21 December 2007

For those who suspect that something is terribly wrong with contemporary America

Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire
Morris Berman
W.W. Norton, 2006

The guy behind you in the theatre bellows into his cell phone for the first fifteen minutes of the film, and then threatens to kick your butt when you ask him to be quiet. Someone in a Hummer sideswipes your car on the interstate off-ramp and then explains to the police that she shouldn't be ticketed because she couldn't see your car from "up there." The U.S. invades and occupies a sovereign nation based on ever-changing rationales and in violation of international law, kidnaps and tortures that nation's citizens, and then wonders why the world responds with contempt and violence. Meanwhile, those American citizens who protest the actions of their government, including things as beyond the pale as the legalization of torture, are called traitors.

What do all of these seemingly disparate phenomena have in common? According to Morris Berman, they are all indicative of a nation that is rotten to the core, an empire on the verge of collapse, and they are all the consequences of the laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog, me-first-and-devil-take-the-hindmost ethos that has permeated American culture since it's inception.

Ironically, this ethos is the "shadow side" as it were of those ideals that once made the United States great in the eyes of the world: its traditions of challenging monarchic authority and of guaranteeing individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Berman argues that this shadow side undermined any sense of community or commons and paved the way for a contemporary society in which financial success is the sole standard of achievement. Without any higher goals or deeper virtues than winning at any cost, American success has been surprisingly and shockingly empty. As well, because this ethos of empty consumerism has been predicated upon the maintenance of global inequities through militarism, much of the world (especially the so-called Third World) has grown to see the US as a belligerent Goliath bent on global domination, instead of as the self-righteous David of our national fantasies. The sense of false egalitarianism that pervades our culture (but that is opposed to any redistribution of wealth) means that being smart is shameful, that ignorance is endemic, and that we gleefully re-elect a moron as President because he doesn't threaten our own collective intellectual shortcomings. Our fascination with technology as a panacea has also contributed to the breakdown in civil society at home (e.g., the cell phone anecdote above) and to our lack of concern for those abroad (e.g., seeing smart bombs as somehow "benevolent" weapons). Finally Berman also discusses in some detail specific cases of US intervention in Iran, Iraq, and in the affairs of the Palestinians and their unintended but inevitable consequences in the blowback of 9/11 and the subsequent "War on Terror."

The picture he paints is not a pretty one and is one that most Americans will reject out of hand, precisely because, I think, it is so accurate. Like Dorian Gray, we are going to want to keep our true picture hidden from ourselves as long as we can, but unlike that famous literary monster, our false image (in this case, of global benefactor) no longer convinces those in the rest of the world. Contrary to what many of the reviewers here would have you believe, he also does not romanticize the other modes of social and economic organization that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen, including tribal fundamentalism, suffocating collectivism, or state communism, seeing in them situations that are as pernicious, if not more so, than the televoid consumerism the US seeks to export to every swath of land on the globe.

Most of the one- and two-star reviews of this book are indicative of the very trends that Berman addresses. They reduce his nuanced musings to the tired right-wing tropes of a "liberal elite" that "blames America," insist that the global US military presence is protecting the world from "someone else's" imperial schemes instead of being prima facie evidence of our own global domination, and even fall back on our military supremacy as some kind of litmus test for how civilized we are. As Berman notes throughout the book, we Americans have little patience for nuance and alternative perspectives, and have an uncanny ability to see the world in precisely upside-down terms.

Which is not to say that the book's critics are entirely mistaken; _Dark Ages America_ is far from flawless. His arguments at times draw on his own gut reactions to things, rather than on solid evidence (not necessarily a bad thing, but something that contradicts his thesis that we need to privilege reason over faith). As well, his prose is often long-winded, and the evidence he musters is sometimes self-contradictory (why, for example, does the laissez-faire, me-first ethos manifest in terms of a Christianist hive mind?). Finally, he overlooks the other converging catastrophes that we seem to be facing in the next century---global warming, peak oil, the total collapse of seafood stocks---and how these relate to the end of American empire. The value of the book far outweighs these relatively minor criticisms, though.

And, alas, Berman does not provide simple solutions, like "rocking the vote" or "electing Democrats," which would be the approach of traditional liberals who think that, with some tinkering, the system can be saved. He leaves the reader left scratching her head, wondering what, if anything, she can do to halt this juggernaut, and this has left him open to charges of being a pessimist. Instead I feel that he is guardedly optimistic about humanity's overall ability to survive and adapt. As he says in conclusion (p. 327),

"My own belief is that there is no warding off the Dark Age; all the evidence points in that direction. But you can certainly do your best to keep it out of your head, which is a contribution of a sort. What is thus called for is long-term study and thought, in an effort to come up with a serious alternative to global bourgeois democracy---blueprints for a better time, perhaps, and for another place."

In other words, those who already suspect that something is profoundly wrong need to be regularly reminded that their resistance to the "colonization of the imagination" is worthwhile and sane. For that reason alone, this book is profoundly important and should be read by anyone, left, right, or center, who considers themselves a radical (in the original sense of returning to the "root" of the problem in order to work out solutions).

(This review was originally written on November 28, 2006.)

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