April 09, 2020

It's All Over but the Shouting


A few months ago, David Masciotra, a free-lance writer and author of Against Traffic, among other works, approached The American Conservative with a proposal for an article, which would be a review of my American Empire trilogy. He subsequently submitted the article, and never heard back. Since I'm neither a conservative nor a progressive, but only a writer interested in Reality, it's possible that TAC got spooked by David's essay. (To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, "Americans can't bear too much reality.") However, it's also possible that by that time the coronavirus was starting to make itself visible, and that TAC was thrown by that rather than anything ideological. I guess we can give them the benefit of the doubt. In any case, David and I agreed that I should just post his essay on my blog, and accept the fact that no American publication was likely to run it (for whatever reason). Hence, here it is.

It’s All Over but the Shouting: Morris Berman’s Work on American Decline

“Stick a fork in their ass, and turn them over. They’re done,” Lou Reed dryly announces on his 1989 song about the American Empire, “The Last Great American Whale.” The rock and roll poet’s grim diagnosis of a culture gone awry makes for a fine lyric. If Reed were to have expanded his morbid one-liner into a 1,000-page trilogy of books, full of assiduous research, brilliant anecdotes, and despite the sad subject matter, immensely enjoyable, and often amusing, prose, he would have something resembling the series of books on American decline from cultural critic, historian, novelist, and poet, Morris Berman.

Berman, while a visiting professor in the belly of the beast at the Catholic University in Washington, DC, began writing the first installment in the late 1990s, The Twilight of American Culture, after observing the coalescence of several pathologies that are now beyond dispute as inflicting pain on American life: staggering rates of inequality, governmental dysfunction, an ever-expanding militarism, the fracturing of communal and civic life, and the dominance of anti-intellectualism, visible in everything from an increasingly shallow pop culture to misspelled words on public signs. There was also an aura of threat in the air, of the kind predicted by Don DeLillo in his 1985 novel, White Noise. Like the thick presence of humidity on a summer afternoon, Americans couldn’t see that their neighbors were becoming selfish, and often cruel, but they could feel it.

Having studied the downfall of other empires, Berman saw the window for American reform closing. He warned that if America did not drastically transform its public policies, ideology, and working conception of citizenship, its troubles would only intensify and calcify, bringing a once-promising civilization past the point of no return. In the two books that followed—Dark Ages America and Why America Failed—Berman meticulously demonstrated that America’s myopic focus on profit, at the expense of everything else, its zest for war – at home and abroad – and its lack of self-awareness and insight had escalated, making recovery virtually impossible.

Simultaneous with the development of Berman’s argument, the United States suffered the worst attack on its soil on September 11, 2001, and responded by launching not one, but two disastrous wars. Its housing market and financial system crashed, liquidating much of middle class wealth, and it reacted with giving away boondoggles to the very parties of greed that caused the crisis. Then, in 2016, as the citizenry began to stratify in ways more violent and intractable, Donald Trump became President-Elect. Berman, whom the New York Times and other mainstream outlets dismissed as cynical, cranky, and “anti-American,” looks more and more sterling.

The left and right argue about nearly everything, making extreme accusations about each other. Maybe one camp is right on other issues, and the other is correct on some, but the larger possibility to consider is, what if they are all wrong on the main issue?

As Berman put it during a recent email exchange that I had with him:

Conservatives and progressives alike are patriots; like Trump, they seek to save America, or make it great again. What they are ignoring is the rhythm and record of history. All civilizations rise and fall; there are no exceptions to this rule, and America is not going to escape its fate. The great Southern historian, C. Vann Woodward, first suggested the inevitable decline of the nation in 1953. Andrew Hacker stated it clearly in The End of the American Era, 1970. Between that year and today, there have been a host of books—my trilogy on the American empire included—that have pointed out that civilizations come and go, and that now is our time. Yet on both the right and left, there is no recognition of this bedrock reality. If you do recognize the larger picture, you can't possibly care about impeachment, for example, or who wins these silly Democratic debates. All of that is theater, not reality.

The reality is ascertainable from the daily deluge of grim headlines—lead poisoning in the water causing irreversible brain damage in children, the rise of the “working poor,” near-daily mass shootings, America spending hundreds of billions on weapons of war while ignoring its crumbling infrastructure. Pundits and politicians have a tendency to treat all of these signs of pathology and dysfunction as isolated, but an unobstructed historical vantage point, which Berman’s work provides, suggests that all of America’s problems—from high rates of functional illiteracy to political corruption—are trees growing out of the same rotten roots.

Berman’s project becomes more excavation than analysis, demonstrating an affinity for radicalism, in the original sense of the term, which is identifying and criticizing an issue’s origin, rather than obtusely obsessing over its consequences. America, from its inception, was dedicated to commercial conquest, and equated “the pursuit of happiness” with the acquisition of wealth and property. The third book in Berman’s trilogy, Why America Failed, relies on assiduous research and sharp analysis to prove the case over its 400 pages. Meanwhile, the consistent papering over the more accurate story he tells, with red, white and blue advertisements, robs even many of the country’s leading dissidents of a holistic perspective. In his deployment of cultural criticism, Berman shows how, although his politics tend slightly toward the left, he is most in mourning over America’s destruction of tradition and refusal to balance its desires for commercial dominance with small scale, communal concerns:

Dating back 400 years—the continent was filled with individuals whose idea of the good life was goods, i.e. money and property. There were dissenting voices, such as Capt. John Smith and the Puritan divines, but these were increasingly pushed aside. The title of Richard Bushman's book, and the book itself, are good summaries of the process: From Puritan to Yankee. America was effectively born bourgeois; it had no feudal period. And while feudalism had its obvious drawbacks, it also had some serious advantages: community, craftsmanship, ties of friendship, meaningful work, noblesse oblige, and spiritual purpose, among other things. The American experiment was based, from the first, on hustling, opportunism; this is what the "pursuit of happiness" really meant in the eighteenth century—go out and get yours (which the Founding Fathers certainly did). "Virtue" originally meant putting the needs of society above one's own personal interests. By the late seventeenth century, the meaning had been inverted: it now meant personal success in an opportunistic environment. Blaming the corporate elite has its limits, because what virtually all Americans want is to join the upper 1 percent. Thus American spirituality, such as it is, can be summarized in a single word: More. More, more, I want more. Our leaders reflect our values, which is how America's consummate hustler, Donald Trump, wound up in the White House. In that sense, we have a genuine democracy.

In his seminal essay, “Democratic Vistas,” Walt Whitman worried that “genuine belief” had left American life. In the mad race for money and status, Americans were forgetting or neglecting the sociopolitical principles that could construct a spiritually strong society. For “genuine belief” to thrive, the believers must, in spite of their partisan or ideological disputes, maintain some adherence to tradition – a set of ideas, rites, and practices that form the foundation of their politics, behavior, and vision for the development of their culture.

Berman attempts to achieve a balance in his cultural and historical analysis by spotlighting societies where edifying traditions are steadfast, helping to anchor their respective cultures, and help inhabitants connect to each other with a shared sense of purpose. In Neurotic Beauty, Berman writes about Japan’s traditions of craft, family, and advantageous use of empty space in art and identity, and how those traditions are under siege by Japan’s own move to large scale, corporate capitalism. In Genio: The Story of Italian Genius, Berman examines the Italian gift of injecting space, movement, into static situations – the result of which is, arguably, the most significant creative legacy in the Western world.

It is not only through travel and study that Berman is able to contrast cultures that maintain some loyalty to their best traditions with the American fixation on commercial, technological, and militaristic “progress,” but also through his own experience. He asserts that the “best decision” of his life was moving to Mexico, and one of his worst decisions was waiting so long to do it. When I asked him about the “traditional society” of his Mexican home, as juxtaposed with his previous home in Washington, DC, he began with the caveat that “Mexico has been heavily Americanized, and traditional values—community, friendship, craftsmanship, spirituality—have accordingly been eroded in favor of hustling, individualism, alienation, and meaninglessness.”

Nevertheless, his move to Mexico was a “bet” on the lasting elements of tradition and communal life in Mexico, and it is one that has proven itself wise. Berman offers an anecdote to illustrate the camaraderie and generosity that often characterize his relationships and interactions in Mexico:

Something like this happens to me at least once a week, and it always wakes me up to the fact that I am not living in the US anymore. I live in an apartment building in Mexico City, one floor up. One day I was coming home from the supermarket, going up the stairs, carrying plastic bags full of groceries, and one of the bags broke. Contents spilled out all over the stairs and onto the ground: oranges, Diet Coke, whatever. At that point, at the top of the stairs, the door to the apartment there opened, and a 5-year-old girl peered out. Without saying a word, she came down the stairs and helped me put the spilled groceries back in the bags. When it was done, she went back upstairs and closed the door. Berman would not argue that acts of kindness never take place in the United States, or that every single Mexican behaves according to an ethic of solidarity, but the rarity of friendly relations in America, and the breakdown of community, as documented at length by Robert Putnam, Sherry Turkle, and many other scholars, is not accidental.

“For one thing, girls are taught to fear men, in America (possibly with good reason),” Berman said, and added, “The sexes pretty much hate each other, or are at least wary of each other. But equally significant, Americans of all ages are taught to not help other people (we even arrest people who attempt to feed the homeless). Their problems are their problems, not yours. You are not your brother's keeper, and in general other people are rivals or enemies.”

America has failed to enact the social welfare policies of its democratic peers in Western Europe, but what Berman indicts goes to deeper to core of America’s character. America has also neglected to preserve its “bonds of voluntary association” that Alexis de Tocqueville believed were crucial to the health of the society. In that sense, Americans interested in conservatism might consider that their country is the least conservative in the world. It invests almost no effort in conserving anything, from the beauty of its natural environment to the social ties that are essential for a durable civilization.

The improvements of American life for blacks, women, gays, and workers were possible through the courageous social movements of the 20th century, and these are improvements that Berman admires. He cautions, however, that none of them address the central problem of American culture:

Those were certainly great successes, and they made a great difference for the people involved in those movements. Personally, I applaud them. The problem, however, is that all of them were bids to have a greater share in the American pie—bids to enter the dominant culture. None of them envisioned, a la Lewis Mumford, Henry David Thoreau, or Ernest Callenbach, a different type of society. They merely wanted a greater role in the society as is. The only group that stood for a completely different way of life was the Native Americans, and look what we did to them. The savagery of that genocide, of a people who dared to disagree with the American definition of "progress," is unbelievable.

When Martin Luther King turned more radical, expressing opposition to the “spiritual sickness” of America, rather than only its racist laws, the country turned on him. Similarly, Berman describes in his trilogy how most of the public mocked and ridiculed President Jimmy Carter for his televised "Spiritual Malaise" address, given in Annapolis in 1979—a speech that now appears prescient in its condemnation of uncontrolled consumerism, unabashed selfishness, and the stunning inability of the nation to observe its own behavior.

The candidates in the 2020 race for the presidency, including the president himself, routinely repeat the bromide that the election will determine the “direction” of the country. The "soul" of the nation is somehow always at stake, and yet regardless of who gets elected, things continue to spiral out of control. Morris Berman’s sobering assessment doubles as a “Dead End” sign, warning that the winner might influence the speed and comfort of travel, but that ultimately, we're headed for collapse.