April 06, 2007

Review of DAA in The Texas Observer, 3/9/07

Still Declining and Falling
by Paul Christensen

Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire
By Morris Berman
W.W. Norton, $25.95

Morris Berman is a messenger bringing bad news about the coming end of the American empire, which he estimates will occur around the year 2040. We are heading over the cliff because of uncontrolled trade deficits, a “negative identity” that feeds on war against weak nations, a fatuous culture of TV and empty movies, failed schools and pain-free universities, our shopping mania, a captive press, lost civil rights, lobbies that run Congress, and a Justice Department that freely rewrites Constitutional law. And we are a doomed society mainly because the public itself is no longer active or aware, and keeps re-electing the very people undermining its remaining freedoms.

“America takes away love and gives its citizens gadgets, in return, which most of them regard as a terrific bargain,” Berman writes. The “sacred cow” in the United States is the American people: “Anything has the force of biblical revelation if it is ascribed to this mystical, all-knowing entity.” Berman prefers Nicholas von Hoffman’s assessment of that same populace as “asses, dolts, and blockheads,” or as “bobbleheads in bubbleland.”

And the critics and some bloggers want to kill the messenger. Writing her review of Dark Ages for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, the Iron Lady of review columns, could hardly contain her rage over Berman’s calling America names. “He is smugly fatalistic and sweepingly dismissive of political debate,” she writes, calling him “indiscriminate and intemperate” and opening her review with a salvo: “This is a book that gives the Left a bad name.”
There is a deep intolerance for even the best writers of Berman’s tradition. When Walt Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas three years after the Civil War, he concluded that the nation had learned nothing from the war’s massacres; instead, he wrote, the peace that followed was a time of anarchy and greed. His words were not welcome. He predicted the coming of the Gilded Age, and suspected the war may have been fought for reasons other than the liberation of slaves—namely, to construct a national economy with the corporations that Berman tells us in his book Twilight of American Culture and now, six years later in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, are killing democracy and ending civilization as we knew it.

Behind Berman is a host of American prophets of gloom like Thorstein Veblen, coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption”; Theodore Dreiser, who once noted (in his 1916 memoir A Hoosier Holiday) that any American given the choice between two houses will always choose the uglier of the two; Mark Twain, of course; Frank Lloyd Wright, who, asked about the state of American architecture, suggested tilting the country up on its California edge and sweeping all the buildings into the Atlantic. Sinclair Lewis is on the list with his notion of Babbitt as the quintessential, gadget-loving bourgeois; and H.L. Mencken, who gave us the immortal names for the middle class, the “booboisie,” and “the Bible belt” for southern Christians. The list is long and populous, with cranks and voices crying in the wilderness. One can add the literally hundreds of disillusioned historians, sociologists, philosophers, and writers whose work is liberally cited throughout Berman’s latest diatribe. He is not alone in saying we are rushing to our own destruction.

Over Berman’s shoulder is Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West (1918), and before him, the 18th century English historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an attack on organized religion and an ironic commentary on Roman hubris and its consequences as England was launching her own empire. Decline is a frequent reference in Berman’s arguments. This is thinking with the “big picture,” and it should come as no surprise that Berman earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, home of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s “History of Ideas” program, in which cultural movements are charted from dark and obscure origins dating as far back the 6th century. No one remotely touched by Lovejoy can think in terms of decades or world wars.

Dark Ages covers the full-scale anatomy of how America went wrong. Berman reaches back to the land-grabbing and stony individualism of the colonial period, citing religious sources and observing how Puritan ledgers were headed “in the name of God and profit” each day. Towns from their inception were mere transit points for people looking to make money, not community. Borders were porous, and the deep urge of the first Americans was to move up, buy real estate as a commodity, and when the economy failed, move west. This left the country in tatters under a veil of supposed coherence and patriotism.

Berman argues that all across the history of the country, empty slogans and false promises covered over the anarchic mayhem and violence of a people jostling for personal advantage and little else. Once corporations absorbed all this energy under the collective powers of huge legal entities, the force of runaway capitalism grew ominous and began to erode the powers of government to rule or control the marketplace. All values devolved into market values; nothing possessed inherent meaning.

If the Great Depression slowed things down for a while, with federal restraints on the stock exchanges and big business, the lesson didn’t last very long. Berman argues that our downfall really occurred when Richard Nixon abrogated the Bretton Woods Agreement (limiting the fluctuation of foreign currencies, with the dollar pegged to the value of gold) in 1971. Oceans of capital began to wash into America’s banks, with the immediate consequence of investors pulling back money from American manufacturers, to avoid the expenses of taxes, pensions, and medical bills, and turning instead to plunder Third World countries for cheap human labor. In turn, that pulled the plug on most cities, which saw their tax bases shrink as unemployment, crime, and vagrancy soared.

But the disintegration began earlier. To soak up loneliness, the car was invented at precisely the moment in which cities were losing their shape and meaning. Americans took to the road, and soon radio filled the evenings in lieu of friendly chats with neighbors. The television peddled corporate wares to an overworked, jaded public no longer interested in plays, symphonies, or music played in local parks. Isolation and boredom became the constants of American life, with work taking up most of the week. The result was alienation from all forms of civic participation, and a corresponding numbness toward changing the situation.

According to Berman, presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bushes senior and junior, and Clinton are all villains of modern political history, the undertakers of American society as they rig small wars to keep us distracted. The one exception is Jimmy Carter, a modest redeemer, who emerges as a sort of hero who tried to slow down corporate and military expansion, and to hold back the forces that would usurp government in the name of free enterprise. After that, le déluge. The worst of times has come with the election and re-election of George W. Bush. Berman reserves his real fire until this moment. He describes Bush as a “dry drunk,” a “man-boy unable to empathize,” and a Christian fundamentalist sadist.

The closing chapters of this dark book argue there is no way to turn back the doomsday clock on America; forces are too well aligned to stop the final disintegration and collapse of the nation. “A world awash in suburbs and shopping malls, television and sensationalism, cell phones and Burger King, Prozac and violence, fundamentalist Christianity and sink-or-swim ethics, is no vision for the future.” Of course, Berman was writing this book in the grim aftermath of the Bush re-election, when Republicans held both houses of Congress. It looked darker than it does today, with Democrats back in power and already making changes in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s first “100 Hours.” Who knows, it could get a little better before Berman’s doomsday clock tolls midnight?

The danger of writing a book on the political moment, regardless of how wide the historical canvas, is that when things do change, contradictions ensue. The midterm elections demonstrated that the American people are rethinking their faith in Bush and the Republicans. The cost of global warming may yet require us to be more realistic and join the rest of the world in holding back our hydrocarbon emissions. But modest signs don’t persuade me to think that we can muddle through much longer. China, India and the European Union are all poised to replace us as world powers by the midcentury; this much seems certain from what Berman and others are saying. While civilization itself may not crumble, the American empire seems doomed, something Berman suggests may not be such a bad thing.

The real importance of this book may not be in its predictions of America’s coming fall; we are already used to thinking our time on center stage is growing short. Too many mistakes, too many miscalculations, too much money spent on the military and security, not enough on our infrastructure. We understand that. What Berman achieves is a portrait of America as a collection of unassimilated immigrants unable to form a society because greed, an erroneous cult of individualism at any cost, and an indifference to our natural resources have made coherent life impossible. Our cities are half-dead, our mass transport is in ruins, and our lives are fragmented and dysfunctional. For the first time in our history, more women live alone than with partners, a sad commentary on social life. More children are on Prozac, some from early infancy, than in any other society. Work is meaningless and all-consuming for the average American, leaving no time for leisure or socializing. Berman brings all this together in compelling prose buttressed by massive reading and statistical authority.

Even if there is some truth in what some reviewers have been saying about Dark Ages, that it is held together with thin thread, too many quotes, too much dependence on hearsay and his own anecdotal evidence, the fact is, Berman is right. We are an unhappy, discordant, lonely nation glutted on bad food and junk from the malls; we are depressed and hide it behind drugs and prescription medicines. We live empty lives but confuse them with longings for bigger and better houses, more cars, more TV channels, more of everything but the modest solution of changing our fundamental orientation to life and turning back to community as our salvation. Berman wins this argument hands down. To object to his methods or his so-called intemperance plays into his hands—he says we are easily gulled by bromides and false promises, and hide from the reality that we are a decaying nation. What any reader should do after reading Dark Ages America is weep, and then ask how to protect oneself and lend a hand to a neighbor.

Paul Christensen is a poet and essayist who teaches modern literature and creative writing at Texas A&M. His new book, Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence, is due out in April from Wings Press of San Antonio.


Blogger Mike Cifone said...

Against the backdrop of an America losing its founding vision, of an America bleeding away its Soul into a desert of greedy individualism, philosopher Jacob Needleman asks us to recover an America threaded with the ancient Wisdom of the past, woven by some of its most prescient thinkers and sages. He writes:
"If we look in this way at our origins, from this kind of inner wish for our country, our neighbor, and ourselves, we may begin to see with new eyes why America once was the hope of the world and why it may still be the hope of the world. We may understand anew that all of America’s physical and economic strength and its inspired form of government and law still offer the world the broad social conditions that allow men and women freely to search for truth within themselves, which means, first and foremost, to struggle for the awakening of conscience and the power to love. This and this alone constitutes the inner essence of the American dream of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In a word, and to repeat: the pursuit of happiness does not mean the pursuit of pleasure. It means the pursuit of a life in which one is in touch with that aspect of oneself which alone can bring happiness." (2003, "Two Dreams of America", available at http://www.jacobneedleman.com/TwoDreams.pdf)
The work of philosophers such as Needleman is, it seems to me, a kind of obverse image of the story in "Dark Ages". Just as the very seeds of America's demise were contained in that very progression from mere colony to mighty Empire, so too are the seeds of a spiritual vibrancy to be found in America's death pangs. The wisdom of History teaches nothing if not that growth springs from decay.
Even in the throes of destruction, or in the cool complacency of an up-rising Empire, the Spirit of each individual man is the same, even if corroded by the vicissitudes of his particular worldly circumstances: to find spiritual freedom.
I suppose the only ameliorant to the cultural death that surrounds us is compassion, a compassion that can find the seeds of spiritual growth even amidst those things we link to a greater demise. For it is not that our particular choices make us spiritually dead (our burgers, fries, two cars, McMansion, please and thank you), rather it is a deeper ignorance of the Spirit that allows us to confuse a sandy mirage for a cool refreshment of the Soul.

11:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On Bretton Woods: it was no longer a sustainable system given that the US Dollar was backed with gold and foreign nations had built up a surplus of dollars in 1971 - more than the USA had in gold in case foreign nations decided to cash in. There was actually no 'good choice' for Nixon to make then.

Subsequent futile attempts after the August'71 Nixon Shock were made until 1973 to return to a fixed-rate of exchange, but no agreement of any value could be reached so the USA effectively surrendered to the 'floating exchange' in '73. Nixon did attempt to address the trade deficit in '71 with a 10% surcharge on imports but this quickly evaporated at the Tokyo Round...

Such as above can be found in "Secrets of the Temple" by George Greider, who is hardly and far from being a conservative Nixon apologist.

4:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Berman: btw, I downloaded your talk on C-Span (somewhere in Virgina) via YouTube promoting "Dark Ages" and found it very enriching. I liked how you pointed out that the only Democratic Party person running for President in '08 that offers any sort of opposition to the current Empire/Empire-Lite system is Dennis Kucinich. I'd also add that Kucinich is the only one laying out Issues, now for the plebes to see where he stands, and he is also the only Democrat who is paying homage to the one-time New Deal tradition of the Democratic Party. Now most of the Dems(you said it) are a joke.

As for Jimmy Carter, one must recollect that he set the table for Reagan with his deregulation policies, and he was the one who brought this Born-Againism and Bible Beating into national politics. Though he was/is theologically liberal it gives pause to
remember that Pat Robertson endorced Carter in '76. Carter allienated the left wing of the Demos(back in the days when they had one) so much that Ted Kennedy gave him a run for the money in the 1980 Primaries and the Carter Camp tried to have the liberal economic platform squashed at the Convention that year. Carter was the first Democrat to abandon the spirit of the New Deal,imo.

Thanks. Like your books!

5:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

America's slide to barbarism is indeed irreversible as evidenced by the high likelihood that the recent murderous rampage by an alienated crazed college student will lead to even wider availability of guns. The authorities are unable to protect the population in a country awash with violence and guns. Sensible policies to restrict access to firearms adopted by Australia and Britain, the more civilized Anglo-Saxon countries, will not be replicated in the USA. The mostly likely outcome is that the state of Virginia will "finally" allow concealed carry permits
on its college campuses. This policy, already in effect in Utah, will likely be adopted by many of the other gun friendly (mostly) "Red" states. Rising mental health problems in America due its culture of alienation is a whole other topic.

7:36 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Excellent summary review of this deeply disturbing but unfortunately accurate jeremiad. One thing we should note as well regarding critical attacks of Dr. Berman's work: Most attack him on his lack of data and his inapplication of proper scientific research methods. Consider this: Is our academic community's obsession with data and hard evidence not a complete rejection of the value of keen intuition? Dr. Berman is right, and our intuition tells us this regardless of what we may consider to be arbitrary evidence.

J. L. Albee
C.A.G.S., '03
Johns Hopkins University

10:07 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mike:

Jake knows a lot about philosophy, perhaps less abt history. Structural problems require structural solutions, and it's not very likely that the "Spirit" is going to do much anymore--at least not in the US. When Rome fell apart, it did not rise again until the 15th century; a rather long time to wait. European revival began in 11th C, and was in the north. So OK, the Spirit won't die; but the American Spirit, such as it is, is (I fear) long gone (just look around).

Thank you for writing, in any case.


11:01 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear John,

Thanks for writing--great hearing from you. The only problem with Paul Christensen's review (and I should say that I wrote him personally to thank him for it) is that he uncritically followed the lead of the NY Times in saying that the empirical evidence is weak, and that the book is anecdotal or intuitive. Man, last time I checked I had something like 40 pp. of footnotes; and the statistical data provided between the covers of the book far overwhelms the anecdotal evidence. Michiko Kakutani (NY Times) was simply out to discredit the book at all costs, and this smear was one way of doing it. And while the book may provide a "big picture" look at the US, the proof is fine-grained, down to naming the government personnel in Portland OR in the 70s, fer chrissakes (just to take one example). In short, this book is very tightly woven, and the arguments extremely well documented. A pity the NY Times poisoned the well, and everybody is drinking from it. Well, this Internet cafe is closing (I'm currently in Chiapas), so I got run...but please pardon my rant here; I just wanted to correct this unfortunate impression from the NY Times.

Thanks mucho for writing, and I hope you are doing well.

Maury BErman

11:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris,
I am a high school teacher, one of the last German teachers or so it seems. The bells ring, students change classes, and everything seems normal, but it isn't. Everything retains the form of the original, but it isn't the same. This is probably much like Rome towards the end. People are going through the motions, but it isn't with the same vigor. Every year students do less homework. There is very little interest in anything at all, not just German. Of course there are a few families, usually religious, and foreigners who actually do the work, but the rest of the home grown Americans are apathetic, lazy, technology-obsessed. My students wont give me $4.00 for a book, but they don't hesitate to buy I-pods etc..It is sad, and it is getting worse every year. More and more kids are labeled with disabilities, and I am pretty much commanded to ease up on the students, if I want to see German survive. My German friends can't believe that it is surviving at all. Most of the youngsters don't have the attention span (technology) or work ethic to really get it. I work in a very wealthy suburb of Chicago, and I wonder what is happening everywhere else. Parents only care about the grade, and have very little intellectual interest themselves. It is very depressing. Students can't spell simple words like "alley." All 30 freshman looked at me blankly when I told them that "Fracht" is freight. "What is freight?" they all asked me. They had never heard of it. Houston there is a problem. Germany is also going down, or should I say balkanizing. This is all more a death of the West rather than death of America. Yet, at least Europe gives people the common respect of hospitals, university education etc...When is the next book coming out?

best wishes!
John in Chicagoland

9:46 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Lieber John:

1. "Gegen Dummheit selbst die Goetter kaempfen vergebens"--Schiller.

2. When the spirit dies, the civilization just continues on as a hollow shell--Spengler, Hegel, usw.

Hope you can get out before too long.

Vielen Dank fuer Ihre Brief.

Alles Gute,

10:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman:

I have just read your book "Dark Ages America" and I feel enlightened. I was a presidential candidate in Poland in 1990 in an election that was greatly influenced by the American Embassy and Dick Cheney, who showed up 4 days before the end. Your book expains it all in context of geopolitics. As a resident of Canada I feel sad and angry at the people who have placed America on the course of self-destruction and I am worried about future of my innocent children.

Thank you very much for your effort, skills nad bravery demonstrated in your book. Now I will start filling some bags with sand, as this is all I can do :)

Stanislaw Tyminski

11:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Growing up in the 50's going to Cal Berkeley in the 60's, studying history then law I found most of what Berman writes about fit the facts. I had friends a Cal from Iran who lived under the Shah and were supporters of Mossedegh who described the American involvement there just as Berman records in his book. I followed US action in Guatamala, El Salvador, Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua and elsewhere. And Berman sets it all out there. My question--never easily answered--is how is it that Americans, even well-educated and humane in their values balk when confronted with the overwhelming data and how can people who have perpetuated the lies and committed the atrocities live with themselves.

2:49 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Dr. Ziegler:

Thank you for writing, and for your questions about two of the most crucial issues of our time. I tried to answer the first question--as to how Americans, including very intelligent ones, are in denial about the facts of our foreign policy record--in the Tanner Lecture I gave at Southern Utah University on 6 March 07. ("Locating the Enemy: Myth vs. Reality in U.S. Foreign Policy") The Tanner Center is just now bringing the essay out as a bound volume (very slender, obviously), and you can probably call them and get a copy, if you'd like. I argue that our foreign policy (and earlier, Manifest Destiny) has a unconscious religious basis--the religion being Americanism--and that this goes back to the early 17th century. Challenging this is very difficult, because even very intelligent Americans have been brainwashed into it without realizing it. As you and I have surely experienced, having a discussion on these topics with other Americans is typically like trying to whisper thru 50' of concrete, and expecting the other person to hear you. Not likely. This is also a key reason that substantive social or political change in this country is simply never going to happen. Changing course necessitates awareness; Americans just don't have it, as far as I can see.

As to your other question--how can these people (torturers, lying politicians, agents of genocide) sleep at night?--American unconscious religious blindness is part of the answer, but this issue surely goes beyond that of the US: Spanish Inquisitors, the Nazis, etc etc. Some, it is true, can't handle it and are haunted; but I think the majority sleep very well. A lot has been written about this topic--I'm thinking of those famous studies by Milgram and Zimbardo, of course--but I'm sure there is a large psychological literature on it, in addition to these. So this is hardly an American problem: human beings being what they are, their capacity for violence and subsequent rationalization to protect themselves from guilt is quite massive. In Cossack pogroms of the early 20C, the soldiers tossed babies onto bonfires, or tossed them up in the air and then speared them with bayonets; then went home and made love to their wives. Anyway, if you ever get a definitive answer to your question, please call me collect.

Thanks again for your thoughtful letter-


9:40 PM  
Blogger xlDaedalus said...

I find your vision clear, your observations astute, and sadly, true.

Aside from what Ghandi says to do, to be the change you want to see in the world, what can we do to prove you wrong, for the sake of our children?

3:55 PM  
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2:55 AM  
Anonymous Dan said...

The Cossack story reminds me of how gentile housewives would follow Jews being herded into the forests for mass executions. Why did they follow them? So they could take the baby carriages back to their villages after the carnage.Humans, in other words, are more or less unredeemable.

11:27 PM  

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