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How Bad Is It?

Jasper Johns, Green Flag, 1956 (Graphite pencil, crayon and collage on paper)

Pretty bad. Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years. Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.

Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.

Intellectual distinction isn’t everything, it’s true. But things are amiss in other areas as well: sociability and trust, for example. “During the last third of the twentieth century,” according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “all forms of social capital fell off precipitously.” Tens of thousands of community groups – church social and charitable groups, union halls, civic clubs, bridge clubs, and yes, bowling leagues — disappeared; by Putnam’s estimate, one-third of our social infrastructure vanished in these years. Frequency of having friends to dinner dropped by 45 percent; card parties declined 50 percent; Americans’ declared readiness to make new friends declined by 30 percent. Belief that most other people could be trusted dropped from 77 percent to 37 percent. Over a five-year period in the 1990s, reported incidents of aggressive driving rose by 50 percent — admittedly an odd, but probably not an insignificant, indicator of declining social capital.

Still, even if American education is spotty and the social fabric is fraying, the fact that the U.S. is the world’s richest nation must surely make a great difference to our quality of life? Alas, no. As every literate person knows, economic inequality in the United States is off the charts – at third-world levels. The results were recently summarized by James Speth in Orion magazine. Of the 20 advanced democracies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has the highest poverty rate, for both adults and children; the lowest rate of social mobility; the lowest score on UN indexes of child welfare and gender inequality; the highest ratio of health care expenditure to GDP, combined with the lowest life expectancy and the highest rates of infant mortality, mental illness, obesity, inability to afford health care, and personal bankruptcy resulting from medical expenses; the highest homicide rate; and the highest incarceration rate. Nor are the baneful effects of America’s social and economic order confined within our borders; among OECD nations the U.S. also has the highest carbon dioxide emissions, the highest per capita water consumption, the next-to-largest ecological footprint, the next-to-lowest score on the Yale Environmental Performance Index, the highest (by a colossal margin) per capita rate of military spending and arms sales, and the next-to-lowest rate of per capita spending on international development and humanitarian assistance.

Contemplating these dreary statistics, one might well conclude that the United States is — to a distressing extent — a nation of violent, intolerant, ignorant, superstitious, passive, shallow, boorish, selfish, unhealthy, unhappy people, addicted to flickering screens, incurious about other societies and cultures, unwilling or unable to assert or even comprehend their nominal political sovereignty. Or, more simply, that America is a failure.

That is indeed what Morris Berman concludes in his three-volume survey of America’s decline: The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America (2006), and Why America Failed (2011), from which much of the preceding information is taken. Berman is a cultural and intellectual historian, not a social scientist, so his portrait of American civilization, or barbarism, is anecdotal and atmospheric as well as statistical. He is eloquent about harder-to-quantify trends: the transformation of higher (even primary/secondary) education into marketing arenas for predatory corporations; the new form of educational merchandising known as “distance learning”; the colonization of civic and cultural spaces by corporate logos; the centrality of malls and shopping to our social life; the “systematic suppression of silence” and the fact that “there is barely an empty space in our culture not already carrying commercial messages.” Idiot deans, rancid rappers, endlessly chattering sports commentators, an avalanche of half-inch-deep self-help manuals; a plague of gadgets, a deluge of stimuli, an epidemic of rudeness, a desert of mutual indifference: the upshot is our daily immersion in a suffocating stream of kitsch, blather, stress, and sentimental banality. Berman colorfully and convincingly renders the relentless coarsening and dumbing down of everyday life in late (dare we hope?) American capitalism.

In Spenglerian fashion, Berman seeks the source of our civilization’s decline in its innermost principle, its animating Geist. What he finds at the bottom of our culture’s soul is … hustling; or, to use its respectable academic sobriquet, possessive individualism. Expansion, accumulation, economic growth: this is the ground bass of American history, like the hum of a dynamo in the basement beneath the polite twitterings on the upper stories about “liberty” and “a light unto the nations.” Berman scarcely mentions Marx or historical materialism; instead he offers a nonspecialist and accessible but deeply informed and amply documented review of American history, period by period, war by war, arguing persuasively that whatever the ideological superstructure, the driving energy behind policy and popular aspiration has been a ceaseless, soulless acquisitiveness.

The colonial period, the seedbed of American democracy, certainly featured a good deal of God-talk and virtue-talk, but Mammon more than held its own. Berman sides emphatically with Louis Hartz, who famously argued in The Liberal Tradition in America that American society was essentially Lockean from the beginning: individualistic, ambitious, protocapitalist, with a weak and subordinate communitarian ethic. He finds plenty of support elsewhere as well; for example in Perry Miller, the foremost historian of Puritanism, according to whom the American mind has always “positively lusted for the chance to yield itself to the gratification of technology.” Even Tocqueville, who made many similar observations, “could not comprehend,” wrote Miller, “the passion with which [early Americans] flung themselves into the technological torrent, how they … cried to each other as they went headlong down the chute that here was their destiny, here was the tide that would sweep them toward the unending vistas of prosperity.” Even Emerson and Whitman went through a phase of infatuation with industrial progress, though Hawthorne and Thoreau apparently always looked on the juggernaut with clearer (or more jaundiced) eyes.

Berman also sides, for the most part, with Charles Beard, who drew attention to the economic conflicts underlying the American Revolution and the Civil War. Beard may have undervalued the genuine intellectual ferment that accompanied the Revolution, but he was not wrong in perceiving the motivating force of the pervasive commercial ethic of the age. Joyce Appleby, another eminent historian, poses this question to those who idealize America’s founding: “If the Revolution was fought in a frenzy over corruption, out of fear of tyranny, and with hopes for redemption through civic virtue, where and when are scholars to find the sources for the aggressive individualism, the optimistic materialism, and the pragmatic interest-group politics that became so salient so early in the life of the nation?”

By the mid-nineteenth century, the predominance of commercial interests in American politics was unmistakable. Berman’s lengthy discussion of the Civil War as the pivot of American history takes for granted the inadequacy of triumphalist views of the Civil War. It was not a “battle cry of freedom.” Slavery was central, but for economic rather than moral reasons. The North represented economic modernity and the ethos of material progress; the economy and ethos of the South, based on slavery, was premodern and static. The West — and with it the shape of America’s economic future — was up for grabs, and the North grabbed it away from an equally determined South. Except for the abolitionists, no whites, North or South, gave a damn about blacks. How the West (like the North and South before it) was grabbed, in an orgy of greed, violence, and deceit against the original inhabitants, is a familiar story.

Even more than in Beard, Berman finds his inspiration in William Appleman Williams. When McKinley’s secretary of state John Hay advocated “an open door through which America’s preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all underdeveloped areas of the world” and his successor William Jennings Bryan (the celebrated populist and anti-imperialist!) told a gathering of businessmen in 1915 that “my Department is your department; the ambassadors, the ministers, the consuls are all yours; it is their business to look after your interests and to guard your rights,” they were enunciating the soul of American foreign policy, as was the much-lauded Wise Man George Kennan when he wrote in a post-World War II State Department policy planning document: “We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population … In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity … To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives … We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” Support The New Inquiry. Subscribe to TNI Magazine for $2

As a former medievalist, Berman finds contemporary parallels to the fall of Rome compelling. By the end of the empire, he points out, economic inequality was drastic and increasing, the legitimacy and efficacy of the state was waning, popular culture was debased, civic virtue among elites was practically nonexistent, and imperial military commitments were hopelessly unsustainable. As these volumes abundantly illustrate, this is 21st century America in a nutshell. The capstone of Berman’s demonstration is a sequence of three long, brilliant chapters in Dark Ages America on the Cold War, the Pax Americana, CIA and military interventions in the Third World, and in particular U.S. policy in the Middle East, where racism and rapacity have combined to produce a stunning debacle. Our hysterical national response to 9/11 — our inability even to make an effort to comprehend the long-festering consequences of our imperial predations — portended, as clearly as anything could, the demise of American global supremacy.

What will become of us? After Rome’s fall, wolves wandered through the cities and Europe largely went to sleep for six centuries. That will not happen again; too many transitions — demographic, ecological, technological, cybernetic — have intervened. The planet’s metabolism has altered. The new Dark Ages will be socially, politically, and spiritually dark, but the economic Moloch — mass production and consumption, destructive growth, instrumental rationality — will not disappear. Few Americans want it to. We are hollow, Berman concludes. It is a devastatingly plausible conclusion.

An interval — long or short, only the gods can say — of oligarchic, intensely surveilled, bread-and-circuses authoritarianism, Blade Runner- or Fahrenheit 451-style, seems the most likely outlook for the 21st and 22nd centuries. Still, if most humans are shallow and conformist, some are not. There is reason to hope that the ever fragile but somehow perennial traditions and virtues of solidarity, curiosity, self-reliance, courtesy, voluntary simplicity, and an instinct for beauty will survive, even if underground for long periods. And cultural rebirths do occur, or at any rate have occurred.

Berman offers little comfort, but he does note a possible role for those who perceive the inevitability of our civilization’s decline. He calls it the “monastic option.” Our eclipse may, after all, not be permanent; and meanwhile individuals and small groups may preserve the best of our culture by living against the grain, within the interstices, by “creating ‘zones of intelligence’ in a private, local way, and then deliberately keeping them out of the public eye.” Even if one’s ideals ultimately perish, this may be the best way to live while they are dying.

There is something immensely refreshing, even cathartic, about Berman’s refusal to hold out any hope of avoiding our civilization’s demise. And our reaction goes some way toward proving his point: We are so sick of hucksters, of authors trying — like everyone else on all sides at all times in this pervasively hustling culture — to sell us something, that it is a relief to encounter someone who isn’t, who has no designs on our money or votes or hopes, who simply has looked into the depths, into our catastrophic future, and is compelled to describe it, as Cassandra was. No doubt his efforts will meet with equal success.

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