February 08, 2010

Is the American Dream Killing You?

This is the title of a book by a former corporate executive in Washington, DC, Paul Stiles, published in 2005. He finally threw in the towel and left the US, now lives in Spain and the Canary Islands. The book contains lots of "misery data" about life in the United States, but I particularly like it because he shares his own personal experience on why he finally decided to call it quits (actually, start a new, and very different, sort of life). As follows:

Someone, he writes, builds a gigantic house next door; after six months, you and your neighbor haven't even said hello. You walk into your local junior high (where his daughter was a student), and it looks like something out of hell: nose rings, boys showing their underwear, girls with T-shirts that say HO! on them, and others that sport MEGADEATH. Kids with hoods over headphones, with gangsta rap leaking through them: "All flowing past you in the hallways like sea wreckaage, all that is left after the ship goes down."

You then drop your daughter off, after hardly having spoken to her, and drive to work. On the way you see an electronic sign that broadcasts the latest Threat Level from Homeland Security. You reflect on the fact that the nation's capital used to have a crack user as a mayor, and that he later returned, elected to the city council.

Now you are in the CEO's office with the rest of the management team. "You are polite, of course, but...you know too much to respect the man who runs the corporation. You know he is out for himself, that he has formed a small cabal at the top to leverage the entire company for their own personal gain....The CEO makes over five hundred times what the average person in the company makes, but this is normal in America today, where the gap between rich and poor has grown steadily for thirty years, and is now the widest in all the rich democracies, on par with the third world."

After the meeting you walk through the company, acknowledge those you pass by, "but it is nothing but the nod between jousters. Office relationships are like business as a whole: pleasant on the surface, deadly underneath." Nothing makes sense, life's purpose eludes you, you can't trust anyone. The market economy has the power "to run your life, harm your health, fragment your family, dumb down society, destroy the environment, incite global conflict, and displace God himself."

Meanwhile, the incarceration rate has increased nearly 500% in the last 20 years, one-third of all marriages end in ten years or less, the rate of child abuse has tripled in the last 25 years, 65 million Americans suffer from stress, and between 1989 and 2001 credit card debt went from $238 billion to $692 billion and the number of people filing for bankruptcy jumped 125%. Nearly 2/3 of all Americans are overweight; the number of overweight adolescents tripled during 1980-2005. The US leads the industrialized world in child suicide (ages 5-14); the youth suicide rate has doubled since 1950.

We live in a winner-take-all society. "When competition becomes too intense, it separates people. Your society may start making market sense, but it stops making moral sense. You lose your connection to other people, and to anything larger than yourself. This cuts the very bonds that give life meaning. Bonds between the individual and his family, his community, his country, and even his God all erode and break. In short, the more intense the market experience, the more meaningless life will become."

The victims of US corporations, and the philosophy they represent, feel oppressed and exploited by America. This is "why they hate us." "You can understand why those most fervently opposed to living by the Market code--religious fundamentalists--would attack us. And you can understand why they would target the global system of American capitalism, the World Trade Center."

"Far from being an unlimited good, the Market has become the driving force of American decline."

51 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

There was a lot of truth in this article. The only thing that can change this is what may be happening to America right now. I am talking about widespread unemployment, sporadic electricity, no internet, etc. This will bring families and communities together again. People will need to borrow from and depend on their neighbors again for survival. No more daycare, no more moms separated from young children who just want to be with them. Small communities may even have to protect and police themselves. There will be stories over a candle, or eating with conversation, and no t.v. in the background. There will be no internet, no cellphones. Children will rise out of their basements and connect with nature again. There was a blackout some years ago in New York, and people said that it was so liberating. People actually talked to each other again...This is the only solution to our "problem" that I can think of.

10:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

You may be right--perhaps--but not just yet. "Coming round to reality" has occurred sporadically in American history, after a major disaster: crash of '29, death of JFK (maybe), to take just two examples. However, since the late 16th century, America has been about the pursuit of wealth, and there have been only brief and superficial visits to what I call the alternative tradition. The strength and continuity of the dominant, i.e. largely insane, tradition can be seen in the $12-trillion bailout of banks and the appointment of neoliberal advisers (Geithner, Summers, Bernanke) whose philosophy was precisely what caused the crash of 2008 in the first place. In other words, a near-collapse of the system simply won't do it; the historical role of FDR, for example, was to save capitalism via minor modifications, not to abandon or transform it. For these latter to occur, the breakdown has to be total: no electricity or running water; banks, airports, and hospitals closed; supermarkets looted, then empty of food; the end of life as we know it--a kind of post-nuclear scenario, if you will. I suppose there is some possibility of that happening down the line, but the more likely scenario is that of the Roman or British empires: a gradual dwindling away, the daily erosion of poltical and economic power without any sort of total, irreversible collapse. During this process, there will be occasional system breaks, such as market collapse or terrorist attack; but since they will not be total in scope, the system will just continue to limp along, getting weaker and weaker. Finally, it became clear around the mid-fifties that England was ineffectual and that the US called the shots; and in the late fifth century that Rome was in the hands of German tribes. I don't think a Soviet-style free fall is in the cards for us, in short, and as a result, I don't think we'll hit bottom, so to speak, until we get to the point that it makes no difference what we do. Just look around: there are no signs that any but a tiny handful of Americans really understand why the market crashed in 2008, or why the WTC was attacked on 9/11 (and certainly no understanding that these sorts of events are related). Personally, I don't think it's so terrible that an empire comes to an end; all of them do. What is depressing is that they come to an end with their eyes closed, never realizing that if they had done the exact opposite of what they'd been doing, they could have lasted a bit longer. I mean, when Tony Blair can go before Parliament, as he did recently, and defend his actions in Iraq for 6 hours, and say he would do the same thing if he had it to do over again, you have to realize how little hope exists in this world for enlightened change.

-mb

12:34 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I just wonder how many Americans currently WANT to "come around to reality," as they seem to be doing their utmost to avoid even remotely glancing at it. Fear is a powerful motivator in not seeing reality, especially when the nagging fear that something's terribly wrong is reinforced by fear-mongering from the powers that be. So rather than looking at themselves & their decaying culture, too many people want, demand, need scapegoats -- that, and comforting platitudes.

I see this everyday among family, friends, co-workers. If you don't buy into The Official (and Superficial) Story at all times, you're perceived as strange, different, even vaguely dangerous. Don't rock the boat! Don't question anything that really matters!

I see people struggling to make their monthly bills, but still buying Wii systems for their kids, planning vacations to Vegas & Disneyland, and worrying all along about paying for it. Yet the suggestion that they scale back, that every family member doesn't necessarily need an individual computer & cellphone & iPod -- well, that won't fly!

My wife & I are considered a little strange because we have exactly one cellphone, switched off 99% of the time -- it's there solely for emergencies. We cut our cable & use the TV set for watching thoughtful films from around the world, past & present. Our idea of a big shopping splurge is a library sale, where we find all sorts of discarded treasures for practically nothing. We make art. We talk. All of which makes us slightly suspect.

I really don't get it. (OK, I do, but I don't.) There's a desperate belief in progress, in eternal newness, in the next big thing -- something, somewhere, somehow, will fill the ever-widening hole, won't it? And anything more than 6 months old is "dated" -- a word I've heard more often in the past few years than in the rest of my 56 years. Classic films, novels, philosophies -- all "dated." No past, no foundation. Just give me something pre-imagined, mass-produced for a billion individuals exactly like me -- and packed with 87% more homogenized trendiness, please!

That's what really scares me.

9:50 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

I dunno, Tim; you sound like a Communist to me. Or at least a terrorist. *Something* un-American, that's for sure.

10:45 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

MB,

I get that distinct feeling myself sometimes!

A bit more seriously, I'm sometimes called an intellectual by some people I know. What's scary & sad about that is that on my best day, I'm a pretty solid middlebrow at most. I'm reasonably well-read, I do try to expand my cultural horizons -- but some 40-50 years ago, I would have been a good, average B- college student, I'd say. And I'm being generous. Nothing to be ashamed of, certainly, but nothing to write home about, either.

Well, if I'm what passes as an intellectual to the college-educated people I know -- and me a first-semester college dropout, no less! -- then I worry about our culture all the more.

11:08 AM  
Anonymous JeStern said...

Why so negative about the culture of the United States? When there is Jeremy Rifkin’s book “The Empathic Civilization” to give us all hope. I am being sarcastic of course. I read Jeffrey Jensen Arnett’s article on Huffington Post that referenced Rifkin’s book right before checking out MB’s page. I just feel bad that the rest of the planet along with everything else will now have to suffer “emphatic” Americans too.

12:41 PM  
Blogger Gregg Grina said...

Dear Prof Berman,
I have to stick up for Tim. He doesn’t sound like a terrorist or commie to me. He’s Un-American? Is your blood sugar too low? Excuse me for those words, but, you do sound crabby.
The real terrorists and commie reds are the corporate bullies. Up here in frozen wilderness of ND there are plenty of polite, obedient Christian people living in fear. Most are fed up with the system but keep their mouths shut and their heads down. They turn away during any corporate “drive by” to protect paychecks and family. I spent 20 years as a courier for Fedx and I know many things about hidden corporate cultural agenda. Fear and intimidation is a common tactic used to make the “farm animals” more productive. If wage slaves are obedient and compliant and pick the “cotton”, they have nothing to worry about. The manager’s get their bonuses, share holder value increases and workers paradise is preserved. Please accept apologies for my grammar. This is the result of my failed formal education.
The famous trial lawyer Gerry Spence wrote on his blog…
We are the new slaves, enslaved by the Corporate King. The king disguises itself as our democratic government. But it lies to us and betrays us. The king owns our minds.
We are the new slaves, enslaved by the king’s propaganda and lies. We are told we are free. But money controls all, and the people have little. The money I speak of buys elections and lying politicians who are the minions of the Corporate King. The Supreme Court, itself owned by the Corporate King, has just delivered our country over to the power of money with the court’s latest decision in which it proclaims that the king may spend whatever the king wishes to further enslave the people, by feeding the people lies, feeding their prejudices, feeding their fear, feeding their hatreds and suspicions and claiming it is all for their benefit and their freedom.
We are the new slaves, enslaved by the king’s voice, the television that educates us and our children, that corrupts our values with violence, that dumbs us down so we can no longer think for ourselves. We turn to the tube to think for us. It tells us what gadgets, what things to buy and how to become further enslaved to pay for them. We once enslaved the aborigines in this country by trading them trinkets and mirrors in exchange for their land. It is an old trick that those in power play on the powerless. We are the powerless.
We are the new slaves. We are enslaved by banks and their demand for interest. The banks own our homes. We pay the banks rent in the form of interest, and we keep up their property at our expense. The banks are the soul of the Corporate King. But king is governed by no moral code. The king is governed only by its greed.
We are the new slaves. We pay tribute to the Corporate King from the sweat of our bodies to finance the king’s wars, wars not for our benefit, but for the king’s further enrichment and power. Our people die in such wars. Our people die without adequate health care. Millions of our children go to bed at night hungry and uneducated. The king does not care. It cares only for its wars and its profit.
The king sits back and laughs. To control the minds of hundreds of millions of people is divine. But such power is in the hands of fools who are the collective mind of the Corporate King. That mind is terminally diseased with greed. And the people are in jeopardy, for the king will continue to betray the people and lie to the people until it has sucked out the last of our lives. The Corporate King is insane.
What shall a desperate people do? We will do nothing until we learn the truth of our slavery. Will it then be too late except to scream in the streets?
But the king is deaf.
One more tidbit….
http://web.mit.edu/newsoffice/2010/krugman-event.html

4:20 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Gregg,

I guess you are new to this blog. You're a smart guy, so I know you know what irony is. Anyway, if you get a chance, check out some of my work.

All the best,
mb

ps: I posted your message in full, but shd tell you, for future reference, that we have a kind of space limit here of a page at most, preferably 1/2 to 3/4. Thanks.

6:44 PM  
Blogger Jeff Wild said...

From the Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Romano Guardini: Reform from the Source, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2010), 59.

“The road to authenticity demands the renunciation of immediacy -- that is, it demands ascesis. No great life can reach maturity without ‘great sacrifice’.”

3:58 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Jeff,

Undoubtedly true. Also explains why we've got so many mediocrities running around this country.

-mb

5:06 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Note to Avital:

I posted your last message, but cannot locate it on my blog! Would like to answer you, but don't know how. Perhaps you responded to an old post, that no longer takes messages. In any case, why don't you join us on this most recent post?

Best,
mb

5:12 PM  
Anonymous Quincy said...

This post is in accord with the general idea that our society has become an inhospitable un-liveable plutocracy. But I take some issue with the further idea that our lives would all suddenly have great meaning were the political, economic, and social mores of the country to return to those of the early republic.

Naturally, we could not return to those days now. We have destroyed the glue which holds society together; traditional Christianity is no longer tenable for most thoughtful people, and multiculturalism severed earlier ethnic and tribal ties. This is not a problem solely in the United States. The problems with Europe are different in degree but not in kind.

In fact, I doubt one can find a satisfying existence outside of the Western world entirely. Everywhere there are men, life is characterized by greed, pettiness, and ignoble behaviour. When organizing our societies these flaws will always appear, and strict laws are needed so that the individual is not able to destroy the common. With time, however, given these imperfections, flaws will be introduced into any system, and a critical mass of these causes collapse as we are seeing here in the USA.

Only when we have perfected ourselves, can we perfect the society. So one should devote energy wholly towards this goal through virtuous living and powerful contemplation and meditation technology discovered by earlier mystics from Buddhist, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Through this, higher and more magnanimous states of mind can be achieved giving rise to the wisdom to transcend our petty failings.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Jeff Wild said...

I agree with Quincey that we must look at ourselves, but of course can't leave the world behind. I have much respect for traditional Judaism. One leading 20th century Orthodow rabbi once wrote [the halakhah is Jewish law],
"There is nothing so physically and spiritually destructive as diverting one’s attention from this world. And, by contrast, how courageous is halakhic man who does not flee from this world, who does not seek to escape to some pure, supernal realm. Halakhic man craves to bring down the divine presence and holiness into the midst of space and time, into the midst of finite earthly existence." From Halakhic Man p. 41

4:35 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Quincy,

See, the problem with "perfecting ourselves" is that it easily falls into the category of typically American nonsolutions: extreme individualism. Without a community base to our solutions, they really aren't solutions. It is also the case that history doesn't work in the way you suggest: that enough individual "perfection" translates into real political change. That has never happened, historically speaking. What redistributes power is power (for good or evil); that's what the record shows. If we are going to wait to perfect ourselves, so that we can perfect society, we shall be waiting for both for a very long time.

mb

8:03 AM  
Blogger PALOBLANCO-CAJANEGRA said...

Querido Mauricio:

We live for a reason that the market or system sells us, reason that makes us run in life, run for a life (mental vision) that runs us or better our body actions, harming our health and why not say our mysterious heart. In your book Re-enchantment of the World, you referred to what the “ethos” does to the “eidos”, which was really reveling for me. The ethos as a kind of abstract whole, that fragments the body or reduces it to perform simple operations (manipulated eidos) useful for it (the ethos). “Divide it to govern it”, making us robots, servers or ants that play a role for the common cause, good slaves (in words of Gregg) or servers under one God or King, that must win their bread with the sweat of their work.

The role played, any role played for altruistic as it may seem, I believe still has to do with winning, and the intensity of it’s competition or goal also separates us from others, ¿A Messianic delusion has good intentions I believe? ¿Moral or market sense are maybe forms of the same route? I honestly ask you this, because a society that well functions does not necessarily communicate. A Society is more than a harmonic process to progress. I’d love to know what is that magical order that Mexico has or you have found, that I am guessing doesn’t have to do with polite efficiency. The altruistic meaning of life can be opposite to the absurd intensity of the market, but it can also fall into the feeling of liberation, which also frees us and cuts the bonds of connecting with others.

Saludos amigo desde la ultima frontera de temuco

11:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave here, just finishing "Contours of American History" by W.A.Williams. (rec by mb)It appears that the capitalist death machine was well started early on.

From my shamanic/taoist view there are no "perfected" humans. The best to be expected is devotion to the well-being of others, or at least something positive outside of oneself.

A favorite poem:(air trip anyone?)

http://www.insurgentdesire.org.uk/jetliner.htm

Enjoyed this on the nature of collapse. (long and slow) We're already in it and those of us who know this are considered crazy and obsessed.

http://www.oilcrisis.com/whatToDo/decline.htm

Caribou Barby gets more attention and adoration than any serious writer/thinker in America and there's an even lower level of mass entertainment than her! My neighbors have never heard of Howard Zinn. Members of my own family do not know who Bernie Madoff is! They play the marine hymn in a local elementary school. I could go on. There is no end to it.

I'm restoring a treadle sewing machine. Human power is fun.

3:22 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Dave,

Always good to hear from you. Yer a trooper, that's fer sure. From the halls of Montezuma...

Have you by chance seen a film called "Brothers"? It's very well done, at least from a psychological point of view; the whole political dimension is left out. But when I supplied that dimension in my head, the result was a very powerful musing on war and American imperialism. Perhaps not as direct as "In the Valley of Elah," but significant nonetheless. I'd love to hear your take on it, if you get a chance (it's out in DVD now, I'm sure). Given the absence of the political dimension, BTW, it shows how restricted are the categories in which Americans think. It's much as Graham Greene pictured it: we are largely well-meaning morons. Well, often not so well-meaning.

Sew on, sew on!

-mb

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman,
This is way off topic, but I need some educated advice from you or other bloggers. I am now transitioning from teaching German to teaching English to a low level 10th grade World Literature class in a suburban high school. It has been a tough transition for many reasons. I just couldn't dumb down German as much as it would have taken for the program to succeed. You know what I mean. Oh well..Most of my English colleagues are teaching books like "Marley and Me", "The Five People you meet in Heaven", etc. At least the kids will read "something", or so they report. I really want to teach "Brave New World" with my sophomore class. I can think of no other book that describes so well where we are headed. If students are only going to read six books in their lives shouldn't they be books of substance? "1984" is better written, but seems to be more about World War II. "Brave New World" could really teach some critical thinking skills and seems to be prophetic. This is a World Lit. class. Even if I have been assigned the "Epsilon" level class, don't these kids at least deserve a taste of Shakespeare, or real "literature." School in America is all about "fun" and "self esteem." I would appreciate your thoughts. Considering how modern kids are,what two or three books would you teach? I am trying to think about world masterpieces that are easy to read on the surface, yet have many layers: Camus, Swift, Voltaire, Conrad? Any ideas? I have really been turning this over and over. I feel a great responsibility to these kids.
John in Chicagoland

10:05 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Hey John,

Gd hearing from u. Yes, I think BNW is a gd choice. It's much more relevant than 1984, since it's clear by now that the real threat is soft fascism, not hard. You cd relate it to a lot of stuff, such as genetic engineering, Prozac, and the "cheerful life." Only problem is: will they be able to understand the text? I have no idea.

2nd possibility: Catcher in the Rye. It's timeless, esp. for h.s. students. Plus, Salinger just died; you could talk about the life of a writer (he had such an odd one).

3: When I was 3 yrs old I read Robinson Crusoe in a child's edition. Perhaps there is a juvenile version of this.

4: A bit later, I read a juvenile edn of the Arabian Nights--Ali Baba, Aladdin, etc.

Can't think of anything else rt now...

11:45 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

John: Treasure Island, unabridged. Written for young people and about a young person. Grabs you on page one. (I'm in my fifties and I still re-read the book.) You could discuss how the group of characters that holds to the virtues hangs together, while the group of characters that hold to the vices - especially greed - tears itself apart. Not a bad lesson for young people to learn as their country declines.

9:41 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" would go along well with "Brave New World." And as extra reading, the Pohl-Kornbluth satiric (?) science-fiction novel from the 1950s, "The Space Merchants," about a future completely dominated by advertising. And Vonnegut's short story "Harrison Bergeron," to point out the final results of "equality" via the lowest common denominator.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Prof. Berman and Friends:

Thought you might like to read this from CHE, while we're talking about killer dreams:

http://chronicle.com/article/
Alabama-Shootings-an/64203/

It's the usual sort of one-dimensional "X must have been a sociopath/nut-case" analysis -- not very interesting or informative, nor particularly deep.

But at one point, the article does hint that one of the deeper "causes" may have little to do with the person as such, and more to do with the culture at large: the increasing loneliness of society reproduced as the loneliness of academic specialization; the race to be "No. 1" reproduced as the charade games of publishing ("cranking out papers") and teaching (infotaining) -- or, in the words of one particularly insightful (but confused) commenter, "the unpleasant miasma of ugly 'competitive' mediocrity".

Aside from this one gem of an observation, many comments are embarrassing displays of academic myopia (many, for example, don't seem to appreciate the elementary distinction between explanation and moral justification).

Enjoy.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Neb said...

Ok, I think I'm late to this one but I hope I can get a response.
* I think folks here just want (wanted) America to grow/wake up. I didn't read hate above. Am I wrong?
* Quincy calls it plutocracy. I prefer plutocracy+ (chunks of fascism mixed in).
* What role do nukes have when the world starts telling you your time is over? If I'm Cheney (lite or 2nd coming) then I say, with those babies + missile shield (if the enemy thinks it works, it works) I get what I want, deficits don't matter, and if you're not with me....

Neb

11:04 PM  
Blogger Ashley Colby said...

But how do we escape? We are culturally bankrupt at home but strangers abroad. Isn't community such a vital part of a healthy human life (as was made clear in Wandering God)?

11:57 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Mike-

When I saw CHE I thought you were referring to the Chronicle of Higher Education, but then I realized you were talking about Chopped Herring Extract. Add a dab of sour cream and yer good to go.

Ashley: my problem with living in the United States was that I always felt--going back to childhood--that I was a stranger at home.

12:40 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Neb,

No hatred for America here -- just profound sadness, disappointment and unavoidable disgust. When I think of all the potential this country has squandered by pandering to the lowest common denominator, when it's capable of so much more -- and when I see how much suffering this shortsighted approach has caused in the rest of the world -- well, of course I get angry & frustrated.

My grandparents on both sides were immigrants, and coming to America enabled them to create lives far more satisfying & comfortable than they had known. They all worked hard, did their best, and provided for their families every day of their lives. Believe me, I'm grateful for what living in America enabled them to achieve!

They valued education, and they valued success -- not making as much money as inhumanly possible, but making enough to live on & save a little for the future. I respect them immensely for that.

But if they were alive now, I don't think they'd be very happy with what the country has become ... with what its people have become. The idea of mocking someone for being smart, for wanting to do the right thing, would have bewildered them.

12:53 PM  
Blogger dharmaguerilla said...

In DAM, you made a point about the phenomenon of national hubris after its peak, when the dynamics of its decline have already been set in motion. I can't find it, and wonder if it was your original expression or you quoted someone who had made such an observation?

2:50 PM  
Blogger dharmaguerilla said...

Dear Mr. Berman, "Reenchantment" remains my favorite book for 20 years, and I have read your last two with dutiful dread, with the reassuring thought that the Awful Truth, not Ignorance, is bliss.

Your reply qualifying Anonymous's hope that things being so bad will revive the healthy community ties we need for revival strike a chord with an observation I made two days ago.

I was photographing an event where a friend organized the planting of trees as carbon sinks and filters along a riverbank. There were 100 high school students from Chicago and Madison, WS who came to Nashville in buses to help out, planting 800 trees and pulling out invasive species nearby.

I was struck by how un-hyper, realistic, and quietly positive these kids were (not starry-eyed idealists). They are growing up in the cesspool you describe, subject to all the influences that turn us into materialistic consumers, but in listening to their conversations and interacting with them, I was struck by the natural goodness being expressed.

Just as humans are not born with the ability to read and write, or with the tendency to hate, it seems we are born with an almost invincible core of goodness.

I don't think you are going so far as to say the Hobbsean view of human nature is what is behind this or any civilization's decline, but are saying that all organized systems eventually collapse from decay, in this case the concentration of power among a few who can eventually control the whole system, which then follows the vector of their own perversions.

If it seems that we are not yet at the point where "we are at our best when things are at their worst," it at least gives me hope that when we get to the worst point, there will be enough goodness in the younger and the more courageous of the older generation that the trauma will be handled in a way that gives birth to a Phoenix.

The only question will be the scale of the destruction. It could go so far as to eliminate the entire species, in which case the earth will breathe a sigh of relief without us. Or perhaps, something of knowledge and resources beyond the stone age will survive along with resourceful --and opportunistic-- humans. And there in the latter, will be the seeds of future declines.

3:18 PM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Chopped Herring Extract, with a daub of sour cream, sounds about right (there's Russian grocer just down the street; I should inquire).

----------

I never thought that the American Dream included Monster Trucks -- did you? While trying to get down a narrow unplowed snowy street this weekend somewhere in southeastern PA, a fifteen-foot high monster truck was seriously trying to do the same. And then I was met by another truck (just a regular Bronco, extend-o-cab), with angry drivers yelling at me to get my "piece of shit" off the road (I was spinning out my wheels at the time). After this, SUVs seemed benign.

The logic of our current situation is nicely encapsulated here, I thought: why don't we simply take our living rooms out for a spin, or just the whole house out to the local Strip Mall, and get it over with? (Somewhere Lewis Mumford remarked that we'll end up spending most of our time in our motorized carriages; I guess he didn't want to go all the way with that observation).

And why not? We've already effectively privatized public space (Malls, Supermarkets, Housing "developments" ...), and publicized our private space (Facebook, Twitter, ...). Why have to leave your enclosure -- just bring it with you? Talk about micro-nations...

The essence of what has been called "soft" fascism is right here: the tyranny of the individual (MySpace says it all) and the micro-fascism of specialization (billions of webpages, billions of ads tailored to each web/market niche -- something for anyone).

We are each of us a micro-nation among other micro-nations, our commodities are our flags, our sacred shopping choices the lines of our anthems. I do not meet you in public -- I meet you on my property, ready for a battle.

If there are micro-nations, then what of civil war?

Truly, the American Dream is eating itself alive ... and with it, America itself (yet the rest of the world seems poised to take the Dream and run with it, all the way to the dustbin of history).

Sadness -- or melancholy -- is a virtue here.

Pax vobiscum,
MCC.

8:59 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Dharma,

Well, Jack Kerouac was a dharma bum, but you are a dharma guerilla. Good work. Dark Ages America is abbreviated DAA. I did say that thing somewhere in the bk, but can't remember where. I think I was discussing Toynbee at the time. And yer rt, I'm not a Hobbesian.

Thanks for writing-
mb


Mike-

Agnus dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis!

9:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's nice that Dharma thinks people have a natural core of goodness, but it just isn't so. Why don't you tell Prussian civilians in 1945 that people are just naturally "good"? Why don't you interview some holocaust survivors and ask them about this "natural" goodness? This is absurd.. You are living in a dream world my friend. Most people don't want to see the truth. Read some history, and see what happens when that thin veneer of "niceness" is ripped away. Look deep into your own psyche. Look closely at your "friend" when you tell him about your problems. People care more about their infected finger than the death of 200,000 strangers, believe me. Of course, it sounds good to say, "We care." Nobody really cares. It is just P.R. to say, "How terrible!" Maybe you can even churn up some real emotion imagining yourself or your family under those walls. Those misty eyes will look great on camera! Jeeze those reporters in those skin tight shirts must really care.. The truth of human nature can only be seen in times of great turmoil. That's when the superficial b.s. drops away. Human nature is disguised and concealed quite well in times of plenty. Why don't you go backpacking through the Congo and get back to us? Put your philosophy into practice! I am sure the goodness of man will carry you through. You could also also hike around northern Pakistan. We're all just nice people deep down, right? In short, human beings are born violent and selfish, and you have to "teach" them to share and be good to others. You don't have to teach anyone to be violent. It comes quite naturally and instinctively. The truth is a bitter pill, and many don't want to take it.

10:34 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Gee, Anon--

The theory of Original Sin may be just as off-base as the theory of Original Goodness, I dunno.

-mb

11:08 PM  
Blogger Neb said...

Tim, thanks for the comments. I can't help but think while your grandfolks were working hard for you and the families benefit, the planning has since been underway for control of resources everywhere and the manipulation of markets to ensure that future generations continue working for gain of the few. See the NYTimes recent/latest on how Goldman-Sachs has done that to the nation Greece as a for example.

------
Anon... people are not simply bodies. That which is beyond this form is what's good. We are so distracted and taken by what happens we miss the small things that bring out our goodness.

In some strange way I'm not in resistance to any of the insanity I witness and partake. What attracts me to this site to read and write is not simply disappointment in what is but also fascination about the inhumanity and how deep it is going. And yet in the midst of all of it one can still point to and feel the humanity and grace. Per Dharma guy and other contributors above.

1:16 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Neb,

I'll check that article out this morning. And I have no doubt that things are even worse than what we hear about. I have relatives who probably make as much in a month as our grandparents did in a year, but they're constantly struggling to pay their bills, working extra hours without extra pay, and buying far too much crap that they've come to believe "everyone needs."

I admire their perseverance & determination to provide for their families, but it's eating them alive; they're sacrificing so much, yet they rarely see or spend time with those families. All because they've bought into the consumerist model of a successful life.

.......

Mike Cifone,

You might be interested in David H. Keller's short story, "The Revolt of the Pedestrians," published in 1928 & found in many classic science fiction anthologies. He describes a future where human beings are always on wheeled conveyances, inside as well as outside. As a result, their legs have completely atrophied, which they deem a mark of singular beauty. Those few people who still walk on their own legs live in wilderness areas to the sides of vast roads, and are often run down & killed. The drivers show no more remorse than a driver might for hitting a bug. After all, they're just savages, unwilling to enjoy the fruits of progress!

.........

Anon,

I can't deny that human beings are just as capable of monstrous evil as they are of compassion & empathy. But an utterly Hobbesian view of humanity seems as one-dimensional & unrealistic as a starry-eyed one. What gives us such flexibility & potential is also what allows us to (all too easily) default to fear & selfishness.

There are plenty of people who are just plain callous & ruthless -- they seem to rise (or claw their way) to the top. But a lot of people who buy into this awful worldview honestly believe it, honestly believe they're doing the best thing, alas. Perhaps that's the truly monstrous thing: that people can detach themselves from others enough to commit such horrors, and convince themselves that they're doing good. Why not? They've been programmed for it from birth.

"The Matrix," anyone?

8:08 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Tim-

I tried to download "Revolt of the Pedestrians," sans succes. Any idea how I (or any of us) can get our hands on it (w/o having to buy a book)?

Thanks,
mb

9:44 AM  
Blogger dharmaguerilla said...

Anon,
I don't want to hijack the thread, but the question of innate selfishness and/or altrusim is crucial to all of MB's canon. In the original post, Paul Stiles described a deadness in the student body that was as profound as it was below the awareness of the students themselves. The atmosphere of schools was not so negative in the forties and fifties.
What caused this drastic shift in the space of a generation? Certainly not a change in human nature, but as our host contends, the commodification of our whole society. (I love Wallace Shawn's phrase, "the fetishism of commodities" in The Fever, a play I committed to memory at one point. Thanks for quoting it in DAA, Mr B.).
With all their flaws, tribal societies did have a lot of cooperation and altruism extended beyond the nuclear and extended family. The experience was one of unity, not isolation and competition. Even today, there are Americans who find themselves spontaneously motivated by compassion and altruism, even when no one else is looking.
Yes, the tribe extended altruism to all its members, but perhaps not to the tribe next door. Or perhaps there was a sense of cooperation there, too, keeping a truce for mutual benefit.
You can argue that all this indicates is group selfishness, but it can also be argued that all life contains both self-preservation and mutuality principles. If you lean toward Hobbs, it leads to absurdity and the lack of any inherent morality, civilization having invented it for convenience's sake, to save cricks in the neck from looking over the shoulder constantly.
I see it as the basic fault, this self-consciousness that creates a false sense of me, with all objects as other. Discursive mind gets hypnotized, which can lad to narcissism and sociopathlogy, but humanity strives to overcome this boundary by including others as part of the same mind, first with immediate loved ones, then family, neighbors, community, and state. How best to do that is the argument between socialism and laissez faire. We all agree what is winning, and what the consequences are. The fact that we all see this and still have hope argues for my theory of basic goodness, or we just wouldn't give a damn.

10:20 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

MB,

It's not a very long story, so if I can't find a copy available online, I'll be more than happy to scan or even type up a copy & e-mail it to anyone who wants to read it. (Don't worry, I'm a VERY speedy typist when I have to be.)

Remarkable how prescient so many pulp science-fiction authors were, isn't it? There are several short stories from the 1930s about people living in what we'd now call virtual reality simulators, while their physical bodies gradually wither & decay in their high tech seats.

By the way, Edmund Hamilton wrote a short story called "A Conquest of Two Worlds" back then, which cast a cold & dark gaze upon colonialism. Earthmen ruthlessly colonize Jupiter for its resources; several human soldiers go over to the side of the Jovians & die with them in a futile attempt to stop genocide in the name of profit.

Actually, I'd love to see an entire anthology of such stories -- proof that plenty of intelligent people were well aware of this country's direction even back then.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Tim,

That wd be great, but I don't wanna make a lot of work 4u. My address, in any case:
mauricio@morrisberman.com.

Thanks, amigo-
mb

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

MB,

Believe me, I'd consider it a small repayment for the insight & food for thought your books have given me.

Dharma,

Speaking of food for thought, your post adds to this thread, rather than hijacking it. I'd like to respond to it, after I've mulled it over a bit.

1:31 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I'd like to respond to John's request for suggestions for his class. Even though I've read very little science fiction, Farenheit 451 and A Canicle for Lebowitz might be good choices as starting points for discussion--the huge TVs, violent reality shows and isolation of people who want to read and converse in one and our history of using technological advances to destroy rather than create, in the other. Since Shakespeare is meant to be performed rather than just read, I got my 7 yr old granddaughter interested by watching the comedies on DVD. I read her a synopsis of the play but stopped short of the ending so she'd have an idea of the plot (since the use of language is so different) but pique her curiosity to keep watching. Kenneth Branagh did a good screen adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, and if your students respond well to that, he also did Hamlet. Good luck with your class and I hope you'll let The Faithful here on Dr. Berman's blog know how you and your students are doing and what you chose for reading material.

I agree that the American Dream won't be a crash landing but a steady deterioration of living standards, overall health (we're already seeing this--our life expectancy actually dropped for the first time since records have been kept) and an increase in the number of wage slaves. I don't think people are inherently evil b/c I've had the good fortune to know some who were generous to a fault and genuinely loving; however, they're the exception and don't describe more than a fraction of humanity as far as I can tell. Our reliance on convenience, demands for entertainment and comfort are extracting a heavy price and we've made bad decisions along the way to maximize all three.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

OK, you all; it's time for another article.

-mb

10:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have found that the work of Joseph Chilton Pierce helps to explain why everything is so awful.

Especially in Magical Child, and even more so in Evolutions End in which he argues that many, if not most people are irreparably damaged by the techno-imperatives of what we now call our "culture".

We always were of course.

Altogether he argues that our entire culture is engaged in an unrelenting war against the organic intelligence of our bodies altogether. A latent intelligence that is potentially vast and structured into our genetic program.

Summed up in the title of the first section of Magical Child: The Monstrous Misunderstanding

His arguments being both an extension of and variation upon the arguments you used in Coming To Our Senses.

The cure being the necessity to Come To Our Senses.

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Quincy said...

Dear Ashley,
You ask how can we escape. Forgive me for sharing my escape.

The corporate infiltration of childhood, as chronicled in e.g. DAA, was well underway during my time of it, but I managed to avoid the worst of it by thankfully attending private schools. Probably for this reason, and because of a particular sensitivity to the cognitive dissonance created by our worshipping two gods: ritual consumerism and the pulpit of protestantism replete with jeremiads against said consumerism, I became unsatisfied with the american dream, i.e. work like a dog in some corporate hole for 60 hours a week for some shiney trinkets, a military inspired SUV with which you can make your miserable commute, and a yard you can look forward to spending every other saturday trimming to a precise measure to keep the homeowner's association happy.

Surely this is not the meaning of life, thought I. But what could it be? Since the age of 13 I was not able to find the religion of my fathers compelling. Cue despair, loneliness, isolation, and alienation as the world went to hell... 9/11 and then Iraq which even the sophomoric 16 year old version of myself knew was both morally bankrupt and going to be a complete disaster. No, I didn't participate in them, but these were the dominant events of my formative years and my perspective on life will be forever coloured by them.

But love finds a way, or whatever the saying is, and the path was eventually seen. Certainly there is no hope for America, and I'm surprised no one has mentioned Citizens United, the lastest little speedup on our road to complete corporate dominance. We can only hope that America's tentacles don't flail about too violently, destroying the rest of us, as she implodes. As for myself, In a couple of months after my college graduation, I will go to one of those few countries still little touched by the American Dream and live out my years happily and carefree as a Buddhist monk. Buddhism is the one great idea not yet destroyed by rationalism which both gives life meaning and is tenable for thoughtful people.

It's funny how Dr. Berman's blog is quickly becoming the little corner of the internet for all of the disaffected misfits to converge.

11:02 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Disaffected Misfits of the World, Unite!

-mb

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks everyone for the book recommendations. It is a tough time to get kids into reading. I just reread "1984" and "Brave New World". "1984" is easier to follow, and more coherent, but very dark, and way too long for the kids I am teaching. "Brave New World" is very scattered in the beginning. He had a crazy, unclear writing style, in my opinion. It is more of an idea book, which could work in short, daily segments and with lots of explanation. I still may try it, what the heck. It's not written in Sanskrit. "Fahrenheit 451" is already being taught in 9th grade with so-so results. I tried "Martian Chronicles" with horrible results. This is a short story generation to put it mildly. I will continue Shakespeare interspersing with the films. I won't analyze the plays to death. I like Camus "The Stranger" but I am a "misfit" like others visting this blog. Other English teachers get upset with me when I even mention "The Stranger." thanks everyone, John

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

John,

Maybe short stories are the way to go, at least as an entry point. There are quite a few that concisely deal with the themes of "1984" & "Brave New World," for example. Though I do agree that getting many students today to read even short stories could be a bit of an uphill struggle.

I like the idea of teaching "The Stranger," but I wonder if today's generation feels the same sort of alienation. They seem to want to cluster together, at least digitally -- the wired-in illusion of intimacy at a safe distance?

I'm reminded of Isaac Asimov's Spacers, who dread physical human contact, gradually retreating to their estates & tended by robots, while communicating with their fellows via videoscreens. In the end they genetically alter themselves into hermaphrodites, so that they can reproduce without ever having to physically interact with another human being.

Susan W's suggestion of Shakespeare on DVD is also a good one. When I was in high school (1967-71, so it's long time ago), the school had a Shakespearean troupe perform a play live each year. If there are any local productions of plays, that might help. A live performance is quite engaging!

10:33 AM  
Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Dear Tim: Thanks for the reference. I'm interested in the story, so, if/when you generate that ms of it, I would be very thankful for a copy: cifonemc@gmail.com; and one more thing: if it's not too much of a bother, perhaps you -- we -- could compile a list of the works that you mention (SciFi-Dystopia stuff)?

Dear Quincy: thank you for your thoughtful comments. You're right that Buddhism hasn't been "destroyed by rationalism" -- at least not of the Western kind; but then again, look what's happening to it in academic circles or within the ideological bubble of (global) capitalism, as the Czech philosopher Zizek has been arguing (Z also points out that Buddhism is not without its own terrible ideological fog; see also the very important study "Zen At War", by Brian Victoria) ...

Buddhism has a streak of rationalism all of its own: just witness the many thousands of treatises on the many hundreds of interpretive and procedural questions pertaining to the Canonical Discourses! And there are many treatises on -- and whole schools devoted to -- logic and reasoning itself: Dignaga (6th cent. CE) and Dharmakirti (c. 7th cent.) come to mind. The more interesting question to my mind is how Buddhists treated rational thinking -- how, that is, they incorporated it into larger/deeper somatic processes, so to speak, and thereby managed to avoid the lopsided, disembodied-intellect brand of Western rationalism. (Or did they really, in the final analysis: remember, there is the "world is just a dream, and your body is dream stuff" strain of thinking that goes way back to the rarefied Vedic/Brahminical tradition -- and this gets transformed into horrible practices in Japan: see Victoria for the details. I'd argue that something like Cartesian separationism/non-participation can also be found in Asian thought. That is, the same orthodox-vertical/heresy-horizontal break that Berman talks about can be found there too. Not a hard argument to make, actually).

When you ask the question of rationalism in Buddhism, I think, then you begin to come back to the (relatively) recent developments in Western philosophical thought: Nietzsche on inverting Western morality (back to the body); Jung (inner and outer correspondence/harmony, by way of symbolic interpretation/integration of your dream and waking lives); Reich (somatic wholeness/awareness: the unconscious and the body constitute a single, undivided whole); Polanyi (tacit or "somatic epistemology"), etc.

11:32 AM  
OpenID brutus said...

I'm quite late in my comment, which may not now be considered. Oh, well.

I can't argue with any of the signs of collapse and disintegration, nor with anyone's desire to escape to something better. That's a legitimate response, I suppose, but increasingly difficult when one considers how the peculiar American set of cultural values and economic arrangements has infiltrated other cultures so thoroughly they promise to drag them down along with us. Still, Prof. Berman has been recommending for some time that we flee, and Quincy's story of escape in particular caught my eye.

There was a time earlier in life when I wanted badly to emigrate, though more out of curiosity to live abroad than to escape America and its decline. I'm less motivated these days, as I expect it all to decline, though probably at varying rates. I wonder if true refuge really exists anywhere other that what we create in the midst of change happening around us over which no control can be had. If I resist these days, it's more through attempts to understand than to escape.

Incidentally, I pulled The Reenchantment of the World off my shelf with the intent of rereading it but ended up loaning it to a friend who became interested. It surprised me to see that even in the first 5 pp. of the intro, the groundwork was already being laid for the exhortation to flee. Everything has intensified in the nearly 30 years since, and the imperative to leave has only become more urgent and manifest. Oddly, I don't think I can bring myself to abandon ship, though not because I believe there is any hope.

5:53 PM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

Dear MB:

Although part of your website technically is what is called, a "blog," I would rather call it a buoy. I may have run into Paul Stiles's writings sooner or later, but I found him at the right time right here. I also recently came across an apt observation from George Santayana which supports Stiles's critique of market dynamics operating without the governance of values or authority other than its own. Santayana had found the romantic and materialistic tendencies of American society, however much ingenuity they would generate in products and technology, if pursued exclusively, would result in social and individual ruin, and to "..the tyranny of the world over the soul. It (the soul) will feel lost and empty unless it summons the random labours of the contemporary world to fill and to enslave it. It must let mechanical and civic achievements reconcile it to its own moral confusion and triviality."

'The random labours of the contemporary world."--What a phrase, written long before advent of television, computers, cell phones, and the multi-tasking mania of our "productive" and highly informed lifestyles!

I think what he wrote is just under a century old. It is remarkable to find out that Santayana could write books for a general public to earn enough to enable him to leave Harvard university and live the life of a wandering scholar. This says something about the economy of the time, and the caliber of the reading public.


--Mark Notzon

1:07 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I don't know if John is still wanting reading suggestions for his lit class but I ran across an book a couple of weeks ago that might interest him. It's John Hersey's My Petition for More Space. It's a futuristic and very short book about living in an overpopulated city.

6:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To vent my anger & sadness over my own financial distress, I made a film on homelessness (trailer at www.youtube.com/PurrGrrl), so I get into discussions re: homelessness & poverty in the U.S. ALL THE TIME. Made myself vulnerable by admitting to my own problems--debt & ruin from having gone 2 college & owing student loans.Thought making these films wd be a good catharsis 4 my pain & I thought I cd educate the masses on the reality of poverty rt here in the U.S., but instead I find that almost EVERYONE in the U.S. attacks me 4 caring about the poor!

Even people I meet who've been homeless or poor insist that anyone can rise from rags to riches in the U.S., that people shdn't ask 4 help--it's up to the individual!, that homeless people "choose" to be homeless, aren't trying hard enough, etc. I'm practically called a communist 4 suggesting that the govt. bail out poor people rather than wealthy bankers. I believe that education--including at the university level--should be free & available to everyone and that makes me a radical.

More disturbing is that even people I meet who consider themselves "liberals," &"do-gooders" feel this way. When I ask them why food shelves give out stale, moldy or processed food instead of healthy, nutritious food to the poor they get mad at me 4 attacking the food shelves! Seems people can't understand the concept.

I'd really like to further my education as I’m intelligent &I like working--being out of work is painful--but I can't as I'm in debt from having taken out student loans, so I don't qualify 4 financial aid in the U.S. How does it benefit society when I'm unable to contribute to the best of my ability? I have no health insurance & will have to go on disability, eventually, if I can't get my chronic back pain treated, as it is getting worse. How does it benefit society if I end up collecting disability instead of working & contributing to society? It's a shame to have to throw away my talents & gifts because I just don't have the money to pay 4 the opportunity to live up to my full potential. While idiots like GW Bush can attend Harvard Business School then aspire to the presidency, some of us who are talented & intelligent & motivated must whither away in dead-end jobs or collecting unemployment, just waiting to die. It's really sad, & the fact that Americans support this just makes me disappointed, to say the least.

Seems most Americans can't see how it harms a country to prevent its intelligent people from getting an education & to prevent its sick people from getting healthy. Americans are so disconnected from each other that they don't see how what happens to other people effects them too. I guess Americans want to live in a nation filled w/a lot of sick, disabled, ignorant people. But guess what? 1000s of people walking around sick & untreated can lead to epidemics & other social problems.

Ignorance is a kind of disease too & look how that's spreading.

Right now, my dream is to get out of this country. All my other hopes & dreams have been shattered. I'd like to forget that whole "American Dream" thing even happened. I just want to get out of here...

2:56 PM  

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