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The Rise of Gonzo Porn Is the Latest Sign of America's Cultural Apocalypse

A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies. A visit to a Las Vegas porn convention reveals we are dying now.
 
 
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I reported in my new book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle from the ringside of professional wrestling bouts at Madison Square Garden, from Las Vegas where I wrote about the pornographic film industry, from academic conferences held by positive psychologists -- who claim to be able to engineer happiness – and from the campuses of universities to chronicle our terrifying flight as a culture into a state of illusion. I looked at the array of mechanisms used to divert us from confronting the economic, political and moral collapse around us. I examined the fantasy that if we draw on our inner resources and strengths, if we realize that we are truly exceptional, we can have everything we desire. 

The childish idea that we can always prevail, that reality is never an impediment to what we want, is the central motif of illusion peddled on popular talk shows, by the Christian Right, by Hollywood, in corporate retreats, by the news industry and by self-help gurus. Reality can always be overcome. The future will always be glorious. And held out to keep us amused and entertained are spectacles and celebrities who have become idealized versions of ourselves and who, we are assured, we can all one day become.

The cultural embrace of illusion, and the celebrity culture that has risen up around it, have accompanied the awful hollowing out of the state. We have shifted from a culture of production to a culture of consumption. We have been sold a system of casino capitalism, with its complicated and unregulated deals of turning debt into magical assets, to create fictional wealth for us and vast wealth for our elite. We have internalized the awful ethic of corporatism -- one built around the cult of the self and consumption as an inner compulsion -- to believe that living is about our own advancement and our own happiness at the expense of others. Corporations, behind the smoke screen, have ruthlessly dismantled and destroyed our manufacturing base and impoverished our working class. The free market became our god and government was taken hostage by corporations, the same corporations that entice us daily with illusions though the mass media, the entertainment industry and popular culture.

The more we sever ourselves from a literate, print-based world, a world of complexity and nuance, a world of ideas, for one informed by comforting, reassuring images, fantasies, slogans and a celebration of violence the more we implode. We ask, like the wrestling fans or those who confuse love with pornography, to be fed lies. We demand lies. The skillfully manufactured images and slogans that flood the airwaves and infect our political discourse mask reality. And we do not protest. The lonely Cassandras who speak the truth about our misguided imperial wars, the global economic meltdown and the imminent danger of multiple pollutions that are destroying the eco-system that sustains the human species, are drowned out by arenas full of fans chanting "Slut! Slut! Slut!" or television audiences chanting "Jer-ry! Jer-ry! Jer-ry!" The worse reality becomes, the less a beleaguered population wants to hear about it and the more it distracts itself with squalid pseudo-events of celebrity breakdowns, gossip and trivia.

A culture that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion dies. And we are dying now. We will wake from our state of induced childishness, one where trivia and gossip pass for news and information, one where our goal is not justice by an elusive and unattainable happiness, to confront the stark limitations before us or we will continue our headlong retreat into fantasy. Those who do not grow up in times of despair and turmoil inevitably turn to demagogues and charlatans to entertain and reassure them. And these demagogues, as they have throughout history, lead the crowd, blinded and amused, towards despotism.

 
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