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.