October 25, 2010

Super Sad Love Story

Maybe there really is a zeitgeist floating around. Some time ago, I posted an article on this website entitled “How Chic Was My Progress,” depicting an end-of-empire scenario in which everything was going to hell in a basket, but nobody was that concerned because they had some state-of-the-art laptop or cellphone into which they could stare or talk, thereby feeling that all was right with the world. At the same time that I was writing this, give or take, the Russian-American author Gary Shteyngart was putting the finishing touches on his spectacular novel, Super Sad True Love Story, in which precisely that scenario plays out in the United States. In his version, Americans are on their digital screen device—“apparat” (umlauts over the a’s)—24/7, except when they are sleeping. Relationships of any kind, whether with a book or another human being, are pretty much passé; the screen, along with mass consumerism, has become a total world. In many ways, SSTLS reads like the fictionalized version of my last two books, The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America. I knocked it off in two days, but it was an eerie read.

My own vision of the collapse of America is based on the Roman Empire model, which is one of slow disintegration. Sure, there are “nodes” that punctuate the process, such as 9/11 or the crash of 2008, but all in all one day is pretty much like the next, another step on a downhill slide. Not so for Shteyngart. Given his Russian background, he sees the U.S. following the Soviet pattern, in which a long period of decay issues out into a period of outright collapse, with the economy/society/culture imploding almost overnight. In SSTLS, the dollar is basically worthless, with the Chinese yuan becoming the de facto currency of the country. China effectively owns the United States, in this scenario, as Americans scramble just to survive (cafés have names like “Povertea,” and grocery stores sport signs saying “We accept only yuan sorry”). The government has tried everything—“privatization, deprivatization, savings stimulus, spending stimulus, regulation, deregulation, pegged currency, floating currency, controlled currency, uncontrolled currency, more tariffs, less tariffs”—and the net result is zero. The nation “is no longer critically relevant to the world economy. The rest of the globe is strong enough to decouple from us. We, our country, our city, our infrastructure, are in a state of freefall.” Meanwhile the U.S. is, of course, engaged in another phony war, this time with Venezuela; except that in this case, it is clearly losing, as Venezuelan warships make their way up the Potomac. Human relationships are completely commercial, with Americans constantly using their apparati to calculate the “fuckability” of potential partners. If the novel is an absorbing read, it is also a bleak one, as the citizenry finally tries to escape to Canada or return to the land from which they originally emigrated. The most depressing aspect of the book is that much of what the author describes is already with us; the endgame feels like it’s only fifteen to twenty years away.

A few additional quotes might provide a more vivid portrait. The central character, Lenny Abramov (Shteyngart’s obvious alter ego), is returning to New York from Rome, where he spent a year escaping the United States. He is doing something unusual for an American: reading a book (Chekhov, appropriately enough). People on the plane are staring at him; the young man next to him says, “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.” Abramov records in his diary: “As the passengers returned to their flickering displays, I took out my apparat and began to thump it loudly with my finger to show how much I loved all things digital, while sneaking nervous glances at the throbbing cavern around me, the wine-dulled business travelers lost to their own electronic lives.” Lenny reflects on the life of one of his friends, Noah, now a trendy broadcaster of meaningless information, but prior to that someone who actually thought about things. “His personal decline,” Lenny writes in his diary, “paralleled that of our culture and state. Before the publishing industry folded, he had published a novel, one of the last that you could actually go out and buy in a Media store.” (Books are now popularly referred to as “doorstops,” inasmuch as that is seen as the only thing they are good for.) Sitting with Noah and a few other “Media” friends in a bar, Lenny and his mates talk about the latest disaster in the Venezuelan war (being managed by a Cheney-like character named Rubenstein, the Secretary of State); the near-collapse of a major credit bank (subsequently bailed out by the Fed); their shrinking stock portfolios; and “the fact that, like most Americans, we would probably lose our jobs soon and be thrown out onto the streets to die.”

A bit later, Noah has Lenny on his TV program, trying to get him to say whether he is sleeping with Eunice, the Korean-American girl he’s been dating. “I know we’re living in Rubenstein’s America,” says Lenny. “But doesn’t that just make us even more responsible for each other’s fates? I mean, what if Eunice and I just said ‘no’ to all this…What if we just went home and read books to each other?” Noah responds:

“Oh God…You just halved my viewer load. You’re killing me here, Abramov…Okay, folks we’re streaming live here in Rubenstein’s America, zero hour for our economy, zero hour for our military might, zero hour for everything that used to make us proud to be ourselves, and Lenny Abramov won’t tell us if he fucked this tiny Asian chick.” As it turns out, the American infrastructure is heading toward zero hour as well. Part of the Williamsburg Bridge collapses, and the government’s response is to put up a sign that says “Together We’ll Repare [sic] This Bridge”.

Looking around the streets of New York, Lenny’s impression is similar to my own, when I last visited the city in May 2010 (see “An American Diary”):

“And the looks on the faces of my countrymen—passive heads bent, arms at their trousers, everyone guilty of not being their best, of not earning their daily bread, the kind of docility I had never expected from Americans, even after so many years of our decline. Here was the tiredness of failure imposed on a country that believed only in its opposite. Here was the end product of our deep moral exhaustion.” As one of Eunice’s Korean friends writes her in a text message, “This country is so stupid. Only spoiled white people could let something so good get so bad.” After things collapse in earnest—officially labeled The Rupture—a taxi driver says to Lenny, “now I see what our government is. Nothing inside! Like wood. You break it open, nothing.” (This parallels my experience of being in Berlin during the time that the Wall came down, and seeing tables set up near the Brandenburg Gate, where small-time entrepreneurs were selling Soviet artefacts, such as commissars' hats and hammer-and-sickle pins, now devoid of any real energy. One can easily imagine such a scenario for American flag pins and iPads.)

Finally, the ether grid breaks down, and the electronic devices to which Americans are enslaved fail to work. This leads to suicides, with people writing departing notes “about how they couldn’t see a future without their apparati.” For one thing, it becomes impossible to buy anything. But the corporations are ready, as always, to capitalize on whatever is going on, The Rupture included. Signs go up in New York with messages such as “Tourism NYC: Are YOU Rupture-Ready?” and “New York Cit-ay Edge: Do U Have What It Takes 2 Survive?” Chic to the end; what can one say? Lenny does, however, manage to escape some of this cultural holocaust, spending time reading—from books—to his girlfriend. “Because we can’t connect to our apparati,” he writes in his diary, “we’re learning to turn to each other.” Lying with her in bed, he thinks, “I wanted this complex language, this surge of intellect, to be processed into love. Isn’t that how they used to do it a century ago, people reading poetry to one another?” (He’s not exactly representative of the rest of the country, needless to say.) Eunice, who is fifteen years younger than Lenny, tells him: “I never really learned how to read texts. Just to scan them for info.” He replies: “People just aren’t meant to read anymore. We’re in a post-literate age…How many years after the fall of Rome did it take for a Dante to appear?” Eunice eventually gets a job selling wristbands featuring “avant-garde representations of decapitated Buddhas and the words RUPTURE NYC” for two thousand yuan a pop.

Meanwhile, the government-corporate plan is to rebuild New York as a kind of “Lifestyle Hub” for the elite, the very wealthy, while the rest of the nation will be carved up by a group of foreign sovereign wealth funds. China may “get” New Jersey, for example, but apparently Norway and Saudi Arabia are interested as well. Order will be maintained by a private security company, playing the role of the former National Guard. And with this, the curtain falls.

Ezra Pound once remarked that artists were the “antennae” of the human race, but that the “bullet-headed majority” would never learn to trust them. We shall, of course, ignore Gary Shteyngart; that goes without saying. Which is a great pity: I have yet to find a more canny, intuitive, and yet, oddly enough, entertaining, description of America’s final days.

(c) Morris Berman, 2010


Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I'd heard good things about this novel; now I definitely want to read it. Though as you say, it probably won't seem nearly as fantastic as some would undoubtedly still like to believe ...

I turned on the morning news for the local weather this morning. In the wake of the latest Wikileaks release, detailing torture & murder condoned, aided & abetted by US forces in Iraq, among the major stories I saw featured was: Snooki of "The Jersey Shore" hasn't had sex in 3 months, but she may get her own spinoff show -- the NY Daily News' article about her was entitled "No Nookie For Snooki," in fact.

Yep, vital news of the day, folks!

I'm sure we all know people who simply would not know what to do with themselves if they were without cellphone, iPod/Pad, or Internet access for more than 15-20 minutes or so.

Yesterday I came across an Amazon reviewer who stated flat out, "i dont read books period, theyre too damn boring" (sic). I'm quite sure he's far from alone!

11:04 AM  
Blogger ryan kloostra said...

Dr. Berman, thank you so much for your post. I've been led to believe that nearly all empires finally fall apart due to economic reasons (maybe it's not true and economic reasons are more measurable and obvious, so it's been recorded as such). Could you please respond? And if this IS true, doesn't the Soviet style of collapse seem much more probable in our current world of interdependency, currencies backed by nothing, and a consumer economy made up of people who really don't know how to do anything?

I recently read Empire of Illusion at your recommendation and I look forward to SSTLS also.

Thank you for all that you do.

ryan g. kloostra

12:19 PM  
Blogger relmuche said...


First a Super Happy and though much older Love Story told by Idries Shah, that still applies to the USA as well as to all of us:
“A king had two sons. The first helped the people by working for them in a manner they understood. The second was called ‘Lazy’ because he was a dreamer, as far as anyone could see.
The first son gained great honours in his land. The second obtained from a humble carpenter a wooden horse and sat astride it. But the horse was a magical one. It carried the rider, if he was sincere, to his heart’s desire.
Seeking his heart’s desire, the young prince disappeared one day on the horse. He was absent a long time. After many adventures he returned with a beautiful princess from the Country of Light, and his father was overjoyed at his safe return and listened to the story of the magic horse.
The horse was made available to anyone who wanted it in that country. But many people preferred the obvious benefits which the actions of the first prince provided for them because to them the horse always looked like a plaything. They did not get beyond the outer appearance of the horse, which was not impressive – just like a plaything.
When the old king died, the ‘prince who liked to play with toys’ became, by his wish, the king. But people in general despised him. They much preferred the excitement and interest of the discoveries and activities of the practical prince.
Unless we listen to the ‘lazy’ prince, whether he has a princess from the Country of Light with him or not, we shall not get beyond the outer appearance of the horse. Even if we like the horse, it is not its outward shape which can help us travel to our destination.”

Second the proposed moral of my Super Happy and much older Love Story:
• The two brothers of the story are both part of our very nature but the King is always the Dreamer within us.
• The paradox is that Our Second Prince can only Dream while Awake, and we prefer the excitement and interest of the discoveries and activities of our first practical prince, while asleep.

Therefore, the Big Question seems to be:
How to Wake your People Up on time, before doom’s day?

1:04 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Not sic, but sick.


The best argument I've seen for the economic factor is Joseph Tainter on the collapse of complex societies. He spends a lot of time running down alternative theories, such as Spengler. Myself, I rarely believe in singular explanations for complex events; it's just too unlikely. Besides, why can't both Spengler (or Toynbee) and Tainter be correct? You have an economic crunch, but at the same time there is a loss of faith, a failure of the central Idea that is holding the civilization together. Plus other factors as well (in our case, the very destructive role of technology, for example).


There will be no awakening in the US. I refer you again to the Nader/Kucinich factor, which is about 1% of the population. When you've got nearly 310 million morons deciding the nation's fate (and I suspect this is the largest collection of dolts to inhabit a single geographical space in the history of the world), the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Shteyngart doesn't call them idiots because he doesn't have to; he just shows you how they behave and what they think (cf. Dick Meyer). This is why he, no less than I, believes there is no avoiding doomsday. Dolts Rule!--never forget it.


4:14 PM  
Anonymous REO Spudwagon said...

Spengler? Toynbee? Tainter?

Dr. Berman, add to your pantheon Sir John Glubb (a.k.a "Glubb Pasha").

This is an amazing read: http://www.arlev.co.uk/glubb/index.htm

Note his spot-on prediction (from 1978) on the USSR (p.16) - it puts Dmitry Orlov to shame.

4:33 PM  
Blogger relmuche said...


If no Awakening of the USA People is Envisioned:

How many of those millions of morons you claim to inhabit the USA, are fully trained, eager and stupid enough to launch sufficient nuclear bombs to "fight terror" and defend to the bitter end, their empty and unsustainable way of living?

Because those few elite morons will really be deciding the fate of the world....

As for the rest, they will either become revolutionaries or stay on their balanced diet of junk food and circus....

How sad....

5:09 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


As early as 2002 or 3 I formulated 3 crucial 'rules', which I sent out to various friends, for understanding what life was like in the US. Today, they seem more relevant than ever; in fact, I'm very proud of them. Instead of the Da Vinci Code, we should call them the Dolt Code. As follows:

1. The dolts are on the march.
2. There are (very) many more of them than there are of you.
3. If they are in power, they will hurt you.


5:54 PM  

Hola Mauricio:

Here in Chile probably US’s number one neo-liberal fan, some weeks ago a very interesting TV comercial came out. I’ve always seen Chile designing a kind of japanese minimalistic consumer prototipe, that gives all this tecnological conditioners of laptop’s and cell phones a kind of purist liberating scenario, mixing these “aparatos” as if they had no effect with our perception of nature and it’s beautifull soroundings or people contact. Well the comercial is about a guy that is talking to himself, about the way he doesn´t believe in tecnological bull-shit and so on, while he starts walking with a nap sack into an open desert. Finally he takes out a kinf of beach chair and obviously his lap top, put’s it on his lap, and starts looking at the starry sky but with the skreen reflection showing he has internet coverage. I remembered Giordano Bruno’s solitary experience of being in an open desert at night and feeling liberated in some way with space and conecting with “lo inmenso” (don’t like the word infinity, too new age for me). The thing I point out here is: ¿is that lap top this guy took for a ride, neutral to this existential experience he could have lived? Obviusly not, and that’s the absurd thing about thinking all this tecnological crap, although it permits me to write to you now, we have to start realizing how they affect every-day relations and make us more and more absorbed by invisible braces, like a zeitgeist floating around as you say. Although the guy in this comercial, is convinced he handles tecnology and kind of show’s of with his super ciber coverage, he is so ver trapped in it. Maybe we will end up runing threw a field (no city) with an “invisible chip” implanted in the neck, feeling free in the wind but really biologically automata.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Neb said...

I read this book after I heard Gary S. interview on radio show "Fresh Air." Upon reading it I thought this guy must have read your books but then again he experienced collapse first hand so he must know it when he sees it. I considered bringing it up a few posts ago but it didn't seem to flow with the conversation at the time and I didn't think then or now that I had, have, the chops to recommend what's cool to read to you (when i'm reading haiku here, I am Euni-tard).

I can't say enough how interesting this book is. Immensely funny in places but ultimately tragic.

The other day my wife mentions the term "muffintop," a term I learned from character Amy. But from my wife's lips, this pejorative was common. Gary S. takes today's emptiness and pairs it with an economic and social consequential narrative. Some on Amazon said it was scary. They probably didn't read DAA or similar reads.

My only problem, or my need, from this book was for more of the wider picture to come into view after The Rupture. A few lines dropped from the new private security, Joshie, anyone connected to the wider world and Lenny's ears to bridge the Chinese dropping treasuries and the Venezuelen Navy events to the new political boundaries. Despite the absense of media, I felt it would have been more consistent with the pre-Rupture narrative.

10:22 PM  
Anonymous Joe doesn't know said...

I am in my final semester of a grad program and I sit in a class once a week with 20 other students, and at any given time, about 10 of them are on their "smartphones". A young lady sits next to me and holds her phone down under her desk, semi-hidden from the instructor's view, and incessantly slides and taps the screen. I asked her what she was looking at the other day and she told me "facebook updates". The previous week, she told me she was texting two other students in the same class. The instructor is an older woman and she either doesn't notice or doesn't care. Really, what would she say? They are the ones spending hundreds and hundreds per credit hour to monitor their facebook pages.

I admit that I am nearly 10 years older than a good portion of them, but for Pete's sake, it's grad school! What's the point? What the hell is the point? Why don't they just stay home? I try not to let it bother me as much as it does, but it's sickening. Imagine if twenty-two hundred years ago you wandered by the Stoa Poikile and Zeno was speaking and everyone was on a fucking iphone. Sorry. Just breaks my heart.

Maestro, thanks for discussing the novel in the blog, I will certainly pick that one up. You have taught in many places, no? I am considering teaching when I finally am able to extricate myself to expat glory, and I am hoping the students are waaaaay different than the ones here.

Geez...think about that. texting students in the same stinkin' room. Why not just wait until break or after class and walk with them?

11:20 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


These toys are very addictive, and even grads think it's hip to use them all the time. They also change the brain, and not for the better; there is a lot of lit on this by now (see The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, also various articles by Christine Rosen in New Atlantis). It's all part of the collapse, imo--strengthens the inability to read in depth, think, analyze. I did hear of one univ. instructor who, if he saw anyone on a cell phone, took the phone away from the student and broke it right then and there. My kinda guy.


8:41 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


Yes, we get that exact sort of commercial here as well, congratulating us on how well we can handle what they're selling us, even as we buy into that vacuous worldview more & more. It's blatantly empty flattery, but all too many are eager to believe it. "I can enjoy all the expensive, unnecessary status crap & still be free! My God, I'm ever so cool & hip!"


I heartily endorse MB's recommendation of The Shallows. Like you, I see this sort of behavior all the time -- at family dinner tables, wherever groups of people meet to talk (via devices, even if they're literally facing one another), etc. And when people do actually converse, it tends to be about Facebook or something similarly digital.

There are more & more people who simply don't have any ideas. They don't know what ideas are, much less how to think about them. They don't want to. Depth is to be avoided at all costs. Glib pop culture phrases are sufficient unto the day ...

1:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've never seen as digitally addicted a place as S. Korea though I imagine Japan is worse.

Probably 70 of everyone on the subway has a digital device going. Conversations are rare (some of that is cultural).

People have actually died in what are known as PC rooms here as they dehydrated and/or forgot to eat and other health problems/conditions kicked in. A big story in the last year was a couple who let their living, flesh and blood baby die while they "cared for" an online one. There is something of a boom in computer addiction rehab facilities where people try to get kids to talk, run around and discover weird stuff like trees, grass etc.. Computer addiction is officially listed as a psychiatric illness.

It appears to be a losing battle. On two different occasions yesterday I saw kids using not one but two separate devices at the same time - one in each hand.

An older friend of mine in the States was saying how isolated he and his wife had become - he said it was almost impossible to get people to make a phone call vs. an email.

El Juero (juero59@yahoo.com)

7:41 PM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman and friends,

I will definitely read the book. My youngest daughter told me a couple of weeks ago she had met a guy she really liked, met him for coffee and then they "friended" each other on Facebook. She said (and I loosely quote) "it's like we have nothing to find out about each other---I've seen pictures of his vacations, friends, family and it seems so stupid b/c it's all just images". But this is the world they're in and they're trapped in it to a large extent, just as the protagonist was. She tells me plenty of people she knows spend hours on Facebook viewing others' profiles or updating theirs. It seems more like a commodities market than anything.

But we must keep our sense of humor. The reality shows, the election cycle-circus, celebrity rehab debacles, lurid sex and violence TV series, adorable sitcoms, maudlin "making a difference" segments on the nightly news rather than actual news, talentless American singers, dancing with has-beens, Harry Potter, blue-light specials and, of course, inspiring speeches from our hopeless President should keep us all entertained until our home is repossessed.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Be sure to see a movie called "The Social Network". How Facebook came to be. Mark Zuckerberg becomes world's youngest billionaire while selling out his friends--a true American.

El J-

A few yrs ago I was in a doctor's office in Wash DC, watching a woman manipulating 3 cell phones simultaneously. I had to hold myself back from saying to her: "You know, yer a bit out of date; the really cool people have at least 4 cell phones. And by the way, yer a douche bag."


9:22 PM  
Anonymous Art said...


Your beautiful commentary reminds me of an editorial cartoon I came across several years ago. (The cartoon is from 1997 and some of the terminology is already outdated.) A man and woman are sitting on a mountain ridge; the woman is looking at the sunset, while the man is immersed in his electronic toys. He says: "Cel-phone, lap top, pager, satellite uplink...even way out here I feel so connected!" The woman replies: "Strange...I don't think you're connected at all."

9:22 PM  
Anonymous Mark Notzon said...

Dear MB.

As long as accurate and inspired satire can still be written and read---and this author of Russian origin seems to be the Juvenal or Swift Americans need (without knowing it)--the republic of letters may be shrinking in quantity but not in quality.

Of course, Gresham's Law does apply.....

Otherwise, I recall the first aphorism of Cioran I opened to and read by chance..."When one cries without knowing the reason why, then one has understood everything perfectly." (tr. roughly from the French.)

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

After next Tuesday American fascism will be in full bloom. It's always been here but covered by an kind of velvet glove. Hedges' recent piece on liberalism is a portent of what is to come. All the poisons of the American psyche will hatch out and any sensitive person needs to seriously consider getting out of the US. What concerns me especially is what will happen to Jews here. They have so wedded themselves the the American ruling class but I don't think that will save them. They are the true liberals that Hedges condemns. They moved to the suburbs and their only contact with the city is to attend an orchestra.
By the way, a very erudite friend tells me that the British have played the US all these years, biding their time for the American Empire to collapse and then filling the vacuum. Any thoughts on that?
Yes, the dolts can hurt you indeed. I tried to read an American classic to my middle school students but was prohibited because it deviated from our official reading program. I mean Ryan Howard strikes out at the bottom of the 9th inning and I can't read Casey at the Bat. How messed up is that?!

11:19 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Sunt lacrimae rerum.


11:22 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Dear Anonymous,
I lived in Japan for many years and although I left it in 1993 I could see how the computer revolution would so easily take root there. Japanese young people have got to be one of the more socially retarded people on the planet. I went to discos there in which the dance floor was surrounded by mirrors so each individual person could, in effect, dance with themselves. I could only imagine how thoroughly solopsistic the culture has become since then. Still at least they don't spend trillions fighting foreign wars and I expect Japan and all Asia will eventually decouple themselves from the US and through their lot with China. Still, I would recommend seeing Japan. The Japanese people are the gold standard with regard to politeness and have numerous words for obligation. And, of course, there is very little street violence. To just tell you how little crime is there, in 1983 when I just arrived I read a story from one of their national newspapers. It said that a bike was stolen. And this was national news!

11:51 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


Yes, I see this all the time ... people have instant access to countless factoids about each other, and somehow they believe that's the same as actually knowing another person. It's not unlike pre-teens knowing all the biological, mechanical facts about every sex act imaginable, and then believing they know what a relationship is all about. They become jaded before they ever get any actual life experience, and can't grasp that there's more to it than that. (Neil Postman wrote a lot about this pseudo-sophistication masking perpetual shallowness.)

I'm reminded of several novels by Isaac Asimov, where one strain of humanity eventually can't bear the physical presence of another human being. Instead, each one lives on his/her own sprawling estate, tended by robots, and interacting with other human beings solely by telescreens -- or the Internet, if you will.

El J,

I find myself using email too much myself, and I've made a decision to start writing letters by hand again. For one thing, I don't want to lose my ability to write in cursive. The grandson of my mother-in-law's friend couldn't decipher the thank you notes she wrote to him, because they were handwritten -- he had never learned cursive & didn't recognize it!


I try to be philosophical as I await the election results next Tuesday. It ain't gonna be pretty.

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,


A friend sent me an article from The Guardian UK about a likely Congressman from North Carolina whom I'd never heard of. His name is Pantano and he was up on murder charges for killing two Iraq civilans. Even though the facts are undisputed--they were unarmed, showed no aggressive behavior and there were no weapons in the car--he got off b/c weapons were found in a house they had come from and there were no eye witnesses. He's expected to win and his war record is not discussed b/c he staunchly maintains he's a "hero." If you're interested in the entire article, go to the Guardian web site, then US news, then politics. It's bad enough to have fools and swine running (and probably winning) office but to me this is much worse.

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear friends,

Here's a follow-up to the cartoon I described recently: The ecopychologist, David Abram, tells this story--

"In the autumn of 1985, a strong hurricane ripped across suburban Long Island...for several days afterward much of the populace was without electricity; power lines were down, telephone lines broken, and roads were strewn with toppled trees. People had to walk to their jobs, and to whatever shops were still open. We began encountering each other on the streets, "in person" instead of by telephone. In the absence of automobiles and their loud engines, the rhythms of crickets and birdsong became clearly audible. Flocks were migrating south for the winter, and many of us found ourselves simply listening, with new and childlike curiosity, to the ripples of song in the still-standing trees and fields. And at night the sky was studded with stars! Many children, their eyes no longer blocked by the glare of houselights and street lamps, saw the Milky Way for the first time, and were astonished. For those few days and nights our town became a community aware of its place in an encompassing cosmos."

That was 25 years ago; today there would just be rioting in the streets.

3:03 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

Dr. Berman,

Perhaps the Monastic Option has always been the only one. Was life in Renaissance Italy for an average dolt better than for one in the United States? (Yes, I think so. For the average dolt would have had the opportunity to view masterpieces of art and architecture first hand, perhaps even tracking their creation.) Haven't people interested in refinement, thought, intelligence, culture, etc. been in the same proportion of the population throughout history, that proportion being very small?
The size of the band, 30, might be too small to make a monastery or just the right size for a small one. So, before civilization, it was always the Monastic Option too, the only one.

So then...why worry about nations? They will always largely consist of dolts! Go Monastic! Forget citizenship! Live your life with a carefully selected band of the wise and forget the rest!

There's an image that comes to mind...Dr. Johnson and Boswell are being rowed across the Thames while Johnson is expounding the value of classical literature the relevance of which Boswell had been skeptical. Dr. Johnson asks the rower, a young man, what would he give to learn Greek. The young man, presumably illiterate, replies,"All that I have!" So the foegoing lucubration is undermined by the notion that limiting yourself to an "elite" band may be a heartless thing to do when you know that some gargage collector may have dreams of reading Dante. All hail universal, compulsory education and the weal of the masses. From this crooked timber came the great pyramids and cathedrals! Long live populism!

5:22 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

Symptomatic title: *The art of conversation: a guided tour of a neglected pleasure* (2009) by Catherine Blyth

*Library Journal's* succinct review: "A refresher course for those who've been plugged into their iPods for too long."

5:43 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Dear Susan,
I just saw a Democracy Now show in which two polsters are talking about the upcoming elections. They make the point that there was a time when the Tea Party and various progressives were of equally weak (or equally strong however you wish to define it). Yet progressive candidates get almost no airplay while the Tea Party is expected to make substantial inroads in both the House and Senate.
In addition, while the Wikileaks documents appear to be one of the major stories among the international press, they have received almost no coverage here and were not even mentioned on this past week's Sunday talk shows. In other words, it is a right wing country through and through and as Cornell West observed, Obama is just the smiling face of Empire. Parenthetically, the UK will investigate instances of abuse in Iraq as a result of the Wikileak documents while I expect not one mainstream American reporter will even bring the subject up. Hey, Sharon Engle is expected to win in Nevada and I'm not entirely sure Christine in Delaware will lose.

7:13 PM  
Anonymous Peter D said...

Sounds like the screen adaptation has already been done, and the movie already made for SSLS - Idiocracy.

(No need to read the book!)

9:05 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Great word, lucubration. I wonder if there are any similarities to bloviation. These things keep me up at night.


10:42 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

I just read about Mr. Pantano of N. Carolina. Apparently he not only kiied the 2 Iraqis but shot them between 30-60 times to make an example of them. Yes, the US military cleared him of any wrongdoing and could well be a congressman-elect following Tuesday.
Historically speaking, this is not so unique. Most of the US military heroes have been psychopathic killers and I would include our Presidents as well. It still amazes me however that Truman could say he didn't lose a moments sleep after dropping the atomic bombs. But it could get worse. Palin will drop bombs on a bad hair day.

11:10 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...

Dr. Berman:

I've perhaps strayed from the theme of American collapse by venting Kingley's views on the collapse of Western Civilization beginning roughly with Plato.

To further vent, bloviate, or lucubrate on this theme: we've messed up the intention of the mighty dreamers, Parmenides, Empedocles, Zeno of Elea, and a few other Presocratics, by becoming obsessed with gadgetry and missing the real purpose for which Western civilization was brought into this world.

This world is hell, the underworld; we've already arrived here in hell.

Anyway, further bloviation won't get me out of my hellish pit of pilfered Gnosticism.

What's you're take on Gnosticism? Ah, I remember you've already covered that in *Coming to our senses*. I'll re-read those chapters.

2:08 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Blasphemy! My Sarita could never have a bad hair day!

"And a tide of yahoos washed over the land..." (Deuteronomy 8:4)

3:15 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Some data for u guys, but first let me recap the Dolt Code, which I cited above somewhere:

1. The dolts are on the march.
2. There are (very) many more of them than there are of you.
3. If they are in power, they will hurt you.

According to a Newsweek poll of late August, nearly a third of Americans believe that Obama "sympathizes with the goals of Islamic fundamentalists who want to impose Islamic law around the world." 52% of Republicans believe this; 17% of Democrats do. A different poll turned up the fact that 70% of Republicans approve of the Tea Party.

Nov. 2, here we come...

11:15 AM  
Anonymous Art said...


You mentioned Peter Kingsley. Have you read his new book, "A Story Waiting to Pierce You: Mongolia, Tibet and the Destiny of the Western World"? Sounds compelling, but squarely in the vertical tradition. So many theories about our past, present and possible future...my head is spinning.

2:23 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Dolt Watch for today:


Check out David Sirota's "It's the Stupidity, Stupid," and "Rachel Maddow Confronts Angry, Uniformed Voters."

Susan, Dan,

It figures that so many voters would embrace a candidate like Pantano -- after all, he kicks ass & takes names, grrrrrrrr! A Real American Hero! Hoo-ah! And so on ...

8:50 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,


I expect Pantano to go far in politics. He seems to have the qualities that make for success--contempt for ethical behavior, eager to view anyone unlike himself as an enemy and self righteous. But the thugs in Blackwater will apparently never pay for their crimes either and there was plenty of evidence to convict them.

As misused as electronic devices are I have to admit I wouldn't want to give up any of mine. The computer and the internet allow me to read several newspapers, check out alternative web sites (such as this one) with intelligent opinion, real journalism and perspectives from around the world. Without The Guardian, Truthout and others like them that I can read online, I wouldn't have the opportunity to read much of anything beyond the local paper and maybe the NYT (and I'm disillusioned with them). I've seen interviews online with authors I admire who would probably never come to Austin to promote their books. What I have to guard against is not substituting this convienence for real books and people or letting this consume too much of my time. And I own a cell phone too. It's one of those cheapies you can buy off a rack and add minutes to and it's comes in handy several times a week (I keep it in the car). The abuse of digital devices is what we have to be wary of and they are very, very hypnotic. And I don't think we should give kids those hand held digital games either---I agree they have an effect on their developing minds.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


I agree with you about the various digital devices in our lives. The key is in remembering that they're useful tools, but not the essence of our lives, I suppose. My wife & I have one cellphone ourselves, like the one you have -- it's turned off 99.9% of the time, and we keep it for emergencies when no pay phone -- remember the pay phone? -- is available, such as the car breaking down on a back road. But we use an old-fashioned landline at home.

And of course I've met some wonderful, likeminded people thanks to the Internet! For anyone who doesn't fit in, who's assaulted by an unfriendly culture & feels utterly alone, this can be a lifesaver -- sometimes literally, I think.

In moderation, of course ...

11:07 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,


You might be interested in reading on Alternet an article by Joe Bageant: Is the "Digital Hive" Turning Into a Soft Totalitarian State?

7:56 AM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Susan, Tim,
I've done a bit more research into Mr. Pantano. He's been endorsed by Palin and Gulianni of course and went to NYC to protest the proposed Islamic community center. This is all to be expected but what galls me is that his Democratic challenger makes no mention of Pantano's killing of 2 unarmed Iraqis ( Oh, they made a threatening motion so he felt justified to shoot each one 30 times)because he knows to do so in the present rightwing climate would be politically suicidal. So why even support a Democrat next Tuesday if they too have lost their soul?

2:30 PM  
Blogger took_the_red_pill said...

Here's a link to the Gary Shteyngart interview on the NPR show "Fresh Air" (streaming and download options available):

Shteyngart interview

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...


... what galls me is that his Democratic challenger makes no mention of Pantano's killing of 2 unarmed Iraqis ... because he knows to do so in the present rightwing climate would be politically suicidal.

This is the problem, isn't it? I have little sympathy for most Democrats, since they've forsaken even the pretense of standing for the mildest of progressive values, much less basic decency. It's all about doing whatever it takes to be re-elected; apparently there's nothing in life beyond that goal. Success is its own validation, justification, and reward.

Anyway, current culture tells us that a big, dumb, loud, violent man is the apex of American values -- especially if he has the good sense to switch his brain to OFF. Just parrot the appropriate words -- "family, patriotic, Christian, heartland," and so forth, and you're a shoe-in.

took the red pill,

Thanks for the link! Most enjoyable & enlightening!

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just picked this up and it really reminded me of a mix between "Snowcrash" by Neil Stephenson and a fiction version of Chris Hedges "Empire of Illusion."


1:23 PM  
Anonymous Nocti said...

"you're a shoe-in."

That's "shoo-in".

10:28 AM  
Blogger Ashley Colby said...

A girl I babysit for told me recently she feels much more comfortable texting than talking. She said that when she texts she doesn't have to think as quickly and she feels awkward talking on the phone (or in person).

Another girl I babysat for had never tasted raspberries (she was 11). When I had some fresh raspberries in my apartment and gave them to her for a snack, she said they were delicious and that they tasted like fruit snacks!

While both wonderfully intelligent, curious and thoughtful girls, being raised in this world causes them to have a vastly deficient human experience and I have no doubt they will grow up into a strange version of humanity the likes of which I don't know if any of us could have imagined.


1:14 PM  
Anonymous Paul Emmons said...

This post (and the novel it describes) are reminiscent of the short story by E.M. Forster, "The Machine Stops." I wouldn't say that Shteyngart's vision differs from yours as I have inferred it. While it is true that the Roman Empire's fall was gradual, doesn't everything happen faster now?

I'm no economist but have read that the terrible hyperinflation in Germany between the world wars was the result of foreign speculation as much as the lack of gold backing. Other currencies have been ruined by speculation as well, and there is no reason that the dollar is immune. As soon as our creditors decide that our credit is no longer good, won't a fatal crisis ensue within days if not hours?

2:09 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Right, but then u shd see my shoes.


The current social process may be more one of zombification than moronization, tho I'm sure they're related.


That's sorta what happens in the Shteyngart bk, w/China pulling the plug on our economy. Keep in mind that when Obama and Biden were in China, the prime minister lectured them like wayward schoolboys, and they just shuffled their feet and looked embarrassed. And now we have a GOP House to make things even worse (pity the Dems retained the Senate, but I am excited re: the amount of damage the GOP will be able to do in the next 2 yrs, before Palin takes command).


2:44 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Pantano lost his election but to a man who believes gays should be fired from a job if it's discovered that they are gay. The winner was also endorsed be the NRA and anti-abortion groups so it's no great victory for Progessives there. Watch the interview with Grayson on Democracy Now for some perspective on what happened last Tuesday. Also Lindorf'take in Counterpunch this past week is an excellent piece. Watching Bush at the World Series and the crowds chanting USA! USA! additional proof to keep your passports current.

2:58 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Thanks for writing. I think at this point a truly 'progressive' outlook might be to keep the US from completely going off the rails into fascism. The elements for that are certainly present (economic hardship being a major one); Chris Hedges keeps predicting that such a thing is not far off. It's also the case that for structural/historical reasons, the impulse toward socialism or even social democracy is very weak in the US; if a revolution were to take place, it would come from the right. Much as I think that folks like Sarah Palin or Christine O'Donnell are a hoot, they are potentially very dangerous hoots, quite obviously (Hitler was a hoot during the Weimar years, and frequently the butt of jokes and skits in cabaret shows that were the Weimar equivalent of SNL). I have for the most part thought that the US would limp along into a kind of senility during the next 20-30 years, following the British Empire pattern, a kind of tepid "crisis management." Historically, this seems to be Obama's role, for example. But by definition, the future is unpredictable; if groups like the Tea Party don't fizzle out, and things hit a critical mass, there could be a point at which things snap. Hard to say, but depressing to think about.

I do think a lot these days about the last days of England. In terms of foreign policy, much of it was "last gasp." The murderous regime they set up in Kenya in the 50s, for example (see Caroline Elkins, "Imperial Reckoning"); the Falklands war that came off like something out of Gilbert & Sullivan; the slavish and obsequious adherence to the war aims of G.W. Bush. When I got to the UK in the late 60s for the first time, all the talk was about trade deficits and balance of payments and devaluation of the pound; many of the young people I met (i.e., folks my age) were planning on emigrating. Now England is a pale shadow of its former self; it has no real political clout on the world stage. Internally, there is something of a war of the rich against the poor going on now (even worse than in the Thatcher days), with high unemployment and endless cutbacks on social services. If that--i.e., slow death--is our future, it's certainly not a very happy one, a kind of long slide into "crisis management" and ultimately, nothingness. Nevertheless, England is a very unlikely candidate for fascism or any kind of revolution from the right, and the Brits can be thankful for that. Of course, the US is not England, and so one wonders if the British late-empire scenario will be repeated here, or whether something much worse is on the way. We are, quite obviously, a lot more volatile. I think it was Isaiah Berlin who once said that the best thing one could hope for in politics is that any given regime not be too murderous. It will clearly be better for the world at large that the US decline; its genocidal policies (in the name of democracy) alone are reason enough for patriots of humanity (as opposed to patriots of the US) to want this. England is managing to "go gentle into that good night"; America might become internally more violent instead. This is why I'm thinking, following Sir Isaiah, that slow decay might be the truly progressive position. 'Recovery' or 'renaissance' are surely not in the cards.


7:46 AM  
Anonymous REO Spudwagon said...

But is England dying or just becoming "normal"? i.e. a small European island with a small European island economy?

Its economic problems are not nearly as bad as non-ex-empires Greece, Iceland and Ireland for example.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I doubt that the huge gap between rich and poor in the UK can be called 'normal', but in any case, Greece etc. did not really generate their problems from the inside (or perhaps, only in part). The major drama is that they got victimized/seduced by Goldman Sachs and the Wall Street 'derivative' crowd--in short, by the destructive economic games and ideology of the American Empire. If they can reject the latter, and adopt a different path in the future, they may be able to return to some sort of equilibrium. In the case of England, I doubt there's much chance of that. But this is just guesswork on my part, quite obviously.


8:58 AM  
Anonymous Peter said...

Wonderful conversation abut this post, Professor, and everyone else. All I have have to add is, at least libraries still exist! I checked out SSTLS, and am shaking my head in amazement as I read-such a great story-teller! Recently finished William Gibson's lastest (Zero History), and it seems the artists' antennae are definitely picking up what a strange world we have made.

10:46 PM  

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