—American bumper sticker
So let’s hunker down, now, and have a serious discussion as to exactly where the United States is heading these days.
It wasn’t that popular, the idea of American decline, when I published The Twilight of American Culture eleven years ago. Now, I seem to find discussions of it everywhere. In his last column for the New York Times, for example ("Losing Our Way," March 26), Bob Herbert wrote:
“So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home….Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us into an era of perpetual war and economic decline. Young people today are staring at a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone….When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely….Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush….The richest 10% of Americans received an unconscionable 100% of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007….In 2009, the richest 5% claimed 63.5% of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80%, collectively held just 12.8%.”
Herbert goes on to cite the March 25 NYT article by David Kocieniewski, on how General Electric reported profits of $14.2 billion in 2010, and not only paid no taxes on this, but actually claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion. And it turns out (here’s a shocker) that its CEO, Jeffrey Inmelt, was appointed head of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness by Mr. Obama(!), to make sure that the fox will continue to guard the hen house.
Meanwhile, on the street level, the American public is so dumb that it is literally breathtaking. I had collected some of the stats in the Twilight book and also in Dark Ages America; since then, chronicling the collapse of the American mind has become something of a national pastime, way beyond the mild banter of Jay Leno’s street interviews. For example, Newsweek recently gave 1,000 Americans the U.S. Citizenship Test (“How Dumb Are We?,” Newsweek, March 20), and it turned out that 29% couldn’t name the vice president; 73% couldn’t say why we fought the Cold War (official version, that is); 44% were unable to define the Bill of Rights; and 6% were not able to circle Independence Day on a calendar. Another study, conducted two years ago by the European Journal of Communication, turned up the fact that 42% of Americans were not able to identify the Taliban (by comparison, only 25% of the Brits couldn’t do it). Newsweek’s summary of all this is not exactly any great intellectual breakthrough, either: “The country’s future is imperiled by our ignorance.” No shit, Sherlock.
About a week after the Newsweek article, Ray Williams did a piece for Psychology Today that listed a large number of poll results of this sort, including the fact that 77% of Oklahoma public school students don’t know who George Washington was (not kidding, folks), or who wrote the Declaration of Independence. But the most telling bit of evidence, for me, were the elementary errors of English made by the author of the article himself. His title—Are Americans getting “dumber?”—fails to put the question mark where it belongs (outside the quote mark); and he writes that “Morris Berman…decries the need to preserve what was best in American culture.” But this indicates that Mr. Williams doesn’t know what “decries” actually means, namely, “publicly denounces.” In fact, I “decried” nothing of the sort; instead, I encouraged Americans to do the work of cultural preservation. (If I was decrying anything, it was our cultural collapse.) So here we have an essay whose purpose it is to show how intellectually challenged we are, which itself contains two major English-language errors. Mr. Williams, it turns out, is co-founder of something called Success IQ University.
As I argued in Twilight, severe income inequality and widespread stupidity were crucial factors in the decline of Rome, and the same applies to the decline of our own empire. And other factors, of course, can be added to this list. But the interesting thing about social analyses of this sort, i.e. diagnoses of our civilizational collapse—and this is something I have pointed out again and again, in articles and lectures and interviews—is the obsessive habit of American optimism that befuddles our ability to draw the obvious conclusion. One author after another will weigh in with massive data on our political, social, economic, and cultural disintegration, and then at the eleventh hour pull a rabbit out of a hat and assure us that with the application of enough effort and right attitudes, we can turn this situation around. Rutgers historian David Greenberg, in a recent essay in the New York Times Book Review (“No Exit,” March 20), says of the genre of American social criticism, “Practically every example of that genre, no matter how shrewd or rich its survey of the question at hand, finishes with an obligatory prescription that is utopian, banal, unhelpful or out of tune with the rest of the book.”
It’s not hard to find examples of this, and Greenberg scores Walter Lippmann, Allan Bloom, Al Gore, Upton Sinclair, Eric Schlosser, Robert Putnam, and Daniel Boorstin as obvious examples. “Even those social critics who acknowledge the difficulty of [implementing] their solutions,” he writes, “cannot help offering up the equally quixotic hope that people will somehow rise up spontaneously against the diagnosed ills.” The authors use words like “should” and “must,” as though voluntarism and some inner decision (in the U.S., it’s always a personal solution, i.e. a nonsolution) are what we need to alter centuries-old structures of politics/economics/society/culture. Schlosser, for example (Fast Food Nation), calls on Congress to “fight against dangerous concentrations of economic power” (rotsa ruck with that, amigo). Boorstin (The Image) says that “each of us must disenchant himself…must prepare himself to receive messages coming in from the outside.” (This was in 1961; fifty years later, we might conclude that Americans didn’t quite manage to follow his suggestions.) Robert Putnam (Bowling Alone) documents the collapse of social life in America in exhaustive detail and then says that we all must “resolve to become reconnected with our friends and neighbors.” (This could well be the best example of brain damage among Harvard sociologists ever recorded.)
As Professor Greenberg tells us, H.L. Mencken knew a lot better than these pundits. The “imbecility” of the masses, Mencken wrote (in his attack on Lippmann), cannot be cured “by spreading enlightenment.” Just ain’t gonna happen, he said, and added that it was part of the national temperament to insist that every problem had to have a solution, when the truth is that very often—it doesn’t.
As a final example of this national blindness, consider Chris Hedges’ essay, “The Collapse of Globalization,” which was posted on truthdig.com on March 27. Now as most of you know, I adore Chris; I love everything he writes, and regard him as one of the most clear-sighted and courageous journalists left in this country. But the essay has the same problem limned by Greenberg, that of piling up huge amounts of evidence showing in no uncertain terms that the nation is going down the tubes, and then insisting that this can be reversed by an act of will. Since most of you are familiar with the evidence for national collapse (or if not, can access the essay on truthdig), let me focus on the unwarranted optimism:
“We must embrace [writes Hedges], and embrace rapidly, a radical new ethic of simplicity and rigorous protection of our ecosystem…. We must rebuild radical socialist movements that demand that the resources of the state and the nation provide for the welfare of all citizens and the heavy hand of state power be employed to prohibit the plunder by the corporate power elite. We must view the corporate capitalists who have seized control of our money, our food, our energy, our education, our press, our health care system and our governance as mortal enemies to be vanquished.”
Uh…who, exactly, is “we”? The sixty million white underclass folks who regularly vote against their own interests? (On this see Joe Bageant’s brilliant memoir, Rainbow Pie.) The 44% of the American public who don’t know what the Bill of Rights is? The 77% of the Oklahoma public school students who can’t identify George Washington? The overwhelming majority of the population that is being economically squeezed half to death, and can only think in terms of how to individually get out from between a rock and a hard place? And in such a context, what does “must” mean, really? I mean, none of this is going to happen, as all of us know. As for Chris, he is a very bright fellow; he has to know that this call to colors is hand-wringing, wishful thinking—nothing more. As he himself points out, all of our “liberal” institutions (press, universities, organized labor, Democratic Party) refuse to challenge the neoliberal orthodoxy of the sacredness of the market, and this permits the corporations to continue their assault on us. Their propaganda, he says, constitutes a “steady barrage of illusions,” which is impervious to truth; and “those who dissent—from Ralph Nader to Noam Chomsky—are banished as heretics.”
Chris, of course, is among those heretics, and his voice—which I in fact cherish—makes no difference at all, in terms of the way power is arranged and money distributed. Thus it bothers me when he writes that we have to “awake from our collective self-delusion,” because “we” are going to do no such thing; or when he (correctly) points out that “dying civilizations often prefer hope, even absurd hope, to truth.” Because he is apparently unwilling to bite the bullet here, and to say, with Professor Greenberg: No Exit. In doing so, he shows that he himself prefers absurd hope to truth. For the truth is now manifest, and Chris simply cannot be unaware of it: we shall not embrace a radical new ethic of simplicity (which was something of a fad in the seventies); we shall not rebuild radical socialist movements (which historically were pretty feeble to begin with); and we shall certainly not vanquish corporate capitalism. What could be more obvious? Americans have neither the will nor the interest nor the intellectual/emotional resources to accomplish any of these things; and if anything radical does occur within the next decade or so, we can be sure that it will come from the political right. Indeed, as Chris himself has pointed out on a number of occasions, this latter trend is already underway. To live in truth at this point means to understand that all of the healthy options for the United States were foreclosed long ago. Utopian impulses are fine, but only when there is some possibility of their being realized.
Which means, of course, that I have to stick to my guns here and not start pulling a rabbit out of the hat at the eleventh hour either. Rest assured: I’m not going to. There is no rabbit, and the hat is falling apart at the seams. All I can suggest—and this to the tiniest fraction of the population—is that if you are going to remain in the U.S., to tough it out and live among the ruins, as it were, one thing you can do is stay awake. Read Hedges and Nader and Chomsky. Read Walter Hixson and Sacvan Bercovitch and William Appleman Williams. Stay in touch with truthdig, alternet, commondreams, and the rest of the websites that offer serious political analysis instead of mainstream b.s. Form study groups—and not just virtual ones. Because the choice is not whether or not the country is going to die: it is, don’t be deluded on that score. All I’m suggesting is that ignorance is not bliss, and that it’s better to die with your eyes open and your boots on, than to be part of the huge mass of lemmings slowly drifting toward the abyss.
© Morris Berman, 2011