May 17, 2010

An American Diary

This is a record of a trip I made to the United States during April 28-May 16. I was asked to give a lecture at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee campus; after which I spent two weeks in New York visiting friends and just wandering around. The decision to keep a record of the trip was prompted by a minor incident at Immigration at the Dallas Airport, which reminded me of the rudeness of everyday American discourse. Once the diary was begun, the rest followed quite naturally.

April 28: Arrival at Immigration at DFW. The Immigration official directs me to line #38. I walk over to line #38, where an electronic sign announces that this line is for non-US citizens. I return to the official, mention to her that line #38 is for non-US citizens. "I know that, sir," she says coldly, staring at me. Nothing more; no explanation for the obvious contradiction. Just simple, rude noncommunication. For me to reply, "I'm sorry, but I don't understand why you would send a US citizen to a line expressly marked for non-US citizens," would probably have gotten me detained. So I return to line #38, reflecting on how rudeness in everyday interactions in the US is simply coin of the realm.

April 29: Milwaukee.
a) In a coffee shop not far from the university. I get to the front of the line. The barista, a woman of about 20, says nothing and doesn't make eye contact. No "Hello, can I help you?"--nothing. She's almost hostile. I order a cappuccino; when she finally speaks, it's to tell me the price.

b) I get into a taxi. The meter is not running. I point this out to the driver. He mumbles something incoherent. I give him the address where I am going, ask again about the meter. He finally says it's not working. "Well, what are you going to charge me?" I ask. He says $4. I notice a sign inside the taxi that indicates that the maximum charge for a ride is $5. We get to my destination, and I offer him $4 plus a dollar tip. "It's $15," he says. "You said $4," I remind him. "It was farther away than I expected," he says. "I'm sorry," I tell him, "but you can't tell a customer it's $4 before the ride and then $15 after the ride." I put $5 on the handrest next to him and make to leave the cab; he locks the doors. "I'm going to call dispatch," he says. "Why not call the cops?" I reply; "they should be able to sort this out." This calls his bluff, and he lets me go.

c) Now out of the cab, I am approached by a woman standing near the curb, who seems very concerned, and asks me what happened. I tell her; she is very sympathetic. Then she asks me for $1.50.

d) Later in the day, I'm back at the coffee shop. I order orange juice and a muffin. The barista (a different one this time) tells me that in the afternoon they have a promotion: I can take another muffin or pastry for free. I reach for a danish; the guy behind the counter snaps at me, "Don't use your fingers!" Apparently, it doesn't occur to these folks to say to the customer, "Let me get it for you." Once again, the rudeness of “normal” American discourse (I can't really imagine a service person in Europe or Mexico behaving like this).

e) I am staying at a dormitory run by the University of Wisconsin. There are two computers with Internet connection on a desk on the second floor. Near them are posted two signs, in large block capitals: PLEASE KEEP YOUR FEET OFF THE WALL. Why would they need to be telling the residents not to be slobs?

Again, I couldn't help thinking of how all of this--with the possible exception of the taxi incident--is just part of the air we breathe. In order to protect yourself, you have to be on edge, "scanning" all the time, which is an exhausting way to live. Is it a wonder that although Americans comprise less than 5% of the world's population, they consume 67% of the global market in antidepressants?

April 30: Back at the coffee shop for breakfast (apparently I'm a masochist). It consists of a single room, not very large. In the center, some guy is talking loudly on his cell phone, so that everyone has to listen. The narcissism of this is astounding. "What's the margin on that?" he says. "Can you give me a 100% guarantee? What does Ellis say?" Etc. It never ends. I'm there for a half an hour, and when I leave, he's still talking. Nobody, myself included, can tell him to take the conversation outside, because (a) he would probably just tell us to fuck off, and (b) the management of the coffee house would surely not back us up; obnoxious customers are still customers, after all, and cash is king.

May 5: New York. I start talking to my taxi driver, who turns out to be from Senegal. He has lived in the US for 20 years, he tells me. I ask him how he feels about life in the United States. "Well, I've also lived in Europe," he says; "it's very different." "How?" I ask him. "Europeans tend to think about things," he replies. "Americans are basically robots; they just go through the motions, they really don't know what they are doing or why. I think they are sad people." No shit. (I left the cab with a sense of admiration for his honesty. After all, he couldn't have known that I would agree with him; it would be more likely, as an American, that I would take offense at his remarks, perhaps refuse to tip him.)

May 7: I'm on the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. A kid of about 16 is sitting with both feet up on the seat, listening to an iPod. Again, I realize there is no way I or anyone can say, "Take your feet off the seat; you're not at home, for God's sake." When his stop approaches, he gets up and rearranges his pants so that they are completely below his ass, with his underpants showing. What to think? He's basically a trashy product of a trashy culture. I refrain from asking him if he's an utter moron.

Later that day, I'm at the Museum of Modern Art. The MoMA literature indicates that the use of cell phones is forbidden in the galleries. Of course, I soon see some guy in his twenties talking on a cell phone. I go over to the guard, and nod toward the cell phone user. "Cell phones are not permitted in the museum, right?" I ask him. "Not permitted in the galleries," he says. "This is a gallery," I tell him; "we are in a gallery." I watch him struggling to work this out, as if he is considering for the first time that he is being paid to monitor the galleries, and is in fact in one. Finally, he walks over to the kid and tells him that he can't use his cell phone in the galleries. The kid pays him no attention at all, just keeps on talking. The guard doesn't ask the kid to leave or do anything at all. "I guess you really put the fear of God into him," I tell him. I don't wait for him to process this, as I figure it might be a while. Instead, I think about the Senegalese taxi driver's comment on robots, and how completely under water so much of the American population is. We seem to be turning into caricatures, parodies of ourselves. Marshall McLuhan once said that if a fish could talk, and you asked it what was the most obvious feature of its environment, the very last thing it would say is "water". We simply don’t see our culture for what it is.

May 9: I'm walking to a restaurant with a few friends in Jackson Heights (Queens) when the wind kicks up and something enters my right eye. Perhaps a particle of dust, although it feels like a piece of glass. Tears are pouring down my cheek. Somebody says, "There's a drugstore in that supermarket over there; we can get some Visine." We enter the supermarket, go over to the drug counter. A young woman of about 20 is talking to some guy across the counter. Someone in the group tells her, "We need Visine." She goes off and gets it, hands it to me while still talking to the guy. She makes no eye contact; the only thing she says to any of us (me) is "$6.45" (or something like that). I hand her a $20, she makes change, and in terms of her conversation with the guy, never misses a beat. I pour the drops into my eye; she continues talking. My eye seems to be a bit better, and we leave. Again, the unconsciousness of the whole thing impresses me. This girl would never regard her behavior as rude; probably, most of her customers wouldn't as well. Interactions with the staff of stores now boils down to nothing more than a cash transaction, for both parties; the idea that there once was, or should be, a human dimension to these interactions is off the radar screen.

I also found a sort of zombie-ish quality to greater New York on this trip. At any given moment, something like 25% of the people walking down the street are not mentally present in the environment. Instead, they walk (or rush) down the street with a cell phone pasted to their ear. It gives the city a feeling of a ghost town, as their bodies are present but their minds are 100 or 1000 miles away. Thus the environment is little more than a "receptacle" for their activity; it isn't something people have a real relationship to, any more. This seems like an icon for the culture in general, which is hollow, dying.

Below are some excerpts from Dick Meyer's book, Why We Hate Us, which I believe are relevant to my own experience.

"There is no longer much vibrant, living tradition and community to be born into, to inherit, or to bequeath." There has been "an erosion of socially shared ways of treating others respectfully, the ties that make community possible." "U.S. citizens are isolated because it is unhealthy to risk contact with one's fellow citizens. When bullies are free to act out their aggression and disdain for others--threatening behavior, in other words--road rage, cell phone calls at the top of their lungs, shoving in grocery stores are just a few examples--then others will act to limit their exposure to people. Humans wish to survive. It is healthier to be lonely than to risk contact with a society without decency and without mores."

"Boorishness and vulgarity are sanctified by public culture and thus omnipresent." "The social superego has been silenced or at least muted. Brothers have no keepers. Respectful, polite behavior can't be enforced by external, deliberate action, by vigilant etiquette and spontaneous censorship. It comes from shared boundaries and conventions, and they are disappearing." But "We don't see ourselves as belonging anywhere, in history or in community." As Pope Benedict XVI said, "We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires." "[American] Society is constantly urging us to give in to our impulses. It slowly erodes the maturity of us all."

One cannot be "an admired leader of a corrupt institution, a noble player in a decadent system, or a clean pool in a toxic stream." "Manners die in a vacuum of community...The lack of manners is probably the most constant and unavoidable source of why we hate us...Manners in a culture of narcissism are practically an oxymoron."

"Techno-boors are oblivious to others and to public space in a way that feels menacing and destabilizing. It's like living in a zombie world. A rude zombie world." And it has an addictive quality to it. "People touch their portable devices like rosary beads. They are compelled to check their e-mail when they could be talking to you face-to-face. Parents who roamed their neighborhoods at will when they were little kids now freak out if they can't have instant access to their own children by cell phone." "Wireless technology allows people to hook into the Internet umbilical all over, so coffee shops, airports, parks, and bookstores are populated by laptop hooligans...This kind of behavior also signals an egomaniacal message like 'I'm very, very important. I am more important than you. I must be connected at all times'." This form of technological social obliviousness is "absent presence...when a person is on a cell phone in a store, it seems to be acceptable for that person not to thank or exchange pleasantries with the cashier. Well, that isn't acceptable...'absent presence' and techno-aggression are more pervasive threats to social well-being and...destructive of social capital." "Much of what we hate in everyday life are the things that make us feel alone, invisible, disregarded, or dismissed. That's how we feel when someone is using a Blackberry in the middle of a conversation or talking loudly on a cell phone in a line for a movie."

Meyer concludes with two voluntaristic "projects" to change all this, based on individual initiative; he admits, however, that these projects are not achievable. The above description is, after all, what America is in its essence; it's not going to become a different country.


Blogger Geoffrey said...

Dr. Berman,

Perhaps "lack of community" is both a cause and a symptom: America has been transforming into Potterville, the dystopic alternate reality of "It's a Wonderful Life." It has become a place of rigid class divisions, where single-minded individualism is idealized and predatory behavior emulated. The transformation sped up under Bush, but it's been going on at least since the slippage of the post-war middle class in the early 1970s. The rudeness in public is partly attributable to a blind individualism, but also a lack of any hope of ever changing one's status in life.

I am glad to see that you blog. I admired "Twilight" when I first read it in 2001.

12:12 PM  

Hello Mauricio, another point of view to understand the problem I share with you:

Age fifteen, once I was in Vancouver with a friend waiting for the bus, there where other people as well, as it was coming towards us, nobody did nothing, so I walked to the side walk and lifted my hand to stop it. My friend laughed at me and said: what are you doing?! I didn’t know the bus stopped there at 8:47 anyway.

The point is that efficiency also reduces communication. In a country like Chile we have to run some times to catch the bus, fight with the driver for change, or beg him to stop if you where a student with uniform, etc.., that chaos can create instances of communication, with out that neurosis for taking everything for granted, everything “so” efficient that one might not interact. Obsession for function in this sense looses the point of urban communication just for the fun of it. Maybe that kindness Europeans or Latin-Americans have is because here there is always a little chaos left in the daily urban acts, for a one to one “adjustment”necesary (if there is a way to define that complexity), that means a one to one communication situation possible to take place.
This can be a kind encounter or slightly aggressive, but much more natural than a system that works by itself till nobody cares in “being there” but elsewhere.

Take care amigo

3:17 PM  
Anonymous paul said...

It sounds about right that you found a more positive social exchange from an immigrant (your NYC cab driver) than from a native. (There are still some of us who can relate to your experience at least.) It’s one of those things I guess…to tell you the truth, I’ve found some of the friendliest and hardest working people to be Mexicans. It really is embarrassing with the trashiness but I suppose it’s a personal statement for people now. A personal rebellion if you will… for lack of any other way to cope short of drugs… (which are probably a factor, too) Unfortunately, as you’ve written about extensively - short of a total societal collapse I don’t think things are going to change. (Hence, DAA) I think a lot of people just go on about their business and don’t give the crassness a second thought with the resignation that it’s just how things are now and ‘so what’ about it… the attitude is so ingrained that people are just expendable commodities…that we live in a ‘jackass’ kind of fools paradise where getting away with ‘whatever’ is the norm and if you take social breaches seriously then there’s something wrong with you.…

I suppose ignorance is bliss in the land of the doomed.

5:07 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Well, I just got another rejection of the collection of essays I'm trying to peddle. The publisher wrote me that no one wanted to read pessimistic stuff; that what we needed were "vibrant solutions". Too bad there are no vibrant solutions. So the only thing that can get through are fairy tales, I guess. Censorship comes in many flavors, my friends; this book may never see the light of day.

But meanwhile, I want to recommend "The Age of Oprah," by Janice Peck;it really is a gem.

6:18 PM  
Anonymous Keith said...

Dr. Berman,

When I read your writing, it helps my state of mind as a 47-year-old American. I am not crazy for practicing civility and politeness - it is my society that has gone insane. It's cold comfort, but it helps.

What Dick Meyer wrote rings 100 percent true. I remember the way things used to be. I lived in a community of kids. Then, around 1972-74, one kid got bit by a neighbor's dog (lawsuit). Another kid fell off a neighbor's swing (lawsuit). Yet another one of my friends was inadvertantly hit by a baseball bat during a game (threatened lawsuit).

After that, we kept to our own yards.

Public politeness and civility also died with the published stories of violence against those who tried to correct others, however tactfully.

One that stands out from about 15 years ago. A newspaper reported that a woman gently told a man at a supermarket checkout that he clearly had more than a dozen items in her cart. Without even saying a word he literally beat her senseless before others could pull him off of her.

Recently a person was shot in a movie theater for complaining about someone's cell phone conversation.

And on it goes. Ther bullies win and our future begins to live out the words of Thomas Hobbes - nasty, brutish and short.

By the way, you just sold two books with this column -- Dick Meyer's and Janice Peck's.

And if you offered your latest essays on the Internet, I would pay to download them.


PS: April 31 :)

6:48 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Keith,

Thanks for yer contribution. April 31 was always my favorite day of the year.


9:10 PM  
Blogger Nicholas said...

I was reminded of my first trip to New York where my taxi driver was from Lahore and had lived in NY for twenty years. 'What is it like being here?' I asked. 'It is an abyss,' he replied, 'You have to keep moving, if you stop, you fall and fall and fall.' Quite! Though I fear in England, we decidedly have 'technobores' who live in their own 'bubbles' oblivious to those around them. Last week on the train, I listened to a blow by blow account of a young woman's breakup (told to her girlfriend down the cellphone). As I got up to leave, I told her that she was wise to leave him, sounded a 'right pillock' and she did have the grace to look embarassed rather than tell me to 'f**k off'!

2:06 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

MB: "Meyer concludes with two voluntaristic 'projects'...he admits, however, that these projects are not achievable."

Project One: "it is necessary to find and nurture authentic commitments in private and community life. This means constantly making thoughtful and unselfish choices about matters both essential and seemingly trivial."

Project Two: "it is necessary to cultivate a guiding 'moral temperament' --a philosophic perspective, an outlook, a clear script."

Meyer does say that these two projects are not achievable, but he implies that this is because "they aren't political platforms or programs of reform".

MB: "The above desription is, after all, what America is in its essence; it's not going to become a different country." Prof. Berman is probably right about this. But, to be fair, Dick Meyer concludes: "I believe and hope that there is a unity about why we hate us and that it might someday be channeled to shift the tone and direction of American public culture. Americans who seem at odds in so many ways share basic worries and hopes."

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


I'm with Keith -- I'd gladly pay for a download of those essays. Even if they do lack "vibrant solutions." Good grief, what a phrase! Maybe if we all just think happy thoughts, all the big bad problems will go away?

My anecdote for the day, overheard on the morning news:

Apparently a woman brought a taser into a Wendy's & attacked the employees, because she hadn't been given the sauce she wanted, and they weren't correcting that quickly enough.

And Lenore Skenazy has an article about the blanderization of children's playgrounds due to the ever-present fear of lawsuits:

What strikes me is this notion that we should & must be protected from every possible risk at every moment -- as if that's even possible. Yet the more "protections" go into place, the more prone to violence we seem to become. The tension of trying to maintain such an obvious illusion?

I'm now immersed in the Meyer book & practically getting whiplash due to nodding my head in agreement so much.

7:58 AM  
Blogger CBL said...

This has been exactly my experience while living in New England for ten years and then moving back to Kentucky two years ago. Even in a state like Kentucky, with many small, rural towns, where community should be thriving, there is an obvious breakdown in civility and everyday courtesy - drivers who are oblivous to others on the road with their giant trucks and SUVs, store clerks with no manners, and a lack of basic "neighborliness". I grew to expect these things in New England, but not when I here.

Coffee shops are among some of the most "unsocial" places on earth; they have moved far from their European origins as places of leisure and enlightenment.

It also makes me wonder - if there is such a breakdown in civility and courtesy, how is courtship behavior even possible anymore? It happens, to be sure, but how are relationships and intimacy possible in this environment? How do people even get to meet one another?

Strange times we live in.

9:35 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

I tell you, if the folks at Wendy's didn't give me the proper sauce, I'd run out and get an AK-47. I mean, if we don't put our foot down, there's going to be no decent service at all.

Reading all of this stuff, I think: Where is the Taliban when we need them?

As for Meyer's projects: He's no fool. He understands that he is talking about voluntary or exhortatory 'solutions', and therefore not about solutions at all. For the most part, attitudes are shaped by circumstances, not the reverse--as Janice Peck shows in her book on Oprah. Oprah would claim the reverse--indeed, it's the core of her 'spiritual' message--but her own life, and the context of her success, ironically belies this.

There is also the issue of who the 'we' and the 'us' is, in Meyer's formulation. Nearly all Americans own cell phones; when you go into a cafe, nearly half the patrons are staring into laptops. Rudeness, me-first-ism, is ubiquitous. I suggest the 'we' is in fact small, and the 'us' very large. Americans are not in any serious disagreement with consumerism, neoliberal economics (even when it crashes!), unbridled individualism, imperialism, making war on 'Ay-rabs', and the like; and because he knows this, Obama's trajectory is basically that of G.W. Bush's (with proper English and a chicer presentation). This is why folks like Kucinich and Nader can't get much beyond 1% of the vote. Meyer makes it sound as tho 2/3 of the country hate the remaining 1/3, who are boors; but the figures are probably closer to 1%/99%. However, he obviously couldn't write a book entitled "Why I Hate You," so the ubiquitousness of vulgarity is left ambiguous. And this fact, that the vast majority of the nation agrees with US domestic and foreign policy, is why his hopes for change fall flat. With a population like this, and a democratic voting procedure, what politician can propose "change" and actually mean it, let alone try to carry it out? Jimmy Carter was the only postwar president who attempted such a thing, and Reagan's subsequent landslide victory said it all. Americans just want things to go on as they are, sans unemployment and bank failures. Their idea of change is cosmetic; it's about style, nothing more. Which is what they are now getting.

9:54 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

Prof. Berman,

Dick Meyer appeared on The Colbert Report last year. Stephen protested: "What do you mean, we hate us? We love us!" Your 1%/99% figure sounds about right. Hope is fading fast.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I have the dim memory that Colbert wrote a book called "I Am America and You Can Too," which I found wonderfully demented.


12:28 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I share so much of your view of this awful country. When I go into the city (and Seattle may be a cut above some) I feel surrounded by zombies. Nuff said, we all know what it looks/feels like.

But as with your last post I want to mention that in rural and small towns there are people going out of their way to help and show kindness to others. My neighbors work for hospice, the food bank, animal shelters, the hospital, the handicapped, elders in need, etc. These folks are not angry or hostile. They just help without pay, except the knowledge that they may have made someone’s day better, or planted a seed. I don’t want to forget them. They at least deserve our acknowledgment. Acts of kindness are out there, perhaps harder to see.

They are in all countries. I’ve seen some everywhere I have lived. They go unnoticed because other forces mask their presence.

My experience in Latin America is indeed that people are more courteous within their own class, but I’ve been burglarized and ripped off by Mexican cops, burglarized in Panama and Costa Rica and I stared down the muzzle of a gun in Colombia, where I watched police beat poor people senseless on the street, with upper class Colombians watching and laughing. The notion that it is friendlier and less violent in Latin America is a hard one for me. In Panama people died in knife fights a few yards from where I lived. Nobody cared.

Your diary reminds me of the movie in which there is some kind of rudeness at a checkout stand and either the clerk or a customer remarks, “you must be from New York.”

You’re right, the idiocy and rudeness is widespread but in Montana, and much of the mountain West, full of repub rightwingnuts, if you drive off the freeway you can’t even pull over to take a leak without everyone stopping to see if you need help! (with your truck, not with…..!) The reservations are the bottom of the hopeless pit in America yet at Pine Ridge alone there are 40 non-profits working to help, with little success.

And at Wounded Knee the idiots come, take pictures, talk, joke and move on, all the while babbling into the electronic toy permanently glued to the side of their head.If they woke up for even a second they'd be on their knees sobbing.

I’m glad you’re home safely.

5:20 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I have a story from a slightly different perspective. Several years ago I was in a grocery store and there were some young college students in front of the meat counter. They were discussing what the price per pound was and couldn't figure it out. After listening for about 2 minutes (I needed to buy something and they were blocking it) I offered in a friendly way to help them understand the sticker. The look they gave me stopped me cold. When I told my college age daughter about this she said she wasn't surprised---she had found showing her peers simple courtesy and friendliness was viewed with suspicion, and in the case of male peers, as a come on. I guess all any of us can do is not let others' behavior shape our own while still being aware civility has greatly eroded. But it does cast a real pall on day to day interactions.

My sister is a flight attendant and one of her coworkers had Oprah on a flight years ago (I guess before she had a private plane) and she bought the seats around her so she wouldn't have to speak to anyone and was incredibly rude to the hired help. I don't know why but that story always makes me laugh. While spouting all this new age crap she wants to make sure The Little People know their place when she has to directly deal with them.

6:17 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

"I Am America (And So Can You!)"

With Bill Moyers off the air now, The Colbert Report may be the most radical show on TV. (sigh)

7:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Yer rt, it's a complex question. And there were a number of people in NY who were very friendly and helpful, I have to say. It's just that I was struck--and perhaps it's because I've been in Mexico for several years now, and rarely leave the country--by how much buffoon behavior piled up in front of me within a few days of being back in the US. So yes, things are also bad elsewhere, but I have a feeling that the BD (Buffoon Density) is reaching an asymptote in the US.


Tina Fey plays on this theme of trying to interact with young people very well in her film "Mean Girls." I am impressed by how suspicious they are, how confused they get if you try to kid with them. And thus, how very sad they must be, and how lonely. As for Oprah, one of the greatest douche bags in American history, but actually much sharper than the millions who (pathetically) adore her. Again, I can't recommend Janice Peck's bk enuf.


9:36 PM  
Anonymous Anne said...


I disagree that in Europe people are not rude. Also from my experience as a German in Germany I could tell many stories of rudeness - big city or small town. And there is also the culture of "never complain". Once I was riding the bus, packed with people standing in the aile, and the bus driver stopped abrupt and many people struggled to not fall down. Nobody! said anything to the driver. Same stories with cell phones and feet on the seats. And sometimes I think that the kids growing up actually would like to be corrected - as apparently nobody ever cared to tell them how to behave - as if they were not worth being educated. And aren't they right, in a world were many of them do not even get a job, why should they care? I think we need much more courage to tell people when they are rude. Only communities which are wealthy enough, like in small college towns, can afford to be "friendly". But they are living in a bubble.

9:48 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Liebe Anne,

Vielen Dank fuer Ihre Brief.

My own experience of Germany is different from yours, but then I was there a long time ago, 1991-92. I didn't experience the Germans as rude, but--not particularly friendly. Of course, things may have changed a lot in 20 years. Again, there are rude people everywhere; it's just that the 'density' of it in the US, the frequency such that it is practically a kind of background noise, strikes me as being especially high.


11:06 PM  
Blogger A. M. Smith said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:19 PM  
Blogger ryan kloostra said...

Dr. Berman,

I am currently in Washington,DC with some of my students on their 8th grade class trip. The social climate is incredibly depressing, mostly b/c it is the height of student tour season. My middle school kids are pretty awesome, but the interaction of kids on other tours never ceases to blow my mind: jumping on the rocks in the waterfall at the FDR memorial, 300 kids yelling and talking on cell phones in the Jefferson memorial, joking at the Tomb of the Unknowns, ipods and cell phones at our most solemn places...etc. Sometimes I'll turn to tell kids to respect the place where we are, only to find chaperones present, and not caring at all.

Student prompts: How would the Founding Fathers feel about this all? What freedom are we expressing most, the freedom to be foolish? What does all this tell us? The neat thing is that my students are starting to see the bigger picture of what is going on here.

I guess that's all I can do,

12:02 AM  
Blogger ryan kloostra said...

are we even human anymore?

the parents were inside watching tv.

video is on the right

7:41 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mr. Smith,

It may be a question of perception, I'm not sure, but I don't regard the Twilight book as a rant--not at all. I do regard it as polemical, but that's not quite the same thing. There is a central argument, about the endogenous causes of the fall of the Roman Empire being the same as those of the U.S. today; and then there is a whole lot of evidence, both statistical and anecdotal, to back it up. (The parts on American ignorance amount to no more than a few pages, in fact.) It's the shortest book I ever wrote; I saw it as a kind of wake-up call, with the section on NMI's (New Monastic Individuals) as offering a possible way out (but not a societal solution) for those who understood what was going on.
At that point, which was pre-9/11, the New York Times agreed with me, did not see it as a rant, and named it a "Notable Book" for the year 2000. In a word, I do like to think the book is the work of a "thoughtful, well-read epistemologist," albeit in one of his more candid moments.

Ironically enough, the sequel, Dark Ages America, got branded a rant by the NYT in a review that was unequivocally a rant. In fact, DAA is a long book, with 40 pages of densely packed footnotes, extremely detailed and analytical in its approach. It's mostly a factual recitation of U.S. foreign policy, in fact--a rather academic work. But by 2006, 9/11 had happened, and the Times was in no mood for any analysis that pointed out our responsibilities in the Middle East *and* at the same time integrated that into U.S. domestic policy. For once the analysis turns into a synthesis, and the reader can see that the various facets of American life are interconnected, it's game over: the problem is the country itself. There isn't really much that can be done, inasmuch as we aren't going to get a new country. I wrote a response to the review, but not surprisingly, the Times wouldn't print it (you can read it in the archives of this blog). In any case, you are right: you were born into dystopia, the wrong place at the wrong time; that much I'll give you.

We may also have a different perception of the Reenchantment book. I was certainly more hopeful then, but the last chapter on "The Politics of Consciousness" was also cautionary. And Oprah, to my mind, is hardly a countercultural icon; quite the opposite, as Janice Peck ably demonstrates. Her brand of New Age is also completely soft-headed, and I doubt I ever fit into that category; I would have hardly endorsed her if she had been around in 1981. In a word, if Oprah is your idea of a hopeful direction for this country, you are indeed going to be bitterly disappointed.

What perplexes me is that the "something more that can be tried" for which you are asking, the "secular monastery," is explicitly outlined and advocated in the Twilight book (are you sure you read it? all of it?). Again, not that it can amount to a solution for society in general, but as in the case of the 4th century and eventual flowering of Europe, one never knows what long-term effect one's actions can have. I don't think the Monastic Option can save the US, but if it's a path you personally wish to follow, I would say Go for it.

(See below for continuation of this post.)

9:44 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Finally, as to the "elders" of our society: I do feel it's endgame for the U.S., and that it is simply too late for us to solve our problems, and that that is simply a fact of the life of empires. This is hardly a rant; it's the conclusion I came to after reading tons of literature on the history of empires. There is no example of an empire that, in its twilight phase, realized what it was doing, went into self-correction mode, and avoided disintegration. Just the opposite: it accelerated the downward trajectory, and Obama is a perfect example of this. However, I'm not your typical "elder" in this regard: most of them are, in fact, optimistic--it's the American way. So you don't have to bother with me, if you don't want. Noam Chomsky believes the American people are somehow rational, and that if we get this nasty capitalist regime out of the way, we'll evolve into socialism. Michael Moore believes in a populist strata that can rise up, once the wool is removed from their eyes. Most American critics (the folks at The Nation are a good example) hold out hope for a 'progressive' future; they are hardly in the Berman camp. I think their hopes are little more than clutching at straws, but if you want to feel better about the American future, their books are on the library shelves as well. (Frankly, I'm amazed that mine are at all!)

Anyway, I hope this answers your questions, and I appreciate your writing in. I also appreciate your deep frustration over the situation we are in. Personally, I believe that (individual) liberation can come from knowing the truth, and that if the truth is not a happy one, there is still some relief to being in touch with it--as many readers of my work have written me. Knowing the score, so to speak, is its own reward.


9:45 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

I grew up in England and have lived in the States since 1992. The vast majority of my time has been spent in and around the Washington DC area. This is an account of an experience that i had when driving 'very carefully' into a metro parking lot.

"I am astounded by the sheer friendliness of people in the DC area. For example, as i was driving into the metro station parking lot, a lady coming from the opposite direction shouted 'Fucking Asshole' and just in case i hadn't heard it the first time, repeated it again with perfect enunciation. I was having a really bad day. Thanks, polite lady for making me feel so much better."

I did want to talk about a positive experience i had recently at a restaurant in Northern Virginia. I walked into the place and ordered a cheeseburger and fries. I planned to take it home so i wandered around some of the other shops until my food was ready. When i came back the girl behind the counter said "Here is your pizza" and then quickly corrected herself and apologized for making the mistake. She said she was really tired after working really long shifts all weekend. I used to work in a restaurant as well and mentioned this to her and said don't worry about it. She then put my food into a bag walked around the counter and placed it directly into my hands with a smile on her face. I was only buying a little lunch but i felt so much better after this experience, perhaps because it doesn't happen too often.

11:37 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

A. M. Smith,

Oh, man, you do have my sympathy! It's all too easy to note further signs of decay & collapse -- not a day goes by that I don't see or hear about dozens of 'em -- but I hate it. I hate being pessimistic, I hate having nothing but bad news. And most of all, I hate having nothing better than that to offer to someone younger, more hopeful, still looking for a glimpse of something positive.

Because there's still a part of my mind that says, "Hey, things can still turn around, who knows what unexpected event could trigger a massive change for the better." I really want to believe that. I'm essentially optimistic by temperament, and I'm aware of how much beauty & wonder there is in the world.

But I think MB is basically right.

Your idea of a sort of secular monasticism is one I've considered. It's quite possible that we'll see more communal homes in the future, out of sheer economic necessity; if so, like-minded people would tend to live together in them.

I imagine that even as Rome was steadily eroding, there were those who saw it, knew nothing cold be done, but continued to live civilized lives as best they could. NMIs, of course. Perhaps there'll be webs of such individuals in America's future, connected to one another even if they seldom meet face to face -- though that's preferable, whenever possible. A virtual community can never be as strong as an actual one, I fear.

We take civilized life for granted, even now, and don't like to consider just how terribly fragile it really is, how easily torn beyond repair. And how many would do so deliberately & gleefully.

I want to think about this a bit more ...

12:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're not alone in your desire to escape the prevailing culture. I'm a 26-yo agnostic American who would join a secular monastery if there were such a thing. (Have you ever thought about starting one?) On a sidenote, you might enjoy Anathem by Neal Stephenson, which portrays one vision of secular monasticism.


Thanks for writing this diary. I see something similarly rude pretty much every time I go out in public. But I'm not so convinced it's an American thing. I spent a summer (admittedly a short time) in Geneva, and while life in general felt more civilized, from young people I got the same hostile vibe I get in America. And recently I asked a Chinese friend (who grew up in China) whether she thought people were
more polite in China or America. She said Americans had much better manners and that it was a stupid question!

Could the decline in civility have more to do with corporatization and technology (forces which emanate from America but reach everywhere with time) than with the American psyche? If so, that would bode badly for the idea of
"escape by emmigration" (which I consider from time to time).

6:00 PM  
Blogger Jasonlivessince1980 said...

Dr. Berman,

That notion they gave you there of "vibrant solutions" gave me a chuckle because it sounds like something you'd hear from politicians, who of course are busy implementing all kinds of vibrant solutions for fixing social security, medicare, the $13 trillion dollar national debt... yeah I think we are way past the point where people are going to solve this mess, no matter how "vibrant" their solutions are. Maybe "Hope" and "Change" and more political correctness? Ah well, maybe the quicker the collapse, the better.

7:25 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Friends,

Well, I'm really enjoying this discussion; lots of different feelings and opinions, quite obviously. Meanwhile, I just logged on and the note indicated "3 comments"; which I then clicked on, and they disappeared! So if you just wrote in and didn't get posted, it means you were among those 3 lost comments. Por favor, post again!


9:05 PM  
Blogger A. M. Smith said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

10:40 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

A.M.,and other young restless readers...

Have you considered one of the intentional communities? There are hundreds of them in the U.S. and many more in other countries. They publish directories and many are looking for more members.

Urban, rural, religious, secular, every focus imaginable. Check out Gaviotas in the Colombian Llanos. Fascinating project.

11:55 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Mr. Smith-

OK, I guess I won't mind you. You do have to grow up a bit, I fear. You insist that I'm ranting; I guess I can't really help you with that. I should tell you, however, that my mood is hardly one of bitterness and exhaustion. There is something invigorating about seeing things clearly, and I very much enjoy getting up every morning. Wish I could pass some of that on to you.

Studying Oprah as a cultural icon is hardly a waste of time; you might read Janice Peck's book before you pass judgment. The subject is hardly trivial, as she is the tip of the iceberg of an entire culture gone wrong, and powerfully molded by the wave of neoliberal economics that began with the Reagan presidency. In that same vein I would also recommend "Bright-Sided," by Barbara Ehrenreich. You need to expand your horizons a bit, amigo.

As far as an actual, physical secular monastery goes, I don't know if such places exist. The sixties did see a rash of "urban communes"; Steve Gaskin is still running The Farm, I believe; but you could also try to start one on your own. Why not? It would keep you busy for a few years, and if that's where your energy is, I'd encourage you to pursue it. You'd rant less, enjoy life more.

Good luck-


12:32 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mr. Smith,

Well, I think there might be a computer glitch on this blog all of a sudden. I did post your latest message, and then my response to it. Looks like the response got posted, and the message didn't. Which is what happened to the 3 other disappearing messages earlier this evening. Damn! Sorry about that. You might try a re-send, if you've still got it.


12:47 AM  
Blogger A. M. Smith said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4:16 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman and AE Smith,

Following your discussion with interest reminded me of a book I read about 35 years ago, The Devil Rides Outside. The title was based on a French proverb: "the devil rides outside monastery walls". I don't hear a rant in your posts--what I do hear is frustration and a genuine desire to find a life of purpose, even if it's lived in isolation. Believe it or not, you're approaching this the right way by reading, questioning and having the courage to challenge what you consider to be weaknesses in author's writings or positions (sorry, Dr. Berman). But I agree very much with Dr. Berman on this point--the more we see things as they are and not as we wish them to be, the more peace we have and it doesn't result in despair but the beginning of wisdom. I've worked in mental health for twenty years and began with an Oprah-like faith therapy for all, etc, etc. What I see now is quite a few well intentioned people who help "the patients" (who in reality are no different than us)the most (if at all) by not pretending we have any answers, only the ability to relate to each other as fellow human beings. We've been sold the fairy tale that positive affirmations and thinking can be substitute for acknowledging how hard it is to live a life that makes sense. You've realized this even at your young age and painful as it is, you're on the right track.

8:22 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mr. Smith et al.-

1st, there does seem to be some sort of computer glitch here. For example, Dave sent a short message regarding existence of intentional communities across the US, for you to check out. I posted it, but it failed to show up. So I don't know exactly what's happening here. (Dave, you might try again; sorry about this strange mess.)

As for your barrage of messages, I posted two of them; one made it thru. The rest I deleted because of a length policy I have on this blog: one page at most. This is a blog for people to exchange views about things (mostly, the current state of the US), not to vent or go on in extenso. I appreciate your seeking guidance with regard to your frustrations; I think a couple of folks here, as well as myself, have tried to help you as best we can. But I tend to eschew contributors who are into tirades, even if I sympathize with them. So, I just wasn't up to publishing a number of long messages from you; two more seemed enough.

Meanwhile, I really would recommend you pursue Dave's suggestion (hopefully he'll write again, and it'll post) regarding the exploration of intentional communities. I do think that would be a good outlet for your formidable energies.

All the best,

8:27 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

ps: It looks like the computer glitch I'm experiencing is some sort of delay in posting. Your comment that I asked you to re-send did come thru--twice! And Dave's finally made it onto the screen as well. So perhaps we didn't lose to much, though I'm finding this recent screw-up kind of annoying. Thanks to everyone for your patience.

8:32 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Susan,

Thanks for your contribution, as usual. What seems to be happening now is that the post doesn't follow chronological sequence; it just lands up wherever. But yours did appear without delay, at least.

8:39 AM  
Anonymous Art said...

A.M. Smith,

No need to apologize for your "rant". Letters like yours jazz things up and keep everybody honest. I'm glad you clarified (defended) your statements about Oprah and secular monasteries; I don't think MB read your first post carefully enough.

Following up on Dave's suggestion about intentional communities, you may try hooking up with an Ecovillage. See the Wikipedia entry, and click on "Ecovillage Directory". And when you find a good place, save a spot for me!

11:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there's another aspect of the issue that's worth studying:

Sometimes kids in this country are acting extremely rude and cruel because that's how our educational system and parenting styles are reacting to THEM.

Morris Berman, I heavily recommend you study the works of Henry Giroux, who has extensively studied this aspect of the problem.

We now live in a culture where little kids can be taken out of schools and handcuffed and sent to the police station for very minor infractions.

We now live in a culture where small children can be shipped off to institutions that torture them (they are ostensibly called "rehabilitation centers" like the Judge Rosenberg center that uses electroshock therapy to treat autism, which should say something about American culture) in order to curb their "unruliness."

We now live in a culture where a child can be sued for sexual harassment for playing tag with another kid.

Giroux explains this better than I can, but maybe young people are acting cruel because of a self-fulfilling prophecy on our part. We constantly raise them in a "Police state" where they are treated like delinquents for the crime of challenging authority, even when authority is absolutely wrong (as you've written in Dark Ages America).

So is it any wonder that young people are learning to copy our behavior rude behavior, when we overreact to their slightest missteps with prison, torture, abuse? Of course they're becoming delinquents. We constantly treat young people as though they're something to be feared, as Henry Giroux has explained in his articles about youth. Now that's what they've actually become.

I think you're so focused on the cruelty of young people, their "outward behavior," that you yourself sometimes fail to see the underlying causes, that it's because in the United States, we're the ones cruel to them a lot of the time, and then they imitate us and become carbon copies of the way we behave.

This could provide the explanation you seek for the suspicious manner in which young people react to jokes you note in the Mean Girls movie; it's because young people are increasingly raised in environments of constant threats, so young people are constantly expecting others around them to wish to inflict harm. And then young people react to this by constantly seeking harm to others, thus continuing the cycle.

This is another way to "see things as they are," as you put it, another way to study the complexities of the problem that most people miss.

4:45 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


I think you're right. So much of our culture trains a child from birth to be a subject of the Authority State -- including the parents, who hover & worry so much, who dread seeing their child potentially lag behind, so that they simultaneously push too hard & cling too much at the same time.

It also has a lot to do with the "selfism" that Meyer explores in "Why We Hate Us." What passes for individualism in America, really isn't -- not the sort of self-confident individualism that isn't threatened by the group, and so can work comfortably with the group. To say nothing of sharing greater goals beyond his/her own needs & desires.

We focus so much on "self-esteem," yet everything we do to promote it has the opposite effect. We wind up with children who are emotionally underdeveloped, who are driven by fears of what THEY will say, who don't know how to be genuinely self-assured individuals. They have no inner core, so they're constantly on the defensive -- which ironically makes them more aggressive, quicker to attack any potential enemy. They've been raised in a Hobbesian world, which is covered with a shiny sickly sweet gloss of good thoughts & affirmations.

So -- on one hand, a flood of superficial positivism, telling them that they're all way above average & entitled to the best -- on the other hand, the constant threat of failure, fear, disgrace, punishment, and, if necessary, brute force.

And they don't have many (or any) adult models, because the supposed adults are running on that same program: Succeed, be the best, get more, never fail, never show weakness, never trust others, never develop into mature human beings. A recipe for violence.

The late John Holt once said, "Beware the man who feels himself to be a slave. He'll want to make a slave of you, too."

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

I think people of whatever stage in life are just doing the best they can given what they have to work with. This probably isn't saying much but what else can one do? Dr Berman mentions how the US isn't going to become another country. So it's in decline - but there are still people through whatever means (this blog for one - and other types of communities) who are reaching out and at least trying to connect. It's not physical and it won't replace that but it's something. I find some comfort in knowing that I'm not crazy for agreeing with Dr Berman's writings Twilight and DAA among others referenced here and elsewhere. True it's a struggle for any young person growing up in these times but doesn't it seem that every age and society has it's challenges? I remember how carefree things seemed as a kid in the 60's and how everything is so controlled and locked up tight as a drum today...yet there was plenty of tension back then too - so we see kids today seeming to be all tied up in knots... heck the whole country is...when hasn't it been?

I will say that despite it all it is possible to find peace amidst the noise but it does take work. For starters I can't tell you how much of a relief it is just not watching TV.... I just decided one day a couple years ago to turn it off.... (reading certainly entertains the mind like no tube can or ever will)... a walk in nature is also refreshing.... Little things that can apply to a sort of monastic lifestyle which I believe isn't so much a stepping out as a coming into being fully present. I know it sounds New Age but it takes discipline to see the trees for the forest. Anyway, it's one way to just say no to the madness.

Best of luck to Mr Smith in whatever path you choose.

1:13 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Paul,

Well said, and thanks for your contribution. I fear we lost Mr. Smith--a sensitive soul, who felt he was misunderstood or unappreciated and decided to delete his postings (a first on this blog). I do hope he finds or creates the secular monastery he is looking for.

But I'm very glad he parachuted in for a brief moment, because his cri de coeur highlights the frustration of the (very) small percentage of young Americans who do understand that the country has no future and don't know where that leaves them. As readers of this blog know, I seriously counsel emigration, because what will be left for Mr. Smith and his cohort 40 years from now? Nothing, in terms of social safety net or larger national purpose (beyond making money and being 'successful'); no one intelligent to talk to (the film 'Idiocracy' pegs this pretty well); and a nation embroiled in stupid, phony wars, a hollowed-out empire, a shell of its former self. And at home, a distribution of wealth similar to that of Brazil's, with impoverished masses and gated communities; and a rhetoric of 'democracy' in the context of a surveillance state and a two-party system in which the two parties are indistinguishable. Basically, what we've already got, only worse.

However, the NMI 'solution', while personal and individual, is at least something--it means that meaning can be found locally, and as you point out, it's still worth doing. For me, the idea of the New Monastic Option is to keep alive the concept of a way of life that is the opposite of that of the dominant culture, which is basically absurd and self-destructive. That 99% of the country applauds it, thinks it's the best way of life on the planet, is certainly reason enough to emigrate; but also, if that is one's choice, to stay and cultivate the alternatives, and to try and make contact with those of similar mind. I think the root fear or frustration of young people in Mr. Smith's category, and older Americans as well, is the inability to swallow this bitter pill: that those are the only two options left. What is *not* an option is to turn this country around, make it a caring, intelligent place instead of a stupid and violent one. One might better spend one's time trying to turn around an aircraft carrier in a bathtub. But I do believe that for the tiny minority capable of swallowing that pill, digesting it, the possibilities for personal freedom, at least, are quite large.

Thanks again for writing.

6:57 AM  
Anonymous Paul said...

Dr Berman,

Thanks for the encouragement with the NMI perspective.

As a young teen in the 60's I can certainly relate to the idealism of any young person today who may be struggling with what the future holds and feeling helpless and hopeless. What to do... no easy answers I'm afraid. Welcome to the new millenium... would you care for the blue pill or the red one?

4:40 PM  
Anonymous John from IN said...

"...Oprah, one of the greatest douche bags in American history"

MB, please tell me that is the title of one of your new essays!

Don't forget that when you gab on the phone in the coffee shop you must have a brand new paperback next to your laptop, spine out of course, so that everyone can see what you're "reading"!

America has come full-circle, again a colony of the global hegemon. It's no wonder we are a defeated populace obsessed with marketing ourselves into the global elite. It's no wonder we maintain the constant pall of phoniness; could we really accept the reality?

8:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can tell everyone this much: if you emigrate to another country, pick the Scandinavian countries, or Italy, or Mexico or Brazil or China, but don't pick Japan if you wish to move.

While Japanese society differs from Americans in many ways, there are also (in very recent years, admittedly) very disturbing, growing trends in Japanese society to blame the miserable for their own plight, just like in America, and efforts at censoring any violence and cruelty in its past, just like in America.

For example, there is a MASSIVE bullying problem in Japanese schools for children, and in Japan if you're bullied in school it's all your fault.

For another example, now the Japanese are virtually copying American dialogue in their indigenous newspapers that if people are poor, it's their fault for being lazy, and there is no reason for anyone to complain.

The Japanese have different attitudes, they're unlikely to complain about this state of affairs because of this emphasis on harmony, and they're unlikely to take a gun to work and shoot anyone if they have no houses or food to eat, which Morris Berman would appreciate given his recent article on violence...but in some ways that's even WORSE, because it means in Japan people don't even have the ILLUSION that people have some moral right not to go through life starving to death. So Morris Berman may admire Japan for its lack of violence, but that's only "surface behavior," the underlying cause is because the Japanese have been taught not to complain if their human rights are being violated, since it would be too "shameful."

For more insight on this, especially for Morris Berman who is already fond of Rabindranath Tagore anyway, read the correspondence between Yone Noguchi and Rabindranath Tagore on the Sino-Japanese Conflict, which were written in 1988.

So I would not recommend Japan as a place to "emigrate to," in today's times it just seems to be imitating much of America's cruelty.

10:57 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Thank you for your recent posts, and congratulations on your library degree. I still think it might be a good idea to get out a bit, get some fresh air.


10:52 AM  
Blogger Karen van Hoek said...

Hi! I'm a bit uncomfortable with the fact that my first comment will be essentially "I don't get it..." because by and large, I'm astounded by how your books and the articles and comments on this blog seem to pinpoint What's Wrong. I'm 48 and continually have the feeling that I grew up in a different world than the one we're living in now; why I feel that way is no mystery to those who read this blog. I agree with the criticisms of the people talking on cell phones in the grocery store, etc. But I don't quite get what's rude about bringing a laptop to a cafe. I often bring a spiral notebook to the cafe and write longhand, but sometimes I'd rather work on my writing by typing it in, or I want to do graphic art on my laptop. I sincerely want to understand what the problem is, so I can change the way I use the laptop or grasp why I shouldn't bring it to the cafe. Is it the tapping noise from the keyboard? I can imagine that could be a huge problem if the cafe is the kind of place where you can even hear the tapping; I could focus on just doing the graphic design, using the mouse -- then there's no tapping -- but I can imagine the mere presence of the laptop would encourage other people to feel it's OK to bring a laptop and clatter away. Is it the problem of people taking up tables for hours on one cup of coffee? (I tend to go through my coffee quickly and buy more.) Is it that the laptop, with its large screen, just seems more like a barrier between the user and other people than a book held in the hands or a notebook one writes in? In short, I want to understand how bringing a laptop to the cafe is more offensive than the older practice of bringing a book and a spiral notebook. You may well convince me not to do it anymore, but it isn't yet obvious to me.

2:34 PM  
Blogger Karen van Hoek said...

p.s. After my last comment, I can already begin to imagine some ways in which a laptop seems different than a notebook -- it seems more like its own self-contained world, and may feel more as if the individual has brought a whole collection of activities and media that can absorb the person -- more like bringing one's own television set to a cafe than like bringing a notebook. Hmm. It's interesting to think about. I can't help thinking of the "yes, but..." examples, though. Not long ago I read a comment on another blog by a woman who pulled out her laptop to show her friend pictures of her baby, and was ordered out of the cafe immediately because the cafe had a strict No Laptop policy. (Not ordered to put the laptop away, mind, which she was willing to do -- although she couldn't see the harm in showing her friend pictures on a laptop -- but told simply to leave.) So in this case, the laptop was to be used as part of socializing with another real live human being, and it's hard to see what the harm would have been (though I'm still working on grasping the harm in general, so I may simply be insensitive in these cases); if it's true that laptops are generally a detriment to the ambience of a cafe, though, then perhaps it's not possible to make exceptions for uses that support rather than impede social contact.

2:47 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Karen,

You've already listed a number of factors that are relevant; I would add that the screen sucks people in in a very private and antisocial way, the way a book never did. (Past tense intentional here.) Another factor is that it changes the ambience to one of business, because that is probably 95% of the usage. In other words, whereas cafes were formerly to relax, take a break from life, read newspapers or talk quietly with friends, now they are simply part of the corporate-commercial apparatus of the Consumer Society. No refuges any more: we're all in the Matrix. By and large, electronic devices are the death not only of a whole way of life, but ultimately of the human spirit (baby pics notwithstanding).

That being said, it makes no difference whether you bring yer laptop or not, because the death I speak of is the wave of the future. Nothing can stop it, as far as I can see. I personally don't carry my laptop around, and I don't own a cell phone because I regard them as rude and socially destructive (as well as extremely addictive); but my personal preferences are neither here nor there, obviously trivial in the larger scheme of things.

Thanks for writing.


5:54 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I came across a quote by the late Phil Ochs which applies to this ongoing discussion:

"It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles. The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win. Even though you can't expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That's morality. That's religion. That's art. That's life."

I understand the hunger to do something, change things, turn this country from its rendezvous with doom. Why struggle if you're not going to accomplish any of that? What good is it?

The good is found in how you live your life, and what you pass on, I think. It may seem futile, useless ... but it may also be a seed that flowers long after you're gone, who knows?

That's the kicker, isn't it? We can't know. He can only hope, and live as we ought to live, despite the absurdity & crassness around us.

Where does civilization ultimately reside? In the civilized human being. So what can we do with our lives & hopes & energy? Strive to be civilized.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Karen van Hoek said...


I like your comment. In a comment I added that I think disappeared into the electronic ether, I said I'm going to stop taking my laptop to cafes, as a result of the discussion above. It doesn't matter if my little action fails to turn things around on a national scale; I want to do what I can to resist the barbarian tide in my own life, and that includes reflecting on ways that I've unwittingly gone with the flow and making changes. Maybe it'll have no effect at all, or maybe it'll at least make things more pleasant for people sitting near me in the cafe.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Karen,

Just a note to say that I did publish your follow-up comment, or at least tried to, but apparently it failed to post. This does happen sometimes, and recently the blog has been just a tad squirrelly. My apologies. Thanks again for writing in.


7:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr Berman,

I cannot help but wonder if perhaps part of your disdain for the behavior of the salaried workers you dealt with during your trip to the US is a result of you having become accustomed to the subservient attitudes displayed by Mexicans in comparable positions.
Is it possible you unconsciously internalized the expectations of the "patrón," to be treated in a deferential manner?

What you describe as the "rudeness" you encountered in the US sounds much like the behavior of Italian waiters, shop clerks, bureaucrats, and so on. If you would not make the same criticisms about Italy that you make for the US, please explain to me the difference.

Also -- It seems to me that teenagers in many countries tend to treat the world as if it were their private room, putting their feet up on the walls, talking and playing music loudly, sprawling across seats and aisles, dressing in ways their elders find horrifying, and so on. Testing the limits. Perhaps that is not true in highly formal and tradition-bound countries such as Japan, but would you choose to have your children grow up under those strictures?

By the way, I value good manners, civic education and social decorum greatly. If I am treated poorly by a waiter, I will tip accordingly and perhaps not return to that establishment. One time, when a waiter was particularly surly, I complained to the restaurant manager and wrote a comment on the restaurant's copy of the bill. If a taxi driver tries to overcharge me, I do exactly what you did, and I have done so in many countries, including the US and Mexico. If someone is talking so loudly that it disturbs me, unless they look like they might punch me, I at least let them know that their communication is not private, in the hope they will then lower their voice. And, like you, if I have many experiences of that sort, I form an opinion about that place based on the treatment I received. But I do not know if it correct to generalize to an entire society, even though we all tend to do so.

Thank you for considering my comments.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

A facile analysis, I think. The trouble with it is that what I describe in the article holds for my life in the US prior to moving to Mexico, and which has gotten only worse (in the US) since then--as Dick Meyer's book amply demonstrates. This kind of offensive behavior was practically daily fare during 1998-2006, the years I lived in Washington, DC. Despite my lack of Mexican experience, I found it quite grotesque.

The difference between the US and Italy is the density of the behavior, the ubiquitousness of it. I lived in Canada for many years, Germany for one, England for three, Mexico now for four, and have traveled rather extensively throughout Europe and Latin America. Yes, rude behavior exists everywhere, no doubt about it. But the sheer volume of it, the frequency, seems to be a market the US has captured. As in everything else (or so we like to think), we're No. 1. And as far as I can make out, this includes teenage behavior as well...although the American "cool" attitude has spread, like a cancer, to other countries, no question about it.

Coming back again to Dick Meyer, "Why We Hate Us" might be a useful book for you to read at this point.

Thanks for writing in,

2:41 PM  
Blogger sgage said...

I gave up hope for a changed and sensible USA a long time ago. I continue to try and be as polite, cheerful, and "civilized" as is practical, within the bounds of prudence (because I have an aversion to being hassled). But I think of our "culture" as a kind of juggernaut, and the best thing to do is just step out of the way.

I think of it maybe as sort of "bearing witness", and it has nothing to do with expecting anyone or anything to change. I have core values, and I am going to live them. I'm not out to make a big noise - I just want to meet everyone on as friendly a basis as I can. It works surprisingly well.

When the barista or the cashier at the supermarket or whatever doesn't make eye contact, and is seeming rude and such, say something! Say something like "what a day, huh?". You'd be surprised at the thaw that simple line can produce. I'm a 54-year-old guy, and this works just fine with younger folks, male or female. It's simply a non-threatening way of saying that you recognize them as a person. Which, of course, I do.

This is not some moral effort or anything like that. It's just the only way I can live without being totally exhausted, emotionally, spiritually, or whatever you want to call it.

We are a lot more alike than we are different, if you can just notice it. It's amazing the different types of people you can not only get along with, but enjoy being with. Again, sometimes prudence dictates just backing off.

This doesn't mean that civility in the US ain't going down the toilet, but you can maintain your own TAZ in your daily life. This is my practice.

(TAZ = Temporary Autonomous Zone)

3:33 PM  
OpenID sptc said...

The TAZ is a good idea.

Interesting: in the US I'm on edge because of the tendency of people to be invasive / make invasive comments. There's a lot of projection and a lot of one upmanship, a lot of pushing on peoples' boundaries. I'm not sure where that comes from but it's quite classically abusive.

Since that behavior is considered OK, my first instinct is always to hit back - perhaps because at some level I know a call to politness wouldn't be grocked... HMMMM.

3:15 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear sptc-

The problem for gringos is that they swim in that water, so they don't even notice it. For various reasons, I did, when I lived in the US, and that was one of the reasons I left. The place where that behavior really stands out, and clearly shows itself for what it is, is outside the US, e.g. in Mexico. Watching gringos here--whether tourists or permanent residents--behave like they are still in L.A. is more painful than I can describe. At one point I was collecting notes on such incidents for an article on the subject, but finally the list became too long to continue. Perhaps a video might be better, more dramatic: "Payasos on Parade."


11:22 AM  
OpenID profacero said...

P.S. the idea of the intentional communities isn't half bad; it used to seem fringe-y to me but now we're in an eco-disaster in the Gulf and moving to an eco-village seems like the only rational response!

2:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr Berman,

your American diary is highly enlightening but let me be straightforward, you are REALLY overestimating the Europeans (I'm French). What you write is relevant to the West at large, I think. But the fact remains it is spot on.

Congratulations for your work which I greatly appreciate.


1:24 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

J-D mon cher,

Thank you for writing. Yes, there are shmucks (cons) everywhere, but I believe the shmuck density is highest in the US, and that there are substantive historical and economic reasons for this. Check out "Europe's Promise," by Steven Hill, and you'll get an idea of what I'm talking about. You know, when I walk around London or Paris or Berlin, I can't say these cities are especially friendly; but I don't feel the need to steel myself from interference, conflict, and outright aggression, which is so common on the streets of Washington and San Francisco. And all of this is substantiated statistically: data on homicide in the US, propensity for violence, attitudes toward strangers as indicated by various polls, etc. etc.


7:56 PM  
OpenID profacero said...

And (at least in my experience) Washington and SF are a couple of the friendlier US cities...

10:28 PM  

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