April 06, 2006

Selected quotes from Morris Berman and
DARK AGES AMERICA: The Final Phase of Empire

On the American people:
“All in all, the great mass of our countrymen talk, act, and ‘reason’ as though their crania contained chopped liver rather than gray matter.” (p. 295)

On American democracy:
“We retain the rhetoric of liberal democracy, but in concrete terms this supposed democracy gets enacted as the commodity culture, in which freedom of choice really means Wendy’s versus Burger King.” (p. 73)

On George W. Bush:
“His excitement over being able to wield power, to kill people, as a substitute for dealing with his considerable ‘inner demons’ is quite palpable.” (p. 298)

On daily American life:
“...a society whose real motto is not ‘In God We Trust’ but rather...‘What’s in It for Me?”
(p. 239)

“The truth is that things are so far gone now that we don’t even have a public language for...the life of craft and commitment, for the long-lost world of civic responsibility.”
(p. 75)

On 9/11:
“9/11 was a wake-up call that was not understood and that went unheeded. It was America’s last chance to try to pull away from (or, at least, decelerate) a downward trajectory, a chance that was completely blown. A scenario of steady decline is probably all that is left to us at this point; we will not get another chance.” (p. 82)

“The damage of September 11 is nothing compared to the damage we did and are currently doing to ourselves as a result of our reaction to that event. In a bizarre kind of way, Rumsfeld, Perle, Abrams, Bush, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Rice, Feith, and their ilk are bin Laden’s comrades in arms.”

On the “Clash of Civilizations”:
“If the United States is not intentionally the enemy of Islamic civilization, it is doing a pretty good job of imitating a nation that is.” (p. 187)

On the “shock and awe” strategy for invading Iraq:
“This kind of sadism always has an odd sexual feel to it; I couldn’t help thinking how the politics of empire had finally rotted out the American soul. When a civilization finally hollows itself out, there is nothing much left for it to do except...get off on the cruelty you can visit on the powerless.” (p. 213)

On terrorism:
“...one could argue that the terrorists are already winning, in that they have managed to push us further along the downward trajectory we were already on.” (p. 10)

On the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank:
This...is where the Jews have wound up, after five thousand years of persecution? All I can feel is a sense of sadness and shame.” (p. 198)

A Sobering work that reveals that America has entered an inescapable social, cultural, and economic Dark Age.

Historians now recognize that the fall of Rome, and the subsequent onset of the Dark Ages in Europe, cannot be ascribed to any single cause. The truth is that Rome no longer knew how to live; its decline was the result of a general malaise and structural weakness that grew over time. In Dark Ages America, Morris Berman argues that much the same can be said of the United States today. As religion triumphs over reason, and democracy turns into plutocracy, the nation has entered a phase in its historical development from which there is no return.
A particular strength of this book lies in the connections Berman makes between the large-scale processes of national collapse, such as an overextended economy and a self-destructive foreign policy, and the obvious deterioration of our daily lives: the frenzied acceleration of work, the erosion of integrity and community, and the impoverishment of the mass media. As the corporate consumerist juggernaut that now defines the nation rolls on, removing meaning from our lives and leaving no real alternatives in its wake, the very factors that once propelled America to greatness--extreme individualism, territorial and economic expansion, and the pursuit of material wealth--are now, paradoxically, the nails in our collective coffin. Like the citizens of ancient Rome, we too no longer know how to live; and within a few decades the United States will be marginalized on the world stage, its hegemony replaced by China or the European Union.
Our options at this point, Berman suggests, are two: to continue pursuing policies that are short-sighted and destructive, thereby guaranteeing a fairly rapid decline; or to attempt some slight modifications of these policies, thereby rendering that decline a bit more gradual. What is not an option is reversing this trajectory, for the levers of social and political change have effectively vanished from the scene. There is, in short, no rabbit to be pulled out of a hat here; our eclipse is a fait accompli. Copyright © W. W. Norton & Co., All rights reserved.

April 05, 2006

Editorial Reviews

Starred Review from Kirkus

A resounding, if sometimes overwrought, indictment of all that is wrong with American culture, from arrogance to xenophobia and all points between. As sociologist and cultural critic Berman (Wandering God, 2000) notes, the rest of the world hates us because we don' t know it hates us - and don’t much care. The American empire is both military and cultural, and both are weaker than we think; two pitiable Asian nations are enoughto pin down our vaunted fighting forces, and "many of America 's values in the early twenty-first century are corrosive, and unless the nation can do some rather elaborate soul searching, it needs to lose influence in the rest of the world.” Neocons will dismiss the claim that America’s influence is anything but benign, but Berman fires with both barrels at a culture that, he argues, is rapidly slipping into “second- or third-rate status” as an international power, to be replaced, one supposes, by China, which by Berman’s account is just an Asian iteration of the same problem, in which society is an arena for personal enrichment with none of the requisite reciprocal obligations. The great mass of Americans, by Berman’s depiction, live lives driven by “infantile needs and impulses,” thereby - and here he grows breathless - making possible a society marked by latchkey kids, college graduates who can't find America on the world map, idiotic television shows, obese mall-goers, knee-jerking reactionaries and a president who “lack[s] the ground-level gray matter necessary for the job.” Not that it’s all Bush’s fault. By Berman’s lights, he’s a symptom - but also a cause, a perfect exemplar of a Darwiniansociety that doesn’t believe in Darwinism, a country of a few wealthy people and of “competition, extreme individualism, and loneliness forced onto everybody else,” what passes for freedom these days.
There’s no room for comfort in Berman’s critique: If he’s right, we’re doomed. Hope he’s wrong, then, but by all means consider his provocative argument.

-- Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2006