The Atlantic Runs My Interview with Historian and Cultural Critic Morris Berman

Morris Berman is a starry eyed realist whose message is not for the faint of intellect or hardhearted. He is an important and wise historian whose trilogy of books on the decline of America (The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed) takes the unpopular, but serious and persuasive view that the American economy and empire are in freefall, with no hope for recovery.

Followers of my work should remember that I wrote an extensive review of Berman’s trilogy on America that Truthout published under the headline, “America: What Happened?”

I make the argument in that essay, as I do in my introduction of my new interview with Berman – “How America’s Culture of Hustling is Dark and Empty”, that his work is of profound, and also, because of his tough, challenging, and realistic message, singular importance.

I recently had the opportunity to meet Morris and share a few drinks with him in a quiet, Grand Rapids, Michigan bar. It delighted me to discover that his sense of humor, easygoing camaraderie, and generous disposition, makes him more likable, and his work, more appealing.

Soren Kierkegaard summarized the consequences of the unexamined life by telling the story of a man who never realized he was alive until he woke up dead. Berman worries that many Americans find themselves in the position of Kierkegaard’s corpse. He also admits that he was once there – caught in a tedium of pursuits (a bad marriage, the hustle for tenure) he now calls “unnecessary,” “wasteful”, and “stupid.”

In Berman’s new book – Spinning Straw Into Gold – he examines his own life, and ruminates on what finally provided his life with meaning, purpose, and peace. He leads by example, and through his personal and profound rumination on his own life, he gives readers challenge and inspiration to find the meaning of their own lives.

It would be wrong to call Spinning Straw Into Gold “self-help”, except only to say that it reinvents the self-help genre. It liberates it from the hollow clichés and boring platitudes of the Joel Osteen or Rhonda Byrne bestseller, and returns it to the enlivening, enlightening, and enchanting world of philosophy.

I interview Berman on the new book for The Atlantic.

ssigIf you take a moment to read the comments after the interview, you’ll treat yourself to a great display of existential meltdown. In the interview, Berman states that most Americans are “afraid, angry, and desperate.” American commenters, in an attempt to refute Berman’s analysis, then proceed to unleash a torrent of invective, vitriol, and mean spirited attack on the author, about whom they know they little.

One particular strain of comments, I feel, deserves a moment under the spotlight, if only to embarrass and humiliate those responsible for it.

Many readers attempt to rebuke and ridicule Berman and his argument about the emptiness of American culture, and the search for meaning and authenticity, by making the claim that his “privilege” nullifies his work. Here is an example of such brain dead reasoning:

“Interesting perspective for the single mother to mull while in line at Walmart. Maybe once she ontologically knows herself she can quit at least one of her part time jobs to find something which enchants her.”

First, Berman is not rich, but he is successful. Success demands respect, not condemnation. Second, and more important, taking this argument to its logical endpoint would require the dismissal of all philosophy. Philosophers always come from a certain place of “privilege”, because without it, they would not have the time, energy or ability to lecture, write, and contemplate the world.

Wasn’t Socrates just rambling about esoteric bullshit while there were slaves struggling to survive in Greece? Yet, no one would respond to the Socratic method or Socratic intellectualism with the sanctimony of  “Interesting perspective for the slave to mull while building the monuments.”

Identity politics and insulting people for their success are two contemporary distractions from the larger questions of American identity, meaning in an increasingly meaningless culture, and authenticity in a artificial society. These are the questions Berman tackles in his new book, and the questions we consider in our conversation.

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.