December 06, 2011

Response to Douglas Dowd's Review of WAF

Dear Friends:

Counter Punch just (today, Dec. 6) published a review of Why America Failed by Douglas Dowd, a man I actually admire greatly, and one of America's leading economists. While I appreciated the review, I was greatly concerned about his misunderstanding and mischaracterization of ch. 4 of the book, the chapter on the Civil War. It seems to me he missed the nuance of the argument; a nuance that Amazon reviewers of the book, for example, did not fail to grasp. In any case, I just sent the following letter to Alexander Cockburn, the editor of Counter Punch, asking if he would run it in response, so that CP readers would have my side of the story. As follows:

I very much appreciate Professor Dowd taking the time and trouble to write a lengthy review of my most recent book, a review that is quite comprehensive. But I do want to respond to it, since I have a serious concern over what I feel is a misunderstanding of chapter 4. I make it explicit in that chapter that I do not condone slavery, that I don't regard it as a small thing in American history, and that the Civil War had to be fought to end it. But, following Eugene Genovese's work (which I regard as quite masterly), there is another side to the South besides that, and which the North never wanted to appreciate (to this day). This was the only political formation in US history that was opposed to laissez-faire capitalism and its accompanying way of life, that was in the alternative tradition of Thoreau et al., but that also had capability of being more than just exhortatory. That slavery was entangled, in the South, with a relaxed way of life is, as I note, part of the maddening paradox of the whole thing: that the worst of the South, and the best of the South, were not separable in practice. But they are separable at least in theory, which is very significant, to my mind; because one can and should, as Genovese does, rescue the South from being seen in a monolithic and one-dimensional way.

A familiar problem in this regard is the danger of what is known as "Whig history”: the belief that the people of the past should have had our present wisdom and insight, and recognized that things were supposedly moving toward our present enlightened state. Although, as I state, slavery was rather an anomaly by 1860, it wasn't totally so, on a world scale. Lots of societies had abolished slavery, but many hadn't; and the slow, noncapitalist way of life, in one form or another, was—as C. Vann Woodward pointed out—the world norm at that time (Northern American and Northern Europe being the obvious exceptions). Southerners were steeped in the Bible, which approves of slavery at a number of points; slavery was also enshrined in the Constitution. The fact is that very few individuals are able to live outside their time, including those of us today. Still, as I explicitly say, the Civil War had to be fought to get rid of slavery (although some historians claim it would have petered out soon enough without the war; I tend to doubt it, myself).

It also seems to me that an important aspect of chapter 4 is its discussion of the Northern destruction of the South as fitting into the pattern/narrative of Americans always needing an enemy, and as always regarding that enemy as “savages”--whether Native Americans, Mexicans, Southerners, or Vietnamese. The “scorched earth” policy of the North has been the norm, “shock and awe” in Iraq only being its latest manifestation. I would argue that it is crucial for Americans to start making these connections.

In a word, I believe the argument of chapter 4 is a fairly nuanced one, and I feel sad--and worried--that Professor Dowd missed this, that he was able to see my analysis in only one way, and to see the South through a very stereotypical lens. When all is said and done, nuance and paradox are not the same thing as “contradiction.”

--Morris Berman


Anonymous David Shapiro said...

Professor: I have been a fan of your work for years and even as a child intuitively knew about the shallow values you write about and dislike. This complimenting the slow, polite, gracious values of the old South seems to be a sensitive issue with you. I read every comment on Amazon and only Doug Dowd held a brighter light to your chapter about this. Do you really believe the old South was a delightful, polite, place for all classes of society? What about the the poorer people? Are we to believe that most northeners were venal disgusting people with no manners and most Southerners understood the meaning of life as you see it anyway better than northeners? I see millions of shallow nonthinking people like you do but I also know many americans with decent values who are gracious, polite and choose to live slower lives. Aren't you indulging in a certain type of tribalism yourself and idealizing an entire region? Why not offer up suggestions about lifestyles you prefer without picking a controversial society like that one? Why not the primitive cultures close to nature like in David Abrams book Spell of the Sensuous? You don't get off scott free on this one professor. Not your usual meticulous reasoning.Should we start bringing back ladies with fans and duels for honor and mint juleps? Should the black ghetto dwellers imitate the values of the old south? Where would you draw the boundary as to where the disgusting Northeners started acting as hustlers. Did hustling stop on the Maryland border for instance? How polite and gracious do you think the life of the poor whites was? Bad choice for a culture to imitate. And besides, you admit the civil war had to be fought. What do you think should have happened? The North wins but gives up the Industrial Revolution and the U.S. becomes a Jeffersonian agricultural paradise, slow, gracious, but workers get paid fair wages. Sound nice? Where on this planet do you think a truly successful culture has ever existed. That I would love to know. I doubt you'll respond to this but if you do for some crazy reason I am David Shapiro from Sacramento, CA

3:07 PM  
Blogger Robo said...

Having personally witnessed the Civil Rights movement at close range, Mr. Dowd seems to be reacting viscerally and emotionally to the issue of slavery. Perhaps he cannot maintain an intellectual distance from this particular subject in the same way that you can. In most other aspects, he seems to be in accord.

3:20 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I take it you never read WAF. If you did, you wd have seen that I don't idealize the South, but simply point out that it was the only entity within American history that was within the alternative tradition, which also had the strength to be more than exhortatory (unlike, say, Thoreau). Eugene Genovese said it; Sheldon Hackney said it; C. Vann Woodward said it--which might suggest that I'm in fairly respectable company. That's really the point of the chapter, and your characterization of it is nothing less than a caricature.

Here's an excerpt from one Amazon reviewer you might want to think about:

"I found the chapter on the Civil War to be particularly illuminating and powerful in this regard, as it forces us to reflect more deeply on what was lost there (the traditional agrarian culture of the South as an alternative to Northern hucksterism) as well as what was won (the end of slavery). This is probably the trickiest section of Berman's book, and the one most likely to be misunderstood, but Berman handles this material with great skill, insight, and compassion. The contradictions and paradoxes of American history have a tragic dimension that is well articulated here and elsewhere in the book...."

I knew, of course, when I wrote the chapter, that it would be *the* hot-button topic for many or even most people out there, who, like yourself, wd simply not be able to grasp the nuance involved, and would react emotionally rather than to what I actually wrote. I never said that the old South was delightful for all classes, for example, or for poor whites; and as far as choosing "better examples": this is a book about American history, after all, not about world cultures in general (primitive or otherwise--wh/I have dealt with elsewhere). It's not a case of 'dial-a-culture', to see if we can come up with an example that makes us feel good, but with dealing with America as it was, historically. The failure of meticulous reasoning is yours, amigo, not mine. Sad to say, I suspect it's going to be the majority reaction--the usual American black & white thinking--and there's not too much I can do abt that. I have great respect for Douglas Dowd, but I think Robo is correct: Dowd's personal history led to an emotional and visceral reaction, which in turn made it impossible for him to maintain any intellectual distance and give the discussion a fair assessment. Your reaction, and his, are likely to be the norm.


4:05 PM  
Anonymous Rowdy said...

Well, this whole David Dowd thing confirms something that I have empirically experienced so many times in life that I'm thinking of enshrining it as Rowdy's Rule:

The people that you most expect to "get" something are invariably guaranteed to be the ones that don't.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


This is somewhat similar to Berman's Law, soon to be enshrined in all major sociology textbooks:

No matter what you do, you're fucked.


5:58 PM  
Anonymous Dan said...

Do not fret, Dr. Berman. Afterall, David Dowd is an American and, ipso facto, is not very well accostomed to nuanced arguments. In fact, and not to be ageist here, he is in his 90's and probably does not enjoy hearing that his and his country's life has been one vaudevillean farce.I guess in the end, Luis B. Mayer's dictum was correct: If you want to send a message, go Western Union.

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dr. Berman

I too was disappointed with Douglas Dowd’s emotional reaction to parts of WAF. I have to admit that I had a similar emotional reaction to Chapter 4, but I think I succeeded in judging it intellectually, which I think is what you should do with a work of history. And Professor Dowd should know that. I don’t recall, anywhere in your book, that you claim that all other societies, past or present, were or are perfect. Yet somehow, by some bizarre mixture of emotion and faulty logic, people will keep using a lack of perfection everywhere else as invalidating any criticism of the US.

I think there are a number of things one should keep in mind when thinking about the antebellum South. First, the South today or during the Civil Rights Movement is not the same society as the pre-civil-war South. Second, southern society didn’t have to be perfect, or even better, in order to be a threat to capitalism, which subjects workers to its mode of production, “only as it conquers and destroys all other forms of the organization of labor, and with them all alternatives for the working population.” (Harry Braverman, “Labor and Monopoly Capital” — out of context, and how!) Finally, it is quite clear that you never romanticize slavery in your works, and I don’t want to either; it was horrible. However, the wage-slavery of the northern US in the nineteenth century was no picnic either. There was plenty of out and out misery among the northern working-class. It is hard to call the northern victory progress in human wellbeing in any respect, especially since the former slaves were sold-out in the end anyway.

Am I mistaken when I sense that Professor Dowd also seems uncomfortable with the idea that struggle cannot turn things around in the US? He doesn’t come right out and say so. Even though you say that the decline of the US Empire cannot be reversed, I don’t see that as meaning that struggle can’t accomplish anything, and I don’t recall that you ever say that. He is aware that his struggle against the US war in Vietnam actually helped the Vietnamese people.

David Rosen

7:50 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dan, DR-

Thanks for yr feedback. I dunno if u guys ever read my essay "Tribal Consciousness and Enlightenment Tradition" in QOV, but Doug falls into the 1st category, at least in his analysis of ch. 4 of WAF; which is the last thing I was expecting. This is, after all, a (very) smart and (very) honorable individual. I mean, I was an undergraduate at Cornell when Doug was teaching there, and if I wasn't drowning in work as a math major, I would surely have sat in on some of his classes.

But yes, I do think his personal history got in the way here, and that he missed the nuance in that chapter as a result. I mean, towards the end of the bk I say that I certainly have no interest in living in a slave-based society, but that I also have no interest in the "affluent depravity" (Genovese's phrase) that characterizes the US today. Nor do I think there is some form of utopia out there, as you pt out. I also think he wants to believe that 'the struggle' is always worth it, whereas my own feeling is that once 'the fix is in,' once we have reached the pt of no return, further struggle can probably have only a very limited impact. (In that regard, it's just a bit amusing to me that Doug chose not to stay in Ithaca NY when he retired, but to move to Northern Italy--my kinda place as well.) But I am not a 'progressive', and this bk is a post-mortem, not something progressives cd possibly be happy with. I always figured it wd be a long shot to get reviewed (positively) in their journals, or interviewed on their shows; altho I may be a tad too pessimistic in this regard, I dunno.

Anyway, again, thanks for the feedback. My real concern is that people will read Doug's version of ch. 4 and think it is accurate.


8:38 PM  
Anonymous Ray said...

Dear Morris,
Finally got WAF, thanks again for all your efforts and those of Eric N.. Here below is a first response, triggered by this new post and by the Dowd review. Am working on a more deliberate response about my own reaction to the Southern chapter…..for now I’ll say that although I share some of the reservations expressed by others here and elsewhere – and don’t agree completely that the Old South belonged to the same kind of “alternative” as others you discuss, I know your heart is in the right place and the exercise in contemplating a missed alternative is a useful one.
Unfortunately, some degree of misunderstanding is unavoidable for your argument – anything that relativizes the moral absolutes that this society lives by will attract willful or inadvertent misinterpretation. Defeating the Confederacy and eliminating slavery was the first of an unwritten set of amendments (Nazis, Stalin, etc. etc. etc. ) to the U.S. constitution – or dragon slaying quests - that ratified this country as forever an automatic force for absolute good in the world. There is a huge investment in protecting this “sacred narrative” (as Mike Vlahos puts it, in the anthropological sense) from any questioning. This investment crosses party lines.

More dangerous than well-intentioned misinterpretation from the left like Dowd’s is deliberate, mendacious misappropriation from the right. Forget about the Neo-Confederate fringe. Imagine the wider damage that a cleverly disguised nihilist hustler like Newt Gingrich, a good old boy like Rick Perry, a pious true believer like Pat Buchanan, or the entire Alabama state legislature could do with a twisted version of some of your more subtle arguments about the value of Southern culture. We are entering a period, I fear, when a recognizably “southern” (post-1865 variant) affect and outlook will assert itself across much of the national middle class, as both US domestic polity and overseas power/relevance continue to deteriorate. Out of context, some of your arguments about authenticity, civility and “meaning” finding a better home in the preindustrial South than in the North could inadvertently serve as a dishonest “invented tradition” foundation for the kind of future dystopia Margaret Atwood once wrote about in The Handmaid's Tale.

More later,


10:09 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Well, anyone can twist anything into anything they want, that's for sure, and I have no control over the distortions of my book that are sure to appear. However, I can't really imagine being *liked* in the South (any more than the North), because I do condemn slavery, defend the Civil War as necessary to have routed it, and say that I wd have no interest in lvg in a place like the antebellum South. The real pt of that chapter is the remarkable, anomalous role that the South played in our history, or even world history; and that fact that Genovese, Woodward, and a # of other scholars are rt: we hafta stop being so horrified/mesmerized by slavery that we can't see the historical importance of the South as a powerful (if terribly flawed) antithesis of mainstream American hustling. Nor is this to argue that there was no capitalism in the South: see, in particular, n.41 of ch. 4 for a detailed discussion of this issue.

It's also the case that the whole reinterpretation of the South came as a surprise to me, as I make clear in ch. 4; and that this chapter has to be there because in what is essentially a history of hustling, how could I omit the South and its anomalous role? This is a book that is sewn together very tightly: ch. 3, on technology and 'progress', is no less relevant to the overall argument. Even beyond his mischaracterization of ch. 4, Dowd missed the holistic character of the bk: you can't really say, 'This one particular ch. I don't like', because of the book's synthetic quality. It revolves around the theme of the working title, "Capitalism and Its Discontents." This is the story of how capitalism defeated its discontents, and of how it did it; which to my mind *is* this nation's history. I cd be wrong, but I believe that the bk works as a whole or not at all.

Well, enough ranting for now.


10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your book was understood by those willing to read it and consider the arguments and positions you laid out.

Frankly, I thought you took a lot of care in prepping the reader for the case you were making. It's a challenging but very interesting position to take in writing something.

Shocking as it may be - occasionally a book comes along that challenges the reader into new ways of yeah, you're kinda fucked :-)

El Juero

11:11 PM  
Anonymous Shep said...

All of my life, I have been innately ashamed to be a white person. I have, always, wanted to find something good to say about the South, as, I was born and raised by folk who wanted so badly for the South To Rise Again. (Most still do! I live now in Alabama.)

I am not a great intellect but if I understand all the discussion over Chapter 4, saying the South was better than the North in a tangible way, makes me feel better, even though I cannot articulate the evidence.

Mr. Dowd I hope will reply in a positive fashion when he receives your explanation. It makes so much sense to me.

12:24 AM  
Blogger LJansen said...

Off topic. Haven't read the book, but watched your talk at Elliot Bay in Seattle on video after having read a few of your blog entries.

Though I agree with so much of what you say about the dire circumstances the people of America are in, I cannot go along with the huckster-based theory of how this happened. My objections are inchoate, but I just do not know many huckster Americans and therefore, feel your theory is off base.

1:21 AM  
Blogger Brett said...

I also want to step in here and corroborate; I read chapter 4 as an attempt to understand an alternative culture, while acknowledging slavery in its moral sense.

I didn't think slavery or the alternative, just because it was -the- alternative, was condoned in any way. Simply explained.

Alas your stereotypical rightie will hate it for being anti American. And your leftie will hate it for being anti Progressive by even suggesting there is any alternative worth considering to the Enlightened North.

I really thought there weren't as many "stereotypical" political views out there, maybe I'm wrong?

Suppose none of this is news to you, just wanted to add my 2 cents.

5:40 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Thank u for yr 2 cents. Yr rt: both camps will hate the bk, it seems to me, because it occupies a very unusual niche. The thinking population that appreciates nuance, appreciates how tricky these things are, will like it; but they aren't exactly the majority in the US. Political views *are* stereotypical now, and I was personally sad to discover that this was also true of Prof. Dowd, at least with respect to ch. 4 of WAF. In general, 'dialogue' in America has been reduced to the angry shouting of two warring, and absolutely 'certain', camps, it seems to me.


Well, u might wanna read the bk. Also Walter McDougall's bk, "Freedom Just Around the Corner," which begins by saying that from Day 1, hustling defined the nation. He comments that when two Americans meet, they each have an 'angle' they are trying to promote, and that that is what the discussion is actually about. Of course, it hardly applies to every conversation; but in my own experience, it does to most. Which renders most social interaction in America meaningless--one of the reasons I left.


As I say in ch. 4 of WAF, for the South the Civil War never really ended, and that is because they were never recognized as having a legitimate way of life, slavery or not. Instead, they were humiliated and treated like a national embarrassment, when the whole issue of Southern identity was very complex. This left a wound that never healed, and it was historians like C. Vann Woodward who tried to explain to the North that if you could just manage for 5 seconds to stop seeing the South in a one-dimensional way, you cd learn something valuable. The Northern policy was not just one of scorched earth, but also of scorched soul; which is how we have treated all our 'enemies', be they Native Americans, or Mexicans, or Russians, or Vietnamese, or Arabs. We are so shaky about our own identity (see the 'conspiracy' essay in A Question of Values) that we are driven to deny an identity to others. This is now one of the factors eroding the nation from the inside (predicted by Woodward in 1953; see The Burden of Southern History). I've said this before: if a voice like mine could get heard--which includes being heard correctly--there wd be no reason for it to exist. Sometimes, paradox can be quite annoying!


6:17 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

ps: Shep: I goofed: the essay in QOV that deals explicitly with the problem of national identity is the one called "Locating the Enemy."

6:30 AM  
Blogger jerome langguth said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

Novelist Walker Percy has a collection of essays called Signposts in a Strange Land, the first section of which collects some of Percy’s nonfiction writings on the culture of the South. Here are some sample quotes from Percy’s 1957 letter to the editor “A Southern View” that seemed to me to be relevant to the current discussion on this blog. Percy was responding to Stephen P. Ryan, who in an article published in "America" had suggested that Percy was “a backsliding Southern liberal who had betrayed the cause by affirming certain values of the South while continuing to oppose segregation” (Percy’s words):

“… what seems to me nothing less than monstrous is to couple the case against segregation with an ideological hatred of the South and Southern tradition. Mr. Ryan says he doesn’t understand how a Southerner can oppose segregation and at the same time cherish his heritage. I don’t understand how a Southerner can do anything else.”

“Nothing is easier than to set forth the major contributions of the North to world culture as the automobile, Levittown, and the split-level home—in which there is no sense of the past, or of real community, or even of one’s identity.”

"It would be better to cherish rather than destroy the cultural cleavage between the North and South, a cleavage that accounts for the South's preeminence in creative literature and the North's in technics, social propaganda and objective scholarship. The difference has been traced to a Southern preoccupation with the concrete, the historical, the particular, the immediate; and the Northern passion for the technical, the abstract, the general, the ideological. I see no reason why either tradition should not be enriched rather than reviled by the other"


7:16 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Thank u. Those are great quotes from Percy, whose work I read many yrs ago. He embodies the nuance I'm talking abt: one can/shd hate slavery and segregation, and at the same time appreciate the Southern heritage. What a thought.


7:42 AM  
Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

I remember reading an op-ed piece in the NYT about 5 to 6 years ago by a young African-American woman who was, if I remember correctly, an anthropologist. She stated a child born pre-Civil War had a greater chance (statistically) of growing up with his father present than in 2000. She was certainly not advocating a return to slavery (nor am I) but simply presenting some facts about the myth of progress in certain areas of Black history. I was surprised to read this and wish I could remember her name or that of the article.

9:22 AM  
Blogger Luciddreams said...

for my part, I don't understand what all the fuss is about, but then I dropped out of college a hand full of times because of stupid shit like this. I have never been able to play the politically correct academic game. I don't think politics has any place in higher learning. Morals, ethics, philosophy, sure but falling into a left/right trap is ridiculous to me.

But then I don't vote either. Maybe before they got rid of JFK there was a point to voting, but I was born in 1980, when Regan decided to order up kegs of beer and credit cards for all. Or rather when he decided to remove America's sweater and bury appropriate tech in favor of denying the whole finite energy predicament.

I ran into Dark Ages America while at the book store looking for a good read several years ago and I just read WAF. The rest of your work is on my wish list at Amazon. I place you next to Joe Bageant on my book shelves in the "sane commentator" section. You fill a niche that works sort of like a therapists reassuring those of us with a brain that contrary to all empirical evidence we really aren't crazy and in fact everybody else is truly insane and trapped under the umbrella of the "American Hologram."

Thanks for shouting chords of sense into the land of corporate zombies. I intend on reading all of your work.

9:54 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Lucid,

Over the yrs, the most typical letter I've gotten from readers has been something along the lines of, "I thought I was crazy until I read _X_." A pretty high form of praise, I always thought.

Thank you.


11:27 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

Dr. Berman,

I was troubled reading this post and in particular, Professor Dowd's review. It was because of you that I've read several of his books including "The Twisted Dream."

Your points about nuance, here, and throughout your writing is something I've appreciated and have diligently tried to embrace, moving away from the tendency to limit my understanding to binary models of thought, which is partly due to our hard wiring (but also, an American fallback in everything, I think).

John Michael Greenleaf's blog, The Archdruid Report has become another regular destination in my web travels along with your blog. I'm sure I discovered JMG via your posts, or perhaps at the recommendation of WAF'ers' comments.

He had a recent post about this very subject, titled "The Trouble With Binary Thinking." It was particularly helpful for me and has helped me pay attention to this trap in every thing I read.

Speaking of reading, I have not gotten to your book, but it is next on the pile. I'm finishing up Colin Woodard's excellent "American Nations". He's a fellow Maine writer that I think you'd enjoy, much better known than I am with my small regional cohort of baseball nuts and Moxie drinkers.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Thanks for the feedback and for all the interesting references. Look: Doug Dowd is one of the gd guys, and will always be so in my book. But I think Robo (see above) pegged it correctly: Doug was personally involved w/civil rts work in the
60s, and was simply not able to handle anything that suggested that the antebellum South was a place of any value. Gene Genovese said as much in his work, that he anticipated that as a reaction: if yr from the North, the South is the Great Evil, the lowest of the low, end of story. It was this stereotype that Gene, Vann Woodward, and I, among others, wanted to correct--not in and of itself, but because of the light it sheds on the history of the alternate tradition in America. Given the fact that WAF is a history of hustling, I cd hardly ignore the existence of the No. 1 nonhustling society in America, and surely the only one willing to go to war over the issue. In any case, Doug fell into exactly the trap I predicted most American readers would, and I have been braced for the torrent of condemnation (except that very few Americans will read the bk anyway, so perhaps I don't have to be so braced). The problem is, I just never expected this stereotypical blindness from Douglas Dowd. This caught me completely by surprise. I do hope Counter Punch prints my reply, but I've never had much success with these things, so I think I'm SOL.

Thanks for writing in-


4:14 PM  
Blogger Patrick D. Fitzgerald said...


Looks like you turned out to be just as much prophet as historian when you predicted such an interpretation by the masses. Having to say "I told you so" to yourself must be a strange feeling, maybe even worthy of a new reflexive verb in Spanish. Decirseloearse perhaps.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

I'll confess that I also found chapter 4 of WAF troubling & disturbing at first. After all, it did go against the official narrative of the Left, at least on initial reading ... but a deeper reading revealed a much more nuanced & complex thesis. Presumably the idea of critical thinking is to examine the values & narratives that have shaped us & our worldview, even when that makes us uncomfortable. If anything, especially when it makes us uncomfortable.

Clearly a shallow misreading of this chapter will make it that much easier for many to dismiss the entire book, and Professor Berman's earlier books & life work as well. We see this everyday: someone says something that doesn't exactly jibe with The Official Story (be it that of the Left or the Right), and it's immediately twisted beyond recognition & the simplistic caricature is then fed to the public. Far more effective than silencing, imprisoning, or even eliminating the culprit.

With the holiday season once more at our throats (as Archie Bunker once put it in a Christmas prayer), the hustling nature of our culture is glaringly obvious ... yet so many don't see beyond the syrupy drizzle of "heartwarming" sentimentality that glazes all of it. It's fascinating, in a morbidly grotesque way, to watch all the local morning shows & talk shows as they shill expensive gift ideas to their audiences. Ultraviolet germ-killer for your toothbrush, for example?

This sums it up beautifully; ABC aired A Charlie Brown Christmas the other night, which of course protests the commercialization of Christmas ... but cut several scenes to make room for more commercials.

6:51 PM  
Blogger Marmalade said...

Here is an aspect often forgoten. Prior to the Civil War, there were more than just the two cultures of the South and the North. There were also the Appalachian culture the early Midwestern culture. The border states and those who lived there were the deciding factor in who won the Civil War. I'd recommend reading Albion's Seed by David Hackett Fischer and American Nations by Colin Woodard.

6:56 PM  
Blogger diana said...

Dr. Berman,

Somehow, I really don't believe that the issue here is an inability to deal with nuance.

There is a report on the NYT Website today headlined -"Insults Lead to Calls for Inquiries of N.Y.C. Police". I doubt I missed it, but nowhere in this article is the world racism used. These officers were calling West Indians savages and were advocating dropping a bomb on the West Indian Day parade next year. They actually made these comments of Facebook.

Imagine if this happened in Alabama. Would the NYT refer to these comments as insults? Don't think so.

I don't here away sweeping rejection of English culture despite the fact that there was a period when the English economy thrived on West Indian Plantation slavery.

I could go on but what the point?

7:16 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

A bit more seriously, anyone who doubts the horrific living conditions of the poorest of the poor in turn-of-the-century industrialized America need only look at the photos taken by Jacob Riis, for instance, and read the accounts of the muckrakers. Or even more recently, accounts of life in company towns owned by coal companies, for instance. Wage slavery indeed!

7:24 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


A nice word. I esp. like the 'arse' at the end. As in horse's arse.


The problem is that bombing the West Indian Day parade is too timid; or at least, is only a start. As I've said occasionally on this blog, the US is far too tolerant of countries who don't agree w/us completely. As a result, we need to nuke practically everyone, and get started soon. Jan. 1 wd be a gd day to wipe Toronto off the map; then we need to move on to Paris and the other European capitals. So much destruction to carry out, so little time!


8:30 PM  
Anonymous Dovidel said...

Susan W.—

Great Nietzsche quotes. They are so true it’s scary.

Dr. Berman —

Maz’l tov on “La longue durée”, a superb posting. While reading it, I was reminded of a conversation you had with Jari Chevalier during an interview several years ago. She started talking about saving the situation by getting everybody to change their consciousness, and you replied that structural problems require structural solutions – “History doesn’t work that way!”

What brought this to mind was the first two of your three things to consider at the end of “La longue durée”. First you wonder about the motivation of the OWS protesters – a better and more beautiful world (a besser und shayner velt) vs. “I want my American Dream” (Jari and her consciousness?). And second you sort of take the Annales historians with their ‘social forces’ to task for their image of “history without people” (MB and ‘structural solutions’??). All this reminds me of Marx’s statement that “People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please”. Even the American Dream ‘dead-enders’ among the OWS protesters are having an effect. In fact, they are a social force even though they will never get their American Dream. So maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about their motivation but just consider their actions. Also, some of these people will be changed by participating in the struggle. Remember Mao’s little catechism: “Where do correct ideas come from? – They come from social practice, and from it alone.”

These protests seem to be a venue for the minority ‘simple life’ alternative American tradition to get a hearing under conditions where more people are likely to be receptive. That’s where the ‘teach-in’ is likely to come from, and maybe as the American Dream crumbles, that alternative tradition will have its day after all.

Another important thing – I’m sure you’re aware that while rebellions may never succeed in the heart of the empire, they happen anyway, and they can divert attention and resources away from the periphery, which sometimes helps people succeed there.

We do live in interesting times, so at least it won’t be boring.

David Rosen

10:16 PM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

A couple of comments:

- A slight correction to Jim's great post: it's John Michael Greer, not Greenleaf.

- The discussion has brought to mind John Ford's film "The Sun Shines Bright" - probably a good time to revisit it. My recollection (I haven't seen it in years) is that it examines precisely the clash of human values that WAF is examining (i.e. 'hustling' vs. a more community-purposed way of life) within the context of the U.S. north/south divide.

- The reasons for the civil war discussed in Ch. 4 of WAF and how that ties to the trajectory of the U.S. empire are compelling, down to refocusing the narrative (as the U.S. always does) to the 'noble war to end slavery.' Hard to understand how an economic historian could ignore this argument. What's more difficult - or alien, at least for me - is to summarize the contribution of southern culture to the 'alternative tradition' that includes folks like the Transcendentalists or the appropriate tech folks of the 1970s. That may be what some readers, such as Mr. Dowd, are reacting to. (Jay - The Walker Percy quotes help.)

11:17 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Dowd is an economist, not an historian, and I don't think he's made much of a study of the alternative tradition, or knows much about it. I really do think he was reacting to my ch. 4 based on his own personal history in the civ rts movement; the reaction, to my mind, was obviously emotional, not intellectual or academic.

No, the Southern tradition was not exactly the same thing as Emerson etc., to be sure; but that's not what I'm arguing in the bk. The arg is rather that the US has a long tradition of (feeble) opposition to the hustling culture, starting from the early 17C. It was spiritual and exhortatory--the discontents of capitalism that never had any real clout. But if we are talking abt the one locus of anti-hustling sentiment (no matter how related or unrelated to Emerson it was) that existed in the US, that did have clout, that was the South.


You may be mixing apples and oranges here. Jari is no proponent of the American Dream; quite the opposite. My problem w/her approach was not that it was individualistic (she sees it in larger terms, in fact), but that it seemed to be operating entirely on the plane of consciousness--that's the way in which I meant, History doesn't work that way. In addition, when I refer to structural solutions, it hardly excludes Annales thinking on the subject (historical forces are structural solutions); it's just that the Annales folks tended to exclude human agency somewhat--wh/my notion of structural solutions doesn't necessarily do, as far as I can see. It is a question of an 'intermediate range', for lack of a better phrase, wh/Marx tried to capture in that quote from the opening pages of 18th Brumaire.

As far as OWS goes, I come back to what I posted earlier about the lack of any specific demands and the issue of Energy vs. Analysis. I know it's fashionable to say, the activity is the effect, and the movement is stronger by not coming to a sharper definition. Myself, I don't believe it for a minute, and frankly, because of its failure to become pointed and specific, I suspect its moment has passed. Not that melting into a kind of teach-in status won't have an effect, of course, in perhaps an NMI sort of way; but I can't help thinking that if it had opted for analysis, and for specific, beyond-American-Dream demands, it cd have had a greater impact. But then, I don't have a crystal ball, and perhaps the game is still in play; who knows?


11:56 AM  
Anonymous nick pearson said...

With fifty more pages to read in "Why America Failed" perhaps it is premature for me to be butting in here, but I wanted to bring up my personal experience of the cultures of the North and the South, because my family like many in the US has had representatives of both cultures. From childhood I was exposed to living embodiments of precisely what you brilliantly delineate in your book. I witnessed as the WASP ascendancy of the North of which my grandparents were a part lost much of its sense of gentility to the harried business life of the North that led to the boom and bubbles of the 20's and the Depression. I saw that northern gentility literally wither away and disappear in the microcosm of summer life on an island off the coast of Maine over a number of summers during four decades. Why would privileged people who had gentility, manners, and taste give those up in favor of crassness, corruption and vulgarity if it were not that the culture of which they were a part was not itself corrupt at heart? There was no need to have slavery as a basis for that corruption when there were wage slaves in the form of immigrants and the poor and lower middle class to serve the same function in the North. My father's brother was a captain in the Navy, captain of the flagship Ancon during the Normandy invasion. He married a southern woman from a prosperous family. Her aged parents had a summer house in Jamestown RI which I visited a few times with my family. They had black servants who did their work and never said a word to us which I found very awkward to say the least. For their employers it was a very sedate existence, but for me as a twelve year old visitor it was disturbing to be served by these silent beings. I guess the point I am trying to make is that while I certainly find that your thesis resonates and I believe it has much to offer as a basis for discussion these issues all have personal and particular meanings for anyone who grew up in the United States. The key matter though is the one with which I entirely agree, and that is that what impelled American culture and society along during the past two centuries had a malign quality to it which contained within it the seeds of the undoing and unraveling of the culture which I hesitate to qualify as a civilization.

4:32 PM  
Anonymous E.M. said...

I think LucidDreams touched on this issue in his/her post.

There are some un-PC things that the supposedly "open-minded" left will not tolerate anyone saying. If you do say one of these things - no matter how many caveats or how many "liberal" credentials you have in place - you will almost surely be vilified

Examples include, but are not limited to:
- Pointing out that maybe affirmative action isn't such a terrific panacea, not only because it ignores white poverty, but also because the logic of AA, followed through to its conclusion, implies that the achievement of racial parity in an otherwise grossly unequal society would make everything okey-dokey. (Walter Benn Michaels got pilloried by the left for saying as much in "The Trouble With Diversity".)
- Suggesting that maybe feminism has been co-opted by the corporatocracy, and that maybe being "liberated" to pursue an exciting career in "Fries with that?" isn't all it's cracked up to be, and that maybe our whole notion of the glories of corporate servitude - excuse me, "rewarding careers" - for either gender needs to be fundamentally questioned, will get you labeled a sexist pig in no time.
- Questioning education, ever. Education - or, more accurately, credentials - are Always Good. Pointing out that not everyone can benefit from more education, or that some people may not really be qualified for higher education (because, well, they're just not that smart) will get you labeled as an elitist. There are no people of low IQ! It's all just discrimination, or lack of opportunity, or...something. Surely we eliminated those "barriers" everyone could earn a graduate degree! The professors stuck trying to teach people who don't belong in college may mutter otherwise under their breath, but nobody on the left dare seriously question Almighty Education.
- Pointing out the damage caused by non-Christian forms of superstition is generally unacceptable. While Christian stupidity is fair game, other forms of religiously-justified nonsense are usually "ethnic differences" that must be respected. (At least, until the infidels start stoning the gays and honor-killing the women - then good little liberals start to feel a wee bit conflicted - non-Christian religions can suck too? Who knew!)
- Pointing out anything good about the South, ever, no matter how many caveats, etc. - well, you know.

I'm sure I could think of other examples given some more time, but you get my point. Some things are just on the "Not To Be Spoken Of" list of the so-called "left".

4:50 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Many thanks for your contribution; lotta gd insights there, and a lot for all of us to think abt.

In 1859 Lincoln claimed that 60% of the Northern workforce was self-employed. Eric Foner says this was patently untrue: the figure was more like 1/8th, i.e. abt 12%. Southern politicians liked to say that blaming southern slavery was thus a joke, because the northern version was wage-slavery, not a whole lot better and often, they argued, much worse. And it became clear after the war that Lincoln's idea of 'everyone a capitalist,' i.e. self-employed, a self-made man, was simply not going to happen: most were going to be wage slaves all their lives. All of this is impt to recognize; as Susan indicates (above), black kids in the antebellum South were in some ways better off than black kids in the America of 2000. And then there's the whole argument about whether blacks were better off economically under slavery than under a capitalist economy (see ch. 4, n.41, re: Fogel and Engerman); certainly their 'emancipation' was badly betrayed in the yrs following the war. BUT it is nevertheless the case, regardless of how much Calhoun and others talked about 'wage-slaves' etc., that there is a huge difference between being slave and being free. I mean, I suppose it's subjective to the person, and I can imagine some freemen in the post-1865 period saying to themselves, "Shit, I was doing better as a slave." No matter: in a political and existential sense, freedom is obviously an improvement over slavery, and no statistical dance (such as is provided by Fogel and Engerman) can make that bedrock reality go away.

But yr image of black servants as 'silent beings' is a haunting one; this much is clear.


4:56 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Well, it wd be nice if what u were saying were not true, but--it is. Personally, I cd never get on the p.c. bandwagon; I always thought it was a crock of shit. Both the Left and the Right have become pretty sloganeering and mechanical; my own preference is for authenticity, but it's not exactly a political position (or is it?). It also means my work can't get much of a voice, and can only occupy a very narrow niche in American society. Hard cheese, I'll take authenticity every time.

To take only one example: Was a black woman as Secretary of State some sort of liberation? Condy is a fucking war criminal, imo...


5:04 PM  
Anonymous Rowdy said...

Yah, but being non-p.c. isn't perceived as an authentic position; it's perceived as being the opposite - the tactic of the publicity-seeking controversialist sophist.

This is the deadly catch-22 of political correctness, and why it will persist until the society that surrounds it collapses.

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Paul C said...

After reading and re-reading Mr Dowd's critique it seemed to me that there is also the possibility that he's thinking there are those who are physically putting their lives and livlihoods on the line: protesting, trying to make a difference, affect change in any little way they can. Are there setbacks, sure. Are they likely to win? Depends on one's definition of winning I suppose but in the end did their actions have meaning? Did they accomplish something?, anything? ("would he have done it all over again") I think his point is to young readers looking for hope in making a difference in a system that is hopeless change on any major scale. An sure one can skip out and take refuge elsewhere in the world or just lay low (and isolated)...I don't know, it seems to me Mr Dowd is one who's accomplished a few things that he'd like to be proud of and seeing his legacy live on in the generations coming up. With the situation being as hopeless as what is painted in the body of your work represents it's gotta be a bit hard not to be affected. It's clear he personalized things from his own experience but I wonder if the hopelessness aspect of the message doesn't hurt a bit too. Kind of unnavoidable if one is looking for solutions with any weight.

The truth may set us free but nobody said it wouldn't hurt. Just a thought...

6:35 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


I'm sure yr rt. Dowd is a 'progressive'; I'm not. After all, he's a Marxist economist, and Marxism always sees a brighter future ahead. Myself, I think history is more cyclical than it is linear. That is to say, there *is* progress in history, no doubt abt it; but in my view, history is not *abt* progress; it's not necessarily moving toward a brighter day, and for all we know it might be moving toward a worse one. This wd, indeed, be a bitter pill for Doug to swallow; hence for him, the fight is always worth it. For me, it's sometimes worth it; but if yr Jewish and lvg in Berlin in 1935, and u have half a brain, u hit the road (the most egregious example, obviously). Pt is, there are times when the fix is in, and there's nothing left to fight for.


7:39 PM  
Anonymous Dovidel said...

Susan W.--

Re: Condition African-American Children -- Pre-Civil War vs. 2000.

My impression is that a very, very large percentage of white Americans still drink racism with their mother’s milk. (A poor metaphore -- I should say processed infant formula, the granddaddy of all junk food.) I say this because it makes it hard to believe that the abolition of slavery was the real reason for the Civil War. My reading of history makes me suspect that slaves were freed more out of spitefulness against other aspects of southern culture than anything else. Abolitionists were part of that underground ‘alternative’ tradition that Dr. Berman writes about, and the rest of white America was still arguing about whether blacks were human or not. Once the slaves were freed, most northern whites didn’t seem to care what happened to them – unless of course they tried to move into their neighborhoods.

It kind of reminds me of consevative politicians who shed tears over ‘the unborn child’. Once the kid is born they don’t seem to care what happens to it. Here too, there is another agenda.


It looks as though ‘New York’s finest’ haven’t changed at all since I left Brooklyn back in 1971. They used to find an integrated neighborhood troubling – difficult to treat as ‘a conquered province’. I guess they figured that if there were white people living there, crime was a ‘problem’. Without them they could regard crime as just ‘normal’.

You don’t expect the New York Times to bad-mouth the NYPD, do you? They’re depending on ‘NY’s finest’ to protect their beloved Wall Street and everything it stands for.

David Rosen

1:10 AM  
Anonymous EM said...

The one thing I didn't add to the end of my previous comment about things you're Not Allowed to Say In Nice Liberal Company is, why THESE issues? What is it about the things on the list of Things One Must Not Say that earns them a place on the list? I haven't really thought it through - but I imagine "the list" must have something in common?

(And yes, Condie is a shining example of what's the matter with a certain type of so-alled liberalism.)

8:32 AM  
Blogger stan said...

dear morris,

for me chapter 4 was probably the most revealing, it gave me an insight into something which is hard to define. perhaps critics should read the novel 'the leopard' by giuseppe di lampedusa, translated also in english. it's about the hidden clash between the ancien regime and modernity, between the world of the aristocracy and the bourgeois, the old money and the nouveau riche. or i would advise the critics to read de tocqueville on democracy part 2 chapter ten: The Taste for Physical Comfort in America. in a way de tocqueville describes the same phenomena you wrote about.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Coming from New Orleans, attending Rutgers, paying attention to Genovese, Sussman, and many other extraordinary history Professors (that Berman knew) in the '60s, I know the South had what the Yankees never had, and probably never even wanted: a society that was not based entirely on material
Simplified: We could be/were "somebody" without the physical trappings of wealth, especially industrial wealth, but this was tragically based on a comparison with ever present, degraded negro life all around us.
So, it failed. And I'm glad it did but I miss the deeper profundity of some of the Southern style. There really is nothing like it, since then.
Trust me.

6:23 PM  
Anonymous Kelvin said...


I sympathize with your disappointment to Dowd's reaction to chapter 4 of WAF and I hope that your reply is printed.

11:31 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Thanks. However, it's not likely. It's been 3 days since Dowd's review, and since I sent in my response, w/o a peep from Counter Punch, so I doubt it's gonna happen. The truth is that it's hard to get into print (ink or virtual) these days if u don't fall into recognizably Right or Left categories. I don't.


Thanks for your personal observation. It's quite maddening, to say the least, that the southern way of life had to be tied to such a brutal institution. But that's the historical reality, and how it played out; and the result is that the possibility for the US to know another reality than that of endless hustling was lost forever. C. Vann Woodward and Gene Genovese produced some of the greatest writing we have on the dilemma of all this, and remain marginalized because they aren't politically correct. Everything, literally everything in the US is framed in terms of B&W categories.


12:30 AM  
Blogger Jerry said...

Professor Berman,

It seems that the north vs. south divide continues to attract attention on your blog. I previously observed (in another thread) that contemporary hustling seems to be stronger in the American South than the old Union states (the Midwest and the Northeast) with the exception of NYC. I wonder if there is a religious dimension to this modern-day divide?

Perhaps the eminent sociologist Max Weber was onto something when he tied American hustling to the 'Protestant work ethic'. Demographically, the most Protestant area of the US is the South. Calvinism exerts a strong influence on the main southern Protestant denomination- the Southern Baptist Convention- and many of the most prominent 'prosperity gospel' preachers have their ministries in the South (Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, etc.). At a very deep level, the Evangelical movement- which encompasses a large portion of Southern US Protestantism- emphasizes a 'personal relationship with God' while deemphasizing social concerns; you can hustle with a clean conscience as long as you know you've been 'saved'. The 'alternative tradition' elements within Protestantism, such as the Quakers and the Social Gospel movement within the mainline denominations, never really got established in the South.

Conversely, the Midwest and the Northeast received a large influx of Jewish and Catholic immigrants in the 4 decades between 1880 and 1920. While there are individual members of every faith group who hustle, it could be argued that hustling is not a structural feature of either the Catholic faith or normative Judaism. Jews and Catholics made enormous contributions to labour and social justice causes in the old "Union states" (it's telling that Saul Alinsky, an American Jew born to immigrant parents, relied on the Catholic Church as the primary funding source for his community organizing foundation in Chicago). And many of the contemporary Protestant groups in New England and the Midwest (traditional African American congregations in big cities, mainline denominations like the Episcopal Church, etc) are hardly Puritan or Evangelical. The South *does* have larger Jewish and Catholic communities than it used to have (this is definitely evident in Florida) but, as of 2001, Arkansas's Jewish community was shockingly small (1700 persons), which seems to indicate the ongoing persistence of major religious differences between the North and South.


Jerry in Victoria

1:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The cult of Lincoln started it all.
The destruction of states rights. Suspension of habeus corpus.

The cult lives on. You read about it daily. Raids on family farms. Gitmo.
Et cetera Et cetera

Just keep voting, keep your kids in the state indoctrination centers.


6:45 PM  
Anonymous nick pearson said...

I've finally gotten around to the last pages of "Why America Failed" and find that your experience in Mexico is similar to mine in my adopted country Ecuador which I first visited in 1996 and in which I have spent a total of perhaps three years out of the intervening years over twenty different trips including periods as long as five months. Although I have seen Ecuador change in negative ways since 1996, it is still fundamentally a traditional society. I believe much of the reason for that is the influence of the indigenous people who make up over 50% of the population. Most of the indigenous people in Ecuador are very traditional to the point of wearing distinct clothing that announces which indigenous group they are from. They are also well-organized politically since the 80's and are capable of shutting down the country if they want to. Ecuador, as the smallest of the Andean countries also has the feeling of being a big family in which secrets are hard to be held. I was in the Quito, the capital, twice when corrupt presidents were overthrown through direct action of the people who poured out into the streets in large demonstrations until the military recognized the seriousness of their intent and withdrew support for the beleaguered president. Unlike Colombia to the North and Peru to the South Ecuador has a more peaceful history in recent times, and the military and police have been loathe to fire on people who could be their own relatives or friends. Despite the negative changes I have felt taking place in Ecuador since 2000 I still find the same politesse and slow and relaxed pace of life that attracted me to the country in 1996. My intention is to move definitively to Ecuador from Boston within the next couple of years. I wish I could leave sooner because I find life in the US ever more alienating and disturbing and worry that there will be a military coup, state-of-emergency and martial law before I can get out in time.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

finding Dark Ages America informative.

would like to purchase

Coming to our Senses - in ebook format. is it available. Just have paperback

4:15 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Sorry, no e-bk available.


6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a licensed battlefield guide at one of our national military parks, I highly recommend Mark A. Noll's "The Civil War as a Theological Crisis." (Chapel Hill, 2006.) It's not just a book about the religious views of both sides with respect to slavery. There's fascinating commentary from contemporary foreign observers who were not willing to give full support to the North, due to its unrestricted capitalism, for example. All Americans should read this book. -Bob

10:39 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Bob,

Thanx for info. In future, I suggest sending messages into the most recent blog post, as readers tend to not bother w/the previous ones.

Keep writing,

6:40 PM  

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