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21st March 2011

Morris Berman’s New Book

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A Question of Values

by Morris Berman

Reviewed by John David Ebert

You know that something fundamental and utterly irreversible has befallen the American publishing industry when Morris Berman, the author of The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America, both published by a major house (W.W. Norton), is unable to find a publisher for his new book. As he remarks: “No American publisher was even mildly interested” since “clearly, a book like this is not going to make anybody rich.” Berman therefore decided to self-publish it on Amazon’s new self-publisher called Createspace.

Is this a reflection of the quality of the book, perhaps the reader is wondering? Maybe Berman’s writing has slipped a little bit in his old age? Maybe he’s just not as insightful as he used to be? And the answer is, no, the book is very similar in tone, style and quality of writing to his two previous books, both of which were fantastic. It is simply that the publishing industry, in the past decade, has changed completely, having become yet another victim of the predatory drive of Late Capitalism to make money and nothing but money.

Oswald Spengler, the German philosopher who wrote The Decline of the West, once summed America up in a single sentence, a sentence which, at the time I read it, about twenty years ago, I thought seemed a little harsh: “America: Dollar trappers; no past, no future.” Nowadays, as with everything else Spengler wrote, that assessment seems to have been prophetically accurate.

In the first sentence of his new book, Berman points out that in 2006, after careful deliberation, he decided to move to Mexico, for he had become disgusted by how utterly callous and uncompassionate American society had become. When, for instance, he needed an operation in 2009, one Mexican family showed up at the hospital in full force, some of them even offering to spend the night with him in case he needed anything. In the United States, on the other hand, he points out that he could have died alone in his condominium and nobody would even have noticed until someone showed up to collect the past due mortgage. Nothing matters, in other words, in American society but the dollar bill, and the dollar bill means everything.

Berman’s book is packed with such insights. In an essay on “How to Get Out of Iraq,” he points out how he was invited to a symposium in Washington, D.C., held by a think tank called the Independent Institute, in which he sat in an audience full of bored people who were barely listening to the speakers and kept answering their cell phone calls, text messaging each other and generally inhabiting their own private space. But he says that this very American attitude of “to hell with everybody else, my private life comes first” is the very same attitude that landed us in Iraq in the first place: we come first, we’re number one in the world, and if we don’t like your regime we feel we have the moral right to depose it, no matter what the cost to your country. We come first; to hell with everybody else.

In another essay, Berman points out, while inside a hospital, he saw a man collapse on the floor of the men’s room and immediately went to go get help. The police officer who was seated as he approached merely told him “I don’t work here” and when he went to the front desk to ask for help the attendant told him he would have to ask the Security guy “over there” and that she would call the Fire Department. When he asks the Security guard for help, however, the man walks ahead of him toward the bathroom, but Berman is shocked to see him keep on walking past it, without a word.

These small, apparently insignificant actions are a microcosm for a mentality of “I can’t be bothered” writ large. The slowness of the response to the survivors of Hurricane Katrina is simply a macro-scale version of the same carelessness for the man who had collapsed on the floor of the bathroom, and when Berman points out that some of the looters of a New Orleans Wal-mart were actually police officers, we are not the least bit surprised. In America, it is more important to get your own DVD players first, while others who are starving and suffering can wait. Those are the kinds of values we cherish.

America is a “me first” society that fosters an attitude of competition and one-upsmanship at the expense of others. The statistics which Berman points out are also unsurprising: it has, for instance, one of the highest percentages of single occupant dwellings in the world; the highest overall crime rate; the largest military budget (by far) and the largest number of shopping malls anywhere. Clearly, it is a place where helping others or concern for the welfare of others are not values which the typical American prides himself on.

Berman points out how the typical American social gathering is full of subtle boasts, witty put-downs of others and a kind of self-absorbed narcissism. Living in Mexico, by contrast, Berman notices how an effort is normally made in gatherings to include the outsider and make him feel part of the group. In America, as I can attest from personal experience, a social gathering is felt to be a success only if someone is made to feel an outsider.

So, it is no surprise that Berman could not find a publisher for this book. It is a question of values, and as far as regard for the intellect goes, America just doesn’t cut it. Fifty years ago, a Lewis Mumford or a Jane Jacobs, neither of whom held higher degrees, could still make a living as a public intellectual in America. I know from my own personal experience, however, that those days are simply over. Being an intellectual just doesn’t cut it anymore in this society: if you can’t sell books, it’s assumed somehow that you are not “with it” and that your insights, therefore, are not worthwhile. It is a typical American trait to confuse skill and ability with financial success. In fact, most successful people in America are complete morons, so it is apparent that not much in the way of intellect is required to “make it” in this society. All you need to do is demonstrate the mentality of an alpha male gorilla: pound your chest, yell at some people, demean egos and damage the self-esteem of others, and you’re in. Consider yourself a “success.” That you may not know that the earth is five or six billion years old or that the stars manufacture elements or that oxygen was a by-product of photosynthesis invented by bacteria two billion or so years ago, is all beside the point. The point is: how much money will it make me? If it doesn’t make anyone rich, no one wants anything to do with it, no matter what the idea is. It is no wonder, as Michael Moore points out, that all our best and smartest college graduates are going straight to Wall Street, where they can get rich, not by inventing anything important or making innovative contributions to society, but simply by moving money around. Big deal.

My conservative grandparents were proud, in their day — the day of the Marshall Plan, the GI Bill, of employee loyalty to companies that rewarded them with lifetime pensions — they were proud to be Americans. Nowadays, we laugh at the 1950s, regarding them as a time of conformity and social oppression of women and non-whites, but by contrast with the situation we’re in now, the 1950s look like a Golden Age in which America was on top of the world because it was a society full of exuberant optimism in which skill and achievement were still rewarded with social success. It seemed, in those days, that we could do anything: hell, we even went to the moon. Let’s see your society top that.

Now, where are we? As Berman remarks: “What, after all, can be the fate or future of a country in which people on crutches constitute an annoying distraction; in which the hospital staff response to a man collapsing on the floor is, ‘It’s not my problem’; and in which the police join looters in their looting while all around them people are dying by the thousands?”

Undoubtedly, the publishers and agents approached by Berman for this book, simply shrugged their shoulders and said: “I don’t sense a commercial pulse here.”

I don’t either, actually, but what I do sense is that America, as a society, has basically disqualified itself as a social ideal. This is ironic in that much of the mentality that went into founding America was based on creating a kind of utopian society as an escape from the religious persecutions and wars of Old Europe. America began as a social experiment, an attempt to create an ideal society in which what social class you were from, or what country you were from or which religion you practiced were, for the first time in history, irrelevant. This idealism, however, is now long since a thing of the past, for the only thing that counts now in American society is how much money you make. And the average American, confused and disoriented by all these rivers of commerce, thinks that if you can’t make money, then you are not one of the members of the kingdom of God. There is no place in the heaven of capitalism for the preterite poor.

But, that a rich man has about as much chance of getting into heaven as a camel has of being drawn through the eye of a needle is a Christian truth that has apparently been forgotten by shameless, rapacious Americans who constitute 5 percent of the world’s population and yet are consuming 25 percent of its resources.

The Greek columns pictured on the cover of Berman’s book are interesting, for they are a subtle reminder of the kind of democratic ideal society invented by the Greeks which American society is ultimately derived from and yet…I can’t but help think that those same Greeks, confronted by the spectacle of American society today, would have found us an embarrassment–as Spengler did. The Romans, on the other hand, I think would have recognized a kindred spirit, for the brutality and coldness of their society, the same society in which slaves and animals were killed for amusement and fun in their gladiatorial arenas, has become proverbial.

In the future, I suspect that people will remember America and American values in the same way in which we nowadays recall the Romans with a shudder. We are glad those days are gone. What a hell on earth it was to live in ancient Rome.

But, alas, that’s for the future: for those misfortunate enough to call America “home” nowadays, all I can say is:

Welcome to Hell.


This entry was posted on Monday, March 21st, 2011 at 11:17 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

There are currently 4 responses to “Morris Berman’s New Book”

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  1. 1 On March 24th, 2011, Michael Knight said:

    I wish I could disagree. Even The Gilded Age created a useful infrastructure, what will future Americans inherit from this era besides credit card debt? I tend to think cyclically when discussing such economic and social matters, but it seems more likely we’re spinning down a drain rather than hitting a bump on the road of progress.

  2. 2 On March 27th, 2011, Stu Grimson said:

    Thanks again for the review, Mr. Ebert. I always look forward to any updates to your site. The American ideal from which we’ve fallen, as described in this essay, reminded me of the Christian ideal of calling out an elect who would leave behind the shackles of blood and tribe to join a community of spirit and conscious assent. The failure of the ideal would be sad if not for the “First as tragedy, then as farce” and so forth. The failure today is comically bad, like the failure of a bombing run to hit an enemy target in Catch 22.

    But, hey, for primates with a little extra brain matter tacked onto the front, some of our tricks are still pretty cool. Like your articles, and the works to which they often refer. So, in an age when imminent collapse and oblivion are certain, I implore to stand like the old Roman soldier on that outer wall of the crumbling empire, knowing that no one will relieve this watch, your last, and remain at your post with no hope of reinforcement, if only for the company of soldiers such as myself, rare though our encounters may be. Continue to shine your shield and sharpen your blade, and stand watch against the barbarians bearing down with the twilight, though they are millions and we are few, because maybe one day Zack Snyder the XXIV will make a holographic simulation movie about our exploits, futile though they often seem at the time.

  3. 3 On March 27th, 2011, Stu Grimson said:

    Oh, and on an unrelated note, I’ve been meaning to ask you: are you familiar with Julian Jaynes’s The Origin of Conscious in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind? If so, thoughts?

  4. 4 On March 27th, 2011, John David Ebert said:

    Thanks for the comments, Stu.

    Yes, I have read Julian Jaynes, whose book I enjoyed very much. “The Origins of Consciousness” reads like a scientific version of Rudolf Steiner’s view that humanity throughout history, in evolving his indepedent consciousness, has gradually lost the ability to communicate with the spirit world to the point that he now even doubts its existence. I think Jaynes is a bit too literal, though, with his insistence that humanity once heard the voices of the gods as literal auditory hallucinations. Somehow, I doubt this. But in any case, the point is correct, namely, that humanity has ceased to “hear” as it were, the voices of the gods.

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