May 29, 2006

Beacon blinking out: Dark view of America

Dark Ages America:
The Final Phase of Empire

By Morris Berman
W.W. Norton & Company. 416 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by Gresham Riley
From the Philadelphia Inquirer, 28 May 2006

To readers who already believe or suspect that the United States is in deep trouble at home and abroad, Morris Berman’s new book will come as no surprise.

To those who, like Ronald Reagan twenty years ago, continue to think of the U.S. as "a city on a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere," it will most likely be dismissed as simply another exercise in knee-jerk anti-Americanism. Ironically, such a response will only hasten the outcome that Berman sees as inevitable: the end of the American empire and the dawn of a new "Dark Age."

Morris Berman is not another crackpot eschatologist. He is a serious and careful scholar who charts the final phase of a movement that began as 13 colonies, became transformed into a Republic, changed again into an empire, and now (like Rome at the time of Constantine’s death in A.D. 337) can only look forward to the sun’s setting on its period of world domination.

Berman believes that four characteristics of the West after the fall of Rome have reemerged in American society, and he uses these features to build his case for the book’s main thesis: the triumph of religion over reason; the atrophy of education and critical thinking; the integration of religion, the state, and the apparatus of torture; and the political and economic marginalization of our culture.

The critical turning point in our history, Professor Berman argues, was the transubstantiation of the American republic into an American global empire. Unlike bread and wine, this change was not a miracle but the result of deliberate choices by policy makers and support from the public. Two in particular, one in the foreign policy arena and the second having to do with monetary policy, loom large in Berman’s account.

Regarding foreign policy, common wisdom has it that the diplomat George Kennan was the architect of American Cold War strategy, the principle doctrine of which was the political--not military--containment of the Soviet Union as elaborated in his now famous "long telegram" and the "X" article in Foreign Affairs. Of much greater significance, in Berman’s view, was a subsequent top secret National Security Council document known as NSC-68 (1950), written by Paul Nitze and approved by his boss, Harry S. Truman. Basically, NSC-68 declared that "a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere" and that, consequently, there was no such thing as "peripheral interests" with respect to American foreign policy. NSC-68 embodied an "Orwellian vision of world domination and permanent war" that guides our decision-making today.

The economic policy choice was the withdrawal by Richard M. Nixon in 1971 from the Bretton Woods Agreement (1944). As described by Berman, Bretton Woods "created a system of more or less fixed exchange rates among world currencies, and placed controls on international capital mobility." The objective was "to create a favorable environment for trade and investment while allowing countries to pursue full employment and social welfare policies." By withdrawing from the agreement, Nixon paved the way for American economic hegemony.

Berman explores these and other "policy roads" taken and not taken in a decidedly non-academic, informal style that is easily comprehensible to the intelligent lay reader. At the heart of his analysis is the idea that becoming an empire was the beginning of the end, because "the process of trying to maintain an empire would generate the resistance sufficient to undermine it."

Empire not only sets loose forces that eventually undercut it, but also corrodes the values, manners, indeed the very personhood, of its citizens. The emptiness and ignorance of the American public provide further evidence for Berman’s conclusion that there is no warding off the Dark Ages. Symbolic of the emptiness at the core of America is the replacement of values derived from the Western heritage and the Enlightenment by a MTV culture: unfettered individualism, consumerism, and hedonism.

As for basic knowledge, there is such a lack of it, Berman writes, "that one has to wonder if we are talking about ignorance or just outright stupidity"--adults who don’t know who our enemy was in World War II; who quiz their travel agents about whether it's cheaper to get to Hawaii by train or plane; who can’t locate the United States on a map; who can’t name the three branches of government; and who lack even an elementary understanding of thesis and proof, evidence and argumentation.

Although Dark Ages America breaks no new ground, Professor Berman assembles with uncommon clarity a vast amount of scholarship, data, and commentary in support of conclusions that most readers will resist. Unfortunately, this timely and important study will most likely be perceived as insufficiently scholarly by the "theory class" and as excessively gloomy by the "leisure class" to be taken seriously by either. Berman obviously anticipated some such reception. But, he explains, "there is value in the truth for its own sake, not just because it may possibly be put to some utilitarian or optimistic purpose."

Gresham Riley, President Emeritus of Colorado College and former president of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, lives in Philadelphia.