May 30, 2007

Review of DAA in the New Haven Review of Books, June 2007

HOW BAD IS IT?

In 1984 Ronald Reagan announced, with characteristic indifference to fact, that it was "morning in America." A quarter-century later, the twilight, then already perceptible, has deepened. The international financial position of the United States is ruinous. Globally, attitudes toward American policy range from misgiving to loathing. The foreseeable consequences of climate change and environmental pollution range from painful to catastrophic. For most Americans (especially the tens of millions without health insurance), medical care is the worst in any advanced industrial society. Economic insecurity is epidemic; overwork and high stress are the rule rather than the exception; inequality is at an all-time high; trust in government is at an all-time low (though perhaps not low enough, in the present circumstances). The (until recently) governing party openly aspires to permanent one-party rule and a Caesarist executive. Civic virtue, lately renamed "social capital," is waning; neighborliness has dwindled to the point of near-anomie. Functional illiteracy is rampant: in most non-affluent school districts, the public schools are not merely ineffectual but often unsafe as well. Nearly half of all Americans believe that the earth is 10,000 years old or less and that angels and other supernatural beings regularly intervene in terrestrial affairs. The average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, thirty seconds attending a play or concert, twenty-five seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television. And even Americans who don’t watch television are perfused by a stream of commercial messages so intense and ubiquitous as to constitute a culture (in the biological as well as social sense) of consumption. Compared with the imagined noonday brilliance of that vibrant idyll, Walt Whitman’s Democratic Vistas, the prospects for contemporary American civilization are heartbreakingly bleak.

Morris Berman’s Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire (Norton) was one of the most important books published in 2006, though little noted thanks to a peevish and uncomprehending review by Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. It is a sequel to Berman’s The Twilight of American Culture (2000), a shorter, more impressionistic book that persuasively evoked contemporary parallels to the collapse of Roman imperial civilization and suggested that, like the Greco-Roman heritage, Enlightenment ideals may survive the coming era of globalized barbarism underground, in quasi-monastic networks and communities.

Although the play of "twilight" and "dark" in the two books’ titles implies forward (or backward) motion, Dark Ages America does not try to go beyond The Twilight of American Culture so much as underneath it. The earlier book was primarily descriptive; the new one is diagnostic as well. Berman is a distinguished historian of medieval and early modern culture, and he imports from his study of alchemy the maxim: as above, so below. That is, the macrocosm and the microcosm – the visible dynamics of global political economy and the subtleties of culture and social psychology; grand strategy and the grain of everyday life – reflect and determine each other.

Thus, for example, the unrestricted movement of capital, the ultima ratio of American foreign and domestic policy, requires weak or corrupt – in any case, acquiescent – governments, since otherwise they might try to improve their bargaining position by combining with other governments and encouraging labor organization. Ineffectual governments and labor unions in turn require a weakening of impulses toward cooperation, solidarity, and citizen initiative. Very helpful toward that end is the redefinition of the good life as a life of continuous and increasing individual consumption – which, since it is a false definition, necessitates unremitting indoctrination by means of advertising. Expanding consumption in turn requires technological innovation, mass production, a population willing to put up with insecure, regimented, and frequently stupefying work (the effects of which are assuaged by entertainments only a little more refined and wholesome than Roman circuses), and the exploitation of resources on a vast scale. And these requirements of expanding consumption in turn promote the concentration and mobility of capital. In Berman’s apt formulation: "Global process, local fallout."

Whether or not the elites who profit by the degradation of culture and character intend these consequences, or even perceive them, is beside the point. Whatever anyone may intend, forms of life produce individuals adapted to them, just as physical environments do. "Civilizations are a package deal," Berman observes. Much of the value of Dark Ages America lies in tracing the adaptations and interdependencies implicit in the civilization we have evolved.

The ethos of American individualism is Berman’s particular preoccupation. It has frontier roots but is also an effect (as well as a contributing cause) of the victory of automobiles and suburbanization over mass transit and European-style city planning. "The relentless American habit of choosing the individual solution over the collective one," Berman writes, underlies "the design of our cities, including the rise of a car culture, the growth of the suburbs, and the nature of our architecture, [which] has had an overwhelming impact on the life of the nation as a whole, reflecting back on all the issues discussed [in this book]: work, children, media, community, economy, technology, globalization, and, especially, US foreign policy. The physical arrangements of our lives mirror the spiritual ones."

American foreign policy all too clearly expresses this preference for "individual solutions over collective ones." The basic principle of world order – willingness to accept limits on national sovereignty in deference to international law and public opinion – has always been unpopular here. As a result, American international behavior has been so high-handed that, even among normally sympathetic foreign elites, the US is widely regarded as a rogue nation and the chief threat to global peace and welfare. And individualism affects the substance as well as the style of US foreign policy. The culture of cars, suburbs, and shopping is resource-intensive, and in particular, energy-intensive. Control of global energy resources has therefore been the linchpin of US policy since World War II, as Berman shows.

From macrocosm to microcosm: the texture of daily life and the contours of individual psychology within a civilization are intimately related to its science and technology. In the first chapter of Dark Ages America, Berman elaborates a concept borrowed from the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: "liquid modernity." This names a society "characterized by speed, fluidity, and transience … a permanent state of contingency." It’s true that this acceleration has been underway since the Industrial Revolution and that Marx discoursed brilliantly on it in the Communist Manifesto. But the pace of social change has increased exponentially in the last few decades, thanks to both computer technology and the demise of the Bretton Woods international economic order, which freed capital to move around the world instantaneously. Along with all the blessings of electronic technology have come enormous, unprecedented stresses on our psyches and metabolisms. "Everything in contemporary society discourages inwardness," the literary critic Sven Birkerts has written. Berman illustrates copiously.

Dark Ages America is a synthesis. All the elements of Berman’s critique have been made before, though they are assembled here with rare skill and comprehensiveness. What is perhaps most original is Berman’s frank admission that he sees no way out. Indignation is usually followed by exhortation, but not in this book or its predecessor. It’s not that Berman sees nothing valuable in contemporary American society and no one struggling against the trends he has identified. He simply doesn’t hold out much hope for them. He regrets John Kerry’s defeat and no doubt welcomed the Democratic congressional victories in November 2006; but he also points out that "in the process of decline a civilization may, from time to time, rally for a while; but it is the overall trajectory, the structural properties of the situation, that ultimately determine the outcome."

Just what form the new Dark Ages may take does not emerge from Berman’s account. Contrary to fashionable demurrers, the Dark Ages were indeed dark: a half-millennium-long, nearly complete eclipse of reason, which classical culture barely and fortuitously survived. It is bound to be different this time around. Then, the imagination was starved; now it will be smothered: by commercial images, by ersatz sensations, by media babble, by corporate and governmental doublespeak. Still, we have at least learned a lot about information storage and retrieval. Maybe those skills will also prove useful for imagination storage and retrieval.

It is not much easier to accept the death of one’s culture than one’s own death – harder, perhaps, if one has had a happy life and known intellectual or aesthetic pleasure. That is why Berman wrote this book, though convinced of its futility. Thankfully, he cites a few lines from the ending of Gore Vidal’s Julian that temper the pain a little:

"With Julian, the light went out, and now nothing remains but to let the darkness come, and hope for a new sun and another day, born of time’s mystery and man’s love of light."



--George Scialabba is a book critic and the author of Divided Mind (Arrowsmith Press).

18 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morris,

Finally a review that does justice to your book. George Scialabba writes a very comprehensive review covering in detail the highlights of your book. Someone had to counter the New York Times disgraceful ignorant review, and Scialabba does it very well.

Marianne

11:12 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Marianne,

Thanks for writing. I was certainly grateful to have George's review; the only thing that bothers me, of course, is that several hundred thousand people probably read Michiko (NY Times; it also got reprinted in the International Herald Tribune, and then made it into South American newspapers, in translation--caramba!), and probably 243 people will read George! But frustratingly enough, this proves the point about the decline of our culture: What else can be going on, when a dunce is influential, and an astute and comprehensive reviewer is marginalized?

Onward and downward,
mb

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The space given to reviewers like Michiko Kakutani (and quite a number of writers presented in the paper of record) provides a fortaste of the kind of Dark Age we will be experiencing, as Scialabba indicates in his review; ezatz sensations and media babble.

12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris,

I believe that you are right. Reading the words you wrote only confirmed my own observations over the years. As a high school teacher, I see the degrading first hand, year after year. Every year the kids do less homework, are a little more disrespectful. The parents a little more enabling. I call the parents "the enablizers." Most parents attack me the minute I say anything negative about their little geniuses. Few students have the attention span or even the focus needed to delve into an old, complex subject.

The parents and students only care about the grades and not whether the students are actually learning or growing. I am also at one of the top public high schools in Illinois. I wonder, along with many colleagues, what is going on at all of the rest of the public schools, etc... Rest assured, Mr. Berman, you are right! History will look on you favorably, and all of these other characters will be forgotten. So many authors and so many books...so many will be forgotten.

Yet I don't know if I agree with you on leaving America. My Grandfather left Austria after WWI, and we owe America something for the good times that followed. My father had a wonderful life in the 1950's, and I thoroughly enjoyed the 70's - 80's and 90's. This all started coming to a head at the end of the 90's, didn't it? Suddenly, everything wasn't so happy anymore. Perhaps a natural death cycle.

Every year I fish out a few gems from the public schools, and they do go abroad, and they become doctors, lawyers, and engineers- thinking people. These few "gems" keep me going year after year. Sometimes I am just keeping the animal kids quiet, so that my few "gems" can learn something. Maybe we need to fight on in our own little ways to improve those lives that can be "saved," regardless of the big picture, which is dim...Just some thoughts. Maybe you should return to McWorld?... There have to be some beacons of light in the darkness...America needs you!

John in Chicagoland

8:59 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear John,

Last year, some high school--Palisades, in Calif., I think it was--left a message on their official answering machine ridiculing parents for calling up to complain that their darlings had received bad grades for doing no work, along with a host of other absurd complaints. I doubt very few parents got the point. It's disturbing to me that the endpoint of democracy is the levelling away of any standards, or quality, at all; it shouldn't be that way. But it *is* that way, at least in its American version; and as the empire continues to disintegrate, it can only get worse. You know this in your bones, right?

Staying on and fighting it is, of course, a personal choice, and one I endorse as a possible ("new monastic") option in the Twilight book. Myself, I decided some time ago that on balance, it wasn't worth it, and that I could spend the next 40 yrs of my life killing myself, to very little effect. Which is why I moved to a small town in Mexico. Not a perfect society, to be sure; but one with lots of graciousness and integrity, in terms of daily interactions. My health has improved (in the US I seemed to be in a doctor's office literally once a week), and I live in a loving community instead of a hostile, competitive one. From this vantage pt, the US seems like a sad place: violent, out of control, and most obviously--not very bright. Personally, I doubt more than 1% of the population know what a metaphor is, for example. After a while, it gets hard to live with that. As the years went by, I had fewer and fewer people to talk to.

So again, a personal choice. I certainly can't fault anyone for wanting to be a beacon of light in the darkness. I just decided to start living *in* the light, and for me, it was the right decision.

7:45 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a German reader of your book-it is insightful and prudent.The end of the american hegemony will come as follows: a lack of sophistication in the american people leads them into poverty, only an educated society can be wealthy and free.But I don´t think China will be the number one on the world, it will be India: they have a good democracy and a young population.

greetings from Munich, Bavaria, Germany
Hartmut

3:28 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Lieber Hartmut,

Vielen Dank fuer Ihre Brief. Ich will sagen dass DAA existiert auch in einer deutsche Uebersetzung: "Finstere Zeiten fuer Amerika," Buechergilde Gutenberg Verlag.

Es gefaellt mir Muenchen; war ich gerade da am 4 August, und hat den Glyptothek besuchen.

Mit freundlichen Gruesse,
mb

11:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

G'day Morris,

I found the review interesting, with many pertinent points. In Australia many of the same trends are occurring as in America, increasingly so as Australians imbibe an ever growing amount of American media and Hollywood decoctions.

However, the individualism is not so extreme and so we still have a functioning public health care system.

The Australian people seemed poised to kick the current government out of the ring, not least because of their fawning sycophancy towards Bush and the Republicans in the US.

Back to the review though, I am not convinced that some kind of 500-year 'Dark Ages' is the inevitable doomsday-style outcome of current world politics. As a German speaker, Morris, you might be aware that in Deutsch the 'Dark Ages' is more commonly known as 'Das Fruehmittelalter' (the Early Middle Ages), also 'Voelkerwanderung', or 'wandering of the peoples' and that that time period is not often described in such bleak terms, since more recent research and archaeological findings from the period challenge old notions of backwardness in the arts, technology, political and social organizations.. It would appear they don't regard it as so much of a 'gap in civilisation'. In fact, to think of it as such seems to me a tad 'Romano-centric' don't you think?! :)

Keep your chin up, America!

Warm regards,

Aussie.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Aussie,

Many thanx for writing, myte! I'm aware of recent research on the Middle Ages, and its modification of the traditional picture--in fact, I think I refer to it in passing in DAA. But 1st, let me say that I think the coming Dark Ages will engulf (is engulfing) the US; I don't think it will extend to the rest of the world, and certainly not Europe or China/India, which are showing signs of "renaissance". 2nd, modifications of traditional picture aside, it's still the *overall* picture that counts. I think few historians, if any, would argue that the Fruehmittelalter ever attained the richness or brilliance of the Greeks, or of the High Middle Ages/Renaissance. The US has entered a period that is clearly in sharp contrast to its former glory; I just don't see how it will ever be able to get the latter back.

Anyway, gotta run; having a party, so need to toss some shrimp on the barbie.

Vielen Dank-
mb

10:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris,

DAA is a GREAT book, and you have a brilliant mind. I'm also extremely depressed now, and want to "get the hell out of Dodge." I'm thinking about moving to Europe, but not sure where to go. My wife and I just returned from 12 days in Greece and although a beautiful country, I just can't see us living there. We visited England in 2005 and I could see us living in there. Unfortunately, we haven't been to any other European countries. I'm wondering if you could advise which European countries would be the BEST choices to move to? Where would you choose to live if you were going to move to Europe? You speak very highly of Europe, I'm surprised you're not living there? Do you get the intellectual stimulation you need in Mexico? I think you belong in a European Cafe holding court with other brilliant minds.

Thanks,

Pete

8:58 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Pete,

I did think abt Europe for a long while, and always enjoy myself when I'm there. I also speak French/German/Spanish and a broken Italian, so had a few options available...although take heart, wherever you decide to go, you'll be at least semifluent in a year. (The UK, BTW, is not Europe, and far too much like the US. Expand your horizons! Although Scotland is spectacular, I must confess.) Mexico has a lot of advantages for me, including proximity to US libraries if I need them for my work, and the astounding graciousness of the Mexican people, which is in such contrast to the US that I am in culture shock on almost a daily basis. You have no idea.

"Getting outta Dodge" is, in any case, a very good plan, and I wish you luck with it. Do a lot of research in advance--there are expat websites, tons of books for would-be emigrants, etc etc. I really can't advise you on which country, tho if I were to move to Europe, I'd probably pick Spain or Italy; but that's a personal choice. Start out by doing what you did with England: go on some holidays, and don't do the tourist stuff. Get a sense of how the place feels, and if you can, talk to Americans who are now living there. (Again, you can also chat with them on expat websites.)

I never had much use for Nike, as you might imagine, but in this case their slogan really is on the money: Just do it.

Best of luck,
mb

12:16 AM  
Blogger GrumpyYank said...

Mr. Berman:
During a recent discussion with friends, I made a casual remark about the Bretton Woods Agreement which contained the suggestion that it was a serious attempt, especially by Dexter White, to establish a rational and reasonably fair organization of the world economy. At that moment, I was given a copy of "Dark Ages in America" to read. I have just finished reading your book. I cannot say that it is a book to enjoy, but it is a book that should be appreciated and which deserves serious thought. Its conclusions accord with my own and they are based upon many of the same reasons that you have offered. Especially impressive are the many connections that you make between our economic decisions and attitudes on the one hand and our social dysfunction and imperial crimes on the other. The alienation, loneliness and hollow insensitivity are as well stated as anything Thomas Hardy ever wrote.

Nevertheless, I left the book with the sense that the book's argument was incomplete. That is, I suggest that the sources of our despair predate our industrial society by a long way and are illustrated by our racial attitudes that were apparent already in the 16th century. If you will, start with King Philip's War and the subsequent genocidal treatment of Native Americans. Add to that, the destruction of millions of lives in our practice of slavery while we built a world class economy on the backs of Africans, a slavery that persists in our ghettos today. Tack onto that sum injustices to many other racial and cultural minorities (chinese, japanese, irish, spanish, etc.) Our treatement of these peoples on this continent is best described as pillage, theft and murder. Yet we pass through our as yet young history as a nation without the public recognition of crimes committed, without reparation and without redress--as in a fog of unconcern. For example, everyone knows the echos of these crimes in reservation poverty and inner city crime. Everyone knows, but to face the truth is too terrible to contemplate because understanding implies the necessity of response. How are the truth and guilt to be avoided?--only through the emptiness of denial, greed and violence--matters that you have described so well.

Each of our crimes against the Africans, Native Americans, peasants of Viet Nam are, but for minor diffeences of motivation, slaughters that rank with the Holocaust. Perhaps the best way to avoid looking in those mirrors is to drive down the highway to the mall and to never never engage in slef analysis. The behavior that we designate in others as crimes against humanity, we characterize in ourselves as mistakes if they do not yield a profit, and manifest destiny if they do. You have described why the American people so often take the wrong direction, away from community and justice, but the looming question remains. Why is our behavior so conditioned? In my mind, the answer lies in what the alternatives of kindness, knowledge, justice and community imply. They imply recognition and the consequent responsibility for corrective behavior. I suppose that we would agree: It's just not on.
Richard Schauer: rschauer@idcnet.com

7:54 PM  
Blogger Carson Park Ranger said...

Someday perhaps, diminished sufficiently in power and prestige, we'll be able to sift through our history and find our strengths.

While we are intoxicated by our own might, we are incapable of recognizing our own true strengths.

11:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I never knew your book existed until today when I clicked on a link to a Mexican publishing house and I saw the Spanish version. Then I decided to do an intenet search using your name and I found this website. I have not read your book, but I liked the description and summary carried by the publishing house. I live in the US and, like you, I always thought of one day moving to Mexico, for exactly the same reasons. Still, I am worried, as no one knows what shape American foreing policy will take regarding Mexico. After all, there is a lot of anti-Mexican hysteria in this country now, tied to the illegal alien situation. But I am afraid this is just the beginning and this feeling may evolve into actions against Mexico. I certainly hope I am wrong and paranoid. What is your opinion?

3:30 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

I don't have a crystal ball, but I don't think there is any danger to Mexico coming from the US. Part of the hysteria regarding illegal aliens is unconsciously motivated: on some level, Americans know that the situation in the US is untenable, that the 2 political parties are virtually identical, and that the country is basically going down the tubes. So they thrash around, looking for a target for their unconscious fears. An old story, of course (Jews in Germany, etc.). Anything seen as constituting a "boundary violation" is a good candidate, obviously (on this see an earlier work of mine, Coming to Our Senses; Cuerpo y Espiritu, en español). But I'm guessing this will be contained. The major goal of US foreign policy as far as Mexico goes is that Mex have a stable government and economy, and of course provide goods (including labor) for the US market. That is precisely what Mex is doing, and even the election of Lopez Obrador, had it come to pass in 2006, wouldn't have changed that. That's my 2 cents, anyway, for what it's worth.

Abrazos,
Mauricio

9:36 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your answer, I feel better now.

2:14 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am currently reading this book and have written a positive review about what I have read so far regarding the apathetic behaviour of some Americans, especially all of the superficiality and obsession with work and money. I have noticed though, that some Americans refuse to think that they are the same amoral and apathetic people that you mention in this book. It must really disturb them to be dissected in such a manner, and I only wonder why they will not change their state of mind. What will it take? Anyhow, thank you for writing this book, I am really enjoying it.

--Wendy Koenigsmann

5:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Wendy,

Well, I suspect those Americans are safe. In a nation of 300 million people, the book sold about 30,000 copies--.01% of the population. Just compare the stats for any of Ann Coulter's books, for example, or management profundities such as "Who Moved My Cheese?" (Who Injected Necrotic Material Into My Brain? would be more on the mark.) As to what it would take: door-to-door lobotomies, I'm guessing. When I say There is no hope, I'm not blowing smoke. Check this out:
http://www.smirkingchimp.com/thread/12496

Thanks for writing, and all the best to you-

mb

10:47 PM  

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