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Can We Rescue the Republic Before the Dark Politics Take Over?

Books by Chris Hedges, Thom Hartmann and Cass Sunstein suggest that we've nearly lost our sense of self-government. None show the way to get it back.

Did America slip into a semiliterate, polarized, pre-fascist state over the past decade or so, allowing greedy oligarchs and corporate elites to run the government? Two books I recently read offer reasonably persuasive evidence and arguments that the country did, and a third suggests that dictatorial mindsets could besiege Americans, with an assist from the Internet, if they don't come to their more deliberative senses. Each of the books offers an informed diagnosis of the dangers that widespread ignorance and ideological polarization pose for American democracy, though none offers a comprehensive treatment for the malaise.

I read the three books in less than two weeks; friends ask how that was possible. The trick is to avoid not only Facebook and Twitter but also: celebrity news, cable news, Oprah, Jerry Springer, American Idol, The Swan, other reality-TV shows, professional wrestling, violent pornography, positive psychology and right-wing Christian fundamentalism.

The latter list includes some of the spectacularly mind-numbing American pursuits that Chris Hedges examines in Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. Hedges submits that while they mesmerized large portions of the American citizenry, CEOs being paid millions of dollars a year to run companies that feed on taxpayer money usurped our government — with the help of elected officials bought by campaign contributions and tens of thousands of corporate lobbyists who now write many of the nation's laws.

"Those captivated by the cult of celebrity do not examine voting records or compare verbal claims with written and published facts and reports," Hedges writes. "The reality of their world is whatever the latest cable news show, political leader, advertiser, or loan officer says is reality. The illiterate, semiliterate, and those who live as though they are illiterate are effectively cut off from the past. They live in an eternal present. They do not understand the predatory loan deals that drive them into foreclosure and bankruptcy. They cannot decipher the fine print on credit card agreements that plunge them into unmanageable debt. They repeat thought-terminating clichés and slogans. They seek refuge in familiar brands and labels. ... Life is a state of permanent amnesia, a world in search of new forms of escapism and quick, sensual gratification."

Of course, they did not get into this clueless state by themselves. They were manipulated by "agents, publicists, marketing departments, promoters, script writers, television and movie producers, advertisers, video technicians, photographers, bodyguards, wardrobe consultants, fitness trainers, pollsters, public announcers, and television news personalities who create the vast stage for illusion," Hedges continues. "They are the puppet masters. ... The techniques of theater have leeched into politics, religion, education, literature, news, commerce, warfare, and crime."

I know those fools are out there — many millions of them. I might even be one. But what is absolutely maddening about this book is Hedges' penchant for stating sweeping, generalized claims as absolutes. And yet this master of divinity turned New York Times war correspondent become sociological scholar often bolsters his summations with just enough research, statistical data and anecdotal evidence to make them plausible. The book takes readers to Madison Square Garden for an exegesis of professional wrestling; to the Adult Video News Expo in Las Vegas for lengthy interviews with porn actors and producers and an inflatable doll vendor; and to Claremont Graduate University in California for a seminar on positive psychology, which Hedges terms a "quack science" that "is to the corporate state what eugenics was for the Nazis."

As a resident of Miami Beach, where the pornographic sensibility is a way of life, I wasn't shocked to read that annual porn sales in the United States "are estimated at $10 billion or higher" or that DIRECTV distributes "more than 40 million streams of porn into American homes every month." But I shuddered when Hedges documented not just a growing appetite for violent forms of porn in America but their remarkable visual similarity to photos of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. "Porn reflects the endemic cruelty of our society," he writes. "The violence, cruelty, and degradation of porn are expressions of a society that has lost the capacity for empathy. ... The Abu Ghraib images that were released, and the hundreds more disturbing images that remain classified, could be stills from porn films."