Morris Berman is a messenger bringing bad news about the coming end of the American empire, which he estimates will occur around the year 2040. We are heading over the cliff because of uncontrolled trade deficits, a “negative identity” that feeds on war against weak nations, a fatuous culture of TV and empty movies, failed schools and pain-free universities, our shopping mania, a captive press, lost civil rights, lobbies that run Congress, and a Justice Department that freely rewrites Constitutional law. And we are a doomed society mainly because the public itself is no longer active or aware, and keeps re-electing the very people undermining its remaining freedoms.
“America takes away love and gives its citizens gadgets, in return, which most of them regard as a terrific bargain,” Berman writes. The “sacred cow” in the United States is the American people: “Anything has the force of biblical revelation if it is ascribed to this mystical, all-knowing entity.” Berman prefers Nicholas von Hoffman’s assessment of that same populace as “asses, dolts, and blockheads,” or as “bobbleheads in bubbleland.”
And the critics and some bloggers want to kill the messenger. Writing her review of Dark Ages for The New York Times, Michiko Kakutani, the Iron Lady of review columns, could hardly contain her rage over Berman’s calling America names. “He is smugly fatalistic and sweepingly dismissive of political debate,” she writes, calling him “indiscriminate and intemperate” and opening her review with a salvo: “This is a book that gives the Left a bad name.”
There is a deep intolerance for even the best writers of Berman’s tradition. When Walt Whitman wrote Democratic Vistas three years after the Civil War, he concluded that the nation had learned nothing from the war’s massacres; instead, he wrote, the peace that followed was a time of anarchy and greed. His words were not welcome. He predicted the coming of the Gilded Age, and suspected the war may have been fought for reasons other than the liberation of slaves—namely, to construct a national economy with the corporations that Berman tells us in his book Twilight of American Culture and now, six years later in Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire, are killing democracy and ending civilization as we knew it.
Behind Berman is a host of American prophets of gloom like Thorstein Veblen, coiner of the phrase “conspicuous consumption”; Theodore Dreiser, who once noted (in his 1916 memoir A Hoosier Holiday) that any American given the choice between two houses will always choose the uglier of the two; Mark Twain, of course; Frank Lloyd Wright, who, asked about the state of American architecture, suggested tilting the country up on its California edge and sweeping all the buildings into the Atlantic. Sinclair Lewis is on the list with his notion of Babbitt as the quintessential, gadget-loving bourgeois; and H.L. Mencken, who gave us the immortal names for the middle class, the “booboisie,” and “the Bible belt” for southern Christians. The list is long and populous, with cranks and voices crying in the wilderness. One can add the literally hundreds of disillusioned historians, sociologists, philosophers, and writers whose work is liberally cited throughout Berman’s latest diatribe. He is not alone in saying we are rushing to our own destruction.
Over Berman’s shoulder is Oswald Spengler, author of The Decline of the West (1918), and before him, the 18th century English historian Edward Gibbon, who wrote The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, an attack on organized religion and an ironic commentary on Roman hubris and its consequences as England was launching her own empire. Decline is a frequent reference in Berman’s arguments. This is thinking with the “big picture,” and it should come as no surprise that Berman earned his Ph.D. at Johns Hopkins, home of Arthur O. Lovejoy’s “History of Ideas” program, in which cultural movements are charted from dark and obscure origins dating as far back the 6th century. No one remotely touched by Lovejoy can think in terms of decades or world wars.
Dark Ages covers the full-scale anatomy of how America went wrong. Berman reaches back to the land-grabbing and stony individualism of the colonial period, citing religious sources and observing how Puritan ledgers were headed “in the name of God and profit” each day. Towns from their inception were mere transit points for people looking to make money, not community. Borders were porous, and the deep urge of the first Americans was to move up, buy real estate as a commodity, and when the economy failed, move west. This left the country in tatters under a veil of supposed coherence and patriotism.
Berman argues that all across the history of the country, empty slogans and false promises covered over the anarchic mayhem and violence of a people jostling for personal advantage and little else. Once corporations absorbed all this energy under the collective powers of huge legal entities, the force of runaway capitalism grew ominous and began to erode the powers of government to rule or control the marketplace. All values devolved into market values; nothing possessed inherent meaning.
If the Great Depression slowed things down for a while, with federal restraints on the stock exchanges and big business, the lesson didn’t last very long. Berman argues that our downfall really occurred when Richard Nixon abrogated the Bretton Woods Agreement (limiting the fluctuation of foreign currencies, with the dollar pegged to the value of gold) in 1971. Oceans of capital began to wash into America’s banks, with the immediate consequence of investors pulling back money from American manufacturers, to avoid the expenses of taxes, pensions, and medical bills, and turning instead to plunder Third World countries for cheap human labor. In turn, that pulled the plug on most cities, which saw their tax bases shrink as unemployment, crime, and vagrancy soared.
But the disintegration began earlier. To soak up loneliness, the car was invented at precisely the moment in which cities were losing their shape and meaning. Americans took to the road, and soon radio filled the evenings in lieu of friendly chats with neighbors. The television peddled corporate wares to an overworked, jaded public no longer interested in plays, symphonies, or music played in local parks. Isolation and boredom became the constants of American life, with work taking up most of the week. The result was alienation from all forms of civic participation, and a corresponding numbness toward changing the situation.
According to Berman, presidents Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bushes senior and junior, and Clinton are all villains of modern political history, the undertakers of American society as they rig small wars to keep us distracted. The one exception is Jimmy Carter, a modest redeemer, who emerges as a sort of hero who tried to slow down corporate and military expansion, and to hold back the forces that would usurp government in the name of free enterprise. After that, le déluge. The worst of times has come with the election and re-election of George W. Bush. Berman reserves his real fire until this moment. He describes Bush as a “dry drunk,” a “man-boy unable to empathize,” and a Christian fundamentalist sadist.
The closing chapters of this dark book argue there is no way to turn back the doomsday clock on America; forces are too well aligned to stop the final disintegration and collapse of the nation. “A world awash in suburbs and shopping malls, television and sensationalism, cell phones and Burger King, Prozac and violence, fundamentalist Christianity and sink-or-swim ethics, is no vision for the future.” Of course, Berman was writing this book in the grim aftermath of the Bush re-election, when Republicans held both houses of Congress. It looked darker than it does today, with Democrats back in power and already making changes in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s first “100 Hours.” Who knows, it could get a little better before Berman’s doomsday clock tolls midnight?
The danger of writing a book on the political moment, regardless of how wide the historical canvas, is that when things do change, contradictions ensue. The midterm elections demonstrated that the American people are rethinking their faith in Bush and the Republicans. The cost of global warming may yet require us to be more realistic and join the rest of the world in holding back our hydrocarbon emissions. But modest signs don’t persuade me to think that we can muddle through much longer. China, India and the European Union are all poised to replace us as world powers by the midcentury; this much seems certain from what Berman and others are saying. While civilization itself may not crumble, the American empire seems doomed, something Berman suggests may not be such a bad thing.
The real importance of this book may not be in its predictions of America’s coming fall; we are already used to thinking our time on center stage is growing short. Too many mistakes, too many miscalculations, too much money spent on the military and security, not enough on our infrastructure. We understand that. What Berman achieves is a portrait of America as a collection of unassimilated immigrants unable to form a society because greed, an erroneous cult of individualism at any cost, and an indifference to our natural resources have made coherent life impossible. Our cities are half-dead, our mass transport is in ruins, and our lives are fragmented and dysfunctional. For the first time in our history, more women live alone than with partners, a sad commentary on social life. More children are on Prozac, some from early infancy, than in any other society. Work is meaningless and all-consuming for the average American, leaving no time for leisure or socializing. Berman brings all this together in compelling prose buttressed by massive reading and statistical authority.
Even if there is some truth in what some reviewers have been saying about Dark Ages, that it is held together with thin thread, too many quotes, too much dependence on hearsay and his own anecdotal evidence, the fact is, Berman is right. We are an unhappy, discordant, lonely nation glutted on bad food and junk from the malls; we are depressed and hide it behind drugs and prescription medicines. We live empty lives but confuse them with longings for bigger and better houses, more cars, more TV channels, more of everything but the modest solution of changing our fundamental orientation to life and turning back to community as our salvation. Berman wins this argument hands down. To object to his methods or his so-called intemperance plays into his hands—he says we are easily gulled by bromides and false promises, and hide from the reality that we are a decaying nation. What any reader should do after reading Dark Ages America is weep, and then ask how to protect oneself and lend a hand to a neighbor.
Paul Christensen is a poet and essayist who teaches modern literature and creative writing at Texas A&M. His new book, Strangers in Paradise: A Memoir of Provence, is due out in April from Wings Press of San Antonio.