May 26, 2006

Interview with Boston Globe

A civilization running on empty
By Anna Mundow May 21, 2006

In ''The Twilight of American Culture" (2000), historian Morris Berman warned that voracious consumerism and corporate greed were corroding American culture and fostering anti-American sentiment. Now, in ''Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire" (Norton), Berman argues that US policy abroad and the erosion of democracy and civic culture at home have brought the nation to the verge of collapse. He spoke from his home in Washington, D.C.

Q: How did we get here?
A: In the book I focus on the structural properties of how we got here because claiming that it's George W. Bush is a very superficial analysis. I do consider Bush a discontinuity with pre-9/11 days, but there's also continuity with our foreign policy since World War II. Joe McCarthy said that McCarthyism was Americanism with its sleeves rolled up. Well, Bush is essentially Wilsonianism or Trumanism with the sleeves rolled up. We feel that the world is at our disposal. And when other nations move to protect their resources, for example, we get enraged and interpret it as anti-Americanism.

Q: Wasn't this imperial role forced on the US?
A: By the late 1790s, virtue here was defined as success for yourself and your family in a competitive market. We are still reaping the effects of that. We undertook, after all, to annex half of Mexico in the middle of the 19th century. That was hardly foisted on us; it was part of Manifest Destiny and a religious vision. But the real imperial role gets going after 1945, with the development of the national security state. And from the time of Truman until the present -- with one exception, Jimmy Carter -- nobody could become president unless they indicated that they were going to serve and expand the national security state.

Q: Isn't the war on terror protecting the American way of life?
A: The real question is where 9/11 came out of. Americans have trouble getting their minds around the fact that what happened on 9/11 was reactive rather than offensive. We had been doing certain things to the Arab and Islamic worlds for decades, and finally they decided they weren't going to take it anymore. That does not mean that it's OK for 3,000 citizens to get slaughtered, of course not. But are we interested in how many of their citizens we slaughter? How could they do this when we're so good? George Bush said. Well, examine the possibility, as Jimmy Carter suggested, that we're not all that good.

Q: Is the US prepared for the next attack?
A: If you mean the attack we're going to launch against Iran, I think the government is going to prepare us by rerunning all the cliches. Regarding an attack on us, I myself cannot see how the detonation of a nuclear device in some American city will not occur within the next decade. We might catch it in time, but . . . maybe not.

Q: What are our choices?
A: That we will not decline is not a option because it's built into the structure of how we live. We've really sealed our fate. At the end of the book I say that there are two possible paths: One is that we decline rapidly; the other is that we decline gradually. And you can have gradual decline if you exercise some intelligence as to your impact on other people, but that requires something that has historically never been our strong suit: empathy.

Q: Where will the US be internationally by, say, 2030?
A: We're riding various bubbles. One bubble is the belief that George Bush is protecting us from terrorism. Another is the illusion of economic well-being. By 2030, maybe a bit later, we'll be pretty much a second-rate power in the world. Remember that the shift in perception toward the British Empire only came with the [1956] Suez crisis. Well, we're heading for our very own Suez. How long before OPEC switches from dollars to euros, and a devaluation of at least 25 percent of the dollar results? How long before China, Japan, and the [European Union] stop floating enormous loans to us to support a wasteful consumer lifestyle? I mean, does everybody really need all this stuff?

Q: You don't think much of Christian fundamentalism?
A: Oh, it's a wonderful thing. Clearly it's the right path: flexible, engaged, empirical . . .

Q: You don't think much of Islam?
A: There are many Islamic scholars who agree that at some point it became frozen intellectually. Within Islam, as within Christian fundamentalism, you can't voice a criticism without generating an angry reaction.

Q: Aren't you advocating a form of fundamentalism yourself, a return to a pre-industrial age? A:Even if I thought that would be wonderful, it's not going to happen. The only way we will pull back is when the system crashes, something I do think is in the cards. And although I have a lot of problems with Martin Heidegger because of his association with Nazism, I think he was right when, referring to the role of technology and consumerism in our lives, he remarked, ''Only a god can save us now." There are, in other words, fundamental values we lost along the way.

Q: Do you feel at home in America?
A: A lot of the time I don't. What have we become, finally? A civilization dedicated to turning everything into a market. It's an empty vision, it seems to me, and that makes me sad. Surely the Founding Fathers had something better in mind, right?

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at

© Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company


Blogger Janice Kasten said...

Mr. Morris, Several months ago I wrote a short story, Temporary Dictator. The story is about the demise of democracy in America and the world. I have posted it on my blog, You might find that we have come to similar conclusions regarding the fate of the United States.

3:45 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Janice,

Thank you for the info. You might also wish to read Philip Roth's novel, "The Plot Against America."
BTW, my last name is Berman.

9:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw you on CSPAN. You are just fundamentally wrong. You have yet to be mugged by reality. You make many references to psycotherapy - may I call an ambulance for you? One example - Katrina response was a disaster (more of a disaster in the press than reality) because of socialists who have created a huge gov't that does nothing right. The goal should be to have a small gov't that does what it should do correctly. This won't happen with your vision for America.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anonymous,

Well, my vision for America is that it have a genuine social safety net, which we definitely do not have. In fact, numerous historians and sociologists have written books on the lack of any socialist tradition in the US (and the reasons for this); and given the fact that in both a practical and psychological sense, we operate on the ideology of extreme individualism, the nonresponse to Katrina should have come as no surprise. (Read up on the swift Mexican response to the earthquake of 1985, for example. Mexico is hardly a socialist country, but it does have a long tradition of social responsibility.) I understand the temptation to blame everything on so-called liberals, big government, and the like, but what we have in this country is laissez-faire. After all, the real function of FDR and the New Deal was to preserve capitalism...which is what they did.

I'm puzzled by your ref to psychotherapy and an "ambulance," which strikes me as terribly immature. Psychoanalysis is no total answer; it just has some useful insights. "Mugged by reality" is an old right-wing cliche; and cliches, by their formulaic nature, tend to prevent clear or creative thinking. Much the same can be said of sarcasm, I suppose. There is, in short, a big difference between mature discussion, and venting. I'm sure your future contributions will be in the former category.


6:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I really appreciate this forum and the time you take responding to our postings.

I discovered DAA via your televised talk. My wife and I found in it some companionship since you’ve so thoughtfully articulated our apprehensions about society and what the future holds for us.

* Yes, the gathering darkness might be mainly a U.S. experience in an otherwise advancing world community, but I think it more likely the world will follow us into a tail spin, especially if chaotic market conditions cease to support its barely sustained population levels.

We’ve been trying to cope with such prospects and to mount a meaningful personal response for several years now. What we’ve come up with is a way to reach out in a small way and however far, toward an eventual recovery and “reënchantment”, even if it ends up being populated by another species.

What’s known today about ancient cultures has been thanks in large part to the durability of clay tablets and other ceramic artifacts. Informed by that past, our “time capsule tiles” project (see:

--attempts to do the same and welcomes everyone who cares to participate by leading off with “how to” pages.

Even under the best of circumstances we will die as individuals and the best Earthly salvation we can hope for is that the future will find something of use among our contributions. Might you have a tile’s worth of greeting, warmth and advice for us (and others) to so “publish”, Dr. Berman?

‘Bye for now,


5:55 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Craig:

Thank you for your very kind comments. It's like this: nobody can know exactly what the future holds, so you might as well do what you can, as long as you make sure you enjoy yourself doing it. Myself, I agree with the British colleague (whom I cite in DAA) that most of the future will not be about the United States. It was a great, brilliant, and creative experiment, but finally, like any civilization, it had too many structural weaknesses to go on forever. No surprise there. What *does* continue is the human spirit, imo. Big deal, if it continues somewhere outside of the US; at least, it continues. Remember that the US is only 6% of the world's population, only a small fraction of the world's land mass, and has only been around for 230 years (compare ancient Egypt, e.g.). It would be fabulous if, as a dying civilization (again, imo), it could reinvent itself; but no dying civilization has thus far managed to pull such a thing off. Let us, then, put our attention on the *human* spirit, not just the American one.

Thanks again for taking the time to write.


7:29 PM  
Blogger Justy said...

Dear Morris,

I have ordered your book and am sure it will make great reading. There has been a comfort in knowing the US is there as a large force in the world. The thought of a world where the US is greatly diminished seems very strange. Perhaps the US will decline to a point where people become more in touch with reality and can sustain things. I think the US is too large with too many resources to decline too far. Mindsets need to change and maybe they only will out of necessity. Is it just the US or is it Western culture too that is in trouble? I remember back in 1997 while in Melbourne, an American girl blurted out over dinner "America speaks, the world should listen" and with that kind of arrogance maybe the US gets what it deserves. Do you think this is all related to Biblical end times or is this another cycle?

Justin (England)

12:11 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Justin:

Thank you for writing. It may be that it is the West as a whole that is in decline; at least, that is (most recently) the view of Jacques Barzun and Immanuel Wallerstein. Myself, I think Europe still has a few surprises up its sleeve; it seems to have reinvented itself in a new and promising direction. As for the US, I fear it doesn't have any surprises up its sleeve. "Hegemony or Survival," Noam Chomsky has said. We have chosen the former, not the latter--and I really do feel they are mutually exclusive. Or at least, we'll have survival in a much diminished form. I can't myself base much on the bible, as I'm not a believer; but the cycles of empire are pretty clear by now, I'm guessing.

All the best-


10:36 PM  
Anonymous Craig said...

Here's a URL update for my mention of "Time Capsule Tiles" in an earlier comment:


3:25 AM  
Anonymous Craig said...

"Time Capsule Tiles" has relocated once again, to:

Thanks for the content and the continuity of your web site, Dr. Berman.


3:12 PM  

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