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Book Excerpt: ‘Empire of Illusion’
Posted on Jul 30, 2009
By Chris Hedges
In one segment from Jerry Springer: Wild & Outrageous, Volume 1, a man and his wife sit on the Springer stage. They are obese, soft, and pale, with mounds of fluffy brown hair. Their bodies look like uncooked dough. The man wears a blue polo shirt and brown pants. The woman wears a dark pink shirt with long sleeves and a long black skirt.
“I have a sex fantasy,” the man tells his wife solemnly. His voice is quiet and nasal. She recoils with raised eyebrows. “Do you remember that bachelor party I went to three weeks ago? There was a stripper there. She was dressed up as a cheerleader, and she just turned me on. I mean, I got—I have this thing—I don’t know if it’s her or the outfit, I think it’s the outfit. But, I’d really love for you to dress up as a cheerleader. For me. And do a cheer that’s especially for me, and. … You could be my cheerleader … of my heart.”
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle
By Chris Hedges
Nation Books, 240 pages
The woman, still sitting in her chair, has her hands on her hips and looks affronted. There are close-ups of the Springer audience bursting into raucous laughter, hoots, and applause.
“I brought her here to show you—” continues the man. He is cut off by the whoops of the audience.
“Let’s bring her out!” says Jerry. The audience cheers.
Shaking yellow pom-poms, a skinny blond girl in a purple and yellow cheerleader outfit runs out onstage. Her body is like a stick. She turns a cartwheel and moons the audience, smacking her own bottom several times. Behind her, the obese man is shown grinning. The obese woman is waving in disgust at the cheerleader.
“Is everybody ready to do a cheer just for Jerry?!” squeaks the cheerleader.
“YEAAAHHH!!!” hollers the audience.
“I can’t hear yoooouuuuuu …” pipes the cheerleader, lifting her skirt up to her waist.
The audience goes crazy. She leads a cheer, spelling out Jerry’s name.
“Now that you’ve seen these pom-poms, how’d you like to see these pom-poms?” she squeaks, shaking her flat chest. A rapid electronic beat fills the studio, and the lights dim. She takes off her top, her bra, and, gyrating her hips, slides off her skirt and underwear. Her bottom is about three feet from the whooping men in the front row. The obese man’s arms and legs are waving around in excitement, as his grimacing wife shakes her head repeatedly. The naked cheerleader leans back on the floor and does the splits in the air. She then jumps into the fat man’s lap and smothers his face in her tiny chest. She runs into the audience and does the same to another man and a gray-haired woman in a cardigan who looks like a grandmother. The cameramen follow the cheerleader closely, zooming in on her breasts and ass.
While the naked, ponytailed girl runs around leaping into the laps of members of the audience, the crowd begins chanting, under the deafening electronic music, “JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!”
The girl finally runs back onstage. The music stops. She collects her pom-poms and sits down naked, dressed only in a pair of white tennis shoes and bobby socks.
“JER-RY! JER-RY! JER-RY!” chants the crowd.
In a later portion of the episode, Jerry says to the man, “So this is really what you want your wife to be doing?” The naked cheerleader is seated beside him, and his wife is no longer onstage.
“Oh, yes!” he exclaims. The audience laughs at his fervor. “It really excites me, Jerry. It really does.”
“All right,” says Jerry. “Well, are we ready to bring her out?”
“YEESSSSS!!!” bellows the audience.
“Here she is!” announces Jerry. “Cheerleading Kristen!”
The wife runs out onto the stage. She is in an identical purple and yellow cheerleading outfit, with yellow pom-poms. Her fluffy brown hair is tied into two bunches on the sides of her head. She resembles a poodle. Her exposed midriff is a thick, white roll of fat that hangs over her short purple skirt and shakes with every step.
She turns a clumsy somersault. She prances heavily back and forth on the stage. She does cancan kicks. She yells “WHOOOOOO!!!” Her husband is seen behind her, yelling with the rest of the audience. She leads a cheer of Jerry’s name, but forgets the Y. The audience laughs. She finishes the cheer. There is a shot of Jerry watching quietly at the back of the studio, leaning against the soundman’s booth, his hand covering his mouth.
The wife continues to high-step back and forth. The clapping and cheers subside. The audience has fallen silent. “WHOOO!!” she yells again. She does, in complete silence, a few more lumbering kicks. A few individuals snicker in the crowd. Jerry is shown at the soundman’s booth, doubled over in soundless laughter. The woman is confused. She looks to the side of the stage, as though she is being prompted. “Oh – OK,” she says.
She takes center stage again. “All right,” she says. “You’ve seen these pom-poms.” Individual giggles are heard from the audience. “Now what about THESE?” Her husband watches eagerly. The naked stripper, sitting behind her, laughs.
The stripping music comes on. The lights dim. The wife does more cancan kicks. She trots back and forth. She takes off all her clothes except her underpants. The audience is clapping to the beat, whooping, and laughing. Some of them are covering their eyes. Others are covering their mouths. She continues prancing onstage, doing the occasional kick, until the music stops.
“JER-RY!! JER-RY!! JER-RY!!” chants the crowd. Her husband wraps his arms around her naked torso and kisses her.
“You made my wildest dreams come true,” he tells her.
Individuals laugh in the audience.
“Aww,” says Jerry, shaking his head. “That is true love.” The woman collects her scattered clothes. “That is—that is—that is—true love.”
Celebrities are skillfully used by their handlers and the media to compensate for the increasingly degraded and regimented existences that most of us endure in a commodity culture. Celebrities tell us we can have our revenge. We can triumph. We can, one day, get back at the world that has belittled and abused us. It happens in the ring. It happens on television. It happens in the movies. It happens in the narrative of the Christian Right. It happens in pornography. It happens in the self-help manuals and on reality television. But it almost never happens in reality.
Celebrity is the vehicle used by a corporate society to sell us these branded commodities, most of which we do not need. Celebrities humanize commercial commodities. They present the familiar and comforting face of the corporate state. Supermodel Paulina Porizkova, on an episode of America’s Next Top Model, gushes to a group of aspiring young models, “Our job as models is to sell.” But they peddle a fake intimacy and a fantasy. The commercial “personalizing” of the world involves oversimplification, distraction, and gross distortion. “We sink further into a dream of an unconsciously intimate world in which not only may a cat look at a king but a king is really a cat underneath, and all the great power-figures Honest Joes at heart,” Richard Hoggart warned in The Uses of Literacy. We do not learn more about Barack Obama by knowing what dog he has bought for his daughters or if he still smokes. This personalized trivia, passed off as news, diverts us from reality.
In his book Celebrity, Chris Rojeck calls celebrity culture “the cult of distraction that valorizes the superficial, the gaudy, the domination of commodity culture.” He goes further:
This cult of distraction, as Rojeck points out, masks the real disintegration of culture. It conceals the meaninglessness and emptiness of our own lives. It seduces us to engage in imitative consumption. It deflects the moral questions arising from mounting social injustice, growing inequalities, costly imperial wars, and economic collapse and political corruption. The wild pursuit of status and wealth has destroyed our souls and our economy. Families live in sprawling mansions financed with mortgages they can no longer repay. Consumers recklessly rang up Coach handbags and Manolo Blahnik shoes on credit cards because they seemed to confer a sense of identity and merit. Our favorite hobby, besides television, used to be, until reality hit us like a tsunami, shopping. Shopping used to be the compensation for spending five days a week in tiny cubicles. American workers are ground down by corporations who have disempowered them, used them, and have now discarded them.
Celebrities have fame free of responsibility. The fame of celebrities, wrote Mills, disguises those who possess true power: corporations and the oligarchic elite. Magical thinking is the currency not only of celebrity culture, but of totalitarian culture. And as we sink into an economic and political morass, we are still controlled, manipulated and distracted by the celluloid shadows on the dark wall of Plato’s cave. The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to keep us from fighting back.
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