November 15, 2015

NB Is Back, at Long Last

Dear Wafers:

Yes, Neurotic Beauty is available from Amazon once again, after theft of royalties, hiring a lawyer, getting pulled offline, and other horrors:

Currently they've got the Book Description wrong, the Author Bio wrong, and omitted 2 of the 4 endorsements, but hopefully that'll all get corrected over time. Meanwhile, I thought I should give you folks an update on my other work.

Water Street Press, who republished NB, will also be republishing Spinning Straw Into Gold. I'm hoping it will be back online before the year is out. Coming to Our Senses went out of print a few weeks ago, but the good people at Echo Point Press will be bringing it out pretty soon, they tell me. As for my volume of poetry, Counting Blessings, it too is out of print, and I'm currently searching around for a new publisher for it.

And then there's my new novel, which I knocked out last month. A political satire, very timely for the present election cycle. This is now sitting on the desk of about 5 publishers; wish me luck.

That's about it. Well, I'm researching the possibility of a book on US-Mexico relations, but that's at least 5 years away. In the meantime, we'll soon be celebrating the near-total massacre of the entire indigenous population of North America. And we wonder why people are angry at us!


November 03, 2015

Practice Your Spanish (Again)

Ay Waferinos!

This is an interview I did recently with Radio UDEM in Monterrey. I guess they are a bit nervous about Senor Trump, for some reason. Anyway, it starts off a bit rocky, but then evens out for most of the program. Enjoy!

October 26, 2015

Latest "Neurotic Beauty" Review

Hi there, Wafers-

We're on the edge of (re)publication, I'm happy to say. Water Street Press will soon be making Neurotic Beauty available on Amazon, online (and also in bookstores, they tell me). It's been a long, hard slog, and I have had to practice the Japanese art of patience. Meanwhile, George Scialabba, an author and professional reviewer, just sent me his review of the book, which will be posted very soon on an online journal based in Boston called The Arts Fuse. As follows:

Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks at Japan by Morris Berman. Water Street Press, 501 pages, $27.50.

Cross-cultural comparisons are thrilling but perilous. Pronouncing authoritatively about one culture is difficult enough; running the gauntlet of two communities of academic specialists is a daunting prospect. Fortunately, Morris Berman is intrepid.

Most historians would be content to have written one deeply researched and interpretively wide-ranging trilogy on a large and important subject. Berman has written two: one on alternative forms of consciousness and spirituality (The Re-enchantment of the World, Coming to Our Senses, Wandering God) and one on the decline of American civilization (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, Why America Failed). The second trilogy, a grimly fascinating inventory of the pathologies of contemporary America and an unsparing portrait of American history and national character, is a masterpiece. Unsurprisingly (considering how self-critical and historically informed most Americans are), it was not well received. At interludes while writing his grand historical syntheses, Berman has also produced fiction, poetry, a memoir, and a volume of essays.

He has returned to the grand scale and the prophetic mode in Neurotic Beauty. Even the most pessimistic of prophets cannot help looking for hopeful signs. Berman ended his “American decline” trilogy on a despairing note. Four centuries of relentless territorial expansion and manic economic growth have left American resources exhausted and American society in a state of befuddled anomie. And it seemed as if the rest of the world had been so thoroughly Americanized that there was little chance of escaping a global collapse and a subsequent Dark Age, this one probably resembling dystopian science fiction rather than medieval torpor.

Like many other jaded Westerners, Berman turned toward the East, searching not so much, however, for interior solace as for glimpses of a viable human future. Looking beneath Japan’s Westernized surface, he finds a submerged psychic and cultural stratum, which contains some possible antidotes to the consumerist and individualist fevers that have driven the US to delirium. According to Berman, Japanese culture has two sources, both external. In the 6th century, itinerant Chinese and Korean monks brought Buddhism to Japan, thereby opening the country to large-scale importation of Chinese culture. There was little Japanese culture – in fact, no written language or legal system – before that time, and Japanese literature and institutions remained imitative of Chinese exemplars for many centuries.

It was a peaceful and prosperous society, even if isolated. This did not protect it, however, from the second great event in Japanese history: the arrival of the American fleet under Admiral Perry in 1853. With supreme arrogance, Perry informed the Japanese that if they did not open their country to trade with the West, he would bomb their capital. The Japanese submitted, but so intense was their humiliation that the country’s leaders embarked on a crash course of military and industrial development, to catch up with the Western imperialists.

The Western imperialists did not, of course, look kindly on this ambition. The resulting competition for markets and resources led to war in the Pacific, which ended with an even greater trauma for Japan. The Japanese reacted, as before, by imitating their conquerors, once again to the point of outstripping them, at least by some measures.

Today, though, as Berman demonstrated at great length in his “American decline” trilogy, their conquerors are looking less and less worth imitating. Japan is still a country of bullet trains and elegant skyscrapers, as well as the world’s largest net creditor, with a higher average standard of living than the United States. But resistance to Western modernity is growing. Not only have prominent Japanese literary figures, like the aristocratic Yukio Mishima and Japan’s first Nobel Prize winner, Yasunari Kawabata, carried their protests over the erosion of the country’s cultural traditions to the point of ritual suicide, but an astonishing number of young adults – around a million, by some estimates – have in effect seceded from the society and economy, withdrawing with their books and video games into a bedroom of their parents’ house and not emerging for years at a time. These hikikomori, or “recluses,” one sociologist writes, are an “utterly rational indictment” of Japanese society, which offers them eighty-hour workweeks at meaningless jobs, usually with long commutes. The fate of many of those who accept the eighty-hour week is a stern warning: Japan’s suicide rate is twice that of the US. Another million young adults are unemployed, not in school, and not looking for work. Another 3-4 million are working part-time at dead-end jobs and (mostly) living at home. There is also a disturbing “celibacy syndrome”: a third of Japanese youths between 16-24 say they have no interest in sex; a third of people under 30 have never dated anyone; and fewer than half of all those from 18-34 are in any kind of romantic relationship. In quantitative economic terms, at least compared with the US, Japan is a success. But more and more Japanese feel a deep malaise.

The reason, Berman suggests, is that unlike Americans, the Japanese know that there is more to life than getting and spending. “Japan remembers what it is like to be old, to be quiet, to turn inward,” writes a Japanese academic. The long centuries of isolation and self-sufficiency before the mid-19th-century American irruption are “in the nation’s DNA.” Reading that DNA, and patiently explaining to impatient Americans what it is that the Japanese know, is the aim – and achievement – of Neurotic Beauty.

One thing the Japanese know is nothing; or better, nothingness. As Berman emphasizes, there are two kinds of nothingness, which are actually two different ways of experiencing nothingness. When possessions and sensations – stimuli – are eagerly pursued, they will sometimes be used up or unavailable. The result is negative nothingness, a state of anxious deprivation. But when stimuli are considered distractions and are foresworn, positive nothingness results: a state of pure, concentrated attention or mindfulness. This is the frame of mind in which the Japanese craft masters – sword makers, potters, calligraphers – and athletes – archers, martial artists –have worked. It is also the precondition of enlightenment in Zen Buddhism.

Zen is quintessentially Japanese, Berman writes – for better and worse. The power to concentrate attention is, after all, morally neutral. One can be a mindful pacifist or a mindful militarist. During the 1930s, as Japanese nationalism reached fever pitch, the prestige and techniques of Zen Buddhism were frequently co-opted by the state. Unlike most other religions, Zen lacks an “axial” principle, an objective or transcendental criterion of morality, like the will of God or the dignity of the individual. This has spared Japan the dogmatism of more religious societies and the litigiousness of more liberal ones; but it has left many Japanese with no moral center, no means to withstand group pressure or the tides of history.

This is, Berman points out, at once a strength and a weakness. In emergencies, Japanese typically behave with extraordinary self-restraint and orderliness. (And not just in emergencies: the stampedes that occasionally kill shoppers at big department-store sales in America are inconceivable there.) But initiative (“thinking outside the box” in management-speak) is just as spectacularly lacking; and the conscientious objector, the stubborn moral individualist, is a rare character type in Japan. The nuclear disaster at Fukushima offers a poignant illustration: workers and residents stayed calm and shared food and shelter freely among themselves; but executives at the Tokyo Electric Power Company covered up to protect their superiors and punished whistleblowers. Should one admire this distinctive capacity for self-sacrifice and national unity or deplore it as abject conformism? Both, obviously; but a more interesting question is: can a world that has overdosed on assertive individualism and manic consumerism of the American variety learn something useful from Japanese culture? Berman thinks so. Economic austerity is nearly universal today, and may be for quite a while – for that matter, the environment may not survive another epoch of capitalist prosperity. As one Japanologist points out, the country seems to have a “gift for minimalist living.”

American systems and assumptions based on constant growth, wealth and prosperity, many of which are pathologically corrupt, are dying fast. The demands of the new world we live in feel a lot more Japanese – equitable, careful, quiet, and modest.

The Japanese, Berman observes, seem to have attained something like “luxury in austerity,” the elements of which include "aesthetic awareness (the presence of beauty and sensuality in daily life); care, precision, and mindfulness; continuity with the past." Traditional craft values are incorporated into contemporary industrial design and processes. Berman calls it “archaic modernism.”

For a very long time – perhaps forever – American individualism and the distinctively American dream of limitless abundance must be renounced, or they may prove lethal. Of course the world still needs, and will always need, American ingenuity, tolerance, self-reliance, and our culture’s many other virtues. But a humbler America must now, for the first time, learn another culture’s virtues if the world is to avoid another Dark Ages.

George Scialabba is a contributing editor of The Baffler and the author of What Are Intellectuals Good For? and other books.

October 24, 2015

Education for Buffoons

Chris Lehmann has a pretty trenchant essay on American higher education in his book Rich People Things that shows how far we've fallen in this area since the days of Horace Mann (1796-1859). In those days, says Lehmann, "public education was not intended to serve as a means of investment, or as a guarantor of enhanced life opportunities." Mann was the founder of the "common school" movement, the goal of which "was to educate Americans to be democratic grasp and honor the value of education as a social practice in its own right." He wrote that the spread of this type of education would "open a wider area over which the social feelings will expand, and, if this education should be universal and complete, it would do more than all things else to obliterate factitious distinctions in society."

Fast forward to the present time. Lehmann writes: "The content of most curricula...rarely bothers any longer with the conceit of using the rare margin of leisure culturally programmed into the adolescent experience to bring students in contact with philosophic, literary, or spiritual traditions that would permit 'the social feelings to expand.'" His best example of this is the multicampus for-profit schools such as the University of Phoenix. Billionaire founder John Sperling declared that UP is "a corporation, not a social entity. Coming here is not a rite of passage. We are not trying to develop [students'] value systems or go in for that 'expand their minds' bullshit." At least he was honest. Of course, given the value system of nearly 100% of Americans, UP has become the largest university in the country, with 420,000 students currently enrolled. So that the faculty doesn't have to do very much (which would drive up the cost to the university), students are encouraged to develop and administer their own learning programs (which meshes well with the chic and politically correct "we're all learners here" ideology that is very prevalent today). "The idea," writes Lehmann, "is clearly to herd as many people into Phoenix programs as possible, charge inflated tuition rates, and leave them to ford through an indifferently conceived and executed curriculum largely on their own."

How has this played out, in actual practice? UP graduates 16% of its students, as compared to the national average of 55% for public and private universities. 11% of graduates from schools such as UP default on their student loans, as compared to the 6% default rate among these other schools. In addition, UP is frankly crooked. Recruiters are given cash incentives (i.e., kickbacks) to enroll unqualified students, which they do by lying to them. They mislead them about the scarcity of enrollment space, about the amount of financial aid they are going to receive, and they falsely claim that their UP credits will be transferable to other 4-year institutions. In 2009 a whistleblower lawsuit resulted in a fine for the Apollo group, UP's parent company, to the tune of $67.5 million--which did not, according to Lehmann, result in any significant change in UP's recruiting methods. (They probably paid off the fine out of spare change.)

A sad story, the evolution of higher ed in America, but perhaps not very surprising. Hustling and commodification ruin everything; all content is eviscerated in the rush to profit, to get "ahead." When the entire nation is a con, there's no reason why any one institution, such as the university system, should not also be a con; the pressure is difficult to resist. It's possible that when the whole structure comes crumbling down, there may be a very small residue of Americans who will say, "This is a pile of crap! Has anyone ever heard of Shakespeare?" I'm guessing, however, that that day is a long ways off.


October 17, 2015

Open Letter to President Putin

Dear Mr. President:


I am writing in response to your remark--accurate in the extreme, in my opinion--that members of the American government have mush in their heads instead of brains. Indeed, Mr. Obama has no coherent foreign policy, is basically adrift, and as you have no doubt figured out long ago, is a political and intellectual lightweight. He has no idea at all of what he is doing, and this applies to the majority of American politicians.

However, what you wrote about the members of the American government also applies to members of the country at large: they have gavno inside their heads; they are a collection of duraki. After all, as a famous American comedian once remarked, our leaders come from the people; they don't originate on Mars. The remarkable thing is that in the US, even the smart ones are dumb, due in large part to our remarkable system of brainwashing. Let me remind you of that hilarious exchange you and Mr. Obama had a while back, regarding American "exceptionalism." Your response to his speech on this topic was to rebuke him, pointing out that regarding oneself as exceptional was a potentially destructive position to take. His response--I told you, he's not very smart--was more exceptionalist propaganda. The problem is that roughly 99.99% of the American public believes this nonsense, that we were chosen by God to lead the world by example. (A bit ironic, considering the fact that that example has not been very exemplary.) There is a knee-jerk reaction in this country, whenever we have a conflict with any other country, that we are good (always innocent) and they are evil, or at the very least misguided. We don't have a great talent for looking within, and the only president who asked us to do that--Jimmy Carter--is regarded by most Americans today as a loser and a fool.

You may well wonder how this nation of "individuals" wound up with a completely uniform ideology. The Australian journalist, John Pilger, tells the story--possibly apocryphal, I have no idea--of a project undertaken by America in the wake of Stalin's death in 1953, and the beginning of a thaw or detente between our two countries. The idea was to invite about two dozen apparatchiki over to the US to view a pluralistic society, "democracy in action." They could go anywhere they wanted, unescorted, and they did: the Senate, the Supreme Court, high schools, newspapers, universities--the works. At the end of the two weeks they all convened at the White House, and the official in charge of the project, beaming with pride, said, "Well?" The response was not exactly what he expected. After an embarrassed silence, one of the Russian officials spoke up:

"How do you do it?" he asked. "To get this extreme degree of conformity of opinion, everyone thinking exactly alike, we in the USSR have to beat our citizens, send them to Siberia, put them in psychiatric hospitals and fill them with drugs, shoot them, and so on. Here, in your country, you achieve the results we can only dream about, and with no coercion at all!"

Anyway, I don't mean to condone your own methods. The assassination of critical Russian journalists under your tenures in office is notorious (Anna Politkovskaya, for example), and forgive me, but I suspect your hands aren't completely clean in these abysmal events. So quite obviously, if you want a free society that allows for real dissent, you've got a ways to go. But Pilger's example, even if it never happened, is true to the spirit of how the United States operates, and to the very low level of citizen awareness of what's really going on in the world. All of which is to say that you might as well pursue your own interests (which you are already doing), and not worry too much about what we say, because all we are doing is pursuing our interests, and it is clear enough to most of the world that American "democracy" is a pretext for the projection of power into every corner of the globe, much of it for the purpose of economic gain.

In any case, it's not very likely that you will be reading this, inasmuch as I am a very minor intellectual figure in the US, not really on the radar screen of public discussion. But if you do happen to run across this, and would like to continue the conversation, I would be glad to do so with a nice samovar of tea from Sochi sitting between us. At the very least, I can assure you that it will be a far more interesting discussion than any you have had, or are likely to have, with virtually any American political figure.

Thank you for listening (if you did). Do svidanya, and vsevo haroshevo.

-Morris Berman

October 05, 2015


Well, Waferinos-

Time to move on to greener pastures besides massacres, although there is apparently one a day now. Eventually, the media may not report ones involving less than 100 deaths. It's encouraging that the general reaction has been that we need more guns, so we can defend ourselves. The problem with this, as I see it, is that once someone walks in and starts firing, you may be dead before you can draw your weapon. Really, the only solution is that every American between the ages of 2 and 92 be issued a drone, an AK-47, and a nuclear device. Now that's safety! But in any case, the progs assure us that revolution is right around the corner, so perhaps there's nothing to worry about.

Anyway, I don't have a whole lot to say these days; just working on getting a few books back into print. Stay tuned to this station; where else, really, is there to go?

hugs, berm