Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion

Journalist Chris Hedges discusses his recent book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and The Triumph of Spectacle. In it, he charts the dramatic rise of a post-literate society that craves fantasy, ecstasy, and illusion. Hedges argues we now live in two societies: one, the minority, functions in a print-based, literate world and can cope with complexity and can separate illusion from truth; the other, a growing majority, is retreating from a reality-based world into one of false certainty and magic where serious film and theater, as well as newspapers and books, are being pushed to the margins. Also author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning, Hedges is currently a senior fellow at The Nation Institute and the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University. He writes for many publications, including Foreign Affairs, Harpers and TruthDig.

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Author: Idrees Ahmad

I am a Lecturer in Digital Journalism at the University of Stirling and a former research fellow at the University of Denver’s Center for Middle East Studies. I am the author of The Road to Iraq: The Making of a Neoconservative War (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). I write for The Observer, The Nation, The Daily Beast, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Al Jazeera, Dissent, The National, VICE News, Huffington Post, In These Times, Le Monde Diplomatique, Die Tageszeitung (TAZ), Adbusters, Guernica, London Review of Books (Blog), The New Arab, Bella Caledonia, Asia Times, IPS News, Medium, Political Insight, The Drouth, Canadian Dimension, Tanqeed, Variant, etc. I have appeared as an on-air analyst on Al Jazeera, the BBC, TRT World, RAI TV, Radio Open Source with Christopher Lydon, Alternative Radio with David Barsamian and several Pacifica Radio channels.

3 thoughts on “Chris Hedges: Empire of Illusion”

  1. War and Neurotoxins. Is War Making us Dumberer?

    By Michael Crist for Alternet
    Warmongers champion war as good for economies and technological growth. Yet we have not advanced away from the Stone Age technology of hydrocarbon burning. We use hydrocarbon burning as an excuse for more warfare.
    With each new material revolution based on war, new batches of neurotoxins have been introduced into the environment. The accompanying refinement of copper and tin in the Bronze Age led to more heavy metals in the environment. Metals like arsenic, lead, mercury and antimony. Same in the Iron age, Age of Exploration, Industrial Age. Technology is not necessarily evil nor is mining. It has always been a problem of scale, appropriate cloistering or toxic wastes, and not letting them spread into environment. Sometimes the technology of war has directly caused poisonings. The refinement of lead could have contributed to the downfall of the Roman Empire.
    Advance in warfare was traditionally linked to advances in materials and materials extraction technology. It was done as quickly, efficiently, and cheaply as possible with little or no regard for toxic waste disposal.
    In the United States of America’s current war-based economic system, the trend continues.
    The Stone Age, the Bronze age, the Iron age, the age of Exploration, the Industrial age, the Space age the Computer age all have increased wanton pollution of man-made substances in the environment that would not have been there otherwise.
    Heavy metals like Uranium and lead are used to make bullets. Organophosphates were invented as nerve gas. Organophosphates are still used both industrially and kept for military purposes as nerve gas in military depots. Poly chlorinated biphenyls were invented by munition companies to make shell casings for military purposes. The other heavy metal, mercury, is a by product of refining metal ore and used for industrial processes in making warheads.

    “Neurotoxicity” is the capacity of chemical, biologic, or physical agents to cause adverse functional or structural change in the nervous system. I use the term “environmental neurotoxicity” to refer broadly to adverse neural responses to exposures to all external, extragenetic factors like occupational exposures, lifestyle factors, exposures to pharmaceuticals, foods, and radiation.
    Since the advent of warfare there has not only been death from direct assault but also from the by products of war.
    Leads contribution to the collapse of the Roman Empire, is an example of a neurotoxin that can effect an entire civilization.
    Are the neurotoxins generated by industry and warfare possibly contributing to a general decline in mental health and the mental health of our leaders? Is neurotoxin induced illness making it harder to deal with the environmental, economic, and social problems we face in these interesting times?

    We depend on hydrocarbons for fuel. To refine hydrocarbons, which are becoming scarce, we put even more lead, mercury, and arsenic into the oceans and air. Wars need a lot of jet fuel, hummer fuel, and boat fuel to keep going. It’s done at a vapid pace. The oil that goes to the major oil refineries from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East is of much poorer quality than it was say 25 years ago. Most of the oil imported from the Middle East and South America is sludgy, poor quality stuff, chalked full of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals. The areas with major oil refineries in the United States like Houston, The Texas Bay, Texas City, Loss Angeles, and Newark New Jersey have the most polluted waters in the world chalked full of arsenic, lead, heavy metals, Toluene, and mercury. The cancer rates in these areas are above the national average. You cannot swim in the Texas Bay without taking your life in your hands.

    The air we breath still has remarkable levels of lead from Tetraethyl Lead. There are other byproducts of burning hydrocarbons for fuel like chlorinated hydrocarbons, and aromatic hydrocarbons in the air we breath that may lead to neurotoxicity.

    In this article I will concentrate neurotoxins generated as a result of war and neurotoxins in the environment which are indirectly related to war, but have origins and significance in war: Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls, Uranium, Heavy Metals, Organophosphates.

    Poly Chlorinated Biphenyl

    PCBs are poly-chlorinated-biphenyls used in electrical transformers. They are used to make bombs to this day. They were invented to make bombs They were used to make Agent Orange. They are still used to make insecticides. They are used as electrical insulators in our electric grid. Poly chlorinated biphenyl are of measurable toxic levels in many populated areas in the United States.
    PCBs were originally used to manufacture shell casings:
    1865-First PCB-like chemical discovered; a
    by-product of coal tar
    1881 – First PCBs synthesized.1914 -Enough PCBs had already escaped into the
    environment to leave measurable amounts in the feathers of birds held in museums
    1927 -PCBs were first manufactured commercially
    by the Anniston Ordnance Company, in Anniston, Alabama. The
    Anniston Plantâ legacy began in 1915 when Theodore Swann founded the company to
    manufacture six-inch explosive shell cases for the U.S. Army.

    PCBs are organic molecules that concentrate in fat tissue and cross the blood-brain-barrier easily. They are known carcinogens. They were precursors for agent-orange. They cause malfunction in the development of the brains in of fetuses, neonates, and children. Poly chlorinated biphenyl neurotoxicity may also contribute to the increases of Alzeimer’s disease we have seen in the United States recently.


    Uranium particulates are discharged in a major way in the war in Afghanistan. Like lead Depleted Uranium makes bullets and warheads heavier. Depleted Uranium makes warheads easier to project and more deadly.

    Depleted Uranium is used in bullets and munitions now. It is heavy like lead. It also acts like lead in the body. It is neurotoxic like lead and concentrates itself in the bones like lead.
    Uranium is easily breathed when it is aerosolized. The process of aeorsolization involves exploding bullets, rockets or shells launched at enemy targets.
    Epidemiological studies and toxicological tests on laboratory animals point to it as being immunotoxic, teratogenic,and neurotoxic, with carcinogenic. A 2005 report by epidemiologists concluded: “The human epidemiological evidence is consistent with increased risk of neurological birth defects in offspring of persons exposed to Aerosolized Uranium.”
    Early studies of depleted uranium aerosol exposure assumed that uranium combustion product particles would quickly settle out of the air
    and thus could not affect populations more than a few kilometers from target areas. That such particles, if inhaled, would remain undissolved in the lung for a great length of time and thus could be detected in urine was not taken into consideration. Burning uranium droplets violently produces a gaseous vapor comprising about half of the uranium ions in their original mass.
    Uranium ion contamination from uranium oxides and particles has been detected in the residue of Depleted Uranium munitions fires. They are omnipresent in Afghanistan now in the water, air, in highly concentrated areas of warfare.

    A Silent Pandemic From Neurotoxins

    Millions of children worldwide may have suffered brain damage as a direct result of war related and industrial pollution.
    Environmental neurotoxins, such as organophosphates, lead, methyl mercury, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and Uranium are widely disseminated in a child’s environment. Exposures to environmental neurotoxins, during both fetal development and early childhood, have been associated with substantial morbidity and mortality. Many recognized environmental neurotoxins were discovered only after environmental contamination led to local outbreaks of newly identified diseases. Emerging evidence links even lower-level exposures to environmental neurotoxins with behavioral problems, prematurity, and intellectual deficits
    An explosive report from Great Britain talks of a “silent pandemic” of neurodevelopmental disorders caused by toxic chemicals spilling into the environment.
    They include conditions such as autism, attention deficit disorder, mental retardation and cerebral palsy. All are common and can result in lifelong disability, but their causes are largely unknown.
    “And because optimal brain function depends on the integrity of the organ, even limited damage may have serious consequences. Even if substantial documentation on their toxicity is available, most chemicals are not regulated to protect the developing brain. Only a few substances, such as lead and mercury, are controlled with the purpose of protecting children.
    Five substances for which sufficient toxicity evidence exist were examined in detail – lead, methylmercury, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and toluene. In each case, the dangers came to light the same way.
    First, there was a recognition of high dosage toxicity in adults, and records of isolated episodes of poisoning among children. This was followed by a growing body of epidemiological evidence that lower levels of exposure in children led to neurobehavioral defects.
    Pinning down the effects of industrial chemical pollution is extremely difficult because they may not produce symptoms for several years or even decades, said the scientists. This was why the pandemic is “silent”. The damage caused by individual toxic chemicals is not obviously apparent in available health statistics.
    But the extent of the sub-clinical risk to large populations is illustrated by the legacy of lead. Virtually all children born in industrialized countries between 1960 and 1980 must have been exposed to lead from gasoline, said the researchers. Based on what is known about the toxic effects of lead, this may have reduced exceptional IQ scores of above 130 by more than half, and increased the number of scores less than 70.
    Other results of lead exposure included shortened attention span, slowed motor coordination and heightened aggressiveness. In later life, early damage from lead can increase the risk of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases.
    Today, it is estimated that lead poisoning in children costs the US economy $A55 billion each year. One in six children is thought to have some kind of developmental disability, usually involving the nervous system.
    Developing brains are much more susceptible to toxic chemicals than those of adults, pointed out the scientists. Interference with complex changes taking place in the developing brain can have permanent consequences. And research had shown that this vulnerable period lasts from the fetal stage of life through infancy and childhood to adolescence.
    Writing in the online version of The Lancet medical journal, the scientists conclude: “The combined evidence suggests that neurodevelopmental disorders caused by war chemicals has created a silent pandemic in modern society.


    Organophosphates were invented as nerve gas. Known neurotoxins that were developed for war or are still discharged directly as a result of war, for insecticides, and as industrial contaminant.Chemical warfare is the use of toxic chemicals to kill and incapacitate the enemy. The Greeks used choking clouds of sulfur dioxide gas caused by burning sulfur and pitch during the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens (413-404 B.C.) Modern chemical warfare began in 1915 when the Germans released chlorine gas on Allied troops at Ypres, Belgium, during World War I. After the initial use of chlorine, various other gases were developed and used
    In general, the World War I war gases caused death if the victim was exposed to high enough doses, but their most significant contribution to warfare was their effect on dispersing unprotected troops as they ran from the areas of highest concentration. Because most of the early war gases were strongly irritating, their use always caused confusion and disorder among troop concentrations. The actual number of deaths due to chemical warfare agents during World War I was fairly small. This was probably due to technical problems of delivering the toxic chemical so as to produce consistently a lethal concentration exactly where the enemy troops were located. In addition, gas masks were quickly issued to troops of all belligerent nations. These gas masks offered sufficient protection to prevent death from exposures except in cases where wounded troops could not put on their masks as the toxic cloud approached.
    After World War I, most nations agreed to never use toxic chemicals in warfare — yet development of these agents continued. In its war with Ethiopia in 1938, Italy used both nerve gases and mustard gas. During World War II, the Germans developed Tabun and Sarin two nerve gases that are anticholinesterase poisons. Their discovery led to our present-day phosphate ester insecticides such as Parathion and Malathion. Throughout World War II, war gases were available but were never used.
    Recently, in the 1980s, chemical agents were used in the Iran-Iraq war against both troops and civilians. Against civilians, chemical warfare agents are especially devastating because civilians are not only untrained and uninformed about the effects of these chemicals, but are unprepared to protect themselves. Modern concern regarding chemical warfare agents centers on protecting civilians, especially against terrorist attacks using weapons of this sort.Today the organophosphates originally invented for nerve gas are used through out the world as insecticides. This has been a fairly benign use of many of them. The stronger ones have been shown to cause in neurotoxicity isolated populations.

    TCP or TriCreyl Phosphate

    An organophosphate byproduct that most people do not know about is TCP. TCP is an industrial product found in many paint products from Canada. It is called Tri-Cresyl-Phosphate. It may account for increases in Multiple Sleurosis and or neurological disorders in the US. It is a direct neurotoxin that covalently bonds to nerve endings and causes permanent neuropathies.

    TCP is known to have neurotoxicity. It is of “toxicological importance” and has been responsible for many deaths. The most serious incident arose in the 1920s when TCP was used as an adulterant for Jamaican ginger. TCP’s mechanism of action is similar to other organophosphates in that it can inhibit the enzyme acetylcholinesterase, leading to a buildup of acetylcholine in the synaptic space. This can lead to hyperactivity in cholinergic neurons in the brain and at neuromuscular junctions in the peripheral nervous system resulting in apoptosis of those cell-types. This is the reason for paralysis and other irreversible neurological problems seen in the “Gingerjake” syndromes during prohibition, when TCP was added to gingerjake moonshine.

    Example of How a Neurotoxin Could have Led to the Decline of a the Roman Empire

    The ancient Romans used lead for making water pipes, cooking utensils, water tanks and storage vessels. Lead water pipes were used in most major cities in the empire. Wine was cheap in ancient Rome and Athens and it was contaminated with lead from as many as 14 sources during its preparation. Lead was used as part of the preservative and as a flavor enhancer. Even the Christian sacramental cups of that era were the kind that were made of lead or leaded bronze common at the time.
    Apathy and gluttony have been associated with the decline of the Roman Empire. It may have been the lead in food, water and wine which caused the apathy. Musonius, a Roman writing in the first century A.D., observed that masters were weaker, less healthy and less able to endure labor than the servant class. Those who grew up in the country were stronger than those who grew up in the city. Those who ate plain food were likely to live longer and have less of the diseases associated, by hindsight, with lead poisoning. These were “gouts,” “dropsies” and colics.” This is as close as anyone got to discovering chronic lead poisoning in the Roman Empire and leaving a record of the hypothesis.
    The rich received more than their share of lead poisoning because they could afford more of the sources of lead contamination. When soft water sits in lead pipes, it leaches the lead from the pipes. In ancient Rome, the rich controlled most of the public water outlets. The first drawn water of the morning, which had been sitting over night absorbing lead, was a privilege of the rich. The evidence suggests that the offspring of parents with lead poisoning were more likely to be underachievers and had a high infant mortality rate. Chronic lead poisoning persistently destroyed the Roman aristocracy, thus creating a scarcity of good management. Old aristocratic families died out only to be replaced by others who suffered the same fate. Nriagu concludes that lead contamination was a major cause of the decline of the Roman Empire.
    The ancient Romans used lead for making water pipes, cooking utensils, water tanks and storage vessels. Lead water pipes were used in most major cities in the empire. Wine was cheap in ancient Rome and Athens and it was contaminated with lead from as many as 14 sources during its preparation. Lead was used as part of the preservative and as a flavor enhancer. Even the Christian sacramental cups of that era were the kind that were made of lead or leaded bronze common at the time.
    There has been an increase in neurotoxins since advent of materials technology for war and empire growth.
    Neurotoxins from war and industry could be effecting society like it did roman society
    We are now controlled by an oligarchy that is like the Moorlocks from HG Wells “The Time Machine.” This oligarchy is cannibalizing the rest of us and contributing to poisoning us.
    Our economy is faltering. We are running out of oil. There is a need to be a new frontier developed. There is a need for benign energy technology to be developed. There is a need to clean the pollution that is approaching irreversibly destructive levels. A new emphasis on space travel could relieve world population pressure, promote development of more benign energy technology, mine the moon for He3 for fusion technology and instead of investing in infrastructure to create a healthy economy, jobs, create healthy energy alternatives, decent healthcare. A space program could be created to grow space exploration to expand a new frontier for human progress. We have awesome technology that does not have to be used for poisoning and killing. Our captains of industry are dead set on death and destruction. It is like they have become demented from the very neurotoxic environment the have created.
     Some patterns of generalized neurotoxicity maybe noted from observable neurological phenomenon like Alzheimer’s disease
    More direct documentation of possible increase in neurotoxicity in the general population maybe seen with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is linked to neurotoxins as well as genetic factors. But even some of these genetic factors maybe linked to mutations from man-made toxins.
    One in eight Americans who are 65 years old or older has Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2008 Facts and Figures Report ( By 2030, due to the aging of our population, that number will have doubled to one in four. There’s no cure, and no certain evidence that the current medications: Aricept, Exelon, Razadyne and Namenda, which are said to slow the course of the disease, really work. Recent studies pitting Aricept, in combination with vitamin E, against a placebo have had disappointing results.
    The costs, financial and emotional, of treating and caring for an Alzheimer’s patient are astronomical. Today, the amount of time lost to American businesses by workers being forced to become caregivers of those with Alzheimer’s is estimated at 8.4 billion hours a year. The monetary value of this unpaid labor — often taking place in the caregivers home varies by state, from the lowest, Alaska, at a little above $100,000 a year, to the highest, California, at about $10 billion.

     Mirror Neurons

    Recently scientist discovered a complex network of fragile neurons in the brain. It is called the mirror neuron system. It is how chimpanzees and we learn to imitate and learn empathy. It is a delicate and advanced system in neuro-evolution. These neurons are highly susceptible to neurotoxins.
    Mirror neurons are a new set of neurons were discovered recently which have to do with empathy and violence. Without them people tend to be more violent because their empathy capabilities are impaired.
    Many inmates and psychopaths have been shown to have depletion in mirror neurons in their brains. Many CEOs or Captains of Industry fail the Hartman Value test. These people probably have psychopathic tendencies. There is something wrong with their ability to empathize. How else could one explain their willingness to be involved in fruitless wars, while making exorbitant salaries. In a study done by the VA Many Veterans have been shown to come home from war with a depletion in motor neuron systems.
    There are more people in prison and jail than ever before in the United States as compared to other countries in the world. Could these neurotoxins and war be leading to decreases in mirror neurons in our brains that help with our empathy systems and help us live in peace?

    1. Mike,

      Please leave the comments for discussion-related content. If you want to post articles, post a little bit of it and include a link. It’s not appropriate to republish articles in full without prior approval.
      Just FYI.

  2. A similar theme is in a piece over at OpenDemocracy – arguing that authoritarian capitalism (whether faux-Communist in China, or faux-free as in the US) is pushing us more to Huxley’s than Orwell’s vision. Some very good links in it on the politics of distraction, but the following is a snippet from the post.

    What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny ‘failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we desire will ruin us.

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