Review: Why America Failed

Posted: March 19, 2013 in Culture, History, Politics
Tags: , , ,

I finally got to Morris Berman’s latest book, Why America Failed (WAF), and uncharacteristically polished it off in about a week. Since I had been a regular reader and sometimes commentator at Prof. Berman’s blog, Dark Ages America, my familiarity with his themes and evidence meant I didn’t have to slow or stop to contemplate ideas as I usually do with nonfiction. WAF had been on my reading list since it appeared in November 2011 but was behind other reading projects, including several of the books cited prominently in WAF.

WAF is the third book in Prof. Berman’s so-called American trilogy, which includes The Twilight of American Culture (2001) and Dark Ages America (2007). Of the three, WAF is easily the least original, which is to say, most derivative. For example, in the space of a mere two pages (pp. 92–93), chosen by simply flipping the book open, Berman cites on the page and in the footnotes Lewis Mumford, Jimmy Carter, Carroll Pursell, Kelvin Willoughby, Robert Redfield, Marshall McLuhan, and Herbert Marcuse. That referential density stays constant throughout the book. Berman weaves together his voluminous evidence with exceptionally clarity, which makes his synthesis valuable as a summation of arguments from a variety of historians and cultural critics. Yet at 228 pp. including notes, it felt like reading an expanded review of research portion of a doctoral dissertation that never really goes on to develop an original thesis or report new research. Further, Berman’s tone, though usually sober and academic, veers at times toward the populist, colloquial, and even sarcastic. For instance, in his discussion of Americans’ debt spending to support lifestyle, he writes that Americans “spent their eyeballs out.”

The book has five chapters:

  1. The Pursuit of Affluence
  2. The Reign of Wall Street
  3. The Illusion of Progress
  4. The Rebuke of History
  5. The Future of the Past

As with my review of Collapse, there is little point to repeating the arguments. The abundance of compiled evidence is so overwhelming that my assessment is not about its truth, which I find unimpeachable. (Others remain unconvinced, especially when the tone become defeatist, strident, or sarcastic, and I’m reminded that history cannot be told without some interpretive bias, or as one historian of my acquaintance blithely admits, “historians disagree.”) Instead, I will draw out a few tidbits I find especially interesting.

Here is one of many statements describing what the book is about (p. 64), or indeed, what the entire trilogy is about:

Let us, then, address the matter of American decline. The disintegration of this country is an ongoing daily event, a factor in all our lives. We are witnessing the suicide of a nation, a nation that hustled its way into the grave. But what we need at this point is an outline of how this is taking place, beyond appeals to comparisons with the Roman Empire (accurate though they may be).

Chronicling collapse is also what his blog is about, where the catchphrase “onward and downward” informs the, um, festivities, and where gallows humor and hipster irony are better received, though not so well that I frequent the blog anymore after Berman revealed himself to be a troll. Many Americans feel trapped, not quite knowing how to feel about existential, soul-destroying trends of macrohistory versus living day-to-day lives with some grace, erudition, and happiness amid the ruins. Berman’s insistence that it’s simultaneously disintegration of an empire and an ongoing daily event is a point he makes frequently, that comparatively the Roman Empire didn’t collapse on a Wed. afternoon at 2:45 but that zillions of little acts and decisions over centuries and even today have gotten us to this desultory state and that we can’t turn back now because it’s truly who we are.

Berman’s characterization of Americans’ single-minded pursuit of affluence a/k/a happiness traces back beyond the founding to the settling of the continent and displacement of its indigenous population, meaning that we were strivers and climbers and hustlers from the start, an entrepreneurial, risk-taking fragment of the mostly European cultures from whence we came. A proper understanding of history requires this centuries-long consideration, and Berman goes to lengths to show that who we were then, during the first era of Republicanism, later in the early 19th century when de Tocqueville made his withering assessment of American character, during the Gilded Age, and even now is more continuous than discontinuous. Our ambitions quickly became addictions, which are in no way self-corrective. Industrial and technological progress plays a significant role, too, as a substitute for spirituality (e.g., the Jesus phone). The first three chapters together demonstrate that, as a society, we have always been grasping, venal cretins. Positive aspects of American innovation (we made the phone, car, TV, computer, Internet, etc.) go unacknowledged, but that triumphal interpretation of our history is already well lauded; it is not the subject of WAF, much to the chagrin of his detractors.

The infamous Chap. 4, The Rebuke of History, offers an interpretation of American history where the sole alternative to hustling, found in the slave-holding plantation culture of the South, was snuffed out of existence by the North via The Civil War and Reconstruction. Emotional response to the existence of slavery in the United States has proven too great for most Americans (especially Northerners) to consider any interpretation of the culture of the South and The Civil War other than the righteous victory of progressive thinking over an abominable institution, much like Civil Rights Era legislation purportedly vanquished racism in America and can now be repealed because, well, we’re over it now. (Of course, none of it is really over; it was merely driven underground.) Berman goes to great lengths to acknowledge that Southern culture and economics were deeply intertwined with slavery and had to be reformed, but those arguments fell on deaf ears to those blind to everything about the South except slavery. Much the same can be said for Abraham Lincoln, who is frequently sanctified as the greatest-ever American president, where in the present-day South he is often the embodiment of Northern aggression. Certain tropes of history are still too strong and enduring to entertain competing alternatives.

The copy of WAF I read was a library copy, and one of its curiosities was marginalia inscribed by several previous readers who apparently believed they were having a dialogue with the author and each other. (My own dialogue with the author via private e-mail and public comments at his blog has been very mixed.) The marginalia boils down to pithy baiting and gotcha remarks familiar to readers of blog and newspaper comments sections. Further afield, I have watched in dismay as media celebrities (typically journalists, politicians, and pundits) exhibit the same juvenile jockeying, scoring one bon mot or turn of phrase against each other in a tally no one is tracking. This is what passes for engagement.

Finally, I was irritated that Berman (and presumably his copy editor) fails to understand the use of quotes around words or short phrases. When quoting other authors at some length, the quoted portion is usually clear as a citation. But when the quoted word or phrase is merely a metaphor, as in

climbing the “ladder” of success

the unnecessary quotes completely eject me from the substance of the passage. This was not an infrequent occurrence but a reliable irritation that required me to adopt nested levels of thinking to read into the text what was probably intended. Writing is encoding, basically, and when the code necessitates subroutines to parse effectively, that’s just poor writing. Arguments are lost in formalities, just as they are with improper tone.

This and other criticisms above lead me to believe that the book is self-indulgent and limited by its own dogmatism. Since I don’t possess the time and wherewithal of a full-time historian, cultural critic, or writer, WAF is valuable as a survey of many others’ work. Perhaps I’m a sucker, too easily led by my own idiosyncratic bias, and believe too credulously the quasi-conspiratorial reinterpretation of history reversing the dominant story (told by the winners in history, no doubt). By hewing so closely to that alternative, however, WAF offends the general public and preaches only to the choir. I’m a singer in that choir, but not without reservations.

  1. leavergirl says:

    Got it on hold at the library. Was pleased to see there is a line of people waiting for it. Really want to read that chapter on the South being an alternative. Had been, that is. I always thought so.

    • Brutus says:

      Would be interesting to learn if your library copy is marked up like the one I borrowed. A line of readers also makes me wonder whether it’s news hounds seeking something to refute or generalists like me seeking perspective.

      The Southern alternative is indeed an interesting and compelling thesis. Berman doesn’t try to separate the South from its knarly association with slavery, which ultimately proves too powerful for most readers to overcome if/when they consider the arguments. Too bad, in some respects, a more wholesome alternative doesn’t exist somewhere in our history.

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