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Several years after the Wall Street-ignited crisis began, the nation’s top bank CEOs (who far out-accumulated their European and other international counterparts) continue to hobnob with the president at campaign dinners where each plate costs more than one out of four US households make in a year. Financial bigwigs lead their affluent lives, unaffected, unremorseful, and unindicted for wreaking havoc on the nation. Why? Because they won. They hustled better. They are living the American Dream.
This is not the American Dream that says if you work hard you can be more comfortable than your parents; but rather, if you connive well, game the rules, and rule the game, your take from others is unlimited. In this paradigm, human empathy, caring, compassion, and connection have been devalued from the get-go. This is the flaw in the entire premise of the American Dream: if we can have it all, it must by definition be at someone else’s expense.
In Why America Failed, noted historian and cultural critic Morris Berman’s brilliant, raw and unflinchingly accurate postmortem of America, he concludes that this hustling model, literally woven into the American DNA, doomed the country from the start, and led us inevitably to this dysfunctional point. It is not just the American Dream that has failed, but America itself, because the dream was a mistake in the first place. We are at our core a nation of hustlers; not recently, not sometimes, but always. Conventional wisdom has it that America was predicated on the republican desire to break free from monarchical tyranny, and that was certainly a factor in the War of Independence; but in practical terms, it came down to a drive for "more" -- for individual accumulation of wealth.
So where does that leave us as a country? I caught up with Berman to find out.
Nomi Prins:Why America Failedis the third book in a trilogy you wrote on the decline of the American Empire. How did this trilogy evolve?
Morris Berman: The first book in the series, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), is a structural analysis, or internal comparison, of the contemporary US and the late Roman Empire. In it, I identified factors that were central to the fall of Rome and showed that they were present in the US today. I said that if we didn’t address these, we were doomed. I didn’t believe for a moment we would, of course, and now the results are obvious.
After 9/11, I realized that my comparison with Rome lacked one crucial component: like Rome, we were attacked from the outside. Dark Ages America (2006), the sequel to Twilight, is an analysis of US foreign policy and its relationship to domestic policy, once again arguing that there had to be a serious reevaluation of both if we were to arrest the disintegration of the nation. Of course, no such reevaluation took place, and we are now in huge economic trouble with no hope of recovery, and stuck in two wars in the Middle East that we cannot seem to win.
By the time I sat down to write the third volume, Why America Failed, I was past the point of issuing warnings. The book is basically a postmortem for a dying nation. The argument is that we failed for reasons that go back more than 400 years. As a result, the historical momentum to not undertake a reassessment, and just continue on with business as usual, is very powerful. At this point we can no more reverse our downward trajectory than we can turn around an aircraft carrier in a bathtub.
NP: So you’ve been analyzing America’s decline for over a decade. Was there a particular, specific inspiration forWhy America Failed?
MB: I was originally inspired by the historian Walter McDougall (Freedom Just Around the Corner) and his argument about America being a nation of hustlers. The original working title was Capitalism and Its Discontents, the point being that those who dissented from the dominant ideology never had a chance. The crux of the problem remains the American Dream: even “progressives” see it as the solution -- including, I have the impression, the Wall Street protesters -- when it’s actually the problem.
In my essay collection, A Question of Values, I talk about how we are driven by a number of unconscious assumptions, including the notions of our being the “chosen people” and the availability of an endless frontier (once geographical, now economic and technological). For a while I had The Roots of American Failure as the title, but more to the point would be The Failure of American Roots -- for even our success was a failure, because it was purely material. This is really what the American Dream is about, in its essence, as Douglas Dowd argued years ago in The Twisted Dream.
There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a Native American scouting expedition that came across the starving members of the Donner Party in 1847, who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The expedition, which had never seen white people before, observed the Donner Party from a distance, then returned to base camp to report what they had seen. The report consisted of four words: “They eat each other.” Frankly, if I could summarize the argument of Why America Failed in a single phrase, this would be it. Unless Occupy Wall Street (or some other sociopolitical movement) manages to turn things around in a fundamental way, “They ate each other” will be our epitaph.
I should add that Why America Failed is actually part of a lineage, following the path initially staked out by Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward and Louis Hartz. Between 1948 and 1955 they all argued something similar; I just updated the argument.
NP: What do you say to people who don’t believe America has failed; who may just see the country as going through a bad patch, so to speak? What evidence have you compiled for the argument that the United States has failed?
MB: The major evidence is, of course, economic, and there is by now a slew of books showing that this time around recovery is not really possible and that we are going to be eclipsed by China or even Europe. These are books by very respected economists, I might add; and even a US Intelligence report of two yrs ago, “Global Trends 2025,” says pretty much the same thing, although it adds cultural and political decline into the mix. The statistics here are massive, but just consider a single one: in terms of collective wealth, the top 1 percent of the nation owns more than the bottom 90 percent. If we have a future, it’s that of a banana republic. And there will be no New Deal this time around to save us; just the opposite, in fact, as we are busy shredding any social safety net we once had.
NP: How does this relate to the rise of the Tea Party, or the Occupy Wall Street movement?
MB: Americans may be very vocal in claiming we’ll eventually recover, or that the US is still number-one, but I believe that on some level they know that this is whistling in the dark. They suspect their lives will get worse as time goes on, and that the lives of their children will be even worse than that. They feel the American Dream betrayed them, and this has left them bitter and resentful. The Wall Street protests are, as during the Depression, a demand for restoring the American Dream; for letting more people into it. The Tea Party seeks a solution in returning to original American principles of hustling, i.e. of a laissez-faire economy and society, in which the government plays an extremely small role. Thus they see Obama as a socialist, which is absurd; even FDR doesn’t fit that description. There are great differences between the two movements, of course, but both are grounded in a deep malaise, a fear that someone or something has absconded with America.
NP: Most political analysts place the blame for our current situation on major institutions, whether it is Wall Street, Congress, the Bush or Obama administrations, and so on. You agree with them to a great extent, but you also seem to place a lot of emphasis on the American people themselves—on individual values and behavior. Why is that? How do you see that as a factor?
MB: The dominant thinking on the left, I suppose, is some variety of a “false consciousness” argument, that the elite have pulled the wool over the eyes of the vast majority of the population, and once the latter realizes that they’ve been had, they’ll rebel, they’ll move the country in a populist or democratic socialist direction. The problem I have with this is the evident fact that most Americans want the American Dream, not a different way of life—a Mercedes-Benz, as Janis Joplin once put it. Endless material wealth based on individual striving is the American ideal, and the desire to change that paradigm is practically nonexistent. Even the poor buy into this, which is why John Steinbeck once remarked that they regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hence I would argue that nations get the governments they deserve; that the wool is the eyes.
In addition, all of the data over the last 20 years show that Americans are not very bright, and not even the bright ones are very bright—it’s not merely a question of IQ. A Marist poll released on July 4, 2011 showed that 42 percent of American adults are unaware that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776, and this figure increases to 69 percent for the under-30 age group. Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t know from which country the United States seceded. A poll taken in the Oklahoma public school system turned up the fact that 77 percent of the students didn’t know who George Washington was, and the Texas Board of Education recently voted to include a unit on Estee Lauder in the history curriculum, when they don’t have one on the first president. Nearly 30 percent of the American population thinks the sun revolves around the earth or is unsure of which revolves around which. Etc. etc. How can such a population grasp a structural analysis of American history or politics? They simply aren’t capable of it.
NP: So, basically it’s only a matter of time before students are taking courses in the historical significance of Kim Kardashian? What are the deeper, structural obstacles, in your opinion, to the American public accepting your general argument?
MB: It seems to me that it would involve a complete reversal of consciousness. I remember after the publication of the German edition of Dark Ages America, a major Berlin newspaper, the TAZ, or Tageszeitung, ran a review of the book called “Hopes of a Patriot.” One of the things the reviewer said was that America might be able to save itself if it decided to pay attention to its more serious critics. What would it take for most Americans to regard someone like myself as a patriot, and someone like Dick Cheney as a traitor? Or Ronald Reagan as a simpleton who did the country enormous damage, and Jimmy Carter as a visionary who was trying to rescue it? As I said, this is not a matter of intelligence as IQ, because in America even the bright are brainwashed—just check out the New York Times. It’s more of an “ontological” problem, if you will.
Let me give you a concrete example. A friend of mine who is a dean at one of the nation’s major medical schools was very taken by my discussion of Joyce Appleby’s work, in my book Dark Ages America. He went out and bought her essay, "Capitalism and a New Social Order," in which she describes how the definition of “virtue” underwent a complete reversal in the 1790s—from putting your private interests aside for the sake of the greater good, to achieving individual material success in an opportunistic environment.
As a dean, my friend interacts with faculty a lot, at department meetings, cocktail parties, or whatever. He took these opportunities to raise the topic of the rapid redefinition of virtue in colonial America, only to discover that within 30 seconds, the eyes of whomever he was talking to glazed over and they would change the subject. Tocqueville said it in 1831, and it is even more true today: Americans simply cannot tolerate, cannot even hear, fundamental critiques of America. IQ has very little to do with it. In an ontological sense, they simply cannot bear it. And if this is true for the “best and the brightest,” then what does this say for the rest of us?
NP:What do you think can be done to reverse the situation? Is there any hope for the American Dream?
MB: At this point, absolutely nothing can reverse the situation. If every American carries these values, then change would require a different people, a different country. In dialectical fashion, it is precisely those factors that made this nation materially great that are now working against us, and that thus need to be jettisoned. What we need now is a large-scale rejection of the American Dream, and an embracing of the alternative tradition I talk about in Why American Failed. These are the “hopes of a patriot,” and they are simply not going to be realized.
NP: Can you mention briefly what some of those alternative traditions are ? You have a chapter that’s attracted some controversy regarding the Civil War – how does that relate?
MB: As I mentioned earlier, the working title of the book was Capitalism and Its Discontents. The reason I liked it (for various reasons, my publisher didn’t) is that it does reflect the thesis of the book: that although there was always an alternative tradition to hustling, with one exception America never took it, and instead it marginalized those alternative voices. The exception was the antebellum South, which raises real questions as to the origins of the Civil War, which were not about slavery as a moral issue, no matter how much we like to believe that. As Robin Blackburn writes in his recent book, The American Crucible, antislavery ideas were far more about notions of progress than about ones of racial equality. That’s a whole other discussion, however, and I have it out in the book for an entire chapter.
But the main narrative here is that from Captain John Smith and the Puritan divines through Thoreau and Emerson to Lewis Mumford and Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith to Jimmy Carter, this tradition of capitalism’s discontents never really stood a chance. It never amounted to anything more than spiritual exhortation. Reaganomics, also known as “greedism,” was not born in 1981; more like 1584. The result is that for more than four centuries now, America has had one value system, and it is finally showing itself to be extremely lopsided and self-destructive. Our political and cultural system never let fresh air in; it squelched the alternatives as quaint or feeble-minded. Appearances to the contrary, this is what “democracy” always meant in America—the freedom to become rich. The alternative tradition, in the work of the figures mentioned above, sought to question the definition of “wealth.” If the dominant culture was following the template of “they eat each other,” the alternative tradition can be encapsulated in that famous line from John Ruskin: “There is no wealth but life.”
NP: Speaking of wars, having just undergone Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration, and actually the Republican candidates as well, have begun to vilify China, and have amped up the volume regarding Iran. You talk about our need as a country to have an external enemy. In what way do you believe that need will manifest itself in any coming military actions?
MB: I deal with this issue in A Question of Values. America was founded within a conceptual framework of being in opposition to something—the British and the Native Americans, to begin with—and it never abandoned that framework. It doesn’t really have a clear idea of what it is in a positive sense, and that has generated a kind of national neurosis. I mean, we were in real trouble when the Soviet Union collapsed; in terms of identity, we were completely adrift until the attacks of 9/11 (just think of how frivolous and meaningless the Clinton years were, in retrospect). War is our drug of choice, and without an enemy we enter a kind of nervous breakdown mode.
Hence the saber rattling against Iran now, or the foolish decision to set up an army base in Australia to “watch” China. What bothers me is that we are doing all of this unconsciously, and we always have. Mr. Obama, like most of his predecessors, is little more than a marionette on strings (Mr. Carter being the only postwar exception to this pattern, in a number of significant ways). Once again, true intelligence is ontological, and as a nation, we are sorely lacking in that department.
NP: But haven’t we heard all this before? After all, there is a long history of the so-called “declinist” argument, that the country is in permanent decline and has no future. Such books come and go; meanwhile, the country goes on. What makes your book, or books, different from previous assertions that “it’s all over”?
MB: Decline takes time; an empire doesn’t come to an end on August 4, A.D. 476, at two in the afternoon. Similarly, declinist analysis also takes time: the books you are referring to form a continuous argument, from Andrew Hacker’s The End of the American Era in 1970 to George Modelski’s Long Cycles in World Politics in 1987 to Why America Failed in 2011. And there have been a good number of declinist works in between. These books are not wrong; rather, they are part of an ongoing recognition that the American experiment is finished. Even then, we can go back to before Professor Hacker to Richard Hofstadter (1948), who called the US a “democracy of cupidity”; or to C. Vann Woodward (1953), who wrote that we were probably doomed because we had put all of our eggs in one ideological basket, namely laissez-faire economics. During these years the country hasn’t just “gone on”; what it has done is progressively fallen apart, and these writers have made it their business to document the process.
NP: Finally, you moved to Mexico a number of years ago. Is all this why? Do you ever see yourself coming back to America?
MB: There are a lot of answers to that question, and yes, some of the reasons can be found in the above dialogue. You know, the air is really “thin” in the United States, because the value-system is one-dimensional. It’s basically about economic and technological expansion, not much else; the “else” exists at the margins, if it exists at all. I first discovered this when I traveled around Europe in my mid-20s. I saw that the citizens of those countries talked about lots of things, not just about material success. Money is of course important to the citizens of other countries, Mexico included, but it’s not necessarily the center of their lives.
Here’s what the US lacks, which I believe Mexico has: community, friendship, appreciation of beauty, craftsmanship as opposed to obsessive technology, and—despite what you read in the American newspapers—huge graciousness; a large, beating heart. I never found very much of those things in the US; certainly, I never found much heart. American cities and suburbs have to be the most soulless places in the world. In a word, America has its priorities upside down, and after decades of living there, I was simply tired of being a stranger in a strange land. In A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis and his colleagues conclude that happiness is achieved only by those who manage to escape the American value-system. Well, the easiest way to escape from that value-system, is to escape from America.
Nomi Prins is a journalist and senior fellow at Demos. She is the author of Other People's Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and Jacked: How "Conservatives" are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted For Them or Not).
(Courtesy: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.)In Why America Failed, cultural historian Morris Berman completes his trilogy on the decline of a nation by tapping his exceptional talents for research, observation and theory. The result is a compelling narrative of decay.
Now, nobody lives forever
Nothin' stands the test of time
Oh, you heard'em say "never say never"
But it's always best to keep it in mind
That every tower ever built tumbles
No matter how strong, no matter how tall
Someday even great walls will crumble
And every idol ever raised falls
And someday even man's best-laid plans
Will lie twisted and covered in rust
We've done all that we can but it slipped through our hands
And it's ashes to ashes and dust to dust
- Steve Earle, "Ashes to Ashes," 2002
In 1977, Elvis Presley's ex-bodyguards and former friends released a book with the help of writer Steve Dunleavy, called Elvis: What Happened? The book gave heartbreaking testimony to the hideous and hurtful downfall of America's greatest popular entertainer. According to Red and Sonny West, who had worked for Elvis since befriending him in 1955, Elvis had gone from a Greek god-like figure the public met on the Ed Sullivan Show, and fell in love with again on the 1968 Comeback Special, to an overweight, drug-addicted shadow of his former self. His voice had lost most of its mysterious power; his face had lost its beauty - and his behavior had become increasingly erratic, boorish and bizarre. He'd lie down on stage, subject his family and friends to incoherent sermons in the Jungle Room, and gorge on fatty foods, all while swallowing pills by the handful. The King had become material for a modernized Shakespearean tragedy. Elvis was furious at the West brothers over the book, viewing it as the worst form of betrayal. The remaining members of his entourage, mostly sycophants who feared offending their boss because of his swift and severe temper, fed Elvis' delusions by condemning the book as a lie. The fans ignored its revelations. Two weeks later Elvis died due to the complications of prolonged drug abuse.
Cultural historian Morris Berman has just recently completed his trilogy on the decline of the United States of America. At the point of this writing, he has not given the trilogy an official name, but he may want to consider "America: What Happened?"
The trilogy began in the year 2000 with the publication of The Twilight of American Culture. Berman had just recently completed a different trilogy - one on human consciousness that, as the title of the first book implies, calls for a "re-enchantment of the world" - an incorporation of spirituality into our lives to balance the materialism, individualism and scientism of modernity. Berman was living in the brain of the beast - Washington, DC - and teaching sociology at the Catholic University of America when he began keeping a file of newspaper clippings, academic studies, and handmade notes chronicling disturbing developments of ignorance, cruelty and lunacy in American life. A New York Times article in 1995 reported that the nation's top one percent of income earners owned 40 percent of America's wealth. A few years later, Northern Illinois University conducted a random survey that revealed 21 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth, and other studies found that many Americans could not locate their own country on a map. Around the same time, the United Nations ranked the United States 49th in literacy. Dozens of universities and newspapers began studying the "lack of civility" in everyday American life, while the country grew more violent, mounting a staggering body count from between 15,000 and 20,000 homicides a year, and incarcerating more people, in per capita and sheer numbers, than almost any country in the world.
After several years of collecting these obituaries of American civilization, and recognizing that the file would grow larger on a daily basis, he decided to write a book. The Twilight of American Culture was the result, and it became a critical and commercial success. Berman wrote that "collapse involves a progressive weakening of a society's political and administrative center." It is a "recurrent feature of human societies," and there was no reason to believe, despite the dogmatic protests of American exceptionalists and Reaganites - what Cornel West calls "cheap American optimism" - that America's tower would not tumble. Based on his own studies of civilizational decline, Berman identified four factors present during a collapse:
1. Accelerating social and economic inequality - check.
2. Declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems or, in other words, the political system becomes dysfunctional - check.
3. Rapidly dropping levels of literacy, critical understanding and general intellectual awareness - check.
4. Spiritual death, what Berman calls the "emptying out of cultural content and the freezing of it in formulas, kitsch" - check.
Berman demonstrates how in the year 2000, all four factors of collapse had become regular and routine parts of American life. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, poverty grew at a rate of 22 percent and wages for most Americans stagnated, but the income of the top one percent grew by 78 percent.
The American political system brazenly became one of legalized bribery and normalized corruption with lobbyists, corporate donors and public relations specialists dominating Washington's business - not statesmanship or concern for the common interest and public good.
The high school dropout rate grew to 30 percent; many public school systems became disgraceful and universities changed their model to mutate into businesses, rather than remain real institutions of higher learning.
Vulgarity, frivolity, and superficiality emerged victorious in pop culture, while the arts struggled to survive.
American culture has many critics. Political Scientist Robert Putnam famously documented and described the collapse of community in America. His bestseller Bowling Alone showed a nation of atomized individuals - transients lacking even the flimsiest of connections to one another. Philosopher Sheldon Wolin indicted the nation's political system in Democracy Inc., calling it "inverted totalitarianism."
Corporate America maintains tyrannical rule of America, but it is by concession and the public believes in their illusion of freedom. Neil Postman called America a "technopoly," where technology becomes a religion and is able to swallow up culture whole (Berman spends a great deal of time and ink making a similar argument against America's infatuation with technology).
Communications Professor Robert McChesney, in a series of books, undresses the mainstream media as nothing more than a shallow shill for its parent companies and advertisers. Famous thinkers like Noam Chomsky and Cornel West present convincing cases against America's foreign policy and race and class divisions.
Morris Berman manages to encapsulate all of these critiques into one solid documentation of America's slow and steady decline. He also goes well beyond familiar attacks on American materialism, narcissism and imperialism to present theories, ideas and insights of his own.
In The Twilight of American Culture, for example, he rebukes the wedded notions of "progress" and "growth" to show how they are ultimately hollow, and set people on a road to ruin. He expands on this idea greatly in the third book, Why America Failed. In the first book, he also recommends to readers a "new monastic option," in which - like the monks who preserved classic texts during the final days of the Roman Empire - Americans can work to protect what is sacred and special in their own land.
He identifies a woman who started a symphony in New York City and a man who humanized nursing homes by bringing residents animals and planting the grounds with gardens, as contemporary keepers of the monastic option.
At the time of Twilight's publication, America had not yet had an election of questionable legitimacy. It had not yet been attacked simultaneously in its political and financial capitals. It had not yet stripped millions of citizens of their constitutional rights in the name of safety and security. It had not yet invaded a country that posed no threat. It had not yet begun practicing torture and it had not yet allowed New Orleans - one of its greatest cities - to perish for lack of assistance in the world's richest nation.
The attacks of September 11th, the brutal governmental response, Hurricane Katrina and the criminally negligent governmental response to it, all transpired between the publication of Berman's first America book and his second, Dark Ages America.
Dark Ages America picks up where Twilight left off, but adds to it a detailed study of America's foreign policy. Exploitative, aggressive and disastrous, the stretch of the American arm around the globe has created enemies - what Chalmers Johnson calls "blowback" - and accomplished very little for the overwhelming mass of its own citizens.
Imperial upkeep eats away most of the federal budget - the current budget allocates 57 percent of discretionary spending to the Pentagon - and the nation is going bankrupt as a result. Meanwhile, an aggressive foreign policy makes for a jingoistic, bloodthirsty citizenry. Berman points to studies and surveys showing terrifyingly large numbers of Americans supportive of limitations on free speech in wartime, restrictions on religious freedom for Muslims, and harsh regulations on the editorial liberty of the press.
The book is the thickest of the three, and Berman assembles a battery of evidence to make his case. From Vietnam to Iraq, America has been imperialistic. From Nixon's crackdowns on dissenters to Guantanamo Bay, America has violated its promise of human and civil rights. I find Berman at his best, however, when he navigates the everyday world of American anti-communities.
Relying on stories reported in the mainline media and personal anecdotes, he describes a country that every American knows well - an unwelcoming place where people are regularly rude to each other, fail to show minimal courtesy in public places and meet the slightest inconvenience with psychotic levels of bellicosity and belligerence.
Most Americans, especially those under 30, know no alternative to people shouting on cell phones during movies and concerts, employers failing to notify applicants when they are turned down for jobs, deadly stampedes at Christmas sales in department stores and yearly massacres by alienated gunmen. Congressman Ron Paul announces that a young man who gets sick after choosing not to buy health insurance should die, and receives roaring applause, while on the other side of the aisle, The New York Times reports that President Obama found it an "easy decision" to assassinate American citizen and radical cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. Esquire magazine describes, in gruesome detail, how al-Awlaki's 16-year-old son was killed in a separate drone strike, and the President doesn't even mention his name. Most Americans, bored and unbothered, don't even bat an eye. Home sweet home.
Immigrants and foreign exchange students, however, have an intuitive sense of America's mean-spirited culture and Americans' callous disregard for each other's well-being. Anyone who was spent time with a non-American living in America has likely heard the same questions and criticisms. A college student from Croatia with whom I studied at a liberal arts college near Chicago told me several times that America is "fun," but she would never consider raising a family here. Similarly, an Ethiopian immigrant whom I tutored at the same college told me that she thought America was "heaven" when she lived in Ethiopia, but found that the "system here," as she called it, was "every man for himself."
Dirty talkers for millionaires like Thomas Friedman, David Brooks and other highly paid pundits could never imagine formulating a critique of the rot at the core of American culture more sophisticated than what a Nigerian immigrant at an American high school where I substitute-taught told me. She said that even though the economic and political problems of Nigeria far eclipse those of America, people are happier there because they have a sense of family and a sense of community that binds them together and gives their lives meaning and purpose.
"Americans are lonely," she told me, "because they don't believe in anything - not even each other."
These three women are not naïve or delusional about their own home countries. The Croatian student's father was murdered in front of her during the Croatian War for Independence, and the young woman from Ethiopia moved to escape material poverty. They saw horror and misery in other parts of the world, but they intuitively and intellectually understood that America is an unsustainable and unfriendly culture.
My cousin Ljubomir, who moved to Chicago from Serbia in the 1980s, has told me on several occasions - typically while drinking his homemade wine - that knowing what he knows now, if he were to advise a young Serb in 2012, he would never encourage him to move to America. "If you must move," he says, "find a European country." People aren't impressed with us anymore. America has become the misfit at the party - bragging about all of his achievements and hitting on all the pretty girls, oblivious to the mustard stain on his shirt, vomit on his breath and rust on his car parked in front of the fireplug outside.
I experienced a small dose of cultural shock when I traveled through Italy, Austria and Germany in the summer of 2007. Because of my long black hair, dark brown eyes and formal dress (by American tourist standards), Italians in bars and cafes often mistook me for Italian. Almost every time I sat down with a glass of wine or cup of coffee, an Italian would give me a warm greeting and attempt to strike up a conversation. I observed the same geniality and camaraderie take place among Italians everywhere. If I did enter a conversation with an Italian man or woman who happened to smoke, they would immediately offer me a cigarette. As an American, I didn't feel as if I had taken a flight across the Atlantic Ocean. I felt like I was abducted by aliens and living on another planet. I thought a German bartender spiked my beer with acid when after having a few glasses, I went to a Munich art museum and I witnessed a group of small children quietly walking in a single file line, looking at the paintings that adorned the walls, while their chaperone lectured in hushed tones. These experiences are unimaginable - inconceivable - in the United States, and while Italy and Germany are not utopias by any means, they do seem to maintain a sense of decency and dignity that is foreign to "the world's last remaining superpower" - a dubious distinction if there ever was one.
Morris Berman had the same mind warp when he moved to Mexico. Following a brief book tour for Dark Ages, Berman felt that he "outlived his country." Feeling like a "stranger in his own hometown," as the Elvis song goes, he moved to Mexico, because despite its poverty and drug cartel war, he wanted to live in a "traditional society with traditional values."
Mexicans are courteous, respectful and kind, Berman explains, and in the face of frightening problems - fatal poverty, political corruption, high levels of violence - people are happy. They are happy, to invert the wisdom of the brilliant Nigerian high school student, because they believe in something and they believe in each other.
In the tradition of Red and Sonny West, let us then ask, "America - what happened?" Berman - employing his trifecta of talents for research, observation and theory - seeks to answer that very question in the third and strongest book of the America trilogy, Why America Failed. The accomplishments of the United States are vast, and despite the decrepit state of the Empire, they continue to inspire people. Berman contends, however, that unlike in the case of Elvis, nothing really happened. Elvis was full of promise and power. His greatness changed popular music and popular entertainment, uplifted millions of people around the world and influenced other great musicians, ranging from John Lennon to Bob Dylan. America, according to Berman, "was blind at birth."
In the words of President Calvin Coolidge, "the business of America is business." From its origin, American was a business civilization. Historian Walter McDougall called it" a nation of hustlers," and the theme of hustling is what fuels Why America Failed. America never cultivated a real identity. It has no sense of self, and therefore what emerges are a number of triumphalist pseudo-religions that are substitutes for identity - technological progress as a religion, America itself as a religion (consider the rage most Americans go into at even the mildest criticism of America and the way dissent is punished politically and economically), and most idolatrous, free market capitalism as a religion. America claims to be a Christian nation and its people claim to admire Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, and St. Francis of Assisi, but it is obvious that the truth is otherwise. America's real religion is itself and its money-making machinery.
Without a strong identity, America is forced to identify itself in opposition to a demonic other. Native "savages," communists, "islamofascists" - all of these deliberately misunderstood groups of millions of people are not merely believers in a different lifestyle or political system, but enemies of all that is good and just and pure in the world, and they must be annihilated from the face of the earth. America will rise victorious - its way of life preserved and never examined. Socrates famously warned that an unexamined life is "not worth living," but Americans, as Berman argues while standing on a platform built by critics like Lewis Mumford and Christopher Lasch, never got a grip on life. You can't examine life if you don't know what it is.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1831,"As one digs deeper into the national character of Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: How much money will it bring in?" Judging everything according to a utilitarian standard will ultimately destroy it, because the judge begins with the assumption that nothing has any intrinsic value.
Condoleezza Rice, in a recent report on the state of public education, said that public schools are so dysfunctional they present a security risk to America. If the only purpose of an education, in the minds of most Americans, is to make money, how will it ever improve? Any college-level instructor in the humanities can relate to the experience I've had when teaching literature courses, of going to pains to try to convince just a small fraction of students that they should have interest in material that doesn't directly relate to their career ambitions.
Millions of Americans die every year, because in the words of Jesse Jackson, "They are turned away from hospitals while the hospitals wait to fill its empty beds with people who have insurance." If the American health care system - ranked 37th in the world - is run by people who believe medicine is, first and foremost, about the maximization of profit, how will it ever improve? Anyone naive enough to believe that President Obama mandating that millions of Americans pay to participate in this wicked system will result in improvement is in for a rude awakening.
Short-term profit trumps long-term consequences, and America is the result of failed market-driven hypotheses of the "invisible hand," "primacy of the individual," and the "trickle down" theory of economics. The financial and political elite routinely reveal themselves comfortable with the destruction of human life for purposes of personal enrichment.
Berman separates himself from most critics in two essential ways. First, he implicates the American people in the miserable state of the country. Unlike Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore, who believe that a revolution in public consciousness is psychically brewing, Berman states clearly that the destruction of the "republican tradition" in America was not a rape. It was a seduction. The corporate media and American government may be manipulative, but their conception of a broken community was consensual with the general populace.
The religions of America are also addictions. Consumption and foolish beliefs in cultural superiority act as self-medicated sedatives to treat its people's lack of meaning, purpose and happiness. Hustling is hollow. It is an activity with no real end, and acquiring more does nothing to fill the spiritual hole it creates, because that hole is an abyss.
For this reason, Berman explains, alternative traditions never stood a chance. The two main turning points he identifies are the Civil War and Carter Presidency. He spends an entire chapter on the Civil War, but to summarize his analysis without betraying it, his essential point is that the South was opposed to the hustling culture of the North. "Progress" was, perhaps, the main cause of the Civil War. Southerners believed in honor, familial ties and neo-feudal community. Northerners were materialistic and individualistic industrialists. A surprising number of thinkers echo this viewpoint - communication theorist Marshall McLuhan, novelist Robert Penn Warren, playwright Thornton Wilder and historian Eugene Genovese, to name a few. All of these critics, and most especially Berman, make it clear that slavery is a horrific evil and that no civilization built on such an evil system could sustain itself, but Berman also points out that the Ancient Greeks had an even larger system of slavery in their society, and that doesn't prevent historians and philosophers from learning from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.
America never learned from the South. It never attempted to see the good - agrarian life, communal ties, slow pace - along with the evil - slavery, segregation. It launched not only a scorched earth policy, but also what Berman calls a "scorched soul" policy. The traditional values of the South had to be destroyed, just like the traditional values of the Native Americans and the Vietnamese.
President Jimmy Carter - a good Southerner - presented America with what Berman calls "the republican tradition's last stand." He made some big blunders as president and had an awkward leadership style, but he also made human rights central to his foreign policy, lived a modest lifestyle by example and warned against the dangers of consumerism and greed. He installed solar panels on top of the White House and allocated funding for research into alternative sources of energy. He also set up the National Center for Appropriate Technology, which was dedicated to studying how technology could serve communities of human scale - establish work places near where people live, use simple equipment laymen could understand and rely on local materials. Most of the American public now regards Carter as a bad joke - a failed presidency and an insult to the American way of life. He lost his re-election campaign in a landslide, and his successor, Ronald Reagan, now considered one of our greatest presidents, would dismantle the National Center for Appropriate Technology, deregulate industry to serve a greed-is-good theology and sponsor death squads in Latin America.
President Carter never stood a chance, because, in the words of Berman, he was "trying to reverse 400 years of American history." The history and the idolatry become self-perpetuating. Nothing proved the indestructibility of America's addictions more than its response to the financial crisis and subsequent unemployment epidemic. Rather than regulate the financial industry and create a comprehensive jobs policy, it doubled down on its bet on Wall Street. The alternative tradition never reached a level of viability, not because the wool has been pulled over the eyes of the American people, but because, as Berman points out, "the wool is the eyes."
Berman departs from most critics also by not offering any hope for recovery in a perfunctory final chapter of renewal. Putnam, Chomsky, West and most critics will typically write 300 pages scrutinizing and analyzing the failures of American culture, and then spend 20 pages forecasting how an elusive and unidentified "we" can turn it all around. As the years go on, and the quotidian grows more monstrous, these comforting chapters of wishbone breaking become less convincing. Berman is not a pessimist. He is a realist. He has spent 12 years gathering facts and evaluating evidence, and he has formulated the most logical conclusion and presented the most probable outcome. America is terminally ill.
Through his realism, I found myself growing oddly optimistic. If the American system of hustling is so deadly, dispiriting and destructive, might we believers in the alternative tradition welcome a change? If America is addicted to its suicidal behavior, hitting bottom might be beneficial. When an alcoholic finally puts down the bottle, most of his family probably views the loss of his job and marriage, and the wrecking of his car, as sad, painful, but ultimately necessary steps to get the guy to save himself. Sure our tremors and withdrawal symptoms will be nightmarish - poverty, mass incarceration, high rates of mental disorders - but they may prove necessary to America finally finding an identity. As Gore Vidal - one of America's greatest authors, who saw all of this coming a long time ago - remarked in 2006,"We will end up somewhere between Argentina and Brazil, with at least a good soccer team." That doesn't sound too bad.