December 14, 2007

Defining Deviancy Down

Dear Friends,

I was recently contacted by a reporter for the New York Times, who asked me to clarify the relationship between culture and politics. Below, my reply.--mb

Dear Kirk,

Thank you for writing. Yours is a great question, both in the sense of being very important, and in the sense of being vast. In fact, to provide you with a decent reply, I think I'd need to go off and do about six years of research, and I'm guessing your deadline is a bit sooner than that. The problem here is that there is no definitive pattern, or even set of patterns, I know of, for the relationship between culture and politics. In some cases, it makes no difference at all that I can see: the British decision of a few years back to outlaw fox hunting, for example. A similar ban in NYC, a few years ago, on smoking in bars and restaurants. There is a lot of stuff in that category.

At the other extreme, we might consider the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism in the 16th century, or in contemporary Northern Ireland. These are/were cultural conflicts with huge political consequences, quite obviously. Hatred of Jews in Germany during the 1930s, and the cultural campaign against them; e.g. movies (which I've seen) comparing Jews to insects, crawling through sacks of wheat, poisoning the food supply, i.e. the larger "healthy" German culture. As one historian famously remarked, "ideas have consequences."

As for the things you point to, such as capital punishment or homosexual marriage, I could offer some guesses, but that's all they would be.

I do, however, know of one pattern by which culture impacts politics, a pattern identified by the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the phrase, "defining deviancy down." In other words, what is socially unacceptable at one point, becomes perfectly OK--or at least, tolerated--a decade or so later. I used to ride the Metro quite often when I lived in Washington, DC, and watched how increasingly, people put their feet up on the seats, or sprawled out on them. Cell phone users could care less who is listening to them, so one now has to suffer through dinner with a friend in a restaurant while 3 feet away, someone is yakking loudly about their personal life. The Met, in NY, used to ban cell phone use in the galleries; now, one has to look at Rembrandt or Van Gogh while someone stands next to you, describing their recent gall bladder operation. Visitors even talk on their phones in St. Patrick's Cathedral. In schools, rudeness to teachers, and violence toward classmates, has become commonplace. Learning for learning's sake is a thing of the past, something "quaint," for patsies. There is a long list of this sort of behavior, and in fact a long list of books on incivility in American life (Stephen Carter's "Civility" is a good place to start).

There is also a large literature documenting a complete lack of interest in community and the larger society in the US, and how, following Moynihan's prescription, this is now taken for granted. The most famous of these is Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone" (this for the period 1965-95), but you might also check out Alan Ehrenhalt's "The Lost City," among others.

The impact of these things on politics is that politics becomes more or less irrelevant. We don't really have a society any more, so in that context, what is it that politics could possibly accomplish? Most Americans don't vote, and I doubt that very many, in their heart of hearts, really believe things are going to get better over time, regardless of which party is in office. The result of incivility and loss of community, of a world in which (e.g.) violence in our high schools is now regarded as simply a fact of life, and learning and erudition regarded as jokes, is cultural death, cynicism, loss of belief in America at large. "Democracy" becomes little more than a slogan. Bill Clinton or Barack Obama can talk about "hope," but all this is nothing more than empty rhetoric, because there can be no hope in the face of such large-scale solipsism and narcissism. Politics cannot be meaningful when the huge majority of the population has turned away from "the commons," from any participation or even concern about the larger society (which politicians such as Reagan and Thatcher claimed didn't even exist), and into private worlds of shopping, Prozac, TV, the Internet, religious fundamentalism, and the like. And this certainly does constitute an historical pattern, whether we are talking about the end of the Roman Empire, or the disintegration of the American one. Indeed, probably the greatest factor in the collapse of a civilization is spiritual death; and as Moynihan pointed out, we are seeing more and more of it every day.

As for your own question regarding the resolution of all this: take a guess.

Anyway, that's the best I can do on short notice. If there is anything in the above that might be useful to you, feel free to take what you need.

With best wishes,

Morris Berman


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's great to see another blog entry up, Mr. Berman, depressing though it may be. I'm witnessing no better evidence of spiritual death than the passage of Christmas into the bleakest, barrenest psuedo-holiday in my 41-year memory.

Out on the streets, not even the Salvation Army santas are ringing bells with any gusto. News reporters have turned retail into movie box office grosses ("The biggest shopping weekend ever!") and the corridor from Halloween through XMA$ has become a thoroughfare of commerce -- one big paved holiday that feels flat as an infomercial.

My own personal theory is that all the lies have caught up with out culture. I watched a screening of In the Valley of Elah last night and it struck me that the disconnect between what's really going on in Iraq and the economy and to the hearts and souls of our people has never been greater. We're in total denial. And as a result, the words of our politicians mean nothing. What we say in public means nothing. There is no truth underlying what we hear or see or say... so we become a culture of banality and outrage, of random and chaotic violence, and shopping as therapy to cure our inner emptiness and sorrow.

This is Christmas! I wish everyone the happiest of holy-days among those you love. Hug 'em tight, for there are bleak days ahead, I'm afraid.

12:10 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Bryan,

The days are already bleak; it's just that 99% of the American public has yet to figure it out. I keep coming back to that old bumper sticker: "If you aren't appalled, you haven't been paying attention." (Another favorite of mine: "We still read!")

Thanx for writing, and feliz ano nuevo.


5:47 PM  

Dear Morris:

According to your article, I’d love to establish my particular relation between culture and politics.

Culture could be seen as the magical things reveled in present daily life happenings, having the privilege of receiving chaos and life in every of it’s small and intimate event of human face to face contacts; politics on the other hand is a bet on future scenarios that can give this cultural phenomenon a certain global structure. But as you say: “political ideas have consequences on culture when “the commons” force bizarre ideas on the people. I believe functional societies have a need of chaos, in a place were everything seems to be resolved, creates a need of uncertainty. Obvious probabilistic systems are a kind of hidden determinism.

In my philosophy culture impacts politics in a necessary way; there are theories that Maya hierarchy was massacred because of their lack of daily life. If reality is created because of political dome decisions, how can rudeness and violence not become a commonplace in a paradigm that doesn’t exist according the peoples needs, but to the needs of corporate money that has made a “world wide makeup” of the Victorian era in London? How can a lack of interest in community not take place with the fiction of liberty, that suppresses communities world wide in very subtle ways?

I think politics becomes more or less irrelevant because it’s based many times on this questionable “bet”, an abstract supposition, not a systematic development of reveled facts in daily life. Circular democracy and not vertical-mirage democracy, that look the same but are radically different.

And finally a question I’v been anxious to ask you: Can your ascetic model (Twilight of American Culture) bring back paradox and phenomenology (Wondering God) to a world a believe is desperate for it? Desperate for Reenchantment?

Rational society tends to give politics an absolute importance, in irrational cultures it’s just another possibility. It’s obvious that accomplishing things with those more “irrational” parameters is much more difficult, but as you said once in an interview about “The real Gold” in Colombia, I think it’s one of the reasons that make’s gold possible, a certain faith in people’s genuine expressions, dynamic risk factors are needed, if deviancy means differing from the norm, I think it’s absolutely necessary sometimes, as Latin-American for me loyalty in circumstances is more realistic than honesty with idyllic (messianic) actions.
Most Americans don't vote because right or left is the same thing, “Heads or tails comes from the same coin that buys us.” This is a good slogan for modern Democracy? Doesn’t Hope as an empty rhetoric reveal spiritual death today?

The result of incivility and loss of community is quite relative I believe. Clifford Geertz creates a dilemma between nation and tribes, it’s note just a difference in scales of one contained by the other. Deviancy: Up or Down?

8:45 AM  
Blogger Jerome Langguth said...

Dear Mr. Berman,

The main purpose of this email is to express my gratitude and appreciation for the inspiration and solace provided by your books over the years. I especially love Twilight of American Culture for its sober-minded assessment of the “spiritual death”, as you recently put it, which has quietly overtaken our culture. I regard your last two books as the most accurate and honest look at American culture out there. I sense, though, that your current assessment is, if anything, even less cheery, and I am left wondering what your thoughts are now on the prospects for “new monastic individualism”. Granted that on the level of politics things are only going to get bleaker, is it not just possible that an “underground” culture premised on the refusal of the society you describe so well will persist? In Twilight you used A Canticle for Liebowitz as a metaphor for such an informal underground, and that struck me as a useful way to think about the prospects for resistance, or at least refusal, in a world such as ours.

On a related note, I have recently been reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Taylor seems to share many of your views regarding the spiritual and intellectual depravity of the culture, and yet he seems guardedly hopeful about “retrieving” a more humane, and humanly enriching, society (at least in Canada!). As much as I fight against it, however, I share your sense of hopelessness about such things.

Do you intend to write more about new monastic individualism? In particular, I am interested in how the “monastic” and the “individualism” would work together. The missing sense of a spiritual/intellectual community might make this a very difficult project indeed, or so it seems to me. In any case, best wishes for the holidays.


9:17 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Jay,

Thanks very much for writing, and for your kind comments about my work. I haven't given up on the (new) monastic idea; I mean, I'm still pursuing it myself, at a distance (I live in Mexico), inasmuch as I publish most of my work in English, in the United States. But as I say in the Twilight book, it's a long shot. You have to do this work for its own sake, because there is no telling whether it can have some eventual, cumulative effect, or come to nothing at all. As for a connected, underground culture: at the present, at least, it seems too diverse and decentralized to organize itself into anything effective, in a political sense; but perhaps that will change over time.

You are right, of course, that I was more optimistic when I wrote Twilight than when I finished DAA. Until I did the research for the latter, I had no idea how bad things really were, and how structurally embedded they were, historically speaking. However, this doesn't render individual life in the US meaningless, and in fact many people have written to me that DAA gave them a sense of relief, that they now had a reasonable larger picture of the US and could meaningfully orient themselves within it. You keep plodding along, in short, but are more "of" the world than in it, as the Buddhists say. Octavio Paz once wrote that the Aztec empire collapsed because the gods deserted it. Clearly, something similar is happening to the United States (metaphorically speaking), and I believe that is the context in which all of us have to operate. Perhaps right now the best any of us can do is balance individual effort with larger cultural and political awareness.

Merry Xmas-


9:39 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman, I don't know if
the following fact has occured to
you, so I'll just ask: Has it
occured to you that EVERY form of
modern (contemporary) media, from
books to anything else you can think of, is ABSENTEE and, therefore, vicarious and at least
potentially, solipsistic -- as
opposed to tribal and other cultures in which values and everything else was transmitted
"live," in person, person-to-person and, thus, in personal, living, direct societal and cultural, spiritual, ethical, caring manner? DS, SD, CAl.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

Well, perhaps that's where science has some value, in the sense that immersion in a situation can frequently tell you less about it than distance. I do talk about this question, to some extent, in "Wandering God," tho not directly (if I'm remembering correctly; I haven't read it since 1999). But I'm thinking of my section in DAA on China--a country I've never visited--and how one Chinese correspondent of mine, a professional translator who moves in high-level gov't and corporate circles, wrote to say I had pegged the situation exactly right. On the other hand, Rachel DeWoskin, in "Foreign Babes in Beijing" (where she lived for 5 yrs) says she never read an article in the American press about China that actually corresponded to what was going on there. I think my section on Iraq--again, a country to which I've never traveled--is superior, in terms of knowledge of the situation, than anything an American GI stationed there could produce, or even, for that matter, Paul Bremer (though that would hardly take much, of course; he's one of the great jackasses of the 21st century). (The proof of this is what happened in Iraq, as opposed to what the Bush admin predicted abt the invasion or is saying abt the occupation today.) I mean, I don't need to get struck by lightning to know that I wouldn't enjoy it all that much. So it's a complicated question. There are limits to the scientific method, as well as limits to immediate participation. Keep in mind also that many native cultures were not terribly caring...I mean, no surprise that when Cortes arrived in Mexico, much of the population was so tired (read: violated) by Aztec rule that they joined the invading forces! Finally, what really works is a dialogue between the objective and the subjective (which is why I typically provide stats as well as personal anecdotes in my work), but there are no hard and fast rules as to how this should be done.

Good question, in any case-


5:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

An optimistic and selfconfident CanDo-mentality sounds like something that can only produce positive effects for any indevidual, people or country. But if it grows delusionary selfconfident and optimistic over time, this very factor can actually do you in. It then works like shielding blinders for a donkey. Selfconfidence quickly turns into less or no respect for destiny-determinative time-delays between causes and effects. In short:

The sound and healthy attitude of "My destiny is not pre-destined - I can steer it." turns into an delusional one: "I can steer it in ANY direction where I damn well please, and omnipotent enough to deal with ANY obstacles later, then they arise".

I provide below two links to Daily Telegraph-articles, "Is it hypocritical to hate America?" and "To hate America is to hate mankind" to illustrate the problem:

Even more revealing is the very extensive reader-comment section to above articles.
To read it thoroughly probably takes several hours, but one get the general tone of it by just skimming through it lightly.

5:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Mr. Berman, I read in your October blog in your back and forth blogging with a guy name Kenneth how you guys where talking about African Americans being caught up in the system of modern America and how when you go to colloquims and other events you see about one or two in a crowd of about 300. Well I just wanted to add something to this if I may. You are absolutely right about this. However you have to understand the big picture here which I hope that Kenneth can understand after reading this. You see Mr. Berman we as a people(African Americans)have been and still are being savagely beatened by white people both litterally and figuratively. We are so busy trying to carve out a skimpy living out of horrific poverty, trying to keep the police from knocking us upside of our heads, trying to obtain some sort of equality and justice that we just simply have to much on our plate at any given time. Just look at what is going on in New Orleans with them demolishing the only housing that those people ever had who will now be thrown on the streets. Did you see how they where tasered and beatened by the police. Do anyone actually think that those people have time to go to a colloquim on the environment? Look at Jenna six, look at Sean Bell who was shot and killed by the police on his wedding day, look that the black man in New York some time ago who was shot 40 times for pulling out his wallet and lets not forget about the black man who had a plunger rammed up his rectum. We have been and are stilled being whipped savagely by white people. We had our name and culture stripped away from us we have been made to hate one another, we have been dumbed down and we have had drugs put into our community by the CIA. The white man has done a job on us and still is but now he is and about to also do an equal thorough job on his own(middle class and what he likes to call poor white trash). You see the downfall of America began when the white man first stepped foot on America. This is when the clock began. Once the white man stepped foot over here he began killing off and savagely beating the Native Americans. Then he went to Africa and we all know the story here. Then he started building up a strong military and dropping atomic bombs on people. Then he started creating economic hitmans and assasinating leaders and overthrowing governments and creating conditions of poverty for people in other nations and I can go on and on for years. I see that people on here write that they are afraid of the bleak days ahead and they most surely should be. You see God is not mocked. You shall reap what you sow, you live by the sword you die by the sword. You see everything was alright when only our rights where stripped away and our phone lines where being tapped. Remeber cointel during the civil rights movements and all the taps on Dr. King? But now that Joe Smoke on the street lines is being tapped we have an uproar going on. But when black neighborhoods where the only ones with no jobs and opportunities it was just those people but now that the precious white suburbs schools are coming downs and jobs are being lost we have a problem all of a sudden here. You see when you only have equality and justice for only a few eventually in the end it gets taken away from everybody because the elite who only made you think that he cared about you by allowing you to have a nice lil job and nice lil schools for awhile because he really just wanted to keep you occupied with hate while he tightened up his grip and behind the scenes put into place his mechanisms for elite rule cares not for you and will and is tossing you down at the bottom with the rest of us. It is really quite funny and humorous how white people have been fooled and hoodwinked by the white elite by instilling in them hatred and ignorance. The water of this ship that we call America started at the bottom with us black people but now it is at mid level and rising. Just take a look at the subprime mortage problems which are getting worsed or all the nice paying good benefits wonderful jobs that are being stripped away and sent overseas. I mean they even have you all training your replacements. This stuff is pure funny. They even have open the flood gates to let the Mexicans in for new salve labor in case you have the nerve to tell them what to pay you. We black people are laughing at you all for we knew this was coming. We know how evil and ruthless your elite are and how they have been using you all and instilling all the hatred in you all. The suffering has only begun it will get more intense and worse. I believe that a major stock crash is coming that will make America a third world country of rich elites and everybody else poor. I am now starting to see poor whites moving into black ghettos because they cannot afford anything thing else. I am now starting to see them drive hoopties. Well we are all in the same boat now sink or swim. We welcome you into our urban oasis of ghettos, unemployment, gang violence, drug infested communities, a judicial system that is unjust. Maybe we can one day bater koolaid and sugar.LOL Americas last hope was Dr. King. HE was truly a man of God who not only fought for the civil rights for black people but wanted economic and social justice for all poor and disinfranchised people of all races and before he was assassinated wanted to began an economic justice movement. Dr. King should have been president instead of Kennedy and Johnson and this whole country would have been better off but your hatred blinded you and you missed the blessing of God and now will suffer. Well folks it is all downhill from here. Mr. Morris I sincerely hope that you post this message and a serious discussion on race can begin here which is at the core of all our problems and I look forward to your response.

1:15 PM  
Blogger MikeB said...

Mr Berman,

I just finished your book, thinking how much more intense and relevant your criticisms have become, now that things appear to be truly unraveling in the financial sector.

Thanks for a thoughtful and generous book. It's not often that a critique of such range can avoid the swamps of vituperation, as is the case with another book I'm reading, Dick Taverne's "March of Unreason."

He, too, criticizes the descent into unthinking belief all around us, but I'm shocked by the lack of humanity in his portrayal of those he criticizes. He exhibits the very "manichaeanism" you mention in "DAA."

I'm curious: you don't mention about the state of energy, particularly oil, in your book. You frequently cite Kunstler who, as you must know, is one of the louder voices in the peak oil awareness movement.

Do you have any thoughts about this "belief" (that production of oil is about to enter a steady and permanent decline worldwide).

Obviously, if true, it's nothing but another BIG piece of bad news as we enter the Dark Age.

9:53 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

Thank you for your moving and heartfelt letter. It's a complicated issue, and I could add or modify a point here and there, but I prefer not to; better that your text just stand as it is. I have said that this is a space for honest contribution and reflection, and you clearly have done just that--and given all of us a lot to think about. You are a straight shooter, my friend, and I appreciate that.

With kind regards,

11:55 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mike,

Ya know, I just couldn't write abt everything in DAA, sad to say, and finally had to leave peak oil and the whole larger environmental question out of what is essentially a cultural-political discussion. But obviously, all that is bearing heavily down upon us. From an oblique angle, you might check out Joseph Tainter's book, "The Collapse of Complex Societies," which argues that the factor such societies in collapse all have in common is an economic pt of diminishing returns. On a # of levels, I suspect we plateau-ed out several years ago.

And on that cheery note: Merry Xmas!


11:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Heres two bookreading-tips:

Google-search "Reinventing Collapse" (2008) by Dmitry Orlov. This title havent been released yet, but I would like to promote it anyway, since it appears to be fleshed out version of below very interesting lecture:

Also google "Second-rate nation" by Sam D. Sieber (2005). The author starts out by quoting George W. Bush:

"The United States is the single surviving model for human progress".

The rest of the book doesnt help much to reinforce that confident statement though.

7:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From reading your books, I know you believe Brave New World to be a more accurate prediction of the future than 1984 was. But we may be looking at a strange and terrifying blend of these two visions-----in today's NYTimes (12/31)in the most sent emails is an article from the business section, "Losing Your Job on Your Own Time." According to a study cited in this article, within the last 7 years Americans have gone from 85% being concerned about being spied on online to 60% saying pretty much they don't care. So, apparently, not only is deviancy being defined down but also our tolerance to "Big Brother" behavior on the part of our government and private business is being defined up. While our gagets become more and more adept at amusing us they can apparently also be turned into potential tools for monitoring us. I'm not particularly paranoid, nor do I have any plans to move to a "compound" in Montana, I just find it very creepy and unnerving that there's so much (or the potential for so much)incursion into private lives of private citizens.

9:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Prof. Berman,

I really love your work. Please keep writing!!!
I was actually going to follow up on Anon's brilliant post. I myself am multi-racial (African-American, Irish and English). I have been thinking for a while that black folk (i include myself...its the one drop rule here right?) have always been at the bottom of society along with the Native Americans.
I honestly couldn't care less if America goes down the tubes. I don't see any point in trying to change things here. Its been tried by many different people (Dr. Martin Luther King, Abby Hoffman, Medgar Evers, Violet Liuzzo...i mean the list is endless isn't it?)
I grew up in England and analyzed this country from the outside and it has been a sick society since its very inception. I'm not surprised at all by the level of violence here.
People are railing against Gangta Rap and other artforms, which are merely a reflection of whats going on in poor communities all over the US. I think what people don't understand is the utter hopelessness in many places around the US. A lot of young black folk are tired of the popular rap music anyway…pretty soon we’ll create another genre of music which will be much better.
I was living in Washington DC near Catholic University when two young men were brutally murdered right outside my home. My baby son and wife could have easily been hit by a stray bullet. I read in the paper the next day and found both blokes had passed away. But i had to go the back pages and really hunt for the was buried really far down. Now i know if they had been two white college students that would have been front page news, cnn, the deal.
I haven't given up hope though. I have dual nationality and will be moving my children to england as soon as i can. I just took my son to england over the christmas break. He got to meet a proper family...grandparents, great-grandparens. He will never see my wife's (she is from DC) family because it has been completely broken up by poverty, drugs, alcohol.
I encourage anyone with an able body and sound mind to move out of the US because nothing will ever change here.

2:41 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Mr. Geezer,

Thank you for writing. You might want to check out Randall Robinson's book, "Quitting America"...although he seems more obsessed by the land he left than by the one he moved to. As for racism: be advised that England is at the top of the list here. I lived there for three years, and when I arrived, in late '68, was shocked by graffiti such as "Wogs Out!" on walls in London. Hopefully things have improved since then, but I do believe the skinhead contingent is alive and well in the UK.

You will, however, find a different value system there, to some extent--they do have National Health Insurance, for example--and perhaps a more intact family structure. Margaret Thatcher did her best to destroy these things, and to widen the gap between rich and poor. She succeeded, at least partly; but there is a lot left from pre-Thatcher days that is still worthwhile. It's a complicated picture, really: like the US in many ways, but perhaps not egregiously so (you don't find a TV in every room of every building, for example; businessmen on the tube talk knowledgeably about things such as the nominees for the Man Booker Prize--can you imagine such a thing happening on the Metro in DC??!--etc.). For a funny and often unnerving portrait of contemporary England, you might want to check out the novels of Nick Hornby (e.g., "How to Be Good") and David Mitchell (e.g., "Black Swan Green"). All in all, I would say England is not going to change any more than America will; it's just that they are at a much less destructive place, and I suspect this will come as some measure of relief to you.

Yes, the list of would-be reformers in the US is quite long, as you point out, and not just with respect to issues of race. My experience of trying to get Americans to understand 9/11, for example--to really grasp the history of US foreign policy--is akin to talking to someone on the other side of a wall of concrete
fifty feet thick. I am, however, not an activist or reformer, because the futility of such a career in the US is clear to me. What really awaits Americans in terms of 'change' is more debilitating wars, loss of Medicare and Social Security, more technological toys, less community and friendship, and an environment of even deeper alienation--with literally no one giving a damn about any of this. Not exactly a happy prospect.

Thank you for writing, and good luck on your move.


10:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Berman,

My admiration for your books!

One part of your reporter response rings too familiar to me- the cell phone crisis.

I have nothing much in addition to add along your lines- except that I, a 6'3" man with a mild-mannered appearance, from time to time finds
myself "challenged" by a cell phone
wielder in public, or more specifically (if such really exists) in SEMI-public.

The pattern typically is this: the
young 30-something(?) user notes
that I have stumbled into his conversation, whether four or even fourty feet away, and will then move toward me, talking at/around/through me before I have been able to make a graceful evasion. Surely, this is passive-aggressive, pure and simple!

My point I suppose is that we cannot overestimate the anti-social dimension of this recent
technological artifact. I for one no longer consider myself "in public", since around any corner something I have no intention to overhear may be there for my ears.

With those little "communicators", privacy seems at once to exalt and abolish itself, taking any last sense of proper public discourse with it. And those of my demographic status, possibly, experience it a little before others!

Thank you for your forum.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear McGredwa,

And thank you for your contribution. The cell phone serves a lot of purposes, the least of which is real communication, it seems to me. People are lonely and desperate, for example, and the cp acts like a drug, enabling them to "connect" with someone and thus momentarily soothe themselves. The phone also facilitates their workaholism; now they can work
24/7, if they want. Or it enables them to be aggressive, as your example illustrates, and get away with it. It makes them feel important as well. And being a society hooked on extreme individualism and technology, we do not consider (for even a moment) what the down side of all of this might be--the cost in terms of community, social action, and even individual psychology (the need to have a metaphorical thumb to suck, e.g.). I recall visiting Colorado College last October to give some lectures, and one faculty member had a great cartoon (more like a photo, actually) posted on his door. It showed a Thanksgiving dinner scene, with Mom carving the turkey, and Dad and bro and sis sitting around the table, and all four of them are paying no attention at all to being together, or being a family, because all of them are on cell phones! The caption to the cartoon was: "Change Is Bad." This certainly goes against the American grain, according to which any new toy has to be an improvement. Clearly, we need a whole new definition of "progress".

Thanx again,

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Listen to what David M. Walker, the Comptroller General of the United States, has to say about the growing US fiscal inbalance in this video-lecture ( ) - then compare that some of these Fox news-guys has to say about the "marxist idea" of redrawing recent tax-cuts for the rich, and the extremely rich ( ).

Can America work together as one and pull itself up by the bootstraps? I say: show me the signs.

4:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Morris,

Thought you'd like to see this...Actor Will Ferrell winning the "James Joyce Award," although he's NEVER read any of Joyce's work.

Anti-Intellectualism, Schlock, and Kitsch being rewarded with a prestigous Intellectual award...all because of Celebrity Worship.

We are doomed as a society.

I am becoming that monk you propose, and my personal library is up to 1,300 volumes.


6:34 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Pete,

Thanks for your contribution. When a nation wallows in crap and calls it gold--evidence for which appears in the papers on a daily basis--you know The End Is Nigh.

Yours in monkdom,

3:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have to say that I can sense some antithetical views whispering whenever I read some of your criticisms of American life. Could "defining deviance down" be another way of saying increasing tolerance? "Deviance" is always defined by authority figures, the people in power, and most the time it's defined foremost to perpetuate the hierarchy.("Shut up and get in line.") Subcultures invariably spring up under the shadow of and reactionary to the larger, dominate culture, particularly if the larger, dominate culture is suppressive (actively weeding out "deviants"). And with the subculture comes the accompanying clothing, body and vocal language and art -- partly to signify internal allegiance to the subculture and to thumb their nose to the larger, dominate culture. The establishment bristles at these (rude) displays, which is partly the point.

Also, the cell phone rudeness is partly because the technology is relatively new in the grand scheme of things. The accompanying social mores still have not been worked out or at least have not yet permeated all possible social situations, but egregious incidences of, say, people yakking away during a play don't seem to pop up as much as they did 5 - 10 years ago. All new introductions of technology have this period of working out, I believe. (Although, as I think about it, a lot of consumer technology was bound to the home by technological necessity. "Mobile" technology brings about its own unique problems for its integration into social life.)

The example of the people at Thanksgiving dinner each in their own little technological world excludes the idea that absent the technology the family may be arranged as a Norman Rockwell portrait on the surface, but hidden beneath may be suppressed or not so suppressed conflict, rage and turmoil merely dressed up nicely for authoritarian presentation -- sometimes technology can be a portal out of such a stifling situation or at least a respite from it.

As, I believe, even you wrote in one of your books, there is always conflict between the individual and the community. The soul both yearns to stay in Mayberry and longs to leave, like a child who can be at times both comforted by and restless in his mother's arms. As the movie Pleasantville depicts, as much as people are nostalgic for the "happy days" of the 1950s, lurking behind the rows of white picket fences, the homogeneous community, were bigotry and stifling social roles. Community can have its downsides. Maybe George Bailey of "It's a Wonderful Life" would have been better off getting out of that town when he dreamed of doing so -- who's to say.

The band U2 has the lyric:

"A man builds a city
with banks and cathedrals
A man melts the sand
so he can see the world outside
A man makes a car
Builds the roads to run them on
A man dreams of leaving
but he always stays behind"

There is a melancholy sense in the last two lines in the way they are sung. Maybe in our hearts we are still nomads, and consumer technology is merely allowing this to be re-asserted once again in this post-agrarian, post-industrial age.

Or as a Rush lyric says:

"We're only at home when we're on the run"

You yourself have lived in many different places from what I've gleaned from what you have written, uprooting yourself each time, and that's partly because modern life affords us the ability. What if you had never left the place of your birth for the sake of the community?

1:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes one stumbles upon a movie-scene that seemes to encapsulate the whole underlying problem. Check out this one, with Alec Baldwin as a sociopathic real-estate sales-motivator:

More disturbing though is reading some the YouTube-comments. Far from everyone gets it. As one commenter puts it:

"It is a good scene. But it's funny to see that some people really likes this person."

6:51 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your thoughtful contribution. I talk about some of this, in passing, in DAA (chapter entitled "The Home and the World," which is actually the title of an old novel by Rabindranath Tagore): the Palestinian woman who said she was exhausted by her family's constant monitoring of the minute details of her life, or Fareed Zakaria's comment (he was born in India, and is now editor of Newsweek International) that "When I hear the world 'community', I reach for my oxygen mask." I certainly don't want to denigrate the cosmopolitan ideal. But my pt is that all civilizations are a package deal, and have their up and down sides. In my own opinion, the US went too far in the direction of individualism--the early frontier ideology, the redefinition of "virtue" as successful competition in the marketplace (this in the 1790s)--until it destroyed community altogether (which is the underlying theme of "Seinfeld," in fact, if you examine those vignettes closely; it wasn't so much a "show about nothing" as a show about nothingness). I live in a small town in Mexico, and the fact that I get up in the morning and pee constitutes news here. ("Hey, amigo, I understand you peed this morning!") Sure, the warm bosom of community--which really does still exist across large parts of Mexico, India, even Japan and the province of Quebec--can potentially drive one bonkers. But I can tell you that I'll gladly suffer the down side, in comparison to living in a nation in which every conversation seems to have an "agenda" behind it, in which true friendship is as rare as falling in love, and where one can die in one's apt. bldg. and not be found until the monthly rent or mortgage payment fails to arrive. What *is* "progress," finally? What sense does the word make, when the costs of escalating rates of cancer and mental illness get figured into the GDP?

As for cell phone use, you may be right about the time lag required for working out the rules, but it seems to me more a desperate search for connection (like the "community" of the Net--now there's a joke!) in the context of general anomie and meaninglessness, than anything else; and a sad and destructive form of narcissism as well: I'll do whatever I want, and Fuck You if you don't like it (including talking loudly for an hour in a small cafe, so that everyone present has to listen to ME--this is American pathology, not some form of genuine social rebellion or nomadism, it seems to me).

When I think of the American inventions of the 20th century, 4 come to mind that all had the same purpose, namely, isolation or separation from others: the car; the TV; air conditioning; and the cell phone. Sure, the car gives one freedom to "get away" (cf. DAA, ch. 7); but mass transit could have given us the same thing, it seems to me. There's very little a/c in Mexico; kids play in the streets, using bottle caps as a soccer "ball"--the sort of scene one found in American cities in the 1950s (cf. Alan Ehrenfeld, "The Lost City", for the devolution of Chicago during 1955-95). The damage TV has done to our lives, not only in terms of (the erosion of) literacy and intelligence, but also in terms of alienation, brainwashing, and increased separateness, is incalculable--we are only now just starting to assess the profound impact of this technology. And the cell phone is a real killer, privatizing public space, making people absent while they are present, and eradicating the last shreds of common courtesy that (used to) exist in personal interaction. (Not enough has been written about this, but the following is a good place to start:

I think that finally, we have to start thinking in terms of a balance between "progress" and real human needs (esp. continuity and connection), the individual and society. You are certainly right about the "antiethetical whisper," and as you point out, in a nonmodern world I personally wouldn't have wound up with the life I have--which (on a world scale) is quite privileged, from the viewpt of personal autonomy. Yet I and every other modern has paid a heavy price for that autonomy, and as things continue to go in that direction, the price continues to get higher. The danger is that globalization, the American model of the "happy" life, will finally take over the entire planet, which would effectively be the end of our common humanitiy. The Rush lyric could, after all, be a put-down of modern life, similar to that old bumper sticker, "The one who dies with the most toys wins." (Check out Albert Borgmann's "Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life," discussed in DAA, ch. 2, for a really brilliant take on this set of problems--I don't think I could improve on it, myself.)

Thanks again, in any case; this is a very important discussion, and I only wish there were a truly public forum for discussing such things, not just a blog.


10:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I haven't had the chance to write out as thoughtful of a reply as I would like, but I have a moment now so there are some things I'd like to mention quickly.

PBS's Frontline just repeated an interesting special on the Mormons. In it they talk about how much community is stressed in that faith, and that, unlike many faiths, geography plays a significant role (that many Mormons are located together in Utah) -- which, like, say, the Amish (common faith, common geography, common identity) make for a strong community. Yet, they also talk about the amount of anti-depressants that are sold in that area (to women), and this is attributed to the mormon-style "Feminine Mystique" syndrome projected onto the women of the community, that they're expected to be, basically, perfect 1950s housewives. Deviancy from the "good" (including gays, ERA advocates, "intellectuals") is held in suspicion, if not grounds for excommunication. And if constant social condemnation for not being June Cleaver weren't stressful enough, add the subtextual threat in that community of not being worthy of the communion with God -- man, pass the Prozac. It would seem that community can foster the type of "confiscation of the Self" that you talked about in one of your books (though in a different way), that the person becomes too other-directed in order to survive, and that can't be healthy. The Mormon piece also profiled a guy who was gay (a big no-no in the Mormon church) and tried for more than a decade living the life of a heterosexual including getting married, having kids, building the "ideal" Mormon house out in the scenic wilderness; he said he had everything he was "suppose" to have but felt dead inside -- then came the affair, the divorce, the excommunication. So, I guess, the point here is one can feel alienated and alone even within a "traditional" community.

Isn't your next book on something about religion in early America? It's interesting to wonder how authoritarianism dominated the early (religious) communities. I can't believe many of these communities were optimally healthy -- like burning women as witches. My point here is that the founder of the Mormons originally lived in communities where people were up and leaving to "go West" and his stress on community was partly a reaction to that observed restlessness -- but then Mormonism became bad in the other extreme: authoritarian.

I don't think that technology per se is the "root" boogieman here. I think it's the increased confiscation of private (corporate) space over public space (I think you've written about this), and the alienation that started with Industrialization (the writers on the great 1990s show Northern Exposure had one of the characters explain how, whereas at one time people made material things for themselves, Industrialization provided a new (material) world that introduced a sense of alienation to their existence) and has gone to absurd degrees with Postmodernism commercial simulacrum (commercial interests here built a fake town square with, yes, a clock tower -- in pedestrian-free suburbs -- to replace the failing mall to be filled with the Gap, Old Navy etc. -- so symbolically it's meant to feel like an intimate community setting but it's Disneyland fake ... hollow and empty of soul. They even added an "e" to towne center --- ugh!) Stuff like this reminds me of one of my favorite lines you wrote (paraphrasing) that societies enshrine the values that they can't afford to keep (when you were writing about zoos in Coming to Our Senses). Well I have more to add but it's getting late, so I'll have to continue this at another time ...


12:44 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Bill,

You know that old post-WWI line, "How can you keep them down on the farm, now that they've seen Pa-Ree?!"

Yes, traditional communities can be quite suffocating...Cf. Fareed Zakaria's remark (born in India, now editor of Newsweek International), "When I hear the word 'community', I reach for my oxygen mask." We have yet to find a balance between American extreme individualism and the enclavish world of the Amish (remember the film, "Witness"?). Check out DAA ch. 3, "The Home and the World," for a discussion of the secular-tribal tension, or the novels of Thos Pynchon (V., Gravity's Rainbow) on the same topic. Too much oxygen is as destructive as too little, when you get rt down to it. Today, the dominant culture in the US is infinite choice, which is finally no choice at all, because it is nearly impossible to opt out of the culture of infinite choice.

As you said, it's late...


3:33 AM  
Blogger stevesadlov said...

When the USA became adrift from its Anglo Saxon underpinnings, and its direct descent from the philosophy of the English Country Party, the die was cast. After that, the arrival at a so called "multicultural" (but in fact, atomized in the Nietzscheian sense) state, where the only "commons" was to be shopping malls and gentrified upscale urban neighborhoods, was assured.

Also, being relatively isolated from the harsh realities of the Old World, with our "Channel" being the Atlantic (and later the Pacific) we, unlike our forebears, had nothing to moderate some of the more troubling cultural tendencies of the post Enlightenment Anglo Saxon tribe. A predisposition toward shopkeeperdom, combined with a definite tendency toward isolationism, had nothing to balance it. The sort of psyche described in David Brooks' "Bobos" series was a direct result. The key became nothing but B Major.

We have since hollowed out our national comprehensive strength. There is no common set of goals. There is not even really the will to defend ourselves. What passes for that are the various limited overseas expeditions meant not to conquer but to "fix" anything which might impair the diffuse constructs which we incorrectly believe constitute a emerging global economic nirvana (all one needs to do is read Thomas L. Friedman's drivel, to see this).

Meanwhile, a collection of Hun like warriors prepares to plunder the carcass. I foresee no less a crisis than that which befell Western Europe between 450 and 700 AD.

Yes, another Dark Age is coming.

8:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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8:55 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anonymous,

I tell ya, ya took the words right outta my mouth!


12:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if this decline between culture and politics is simply the natural social evolution of a nation built on the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of property/happiness.

The hyper-individualism of libertarians and of free markket privatization is what kills community (to me). We spend all of our time at work because we must earn and pay for everything we have, and so our communities are limited by the way we can spend our time with one another.

Plus, community sounds just like communism. Maybe our "fight" of the Cold War is what did it.

1:55 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear craftlessculture,

Well, Jefferson never did say what he meant by "happiness"; in short order, it got equated with the possession of objects. In "Land of Desire," Wm Leach says that uniquely in America, "goods" got confused with "the good life." By the time Fitzgerald got around to writing The Great Gatsby (1925), he was saying the obvious: a purely materialistic culture has only death to look forward to. No surprises there.

Thank you for writing-


6:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Professor Berman,

Best wishes with your new appointment.

My comment deals in general
with "Dark Ages America." Nothing
profound, but maybe something worth describing.

My local Mcdonalds has just celebrated its 30th anniversary. Just tonight, I stood in the establishment, looking at a poster board of photos, newspaper blurbs and other relevant memorabilia appropriate for a birthday commemoration.

What I saw was not a "blast from the past" or "nostalgia"; I saw much, much more. Why? Because there WAS much, much more to living and being in 1978. It is not an exaggeration to say I was
in this thinly-veiled dark age. The people in the photos had such spirit and individuality about each of them; strata of society could be perceived: compliant youth with middle-age, respectful teens with the elderly, nonchalantly comingling in a world I realized (again, with a sudden stupor) that has gradually departed my senses.

The small-town news writing seemed more like something from the 1920's (!), with its odd freshness, purposefulness, and ALIVE earnestness.

I could go on: the girls behind the counter clearly had inner lives behind their pretty smiles; their managers obviously possessed pride behind their stolid poses at the new restaurant sign; a scout group was present for the hooplah, as were members of...a COMMUNITY. So strange, how even so recently, the concept of "community" was, at least hereabouts, evidently still a given.

But more than anything else, I was astonished by how just a few artifacts of our HAVING BEEN- having been, with some kind of life, purpose, spirit- could indict our hellhole present. I considered how, somehow, "progress" demands something more than mere cost.

And so I note it here: A commemorative bulletin board presently stands in mute testimony to the life-negating effects of staggering progress. The thoughtful soul who contrived the
display should be the two or three of us who will have acknowledged what it really said between the images and words.

Ed McGrane

6:06 AM  
Blogger Edward F. McGrane said...

Dear Professor,

A recent blog mentions the "Towne Centre" (my pretensions with spelling.) Well, As you point out, a culture indeed enshrines what it cannot afford to keep...

More to the point, this posting is an addendum to my recent posting about a 'McDonald's with a community behind it.' Before I am possibly taken to task for seeing only one pole of the dynamic, please allow me to say that I was thinking of "community" as I, at least, once knew it...and for about 10 to 20 years. Briefly, my suburban enclave was close to a good balance between "tribalism" and "extreme individualism." At least, it was pretty crimeless, friendly, responsible and purposeful to the vast majority of us, warning-signs of demise notwithstanding.

It seems that throughout mankind's preeminence, balance has occasionally, albeit briefly and conditionally, been realized. In my own experience, however, it required nothing short of my culture's DEATH for me to benefit from a few years of equilibrium (had I the time to explain...). 'You don't know what you have until it's gone,' too...and I am glad to not ever having had to worry about
oxygen masks!

As for Town(e) Centers...allow me to echo my fellow contributor's "UGH!!" I am a witness to the Boca Raton, Florida Towne Center's beginnings. I concur: that pseudo-town meeting place is more of a gigantesque commemoration to Babylon than to any nostalgic American "Main Street." Cecil B. DeMille gone brainless!

Lastly, I have been on to the pretensious Olde English "e" since developers started to dub their creations with it (why not put it in heavy Gothic script, for heaven's sake?!) It is a sickening, fatuous affectation, and for certain the residents of such places do not in any legitimate measure merit the Olde English. I can move on to community names in general ("Gentry Chase"; "Foxley Mews"; etc.), but why not just cut to the gist of it all and call our
new developments "Benighted Postmodern Yahoos #254: habitation/shopping" or some such?

Your Fellow Gentry,

Ed McG.

2:25 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree strongly with Dr. Berman's assessment of where our culture is headed. Looking around us, we do see general decline both socially and economically. Our educational system is in tatters, and anti-intellectualism is rampant in our schools and general society. Remember the general remark that summed up so many Americans' reasoning for voting for Bush, "he's the kinda guy you'd like to have a beer with." this now the benchmark for measuring the competence of our country's highest elected official? From listening to profanity uttered in public on cell phones, to a general rudeness and disregard for other people, to contempt for learning (evidenced by the rationale used by the administration and a then-majority of the American public for going to war with Iraq, shouting down calmer voices who argued that was a terrible idea and showing disdain for intellectuals who did know something about the Middle East, al qaeda, Saddam Hussein and some history of the US-Iraqi relationshiop, not to mention general knowledge of US policy in laying the framework of international law.), we see decline. Berman has many critics, and who would expect otherwise? It's far more confortable to pretend there is nothing wrong with our society and that our empire is not collapsing around our ears, thanks in large part to our own ill-advised decisions made over the last 60 years. Keep up the good work, Dr. Berman. Unfortuantely, history will prove you correct.

11:05 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Anon,

I tell you, getting the message heard is not unlike whispering to someone on the other side of a wall of concrete 50' thick. As a further analogy, my life's work amounts to taking a pebble and throwing it at an Abrams tank. Hey, c'est la vie, eh?

Thank you for writing,

1:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mr. Berman, thanks for writing "Dark ages America". Everything you write about in the book are things I have noticed about our country. The problem is.....Nobody else does!!!!. At least now I know Im not crazy. You don't paint a rosy picture of the U.S. but the truth is not always pretty. I am almost done with "dark ages" and will Catch up on the rest of your writings after finishing. Thanks for being able to put into words the things I have felt, and noticed since I was very young. J.M., Chicago Il.

2:25 PM  

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