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.
If 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.