show. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, non-persons. Life, these shows teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition. Life is about the personal humiliation of those who oppose us. Those who win are the best. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Compassion, competence, intelligence, and solidarity with others are forms of weakness. And those who do not achieve celebrity status, who do not win the prize money or make millions in Wall Street firms, deserve to lose. Those who are denigrated and ridiculed on reality television, often as they sob in front of the camera, are branded as failures. They are responsible for their rejection. They are deficient.
In an episode from the second season of the CBS reality game show Survivor, cast members talk about exceptional friendships they have made within their “tribe,” or team. Maralyn, also known as Mad Dog, is a fifty-two-year-old retired police officer with a silver crew cut and a tall, mannish build. She is sunning herself in a shallow stream, singing “On the Street Where You Live.” Tina, a personal nurse and mother, walks up the stream toward her.
“Sing it, girl! I just followed your voice.”
“Is it that loud?”
“Maralyn, she’s kind of like our little songbird, and our little cheerleader in our camp,” Tina says in an interview. “Maralyn and I have bonded, more so than I have with any of the other people. It might be our ages, it might just be that we kind of took up for one another.”
We see Tina and Maralyn swimming and laughing together in the river.
“Tina is a fabulous woman,” says Maralyn in an interview. “She is a star. I trust Tina the most.”
Maralyn and Tina’s tribe, Ogakor, loses an obstacle course challenge, in which all the tribe members are tethered together. If one person falls, the entire team is slowed. Mad Dog Maralyn falls several times, and is hauled back to her feet by Colby, the “cowboy” from Texas.
Because they lost, the members of Ogakor must vote off one of their tribe members. The camera shows small groups of twos and threes in huddled, intense discussion.
“The mood in the camp is a very sad mood, but it’s also a very strategic mood,” says Tina. “Everyone’s thinking, ‘Who’s thinking what?’ ”
The vote is taken at dusk, in the “tribal council” area. It resembles a set from Disney World’s Adventureland. A ring of tall stone monoliths is stenciled with petroglyphs. It is lit by torches. A campfire blazes in the center of the ring. Primitive drums and flutes are heard.
The Ogakor team arrives at dusk, each holding a torch. They sit before Survivor’s host, Jeff Probst.
“So I just want to talk about a couple of big topics,” says Probst, who wears a safari outfit. “Trust. Colby, is there anyone here that you don’t trust, wouldn’t trust?”
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
By Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 240 pages
“Sure,” says Colby.
“Tell me about that.”
“Well, I think that’s part of the game,” says Colby. “It’s way too early to tell exactly who you can trust, I think.”
“What about you, Mitchell? Would you trust everyone here for forty-two days?” asks Probst. “I think the motto is, ‘Trust no one,’ ” answers Mitchell. “I have a lot of faith in a good number of these people, but I couldn’t give 100 percent of my trust.”
“What about you, Mad Dog?” asks Probst. “These all your buddies?”
Maralyn looks around at her team members. “Yes,” she says unequivocally. “Yes. And, Jeff, I trust with my heart.”
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