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Not every declinist has his day, but historian and social critic Morris Berman certainly seems to be having his. In 2000, Berman released The Twilight of American Culture, the first book in a trilogy (followed by Dark Ages America in 2006 and Why America Failed in 2011) on the decline of the American Empire. As the dot-com boom bubble inflated to the bursting point, Berman looked beyond just the economic scene to examine the many failings of American life. Predicting that America was inexorably headed for the rocks, Berman took a contrarian position, citing four factors that were leading to the decline of the country: growing social and economic inequality, declining returns on investment in societal structures, the erosion of intellectual standards and critical thinking, and what he called the “spiritual death” of the country.
Almost two decades later – in the age of reality television, mass shootings, widespread poverty, opioids, and a Trumpian presidency – Berman’s predictions seem to be rapidly coming to fruition. However, unlike many contemporary social critics, he has very different suggestions for those who are still mystified by the illusions of the American Dream.
Berman’s latest books are The Man Without Qualities (2016) and Are We There Yet? Essays & Reflections, 2010-2017 (2017). His study of Japanese society and culture, Neurotic Beauty, was published in 2015, and he is currently working on a book on Italy.
SP: What was going through your mind when you began working on what became the trilogy on America? Many Americans today look back to the 1990s as a time of milk and honey. What did you see in the culture that caused you to consider that we might be entering, as you later phrased it, a dark age of sorts?
MB: The celebration of the Clinton years was practically unanimous. Everybody (well, left and center) was thinking this was the best possible president, the best possible country, and so on. What I saw was decay and disintegration, and I was aware that practically nobody else was seeing this, although there were a lot of red flags around, if you cared to look. For example, one might occasionally read an item in the papers about the disparity between rich and poor. Well, that gap widened during the Clinton years. People think it was a fabulous era of prosperity, and there was some degree of “trickle down,” that’s true. But the distance between the rich and poor increased during those years. It was essentially a prosperity for the rich.
I also began to notice things I’d had never seen before, like the misspelling of ordinary words on government or official signs. I remember when I was living in Washington, D.C., and at the Children’s Hospital, the word “children” was misspelled. It takes a dramatic degree of stupidity to get to that point – and we were at it. And I saw it everywhere. If you were with a group of people and you made some literary allusion – it could be to anything, really – everybody just stared at you. For the great majority of Americans, intelligence was a negative thing – “elitism.” This, to me, was a sure sign of a dying culture. It was clear that we were living with a different type of population and in a different world than had existed only 20 or 30 years previously. And in fact, there were a number of books published during the ‘90s that took up the theme of the “dumbing down of America.”
I also began to believe that the famed vitality of American culture was only a surface phenomenon, like people jumping up and down in Pepsi ads on TV, proclaiming how “alive” they felt. Kitsch, in a word. An educated guess: all of this mindless excitement basically served the purpose of hiding from reality. I was living in Washington State during the mid-90s. I remember the hysteria that greeted the unveiling of Windows 95. It was like the messiah had come. I’d go to parties and people were fainting over Windows 95…. Why were you hysterical over Pepsi Cola or Windows 95? It’s because there’s nothing truly meaningful in your life.
I began to see that this emptiness was true of most Americans and the country at large. In the Twilight book I called it “spiritual death.” Basically, you don’t really believe in anything anymore. You can’t really make a religion out of Pepsi-Cola or Microsoft, although many people tried (now it’s the latest electronic gadget, or app). So while everyone was getting excited about Bill Clinton and Pepsi and Microsoft and telling themselves that this was life, what I noticed was an enormous spiritual vacuum. The popular smiley face logo masked a deep sadness. (Windows 95, BTW, proved to be a very inferior product. False messiah, apparently.)
Clinton’s (internal) campaign slogan was, “It’s the economy, stupid!” The guy was never really about much else, and last I heard his foundation was sitting on $2 billion. If all you’re thinking about is the economy, then you’re not really thinking about much else. It means your entire philosophy of life boils down to “the cash value of things” (John Dewey – the best American philosophy can come up with, apparently) – which pretty much sums up the American Way of Life.
In any case, events such as the O.J. Simpson trial or the impeachment proceedings – Monica Lewinsky and the stained dress and Linda Tripp (remember her?) – had people watching television 24/7. My God, what empty lives. With Rome, you had bread and circuses, gladiator contests, and so on, which were basically ways of distracting the population from the corruption in the government and the misery of their lives. Here, we had O.J. and Monica serving the same function. I recall walking past the Mayflower Hotel when Monica was giving her deposition to Ken Starr, and one of the reporters parked on the street saying to a colleague, “She had yogurt for breakfast this morning.” What can you say to that, really? Drink more Pepsi?
SP: You’ve written often about the “cultural death” of America, and you’ve said that what passes for life in this country is based on commercialism, hustling, and self-promotion, and you’ve said that this masks a “deep systemic emptiness.” Could you expand on that?
MB: The German historian Oswald Spengler, who wrote The Decline of the West, anticipated me by almost a hundred years. His notion was that what holds any civilization together is a central Idea with a capital I, almost like a Platonic ideal. When people stop believing in that ideal, the culture starts to fall apart. People will try to hold onto the ideal, but it’s just a hollow shell. The internal reality is that the culture is rotting from the inside. I think that pretty much describes the United States today and did when I was writing the Twilight book. We’re just dancing on the edge of the abyss, and trying not to look down.
The modern era in general is a desperate search for meaning, and Nietzsche was right when he said, “God is dead.” Once that happened, it was hard to have a religious belief system. Secular systems arose to fill that emptiness. We had communism, which finally didn’t work out; we had fascism, which rapidly didn’t work out. And then we had consumerism, which, writ large, means capitalism and imperialism – and that is now coming apart. In many ways, that collapse is the story of the 21st century. In 1990 we could look at all of those other systems and say, ha, ha, we are the victors – which is what we said when the Soviet Union collapsed. There was going to be a unipolar world, our formula was the right one. Hurray, we won! The combination of hubris and stupidity was breathtaking. It never occurred to us that the other shoe was about to fall; that the bell was now tolling for us.
That Francis Fukuyama could write a book around that time called The End of History and be a professor at a major university has got to be the most laughable thing imaginable. (Don’t get me started on the degradation of American higher education. Jesus, talk about decline!) As though history could end! What a dummy! One of the things I’ve argued is that there is a lot of stupidity in the United States, and it includes large numbers of people with high IQs. There are people running around with high IQs – David Brooks, for example – who are in fact little more than bad jokes, and yet are worshipped as sages. Fukuyama is a good example of this.
So, what have you got? You’ve got a deep systemic emptiness. This comes from the fact – in the case of consumerism, capitalism and so on – that you’ve embraced an ideology without knowing it’s an ideology, whose basic philosophy is “more.” What is it you want? More. Well, more is not a spiritual path. It has no content at all. And then you wonder why you’re depressed. (I recall a column David Brooks did about his material wealth and simultaneous mental depression. It’s not the economy, stupid!)
SP: You’re old enough to remember the 1960s. During that period, we had calls to reconsider the country’s direction from mainstream figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. And we had rather sophisticated student groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, who issued the famous Port Huron Statement in 1962. What happened? Even during the early 1970s, a so-called “counterculture” of young people seemed to call for radical change on every front from the environment to foreign policy. It’s over 40 years later and none of that energy seems to exist today. Occupy Wall Street came and went, along with the “hope and change” of the Obama administration. Today, the energy is all on the right.
MB: As someone who lived through the ‘60s, I have to agree that some of us did have high hopes. But the truth is that subsequent analyses of what was going on during those “golden years” have revealed that only a minute fraction of the American population was actually marching against our involvement in Vietnam or going back to the land and growing organic food, or writing critiques of capitalism – the tiniest minority. When it came to Vietnam, most young Americans followed the conservative politics of their parents. They were not marching in the streets. They were not demonstrating. They, and most Americans, were much angrier at the protesters than they were at the soldiers who were busy murdering 3 million Vietnamese peasants who originally had no beef with the US at all (a folly later repeated with Iraq). They listened to the deliberate lies of Robert McNamara and LBJ, nodded, and said, “Well, we’ve got to fight the commies!” Most Americans probably still believe that about Vietnam, and most probably think we never lost that war – if they think of it at all. (As a side note, 50 percent of Americans polled believe that our enemy in WW II was Russia. These are your neighbors!)
So the problem is appearance versus reality. When the dust settled and we examined the statistics, it turned out that most of the ‘60s was froth. I discuss this in the third volume of my America trilogy, Why America Failed. In the 1970s you had the environmental movement, the Whole Earth Catalog, great excitement about how everything was going to change and how we were going to build a sustainable society, and so on. It was mostly cocktail party talk, and it blew away like the spores of a dandelion with Reagan’s election. That election – one of the greatest landslides in American history – showed exactly where the American consciousness was. It wasn’t with Jimmy Carter’s idealism about sustainability and the avoidance of consumerism. Americans weren’t interested in that at all. Reagan was certainly much more attuned to what Americans were about, namely narcissism and consumer goods. Ronnie typically ranks No. 1 in polls on “Who is your favorite president?”. (Philip Roth accurately labeled him a simpleton and a knucklehead, which tells you something about the American public.)
It didn’t take much for the froth of the ‘60s to evaporate, because it never involved any solid political organizing against the dominant culture (like Occupy Wall Street, years later). And it was ephemeral because it didn’t have popular or grassroots support. Americans are interested in hustling and making money. As I said, Reagan knew his audience. They were not interested in fundamental changes, such as what Martin Luther King was talking about shortly before he was killed.
SP: We are currently witnessing one of the largest anti-immigrant backlashes in recent history. At the border, families are being separated, and in the interior of the country, ICE is busy rounding up landscapers and dishwashers. Many, if not most of these people, came here from materially deprived conditions. However, you write in your essay, “McFarland, USA,” that it’s Americans who are culturally impoverished. And after an appreciable time in this country, many immigrants come to realize this.
MB: A lot of immigrants, Mexicans especially, I think, view the United States as a cash cow. You milk the teats, you earn the money that you can, and then you send it back home. And in fact it has made a big difference for the Mexican economy over the years. But in terms of actually living in the US, the studies show that there are very great difficulties in adjusting. The rate of mental illness among Mexicans living in the United States is exactly twice the rate of mental illness of Mexicans living in Mexico. What I talked about in that essay, based on the Kevin Costner film, McFarland, USA, is that there’s a humanity that exists in Latin cultures that is largely absent from Anglo-Saxon ones.
Anglo cultures are about property, and they have been since John Locke, if not before. They’re about competition and getting ahead. That’s the important thing. They are not about community, friendship, family, or even common courtesy – those things get thrown by the wayside. That conflict of world views is what the Costner film is really about (not too different from Dancing with Wolves, really). The Costner character slowly comes to understand that if he takes the lucrative job he is being offered in Palo Alto as a coach at a rich, all-white school, he’s going to have to leave McFarland, where he does have community, family, friendship, and common courtesy (even love).
At the beginning of the film, when the family walks into their house that they’re renting, so that Costner can take this job in McFarland, they see a painting on the wall of a beautiful indigena woman with a large platter of fruit and vegetables, extending outwards – the Great Mother. The Costner character’s reaction is that he has to go to the paint store and cover it up. (What could be more American?) But as the film progresses, he realizes that maybe that Great Mother has something to teach him about nurturing and a different set of values. What foreigners frequently experience in America is that there’s money to be made, but the catch-22 is that the cost of living is much higher, and then there’s the fact that hey, it just ain’t like home. People in the United States don’t care if you live or die. (Try living in a large apartment building if you don’t believe me, or just check the daily news.) This callousness is extended to other white Americans too, not just immigrants or people with darker skin.
Just a few years ago the tide started to turn. That is, more Mexicans were coming back across the border to Mexico than were going to the United States; there had been a sea change. Not clear yet what this means, but it certainly antedated “the wall.”
SP: In a recent column, Paul Krugman wrote: “Anyone claiming to see modern lessons in ancient history, especially Roman history, should be considered a hack until proved innocent.” In many of your books and essays, including in your most recent collection, Are We There Yet?, you point to the importance of looking at Rome’s protracted collapse and the lessons it can offer for America’s 21st century predicament. What are people like Krugman missing?
MB: The Twlight book, the first in my trilogy about the decline of the American Empire, is based on a comparison between contemporary America and the late Roman Empire. Shifting ahead 17 years, one of the essays in Are We There Yet? is about the Russian-American sociologist Pitirim Sorokin, who founded the sociology department at Harvard and was head of that department for many years. Around 1937, he began publishing a series of volumes entitled Social and Cultural Dynamics. This is in the style of, let’s say, Arnold Toynbee. He analyzed the rise and fall of civilizations, and I doubt that either of these scholars can be called hacks. Anyway, he talked about “sensate” civilizations such as our own, which are based on material reality and not much else. What he said was that when a sensate civilization collapses, you get an inversion of values, such that frivolity is viewed as creativity, and cowardice is viewed as heroism, and so forth. I think of that when I think of Krugman. We are in a situation now where serious historians are called hacks, and a hack economist like Krugman gets a Nobel Prize. It couldn’t be more perfect. I mean, when is Kim Kardashian going to be elected president of the United States? Don’t laugh, as people did about Trump in 2015. In terms of depth, Kim and Don aren’t that far apart. This is the type of thing Sorokin was talking about.
Paul Krugman is not an historian. He never trained as an historian, and he’s a bad economist. What I mean by that is that he’s little more than a capitalist apologist; the guy believes he’s thinking outside the box, but it just ain’t so. If you read his columns, what’s the bottom line? Growth (which is actually the cause of our problems, not the solution). When you ask me, What is he missing?, the answer is that he’s missing the fact that capitalism is coming apart at the seams and is in its declining phase. To compare someone like Krugman with, let’s say, the German economist Wolfgang Streeck…this is a brilliant guy who has demonstrated that capitalism has no future. Then there is the World Systems Analysis school, centered around Immanuel Wallerstein at the University of Binghamton. We can add Nomi Prins to the list. These are people who really are sophisticated students of the global economy. They are not apologists for capitalism and they don’t put much stock in the notion that “growth” will save us.
SP: Things have changed considerably since you wrote about the “monastic option” in The Twilight of American Culture in 2000. The idea of a “Benedict Option,” also a book of the same name, is now spreading through segments of the Christian community in the United States. What did you have in mind when you first wrote about the “new monastic individual,” and has your thinking changed at all over these last two decades? Though you were speaking in secular terms, what do you make of the religious call to revaluate the culture’s obsession with individualism and materialism?
MB: About a year ago, some minister who has a following based on that call, wrote an article on his blog about how I had come to that same Benedictine conclusion from a secular point of view. He actually thought that I was a socialist, which I suppose is about 10 percent true. He was shocked that someone who was secular could be promoting this idea. I don’t think it matters very much what the spiritual glue of a community is, and I don’t think it necessarily has to be religious. I wrote about the “monastic option” of the fourth century, which was mostly Irish, and certainly was Catholic. The idea is that people disconnect from the larger culture, like the Amish or the Shakers. You pull yourself away from that culture and you create a community in which you preserve the values of Western civilization that you think are important.
I don’t know to what extent this course of action is being pursued in the United States, but I know that people write me about their own attempts to become “new monastic individuals.” You’ve largely given up on the larger culture. You realize that it’s dying, that it’s not preserving the values that are your values, and you want to cultivate those, hopefully, with like-minded individuals. All well and good.
As far as I can see, there are only two ways of escaping the destructive influence of America: one is the option just indicated, that of the new monastic individual. It’s a kind of internal migration. The other option is the one I took, which is to leave America altogether. I still think that’s the best option: just get out. If you don’t get out, then you’re living in a kind of corporate-commercial wraparound 24/7. It makes it extremely hard to live a healthy life, or even to think straight. Myself, I have to admit that I didn’t have the strength to resist the dominant culture. At first I thought I was going to be a lotus in a cesspool, but all that happened was that I became a dirty lotus. So I left, and it was the smartest, happiest, and most significant decision I made in my entire life. Like most Americans, I had been little more than a hamster running on a wheel.
When young people ask me, What should I do?, I tell them: Hit the road, Jack! Emigrate now; don’t put it off. What do you think is waiting for you, when you are ready to retire? It’s not going to be pretty. Most of them will undoubtedly dismiss me as a lunatic (all of which raises the question of who is truly insane, of course). Most of them will ignore my advice, and (I believe) will bitterly regret having done so later on. As I’ll be dead when these kids are about to retire, I guess the only thing I can do is say it in my epitaph: I TOLD YOU SO!
Sean Posey can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.