Posts Tagged ‘Morris Berman’

The first time I wrote on this title was here. I’m pretty satisfied with that 11-year-old blog post. Only recently, I copped to use of reframing to either zoom in on detail or zoom out to context, a familiar rhetorical device. Here I’m zooming out again to the god’s eye view of things.

The launching point for me is James Howard Kunstler’s recent blog post explaining and apologizing for his generation’s principal error: financialization of the U.S. economy. In that post, he identifies characteristics in grandparents and parents of boomers as each responds and adapts to difficulties of the most self-destructive century in human history. Things destroyed include more than just lives, livelihoods, and the biosphere. After several centuries of rising expectations and faith in progress (or simply religious faith), perhaps the most telling destruction is morale, first in the reckless waste of WWI (the first mechanized war), then repeatedly in serial economic and political catastrophes and wars that litter the historical record right up to today. So it’s unsurprising (but not excusable) that boomers, seeing in unavoidable long-term destruction our powerlessness to master ourselves or in fact much of anything — despite the paradox of developing and obtaining more power at every opportunity — embarked on a project to gather to themselves as much short-term wealth and power as possible because, well, why the fuck not? Kunstler’s blog post is good, and he admits that although the masters-of-the-universe financial wizards who converted the economy into a rigged casino/carnival game for their own benefit are all boomers, not all boomers are responsible except in the passive sense that we (includes me, though I’m just as powerless as the next) have allowed it to transpire without the necessary corrective: revolt.

Zooming out, however, I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s assessment that the greatest mistake humans ever committed was the Agricultural Revolution 10–13 millennia ago. That context might be too wide, so let me restrict to the last 500 years. One theory propounded by Morris Berman in his book Why America Failed (2011) is that after the discovery of the New World, the cohort most involved in colonizing North America was those most desperate and thus inclined to accept largely unknown risks. To them, the lack of ontological security and contingent nature of their own lives were undeniable truths that in turn drive distortion of the human psyche. Thus, American history and character are full of abominations hardly compensated for by parallel glories. Are boomers, or more generally Americans, really any worse than others throughout history? Probably not. Too many counter-examples to cite.

The current endgame phase of history is difficult to assess as we experience it. However, a curious theory came to my attention that fits well with my observation of a fundamental epistemological crisis that has made human cognition into a hall of mirrors. (See also here and here, and I admit cognition may have always been a self-deception.) In a recent Joe Rogan podcast, Eric Weinstein, who comes across as equally brilliant and disturbed (admitting that not much may separate those two categories), opines that humans can handle only 3–4 layers of deception before collapsing into disorientation. It’s probably a feature, not a bug, and many have learned to exploit it. The example Weinstein discusses (derivative of others’ analyses, I think) is professional wrestling. Fans and critics knew for a very long time that wrestling looks fake, yet until the late 1980s, wrestlers and promoters held fast to the façade that wresting matches are real sporting competitions rather than being “sports entertainments.” Once the jig was up, it turned out that fans didn’t really care; it was real enough for them. Now we’ve come full circle with arguments (and the term kayfabe) that although matches are staged and outcomes known in advance, the wresting itself is absolutely for real. So we encounter a paradox where what we’re told and shown is real, except that it isn’t, except that it sorta is, ultimately finding that it’s turtles all the way down. Enthusiastic, even rabid, embrace of the unreality of things is now a prime feature of the way we conduct ourselves.

Professional wrestling was not the first organization or endeavor to offer this style of mind-bending unreality. Deception and disinformation (e.g., magic shows, fortune-telling, con jobs, psyops) have been around forever. However, wrestling may well have perfected the style for entertainment purposes, which has in turn infiltrated nearly all aspects of modern life, not least of which are economics and politics. Thus, we have crypto- and fiat currencies based on nothing, where money can be materialized out of thin air to save itself from worthlessness, at least until that jig is up, too. We also have twin sham candidates for this fall’s U.S. presidential election, both clearly unfit for the job for different reasons. And in straightforward fictional entertainment, we have a strong revival of magical Medievalism, complete with mythical creatures, spells, and blades of fortune. As with economics and politics, we know it’s all a complex of brazen lies and gaslighting, but it’s nonetheless so tantalizing that its entertainment value outstrips and sidelines any calls to fidelity or integrity. Spectacle and fakery are frankly more interesting, more fun, more satisfying. Which brings me to my favorite Joe Bageant quote:

We have embraced the machinery of our undoing as recreation.

To orient oneself in life, a person chooses from among myriad narratives, typically assembling a hodgepodge worldview out of diverse parts. According to Oswald Spengler, cultural artifacts (e.g., the arts, humanities, and sciences) arise “needing the guidance of inspiration and … developing under great conventions of form.” The very same can be said of our origin and orientation stories, ancient or contemporary. Narratives intertwine and need not necessarily be discrete, mutually exclusive, or competing, even though that’s what’s often implied by time-worn tensions underlying science vs. religion, sometimes understood more philosophically as logos vs. mythos. Indeed, they cohere despite conflicts of logic and their being ahistorical. The power of subscription and consensus overcomes all objections.

If a master narrative exists, it ought to be simply reality obtained, though that is probably visible to only a small percentage of people able to apprehend the world clearly. For the rest, scales not yet having fallen from the eyes, the considerable benefit of hindsight can help clarify the view, but only if one has sufficient nerve to behold it honestly. Instead, our dominant inspirational narratives promulgate a wide variety of incompletely fulfilled hopes and desires. Few such promises bear much resemblance to reality, those of economists, politicians, and clerics demonstrating the most striking discontinuities from the actuality experienced by ordinary folks. A Chris Hedges article at called “The Folly of Empire” discusses this departure from reality in his characteristically erudite style (apologies for the long nested quote):


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.”