January 25, 2010

Yes, The New Yorker

Dear Friends,

I've been subscribing to the New Yorker for years. Sometimes I wonder why. They actually supported the American invasion/destruction of Iraq in 2003; these days, they seem to think we're on the road to economic recovery, that the Obama $12-trillion bailout of the banks (i.e., the rich) makes sense, and that no fundamental restructuring of the U.S. economy (i.e. capitalism) is called for. What can one say. But once in a while, they catch me by surprise, and this happened during the last three issues: Jan. 4, 11, and 18. In a nation of dolts, a few little points of light. Let me be specific.

From the issue of Jan. 4, "Shouts and Murmers" column by Paul Slansky, we learn the following:
1. After watching a tape of his guest Michael Moore singing "the Times They Are A-Changing," Larry King asked him if he wrote the song.
2. A health-care-reform protester brandished a copy of what he called "the U.S.S. Constitution".
3. The mayor of Baltimore [Sheila Dixon, Democrat] was convicted of taking gift cards intended for poor children and using them to buy electronic gadgets for herself.
4. A Missouri legislator [State Rep. Cynthia Davis, Republican] suggested that a food program for low-income children was expendable, because "hunger can be a positive motivator." (You need to google this, folks; her face is really the face of America. I also have the impression she doesn't herself miss too many meals.)

From the issue of Jan. 11, article by John Cassidy, "After the Blowup":
1. Cassidy interviewed Eugene Fama, the Robert R. McCormick Distinguished Service Professor of Finance at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, regarding the crash of late 2008. Prof. Fama told Cassidy, "I don't know what a credit bubble means." "We don't know what causes recessions." He added that the mortgage collapse "was a government failure; that was not a failure of the market." Basically, he feels that the market is sound and self-regulating.
2. Then Cassidy went next door to Fama's son-in-law, John Cochrane. Cochrane explained that the cause of the 2008 crash was Obama getting on TV in Sept. of 2008 and announcing that the financial markets were near collapse.
3. He then went one floor upstairs to talk with Raghuram Rajan, one of the few scholars who warned about the coming crash as early as 2005, pointing to deregulation and trading in complex financial products as red flags. Senior Fed officials and prominent economists dismissed this as alarmist, and Larry Summers (now Obama's top economic adviser) said that this kind of talk supported "a wide variety of misguided policy impulses." (Rajan had in fact been the chief economist at the IMF from 2003 to 2006.)

These are good examples of something we've discussed on this blog before: folks with high IQ's being morons. Robert McNamara had a high IQ, and was a complete idiot (something he basically admitted before he died--too bad it took so long, he could have spared us Vietnam); and a war criminal to boot. The same can be said of Dick Cheney. Fama, Cochrane, and Summers are undoubtedly brilliant; they are also little more than buffoons. It's kind of interesting, reading Cassidy's interviews and hearing these educated clowns staring reality in the face and denying it. (Not unrelated to all of this is the Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi on Goldman Sachs; posted 2 July 2009 at rollingstone.com; quintessential reading, amigos).

Moving on to the Jan. 18 issue, an article by Claudia Roth Pierpont called "Found in Translation." This is about contemporary Arabic literature, something Americans couldn't care less about. (Shit, they couldn't care less about American literature, who are we kidding?) In general, as Henry Kissinger once pointed out (and he was one to talk, eh?), Americans aren't interested in non-American points of view. They certainly aren't interested in how they are seen from the outside (see my previous post). But Ms. Pierpont does a good job of taking us into books that deal with the living realities of our "enemies": Alaa Al Aswany's "The Yacoubian Building"; Elias Khoury's "Gate of the Sun"; Ghassan Kanafi's "Palestine's Children"; and a few others of note. They are windows on a rich and complex world, and personally, I look forward to reading them.

And speaking of an impoverished and simplistic world, let me reprint the poem by Campbell McGrath in the Jan. 11 issue, entitled "Shopping for Pomegranates at Wal-Mart on New Year's Day":

Beneath a ten-foot-tall apparition of Frosty the Snowman
with his corncob pipe and jovial, over-eager, button-black eyes,
holding, in my palm, the leathery, wine-colored purse
of a pomegranate, I realize, yet again, that America is a country
about which I understand everything and nothing at all,
that this is life, this ungovernable air
in which the trees rearrange their branches, season after season,
never certain which configuration will bear the optimal yield
of sunlight and water, the enabling balm of nutrients,
that so, too, do Wal-Mart’s ferocious sales managers
relentlessly analyze their end-cap placement, product mix,
and shopper demographics, that this is the culture
in all its earnestness and absurdity, that it never rests,
that each day is an eternity and every night is New Year’s Eve,
a cavalcade of B-list has-beens entirely unknown to me,
needy comedians and country singers in handsome Stetsons,
sitcom stars of every social trope and ethnic denomination,
pugilists and oligarchs, femmes fatales and anointed virgins
throat-slit in offering to the cannibal throng of Times Square.
Who are these people? I grow old. I lie unsleeping
as confetti falls, ash-girdled, robed in sweat and melancholy,
click-shifting from QVC to reality TV, strings of commercials
for breath freshener, debt reconsolidation, a new car
lacking any whisper of style or grace, like a final fetid gasp
from the lips of a dying Henry Ford, potato-faced actors
impersonating real people with real opinions
offered forth with idiot grins in the yellow, herniated studio light,
actual human beings, actual souls bought too cheaply.
That it never ends, O Lord, that it never ends!
That it is relentless, remorseless, and it is on right now.
That one sees it and sees it but sometimes it sees you, too,
cowering in a corner, transfixed by the crawler for the storm alert,
home videos of faces left dazed by the twister, the car bomb,
the war always beginning or already begun, always
the special report, the inside scoop, the hidden camera
revealing the mechanical lives of the sad, inarticulate people
we have come to know as “celebrities.”
Who assigns such value, who chose these craven avatars
if not the miraculous hand of the marketplace,
whose torn cuticles and gaudily painted fingernails resemble nothing
so much as our own? Where does the oracle reveal our truths
more vividly than upon that pixillated spirit glass
unless it is here, in this tabernacle of homely merchandise,
a Copernican model of a money-driven universe
revolving around its golden omphalos, each of us summed
and subtotalled, integers in an equation of need and consumption,
desire and consummation, because Hollywood had it right all along,
the years are a montage of calendar pages and autumn leaves,
sheet music for a nostalgic symphony of which our lives comprise
but single trumpet blasts, single notes in the hullabaloo,
or even less—we are but motes of dust in that atmosphere
shaken by the vibrations of time’s imperious crescendo.
That it never ends, O Lord. That it goes on,
without pause or cessation, without pity or remorse.
That we have willed it into existence, dreamed it into being.
That it is our divine monster, our factotum, our scourge.
That I can imagine nothing more beautiful
than to propitiate such a god upon the seeds of my own heart.

And so there we have it, my friends: X-rays of the American soul. It can only get worse, as (most) readers of this blog well know. Let's hope the New Yorker will be around to document the vacuity, the ignorance, and the continuing descent. If we are going to commit suicide (and we are), might as well do it with our eyes open, don't you think?


Anonymous Susan W. said...

Dear Dr. Berman,

The poem was moving and terrifying at the same time--the picture he painted of life in front of the TV, interspersed with shopping trips to WalMart, and no end in sight summed up what we see and too often experience every day. I was talking to a young man today at work (he's about 35) and he supports himself, wife and three children on $9.75/hr and pays over $800/month in health insurance premiums. The Larry Summers of this world are no more interested in him than they are in Arabian literature and have used their privilege, high IQ and opportunities to dehumanized themselves and cause hardship to others. We all know when we've done wrong, no matter how many excuses we make to ourselves, how much rationalization we indulge in, no matter how many times our friends reassure us we were justified in our behavior---we know. Somewhere inside these people, they know what they are and what they've done. No matter how much they got they sold their soul and have fooled no one.

7:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Berman,

This is an excellent post. The poem is interesting too; I put it on my facebook page to see if anyone would read it.

America is a crazy place right now, well, more crazy than ever I guess -- it just gets more and more obtuse, fragmented, and weird.

Take care,


8:17 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Well, I just saw "Avatar," and it was nice to see the good guys win for a change. As for reality, check out these two:




11:20 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Sorry, the links got cut off. The first one ends with


and the second one with


11:22 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Here's a little poem by the late British writer, John Michell, who described himself as a "radical traditionalist". It's entitled "A quiet life", and I think makes a nice complement to the Campbell McGrath poem.

"There's so much noise and bustle that I've come to the decision to go back to the place where I was born, where nothing ever happened and, instead of television, we used to watch the blackbird on the lawn."

8:42 AM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Dear Susan W.,

Your post is poignant & sad, all the more so for being true. I'm 56, and I see that sense of despair among some of my younger co-workers. They know, even if they can't always admit it aloud, that they're disposable, that those with the power & wealth don't see them as individuals, don't see them at all.

And the sheer ugliness of the Wal-Martization of America shows just how little its owners think of its -- citizens? peons? I've seen more & more main streets that are mostly a mixture of check-cashing offices, auto parts stores, and empty buildings.

Another indicator of the general cultural decline:

Sign in the window of the local McDonalds, distributed by the company to their franchises: "YEAH WERE OPEN."

Do I assume they couldn't afford a comma or an apostrophe?

1:41 PM  
Anonymous Peter Y Paik said...

I like the observation that Larry Summers is "undoubtedly brilliant," but he is also "little more than a buffoon." There is something seriously awry with our governing class. How could Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, et al. have voted for the Iraq War Resolution? The fact that Bush never mentioned the possibility of tax hikes to pay for the war should have been enough to signal that this venture had disaster written all over it.

1:08 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Peter,

You ask why these ostensibly liberal politicians would vote for something like a war of aggression? Their jobs are simply to represent others, so I thnk the focus should be directed there, and I think the answer can be found in the flawed souls of the American people who view all outsiders with distrust and aggression. They are ignorant and easily swayed with propaganda, and there are no restraining forces in this country to hold back those who want to advance their interests at the expense of the common good, e.g. those who want to start such wars. And once the forces of propaganda commence, the American people would have had it no other way.

5:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Re the Avatar film. At a fundamental level it was about two cultures. The "culture" of death as represented by the invading techno-barbarians, and the culture of life as lived on Pandora.

It was interesting how all of those on the right side of the culture wars effectively came out (in their entirely predictable group-think response) in support of the "culture" of death.

1:31 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

For Nicholas Burns:

Nick--I accidentally rejected yer comment re: the New Yorker when I intended to publish it. Sorry! (Actually, sometimes I hit Publish and the machine still rejects it; go figure. This has happened about a dozen times since I began this blog in 2006.)

In any case: you wrote to say that the Economist is 8 times as infuriating as the New Yorker. Actually, the New Yorker occasionally does pretty well, as my citations from it above would indicate. But as for the Economist, yer right: it's a joke. They are currently in the position of trying to tell us that up is down. Oh no, nothing wrong with neoliberal economics; the fault clearly lies elsewhere. Sure, let's have the clowns who destroyed our economy (Geithner, Bernanke, Summers, and the Goldman Sachs crowd) act as advisers to the prez; that makes a whole lotta sense. I do read the rag from time to time, just to realize what "reality" consists of.

Anyway, sorry again for the error..mb

11:37 AM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

H'm, about Avatar... am I the only one who sees the glaring hypocrisy of sitting in a multiplex in a shopping mall,watching a movie made with the latest technology by an immensely rich capitalist corporation, and then rooting for the anti-technology, anti-capitalism folks in it?

4:20 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


No, you're not, but that may be to miss the larger point. The same critique was made years ago about Ted Roszak's "The Making of a Counter Culture"--that it was produced by high-speed printing presses and distributed by the vehicles of modern technology. True, but what else should Roszak have done? What choice did he, or does any filmmaker, have? We cannot be free of "the system" entirely. The fascinating thing about Avatar to me was its huge success, which I don't think can entirely be attributed to fancy tech effects. The film taps a deep current in the American psyche, explored by scholars such as David Shi and Jackson Lears, among others, of the revulsion against the dominant American way of life. This current made possible the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s, for example, or the writings of Thoreau and Emerson a century later. It has been a minor theme in American history, to be sure, but it is there: that endless economic and technological expansion is spiritually empty; that the country has no moral purpose. On some level, Americans have always known this, and from time to time it breaks thru ("Dances with Wolves" is another example of this sentiment). The period from about 1966-80 was one in which this point of view made unexpected headway, culminating in the Carter admin, with his speech on "spiritual malaise" and his attempt to encourage "appropriate" technology. However, as Shi and Lears demonstrate, it's a current that always gets ignored or co-opted. Carter's whole pitch on the "limits to growth"--even though a truism--could never catch on in a nation of such aggrandizement; as Reagan's subsequent election clearly demonstrated. (One of the first things he did was pull the solar panels off of the White House.) The problem is, of course, that Carter was right: there *are* limits to growth, and the whole constellation of globalization and empire is on a collision course--as both 9/11 and the crash of 2008 demonstrated. However, never fear: you can be sure that the audiences that applaud "Avatar" on Saturday night will be back at work Monday morning, wheeling and dealing and buying tons of technological gizmos. The whole counter tradition (so to speak) in the US, whether we are talking about Carter or Avatar or Thoreau or Lewis Mumford (or John Adams, for that matter), never stood a chance, and it is doubtful that it ever will--short of a complete collapse of the system. (Indeed, it was a partial collapse of the system, from Vietnam to Watergate, that enabled Carter, an utter political anomaly, to get elected.) At that point, the counter tradition might emerge as something more convincing than just a way to blow off steam; but by then it will, of course, be too late.

As you can see, "hypocrisy" (and I doubt that is what it is) has its uses.


ps: Regarding your comments on FARC in Colombia: the problem here is that you seem to be caught up in a Manichaean framework. There are varieties of capitalism, and varieties of socialism, including mixed economies that work a whole lot better than ours (Scandanavia, for example, wasn't badly hurt by the crash of 2008). The black-and-white, Reaganite framework of City on Hill vs. Evil Empire is psychologically comforting, because it is so simplistic, and certainly most Americans live within its parameters; but it is terribly misguided, and it certainly is not very imaginative.

5:44 PM  
Blogger mwp said...

Dr. Berman,

I feel compelled to share an article in the most recent New York Time's Magazine titled, "Is There an Ecological Unconscious?" (link posted below) The article discusses the psychological relationship between man and nature, introduces Gregory Bateson as "a lost giant of 20th-century intellectual history," and even has a Berman in it! (Marc, of the University of Michigan)

While these may often seem to be "dark ages" for America, I just can't quite understand the point of pessimism, particularly when there is still yet cause for hope. What if man is not committing suicide after all but is being squeezed through the birth canal only to blossom into "a new species, a new type of human being," as you write hopefully in the concluding chapter of Reenchantment nearly thirty years ago?

Perhaps I am just young and naive but I just can't bring myself to declare this battle lost. While this article isn't a cure-all and won't start a revolution, hopefully it serves as a glimmer of light in an increasingly despondent conversation.

Be well my friends,



7:49 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear bdb,

I don't believe there is no hope for the human race; I just believe there is no hope for the US, which is less than 5% of the human race at this point in time. And I say this explicitly at the end of "Dark Ages". I indicate that I am optimistic about the human spirit, but that that Geist has left the US and will have to be recovered elsewhere; we are too far gone.

You can always take the NMI route I talk about in "Twilight"; nothing wrong with that. But I think it's important to be clear about what can be accomplished in a single lifetime. You may leave a legacy, but you may not; it's up to you if you want to go for it. Certainly, I'm not going to discourage it. However, I have to be honest and say that if you are a young person, you'd have a better chance at this, and at living a reasonable life, somewhere else. The US will not reverse its downward spiral; there are no glimmers of hope here (Obama is little more than a joke, e.g.), and you'd do best to emigrate.

As for "Reenchantment," you know--30 years is a long time. Noam Chomsky once said that any university professor who was lecturing from 20-year-old notes should retire. There are things I would continue to support in that book, and things I wd now criticize. But one thing I'm especially glad I put in was the last chapter, on the politics of consciousness. Still, the book was too much in the framework of paradigm shift, or change of consciousness as having equivalent weight of political change. It doesn't. What redistributes power is power, and the voices that would throw their weight behind someone like Gregory Bateson--Ralph Nader, say, or Dennis Kucinich--have no power at all. (Compare the strength of green parties in European politics.)

In a word, in certain contexts pessimism serves a very important function, that of a wake-up call, because pessimism has simply become realism. Truth is always fresh air, whether we like it or not. When the context supports it, however, optimism is a wonderful thing. I think the evidence makes it clear where contemporary America is and where it is going--what the context is in this country. Obama's SOTU speech, for example, was tepid going on flatulent. The SOTU is that we are in big trouble, and the actions we are now taking (e.g. back to business with the same economy and neoliberal ideology, increased commitment to war and the US imperial project, etc. etc.) can only exacerbate that trouble. For any intelligent American (a dying breed, as you well know), this is too obvious to warrant comment. If you seriously think you can reverse our trajectory--well, more power to ya. But I'm guessing that there are happier and more receptive contexts for your activity, and I think it wouldn't hurt you to search them out. (Just my opinion, for what it's worth.)

Thanks for writing, in any case; I really appreciate it. You obviously are a person with a lot of heart, and I appreciate that as well.


9:24 PM  
Anonymous Tim Lukeman said...

Dear bdb,

I empathize, believe me. And you raise an important question for those of us who are older: what exactly do we tell younger people still filled with enthusiasm, optimism, and hope?

To be honest, I'm often at a loss when younger friends talk with me about their hopes & fears for the future. Many are perceptive enough to see that things are indeed bad -- not in an apocalyptic, in-your-face way, but as a ceaseless crumbling & ongoing decay beneath the glittering facade of everyday America.

I don't want them to believe that the future can only be worse, that their dreams are fated to die, that no matter what they do, it won't work out. Yet I can't lie & tell them that everything will turn out fine, that things always work themselves out -- and if I did, they wouldn't believe me.

There's a part of me that still believes (or wants to believe, I guess) that something could still happen to turn things around, or at least mitigate the worst that's probably coming. Maybe a lot of us need that comforting illusion at times. I do know that starkly facing the darkness without blinking gets very depressing after awhile!

If pressed for any advice, I'd say to do what your heart bids, even if it seems hopeless or foolish. But do it with your eyes wide open. As Professor Berman states in both TAC & DAA, a life well-lived, a life that's meaningful, that has depth, is not a waste. If you have a positive influence on just a few other people, then you've contributed something worthwhile.

Does that matter in the long run? If nothing else, it'll matter to you. And it'll matter to those you influence.

Professor Berman mentions Theodore Roszak in one of his posts. I'm reminded of Roszak's comment about William Blake in "Where the Wasteland Ends," where he notes that Blake is telling us that even in a dark age, an age of iron & despair, there are the saving remnants -- Homer, Shakespeare, Milton -- to remind us of what we could be. You may not be able to change the world, but you can keep it from changing you.

So my advice, after all this?

Live well. Live wisely. Live lovingly.

And remember that you're not alone in this world.

9:50 AM  
Anonymous John from IN said...


This is all so convenient for the ruling class. People raising 3 kids on $20K/yr can't afford to protest or opt out. They can only resort to large-scale borrowing (or gambling --the other tax incentivized method) as a means to an education, home, or retirement.

The corporatist values have won, the citizens are out for good. We will compete in the almighty market until there is a winner (never mind the countless losers bobbing in the wake!) America has become a harsh place and our culture and Main Streets have followed in kind, as profoundly sad as that is.

I'm ~35 too, and I'm pretty sure that "Hope" has finally escaped the box in America.

9:59 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

"Mean Street" would be more accurate, I suppose. A couple of quotes:

"We are all caught in a great economic system which is heartless"--Woodrow Wilson, 1912

"There is mean things happenin' in this land"--Depression chant of black sharecroppers, 1934

11:13 PM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

Dr. Berman:

I am not at all necessarily convinced that the "progressive" views are the correct ones. But my point was different.

Roszak was advancing his goals of promoting socialism or anti-capitalism. He might have used commercial means to do so, but if there was any inconsistency here, it is not in him, but in the system itself, allowing its own resources to be used against itself. Roszak, however, actually advanced HIS goals.

With "Avatar", the opposite is the case. The viewers, unlike Roszak, don't actually advance the cause of anti-capitalism or environmentalism one bit; they only actually advance the money to Hollywood. Hollywood advances ITS goal -- making money on blockbuster movies. The tacky "environmentalist" or "anti-capitalist" message of the movie is merely an afterthought; it's a rather popular meme, Hollywood's PR men tell them, so let's make some money off it. If tomorrow Zen Buddhism will become popular, the next movie will be about brave Zen Buddhists fighting evil capitalists -- which you will get to see, if you give $10 to a large corporation.


Something else: did you notice how many people have their entire consciousness determined by movies? Where the first reaction when they think of "a hero" is not Hector or Achilles or Alexander or even captain Nemo, but Luke Skywalker? Where their idea of "a reality that's deeper than what we see" is not Plato's allegory of the cave, say, but "The Matrix"? When "explorer" doesn't mean Columbus or Magellan or Scott, but Captain Kirk, and "wise man" means Spock and not Socrates?

No wonder thought becomes shallow: when your idea of the heroic isn't from the Illiad but from "Star Wars" -- a childish, horribly acted (poor Alec Guinness!) fairy tale that's really a bowdlerized "Snow White" - cum - Cinderella" with the sexes reversed?

(Complete with an evil witch mother (Darth Vader), a fairy godmother (Obi Wan Kenobi) and a representative of the seven dwarfs (Yoda)?)

4:22 PM  
Anonymous Art said...

Dear Prof. Berman,

John Perkins, author of "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man", recently posted an audio and video (Avatar in the Amazon) on his website. The story follows a group of indigenous leaders from the Amazon, who watched "Avatar" on the big screen in Quito, Ecuador. It also highlighted efforts to protect Ecuador's Yasuni National Park (South America's most biodiverse wilderness) from proposed oil development. After seeing the movie, one leader said:

"Think how much better it would be if we show this film to people who actually *want* to exploit petroleum resources. I think it would serve them very well, even more than us."

Unlike in Hollywood, though, it doesn't appear that the good guys are going to win here in the jungle.

4:54 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Avital,

OK, sorry for mistake on my part: I couldn't find your post, for some odd reason; perhaps too much tequila on my part that night. (Actually, I never touch the stuff, so I really don't have an excuse; unless there was some delay in your message appearing.)

So I can't recall what I posted, or where, but let me take a shot at remembering. I don't know much about James Cameron, the director of "Avatar," except that he made a bunch of mindless films in the past, such as "Rambo" and "Terminator". So you cd be rt: it cd simply be about the money for him, and perhaps he's completely cynical--whatever sells is the bandwagon he'll get on. And it's true that people paying to see the film line his pockets. But I think it may be a bit larger than that: there is a powerful message in that film, one that taps into the "spiritual unconscious" of a people who are driven to lead meaningless, acquisitive lives. Now going to such a film may be just a matter of blowing off steam for them, but you never know: it could seep into deeper levels of the mind. Of the millions who see it, a tiny fraction might decide to join some environmental group; others may drop out of the corporate rat race. I'm talking .0001%, of course, but it's at least something. And then there is the question of a film like that changing American sensibilities about the corporate/Pentagon world, in favor of "ignorant" Third World peoples. Again, the effect is probably minuscule, but who knows what the cumulative effect might be over time.

As for movies and American consciousness, I have a feeling that it's TV that has the major impact here. The horror, the horror!


8:16 AM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

>>>>>And then there is the question of a film like that changing American sensibilities about the corporate/Pentagon world, in favor of "ignorant" Third World peoples.

You have a point, but what alternative is "Avatar" offering?

The problem is that what we are seeing now in many textbooks (alas) or in movies is an idealization of the Third World and of the primitive in a way that is perhaps more flattering, but not at all more accurate, than the past idea of the "stupid natives".

The problem is that the Eden of pre-technological, pre-capitalistic society never existed. The lives of primitive tribes are (typically, in any rate) far MORE violent, repressive, unequal, environmentally ignorant, and so on than modern life. Far from living "peacefully", for many tribes life is a series of unending wars, feuds, and clan wars, compared to which (in terms of chances of violent death) Europe at the height of WWII was positively peaceful. Not at all "living in harmony with nature", there are many examples of tribes doing themselves in to total environmental collapse to a degree no modern society remotely did.

So let us not replace the "stupid savage who doesn't have technology" with "noble savage who is too good to have soul-corrupting technology". This is really saying the same thing only with a different, approving, gloss. It's the same mistake as radical feminism's idea that woman "think intuitively" or have "different ways of knowing". That's really the 19th-century chauvinistic position -- women are too emotional and illogical to do math and science -- only adding "but that's a GOOD thing".

1:03 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...

Dear Avital,

You make a good point: "Avatar" is very dualistic in its framework, based on a simplistic opposition between good and evil. And yet, in broad strokes, it's not that far off. Americans did wipe out the Native American population, and substitute a way of life that is destructive on a worldwide scale. And certainly, there were pre-capitalist civilizations; mercantile capital didn't really arise until the 16C, for example, and technology didn't dominate or permeate human life prior to that time in the same way it did after. Primitive tribes are a mixed bag, to be sure: the Haida, for example, had slaves. But the scale of primitive violence is much less than that of modern peoples. Yes, the "long" 19C (1789-1914) was mostly (not entirely) peaceful, but as George Steiner brilliantly demonstrates ("In Bluebeard's Castle"), it was a period simmering with tensions; and when the cork finally popped, what ensued was a barbarism unknown in previous human history: between 1914 and 1945, 70 million people died, most of them civilians. I tell you, I'll take my chances with the Iroquois!


11:30 PM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

>>>>>But the scale of primitive violence is much less than that of modern peoples

In the term of ABSOLUTE number of dead, yes -- because tribes are small. In the term of RELATIVE number of dead, no.

Archeological and other evidence (burned cities, signs of violence on remains, etc.) give us an estimate of the % of violent deaths in primitive tribes.

These range from about 30% (Northern British Columbia pre-500 AD) to 15% (Illinois, ca. 1300 AD) to 10% (Southern California ca. 500 AD) to 5% (ancient Mexico); the latter being one of the more PEACEFUL ancient Indian societies.

Violent death rate in Europe in the 20th century -- WWI, WWII, holocaust, and all? about 3% or less.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Well, you could be right, but personally I don't think any century was as violent as the 20th. Genocide is a 20C invention, starting with the Armenians in 1915. And all those archaeological studies show that war (not aggression) is a Late Paleolithic invention; for most of our hunter-gatherer life, it didn't exist. For more on all this, check out a book I wrote 10 yrs ago, "Wandering God."

Thanks again,

8:42 PM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

I would disagree that genocide is a "20th century invention". It was quite common for tribes to completely kill -- or enslave -- other tribes throughout human history, alas. This, of course, is without denying the horrors of the 20th century.

Another issue: I have just read your "The Re-enchantment with the World". Your conclusion there -- if I am not misunderstanding you -- is "extremely radical" (your words in that book): that is, that the alchemists were, in fact, describing a real, if non-scientific, internal psychological process that we, seeing the world through the scientific prism, cannot grasp.

Two questions. First, as an aside, do you know that this very explanation for alchemy appears in the words of a the Jesuit priest, a character in Mann's "The Magic Mountain"? No doubt there are other examples.

Second, your radical conclusion is dangerous. One can use it, it seems to me, to justify anything. To give an admittedly hackneyed example, the Nazis REALLY BELIEVED in the existence of a shadowy, conspiratorial world run by the international Jew, an all-powerful figure that must be destroyed; certainly this was mysticism, and rather developed one (especially among the SS).

Yet it would be absurd to say that this mysticism in any way was true, or real, or expressing some "deeper reality", just because some people passionately believed it. Fifty million Frenchmen -- or Germans, or Medieval Europeans, or pre-Socratic Greeks, or ancient American-Indian tribes -- CAN be wrong.

(To avoid misunderstanding, of course I am NOT accusing you of being a Nazi, but merely using an extreme example in a reductio ad absurdum argument).

4:52 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


As far as genocide goes, the murder of one tribe by another doesn't qualify. Genocide is wiping out a population because of who they are, not because they are an enemy or simply there. Hence, Turkish massacre of Armenians, or German of Jews, qualifies, but cases you cite don't. Only recognized genocide prior to 1915 was Albigensian Crusade--slaughter of the Cathars at Beziers, 1209. This was the specific pursuit of people who were in this special category. And if you can't be sure they really are Cathars, as opposed to Catholics? This evoked the famous remark from one abbot or bishop, I can't recall his name: "Kill them all; let God sort it out."

My pt about alchemy was that it might have happened in the real (external) world, not just psychologically. In short, that we may not be talking about metaphors, and that Jung didn't go far enough.

I agree that mysticism is a two-edged sword, and devoted a whole chapter to Nazi involvement in it in the sequel to Reenchantment, a bk called Coming to Our Senses. My own caution about political dimensions of mysticism in general is in the final ch. of Reenchantment, in any case.


8:34 AM  
Blogger Avital Pilpel said...

>>>>>>My pt about alchemy was that it might have happened in the real (external) world, not just psychologically.

That seems extremely unlikely. As is well known, alchemy in many cases tried to turn one ELEMENT into another -- lead into gold, for example -- and that this is impossible by chemical means, but only by changing the nucleus. And even less likely is the possibility that witches really did ride on broomsticks or had sex with demons, for example.

What's more, those who made these claims had excellent mundane reasons (greed, self-delusion, the need to explain events according to socially-acceptable beliefs, etc.) to lie to others, or to themselves, about what they did or saw. Take Carlos Castaneda: it is now know (though it was certainly less clear at the time you wrote your book) that he just made the whole thing up.

2:35 AM  
Blogger Morris Berman said...


Well, you're probably rt, but it's hard to know if something is 100% impossible, finally. Lots of things that science declared impossible in the past, later became possible. As for Castaneda, the bulk of it was made up--i.e., written in the UCLA library using their anthropology collection--but not the 1st two books. I knew people who knew him, so I got the inside track. Don Juan was not called Don Juan, of course, and I don't think his tribal connection was Yaqui. He didn't live in the Sonora Desert, but on the outskirts of L.A. He was in fact a native shaman, and Carlos went to see him every weekend for a year, during the time he was studying with Harold Garfinkel; after which he wrote the 1st 2 bks in the series (Teachings of Don Juan and Separate Reality). All that stuff about drugs, rolling around on the floor to find his power spot, etc., actually happened. In addition, the second half of book #4 (Tales of Power) is a terrific explication of the shamanic world view.


10:03 AM  

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