Empire of Illusion

The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle


By Chris Hedges

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A prescient book that forecast the culture that gave rise to Trump — a society beholden to empty spectacle and obsession with image at the expense of reality, reason, and truth. An instant bestseller, Empire of Illusion is a striking and unsettling exploration of illusion and fantasy in contemporary American culture. Traveling to the ringside of professional wrestling bouts at Madison Square Garden, to Las Vegas to write about the pornographic film industry, and to academic conferences held by positive psychologists who claim to be able to engineer happiness, Hedges chronicles our flight from an ever-worsening reality. The cultural embrace of illusion and celebrity culture have accompanied a growing system of casino capitalism, which creates vast wealth for elites. Corporations have ruthlessly dismantled and destroyed our manufacturing base and impoverished our working class. Hedges exposes the mechanisms that undermine our democracy and divert us from the economic, environmental, political, and moral collapse around us. A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies, Hedges argues, and we are dying now.


For Eunice,
soles occidere et redire possvnt: nobis cvm semel occidit brevis
lvx, nox est perpetva vna dormienda. da mi basia mille.

People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.

The Illusion of Literacy
Now the death of God combined with the perfection of the image has brought us to a whole new state of expectation. We are the image. We are the viewer and the viewed. There is no other distracting presence. And that image has all the Godly powers. It kills at will. Kills effortlessly. Kills beautifully. It dispenses morality. Judges endlessly. The electronic image is man as God and the ritual involved leads us not to a mysterious Holy Trinity but back to ourselves. In the absence of a clear understanding that we are now the only source, these images cannot help but return to the expression of magic and fear proper to idolatrous societies. This in turn facilitates the use of the electronic image as propaganda by whoever can control some part of it.
—JOHN RALSTON SAUL, Voltaire's Bastards1
We had fed the heart on fantasy,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare.
—WILLIAM BUTLER YEATS, The Stare's Nest By My Window
JOHN BRADSHAW LAYFIELD, tall, clean-cut, in a collared shirt and white Stetson hat, stands in the center of the ring holding a heavy black microphone. Layfield plays wrestling tycoon JBL on the World Wrestling Entertainment tour.2 The arena is filled with hooting and jeering fans, including families with children. The crowd yells and boos at JBL, who has had a long career as a professional wrestler. Many chant, "You suck! You suck! You suck!"
"Last week I made Shawn Michaels an offer, and I have yet to hear back from the Heartbreak Kid," drawls Layfield. Michaels, another WWE wrestler, is a crowd favorite. He is a self-professed born-again Christian with a working-man persona. "So earlier today I made Shawn Michaels an offer that was a lot easier to understand," Layfield continues. "I challenge Shawn Michaels to a street fight tonight! So Shawn, I know you're back there. Now what's your answer?"
"HBK, HBK, HBK!!!" the crowd intones. A pulsing rock beat suddenly shakes the arena as action shots of the Heartbreak Kid flash across the Titantron, the massive screen suspended over the ring. The crowd cheers, leaping up as Shawn Michaels, in jeans and an army-green shirt, whirls onstage, his long, blond hair flying. Pyrotechnics explode. The deafening sound system growls, "I know I'm sexy . . . I got the looks . . . that drive the girls wild. . . ."
Michaels bursts into the ring, fists pumping, stalking back and forth. The ref steps in to begin the match.
"HBK! HBK! HBK!" chants the crowd.
"Hold on, hold on, referee," Layfield says, putting his hand on the referee's shoulder. People in the crowd begin to heckle.
"Shawn," he says, "you got a choice to make. You can either fight me right now in this street fight, or you can do the right thing for you, your family, and your extended family, and take care of them in a financial crisis you never dreamed would happen a year ago today."
Michaels stands silently.
"You see, I know some things, Shawn," continues Layfield. "Rich people always do. Before this stock market crashed, nobody saw it coming, except, of course, my wife, but that didn't help you, did it? See, I was hoarding cash. I was putting money in gold. While most Americans followed the leader—blindly, stupidly followed the leader—I was making money. In fact, Shawn, I was prospering while you were following the herd, losing almost everything, right, Shawn?"
"Fight!! Fight!! Fight!! Fight!!" urges the crowd. Michaels looks hesitantly back and forth between the heaving crowd and Layfield.
"You lost your 401(k). You lost your retirement. You lost your nest egg. You lost your children's education fund," Layfield bellows into the mic, his face inches from Michaels's. "You got to support your extended family, Shawn, and now you look around with all this responsibility, and you look at your beautiful wife, she's a beautiful lady, you look at your two little wonderful kids, and you wonder: 'How in the world . . . am I going to send them . . . to college?' "
Layfield pauses heavily. Michaels' face is slack, pained. Small, individual voices shout out from the crowd.
"Well, I've got an answer," Layfield goes on. "I'm offering you a job. I want you to come work—for me."
"No! No! No!" yells the crowd. Michaels blinks slowly, dazed, and lowers his eyes to the mat.
"See, there's always alternatives, Shawn. There's alternatives to everything. You can always wrestle until you're fifty. You might even wrestle till you're sixty. In fact, you could be a lot like these has-beens who are disgracing themselves in high school gyms all over the country, bragging about their war stories of selling the place out while they're hawking their eight-by-tens and selling Polaroids. Shawn, you could be that guy, or you could take my offer, because I promise you this: All the revenue that you're goin' to make off your DX T-shirts will not compare to the offer that I . . . made . . . to you."
He tells the Heartbreak Kid to look in the mirror, adding, "The years haven't been kind to you, have they, Shawn?" He reminds him that one more bad fall, one more injury, and "you're done, you're done."
The crowd begins to rally their stunned hero, growing louder and louder. "HBK! HBK! HBK!"
"What else can you really do besides this?" Layfield asks. "You get a second chance in life."
Layfield sweeps off his white Stetson. "Go ahead," he screams into Michaels's face. "Ever since you walked out here . . . people have been wantin' you to kick me in the face. So why don't you do it? I'm gonna give you a free shot, Shawn, right here."
The crowd erupts, roaring for the Heartbreak Kid to strike.
"HBK!! DO IT!! DO IT!! HBK!! HBK!!!"
"Listen to 'em. Everybody wants it. Shawn, it's what you want. You're twitching. You're begging to pull the trigger, so I'm telling you right now, take a shot! Take it!"
The Heartbreak Kid takes one step back, his stubbled face trembling, breathing rapidly like a rabbit. The crowd is leaping out of their seats, thrusting their arms in the air, holding up handmade banners.
"HBK!!! HBK!!! HBK!!!"
"Do it, Shawn," Layfield hollers, "before it's too late. This is your second chance, but understand this, understand this—"
"HBK!!! HBK!!! HBK!!!"
"—Listen to me and not them! If you take this shot . . . then this offer is off the table . . . forever."
The crowd stops chanting. Different cries are heard: boos, shouts to attack, shouts to stop. There is no longer unity in the auditorium.
Layfield holds his head outstretched until the Heartbreak Kid slowly turns his back. Layfield leers. Shawn Michaels climbs through the ropes out of the ring and walks heavily back to the dressing room, his dull gaze on the ground.
"Lookin' forward to doin' business with ya, Shawn," Layfield shouts after him.
The crowd screams.
Layfield, like most of the wrestlers, has a long, complicated fictional backstory that includes a host of highly publicized intrigues, fights, betrayals, infidelities, abuse, and outrageous behavior—including goose-stepping around the ring and giving the Nazi salute during a wrestling bout in Germany. But tonight he has come in his newest incarnation as the "self-made millionaire," the capitalist, the CEO who walked away with a pot of gold while workers across the country lost their jobs, saw their savings and retirement funds evaporate, and fought off foreclosure.
As often happens in a celebrity culture, the line between public and fictional personas blurs. Layfield actually claims to have made a fortune as a stock market investor and says he is married to the "richest woman on Wall Street." He is a regular panelist on Fox News Channel's The Cost of Freedom and previously appeared on CNBC, not only as a celebrity wrestler but as a savvy investor whose conservative political views are worth airing. He also has written a best-selling book on financial planning called Have More Money Now. He hosts a weekend talk-radio program syndicated nationally by Talk Radio Network, in which he discusses politics.
The interaction between the crowd and Layfield is vintage professional wrestling. The twenty-minute bouts employ the same tired gimmicks, the same choreographed moves, the endless counts to two by the referee that never seem to get to three without the pinned wrestler leaping up from the mat to continue the fight. There is the desperate struggle of a prostrate wrestler trying to reach the hand of his or her partner to be relieved in the ring. This pantomime, with his opponent on his back and his arm outstretched, can go on for a couple of minutes. There are a lot of dirty shots when the referee is distracted—which is often.
The bouts are stylized rituals. They are public expressions of pain and a fervent longing for revenge. The lurid and detailed sagas behind each bout, rather than the wrestling matches themselves, are what drive crowds to a frenzy. These ritualized battles give those packed in the arenas a temporary, heady release from mundane lives. The burden of real problems is transformed into fodder for a high-energy pantomime. And the most potent story tonight, the most potent story across North America, is one of financial ruin, desperation, and enslavement of a frightened and abused working class to a heartless, tyrannical, corporate employer. For most, it is only in the illusion of the ring that they are able to rise above their small stations in life and engage in a heroic battle to fight back.
As the wrestlers appear and strut down the aisle, the crowd, mostly young, working-class males, knows by heart the long list of vendettas and betrayals being carried into the ring. The matches are always acts of retribution for a host of elaborate and fictional wrongs. The narratives of emotional wreckage reflected in the wrestlers' stage biographies mirror the emotional wreckage of the fans. This is the deep appeal of professional wrestling. It is the appeal of much of popular culture, from Jerry Springer to "reality" television to Oprah Winfrey. The narratives expose the anxiety that we will die and never be recognized or acclaimed, that we will never be wealthy, that we are not among the chosen but remain part of the vast, anonymous masses. The ringside sagas are designed to reassure us. They hold out the hope that we, humble and unsung as these celebrities once were, will eventually be blessed with grace and fortune.
The success of professional wrestling, like most of the entertainment that envelops our culture, lies not in fooling us that these stories are real. Rather, it succeeds because we ask to be fooled. We happily pay for the chance to suspend reality. The wrestlers, like all celebrities, become our vicarious selves. They do what we cannot. They rise up from humble origins into a supernatural world of tyrants, divas, and fierce opponents who are huge and rippling with muscles—mythic in their size and power. They face momentous battles and epic struggles. They win great victories. They garner fame and vanquish their anonymity. And they return to befriend and confer some of their supernatural power on us. It is the stuff of classical myths, including the narrative of Jesus Christ. It is the yearning that life conform to a recognizable pattern and provide ultimate fulfillment before death.
"For the truth is," wrote José Ortega y Gasset, "that life on the face of it is a chaos in which one finds oneself lost. The individual suspects as much but is terrified to encounter this frightening reality face to face, and so attempts to conceal it by drawing a curtain of fantasy over it, behind which he can make believe that everything is clear."3
Clashes in the professional wrestling ring from the 1950s to the 1980s hinged on a different narrative. The battle against the evil of communism and crude, racial stereotypes stoked the crowd. The bouts, which my grandfather religiously watched on Saturday afternoons, were raw, unvarnished expressions of the prejudices of the white working class from which he came. They appealed to nationalism and a dislike and distrust of all who were racially, ethnically, or religiously different. During these matches, some of which I watched as a boy, there was usually some huge hulk of a man, known invariably as "The Russian Bear," who would say things like "Ve vill bury you." Nikolai Volkoff, who wrestled during these years under the name Boris Breznikoff, used to sing the Soviet National Anthem and wave the Soviet flag before matches to bait the crowd. He eventually teamed up with an Iranian-born wrestler, Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri, known as The Iron Sheik. In the midst of the Iranian hostage crisis, the Iron Sheik bragged in the ring about his devotion and friendship with Ayatollah Khomeini. The Iron Sheik was regularly pitted against a wrestler known as Sergeant Slaughter, All-American G. I. During the first Gulf War; the Iron Sheik reinvented himself, as often happens with wrestlers who shed one persona and name for another, as Colonel Mustafa, an Iraqi who was a close confidant of Saddam Hussein. In wrestling, villains were nearly always foreigners. They were people who wanted to destroy "our way of life." They hated America. They spoke in strange accents and had swarthy skin.
But that hatred, once directed outward, has turned inward. Wrestling fans, whose numbers have been swelled by new immigrants and are no longer limited to the white working class, began to come in too many colors. The steady loss of manufacturing jobs and decline in social services meant that blue-collar workers—people like my grandparents—could no longer find jobs that provided a living wage, jobs with benefits, jobs that could support a family. The hulks of empty manufacturing centers began to dot the landscape, including the abandoned mills in Maine, where my family lived. The disparity between the elite, the rich, and the rest of the country grew obscenely. The growing class division and hopelessness triggered a mounting rage toward the elite, as well as a sense of powerlessness. Communities began to crumble. Downtown stores went out of business and were boarded up. Domestic abuse and drug and alcohol addiction began to plague working-class neighborhoods and towns.
The story line in professional wrestling evolved to fit the new era. It began to focus on the petty, cruel, psychological dramas and family dysfunction that come with social breakdown. The enemy became figures like Layfield, those who had everything and lorded it over those who did not. The anger unleashed by the crowd became the anger of people who, like the Heartbreak Kid, felt used, shamed, and trapped. It became the anger of class warfare. Figures such as Layfield—who arrives at professional matches in a giant white limousine with Texan "hook 'em" horns on the hood—are created by wrestling promoters to shove these social disparities in the faces of the audience, just as the Iron Sheik mocked the crowd with his hatred of America.
Wrestlers work in "stables," or groups. These groups, all of which have managers, are at war with the other groups. This motif, too, is new. It represents a society that has less and less national cohesion, a society that has broken down into warlike and antagonistic tribes. The stables cheat, lie, steal one another's women, and ignore all rules in the desperate scramble to win. Winning is all that matters. Morality is irrelevant. These wrestling clans have their own logos, uniforms, slogans, theme songs, cheerleaders, and other badges of communal identity. They do not, however, stay consistent in their "good guy" or "bad guy" status. A clan, like an individual wrestler, can be good one week and evil the next. All that matters is their own advancement. Week after week, they act out scenarios that are psychological windows into what has happened to our culture.
Ray Traylor was a prison guard in Georgia before debuting as a professional wrestler in 1985. Known on the wrestling circuit as Big Boss Man, he was portrayed as a brutal, sadistic wrestler devoid of human compassion. Traylor showed up at the ring with a nightstick, a flak jacket, handcuffs, and a ball and chain. During a match in 1992 a digitized voice came over the loudspeaker. It warned the Boss Man that someone from his past was coming to exact revenge. Sure enough, the Boss Man was ambushed in the ring by Nailz, a wrestler who claimed to be a former inmate brutalized by the Boss Man during his time as a correctional officer. Nailz, a six-foot, eight-inch brute with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, appeared in the arena wearing an orange prison jumpsuit. The two began a bitter, long feud. It was a feud many in the crowd knew too well. It was the feud between prisoners and guards. It was the feud between those who had once been incarcerated and who wanted to do to their keepers what had been done to them. Traylor later adopted a new persona in the ring, also known as the Boss Man, but now a hated security guard, dressed in a SWAT-like outfit, for Vince McMahon's Corporation, which owns the wrestling franchise. McMahon, in tune with the passions of his audience, is always trying to exploit, threaten, and cheat the wrestlers who work for him.
The Boss Man's most infamous stunt was publicly taunting a wrestler named Big Show when it was announced that Big Show's father had cancer. The Boss Man, at least in the scripted melodrama, hired a police impersonator to go into Big Show's locker room moments before a match and tell him his father had died. Big Show, shown weeping, withdrew from the match, and the Boss Man won by forfeit. A grainy black-and-white video, purportedly lifted from a surveillance camera in the Boss Man's locker room, showed Traylor asking the impersonator for a detailed report on how Big Show reacted.
"What he do, what he do?" the Boss Man asked, eagerly shifting from side to side.
The police impersonator pinched the bridge of his nose and bowed his head. "My daddy! My daddy!"
"My daddy! My daddy!" the Boss Man squealed. "Waaaa! My daddy gone!"
In the ring he imitated Big Show and wailed to the crowd, "My daddy! My daddy! Waaaa! Waaa!" Stalking the ring in mirrored sunglasses, he read a ditty to the booing, enraged crowd:
With the deepest regrets and tears that are soaked
I'm sorry to hear your dad finally croaked.
He lived a full life on his own terms,
Soon he'll be buried and eaten by worms.
But if I could have a son as stupid as you
I'd wish for cancer so I could die too.
Boss Man then supposedly smashed Big Show's family heirloom, his grandfather's gold pocket watch, with a hammer and anvil. A video of the Boss Man was played to the crowd, showing him at the graveside service of Big Show's father, in a Blues Brothers-inspired police car with a huge loudspeaker on the roof. The Boss Man blared through the speaker as he drove up the cemetery path, "He's dead as a doornail, and no matter how much you cry and cry, nobody but nobody gonna bring him back. . . . You're nothin' but a momma, and speakin' of yo' momma, hey, Ms. Wight [Big Show's mother], now that you're a single woman, how'd you like to go out with a man like me?"
He then drove the car into Big Show, who weighed close to 500 pounds. As the mourners huddled around the fallen Big Show, the Boss Man hooked the coffin up to the police car with a chain and dragged it away. Big Show got up and ran after the casket, clinging to it until he fell off.
Boss Man then "secretly" taped a meeting with Big Show's weeping mother in her kitchen. He held up a manila envelope and shook it in her face.
"If you don't tell him what's in this envelope, I will," he threatened.
"Let me tell him, it should come from me," she sobbed. She confessed that she had had an affair during her marriage and that Big Show was the illegitimate result. Big Show's father was not his biological father.
"So what you're saying is, your son is a bastard?" the Boss Man asked the bawling widow.
"Yee-ess," she whimpered between sobs.
"Hey, Paul Wight," the Boss Man turned and yelled into the hidden camera, using Big Show's real name. "You're a nasty bastard and yo' mama said so!"
"You know, I thought it was real funny when Big Freak Show's fake daddy died and went to hell," the Boss Man told the crowd afterward from the ring. "But you know what's ten times funnier than his fake daddy's dying? That's Big Show walking around, 'Waaa, waaa, where's my daddy? Who's my daddy?' Well, that's the million-dollar question. Your daddy could be any one of these stinkin' morons sittin' in this arena tonight. But the fact remains: After I get through kicking your ass, I will be the World Wrestling Federation champion, and I guess that makes me your daddy."
City after city, night after night, packed arena after packed arena, the wrestlers play out a new, broken social narrative. No one has a fixed identify, not the way a Russian communist or an evil Iranian or an American patriot once had an intractable identity. Identities and morality shift with the wind. Established truths, mores, rules, and authenticity mean nothing. Good and evil mean nothing. The idea of permanent personalities and permanent values, as in the culture at large, has evaporated. It is all about winning. It is all about personal pain, vendettas, hedonism, and fantasies of revenge, while inflicting pain on others. It is the cult of victimhood.
The wrestler known as the Undertaker frequently battles a wrestler known as Kane. Kane is the supposed result of an affair between the Undertaker's mother and the Undertaker's manager, whose stage name is, appropriately, Paul Bearer. Paul Bearer, fans were told, was at the time of the affair an employee at the funeral home in Death Valley owned by the Undertaker's parents. Kane, in the story line, "accidentally" burned down the funeral home as a child. The parents died in the fire. Kane was hideously scarred. The Undertaker and Kane each thought the other had been lost in the conflagration.
Paul Bearer had, it turned out, hidden young Kane in a mental asylum. It was when Paul Bearer had a falling out with the Undertaker that he had Kane released and signed Kane on as his agent of revenge. Kane and Paul Bearer, during one event in Long Island, ostensibly exhumed the parents' bodies for the crowd. They carried the purported remains into the arena. The younger brother had a series of bouts against the older. Paul Bearer was finally kidnapped and trapped in a concrete crypt. The Undertaker refused to rescue his manager. He buried him alive. As Paul A. Cantor notes in his essay on professional wrestling, "All the elements are there: sibling rivalry, disputed parentage, child neglect and abuse, domestic violence, family revenge."4
Those who were once born with the virus of inherent evil, the Russian communist or the Iranian, now become evil for a reason. It is not their fault. They are victims. Self-pity is the driving motive in life. They were abused as children or in prison or by friends or lovers or spouses or employers. The new mantra says we all have a right to seek emotional gratification if we have been abused, even if it harms others. I am bad, the narratives say, because I was neglected and poorly treated. I was forced to be bad. It is not my fault. Pity me. If you do not pity me, screw you. I pity myself. It is the undiluted narcissism of a society in precipitous decline.
The referee, the only authority figure in the bouts, is easily distracted and unable to administer justice. As soon as the referee turns his back, which happens in nearly every match, the second member of the opposing tag team, who is not supposed to be in the ring at the same time as his or her partner, leaps through the ropes. The two wrestlers pummel an opponent lying helpless on the mat behind the referee's back. They often kick, or pretend to kick, the downed wrestler in the gut. The referee, preoccupied, never notices. The failure to enforce the rules, which usually hurts the wrestler who needs the rules the most, is vital to the story line. It reflects, in the eyes of the fans, the greed, manipulation, and abuse wreaked by the powerful and the rich. The world, as professional wrestling knows, is always stacked against the little guy. Cheating becomes a way to even the score. The system of justice in the world of wrestling is always rigged. It reflects, for many who watch, the tainted justice system outside the ring. It promotes the morality of cheat or die.
I watch Irish-born wrestler Dave Finley, with a shamrock on his costume and brandishing his signature shillelagh, enter the ring in Madison Square Garden with a four-foot, five-inch midget known as
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  • "A trenchantly argued critique of the near-destruction of the American Dream by unfettered capitalism."—Philadelphia Inquirer
  • "Remarkable, bracing and highly moral, Empire of Illusion is Hedges' lament for his nation."—Macleans
  • "Thoroughly documented and written in a measured but take-no-prisoners tone.... It's bound to stir up its share of interest-generating controversy."—Booklist
  • "Each chapter of Empire of Illusion makes a strong case for how different illusions...taken together are destroying the American mind, culture and the nation itself."—National Post

On Sale
Jul 14, 2009
Page Count
240 pages
Bold Type Books

Chris Hedges

About the Author

Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He spent nearly two decades as a correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and the Balkans, with fifteen years at the New York Times. He is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Empire of Illusion; Death of the Liberal Class; War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning; and Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, which he co-wrote with Joe Sacco. He writes a weekly column for the online magazine Truthdig. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

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