November 05, 2007

The View from Darien

Dear Friends:

This by way of a change of pace...My German publisher wrote to say that he is going to be editing a book of short contributions by writers, journalists, and actors, on the subject of the first book they ever read, and how it changed their lives. Below, my contribution. Enjoy!

I suppose everybody has a shortlist of books that changed their lives. My own amounts to about 7 or 8 books, I would guess. But there is one that deserves a special place of honor, because it was my first, which I read at age 3: Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. I was reading it with my mother, and we came across a word I didn’t know: eddy. As it turned out, my mother didn’t know it either (or so she said), so we looked it up in the dictionary. "Whirlpool," was the definition. But the fascinating thing that I took away from Defoe’s tale was that one could explore whole new worlds, worlds that were strange and unknown, and that it was not only safe to do so, but even fascinating. Furthermore, there were guides along the way to help you, such as dictionaries. And finally, I had it imprinted on my tender little brain that reading itself was exciting; that it was the key to a larger world.

That sense of revelation stayed with me, and shaped my life. I particularly remember revelations about revelation itself, such as the story of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," from The Arabian Nights, which I read at age 13. Ali Baba comes to the covered entrance to a cave, and learns the magic words that open the door: "Open Sesame!" Or, in college now, reading John Keats’ poem, "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer," which concludes with the lines:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific–and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

It is now six decades since I first read Robinson Crusoe, and I am still looking out at the world with a wild surmise.

24 Comments:

Blogger PALOBLANCO-CAJANEGRA said...

guides such as dictionaries
link the unknown
keys to a larger world
fascinating revelations of life
letters of books that move in the mind
or moving bodies that print images in the brain
from the unknowns first time for us
like Cortez who could see the world
but also the ones he shared it with
and enjoyed it with

nice words
and talking about good books:
will your trilogy have a fourth one?
Greetings from Chile and its four winds

7:09 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Actually it was Balboa, not Cortez; but I guess we can allow Keats a bit of poetic license.

8:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Morris and bloggers,

Just two observations that I just had to share with all of you.

Item #1 The American girl studying abroad in Italy who killed her roomate for not participating in an orgy. This is not the "Greatest Generation."

Item #2 I work in a very affluent suburb as a high school teacher, and we just found out that the administration has made an interesting decision. Teachers in this middle school district are no longer allowed to grade students based on homework?!! That means that teachers can no longer give students homework and expect them to complete it. I guess parents complained that students were too busy playing sports, etc...I feel like tipping off the news, but they probably wont be interested.

Morris was right about the decline of America, and if you look closely there are signs there every day. I am teaching in a wealthy suburb, and can only imagine what is happening out in the wilderness.

I think the only option in America is to be wealthy and create an artificial bubble around your child. The middle class is quickly becoming "ghetto," and at least the wealthy class is semi-literate. (in America) Of course the materialism makes me gag, but there is no other option. Perhaps I could live way out in the country, but t.v. signals and the internet sneak into children't homes in the country as well.

Not to sound like the far right, but I think that the widespread use of the internet, and easy access to porn and other sick things is causing irreprobable harm to developing minds.

Every older generation feels that the youth are off track, I know, but this is something different. We aren't in Kansas anymore, and things are degrading at an exponential pace. Every high school class gets worse, and soon German will be eliminated. Who has time for the study of German or Latin? Latin was cut last year, and German is next, followed by French. Only Spanish will remain. 90% of Americans take two years of Spanish, the minimum, and then complain years later that they can't speak Spanish at all. What a strange country we live in. Europe is better, but only for the next 20 years max. The easy way wins out in the end. Why would a child sign up to take German as an elective in high school? They just want to have fun, not push themselves too hard. At least I teach English, and can spend the next 25 years trying to trick and force gangbangers into reading and writing. It isn't an easy trick. I hope you don't mind my ranting, but I had to let it out somewhere, and most of my fellow teachers don't get it.

good luck to all!
Alex in Chicagoland

8:02 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Alex,

What can I say, or add to that? It gets grimmer by the day, and Americans remain totally oblivious. Dark Ages indeed. The suburbs *are* the wilderness, Alex; it's *all* wilderness. Meanwhile, nearly 50% of the American public thinks that the USSR was our enemy in WW2 (and Germany our ally), and 52% favor going to war with Iran to stop them from developing nuclear weapons. (Thus revealing that they learned absolutely nothing from the disaster in Iraq, and the propaganda that made it possible.) Leaders on both sides of the aisle, not to mention in the
White House, fiddle while Rome burns. I hope you are wrong about Europe, but the American juggernaut rolls on, spreading its values even as it is collapsing. Meanwhile, interest in a book such as Dark Ages America is trivial, and the NY Times effectively brands me unpatriotic for writing it, for pointing these things out. Res ipsa loquitur, I say to them: the thing speaks for itself.

Thank you for writing.

-mb

9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Mr. Berman and bloggers:

I love this website. I wanted to comment because I read “Dark Ages America” and loved it and I just finished "The Twilight of American Culture" in the last week. I wanted to comment on what happened to me while I was reading that last book and it coincides with comments from Alex in Chicagoland.

While reading "Twilight" my family visited from the east coast. Not having any children of my own and being curious, I asked my 13 year old niece what they were being taught about the war in Iraq. Her instant and exasperated response was, "Nothing! Nothing, Aunt D-! They tell us NOTHING!" She went on to say that while they learned a little about "the four main" candidates for president, the only way Iraq made it into the discussion was "where the main candidates stood on the topic of Iraq". So in
other words, these kids are learning to consider the opinions of others without dissecting the actual topic and developing their own opinions based on direct knowledge of the subject itself. (A kind of "Follow the leader" or "What would the master do?" mentality in my opinion.) In questioning her further, I found out my niece had never heard about Guantanamo Bay, didn't know the term "water boarding", etc. She was completely in the dark on current events of serious magnitude yet only a few years away from adulthood. (Ironically isn’t it? She sings the national anthem at many local sporting events. Sings the praises of a country whose darker behavior she knows nothing about.) She also had informed me, she felt, where the presidential candidates were concerned, that "they talk mostly about the republican ones."

Needless to say my niece was wide eyed and horrified after talking to
me for about 40 minutes (its hard to bring someone 'up to speed' in that short amount of time but perhaps the Howard Zinn history book I gifted her that day will help). Poor kid then marched out to her mother pool side and began angrily informing her, "MOM! WE know nothing! NOTHING!" From the look on my sister's face this has come up before and I got a terse, "thanks a lot!" (I replied, "You're welcome." I should have added, "My
tutor’s salary for this session can be mailed to...")My niece also had some sad insight into how at least one of the teachers was giving out A’s that made no sense at all but I can't recall the details at the moment; just remember it raised my eyebrows and had nothing to do with scholastic ability on the student’s part.

Alex commented that parents seem to be placing more emphasis on sports and I couldn't agree more. My sister's kids (and other families in that NJ suburb) seem to do nothing but
immerse their kids in one activity after another--mostly sports. Entire weekends on the softball field are not unheard of in their world, back-to-back competitions, play offs, along with singing lessons, drama classes, karate and gymnastics. There seems to be
a lot of “doing” but I don’t see a lot of deep thinking or critical thought, just running
from one preoccupation to another. (I notice parents like my sister are very attuned to staving off boredom in their children, to the point its like an obsession. As soon as one of them looked bored, she was "on it", hovering and trying to supply something to occupy their time with more zeal than an Activities Cruise Director. (Did I mention the first part of this trip west was spent at Disneyland and Universal studios? West coast or east coast, these are not unfamiliar destinations for this family. Even historical locations like Williamsburg now have a theme park near by or should I say 'attached'.)

A lot of these kids seem to be in a constant state of being entertained. As if boredom was some kind of boogeyman. Personally I think sitting still and allowing the silence to "enter" is one way that inspiration gets a chance to slip in, along with individual thought,
as opposed to choreoographed group thought such as sports provide.) It’s funny because I don't recall this in my own childhood, dysfunctional as it was in some other respects; this running from activity to activity, constantly in motion and forced to always look busy and amused. Unlike today, adults years ago didn't make us kids the manic focal point of their universe and dumb down to our level. Quite the opposite: we had to grow up into their world, their level of awareness. We sat at the table with adult conversation and on TV there wasn't this plethora of children's shows to insure we only grew up just so fast and no faster, based on the controlled pasteurized standards of Disney, Big Bird and the Tellatubbys.(Yes we had Disney, but it was once a week, Sunday nights and not constant fodder. Disney 24/7 back then would have been the same as admitting you fed your two
year old cake for breakfast every day!)

But back to my niece's education system: as the family was packing up I noticed a cheap laminated book that reminded me of the old dime store Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys style
books, commercial thrillers. I thought it belonged to my 10yr old nephew but found out it was required reading for my 13yr old niece. "The Man Who Was Poe" by
Avi. Nothing against the author, I don't know him or his work personally but my niece informed me they were reading this fictionalized thriller (with Poe as
a character in it) as part of their course on Poe! My niece clearly hated it and I kept saying, "But it’s not Poe. This is not Poe." When I asked her what they had actually read of Poe's work, she replied vaguely, ‘one or two poems’ and she could name one short story off the top of her head. But she was clearly disinterested and this drivel of third party fiction clearly wasn't helping to re-enchant her to the topic. My reply was, "Well if your class has more time on its hands why aren't you reading MORE POE? Why aren't you reading more of his
own work, the man’s actual words, instead of this fictionalize interpretation?" (Go to the source, not the advertisement for it! What is this? Education Once Removed? Education-Through-“Distancing”?)Mind you, her parents were present but never chimed in or commented on this conversation. Too busy riding herd on packing up, or that’s how
they acted to avoid the topic.(I have noticed for the last few years that any time I bring up points of concern such as the war, education, the environment…from co-workers
to close friends and family, people instantly treat me like I am invisible. If I try to engage them politely and rationally in serious topics such as this they ignore me, talk around
me—and even ‘about me’ while I’m standing right there. I have become a ghost in my own lifetime. I once tried to tell my sister how I felt about the most recent bombings in Lebanon –and U.S. involvement in it---and the response was, "Why do you look at that if it depresses you?" As if I could take reality and turn it off.)

My last political comment to my niece was, "I’m sorry you're inheriting a mess.” Her response was, "Yeah, I can see that. Thanks a lot!" My niece is a bright young woman but she has major hurdles to overcome and decisions to make as she approaches these obstacles: whether to remain dumbed down on a cultural hamster wheel of "busy work" and consumerism or break out of the mold and risk alienation from the bulk of her society, such as I experience daily.

I would like to add one last observation: many of my friends and family, including my sister and brother-in-law are college educated. I have had some college but I am basically self-taught (I got lucky: I attended the top high school in my state, at the time.) Over the years a lot of my college educated friends have asked what college I attended because "you seem to know so much.(that I don’t know)" Rather than be flattered by this comment--knowing full well these well meaning "better educated" friends have never read Shakespeare, Darwin, Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe or Tolstoy and who have never even heard of Voltaire, Ibsen, Chaucer, Camus, Herman Hesse, Thomas Paine, E.T.A. Hoffman, Eugene O’Neill, Thomas Mann, Kafka, Carl Sandburg, T.S. Elliot, ,Swinburne, both Brownings… (to name a paltry few here! I mention the tip
of the iceberg of my reading material and all that I have read IS the tip of the iceberg) ---I’ve always been horrified. Horrified because: If I am better read than many who hold diplomas, what does that say about that piece of paper?? I am beginning to think that all a degree means in this day and age is that “I spent time and money to prove that I have spent time and money”. Or “my parents spent time and money to prove that I am worth time and money. So you should hire my time and hand me money based on this purchased label of my worth.” It’s as if each diploma is no more than a bar code. I told my niece to start educating herself—read, research, question and read some more!—because her educational system and society are failing her.(I should add her public school, is in an upper middle class setting and is
divided into “special ed/intermediate/and truly gifted”. My niece, being bored in the
“intermediate” division, makes me wonder what they’re teaching “the truly gifted”!! If
she’s ‘intermediate’ and feeling lost, I’m not sure I want to know!)

Mr.Berman, thank you, your writing resonates with me. When reading the preface to "Dark Ages" I felt instantly like I'd 'come home'. I am one of those people who want the truth no matter how depressing it is. I don't want to be entertained. It’s only in reading books like yours that I feel connected to other thinking human beings who, sadly, know
where we are heading, unwillingly caught in the current, in our swift moving hand baskets. I hope to write and comment again, further on Dark Ages but this has gotten so long I should end here for now.


Thanks for letting me vent.


-DL of California

4:05 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear DL,

Thanks for your long description of American life. I liken what has happened to us to a tsunami, but of the mind: we should call it a buffoonami, a situation in which mass idiocy overtakes a nation. As in the case of a tsunami, a buffoonami is not reversible.

Abrazos,
mb

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Emily Del Real said...

Hey Mr. B!

I just want to add that your book, The Twilight of American Culture, is on my top ten list of favorite books.

Also, you don't look a day over 50! ;)

Thanks for reading!

-A fan in Sacramento

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I admire DL's spirit. I gave up trying to engage anyone but a few close friends in any serious discussions long ago. Most Americans prefer to dwell on more surface like things such as the day to day lives of their favorite stars. If you are intelligent and aware, then you are in the minority, and prepare yourself for a life of isolation, especially here in the U.S. In Europe I could engage the average cab driver in intelligent banter, but not in America. It is not the lack of teaching either, it is the lack of value placed on education here. This becomes the great fault of Democracy, and probably purposely so. An unintelligent, obese, arrogant mob, which is what we now are, does not have the ability or desire to elect intellectual leaders. We would have to go to Facism in order to make things right again in a reasonable time frame. I look at my little son (2 months old), and wonder what kind of life he will inherit... Societies rise and fall based on culture, and shared traditions. Germany had a strong work ethic, and culture of specialization and excellence, this is also, sadly fading away...China has this work ethic now, and they respect their elders, two reasons why they should beat us down. Yet, I agree with Morris that China will ony become another America speaking Mandarin. They will sink into the sea of materialism. America only beat down Germany (thank god we and the Russians did) by numbers. Quantity not quality. Where do the quality goods come from? They aren't coming from the U.S. America did have a noble beginning starting with great ideals, but now its culture is just about gratification and shopping, as far as I can see. There is no community anymore thanks to our much vaulted "technology." There are no children on my suburban street. They are all in their basements playing in their own virtual worlds. Highschoolers are almost incapable of sustained deep thought thanks to the internet and modern Hollywood vapid movies. (quick cuts, etc.) Our world is very much like "The Matrix." The vast majority don't want the red pill. They are far too content swimming on the surface. It is only the few oddballs like us that are diving deep. Don't frustrate yourself trying to "save" a few people from the Matrix, they don't want to be saved anyway. As a teacher, I save those who meet me half way, and with the majority I fail. I have to let them go, but it does hurt me. I cannot invent a value of education in them from scratch. They come from backgrounds that have absolutely no idea about what education is.

Alex in Chicagoland.

10:51 PM  
Anonymous Gavin said...

Hallo,

I'm originally from the US, but lived in Germany for 12 years (most of my childhood up till I was 20) and have been "back" in the US for about 3 years or so. Those past three years have been miserble and I could definatly sense something was wrong about this place...yes obviously the politics, with it being the Bush era and all, but there seemed to be more to it than that, something that transcended just mere politics, something deeper, something that was on a deeper and intergrated socialogical level that could not just be voted in and out. Well, when Dark Ages came out (which I read along with Twilight) I did'nt have a feeling of "wow what a suprise, I did'nt know about any of this", it was more of a validation and explanation of what, for my brother and I were sort of feelings, or at least knowing what was wrong, but perhaps not knowing why or how. Furthermore, reading these books told us it was'nt just us or just simply experiencing some short term culture shock.

We just came back from a month-long trip through Germany and Czech. I knew the trip had changed us, or at least gave us the needed re-boot, but it was'nt really going to hit us till we landed back in America. And that it did. Sitting in the terminal in Atlanta, CNN was running an episode of Lou Dobbs (had it been O'Reilly or Hannity I think I would have commited Hari Kari right there)...another school shooting! (I knew I was back in the USA hearing that) Mexican immirgrants rape grandmothers for Allah! (or something to that effect) Hillary's shoes! Untied!...I looked around at the people around me. There was something in their eyes and faces that was just vacant or worn (hard to explain)...anyway, it all hit me like a ton of bricks. This is all a effing circus, and crazy, insane effin circus! And the worst part was was that no one but me could see this. I felt like I was in some bizarre dystopian novel (come to think of it, todays US is a bizarre dystopia).

Not that I did'nt have this epiphiny before, but back then I guess the US was new and I thought 'give it a chance' etc, and subsequently I think I became a little numb and resigned to the madness. This time, again fresh from Europe, it was different. This was the nail in the coffin. I said fuck it (excuse the laguage). There is no sexier word to me then 'expat', and that is fully what I intend to do and I'm devoting everything to it. I'm moving back to the Europe as soon as I get my degree (or indulgence as you so wonderfully put it once). Furthermore I'm going get a UK passport (Mum). I can't take this rubbish anymore. I cannot and well not reconcile with it. Period. The EU isn't perfect, but the grass is indeed greener on the other side.

Some people well say, oh why not try and fight/wait for change here in the US etc. Well, because, like you I don't have faith that things well change here for the better no matter what I do. As I said earlier, "it" is far too ingrained here and the people are too stupified, comftable or brainwashed/ignorant for anything to change fundementally. Slowly but surely, I am saying goodbye to this place.

I hear tell you've made the jump out of here yourself. Where to just out of curiosity?

Anyway, sorry if that was all a wee bit too rant like, but once I get on the subject...

danke,
Gavin

5:46 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Lieber Gavin,

Vielen Dank fuer Ihre Brief. Ja, gewiss: gibt es etwas in der Luft hier...etwas unheilig. Congratulations on your decision to return to Europe. I personally don't share Jeremy Rifkin's rosy-eyed vision of the EU, and I also worry that Americanization will destroy what's left of a real civilization within a couple of decades; but in terms of social support and human values, you are surely, for now, better off there than here. I moved to a small town in Mexico abt a year and a half ago, and while there are things I do miss abt the US (landscape, NYC, my friends, the ease of linguistic and cultural familiarity), I can only say I wish I had done it sooner. Instead of the washed-out zombies you (correctly) describe, one sees and deals with truly gracious people--it's hard to imagine it unless you live here. I don't live in culture shock down here. In the US, I seemed to experience it all the time, with literally no one around me being able to understand "what the problem was." It's a question of intangibles: how do you measure friendship, community, kindness? Americans don't even know what they've lost. After all, they've got their cell phones, and their Prozac. I like to say that in Mexico, nothing works, but everything works out. In the US, everything works, and nothing works out. When I think of how many years I spent within a context of autistic hostility, I have to shudder. And there is apparently no way to communicate that to people still living in that context. Hey, we're No. 1! And yet, as you say, the eyes and faces are vacant, because we are a nation that has exchanged love for toys, and think it's some kind of fabulous bargain. What is it we are chasing, finally?...all that competition, all that aggression, and for what?

A few bumper stickers I recall, from just before I emigrated:
1) "If you aren't appalled, you haven't been paying attention"
2) "You Can't Fix Stupid"
3) "We Still Read!"

What more can I say?

Thanks again for writing, and good luck on your move.

-mb

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi MB,

Thank you for posting my comments! A “buffoonami” yes! That’s what we have here in
this country I’m afraid. I asked my niece again how that one failing student
got an “A”. It was a Social Studies teacher and she gave a student an A for baking her
cookies. (So much for knowing where Iraq and Iran are on a map!) My niece also told me a new young science teacher at her school was in tears recently because she got a horrible rating on “Ratemyteacher.com” ?? and my niece thinks its because it’s a hard course and she’s strict and most of the kids hate that (though my niece by saying that was not condoning it, she thought whoever did that was wrong and said it was personal insults not even based on her teaching skills, though she does not have that teacher.) My niece also indicated she often can’t tell if she’s passing or failing a course because she doesn’t get her graded tests back often until all at once “a month later” and by then she’s forgotten she even took the test or why, so I imagine corrections might be meaningless.

Your comments about the high school “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.” sparked a memory of an incident with a similar theme. I remember reading about 13yrs ago about a southern lady sheriff who was approached by several sets of irate parents demanding justice because their adolescent children had been bit by a dog on the owner’s property. But the owner, while asked to put up a ‘beware of dog’ sign was basically let off the hook because
he had the dog on his property, tied down and behind TWO sets of fence. Instead the clueless parents found themselves the recipients of fines because the sheriff stuck to her guns and said their children were trespassing. The sheriff believed the law was not just about good citizens instilling correct behavior in their dogs but also good citizens instilling correct behavior in their children. ( Ah! Fat chance).

Likewise I can remember asking one young mother, politely to reign in her 3yr
old toddler who was pinching people and jumping on people. Her only response
was to gather both boys to her (the other one was 4), point at me and say “Stay away from her boys. She hates children.” That was her answer. Her boys were not wrong and in so many words she conveyed to them the fault was all mine. I see this response often. No lessons in accountability.

You know what makes me maddest of all? I would be willing to bet the Iraqi culture doesn’t have half the problems we do with “our” children, nor our half-assed narcissistic childrearing “skills”. While no culture is perfect, I’ve seen indications their families are close knit, extended families of love and support, and their children respectful and mature. I’ve never heard of an Iraqi child in the past going to school and killing classmates in a shooting spree or playing cruel hoaxes that lead the target child to commit suicide, or attacking their elders. In America this is all too common. Yet we invade countries, telling them we have something to offer when our own cultural fabric is so cheap and thread bare. It enrages me that we seem to be using our own screwed up youth to kill off the very “family values” (embodied in the Iraqi youth) we claim to hold dear, but which in our own youth barely exists as a whole any more, except in pockets. It saddens me that a truly worthless culture with nothing to offer is killing off and raping a culture that may well have held hearts and minds with more promise, integrity, --and certainly with more humanity, as our own seems to have so very little. Who knows but that some Iraqi youth might have grown up to cure cancer, or help solve global warming, due in no small part to the culture that raised him to love family and community by committing to a career choice of compassion and living his values daily—had a bomb not ended his or her life, causing him to melt his desperate hand print on the bomb shelter ceiling. OUR children? Much more iffy they will help cure anything given the poor science education standards and the emphasis on making money. At this point, the world needs a cure for us. (The first time I saw, recently, that Coca Cola had the nerve to resurrect and revamp the old commercial jingle, wherein several American youth are singing on roof tops, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect Harmony!” I threw my remote at the tv set. May as well have dressed all those singing actors in combat gear. Like we can teach the rest of the world about harmony! Please! Harmony is the very
thing we put an end to. We just raped the Cradle of Civilization! )

Enjoy Mexico. I’d leave if I could too—who knows, maybe. I too have fewer and fewer people to talk too. It’s lonely here in the belly of the beast. Even among those few friends who sympathize politically I often suffer a kind of censuring. I have an invalid friend who has impressed upon me her depression limits what she can talk about and I always try to be careful and respect that, once she made that clear, given her serious health issues; don’t bring up the war, haven’t in awhile. But just recently in an indirect way, I said, ‘my niece knows nothing about Iraq, can you believe that?’—I was stopped right there at the “I” word. “I can’t talk about that right now. I have depression. Another time.” (There is no other time. I don’t expect there to be, in her case, but cutting me off like that hurts, mostly because she’s one of many, too many, who keep saying “Not now.” while
claiming to oppose the war but seldom discussing it.) Then there is the friend who
opposes the war but complains that ‘name calling’, such as “General Betray Us’ is wrong,
makes him wince, because “it takes away from the point” that needs to be made, has nothing to do with the actual issue. (Only in this topsy turvy culture can someone get labeled with a ‘name’ that bluntly outlines ‘the point’, only to have its citizens say: it detracts from the point to say that!) I come away from conversations like this thinking I went down Alice’s rabbit hole…

So more and more I shut down and go inward every day as the patch of sanity and sane amounts of dialogue gets smaller and smaller. Plus I’m convinced the worse it gets politically—more invasions, more shredding of rights-- the more silence and denial will become an unspoken way of life for most of these people, self-imposed, health issues or not, good intentioned as some few want to believe they are. A deepening grade of denial to cope with each deepening shade of depravity in the culture. So: “fewer and fewer to talk to” you say? Hell yes, ain’t that the truth! More power to you for searching out a place to “live in the light”. GOOD FOR YOU! If I ever at least make it out of Nerdistan (Silicon Valley) to some slower-paced small town (I all ready have one in mind) where I can live that personal monastic life you talk about, I won’t look back. A move like that, starting over, in my 50s can’t possibly make me any lonelier than I am now! As Alex points out you can only do so much for others, and most don’t really want the enlightment.

Oh a book to read for your bloggers: “Defying Hitler” by Sabastian Haffner. Published after his death but written around the time of his escape from Nazi Germany, I think it really captures what the average German of conscience was going through back then. I
think I’ve read it at least 4 times now, it was like clinging to an understanding friend. I found Haffner very articulate in capturing the emotional atmosphere that lead up to Hitler’s reign—and the atmosphere described is similar to our own, now, I think. Including: the average German’s obsession with sports, not unlike the average American today. Also, I liked “Quitting America” by Randall Robinson, who immigrated to his wife’s island home of St. Kitts and tells why in the book. Like you, MB, Mr. Robinson, socks it to the U.S. but good! I’ve read “Quitting” twice --and your books, MB, now that I’ve discovered them this year will also be ones I will read over and over in the coming years.

--DL

12:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gavin,

I spent two years in Germany, and I know where you are coming from. Yes, go back to Europe, especially if you are young. I am married now with a young child and I am literally stuck here. The problem with Europe is finding a job, but I would have been very happy teaching English in a German Gymnasium and riding my bike to work. I also liked Ireland a lot. Also, Copenhagen is my favorite city of all time. I wonder why Morris chose Mexico over Scandinavia. Scandinavia always struck me as a kind of utopia. Beautiful women, intelligent populace, clean, crime free, Socialist...what more can you ask for? Of course the weather leaves something to be desired. It is too bad that we only have one life to live. Australia is also supposed to be an excellent place to live; it is just too far away to visit family and friends. Morris, what do you think of Cormac McCarthy? I really liked his novel "The Road.", and I enjoyed his other book, "No Country for old men." He also seems to have a dark view of America...

Alex in Chicagoland

12:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Berman, There's an article in today's NYT on reading that you might find interesting---"A good mystery: why we read"---as it says pretty much what you did in your story about the wonder of reading Robinson Crusoe with your mother. I can remember thinking in first grade "as soon as I learn how to read I'm done with school" but my parents had different ideas about that decision. Books (five decades later for me) still change my life and probably always will. Discovering you as an author several years ago, rereading Walden, reading the humanistic psychology of Eric Fromm, the amazing novels of Dickens, Thackery, Eliot, and countless others is a continuing source of happiness in my life. Reading the comments on your blog concerning this subject, I know many Americans qualify as "the leaden-eyed" and they're more interested in reading legal thrillers than masterpieces. But not everyone. Who knows?! Maybe someday Mexico will be building a fence to keep all the disaffected Americans out! But until then, I hope you and your family find peace and community in your new home.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Thank you all for writing. I'm currently at the annual book fair in Guadalajara, doing lectures and media interviews. I tell you, Spanish is hard enough; I can't imagine doing any of this in Norwegian (and freezing my rear end off to boot). But yes, like J.K. Galbraith, I think the Scandanavian model is probably the best one around. Keep the faith...

7:06 PM  
Anonymous Gavin said...

Unheilig indeed, can't fix stupid is bloody right...hence why I give up. Its like what I belive I've heard you say before...in the US you can say whatever you want, but no one well listen. By the way, when you mentioned Rifkin I was like "how the hell does he know I have that book?"...but I was a little tired and hungover when I read that.

And regarding what you mentioned about life in Mexico, I met a Kiwi gal in Berlin, and on her way to Europe she went through Africa. She was so taken aback by how these people, who had almost nothing (as we would say) and dirt poor were so much happier than us, what with all our toys and gadgets.

Alex,

yes, finding a job is a big problem, and esp if you are American (or just non-EU) which is why I'm going for that UK passport. I've changed my major to German (as to be absolutly fluent in German or very close) and then after I get the degree I'm going to go for a TEFL certificate and hopefully teach english in Germany or elsewhere in Europe. Australia and New Zealand would be my second choice if that were to not work out...I met a lot of them on the trip, and they maybe louder and more obnoxious then Americans,but dammit, their a lot more fun and less likely to rob you or otherwise take advantige of you (unfourtiantly, I've found through experience that I've had to be a lot less trusting and open to people in the US than in Europe). The other thing I love about them is that in their culture, traveling it seems is promoted far more than in the US. Before I left for this recent trip, people here in the US were astonished that I would be gone for as long as a month (out of the rat race for so long?!?)...with the Aussies and Kiwis, 4 months was the minimum, 6 the norm, and a year not that uncommon (a gap year I believe its called)...I think this speaks volumes about the difference between our culture and theirs. For us it seems, taking a (real) break, rejuvinating, rebooting and actually experiencing new things is seen as some sort of abberration and even a sin. Leider, I have not yet been to Scandinavia, but I absolutly intend to go someday.

Another thing that came to mind...whilst living in Germany, I lived on and went to school on the US bases over there...and while they are American communities...its somehow different in several key ways from Stateside society. There was actual community, virtually no crime, the education was certianly better than most Statie public schools...there were little American ghettos , honestly so unlike the Stateside world. Going back to Stuttgart (where I lived my high school years), we made a point of visiting the old base. I found quite a few of my old classmates who had after high school tried the states themselves, could'nt stand it and went right back to Germany. See, I knew I was'nt crazy. Two of my old teachers refuse to go back to the US, at least while they still have children to raise. Even our statie friend we brought with us (his first time to Europe) is bound and determined to leave the US for the EU after just that one month. He's even going as far as thinking of joining the French Foriegn Legion to do so...
If only people in the US got out into the world more, outside the fish bowl and see that maybe we're not number 1...but ah one can dream.

Gavin

11:16 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Gavin,

About 1-2 yrs ago, the US ruled that American citizens visiting Canada or Mexico wd need a US passport to get back into the country, so since then there has been a steady increase of passports being issued by the State Dept. Prior to that, however, the # of American adults who owned a passport was 12% of the adult population. 88%, in short, had no interest in what was going on outside our borders; and that is probably still true. I also think I read that prior to his "election" in 2000, Mr. Bush had not been out of the US save for eating a rancid burrito in Tijuana (or something to that effect); and that the State Dept. had to hustle and get him a passport after he was elected. Very representative of the American people at large, then. We are not so much a fishbowl as a hall of mirrors; and mired in this breathtaking isolation, make decisions that wind up murdering hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Middle East...facts of which more than 88%, I'm guessing, remain ignorant.

All the best,
mb

11:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may have to dig up my old Genesis records and listen to Watcher of the Skies all over again...

12:37 AM  
Anonymous MaryLupin said...

I’ve been reading your Dark Ages America and what has most forcibly struck me (at this point in my reading) is how very long this tendency to fear Enlightenment values has been fixed in the American mind. While I agree with you that the “repeal” of American social consciousness that became our institutionalized irresponsibility with the Nixon shock is an important marker is the slide away from the capacity of Americans to see themselves as a part of a larger world, I think that the linking of “group mind,” self-centered education, an egregious lack of social responsibility and the desire to rest comfortably on false idols became normative no later than 1740.

The crystallization of the battle between knowledge and feeling (between Humanism and Calvinism) can be studied in the battle between the two sides of the First Great Awakening in the United States. Although it is, like all history, a complex of ideas and forces, what came to be fervidly held was the American “obligation” to be born anew into the hands of Jonathan Edwards’ “Angry God.” The Liberals (the humanists) thought, for example, that to be a preacher a man must first earn a university degree. The Calvinists thought, No, feeling matters more than knowledge. The Liberals favored a more remote god that allowed a human being to rationally strive to understand god. The Calvinists favored being flooded with grace, and the concept of the powerlessness of man without the random hand of god. So much more, but these suffice to make my point. Needless to say, the liberals did not carry the decade.

The trends seen in The Great Awakening are the very same trends that mark the decline you remark upon in your book. I would say that the end of this particular empire was built into it from the beginning. Afterall, when you base a nation on a lie (and, I would argue, Idealism is a lie), and then eviscerate the intellectual tools that allow empirical truth to be known, then the consequence seems obvious.

Finally, it often strikes me as slightly absurd (in the Theatrical sense) that those great American heroes of Individualism and Knowledge and other Enlightenment values (Thoreau and Asa Grey, for example) are so very scare and so very honored (entombed?) by a society that strives mightily to avoid learning from their example. I often wonder what Ionesco would have made of 9/11 had he lived to write a play of it and the disinformation campaign that followed. Thoreau ranting about weapons of mass destruction and the Narcissus boy-President of Walden Pond? Or, should we still wish to find hope, Bertolt Brecht? On the military education of Mothers?

Yours,

Mary

11:50 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mary,

I'm not sure about your dating, because it seems to me (cf. work of Joyce Appleby) that the real shift in values came in the 1790s, and that a "European" influence still prevailed prior to that, regarding issues of individualism vs. community commitment. But you are certainly right that the seeds of eventual disintegration were embedded in the system early on--what is known as the dialectical principle. The irony is that the things that made for rapid geographic and economic expansion, eg extreme individualism, frontier mentality, equating virtue with opportunism and money with success--finally became the factors that are doing us in. As for the secular vs. religious issue, check out Mark Lilla's new bk, "The Stillborn God." It's not abt the US in particular, but I think you'll find a lot of resonance there with your own thoughts about the subject.

Thanks for writing!

-mb

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Arlene said...

I am well over 50, and Dark Ages America explained a ton about my world to me.

I used to joke in the 90s whenever our sunbelt burb would make some particularly self-congratulatory noises about being a "place that cares" that it was actually "Sparta with SUVs."

I'm feeling less alone now. In fact, I'm reading your book for the second time, because I was so engaged by the first read that it went by too quickly.

This book would have to be on my personal very short list. I'm grateful to you for writing it.

11:56 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Arlene,

Thanks so much for writing. I'm particularly happy that you feel less alone as a result of reading DAA. Personally, I believe that the truth does make us free, and with that comes a sense of a larger belonging than the pseudo-communities of suburban (or now, even urban) America. Many people have asked me how I can get up in the morning, writing such depressing stuff, and I tell them that I feel quite upbeat; that the truth is what makes me high. Ultimately, DAA is an optimistic book, because there is a sense of relief, of relaxation, that comes with simply knowing what's what, and how to orient yourself to the larger political and cultural reality.

Your own reaction echoes a lot of the e-mail messages I've received since DAA first appeared: "your book made me feel less weird." DAA is a book for people who are aware in general, and for whom awareness is fairly high up on their list of values. Clearly, if this characterized the American population, I wouldn't have had to write the book. Sales figures would indicate that it characterizes about .01% of that population. Comparisons with sales figures for, say, simplistic management theory books ("Who Moved My Cheese?", e.g.) or writers such as Anne Coulter, really say it all. This is a battle I cannot win, and never expected to anyway. My goal was to reach the teeny, tiny minority of people who remain undrugged, so to speak--who are willing to give reality a chance.

Sometimes I wonder if age is particularly relevant to this process. Three weeks after 9/11 I gave a talk about the meaning of the event at a community college in Massachusetts. About 120 people showed up, most of them "townies." I suggested that 9/11 might be better explained by the history of US foreign policy in the Middle East than by the current US government nostrums ("they are insane, they are jealous of our freedoms, they are pure evil," etc.). When I finished, the audience reacted as though it had been hit on the head by a 2x4: they just stared at me, this for about a full minute, until they slowly began to applaud. I walked off the podium and down into the lecture hall, and a gent of about 75 came up to me, and, quite stunned, said: "This was the most important talk I heard in my entire life." Obviously, if you've been breathing nitrogen all your life, a whiff of oxygen comes as something of a revelation.

Then just yesterday, I walked into a cafe in the small town where I live in Mexico, and discovered a young gringa reading a copy of the book (I had given both English and Spanish editions of the book to the owner, to put on the cafe bookshelf). She told me she was living here to improve her Spanish, but that her home was in the sunbelt. "I somehow knew all of this stuff already," she told me; "what you did is just clearly articulate all of those feelings, make the whole thing comprehensible." This too is a sentiment I often hear in the e-mails I receive: I already knew all of this.

And the truth is we all do; it's merely a question of whether we want to face it or bury our heads in the sand, in our SUVs and our endless shopping and our religious fundamentalism and our supposed "patriotism" and etc., etc., etc. As I said, only a tiny fraction of the country is opting for the former choice. DAA's German edition received an interesting review in the Berlin Tageszeitung, entitled "Hopes of a Patriot." They correctly understood that the only way to save the country was for Americans to wake up to what I was talking about. Of course, I have never been so deluded as to think that such a thing could happen, and that America was going to save itself. My consolation is that there are folks out there such as yourself, or that gent in Hyannis, or the young woman I met yesterday in the local cafe--folks who are willing, unflinchingly, to *not* be one more lemming, and instead choose to watch the process of civilizational suicide with their eyes open, and their boots on. You know that bumper sticker of a few years ago? "If you're not appalled, you haven't been paying attention."

Thank you, Arlene, for paying attention.

-mb

9:14 AM  
Anonymous Gavin said...

ah, es ist doch ein kleines Welt Herr Berman

That community college you spoke of in MA was the very same one I went to for a couple of semesters a couple of years later when my family and I made the huge mistake of having me leave Germany for the States. Cape Cod Community College. Ah such dark days those days spent in Falmouth...my brother likes to refer to that time as our boot camp for the madness of the US.

Speaking of school and the concept of awareness, I'm going to be taking sociology 2 and political science and I know that I'm going to be bringing up a lot of things discussed here or in your books and so on...and no one is going to have a damn idea about what I'm talking about. No, instead I'm just some liberal whacko or some such. I'm sure I'll have some great stories to tell you. Most of these people just simply have no effing clue that things can or should be different. It is as you say, a house of mirrors. Theres no other way but us so to speak.

Gavin

11:37 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Gavin,

Did I quote this to you before?: "Gegen Dummheit selbst die Goetter vergebens kaempfen." Or to quote Gore Vidal in the Toronto Globe & Mail, 9-10 June 2007, "The United States is a nation of morons." He also added that stupidity excites him, so maybe you'll have an exciting semester in Soc 2 and Polisci.

MfG,
mb

6:10 AM  
Blogger brentok3 said...

Morris-
Great blog, especially your reader's comments. A great bunch of people, your readers.
I wanted to mention Robinson Jeffers, a poet who wrote mostly in the 20s and 30s. What he said about America was very prescient.
From, "The Collected Works of Robinson Jeffers" :

While men moulding themselves to the anthill have choked their natures until the souls die in them
They have sold themselves for toys and protection:
No, but consider awhile: what else? Men sold for toys

Uneasy and fractional people, having no center
But in the eyes and mouths that surround them
having no function but to serve and support
Civilization, the enemy of man
No wonder they live insanely, and desire
With their tongues, progress; with their eyes, pleasure;
With their hearts, death

2:02 PM  

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