November 13, 2008

conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History

The notion that the parliamentary democracy of the industrial nations is a sham, and that the real power lies not in the hands of the people (or their elected representatives) but in the hands of a small, ruling elite is a view most closely associated with Karl Marx. This is one meaning of the word “conspiracy”: the ruling class knows what its interests are, and it acts to protect them. In this sense of the term, conspiracy is equivalent to elite theory, because the implication is that the ruling class acts with a unified consciousness. Indeed, Marx argued that the emergence of conflicts within the ranks of the elite was a sign that the system was ripe for revolutionary overthrow.

Elite theory, then, holds that the people (or masses) are under the illusion that through their vote they control the direction of the ship of state, whereas the real captains of the ship–the captains of industry, the eminences grises–are not themselves on the ballot. The public does not get to vote for them, but rather for their paid representatives. Thus the post-election euphoria in the United States over Barack Obama is nothing more than a bubble, an illusion, because the lion’s share of the $750 million he collected in campaign contributions (according to the Australian journalist John Pilger) came from Goldman Sachs, UBS AG, Lehman Brothers, J.P. Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and the huge hedge fund Citadel Investment Group. These corporations, it hardly need be said, do not have the welfare of the American people as their top priority; and it is also the case that having invested in a president, they expect a return on their investment once he takes office. And if history is any guide here, they are going to get it. It is for this reason that what we have in the United States, according to Harvard political scientist Michael Sandel, is a “procedural democracy”: the form, the appearance, is democratic, but the actual content, the result, is not. As the eminent sociologist C. Wright Mills put it in 1956,

“In so far as the structural clue to the power elite today lies in the
political order, that clue is the decline of politics as genuine and
public debate of alternative decisions....America is now in considerable
part more a formal political democracy than a democratic social
structure, and even the formal political mechanics are weak.”

While it is undoubtedly true that elites occasionally act in a deliberate and concerted way, it was Mills in particular who pointed out that the reality was significantly more nuanced than this. For the most part, it is not that the rich or super-rich get together in some corporate boardroom and ask themselves, “Now how can we best screw the workers and the middle class?” No, said Mills, what in fact happens is that they socialize together, in an informal sort of way, and recognize their class affiliations:

“Members of the several higher circles know one another as personal
friends and even as neighbors; they mingle with one another on the
golf course, in the gentlemen’s clubs, at resorts, on transcontinental
airplanes, and on ocean liners. They meet at the estates of mutual
friends, face each other in front of the TV camera, or serve on the same
philanthropic committee; and many are sure to cross one another’s path
in the columns of newspapers, if not in the exact cafés from which many
of these columns originate....The conception of the power elite,
accordingly, does not rest upon the assumption that American history
since the origins of World War II must be understood as a secret plot,
or as a great and co-ordinated conspiracy of the members of this elite.
The conception rests upon quite impersonal grounds.”

We are not, in short, talking about some sort of organized brotherhood, some quasi-Masonic financial clique, as it were. However–and this is the crucial point–in terms of concrete outcome, we might as well be. Mills goes on:

“But, once the conjunction of structural trends and of the personal will
to utilize it gave rise to the power elite, then plans and programs did
occur to its members and indeed it is not possible to interpret many
events and official policies...without reference to the power elite.”

Mills’ work falls more into the category of social criticism than of social science per se; he was not big on facts and figures. But in the fifty-plus years since he wrote the above words, his profile of American democracy as illusory has been fleshed out by numerous sociologists and political scientists armed with reams of data. The most recent work in this genre, Superclass, by David Rothkopf, identifies a global elite of roughly 6,000 individuals who are running the show, worldwide, and the top fifty financial institutions that control nearly $50 trillion in assets. Plot or no plot, the results are the same.

This, then, is elite theory, or what I call conspiracy with a small “c”. And it is a real fact of political life, no question about it. But what may be even more significant than this are what I call Conspiracies with a capital “C”, by which I mean the unconscious mythologies, or isms, that govern American life. This was the thing that Marx, and Mills, both missed (though the Italian sociologist Antonio Gramsci did come close to it with his notion of “hegemony,” or the symbolic control of society): the elites aren’t doing anything that the masses don’t already agree with; which is why, certainly, in the United States, socialism never really had a chance. When Henry Wriston, who was president of the Council on Foreign Relations during 1951-64, wrote that U.S. foreign policy “is the expression of the will of the people,” he knew what he was talking about. As many observers (even American ones) have pointed out, what the American people–less than 5% of the world’s population–want is an indulgent and wasteful lifestyle, in which they consume 25% of the world’s energy. Thus in the presidential debates of October 2008, Barack Obama referred to the 25% figure, and then talked about ways of ensuring that that rate of consumption continue unchecked. He did not, as did Jimmy Carter more than thirty years ago, argue that growth was not necessarily a positive thing, that Americans needed to burn less energy, and that the American military–the guarantor of that profligate lifestyle–had to be scaled down accordingly. Indeed, within two years of taking office, Mr. Carter was popularly regarded as something of a joke, and by 1980 Ronald Reagan, who told the American people they could have it all, was elected by a landslide. (Significantly, the first thing he did upon moving into the White House was to have the solar panels that Mr. Carter had installed on the roof removed.) So while it is true that elites run the show, they nevertheless govern with the (misguided) consent of the people. As the nineteenth-century Sioux holy man, Chief Sitting Bull, was supposed to have said, “possessions are a disease with them.” But his was hardly the majority view–not then, not now.

What, then, are the major Conspiracies, or isms, of American life? I think we can identify four, in particular.

1. The notion of Americans as the “chosen people,” and of the nation as a “city on a hill.” This latter phrase–quoted by both Barack Obama and Sarah Palin in the 2008 presidential campaign–goes back to the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, as he was sailing from England to America on the Arabella in 1630:

“We shall find that the God of Israel is among us....He shall
make us a praise and glory....For we must Consider that we
shall be as a City upon a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

The idea is that it would be America’s unique mission to bring democracy to all the peoples of the earth, inasmuch as the American way of life was (obviously) the best. (Iraq is merely the latest manifestation of this way of thinking.) In fact, the Puritans took the Jews of the Old Testament as their model, in which the exodus from Egypt, and invasion of Canaan, was regarded as the paradigm for the establishment of the Colonies. Cotton Mather even referred to the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “our American Jerusalem.” The notion that the story of the United States is the primary manifestation of God’s will on earth has an enormous hold on the American psyche. “American exceptionalism,” Alexis de Tocqueville called it; it is with us to this day.

2. Along with this we have Ism No. 2: the existence, in the United States, of a “civil religion.” This was first pointed out by the sociologist Robert Bellah in 1967, the fact that despite the presence of Catholicism, Judaism, and numerous Protestant sects in America, the real religion of the American people was America itself. To be an American is regarded (unconsciously, by Americans) as an ideological/religious commitment, not an accident of birth. This is why critics of the US are immediately labeled “un-American,” and are practically regarded as traitors. (Quite ridiculous, when you think about it: can you imagine a Swedish critic of Sweden, for example, being attacked as “un-Swedish”?) The historian Sidney Mead pegged it correctly when he called America “the nation with the soul of a church,” while another historian, Richard Hofstadter, declared that “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.” As Graham Greene portrayed it in The Quiet American, this is not a position that encourages self-reflection.

3. The third unconscious mythology is the one identified by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893: the existence of a supposedly endless frontier, into which the American people would expand geographically. Eventually, it became an economic frontier, and finally an imperial one–Manifest Destiny gone global. This lay at the heart of the Carter-Reagan debate, for the notion of limits to growth is almost a form of heresy in an American context. The American Dream envisions a world without limits, in which the goal, as the gangster (played by Edward G. Robinson) tells Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo, is simply “more”. De Tocqueville had already, in the 1830s, commented on the great “restlessness” of the American people; and more than a century later, the British journalist Alistair Cooke remarked that what were regarded as luxuries throughout most of the world, were regarded as necessities in the United States. If Americans never had much of an interest in socialism, they probably had even less interest in buddhism, the occasional Zen center notwithstanding. It was not for nothing that the historian William Leach entitled his study of late-nineteenth-century American expansionism, Land of Desire.

4. Finally, we have a national character based on extreme individualism–Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” As the historian Joyce Appleby describes it, this originated in the shift in the definition of the word “virtue” that took place in the Colonies in the 1790s. Previous to that time, the word had a European (or even classical) definition, namely “the capacity of some men to rise above private interests and devote themselves to the public good.” By 1800, the definition had undergone a complete inversion: “virtue” now meant the capacity to look out for oneself in an opportunistic environment. Whereas the former definition was adhered to by the Federalists, the Jeffersonian Republicans actively promoted the latter definition, as part of the new nation’s break with England and all things European. Life was not to be about service to the community, but rather about competition and acquisition of goods. This is summarized in the popular American expression, “There is no free lunch.” The “self-made man” is expected to make it on his own.

There have been very few dissenters to this fourth ism; in many ways, American history can be seen as the story of a nation consistently choosing individual solutions over collective ones. One American who did dissent, however, was Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions he wrote: “The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off. Plainly enough, it is a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin.”

And “ruin” is the operative word here. While there is certainly an upside to these four isms–the sunny side of technological innovation and the Yankee “can-do” mentality, for example–in the long run these unconscious mythologies, in dialectical fashion, began to turn against those caught up in their magic spell. It surely cannot be an accident that 25% of all the world’s prisoners are incarcerated in American jails (1% of the entire US adult population); that two-thirds of the world’s consumption of antidepressants occurs in the United States; that 24% of the American population say that it’s OK to use violence in the pursuit of one’s goals, 44% support the torture of alleged or suspected terrorists, and 39% want Muslims in the US to be required to carry a religious ID on them at all times (why not just make it a yellow star, and be done with it?); that the country has the greatest percentage of single-person dwellings in the world, the highest homicide rate, the largest military budget (by several orders of magnitude), and the greatest number of square feet of shopping malls on the surface of the planet. The data on ignorance, which I have documented elsewhere, are breathtaking, and Robert Putnam’s description (in Bowling Alone) of the collapse of community, trust, and friendship is one of the saddest things I have ever read. Dialectically, and ironically, American “success” became American ruin; the crash of October 2008 was merely the tip of the iceberg.

The power of isms, certainly in the American case, derives from the fact that they are unconscious, embedded deep in the psyche. They constitute Conspiracies in that those who hold them are like marionettes on strings, screaming “Obama!” (for example) without realizing that the new president can no more buck the elites running the country than he can dismantle the mythologies that drive its citizens–himself included. As for the individual, so for the nation: the only hope is to see ourselves as we are seen, from the outside, as it were. And therein lies the paradox. For the four Conspiracies close in on themselves, forming a kind of mirror-lined glass sphere that does not permit any dissonant information to enter. Sandel, Mills, Rothkopf, Bellah, Mead, Leach, Appleby, Putnam–America’s finest, really–will never become household words, and if they did, it would probably be as objects of contempt. For this is finally the most terrifying thing about isms or Conspiracies: we do not choose them; rather, it is they that choose us.

©Morris Berman, 2008


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Captivating and rather convincing. This was one of two best articles I've read this month (the other article being Michael Lewis's the End, an expose about the Wall St). Definitely a bookmark.

2:00 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

An excellent essay, with which I agree almost completely, with the exception of the following:

"Finally, we have a national character based on extreme individualism–Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”

I feel that this is a mischaracterization. Emerson's celebration of individualistic non-conformity and free thought has nothing to do with the rampant egotism of American society today, a society where true individuals become rarer by the hour. Individualism and egotism are not synonymous.

The problem is that, as someone once wisely observed, American society consists of herd animals, but it is a herd of unruly animals, where each and every sheep jostles for the position of bellwether.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Friends,

Just a note to those who are sending in very favorable, 5-word messages: Thank you, I'm grateful for your support. However, please understand that I can't post a string of very brief notes. The idea of this blog is discussion, so while I really do appreciate the fact that this essay meant a lot to you, I don't feel that I should be listing short encomiums (or short condemnations, for that matter). If you liked the piece, perhaps you could tell me and the other readers why, or what about it was important to you (or anything else you consider relevant to the subject).

Thank you for your understanding-


11:10 AM  
Blogger hausprince said...

I admire your books and your blog. Like yourself, I am an expat residing outside the US.

One problem not addressed in your piece is what is truly different about the USA. It is the only major country which is based on an "idea". Like an umbrella under which we choose to stand when it rains, if you choose to take your place there, you are an American. (If you are born in the US, it is another matter entirely.) This is one of the reasons why someone can take away your citizenship in a conversation. This rapid assimilation cannot be had in any other country in the world. When one resides in the US after a relatively short time, you can be considered an American. I'm sure Mr. Berman, that even after you were to spend the rest of your days in Mexico you would not be considered a Mexican.

That being said, this "idea" by its very nature is very pliable and cannot be seen as a "ship of state" or anything remotely rigid. People have been manipulating what America means for a very long time now and it resembles very little of what the original idea was.

Keep up the excellent work!!

4:10 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Haus:

Well, I'm not sure I agree. The USSR was certainly based on an idea, for example, and many of the Latin American countries still are, at least in spirit (Simon Bolivar's notion of Latin unity). The EU is *trying* to be based on an idea, but so far is just muddling thru. And what is truly different abt the USA, it seems to me, is that other nations do not have that unique concatenation of the four Conspiracies I describe--the whole pt of the article, really.

As for being a Mexican: of course not, nor does that bother me. But I can say that I feel more comfortable here, than in the mirror-lined glass sphere north of the border (which is always fun to visit, nonetheless). And it may well be that most of my compatriots would not recognize me as an American (i.e., US person), but I do, and that's good enough for me.

Finally, "ship of state" is just a metaphor...let's not get too literal here.

Thanks for writing,

6:44 PM  
Anonymous Brad said...

Greetings, Professor Berman. My name is Brad (I am uncomfortable about giving my last name over the Internet, especially given what you've written in your works about how technology is being used against us). I was the aspiring librarian-to-be who e-mailed you a while ago after reading "Twilight of American Culture."

I've been reading your essays on your blog, including this one. Most of what you say seems to be absolutely correct, given my experience, but as someone who spends my time reading books in my apartment (I'm reading Machiavelli, a book on the intellectual history of liberalism, Plato's Dialogues, and even the dictionary trying to learn new vocabulary words), there is exactly one component of your argument (yes, I do know the difference between an argument and an assertion, unlike the students you cited in your books) with which I strongly disagree, given all the books I've read.

As one of the reasons for the United States' decline, you constantly list individualism as one of the reasons, as least on this blog. You cite the lack of community as another contributor. I am in full agreement that we need community to lead a healthy spiritual life. That's not the part that bothers me. The part that bothers me is that I've read about historical events where "community" got as much out of control as "individualism" has gotten out of control here in America. A critical thinker must always examine the premises, assumptions, and presuppositions that color what he/she reads. The premise behind most of your blogs seems to be that thinking in a collective is necessarily better than the lonely individualism we have now. But I've read evidence of the contrary. Sometimes groups tend to form irrational herd mentalities that end up condoning human suffering ostensibly in the name of the group. George Orwell understood that very well, which is what led him to write Animal Farm and 1984, two very important works on collective brainwashing. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was being individualistic when he wrote about the gulags in the Soviet Union; he was courageously criticizing his country's lack of a free press at the time (there are still some of us liberals who deny that the gulags ever existed).

I'm not quite sure I share your idea that the societies with communitarian policies are necessarily better off than the American one we have now. Don't get me wrong, I'm not defending America, but as Richard Paul and Linda Elder point out in their works on critical thinking (which I am also reading), every society has its own group-centered norms that they will not allow anyone to question. Group-oriented thinking, if left unchecked, tends to stifle such intellectual virtues as intellectual autonomy and intellectual courage.

I hope I haven't given the wrong impression. I'm not trying to "question your wisdom" or "replace the professor with the student," like those moronic, rebellious, mean students you cited in Twilight of American Culture (I am actively trying to distance myself from those students by gathering knowledge). I admire and revere you as a true critic. I am only writing this because it's my intellectual and ethical duty (to borrow from Mortimer Adler) to challenge the thinking of others and to BE challenged in return. I am very, VERY idealistic (that's why I want to be a librarian, because librarians are stewards of human knowledge), and I can't believe that we, the human race, can't seem to come up with a third solution. Our options seem to be rampant egotism in America with its individualism that stifles community or the collectivist prejudices and strife that cause bloodshed, war, and human suffering and stifle TRULY independent thought (causing, for instance, such catastrophes as the Rwanda genocide pitting tribe against tribe).

Why does it have to be one or the other? Why must we continue to work with False Dilemmas, insisting on only two options when we could try to create a third?

Again, I must reiterate that regarding MOST of what you write on your Dark Ages America blog, I agree with wholeheartedly. But I have read (and even seen for myself) too many instances of mindless group-think to uncritically accept the idea that the group is always better than the individual, especially given that I've read the Dialogue of Protagoras and the Dialogue of Euthydides (and I was inspired to do so because I wanted to emulate you, by the way, with your defense of learning and reason in Twilight of American Culture), both of which portray Socrates as saying that it's usually only the few who are able to grasp what eludes the mass of humanity.

Still, I wish you good luck, and I hope more people read you. If any of what I have said above is wrong, then I accept that as the consequences of my own youthful ignorance, as Charmides did in the Dialogue of Charmides when his beliefs turned out to be wrong.

8:45 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Brad,

Actually, I wasn't arguing that one was better than the other, but that lopsidedness in either direction gets us into trouble. We have been lopsided in the individualistic direction, and that has cumulatively created the crisis we now face, namely dissolution. The USSR was lopsided in the other direction, and was a colossal failure on a whole number of levels. Please don't think that that was a society I ever admired! And, there are examples of mixed economies, of balance, such as the Scandanavian countries, which strike me as being relatively successful in this regard.

Two authors I quote in DAA are Fareed Zakaria and Thomas Pynchon. Zakaria was raised in a small town in India, where everyone knew everyone else's business. Thus he writes, "Whenever I hear the word 'community', I reach for my oxygen mask." The other is Thomas Pynchon, whose novels give the reader the choice of two paranoias: a totally atomized world, in which nothing has any meaning, and a totally integrated one, in which one suffocates from too much meaning. All of this is elaborated on in the chapter in DAA called "The Home and the World" (title of a novel by Rabindranath Tagore, by the way). Certainly, we need both; I'm sorry if you got the impression that I was saying the collective was always better. What is better is balance, not one or the other.


10:53 PM  
Anonymous Tony Equale said...

Morris Berman, hi!

My name is Tony Equale. I agree with your "take" on "elite theory" but I feel it derives from deeper regions in our history and our cultral ideology that give it its energy and help understand the way it is structured and how it works.

My perspective is religious. And while the religious perspective is considered somewhat passe' among progressives in this era of virulent atavistic fundamentalism, an historical understanding of the roots and wellspring of our western civilization helps shed light on areas that are otherwise obscure if not unintelligible.

Your analysis of the "elite theory" has a kind of "it's just so" character, rather than an "it's the way it is because it's is fed by the residual energies of a theocratic past and accompanying ideology." No one believes in the divine right of kings any more, right? Well, not in so many words, but the dynamic of divinely appointed rulers is endemic to the human condition and has resurfaced in manifold ways throughout western history.

These are general remarks that would not require much to flesh out with examples from history. But the "ism" you identify as "Americans are the chosen People," was prefigured in ancient Rome whose spectacular achivements in world conquest and the ensuing influx of wealth and exercize of unprecedented power was interpreted as incontestable proof of the favor of the "gods" making Rome itself a divine entity. The divinity of the emperor was derived from that ... and the belief in the divinity of Rome as a military-political entity was vigorously believed by virtually everyone in the mediterranean world and certainly by the SPQR while it was still functioning as a greek-type democracy. Christianity became a willing partner in this theocratic project and in so doing intensified the "divine right of rulers to rule." Christianity as we have it, most authentically represented by the Roman Church (only slightly modified by the Protestant Reformation) is the ideological repository of Roman Imperial Theocracy. Its doctrines and disciplines were formed or modifies for that purpose and it tends to regenerate the the Imperial dynamic wherever it goes.

Dick nCheney's Christmas Card in 2003 read: "If a sparrow cannot fall without His knowledge, ... can an empire rise without his permission"? The word "empire" you may remember was resurrected and "baptized" in an article of scholarly character that appeared in the NYT Sunday magazine ... was it Ignatiev?

The great American People themselves, especially the poor, project greater intelligence and divine favor onto the elites ... whu else would they be rich and powerful? How else do we explain how working people can have so consistently elected precisely those people who are dedicated to their exploitation?

Our upper classes, for their part, have been bred to believe that they are rich and powerful, not only because they are smarter and more assertive than the rest of us ... but that they are thus because of divine favor. The elites, brought up from childhood believing that they are destined to rule, think of it as a divine calling ... their vocation. Therefore when they lose power or cannot exercize it as they want, they feel they have every right given to them by God himself to take it by any means necessary and to exercize it without the slightest regard for law or the needs of others. Hence Richard Nixon "apologized" to the American People, not for the immorality ... nor for illegality of his actions BUT ONLY FOR GETTING CAUGHT and disgracing the office of the President with a scandal. There wasn't the slightest remorse for the trashing of any values other than the ultimate value of the memory of his cherished autocracy ... because he had no other values ... these people do not consider law or morality as anything other than a social factor to be manipulated in the exercize of their divine right ... any more than the current inter-bank lending rate or the ltest polls that require an interpretive "spin." And the right to rule is God-given. This is never challenged because religion is omitted from public discourse by common agreement. We all operate under the fiction that "religion" no longer functions in our society.

Is it any wonder that the elites gave us Iran-Contra in the '80's, that they could so deftly conspire to steal the election of 2000, manipulsate and lie to us and the world since the events of 9/11?

Thus I would be inclined to expand the etiology assigned to this phenomenon by Karl Marx ... beyond saying "people operating for the benefit of their class" ... to include the religious factor. Perhaps these informal conspiracies are not quietly hatched at poolside or over a dry martini but in Church. Maybe Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are closer to the jugular ...

The next step might be the "politico-social analysis" of Christian ideology ...

This is all "from the hip" and missing the nuances it deserves ... but I thought I would at least start a conversation ...


9:34 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Tony,

I decided to publish your letter, but do want to say to all correspondents that my policy in posting is to find a medium-range length. Some people submit one-sentence messages; I generally don't post them. And a few submit very long ones, which I also don't post since I'm guessing most readers don't want to read 'essays' in the communication section. This may not be the best policy, I don't know; it's just an intuitive assessment on my part.

In terms of your religious thesis, I think you may be conflating religion with religion + empire. Proving that religion goes back a very long way, and has been influential, is no big deal. The real question is What has it done to inspire empire, and has it been a major factor or a minor one? A lot of historians would say a minor one in the case of Rome, for example--basically pro forma, not found in the books, diaries, and correspondence of Romans living in the imperial era. As for my analysis being in the "it's just so" category...if you believe that, you seriously missed the boat here. The "Conspiracy" I refer to promoted by John Winthrop is precisely about the legacy of a theocratic past, in this case Puritanism (going back to the Protestant Ref), and *is* found in the writings of the period, in detail. The work of the historian is to get into the nitty-gritty details of these connections. On that note, you might want to have a look at the Tanner Lecture I gave at Southern Utah University, on 6 March 2007, entitled "Locating the
Enemy" (published by the Tanner Center as a small book), which elaborates on the Puritan/empire relationship.

The whole conversion of sacred to secular energy in the modern period has been dealt with in extenso by Max Weber, Carl Becker, and most recently, John Gray (in 'Black Mass')...which is not to say that it necessarily gets bound up with empire. It does once we shift to the US, which is about half your letter...but again, that's my point; no argument there.

Onward and Downward,

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman, There's one more ism that I'd like to add to your list;and that's the belief that "anyone who works hard enough in America can get rich---this is the land of opportunity!" Of course, the unspoken part of this message is if you're not rich, then you didn't work hard enough. I think that's why the US is so uncharitable to the poor here in America. In Alabama in 2003 Gov. Bob Riley wanted the support of the citizens to change the tax laws to ease the burden on the poor and pointed out that caring for the poor was a mandate from Jesus. It was defeated by 68% of the electorate and there's no doubt in my mind that that exact same 68% would eagerly identify themselves as devout Christians. The poor are treated at best as a nuisance and, at worst, as a threat. Small wonder the majority of prisioners are African-American---the progeny of the very people we enslaved and exploited for centuries. Ruthless businessmen are not particularly vilified even though they've probably ruined more lives than some pathetic streetcorner crack dealer who'll be "safely behind bars" for years. Making money by whatever means presents itself is part of the American religion, too, and white collar crime is more glorified than punished.
I've come to the unhappy conclusion that you're right when you stated we'll have a change of style, not of substance, with an Obama presidency. In a NYT article yesterday his lobbying ties were there for all of us to see and I was appalled that he might put that awful woman as Secretary of State. When will the Clintons go away---never?! I recently read Bad Money by Kevin Phillips and he had this to say about the so-called two party system in America: "In Republican and Democratic national politics, the notion of a breath of fresh air has become almost a contradiction in terms. One could argue that in place of the vital center praised by historian Arthur Schlesinger a century ago, the changes of the last several decades have pushed us toward a venal center."
Thank you for such a stimulating and excellent essay. I was surprised and please to see you include a reference to the 12 Steps Program. I've worked with addicts for years and have seen some amazing transformations by patients who take these steps seriously and incorporate them in their lives. Bill W. recognized that before you could join the community and help others you first had to break through your own denial, take an unflinching look at your own actions and motivations and make a commitment to live an ethical life. Do you think we could get the new administration to join?

11:55 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Thanks again for writing. As far as I can make out, the ism you identify is a combo of the frontier thesis and the notion of radical individualism. Hence, the self-made man, captain of industry, Bill Gates seen as hero rather than as vampire, etc etc. On a large scale, ethic life = democratic socialism; not gonna happen here.


1:46 PM  
Blogger Hailey Woldt said...

This article was fascinating. I have read both Dark Ages America and The Twilight of American Culture and find them accurate and compelling.

I am working on a project that is examining American identity through the lens of the Muslim experience. It is led by Akbar Ahmed of American University, a renowned anthropologist and Islamic scholar. Please follow us on our blog,

We have also interviewed Noam Chomsky and other intellectuals on this. I would be interested to interview you, Dr. Berman, if you are available. Please email me to set up an interview. We can fly down to Mexico if needed or we can meet in Washington.

2:54 PM  
OpenID tonyequale said...

Dear Morris Berman,

Thanks for your reply. Sorry about the length of my comment. I saw your remarks about short statements and determined I'd never to fall into THAT trap. Having avoided Scylla, I will now take on Charybdis.

I don't mean to sound critical. I'm simply suggesting that the etiology of empire is theocratic and has deeper historical and ideological roots than you seemed to indicate in your short piece. (I will try to find your Tanner lecture). So I would say that John Winthrop, as a Christian, did not newly forge a link to imperial politics in some moment of creative religious insight, he was rather its inheritor, the carrier of an ancient contagion, and his vision of the "city on the hill" was the inevitable re-crudescence of the intrinsic implications of the christian doctrinal complex which eternally seeks to recreate the Roman Imperial Organism embedded like a seed in its dogmatic gestalt. The christian religion, as we have it now, is only one half of a hermaphrodite. The other half is its secular arm, the favorite term of the inquisitors for the aparatus of government.

Christianity went through a series of modulations during the 300 years leading up to its ascendency as the Religion of the Empire, one of which, ironically, was heroically anti-imperial. Once it received the Roman fasces, however, it had a definitive metamorphosis that rendered it the apt and willing partner in the Imperial Project. Christian doctrine was modified by the Empire ... re-shaped to fit its needs, and therefore tends to reproduce it. It's not so much that religion as religion inspires empire, but that religion as molded by empire necessarily inspires more empire.

My interest is in the reform of christian doctrine as a political tool. I want to elucidate how christian doctrine, deformed by the needs of the Empire, now only makes internal sense when re-set in that context, tending, therefore, to re-create it. I want to perform an internal critique designed to challenge the current self-reinforcing consistencies within the christian doctrinal complex on their own terms, in their own language and in the light of their own stated goals ... in order to dissolve its "will-to-empire."

This may not be your project. But it's mine. And if I'm right, unless it, or something like it is done, we will be spinning forever in recurring cycles of Empire, and scratching our heads as to why people of all classes always opt for it. Its source is more than a pampered life-style or the vision of the Puritans.

Tony Equale

7:49 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Tony,

I fear your project is inherently flawed, for reasons I gave previously: you are conflating religion and empire. The next hegemon could well be China; their motive is hardly religious (conscious or unconscious).

Best of luck,

9:57 AM  
Blogger youngbon said...

Are you the same Morris Berman who said the most beautiful and moving artwork in Chinese history is "Six Persimmons" by Mu Chi? I so agree with that statement. Your(?) specific quote was "The simplicity and elegance of the drawing make it one of the most beautiful works of Eastern art ever to have appeared."

9:20 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Young:

Dot wd be me! There's also a lovely poem abt the painting by Gary Snyder. Thanks for reminding me of what I wrote about the 'superiority' of Eastern art in "Coming to Our Senses".


11:43 AM  
Blogger Larry said...

Just starting to read your work which I find of great interest. I "escaped" from the US 37 years ago and have been living in Denmark since August 1971, so I have been watching what has been happening there for a safe distance. Things ar certainly a lot different here... to say the least, as I am sure you know.

I unfotunately agree with your analysis of current events in the US, but find your tone a little bitter - understandibly enough, I suppose. You have had to deal with it in a way I haven't.
My question regards your statement concerning Obamas´campagine funding. As far as I can see on the Federal Election Commission web site Obamas´funding came from donations in the range of 25 to 30.000 USD. Would you please enlighten me? //
I have voted for the first time ever - and wouldn´t like to have wasted my effort on another candidate from " one of the two branches of the right wing" as Gore Vidal writes. Where does your data come from?
Venlig hilsen

10:06 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Larry,

Check out the post entitled "Let's Get Real," in which I reproduce an article by John Pilger published in the New Statesman, last May. Pilger says that the Obama campaign claim about small donors was propaganda, and that the bulk of that $750 million came from something like seven huge corporations. However, this was an article in a popular magazine, meaning he provided no footnotes, so I can't be certain he's right. His reputation for reliable journalism, however, is pretty sound. The figure of $750 million was published in major American newspapers, so I'm guessing that's correct; the question is whether what you tracked on the FEC website added up to that amount. If not, this would tend to confirm Pilger's claim.

Thanks for writing,


5:31 PM  
Anonymous Bill said...

If you really want to better understand from where Obama contributions originated, read this article ...

that's based on this study ...

Even though the study itself invokes the word "myth" in its spin of the numbers (hey, it was authored by a former speech writer of Dick Cheney - what do you expect), the numbers are telling on their own.

Points from the article:

"Forty-seven percent of Obama's money came from large donors compared to 56% for Kerry and 60% for both Bush and McCain."

"McCain likely topped Obama by at least $10 million in the really big funds put together by 'bundlers.'"

"Obama, in fact, received donations under $200 from a staggering 2.5 million people -- completely unprecedented. A closer look at the actual figures show that Obama got over $115 million from these donors -- while the other three ever got only in the range of $40 to $50 million."

"The study also notes that Obama's 2.5 million donors equaled the combined number of such donors for all candidates in 2004. Yet the media is now being accused of pushing the "myth" that there was something extraordinary about Obama's relation to small donors."

"Much has been made of the percentage of "small money" (under $200) for Obama being only one point higher than that for Bush in 2004 (26% vs. 25%). But if you consider "small" a figure of $999 or less (in aggregate, often made up of repeated small donations), the Obama figure comes to 53%, while Bush stops at 38% and McCain at 41% -- quite a difference."

Yes, some of Obama top "bundle" contributors were Wall Street firms, as Pilger wrote, but what he neglected to mention was that there were as many universities on the list as Wall Street firms -- and that the top single contributor to Obama was the University of California (third was Harvard). Education as a sector ranked third in contributions, above Securities and Investment. Law firms (4 of them on the list) and tech companies (3) were the other big contributors.


By contrast, McCain had no universities among his top contributors (the education sector as a whole ranked 16th on his list of contributors), and seven of his top nine were Wall Street firms.

2:09 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Bill,

Thank you for the info. The figure of 47% of large donors for Obama remains impressive, even if it is below McCain's 60%, it seems to me; and the university connection is by itself no endorsement of any kind of left-leaning politics. Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex" has by now, as most political scientists will tell you, been extended to a "military-industrial-university-lobbyist complex"; and this would be especially true if we are talking about the law schools of those universities, which is usually where the lobbyist connection comes in. But even without that, university faculty do war research and consultancy, invent napalm, advise on torture techniques, and the whole nine yards. The "education" category stopped being "clean" long ago.


10:58 AM  
Anonymous Bill said...

Well, maybe ... but I fear your near-reflexive dismissal and discounting resonates like a bias. This is troubling to me from the writer who wrote about people's tendency to find what they seek, about having an idea versus an ideology.

If these universities were motivated by war research (Stanford? University of California?), why would they not fund McCain? The Dept. of Defense and the US Army did fund McCain, but these latter groups didn't fund Obama. This discrepancy is conspicuous. Must these universities have nefarious motives?

And generally the Right is against lawyers (you know, all those "frivolous" lawsuits against corporations), and some lawyers (like the ACLU) may actually do good for citizens. And a lot of lawyers didn't care for Bush's thumbing-of-the-nose toward the Constitution, so might that have been a motivation?

I think it is too simplistic to think that there is Noam Chompsky and then there is the evil alternative. If the five colors will blind a man's sight, might not clumping of the continuum of political thought into a few convenient collectives be another type of blindness?

There is something else I'd like you to read, an article in New York Magazine - "Alone Together -- Is urban loneliness a myth?"

This has been an issue of your writing for some time; I'm curious what your take is on research that goes beyond Bowling Alone (which is also mentioned in the article).

It certainly adds some complexity to the easy formulation that modernity = bad where communities are concerned.

11:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I suggest you reinvent the way you approach your subjects. They are important issues, but the way you word your arguments makes it so you only captivate the choir. If you really want to change the world for the better (something we all should strive for), you should rephrase your arguments to be appealing to those you need to convince.
People in an area that I am passionate about have the same problem - my cause: densifying American cities so as to create more sustainable communities. Americans don't like it when someone says "we need to make our cities more like European cities because those cities are more sustainable." Americans are automatically envious and disregard other people's achievements that are greater than our own (I note that I assume Europeans would be the same way if America did something constructive for the world - jingoism reigned well before capitalism).
For example, instead of me telling people that our cities need to be more like European cities, I can proffer my argument by saying "higher density is greener, more economically efficient, and fosters better communities." I just described a European city (which most Americans find desirable, they just don't want to admit that Europeans are better than them at developing cities), yet I described it by its admirable characteristics, rather than its label.
So instead of saying we need to revert back to Jimmy Carter's presidency, why not take Carter's intelligent ideas and proffer them to the American public without the Carter label.
You may find that sometimes the ends do justify the means (i.e. you won't convince those that need convincing by playing into their'll only prove to yourself that they are actually ignorant, which does nothing to better the situation).

2:24 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Bill,

Well, there is a lot to be said here, and I wish I had the time to say more. For now, I'll have to content myself with just a few remarks. No, universities don't necessarily have nefarious motives, but they do have complex ones, and grants and influence are high priorities for them. They are primarily corporations, and seek their own expansion. Stanford's reputation for war research came to public attention in the sixties--the war effort being for Vietnam, which led to major demonstrations on that campus. Its transformation into a "cold war university" is the subject of a book by Bruce Seely. As for its contribution to the Obama campaign, and not that of McCain, this is anybody's guess; perhaps they looked at the polls and decided McCain was a lost cause--I have no idea. I was just trying to make the point that corporate motives are rarely "clean," and corporate investors always expect to get a return on their investment.

And, I doubt the Right is against lawyers; my guess is that as a group, most lawyers are conservative, and tend to vote Republican. Studies of law school students have shown this (though mea culpa, I don't have the source for that at my fingertips); the percentage that go in for poverty or environmental law tend to be very much in the minority (and typically scorned by the mainstream).

Finally, I've never maintained that the nation is divided into a Good Chomsky and an Evil Alternative. He has, no doubt, functioned as the "conscience of the nation" (despite the fact that few have chosen to listen to him); but I have often found his own position a bit too B&W. But he, along with figures such as William Blum, do have to be credited for showing what US foreign policy is really about.

In the end, the crucial point about Obama, it seems to me, is that he has no more intention of rocking the military-industrial-university-lobbyist world than did McCain. He's no Jimmy Carter, talking about scaling down a 25% energy use and also the military that serves to make that rate of consumption possible; far from it. His transition team and cabinet appointees are basically recycled Clintonites. The 'change' he promised is really one of style. So OK, it's a lot more chic to get funded by Stanford than the Pentagon, say; but at the end of the day, this may not be a very substantial difference. It's McCain (or Bush) with a human face. Someone like Dennis Kucinich would have been a very different story for the US, and of course, he hadn't a chance in hell, and what he 'amassed' in campaign contributions was probably on the order of a few grand. Once you realize that "American politics consists of a single party with two right wings" (Gore Vidal), exactly who funded whom and for how much is not that much of an issue.

Thanks again for writing-


3:05 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

I guess it depends on what your purposes are. I'm an historian and sociologist, not an activist, and I long ago gave up the idea that my books could make any sort of substantive difference in the direction of US culture or politics or economics. George Modelski, in "Long Cycles in World Politics," identified the period of 1971-75 as that in which the US went into what he calls the third phase of a civilization, and what I've called the twilight period. His argument, and mine, is that by then, "the fix is in." It won't matter what you do or say, or who gets elected; all civilizations follow a typical arc, and in the twilight period the downhill slide has begun in earnest. That's why I regard Obama as a funeral director, nothing more. It's not that I don't respect activists (well, it depends on whom and what, of course), and if they can get something useful out of my writings, fine; but I'm not among them, and am not writing particularly for them. In DAA, my goal was to set out the historical record; I have no special interest in being 'diplomatic', as it were. Thus I don't believe, and am not saying, that we can 'revert back to the Carter presidency'; that just ain't gonna happen. But as an historian, my job is to point out the road not taken, or to hold JC up as an anomaly, so as to throw the greater course of American history into sharp relief.

As for my audience...look, DAA sold something like 30,000 copies, give or take, in a nation of 300,000,000 people. In other words, .01% of the population was interested in it. (This is probably the same fraction of the vote that Dennis Kucinich got in the Democratic primary.) Even if we add in those who took it out of the library or bought a used copy, we are still talking about minuscule numbers here. This tiny fringe, which may be the number of Americans who really do get it, that the country has no future, is--apart from a few historians or sociologists who may read it out of intellectual curiosity--my 'audience', as it were. Yes, I'm preaching to the converted, then; but what difference does it make? If the book ever did, really, have a potentially large audience, then the whole thesis would be wrong: I would have been describing a different nation, not the US. And by the same token, I wouldn't have had to write the book. One should be 'diplomatic' when fundamental change is really possible, no argument there. If it isn't, one might as well just tell it like it is. To invert Marx, "The activists have hitherto tried to change the world in various ways; the point, however, is to understand it."

Thanks again for writing-

10:50 AM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Morris,

Amidst the financial meltdown here in America and throughout the world, and with the slowly emerging talk of a Depression (see Rob Reich's latest blogpost), the question of happiness and wealth seems to be bugging me. Go figure.

I think to ask: well, what is economic progress or growth anyway, and, is a little contraction (or alot) actually a good thing? Why do we always have to make a little (or alot) more than we did last time? How can there possibly be no bound to that upward trend; and, more importantly, what are the bounds? My great-grandmother -- the glue of my family for 97 yrs, who passed away in May of '07 and who lived right through the 1st Depression -- always taught us to make do without, and that, moreover, you don't need much to live, and even live well. A cheap gallon (!) of Chianti on the floor during our weekly family pasta banquets (with "homemades" -- hand-made pasta and red sauce) and food on the table each week, a modest wardrobe, some money for your intellectual needs, etc., and the ability to make and repair things on your own -- that's all you need. All the rest is, well, neither here nor there.

But that's not our national ideology anymore (perhaps never was). More is better, and the more there is the more we tend to want.(Durkheim and anomie, let's not forget). We don't seem to ask: but to what end, and when does it end?

Well, if happiness and wealth go hand in hand (as in: wealth goes up, so does happiness) then perhaps there's some argument here for this perpetual economic motion machine. But -- and this is what frustrates me -- that just begs the question: what is happiness and, should we want to show that there is a relationship between it and wealth, how do we MEASURE it?

And it all comes down to that: the measurement of a value, happiness.

A guy I roomed with sometime ago, Will Wilkinson, loves to go on about happiness and wealth and that studies show that the two are linked (you can find him as a regular commentator for NPR's Marketplace).

But -- and I've always pressed this point -- this all turns on what you take to be an adequate measure of happiness, which in turn will depend on what you take happiness to be, finally.

Wilkinson, who is a policy guy for Cato (which I really have no stomach for, whenever I hear these guys hide their ideology behind "science") --, Wilkinson seems content with the "if someone says they're happy, then they ARE happy" criterion, and cites (in a Marketplace commentary of 12 March'08) a Pew study to make his case (the Cato-ites love their data, but love to hide their assumptions when interpreting that data).

But wait a minute: I claim all sorts of things about myself that may or may not be true -- especially something like my own happiness! It seems a radically inadequate criterion of truth that whatever is self-reported really is true (when it comes to something as rich as happiness, that is. And I'm not suggesting behaviorism here, just so we're clear: that was the thesis that conscious experience *just is* our behavior. Such a thesis isn't needed to make my point; just that our notion of happiness is of a rich sort that a mere self-report using that term doesn't demonstrate, in itself, that one is happy).

Famously, Aristotle argued that the judgment of happiness (for anyone) cannot be made until an entire life has unfolded -- thus, what I, personally, might take to be central to my happiness *now* may, in the fullness of time, not in fact really BE my happiness. For Aristotle (and this is the very rough story), it all depends on whether my essence, my being, was fully realized (which for Aristotle means "full realization of rational faculties", that is, whether we have lived a life of "contemplation").

Obviously, the question becomes: how can we fit such ways of understanding happiness into an empirical framework of measurement without thereby fracturing the quality or richness of the notion; science, at present, seems ill-equipped for such a task. And thus we face a dilemma: either happiness is unmeasurable (i.e., scientifically out of reach), or else we find a framework of what measurement is that does not destroy happiness' potentially rich meaning in any empirically grounded analysis or understanding of it.

Is such a framework possible? I think so, but it seems that the Cato-ites really miss the boat (unsurprisingly, for theirs is not really the task of fundamental thinking -- it is the task of defending prejudices well-embedded in the history of thought. I think they're really just modern-day rationalists of a neo-positivist bent).

The framework that is needed, of course, is the one you tried to sketch out in your first book, Reenchantment of the World (which I'm going to teach in my Philosophy of Physics course next term at the University of Maryland) -- a framework in which subject/object dualism does not arise, and in which the fact/value distinction isn't a real distinction (or at any rate, is such that the two are unproblematically inseparable).

I know this is a very general description here of what framework can try to do justice to our rich notions of happiness (rather than the impoverished "I say it, therefore it's true" sort), but this issue is rather frustrating to me, and I'd like to invite you to comment on it.

I think you'll no doubt find this closely related to the ideas you seem to be writing on in your next book, which I think you've tentatively called "The Shadow of Progress" or something to that effect. (I also encourage you to look at some of Will Wilkinson's well-written though not very deep stuff on this issue -- its like the Ideological buffet that Americans are really good at packaging and getting obese on: big on grease and quick highs, but lacking in real substance).

In any case, here's some food for thought that might even constitute a new blog post itself.


7:27 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mike,

I have to ask you something I've asked a number of other contributors, and that is to keep your communications fairly short--2 or 3 paras at most. I think the majority of readers want to read
regular letters, so to speak, and not whole new posts.

Lots cd be said on the subject of happiness, of thing that shd be clear, but frequently isn't, is that intangibles--emotional or spiritual dimensions of life--which are things that cannot really be measured, are finally more important than the tangible stuff, past a certain level of material self-sufficiency. Some years ago some Danish institute did a World Happiness Survey, and Mexico--relatively poor, with a bad distribution of wealth--scored #5. These things are clearly very subjective, tho I'm hardly one to romanticize poverty.

Anyway, gd luck with yer own blog, shd you choose to start one.


9:41 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

I read DAA and found it to be simply factual, not shrill or undiplomatic. The facts are the facts and should require no sugar-coating even though I do understand, if you want to persuade, you can't alienate people. It doesn't appear that either you or Jimmy Carter were blessed with the ability to tell people what they want to hear (and have a clear concience) so no best selling books for you and no second term for him. As far as happiness goes, the people I've known to be happy have the qualities that make for happiness---a capacity for contentment, a sense of humor, generosity of spirit and the ability to consider other people important too. How do you measure that? I don't think Cato Institute can.

2:37 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

How did you manage to get so wise before your time?


7:47 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman, My family would glady disabuse you of that notion and, in all honesty, I wouldn't have very convincing rebuttals but thank you anyhow. Anonymous said he was interested in promoting cities designed more on a European concept and I wanted to recommend a book (if he's reading this) about the American landscape, James Howard Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere: the rise and decline of America's man-made landscape. Maybe there's an opportunity for enthusiastic young people with good ideas to help transform the suburbs. It's a daunting project but maybe not completely hopeless. If oil goes up and stays up then Americans might be a far more receptive audience to making real changes in the way they live on a daily basis. Like putting on a sweater and installing solar panels on the White House roof.

10:17 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Susan W. wrote: "Maybe there's an opportunity for enthusiastic young people with good ideas to help transform the suburbs." I would like to recommend the website Building Living Neighborhoods, based on the work of the architect Christopher Alexander. Their stated goal is "to help everyone make our neighborhoods places of belonging, places of health and well-being, and places where people will want to live and work."

To Susan W.- I agree with Prof. Berman's assessment. I especially liked your idea of "the silent game" you played with your children, that you wrote about a while back. A blog of your own, perhaps?

3:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman:

Thank you so much for maintaining a blog that people that read and love your books (like me) can check regularly for your commentaries. I was especially riveted by this entry.

I have left this comment under the "Anonymous" option so as to avoid violation of Alcoholics Anonymous' Eleventh Tradition. As a devoted member of AA, your mention of Bill Wilson's take on "self-reliance" was electrifying. I have often shared passionately at AA meetings that the 12 Steps are counterintuitive. Many people in AA say this, but, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I suspect that not too many people can articulate exactly WHY the 12 Steps are counterintuitive. My only complaint about AA is that it, in my opinion, it inadequately addresses the cultural context we are fighting against as we pursue a "psychic change." As you noted in your blog, we are indeed the society of the "self-made man." These are the exact words I have used when I share at meetings. The 12 Steps fly in the face of everything that we have absorbed as proselytes of the religion you term "America."

As you probably know, there is a great deal of anti-AA propaganda floating around out there. Many have very convincing arguments that AA is a cult. Naturally, one of the things anti-AA propagandists latch on to is AA's dubious success rate. If AA is unsuccessful in many cases, I have a tentative theory as to why that should be so. I think it is literally because the AA neophyte is literally caught between two diametrically opposed cultures. I have struggled mightily with this myself. It's enough to drive a person mad: You wear a persona "in the rooms", where the gravity centers on the COMMUNITY, rather than the INDIVIDUAL. "Similarities, not differences!" As AA becomes the fulcrum the recovering alcoholic's life turns upon, the AA member must learn how to "travel between two worlds", so to speak. I suspect many people getting sober have grave difficulty navigating two cultures. I also suspect many are not conscious of the struggle, but it's plain to an outside observer that they live it.

In addition, once an alcoholic experiences the "psychic change", or, as you may be inclined to put it, a "jump to Learning III" (from Reenchantment of the World), he or she is suddenly living in a new consciousness that clashes with the religion of America.

There are many, many more things I would love to comment on in this blog, but I've already gone on at length, so I decided to keep my focus to this detail. My thoughts on "Manifest Destiny" are a whole 'nother can of worms.

Thanks again for your books and blogs!

5:01 AM  
Blogger Sasha3 said...

Suberb essay--I would only add that it needs discussion of the unconscious racism that has supported white supremacy since the "founding" of the nation. Along with the isms named by Berman, this would help us understand the continuing relevance of Dr Martin Luther King's critique of the triple evils that thrive in U.S. democracy.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Henry said...

Dear Professor Berman:

I have just finished reading DAA and think it is a masterpiece. I am one of those "out there" on late-night radio to whom you wrote: "Thanks for listening" in your sign-off. I read about a half of your book in the Spring during the long Democratic primary and the second half after Obama's election: a surrealistic experience! Especially your remark on p.316 -- formulated in mid-2005, I assume -- that: "The crunch - a huge stock market crash and the meltdown of the dollar - may not be far off." You were only "off" three years, i.e., dead right.

Your book struck me as being deeply Hegelian in its mode of thinking about history, something I doubt you would even wish to deny, particularly the basic dialectic of the positive being held fast in the negative through "sublation"(*Aufhebung*). This is what I think you are referring to by "the Shadow." You move easily with Marx too, and can invert him (the legatee of Hegel in so many senses).

I do sense your worldweariness of the East European intellectual who has given up hope for the dying patient that is/was his adoptive country and choses Mexico over the US. (For me it's Prague). But I believe you do underestimate the forces unleashed by the Obama phenomenon and the coming to power of the "cusper" generation. Right now, crisis is the greatest stimulus we can hope for. As many have said, for once idealism and self-interest are substantially the same thing. What do I really need to live?

Your books answer that question amply, even if your own answers in the end cannot satisfy you.

2:13 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Henry,

Thank you for writing, I appreciate your support. I should say, however, that my answers do satisfy me, but only in a Hegelian sense: that our time has come to a close, and that the weltgeist is moving on. That is just how things work. But I confess I am sad at how how badly the US is botching its closing phase, and also that the geist is probably moving on to China. As negative an influence as the US has had in the postwar period, China's influence on the world will probably be a baleful one. A colleague of mine at the university I teach in Mexico City recently put it to me this way: There may come a time when we actually miss the gringos. What a thought, eh?

All the best,

8:27 AM  
Blogger relmuche said...

Dear Mr. Berman:
THANKS for a collection of FASCINATING, DEEP and LUCID descriptions and hints on the very viruses of individualism, “economicism”, “consumism”, savage capitalism, monetarism, and the like, that the pretended USA empire have cultured and nurtured throughout the years and infected the rest of the World with.
The Animus of the many empires this World has known before, apparently died because of their ever increasing effort to defend their expanding borders from the nations they had invaded and the moral decay of their rulers and People.
The Anima and the Animus of this viral USA empire, and the World it has infected, is being swallowed by the black hole that lays at the very center of the resulting inequality between the People and their apparently unlimited desire to be inhuman individuals and their limited Vocation to Be Human Persons.
The Ancient Vaccine to all these modern and post modern viruses seems to be Conversion from regresionism to Progressism:
pulling, driving and pushing towards the good of the very few
Pushing, Driving and Pulling All of Us Together Towards the Good of All of Us.

12:08 PM  
Blogger dandiacal said...

Dear Mr. Berman:

I remember very well your trip through Boston promoting Dark Ages America and I remember fondest of all that classic Coming To Our Senses. GIven the dialectic of the situation I fear that the "radical individualism" associated in the West with, say, the 70s and 80s has been long gone and that Thomas Nagel is most correct when he writes that "communitarianism -- the ambition of collective self-reaization -- is one of the most persistent threats to the human spirit. The debate over its political manifestations has been sustained and serious. But it is also a cultural issue, one whose relation to the values of political liberalism has been clouded by the fact that some of those values seem such natural candidates for collective public promotion." Could it be that something of the Soviet model is returning in new bottles a la Eeamon and that we won't be bowling alone, but rather, given overpopulation, be bowling en masse in regulated identical uniforms with a number, without a single vestige of meaning in our new- fangled, pre-fabricated teams, based neither in blood nor chosen friendship and free association? As much as I love and respect your work, I feel that your bias towards the non-Western model of creativity, and your misreading of Emerson could lead you to get the dialectic on the wrong side. Maybe Obama enthusiasm, notwithstanding its considerable glories and his excellence of character, has that shadow side-the communitarianism that worries more traditional liberals like Nagel or myself.

M Hampton

2:03 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear M Hampton,

Well, this is a discussion that could take up several hundred books--and has. Our own supposed individualism is actually a myth, in my opinion; opinion being so uniform in the US that we are 'a nation of sheep'. So I think that that has already been defeated in the US via a form of groupthink that has been with us at least since 1945.

I guess it's a question of balance: I look at the enforced 'harmony' of China, and I'm hardly a big fan, to say the least. But our own ideology of radical individualism has done us enormous damage, as a country; in any group of Americans, it seems that each one has to shine, each has to promote an individual agenda. Somewhere, the middle ground between Chinese conformity and Emersonian self-reliance has gotten lost. Democratic socialism is surely a very long ways off, for both China and the US.

Another symptom of the imbalance in Anglo-Saxon culture is the popularity of Isaiah Berlin. He placed all of his emphasis on 'negative freedom', which is that of radical individualism; 'positive freedom'--a collective goal--was for him anathema, inasmuch as he was a Russian emigre. And yet, within certain important limits, having collective ideals and going after them is hardly a bad thing.

As I said, a very long discussion.


10:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:01 AM  
Anonymous JDM said...

aaaccckkk!!! The United States does not have ,and never has had, a defence budget several orders of magnitude greater than the next country. What it has is a defence budget several multiples of (6x?) China's. Put differently, the U.S. defence budget >= 1 (not several) order of magnitude greater than ~3rd place Russia/GBR/France. In substance your point is entirely right, of course. This is like the ubiquitous use of "exponential increase" for what is merely a discernible increase.

Other than that I have just discovered your blog. Reading the lot, from last to first. I like it very much.

2:57 PM  

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