New Interview at Salon: A Conversation with Historian and Social Critic Morris Berman

Morris Berman, American historian, cultural theorist, and sociologist, is a starry eyed realist whose grim forecast of American demise makes him alone even in leftist circles. In the brilliant trilogy of books on American decline — “Twilight of American Culture,” “Dark Ages of America,” and “Why America Failed” — he surveys the political dysfunction, economic disrepair and cultural decay of modern America. Unlike most social critics, he does not end his analysis with a perfunctory prescription for revolution. Such optimistic talk, Berman makes clear, is the delusional noise of sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.

After chronicling America’s birth as a “nation of hustlers,” and exhaustively mapping its mutation into a vicious playground for the rich and prison for the poor, Berman has turned his eyes and pen to the East. His new book, “Neurotic Beauty: An Outsider Looks at Japan,” is a bracing, fascinating and challenging exploration of Japanese culture, politics, and ethics. The product of a lifelong fascination for Berman, “Neurotic Beauty” not only examines Japanese history and contemporary culture, but also the relationship between Japan and America, the conflict between individualism and collectivism, craft traditions alternative to consumer capitalism, and the possibility that Japan might emerge as a “post-capitalist” model for economics and politics.

I recently had the pleasure and privilege of interviewing Berman about his book, and his forecast for Japan and America.

Read the interview at Salon.


New Essay at Salon: The Military is Buying Patriotism

In a new essay for Salon, I analyze how America has become a garrison state and military economy by dealing with the recent scandal of the Pentagon paying the NFL to ceremoniously honor soldiers and veterans before kickoff and during halftime.

The essay examines America’s militarized culture in which it becomes easy to glorify war and condemn advocates for peace, but it also explores the economics of the American government, where half of discretionary spending goes to the military. Such a large percentage of every dollar leaves little room for schools, hospitals, libraries, public transit, infrastructure, and social services – the hallmarks of civilization.

Read it in full at Salon.

New Essay at Patheos – Religious At The Back of The Bus: An Interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson

For Patheos‘  feature on the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma – the real birth of American democracy – I interviewed Rev. Jesse Jackson about his Christian faith, the history of the religion, and how he applies his own spiritual devotion to his political activism and civil rights leadership.

From the essay:

The central problem of American politics and culture predates the country’s existence by nearly two thousand years. It is the same conflict at the heart of a close cousin to the American experience.

Sitting in the office of Jesse Jackson, whose political activism and civil rights leadership often cause people to forget he was first and is still an ordained minister, easily becomes a church experience when he launches into a sermon. All I needed to do was remind him of the topic of our interview (religion in America), and he transformed his desk into a pulpit and my chair into a pew, giving a homespun homily connecting religion with politics, theology with culture, and the past with the present.

Read Rev. Jackson’s profound insights and the rest of the essay at Patheos.
<> on March 25, 2012 in Sanford, Florida.

New Essay at AlterNet: Why Libertarianism is a Childish Sham

In my latest essay for AlterNet, I expose how libertarianism is an exercise in conformity and childish delusions.

Rather that rebelling, libertarians conform to the worst and most dominant aspects of American culture. Rather than acting as a political movement, it is actually the expression of an anti-political impulse.

From the essay:

As much as libertarians boast of having a “political movement” gaining in popularity, “you’re not the boss of me” does not even rise to the most elementary level of politics. Aristotle translated “politics” into meaning “the things concerning the polis,” referring to the city, or in other words, the community. Confucius connected politics with ethics, and his ethics are attached to communal service with a moral system based on empathy. A political program, like that from the right, that eliminates empathy, and denies the collective, is anti-political.

Opposition to any conception of the public interest and common good, and the consistent rejection of any opportunity to organize communities in the interest of solidarity, is not only a vicious form of anti-politics, it is affirmation of America’s most dominant and harmful dogmas. In America, selfishness, like blue jeans or a black dress, never goes out of style. It is the style.

Read the rest at AlterNet.

New Essay at AlterNet: America’s Decay Into a Violent, Cruel Place

Historian Morris Berman brings all the analyses of America’s decline and decay in a violent and cruel culture of greed and selfishness to a “question of values.” Most liberals and leftists are rightly critical of American institutions – the avarice of corporations, the corruption of government, the ruthlessness of the Pentagon, and the idiocy of the media.

The detached abstraction of American dysfunction is how most critics also explained the Michael Brown and Eric Garner killings, and the subsequent release of the officers responsible without charges or trials. Everyone blamed “the system”, as if the system is a giant computer.

What most critics ignored is that in both cases, and many similar cases, grand juries of twelve Americans review the evidence, and coldly release the killers. The criminal justice system is structurally racist, but the system is powered by people. The values of the  majority of the American people are dangerous. The sane minority protests in the street, while the silent majority of Nixon’s delight sits comfortably in their living rooms. The same silent majority supports war, approves of torture, and applauds the cutting of social services.

Those that do not actively promote the cruelty and violence of the status quo are disengaged and disinterested. According to a study from Newsweek, 70 percent of Americans cannot name a single part of the Bill of Rights.

It is the battle of the sane minority and the silent majority that is the subject of my new essay for AlterNet.

New Essay at Salon: My Week in the Right Wing Lie Machine

In my new essay for Salon, I react to the reaction my essay on America’s idolatry of the military. I expand on America’s indifference to the rape epidemic within the military. I describe my own personal connection with veterans (my grandfather, my father, and former students), and I analyze the meaning of the death threats and hateful campaign my article provoked. The poison of propaganda from Fox News and right wing media became clear, as did the hideousness of the social media sewer.

Most importantly, I write about the moving story of Fred John Boenig, and his son, Austin, who committed suicide while serving in the Air Force in Afghanistan. Fred and I spoke at length on the phone after the publication of my original essay on the military. His kindness and honesty moved me profoundly, and the journey of his son is worthy of mourning, but also examination from all Americans.

Read the essay at Salon.

New Essay/Interview for the Daily Beast: James Lee Burke Talks About His Fiction, History, and the American Dream

In my new essay for the Daily Beast, I profiled James Lee Burke, one of America’s greatest living writers. His new book – Wayfaring Stranger – is an epic work of historical fiction, sweeping across the 20th century to tell the story of Bonnie and Clyde, the Great Depression, World War II, the rise of commercial oil industry, and the emergence of Hollywood.

It is also Burke’s best book, and one of the best book of modern American fiction.

In my conversation with Burke, we discussed the personal origins of the book, American history and politics, and why he is sadness over the “death of traditional America” is not naïve or nostalgic.

Read it at the Daily Beast.


New Essay at Truthout – “America: What Happened?”

One of the reasons many formerly rational and moral liberals are so emotionally and intellectually invested in the advancement of President Obama, despite his war crimes, incompetence, and violations of constitutional law, is that the alternative is too frightening. It is too terrifying to admit that American civilization is in a state of collapse, and that there is no hope for recovery. The empire is crashing, the economy is hemorrhaging, the political system is eroding, and the culture is in a state of irreversible decay. President Obama is yet another technocratic corporate and Pentagon toady without the principles, integrity, or decency to serve the public interest and common good. Conditions may slightly worsen or slightly improve if he doesn’t win reelection, but it doesn’t really matter. As James McMurtry sang, “We can’t make it here anymore.”  All available evidence supports this bleak, but realistic evaluation of the American future, but acknowledging it calls into question the entire progressive project. So, why do it? Why not keep the illusion alive? The truth is always right. America and Americans are better off if we all recognize the reality of failure. The most powerful civilizations have always declined, and now it is our turn.

Very few people have the courage to state the obvious. Cultural historian Morris Berman is one of the lonely few – shouting into the dark, motivated only by his love for the truth. Berman is a brilliant thinker, thorough researcher, and wonderful writer. His trilogy of books on American decline is the subject of my new essay at Truthout – “America: What Happened? A Sneak Preview of the ‘Other’ Twilight Saga”. It is difficult to imagine a future in which historians do not dust off Berman’s books and conclude, “These explain what happened.” While everyone else was onanistically engaging in self-deception and fantasies of revolution, future historians will say, Berman had the intelligence, bravery, and values necessary to call it as he saw it and call it accurately.

Our lifestyle of endless hustling and rabid consumption, our cannibalistic individualism and narcissism, and our xenophobic and militaristic posture towards the rest of the world – all supported by both major political parties and the majority of the American people – has dug us a grave out of which we cannot climb.

My essay began as a review, but as a few readers have pointed out to me in emails, it turns into a manifesto for an alternative tradition and for detachment from the absurdity of the American political system as it is.

I have to take a moment to applaud and thank the Truthout staff for their courage. Several other “liberal” publications rejected the article for ideological reasons. One editor dismissed Berman as “sounding like a crank,” after admitting he had never read any of the books. Another editor asked me to rewrite the second half so that I would refute Berman’s argument and actually claim that America will come back better than ever. A third editor told me that I had no “historical awareness,” that Berman is nuts for claiming that his life in Mexico is happy – a good life in Mexico is nearly impossible, she argued, because of the drug cartels – and told me that the Occupy Movement, which no longer even seems to exist, is going to turn everything around. The Truthout staff deserves much respect for publishing the essay.

“America: What Happened?” is for starry-eyed realists who make the distinction between “hope” and “optimism” that Christopher Lasch elevated and defended. Optimism is a foolish belief in progress. Hope is the spiritual belief that even through collapse – even through cultural death – human goodness – a love and justice ethic – can occasionally emerge to make a difference.

Readers interested in Berman’s trilogy (Twilight of American CultureDark Ages America, Why America Failed) should also pick up his recent essay collection, A Question of Values. Regardless of where readers start, an investment in Berman is time and energy well spent. It will pay off in the forms of intellectual growth and clarity, and the improvement of life that results from the enlargement of the mind. It is certainly much better than being part of the delusional crowd clinging on to a weed growing out of the rock, believing it will hold and keep you from falling off the cliff.

I am happy and proud to be one of the few writers helping Berman get his tough, smart, and important message into the public mind.