Jacket design by Nicole Caputo
Christopher Hedges is also the author of American Fascists.
I / The Illusion of Literacy
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. 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.
Excerpted from the book Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges. Reprinted by arrangement with Nation Books (www.nationbooks.org), a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2009.