Morris Berman

This Week in Doom, October 7: It’s Ovah


That-Was-The-Week-That-W-That-Was-The-Week-473964gc2smFrom the keyboard of Surly1
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on October 6, 2018

“Unimpaired prosperity cannot withstand a single blow; but he who has struggled constantly with his ills becomes hardened through suffering; and yields to no misfortune; nay, even if he falls, he still fights upon his knees.”
― Seneca, "On Providence" (II, 6-10)


So Bart O'Kavanaugh has been steamrolled onto the Supreme Court, the crowning achievement of Mitch McConnell and the cult of vicious, old, white bigots now known as the Republican Party. The lying racist traitor in the White House nominated a lying, movement-conservative hit-man to the Supreme Court, whose nomination was a sham orchestrated by a smirking reptile willing to break the Senate. McConnell was willing to go to any lengths to tip the Supreme Court for a generation and secure Karl Rove's "permanent Republican majority" against any reform laws that might be passed by some future Democrat Congress.

Orange Jesus enjoys 85 per cent approval among Republicans, even as those who identify as Republicans shrinks to 26 per cent of the electorate. What that will mean in the coming midterms is anybody's guess..

Give mad props to Trump: he understands his marks, a base of pimple-backed mouth breathers certain that no matter how low their circumstances, they are still better than women. The GOP has constructed an entire political party out of such swamp creatures, and nourished it by feeding their rage and paranoia.

They love Trump's utter shamelessness about sex, money, and basic human decency. When the Kav nomination seemed to be wavering, he stood up a rally in Mississippi where he went against the advice of counselors and openly mocked Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.  As a creature of television, Trump knows audiences. And that where he goes, the cameras must follow, and that his most outrageous pronouncements will be excerpted and repeated, repeated, repeated on the cable news programs that exist as filler to hold aloft pods of commercials for reverse mortgages, dick pills and psoriasis meds.

Give Trump credit for dragging this nomination over the finish line by putting steel in the spines of a handful of wavering senators out of step with the GOP's geriatric junta. Loathsome homunculus Mitch McConnell (R-Tartarus) gave full credit to "the mob:"

“We refused to be intimidated by the mob of people that were coming after Republican members at their homes, in the halls. I couldn't be prouder of the Senate Republican Conference."

McConnell had the audacity to thank the grassroots activists who spoke out against Brett Kavanaugh's sham confirmation as part of a "mob" who has finally energized the GOP's base for 2018, "the one thing (the R's were) having trouble doing." Whether or not he remains grateful on November 7 remains to be seen.


Sens. Susan Collins and Jeff Flake Are Frauds, Plain and Simple. Their Kavanaugh Votes Show It.

The demand for the FBI to investigate, as Splinter’s Rafi Schwartz observed last week, was “a classic Jeff Flake move to cover his ass.” It was a fig leaf and a nod to process to get Flake, Collins and Murkowski in line. The investigation spoke only to nine witnesses, Ramirez and a phalanx of Kavanaugh frat boy friends, who observed the code of Georgetown Prep omertà and said nothing. They did not speak to Blasey Ford, Julie Swetnick, or to the dozens of others who desperately called offering corroborating information.

Anyone who expected anything other than a "yes" vote from Jeff Flake (R-Handwringing) or Susan Collins (R-Hypocrisy)  was kidding themselves. Flake received enough phone calls threatening his prospect of post-Senate guaranteed lobbyist employment to bringhim to his knees. And Collins raised a brief murmur of self-importance on Friday to make the most of selling out her female constituents. Her vote has already raised $2.5 million for her as yet-unnamed Democrat challenger. 

Topher Spiro observed that

"To Flake” is now a political verb: “to make speeches, tweets and gestures only to be a coward when it truly matters”

Medhi Hasan of The Intercept put it best

Never again believe Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, or Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., when they claim to be critics of Donald Trump or posture as “moderate” Republicans.

Never again let the media call them the “swing” voters in the Senate or “our best hope for profiles in courage in Congress…”

The debate is over: Collins and Flake are frauds, fakes, pretenders. Their high-minded claim to bipartisanship was always an act; a (melo)dramatic performance. Unlike their fellow so-called swing voter Sen. Lisa Murkowski — who will vote against Kavanaugh thanks, in part, to “Alaska’s complicated politics” — Collins and Flake were never going to oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court.

Perspective: remember that Collins has voted with Trump 79 percent of the time — or 4 out of every 5 votes. Flake has voted with Trump 84 percent of the time.  Alligator mouth, hummingbird ass.

The votes of Flake and Collins flatly assert they didn't believe Blasey Ford. But men never believe the women. Ask any victim of sexual assault who has reported the crime. This simple fact has fueled the #MeToo movement, and has enraged men. Trump and his idiot son, Donnie Half-Scoop, were on the trail last week procliming that American men are under attack. Just running the tried-and-true right wing playbook: reflexive snap into the victim pose when caught out, then attack-attack-attack. This invariable follows lie-and-deny-deny-deny. As for the aftermath of pent-up "rage" of female voters as November approaches, who can say? 

Jessica Valenti observes the disconnect across the gender divide in Kavanaugh is the Face of American Male Rage. One in six women is sexually assaulted in the US. The assault marks a woman's life, and often expresses itself in addictions of various kinds, sexual promiscuity, trust issues, difficulties in future relationships, and occasional blasts of volcanic anger. 

 Even as women calmly and expertly explain the ways in which men have hurt us, our pain is immediately drowned out and glossed over by men’s belief that they should not have to answer to us, of all people.

One of the cruel ironies of sexual assault and harassment is that the traumas which frequently inform the trajectory of women’s lives are often not even worth remembering to the men who have inflicted them. And are certainly worth denying, when a job is on the line.


Great Leaps in American Collapse

Umair Hague is quickly becoming one of the more dependable writers documenting American collapse, joining emigre Morris Berman in his assessment that we Americans are on the collapse clock. He traces the escalating sense of unease, lack of faith in institutions, and the falling dominoes of ruinous decisions that have led us to the current era of "smash-and-grab" looting beloved of fascists and their apologists.

Umair notes that in a the same week we have installed an "accused rapist as a Supreme Court justice for life, the Nobel Peace Prize goes to a man and a woman who’ve fought to define mass rape as a war crime. It’s vivid evidence: the world’s richest country is a ruinously failed state, plunging into an authoritarian abyss."

As Americans, we are so relentlessly propagandized and bought into our founding myths, we can no longer discern reality.

"One of the greatest ironies of American collapse is that American leaders thought that it was defeating the terrorists which would give Americans a sense of safety. But predatory capitalism was producing a greater feeling of unsafety, threat, danger, the sense of living in a hostile, unsurvivable world, among Americans than cave-dwelling terrorists ever really could. America beat the terrorists — but it never beat the capitalists." 

Before Haque came along,.Morris Berman had traced the Great American Unwind across a series of books. Decline started with Reaganomics, when we learned that "government was the problem," and we stopped investing in ourselves . As a result, by the 90s we lived shorter, poorer, uglier lives than Europeans, And then 9/11 happened, resulting in another decade of underinvestment while sieving off small fortunes for war profiteers and fortunate sons. Few societies survive such cannibalization of resources for long. At its height, Rome had 33 foreign bases;  today the US maintains over 1,000.

When the history of American collapse is written, I think it will be seen as a series of great leaps, which punctuated slow, steady erosions, corrosions, and crumblings. In norms and values, among institutions and expectations, of rules and responsibilities — until at last democracy itself was a smoking, belching wreck, and in its place arose every kind of backwardness, from authoritarianism and kleptocracy to theocracy and fascism.

American hegemony has resulted in a world where people no longer feel safe. Infrastructure and systems crumble around us, the chance to live a better life fades, and no past promise is guaranteed to be negotiable in the future. Even those able to put aside some crumbs for the future have no guarantee they won't outlive their savings, or that their small sums will be safe from inflation or currency debasement. American society has becomes a kind of jungle, a war of all-against-all, where it’s every man and woman for themselves, and the big fish eat the smaller.  

Smash-and-grab late stage capitalism has resulted in heavier burdens borne by the productive class while social mobility has eroded. My wife has observed that time was when a well-turned out young women with confidence and a gift of gab could talk her way into most any party. Today such a woman would never get past the bodyguards. With commoners divested from a financial stake in the system, and political power concentrated in an oligarchy shaking them down for pocket change and waiting to steal the coins from the eyes of their corpses, one wonders who will be eager to fight the next war.

Another recent post from Umair, Why America’s a More Violent Society Than You Think. is also on point.

"Americans aren’t just at the risk of being shot, or their kids shooting each other — they’re forever at the brink of of losing their livelihoods, homes, belongings, incomes, families, health, and even their lives. Bang! Gone. The spectre of ruin, just one step away, is relentless, and it never ends, tires, or changes. Hence, the average American lives his whole life under an ever-present billy-club of threat and intimidation — of genuine and very real violence befalling them, if they’re not 'productive' or 'useful' or 'employable' (or even 'healthy' or 'strong' or 'young') enough."

And he sounds very Berman-like when he says

… the U.S. is first & foremost a business and the vast majority of its citizens are brainwashed to believe hustling, opportunism, hyper-individualism, and climbing the ladder are exemplary "qualities."

For those interested in Morris Berman and what he is up to, he has released a new book, "Are We There Yet," which consists of a collection of lectures, unpublished essays and reflections on the continued decline of American Empire. Berman has been living in Mexico since 2006, and writes and speaks at length about the sense of community found in Mexico and so missing in the US with its culture of "hustling."

In a recent podcast interview   Berman said 

Sociologists who've written about how in America the religion is America itself… it doesn't matter how good your empirical data are, people caught in the mythology of the "American dream” will  not change their mind based on any factual material. In the industrialized or industrialized world in terms of health care quality, America's number thirty-seven. Most Americans believe it's number one! It's a debacle, a tragedy.

These kinds of facts don't matter and that's when their faces get red they start to spit and wave their arms because they understand that some level that you've got the fact all they've got is the myth and the myth is thin by now.

America will have tried everything to salvage the Empire to no avail and its foreign interventions will continue to fail. Like Alfred McCoy and others, Berman sees the next 2008-style event coming in 2020-21, then the Crash From Which There is No Recovery in 2026. Interestingly, a number of those interested in the question of civilizational decline have all come to the same conclusion independently and almost precisely to the same years.

When asked what he would tell young people asking about their futures, Berman replied

I would say that leaving the country is a sign of great intelligence.

I give lectures and young people come up to me and they say, "what should I do, what should I do," and I say, "Look you're not going to take my advice but I'll give it to you straight.  One of the best things an American can do is emigrate.

What do you think is waiting for you forty years down the line? 40 years in the future:, we will be at war with a country on the other side of the planet that poses no military threat to us whatsoever and will have spent ten trillion dollars. Doing it, we're going to loot the Treasury for no good reason at all. There will be no social safety net, no social security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, none of that will be available to you. And if you're lucky enough to get a job (which will probably be flipping burgers at McDonald's), you're not going to be able to retire because you're not going to be paid enough to be able to afford private health insurance, food, a car, a house.

Whatever you think, you will not be able to retire and you'll die like a dog. Now it's up to you whether you want to stick around. But… forty years from now you're going to say, "You know some guy came to our college when I was an undergraduate and we thought he was a nut case, and he told us all of us that we should emigrate, and now I'd give my left arm to have taken his advice."

Of course the question that remains is, "Go where?"


Surly1 is an administrator and contributing author to Doomstead Diner. He is the author of numerous rants, screeds and spittle-flecked invective here and elsewhere. He lives a quiet domestic existence in Southeastern Virginia with his wife Contrary. Descended from a long line of people to whom one could never tell anything, all opinions are his and his alone, because he paid full retail for everything he has managed to learn.

McFarland, USA

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Published on Dark Ages America on January 9, 2016


It occasionally bothered me that I had lived for a number of years in Mexico and had published several books, none of which were about the country in which I was living. Indeed, I had spent 2011-14 sweating over a long, fairly complicated cultural analysis of Japan. Recently, I was asked to give a talk to the sales personnel at the book chain Gandhi, in Mexico City (Mexico’s equivalent of Barnes & Noble), about my work, and in the question-and-answer period that followed one member of the audience asked me how it was that I hadn't written about my adopted country. I felt somewhat guilty. 

"You're right," I replied; "I have no excuse. After all, I've been here for nine years. Maybe next year I'll move to Tokyo and write a book about Mexico."

Ha ha. Everybody laughed. But it may not be all that funny, and the question, as in the past, nagged at me. It might have been that I felt I had nothing new to say about Mexico, about which so much has been written. I mean, was I seriously going to rehash Cortés, sincretismo, Lázaro Cárdenas, and the emergence of the modern state? It didn't really appeal.

And yet, thinking I had nothing new to say didn't stop me in the case of Japan (and as it turned out, I was wrong); and in that case, I couldn't even read the language. So what was the problem? I kept scratching my head until, quite by accident (or synchronicity?), I happened to see a Kevin Costner film called McFarland, USA, released in the United States early in 2015. While not a documentary, the film is a true story, about a football coach named Jim White who accepted a position at the local high school of a dreary, 100%-Hispanic town in the Central (San Joaquin) Valley of California in 1987. He hated it, and took the job only because he had no other options. His students typically got up at 4:30 a.m. and worked as fruit and vegetable pickers—backbreaking labor for miserable wages—after which, at around 8 a.m., they went off to school. All Jim White wanted was the American Dream: to get out of this low-paying job and move up the socioeconomic ladder. The tension in the story, and its central theme, revolves around the Mexican/Chicano vs. US value-systems, i.e. warmth (the traditional Hispanic family structure and culture) vs. power (the go-go world of US capitalism).

But this tension, I realized, was an old theme for me, going back to 1981: The Reenchantment of the World, a study of the collapse of the magical tradition in Western Europe and the concomitant rise of modern science. Much of my book on Japan, for example, is an exploration of the conflict between the ancient Zen craft tradition and the imposition of modern US values that had eventually turned the country into an economic powerhouse at the cost of driving the Japanese people somewhat crazy (hence the title, Neurotic Beauty). Was Mexico so different? As the film ended, I recalled the words of Porfirio Díaz, that Mexico's problem was that it was tan cerca de los Estados Unidos, i.e. too close to the United States, and also a study by Professor William Vega at the University of California, Berkeley, which revealed that the rate of mental illness among Mexicans living in the US was almost exactly twice that of Mexicans living in Mexico. The theme of modernity vs. tradition is a very rich one, representing a conflict with no easy answers, and which is not likely to get resolved any time soon. Was it perhaps time for me to be examining it in a Mexican context? Had I finally found the topic of my "Mexico book"? Let me, then, talk a bit about the Costner movie, and the questions that I think it raises.

Of course, "Mr. White" is a rather ironic name for an American who moves into an all-Hispanic town, and in fact his students take to calling him "Blanco." Everything is alien to the White family: the language, the food, the entire way of life. Upon arriving at the house they have rented, they find a mural painted on the wall of the living room, of a beautiful indígena woman, a Mother Earth archetype, holding out a platter of fruit and vegetables and surrounded by flowers—a symbol of nurturing, sustenance, female wisdom. White's reaction is, "Paint store, first thing tomorrow!" Going to the only diner in town, they don't know what chorizo is, or what enchiladas are, and play it safe with tacos, which they presumably are familiar with from Taco Bell. And so on. It's as though they are walking across the surface of the moon.

White, in any case, discovers that while the football team is basically useless, not having won a game in decades, the school has a number of kids who can run like the wind, and so persuades the principal to launch a cross-country running team. In a series of endearing adventures, he whips his charges into shape, until they actually win the first annual cross-country state championship. (In real life, White coached his teams to victory 9 out of 14 times between 1987 and 2001.) He also gets the boys to start thinking about college, so that they don't have to remain pickers for nothing wages all their lives; and in fact all 7 of the boys (on the 1987 team) went on to graduate college and become teachers, coaches, policemen, and so on—solid middle-class jobs. The dirt-poor Chicanos, with White's help, thus make it into El sueño americano, the American Dream.

The impact White has on these kids is actually quite significant. For what was the alternative to the American Dream, if not stagnation, poverty, or worse? As one of the other teachers says to White, pointing to the building next door to the school, "That's the town prison. Handy, no?" But a few months later, she comes to White's office to read him a poem written by one of his runners, José Cárdenas (who later became a writer for the Los Angeles Times): 

"We fly like blackbirds through the orange groves/floating on a warm wind./When we run, we own the earth;/the land is ours./We speak the birds' language,/immigrants no more./Not stupid Mexicans./When we run, our spirits fly./We speak to the gods./When we run, we are the gods."

"Welcome to McFarland, Blanco," she says to White.

White takes the boys to the ocean for the first time in their lives, and he gives them a sense of pride. "You kids have the biggest hearts I've ever seen," he tells them. And they begin to see themselves that way as well, and to open their minds to the wider world.

It's all very moving, and perhaps a bit too romantic—the film was made by the Disney Corporation, after all—and falls into the very successful Hollywood category known as the "White Savior" genre. Kevin Costner is hardly new to this role, having played it brilliantly many years ago inDances with Wolves, in which he protects a branch of the Sioux Indians from an American Army intent on destroying them, and from which he deserted. (In the wake of the film, the Sioux Nation adopted him as an honorary member of the tribe.) The criticism of this genre is that it is patronizing: in order for the "natives" to be saved, a white male (usually) figure has to come in from the outside and organize/liberate them, since (the implication is) they would not be able to do this for themselves. (See also The Last Samurai, Avatar, and a whole host of American inner-city schoolteacher films.) However, a crucial element in most of the White Savior films is that the Savior himself gets saved, gets liberated in the process. Thus at the same time that Jim White's students enter the American Dream, he himself finds reason to reject it in favor of the lifestyle and values of traditional Mexican society. To my mind, this redeems the film (as well as White), and highlights the conflict of traditional vs. modern cultures. Let's look at a few examples from the movie.

-The mural of the Great Mother painted on the wall, which White said he would paint over. When he finally gets around to doing it, several weeks later, entering the room with two buckets of paint, his younger daughter tells him, "Don't even think about it." Clearly, the image has begun to percolate through the family's consciousness. (Compare this with the Starbucks computer-generated logo of the Great Mother archetype, which is nothing more than an empty corporate image. Sad to say, many Mexicans have bought into this trendy US lifestyle, sitting in cafés that have spread across Mexico like a cancer, hypnotically staring into their laptops, and drinking bad, overpriced coffee. Progress?)

-The town embraces the White family. A neighbor gives Jim a chicken. The Díaz family has him over to dinner, stuffs him with enchiladas, and gives him food to take home. "You are not family unless you eat with them," Sra. Díaz tells him. (Do even 10% of US families eat together anymore?)

-Over and over we see the town engaged in group rather than individual activities, such as a combination car wash and tamale sale, that the White family is drawn into.

-The town makes a quinceañera (coming-of-age party for girls) for Julie, Jim's older daughter, which overwhelms him, emotionally. "Gracias por todo," he tearfully announces in Spanish, to all who attended the event.

-Meanwhile, Jim comes to the attention of a rich white high school in Palo Alto, which offers him a coaching job. One of his runners finds out (from Julie, who is not happy about this), and confronts him about it: "Were you going to even tell us?" he asks, "or were you going to just run off into the sunset with those country club kids? We all get it: This is America. Gotta go bigger. Nicer place, better pay; everyone's always gonna go for the better everything. There ain't nothing American Dream about McFarland."

Jim says to his wife, regarding the job offer: "This is the situation we've always dreamed about." His wife replies: "Think of everything the town has done for us. They have protected Julie like family. You think we are going to find that in Palo Alto, or anywhere else [in the US] for that matter? Nowhere I've ever lived has felt this much like home."

-Then come the state playoffs, and Jim leads the opening cheer for the team—in Spanish: "Uno, dos, tres, McFarland!" he cries. After the match, he tells the recruiter from Palo Alto that he won't be taking the job. Jim White lives in McFarland to this day.

The psychologist Fritz Perls liked to tell the story of a Mexican farm worker who swam across the Rio Grande in search of work. Come Christmas, he swam back to visit his family, who wanted to know all about life in the mythical United States. "Well," he tells them, "the gringos are actually very nice people. There is only one thing that gets them angry: they don't like to be reminded that they are corpses."

And so the flip side of the White Savior, who breaks open a closed, dead-end life for his students, so that they can enter the American Dream, is that Jim himself becomes disenchanted with that super-individualistic, alienating dream, in which people are turned into the walking dead. He becomes, in other words, a human being.

Of course, a lot of Mexican life gets omitted from this picture. My neighbors across the street from me in Mexico are cold and rude, and used to toss their garbage off their balcony down to my front door, until a series of hostile exchanges put an end to it (more or less). In terms of being supportive as regards success, a Mexican friend told me that the society is like a pot of crabs: if one of them manages to get to the top and tries to climb out, the others pull him back down. (One of the runners' fathers in the film reacts to his son's desire to go to college by telling him, "No one needs a book in the fields".) ReviewingMcFarland, the New York Times wrote that places like McFarland are often "nightmares of crime and dysfunction," and that the film is really "a slick and safe Disney version of a fascinating and complicated reality." If the movie expresses an important truth in terms of a conflict of values, it also papers over the dark side of traditional societies as well.

As for the American Dream: it works, in this film, but by and large it is a con, as Mexicans coming up to the US (legally or illegally) eventually find out. There is the study by William Vega, mentioned above, which surely says a lot about how psychologically damaging US culture is for Mexican immigrants. And what jobs are available to them, in any case? I am reminded of that song from West Side Story, "America," in which the Puerto Ricans say that now they are free—"to wait tables and shine shoes." It goes on:

"Skyscrapers bloom in America/Cadillacs zoom in America/Industry boom in America/Twelve in a room in America!" (Etc.)

In fact, it turns out that a rather heavy reverse migration has set in, such that between 2005 and 2010, 1.4 million immigrants moved backto Mexico from the US, and 90% of these voluntarily. According to Alysa Hullett, an American reporter living in Oaxaca, these folks are lonely and miss their own culture. One immigrant she interviewed in Washington State complained that it took him eight months to meet his neighbors, whereas in Mexico City, “the whole street piles into one house for dinner.” Clearly, things have changed. A 2014 Pew Research Center survey discovered that 65% of Mexicans say they would notmove to the US if they had the means and opportunity to do so.

Surely, values must have a lot to do with this. At around the same time that Jim White was coaching his cross-country team in McFarland, Kevin Conway, owner of one of the largest farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley, was telling the American anthropologist Daniel Rothenberg:

“We’re in business to make money and bankrupt our competitors. That’s why we exist. We don’t exist for the benefit of the farming community. We don’t give a damn about the farming community. We don’t believe in promoting agriculture in general, so that all may benefit. We believe in promoting our label.”

A pretty good summary of the American ethos, it seems to me: life is about me, myself, and I; about making money, and not much else. This is the stark reality that the Mexican immigrant encounters.

As Rothenberg documents it in his book With These Hands, Mexican workers come up to the United States with images in their head of the country as a type of paradise: they are going to make a fortune up north and then return home and live like kings. It’s not a total fantasy: material life has improved for many towns in Mexico, as a result of migrant labor. But what most migrants typically get caught up in is a system of brutal exploitation—among the worst faced by the American working class. They often live in shantytowns, work 14 to 16 hours a day, make very little money, have their wages stolen from them, and are frequently subject to severe physical violence. Over the years there has been a lot of legislation attempting to curb these abuses, but as Rothenberg notes, given the “floating” nature of the farm labor system, these laws are very difficult to enforce.

There is also a heavy social and psychological cost in terms of value systems, according to Rothenberg. In Michoacán, Rodolfo Gutierrez, a student at a local university, told him: “I know a lot of guys from here who’ve gone north and returned really different, really cholo. They change—their personalities, their ideas, their clothes—their whole way of being. When they come back, they don’t show their parents the same respect.”

Also in Michoacán, Alberto Mosquera, a priest-in-training, said of the migrants that they “often lose their sense of community obligation. Their goals become individualistic and their attitudes become characteristic of North American culture. The men invest in their homes, but not in their community.”

The larger picture is that the imposition of neoliberal economics, and the American Dream, on traditional societies—whether we are talking about India, or Mexico, or Japan—allows a certain sliver of the middle class to rise to near-elite status, but at the expense of the rest of the population, and this then tears at the fabric of those societies. During the first two years of President Peña Nieto's sexenia (2012-14), 2 million more Mexicans fell below the poverty line, and Carlos Slim's personal wealth is equal to something like the combined wealth of the bottom 17 million people. This is the real upshot of the "meritocratic society," that the gap between rich and poor gets greater, not less, despite all the hype. Social mobility is largely an illusion, and certainly in the United States, which has nearly the lowest rate of social mobility among all the industrialized nations in the world, if not actually the lowest.

As for tradition vs. modernity, Oxford professor Terry Eagleton has this to say in his brilliant essay, The Illusions of Postmodernism:

"'Traditional' or pre-modern societies have a great many merits which our own set-ups lack…On the whole they have a richer sense of place, community and tradition, less social anomie, less cut-throat competition and tormented ambition, less subjection to a ruthlessly instrumental rationality and so on. On the other hand…they are often desperately impoverished, culturally claustrophobic, socially hidebound and patriarchal, and without much sense of the autonomous individual. Modernity has precisely such a sense of free individual development, with all the spiritual wealth that this brings with it; it also begins to hatch notions of human equality and universal rights largely unknown to its forebears. But we also know that this is the more civilized face of a barbarous uncaring order, one which sunders all significant relations between its members, deprives them of precious symbolic resources and persuades them to mistake the means of life for the ends of it." (Italics mine)

All I can conclude, at this point in time, is that too much traditionalism—what anthropologists call "hypercoherence"—leads to stagnation, and too much individualism and enterprise leads to chaos and alienation. Balance is finally the issue, which is one thing I took away fromMcFarland. In terms of values, Jim White was living at one extreme, his students at another. The collision of the two ways of life modified both, for the better. The real question is what this might mean on a larger political scale. For surely to have nearly half the country stuck in poverty while a small elite pursues the American Dream, can in no way be called "balance." It is, in fact, a disaster, and confronts us with a question that I, as a foreigner who has made Mexico his home, think about quite often: What would true success for Mexico be, and how is it to be achieved?

©Morris Berman, 2015


Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

The Waning of the Modern Ages

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Anthony-Freda_empty-kingdom

Published on Counterpunch on September 20, 2012


La longue durée —the long run—was an expression made popular by the Annales School of French historians led by Fernand Braudel, who coined the phrase in 1958. The basic argument of this school is that the proper concern of historians should be the analysis of structures that lie at the base of contemporary events. Underneath short-term events such as individual cycles of economic boom and bust, said Braudel, we can discern the persistence of “old attitudes of thought and action, resistant frameworks dying hard, at times against all logic.” An important derivative of the Annales research is the work of the World Systems Analysis school, including Immanuel Wallerstein and Christopher Chase-Dunn, which similarly focuses on long-term structures: capitalism, in particular.

The “arc” of capitalism, according to this school, is about 600 years long, from 1500 to 2100. It is our particular (mis)fortune to be living through the beginning of the end, the disintegration of capitalism as a world system. It was mostly commercial capital in the sixteenth century, evolving into industrial capital in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and then moving on to financial capital—money created by money itself, and by speculation in currency—in the twentieth and twenty-first. In dialectical fashion, it will be the very success of the system that eventually does it in.

The last time a change of this magnitude occurred was during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, during which time the medieval world began to come apart and be replaced by the modern one. In his classic study of the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages, the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga depicted the time as one of depression and cultural exhaustion—like our own age, not much fun to live through.  One reason for this is that the world is literally perched over an abyss. What lies ahead is largely unknown, and to have to hover over an abyss for a long time is, to put it colloquially, a bit of a drag. The same thing was true at the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire as well, on the ruins of which the feudal system slowly arose.

I was musing on these issues some time ago when I happened to run across a remarkable essay by Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock DoctrineIt was called “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” and was published last November in The Nation.  In what appears to be something of a radical shift for her, she chastises the Left for not understanding what the Right does correctly perceive: that the whole climate change debate is a serious threat to capitalism. The Left, she says, wants to soft-pedal the implications; it wants to say that environmental protection is compatible with economic growth, that it is not a threat to capital or labor. It wants to get everyone to buy a hybrid car, for example (which I have personally compared to diet cheesecake), or use more efficient light bulbs, or recycle, as if these things were adequate to the crisis at hand. But the Right is not fooled: it sees Green as a Trojan horse for Red, the attempt “to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of eco-socialism.” It believes—correctly—that the politics of global warming is inevitably an attack on the American Dream, on the whole capitalist structure. Thus Larry Bell, in Climate of Corruption, argues that environmental politics is essentially about “transforming the American way of life in the interests of global wealth distribution”; and British writer James Delinpole notes that “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, [and] regulation.”

What Ms. Klein is saying to the Left, in effect, is: Why fight it? These nervous nellies on the Right are—right! Those of us on the Left can’t keep talking about compatibility of limits-to-growth and unrestrained greed, or claiming that climate change is “just one issue on a laundry list of worthy causes vying for progressive attention,” or urging everyone to buy a Prius.  Commentators like Thomas Friedman or Al Gore, who “assure us that we can avert catastrophe by buying ‘green’ products and creating clever markets in pollution”—corporate green capitalism, in a word—are simply living in denial. “The real solutions to the climate crisis,” she writes, “are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system—one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power.”

In one of the essays in my book A Question of Values (“conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History”), I lay out some of the “unconscious programs” buried in the American psyche from our earliest days, programs that account for most of America’s so-called conscious behavior. These include the notion of an endless frontier—a world without limits—and the ideal of extreme individualism—you do not need, and should not need, anyone’s help to “make it” in the world. Combined, the two of these provide a formula for enormous capitalist power and inevitable capitalist collapse (hence, the dialectical dimension of it all).  Of this, Naomi Klein writes:

“The expansionist, extractive mindset, which has so long governed our relationship to nature, is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally. The abundance of scientific research showing we have pushed nature beyond its limits does not just demand green products and market-based solutions; it demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal—and acutely sensitive to natural limits….These are profoundly challenging revelations for all of us raised on Enlightenment ideals of progress.”

(This is exactly what I argued 31 years ago in The Reenchantment of the World; it’s nice to see it all coming around again.) “Real climate solutions,” she continues, “are ones that steer [government] interventions to systematically disperse and devolve power and control to the community level, through community-controlled renewable energy, local organic agriculture or transit systems genuinely accountable to their users.” Hence, she concludes, the powers that be have reason to be afraid, and to deny the data on global warming, because what is really required at this point is the end of the free-market ideology. And, I would add, the end of the arc of capitalism referred to earlier. It’s going to be (is) a colossal fight, not only because the powers that be want to hang on to their power, but because the arc and all its ramifications have given their class Meaning with a capital M for 500+ years. This is what the Occupy Wall Street protesters—if there are any left at this point; I’m not sure—need to tell the 1%: Your lives are a mistake. This is what “a new civilizational paradigm” finally means. It also has to be said that almost everyone in the United States, not just the upper 1%, buys into this. John Steinbeck pointed this out many years ago when he wrote that in the U.S., the poor regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” The Occupy movement, as far as I could make out, wanted to restore the American Dream, when in fact the Dream needs to be abolished once and for all.

Naomi then provides us with a list of six changes that must occur for this new paradigm to come into being, including Reining in Corporations, Ending the Cult of Shopping, and Taxing the Rich. I found myself writing “good luck” in the margins of much of this discussion. These things are not going to happen, and what we probably need instead is a series of major conferences on why they won’t happen. But note that part of the answer is already embedded in her essay: vested interests, in both the economic and psychological sense, have every reason to maintain the status quo. And as I said, so does the man or woman in the street. What would our lives be without shopping, without the latest technological toy? Pretty empty, at least in the U.S.  How awful, that capitalism has reduced human beings to this.

In terms of recommendations, then, Klein’s essay is rather weak. But it offers something very important by way of analysis, and also by implication: Everything is related to everything else. Psychology, the economy, the environmental crisis, our daily mode of living, the dumbing down of America, the pathetic fetish over cell phones and electronic gadgets, the crushing debt of student loans, the farce of electoral politics, Mr. Obama’s rather rapid conversion from liberal hero to war criminal and shredder of the Bill of Rights, the huge popularity of violent movies, the attempt of the rich to impose austerity measures on the poor, the well-documented epidemics of mental illness and obesity—these are ultimately not separate spheres of human activity. They are interconnected, and this means that things will not get fixed piecemeal. “New civilizational paradigm” means it’s all or nothing; there really is no in-between, no diet cheesecake to be had. As Ms. Klein says, it’s not about single “issues” anymore.

What then, can we expect, as the arc of capitalism comes to a close? This is where Naomi shifts from unlikely recommendations to hard-nosed reality. She writes:

“The corporate quest for scarce resources will become more rapacious, more violent. Arable land in Africa will continue to be grabbed to provide food and fuel to wealthier nations.  Drought and famine will continue to be used as a pretext to push genetically modified seeds, driving farmers further into debt. We will attempt to transcend peak oil and gas by using increasingly risky technologies to extract the last drops, turning ever larger swaths of our globe into sacrifice zones. We will fortress our borders and intervene in foreign conflicts over resources, or start those conflicts ourselves. ‘Free-market climate solutions,’ as they are called, will be a magnet for speculation, fraud and crony capitalism, as we are already seeing with carbon trading and the use of forests as carbon offsets.  And as climate change begins to affect not just the poor but the wealthy as well, we will increasingly look for techno-fixes to turn down the temperature, with massive and unknowable risks….As the world warms, the reigning ideology that tells us it’s everyone for themselves, that victims deserve their fate, and that we can master nature, will take us to a very cold place indeed.”

To put it bluntly, the scale of change required cannot happen without a massive implosion of the current system. This was true at the end of the Roman Empire, it was true at the end of the Middle Ages, and it is true today. In the case of the Roman Empire, as I discuss in The Twilight of American Culture, there was the emergence of  monastic orders that began to preserve the treasures of Graeco-Roman civilization. My question in that book was: Can something similar happen today? Naomi writes:

“The only wild card is whether some countervailing popular movement will step up to provide a viable alternative to this grim future. That means not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—this time, embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.” She believes that the Occupy Wall Street movement—remember, it was quite vigorous last November—embodies this; that they have taken “aim at the underlying values of rampant greed and individualism that created the economic crisis, while embodying…radically different ways to treat one another and relate to the natural world.”

Is this true? Four things to consider at this point:

1. I personally never visited Zuccotti Park, but most of what I saw on the Web, including very favorable reportage of the Occupy movement, seemed to suggest that the goal was a more equitable American Dream, not the abolition of the American Dream, as I indicated above. In other words, the basic demand was that the pie be cut up more fairly. I never had the impression that the protesters were saying that the pie, in toto, was rotten. This reminds me of an anecdote about Martin Luther King, who apparently said to Harry Belafonte, just before he (i.e., King) was assassinated, that he thought he might have been making a big mistake; that he sometimes felt like he was herding people into a burning church. This is a very different insight, quite obviously, than the notion that black people should be getting a larger share of the pie. After all, who wants a larger share of a rotten pie, or to live in a church that is burning down?

2. The Annales historians, along with the World Systems Analysis thinkers, have been accused of projecting an image of “history without people.” In other words, these schools tend to see individuals as somewhat irrelevant to the historical process, which they analyze in terms of “historical forces.” There is some truth to this, but “historical forces” can become a bit mystical. Just as it is forces that motivate people, so it is people that enact or manifest those forces. I mean,

someone has to do something for history to occur, and at least the Occupy crowd was trying to throw sand on the wheels of the machine, so to speak, as have their counterparts in Europe.  But I confess that for a number of reasons, I was never very optimistic about the movement; at least, not as it existed in the United States. As many sociologists have pointed out, America has no real socialist tradition, and it is no surprise that the serious maldistribution of wealth that exists in the U.S. is no issue whatsoever in the forthcoming presidential election.  In fact, a recent poll by the Pew Charitable Trust revealed that most Americans have no problem at all with the existence of a small wealthy class; they just want to be able to join it—which takes us back to the quote from John Steinbeck. My own prediction, several months ago, was that OWS would turn into a kind of permanent teach-in, where the disaffected could go to learn about a “new civilizational paradigm,” if that would indeed be taught. This is basically the “new monastic option” I wrote about in the Twilight book. On one level, it’s probably innocuous; it hardly threatens the power elite. But that may not be the whole story, especially in the long run—la longue durée.  After all, as the system collapses, alternatives are going to become increasingly attractive; and you can be sure that 2008 is not the last crash we are going to live through. The two sides go hand in hand, and ultimately—I’m talking thirty to forty years, but maybe less—the weight of the arc of capitalism will be too onerous to sustain itself. In la longue durée, one is far smarter betting on the alternative worldview than on capitalism. Thus the biologist David Ehrenfeld writes: “Our first task is to create a shadow economic, social, and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails.”

3. What, then, is that alternative worldview, that “new civilizational paradigm”? In Why America Failed I lay out, unsurprisingly enough, the reasons for why America failed, and I say that it was primarily because throughout our history we marginalized or ignored the voices that argued against the dominant culture, which is based on hustling, aggrandizement, and economic and technological expansion. This alternative tradition can be traced from John Smith in 1616 to Jimmy Carter in 1979, and included folks such as Emerson, Thoreau, Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, Vance Packard, and John Kenneth Galbraith, among many others. In England it is particularly associated with John Ruskin and William Morris, who argued for the need for organic communities with a spiritual purpose, for work that was meaningful rather than mind-numbing, and who did manage to acquire a large number of American disciples. In a forthcoming book by a colleague of mine, Joel Magnuson, entitled The Approaching Great Transformation, the author states that we need concrete models of a post-carbon economy, ones that break with the profit model of capitalism—and not in cosmetic or rhetorical ways. He gives a number of examples of experiments in this vein, ones that I would term elements of a steady-state or homeostatic economy: no-growth, in other words. After all, writes Magnuson, “permanent growth means permanent crisis.” Or as I have put it elsewhere, our job is to dismantle capitalism before it dismantles us. Again, this does not mean taking on Wall Street, which I don’t believe can succeed. But it does mean leaving the field: for example, seceding. (Movements for secession do exist at this point, Vermont being a prominent example.) And if that’s not quite viable right now, there is at least the possibility of living in a different way, as David Ehrenfeld suggests. My guess is that “dual process”—the disintegration of capitalism and the concomitant emergence of an alternative socioeconomic formation—is going to be the central story of the rest of this century. And I suspect that austerity will be part of this, because as capitalism collapses and we run out of resources—petroleum in particular—what choice will we have?

4. This does not, it seems to me, necessarily mean a return to some type of feudalism; although that could well happen, for all I know. But we are finally talking about the passing not only of capitalism, but of modernity in general—the waning of the modern ages, in effect. In her interesting biography of the Hegelian scholar, Alexandre Kojève, Shadia Drury writes: “Every political order, no matter how grand, is doomed to decay and degenerate.” As for modernity in particular, she goes on:

“[M]odernity’s inception and its decline are like those of any other set of political and cultural ideals. In its early inception, modernity contained something good and beguiling. It was a revolution against the authority of the Church, its taboos, repressions, inquisitions, and witch burning. It was a new dawn of the human spirit—celebrating life, knowledge, individuality, freedom, and human rights. It bequeathed to man a sunny disposition on the world, and on himself….The new spirit fueled scientific discovery, inventiveness, trade, commerce, and an artistic explosion of great splendor. But as with every new spirit, modernity has gone foul….Modernity lost the freshness and innocence of its early promise because its goals became inflated, impossible, and even pernicious. Instead of being the symbol of freedom, independence, justice, and human rights, it has become the sign of conquest, colonialism, exploitation, and the destruction of the earth.”

In a word, its number is up, and it is our fortune or misfortune, as I said before, to be living during a time of very large, and very difficult, transition. An old way of life dies, a new one eventually comes into being. Of this, the poet Mark Strand remarks: “No need to rush; the end of the world is only the end of the world as you know it.” For some odd reason, I find that thought rather comforting.

 

©Morris Berman, 2012 


Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

Open Letter to President Putin

Anthony-Freda_empty-kingdomFrom the keyboard of Morris Berman
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Anthony-Freda_empty-kingdom

Published on Dark Ages America on October 17, 2015


Dear Mr. President:

Gaspadin:

I am writing in response to your remark–accurate in the extreme, in my opinion–that members of the American government have mush in their heads instead of brains. Indeed, Mr. Obama has no coherent foreign policy, is basically adrift, and as you have no doubt figured out long ago, is a political and intellectual lightweight. He has no idea at all of what he is doing, and this applies to the majority of American politicians. 

However, what you wrote about the members of the American government also applies to members of the country at large: they have gavno inside their heads; they are a collection of duraki. After all, as a famous American comedian once remarked, our leaders come from the people; they don't originate on Mars. The remarkable thing is that in the US, even the smart ones are dumb, due in large part to our remarkable system of brainwashing. Let me remind you of that hilarious exchange you and Mr. Obama had a while back, regarding American "exceptionalism." Your response to his speech on this topic was to rebuke him, pointing out that regarding oneself as exceptional was a potentially destructive position to take. His response–I told you, he's not very smart–was more exceptionalist propaganda. The problem is that roughly 99.99% of the American public believes this nonsense, that we were chosen by God to lead the world by example. (A bit ironic, considering the fact that that example has not been very exemplary.) There is a knee-jerk reaction in this country, whenever we have a conflict with any other country, that we are good (always innocent) and they are evil, or at the very least misguided. We don't have a great talent for looking within, and the only president who asked us to do that–Jimmy Carter–is regarded by most Americans today as a loser and a fool.

You may well wonder how this nation of "individuals" wound up with a completely uniform ideology. The Australian journalist, John Pilger, tells the story–possibly apocryphal, I have no idea–of a project undertaken by America in the wake of Stalin's death in 1953, and the beginning of a thaw or detente between our two countries. The idea was to invite about two dozen apparatchiki over to the US to view a pluralistic society, "democracy in action." They could go anywhere they wanted, unescorted, and they did: the Senate, the Supreme Court, high schools, newspapers, universities–the works. At the end of the two weeks they all convened at the White House, and the official in charge of the project, beaming with pride, said, "Well?" The response was not exactly what he expected. After an embarrassed silence, one of the Russian officials spoke up:

"How do you do it?" he asked. "To get this extreme degree of conformity of opinion, everyone thinking exactly alike, we in the USSR have to beat our citizens, send them to Siberia, put them in psychiatric hospitals and fill them with drugs, shoot them, and so on. Here, in your country, you achieve the results we can only dream about, and with no coercion at all!"

Anyway, I don't mean to condone your own methods. The assassination of critical Russian journalists under your tenures in office is notorious (Anna Politkovskaya, for example), and forgive me, but I suspect your hands aren't completely clean in these abysmal events. So quite obviously, if you want a free society that allows for real dissent, you've got a ways to go. But Pilger's example, even if it never happened, is true to the spirit of how the United States operates, and to the very low level of citizen awareness of what's really going on in the world. All of which is to say that you might as well pursue your own interests (which you are already doing), and not worry too much about what we say, because all we are doing is pursuing our interests, and it is clear enough to most of the world that American "democracy" is a pretext for the projection of power into every corner of the globe, much of it for the purpose of economic gain.

In any case, it's not very likely that you will be reading this, inasmuch as I am a very minor intellectual figure in the US, not really on the radar screen of public discussion. But if you do happen to run across this, and would like to continue the conversation, I would be glad to do so with a nice samovar of tea from Sochi sitting between us. At the very least, I can assure you that it will be a far more interesting discussion than any you have had, or are likely to have, with virtually any American political figure.

Thank you for listening (if you did). Do svidanya, and vsevo haroshevo.

-Morris Berman

 

©Morris Berman, 2015 


Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

The American Sage

From the keyboard of Morris Berman
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mumford

Published on Dark Ages America on November 16, 2014

 

[From an essay a Mexican journal asked Berman to write on Lewis Mumford;  published in Spanish translation. Herewith the English original. For those with enthusiasm for the SUN project, for those who argue for the importance of human dignity in an ear of commoditization and the Age of the Machine,f or fans of Heinberg and Greer, Kunstler and Jensen, you will hear echoes of their ideas and a more clear idea of in which direction to face to pay proper homage to their inspiration. -Surly1]

“(The processes are) doubly ruinous: they impoverish the earth by hastily removing, for the benefit of a few generations, the common resources which, once expended and dissipated, can never be restored; and second, in its technique, its habits, its processes, the paleotechnic period is equally inimical to the earth considered as a human habitat, by its destruction of the beauty of the landscape, its ruining of streams, its pollution of drinking water, its filling the air with a finely divided carboniferous deposit, which chokes both life and vegetation.”

-Lewis Mumford

Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) was one of those rare American geniuses whom almost no one paid attention to during his lifetime. The United States has a tradition of ignoring (or even ridiculing) those talented individuals who have been critical of its dominant culture—unbridled materialism and individualism—and who have offered an alternative to it, one that might be called spiritual and communitarian. Indeed, in my book Why America Failed, I argue that the reason America failed was that it consistently marginalized the representatives of the alternative tradition, from Capt. John Smith in 1616 to Emerson and Thoreau and Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith down to President Jimmy Carter in 1979 (a number of congressmen believed Carter was actually insane). Lewis Mumford quite clearly belongs on this list, and most Americans who bothered to read him, during his lifetime, regarded his views as “precious” or “quaint”—well-intentioned, but out of sync with the real world. It should come as no surprise that by the end of his life Mumford, who began his career as a kind of “utopian realist,” had become a pessimist, and a fairly depressed one at that.

And yet, the remarkable thing is that when one reads his work today, one can’t help being struck by how sane it all is. To those who contend that Mumford’s ideas are irrelevant to the real world, I can only respond: “real” on whose definition? “Real” according to Goldman Sachs, whose goal is to amass trillions of dollars (to what end?)? “Real” according to Google, which seeks to digitalize and virtualize us out of (human, physical) existence? Mumford was not one of those who held that “progress” consisted of the latest gadget, the latest innovation, and he surely concurred with Octavio Paz, that we need to clarify what we mean by that word. If Mumford’s world view seems, at times, a bit medieval, we might want to remember that much was lost in the transition from the Middle Ages to modernity: craftsmanship, a deep appreciation of beauty, community, silence, and above all, a sense of spiritual purpose. It was this collection of values that Mumford stood for, and that he struggled to preserve or reintroduce into modern American life. His “failure” as a supposed fuddy-duddy or hopeless romantic was, to my mind—given the integrity of his work—a great success; America’s (material) “success” has proven to be, in the fullness of time, a colossal (human) failure.

What, then, was Mumford about? His career as a writer began in the context of the go-go capitalist era of the 1920s, with a book called The Story of Utopias,which criticized the Western utopian tradition as one-dimensional, projecting futures based purely on technological development. This was followed (in 1926) by The Golden Day, which took its theme not from the leading lights of the time, e.g. Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor, but from Oswald Spengler, whose Decline of the West argued that the northern urban culture of Europe was a “Faustian” world, characterized by bigness and rationality, eventually to be dominated by the soldier, the engineer, and the businessman—as America is today. This, said Spengler, marked the end of true civilization, and all that it could look forward to was fossilization and death. Mumford repeated this argument, but with an important twist: he believed the trajectory could be reversed, based on a revival of regional and organic life. A few years earlier, he helped found the Regional Planning Association of America, whose goal was to promote the “garden city” concept of the British town planner Ebenezer Howard. This emphasized limited-scale communities that would combine home and work in a single locale. These were not suburbs in the usual sense of the term; no commuting would be involved. (Mumford once described the American suburb as “a collective effort to live a private life.”) The towns would be surrounded by farmland and forests, and be community owned. As opposed to the dominant culture, that of hustling and the acquisitive life, these centers would promote the good life, which he said “means the birth and nurture of children, the preservation of human health and well being, the culture of the human personality, and the perfection of the natural and civic environment as the theater of all of these activities.” People would enjoy a sense of belonging, a relationship to nature, and be able to pursue meaningful work.

If all of this sounds utopian, it is important to note that such a community actually got built (in 1928), Sunnyside Gardens in Queens, designed for workers and the lower-middle class. It still exists, after a fashion. The houses are small, and front inward, toward a common green area. It still retains a village atmosphere, and constituted a real break with the model of commercial real estate development. Mumford lived there for a number of years, as did the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mumford later described the time as the happiest years of his life. Writing in the New York Times in 1972, Ada Louise Huxtable remarked:

“Public ownership of land, one of the basic premises, made possible a planned community, rather than speculative piece-meal exploitation…It was simple physical planning—the kind of humane, paternalistic,thoughtful layout that dealt clearly and primarily with a better way to live.”

“Un-American,” in short; quintessentially Green. Of course, it eventually became a privately owned haven for the upper-middle class, as it got overtaken by the juggernaut of the dominant culture, which apparently nothing can stop. Wal-Mart, not Sunnyside Gardens, would carry the day.

For Mumford, all of this turned on Americans acquiring a different set of values. The nation, he wrote, needed to slow down the pace of industrialization and “turn society from its feverish preoccupation with money-making inventions, goods, profits, [and] salesmanship…to the deliberate promotion of the more human functions of life.” If Mumford was heir to Spengler, he was also in the lineage of Henry David Thoreau. Thus in Technics and Civilization (1934), says the historian David Horowitz, Mumford “envisioned the replacement of an age over-committed to technology, capitalism, materialism, and growth by the emergence of a humane, life-affirming economy based on the values of regionalism, community, and restraint.” Democracy, Mumford wrote a few years later, could only be reinvigorated by substituting spiritual pleasures for material ones; by an “economy of sacrifice.” He urged his readers to turn away from the American Dream, which he called a “deceptive orgy of economic expansion.” Instead, they needed to commit themselves to “human cooperation and communion.” Utopianism indeed.

Mumford struck a (somewhat) more realistic note in The Condition of Man (1944), a book that was influenced by his study of the late Roman Empire. It was precisely the unwillingness of the Roman people to look at their way of life, he said, a way of life founded on “pillage and pilfer,” that led to the fall of Rome. This must not happen to America, he cried; and as with the construction of Sunnyside Gardens, Mumford took his philosophy into the streets. Working with other activists in 1958, he was able to stop Robert Moses, New York City’s controversial urban planner, from constructing a four-lane highway through Greenwich Village. (Jesus, the thought of it!) In an essay he wrote the previous year, Mumford skewered those Americans who allow their cities to be trashed, à la Moses, and then go on holidays to Europe to enjoy beautiful, historic urban centers. But he did see the handwriting on the wall. By 1975 his comment on the American city was, “Make the patient as comfortable as possible. It’s too late to operate.”

Following his inspiration, however, there was at least one city that tried to protect itself from the dominant corporate-commercial model, namely Portland, Oregon. Portland’s success in doing so can be attributed to Mumford’s long-range influence; indeed, the city’s urban planners (in the 1970s) drew specifically on the garden city concept. Mumford had delivered a speech to the Portland City Club in 1938, and also submitted a memo entitled “Regional Planning in the Northwest,” which regional advocates still quote. The memo recommended the construction of a series of “urban inter-regions,” which involved the greening of the city core and the connection of greenbelt towns so as to ease congestion. Portland, Mumford wrote, would need a regional zoning authority, which he referred to as “collective democratic controls.” The mayor of Portland, Neil Goldschmidt (elected in 1972), brought a number of these proposals into his administration, and Mike Houck, charged with setting up a Metropolitan Wildlife Refuge System there, appealed to the legacy of Mumford in his plan to design an interconnected system of natural landscapes, which would include a network of “greenways” to bring people together. In 1992, the Metropolitan Service District published A Guidebook for Maintaining and Enhancing Greater Portland’s Special Sense of Place, which included a reprint of Mumford’s lecture to the City Club.

Much was accomplished in Portland, as a result. The city rezoned, so as to create diversity-of-income neighborhoods. While other cities were busy building expressways, Portland tore down an old four-lane highway and reconnected the town with its waterfront. In 1975, it cancelled a planned freeway that would have devastated part of the city and set up a light rail system instead. It also established an Urban Growth Boundary that forbade the building of commercial projects beyond a certain point. Buildings were required to have their display windows at street level, and a cap was put on the height of high-rises and the number of downtown parking spaces. The business district has parks full of fountains and greenery, and the downtown area is vibrant, replete with bars and cafes. Of course, some of this got rolled back beginning in 2004, when Oregon voters passed a referendum to abolish many of the state’s land-use regulations—a defense of individual property rights, or so they believed. But with Mumford’s ideas in mind, Portland made a definite attempt to move in an “un-American” direction.

Mumford, in the meantime, kept writing. In Technics and Civilization he had argued that the technological model of “progress” required human beings to submit to the cult of the machine. In the Middle Ages, he pointed out, technology was used in the service of life, e.g. the building of cities or cathedrals. But in the “paleotechnic era,” starting with the Industrial Revolution, the defining idea was to bring all of human experience under a technological regime, a program that would ultimately throw life out of balance. Mumford picked up this thread many years later in The Pentagon of Power, in which he asserted that the American “megamachine” was based on a poisoned arrangement, namely that the individual could enjoy the benefits of techno-capitalism if he or she pledged unquestioning allegiance to the system. (This argument was recently updated for the digital age by Dave Eggers in his brilliant, depressing novel, The Circle.) The solution, said Mumford, was obvious: reject the myth of the machine, and the whole structure will collapse like a house of cards. By this time, however, Mumford didn’t really believe Americans were capable of such a shift in values, and like Heidegger, stated (at least in private) that only a miracle could save us. “I think, in view of all that has happened in the last half century,” he wrote to a friend in 1969, “that it is likely the ship will sink.” This is exactly what we are witnessing today.

But the story is not quite over, as it turns out. As America “settles in the mold of its vulgarity/heavily thickening to empire” (Robinson Jeffers, 1925), other forces are stirring. Every day, more and more people are coming to realize that ecologically speaking, there are limits to growth, and that the configuration of late capitalism is politically unstable. As one urban designer has written, “sustainable society will come because the alternative is no society at all.” It is more than likely that we shall have to change our basic values not because we are especially virtuous, but because there will be no other choice.

When Mumford published the first volume of The Myth of the Machine, in 1967, Time Magazine branded it a call to return to Neolithic culture. This is, of course, the kind of quip designed to get potential readers of the book to dismiss it out of hand. But the word “return” is not entirely inaccurate. When Mumford wrote that the good life means “the birth and nurture of children, the preservation of human health and well being, the culture of the human personality, and the perfection of the natural and civic environment as the theater of all of these activities,” he was not referring to Neolithic civilization, but certainly to a civilization that antedated the culture of techno-capitalist frenzy, and that has been all but erased by what came after. He was also referring to the elements of life that human beings simply can’t live without—not in the long run. If some form of restoration is no longer possible, then the future is no longer possible, when you get right down to it. “Utopian realism” may turn out to be our only hope.

Stirrings such as these have been going on for some time now. In 1975 the American writer, Ernest Callenbach, published a book called Ecotopia, which is clearly in the alternative tradition I described above. It was rejected by no less than 100 publishers; Callenbach had to publish it himself, after which it sold more than 1 million copies, becoming a kind of underground classic. He died in 2012, and shortly after, his literary agent discovered an unpublished essay in the files of his computer. The last two paragraphs read as follows:

“All things ‘go’ somewhere: they evolve, with or without us, into new forms. So as the decades pass, we should try not always to futilely fight these transformations. As the Japanese know, there is much unnoticed beauty in wabi-sabi—the old, the worn, the tumble-down, those things beginning their transformation into something else. We can embrace this process of devolution: embellish it when strength avails, learn to love it.

“There is beauty in weathered and unpainted wood, in orchards overgrown, even in abandoned cars being incorporated into the earth. Let us learn… to put unwise or unneeded roads ‘to bed,’ help a little in the healing of the natural contours, the re-vegetation by native plants. Let us embrace decay, for it is the source of all new life and growth.”

What can one say? The future may prove to be a Mumfordian one, whether we like it or not; and after all those decades of being marginalized, Lewis Mumford may, in the end, have the last laugh.

©Morris Berman, 2014

 

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

Love and Survival

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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 connectedness

Published on Dark Ages America on August  3, 2014

 

“When we have inner peace, we can be at peace with those around us. “

The Dalai Lama, Nobel acceptance speech, 1989


By late July, 2014, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had been living in Mexico for almost eight years with Washington, D.C., license plates on my car, and if I wanted to apply for permanent resident status in Mexico, which I did, I would have to drive up to a Customs station at the border and “nationalize” my car, i.e., get Mexican plates. Frankly, I have never cared what passport I was carrying, or what driver’s license plates I had, as long as I could move around freely; but as I had no intention of returning to the U.S. except to visit, it seemed that the time was ripe for sorting things out with Mexico. The plates would enable me to become a permanent resident; or so my immigration adviser told me.

A little background info here: when I moved to Mexico in 2006, I was quickly “adopted” by a family in the town where I set up shop. It has been a very close relationship; I drop in on them at least once a week, and they would, and have, give(n) me their left arm if I needed it. I have already described (in A Question of Values) how they showed up in full force at the hospital, an hour away, where I had surgery in 2009, literally sleeping in my room to make sure the nurses were taking good care of me. Now, in the case of the placas (license plates), my “hermana” Raquel (not her real name) had a niece in the border town where the Customs office was located, whom (Raquel said) knew everyone and would be able to help me with the whole nationalization process. So, off I went.

Before continuing with this story, I need to say that just “coincidentally,” I was at the time reading a book by Dean Ornish called Love and Survival. It’s an intriguing study, arguing that there is much evidence to show that being immersed in a network of loving relationships significantly prolongs one’s life, strengthens one’s immune system, counteracts illness, and so on. It was first published in 1988; in the intervening years, I doubt Ornish’s data managed to impact the American medical profession in any serious way. As Ornish makes clear, this is not how the profession thinks. But let me review some of his stats and examples, in any case.

■The Roseto Study

This is an examination of an Italian-American town in eastern Pennsylvania that was found to have had a very low mortality rate for heart attacks during the first thirty years it was studied, as compared to two nearby towns. Citizens of all three towns smoked, ingested cholesterol, and in general exhibited the same physical behaviors that would be expected to impinge on human health, at roughly the same rates. But what Roseto had that the other two towns didn’t was close family ties and very cohesive community relations, including a host of traditional values and practices (religion included). However, in the late sixties and early seventies, all of this broke down. Roseto saw a loosening of family ties and a fragmentation of community relations. Concomitant with this was a substantial increase in death due to heart disease. The mortality rate rose to the same level as that of the two nearby towns.

■The Ni-Hon-San Study

This was an examination of 11,900 Japanese individuals who lived in Japan, as compared to those Japanese who had immigrated to Honolulu and San Francisco. Scientists found that the incidence of heart disease was lowest in Japan, intermediate in Hawaii, and highest in California. The closer they came to the American mainland, in other words, the sicker they became. None of this was related to differences in diet, blood pressure, smoking, cholesterol levels, and so on. The crucial factor was the degree to which each group retained a traditional Japanese culture. The Japanese-Americans who maintained family ties and community had a rate of heart disease as low as those living in Japan, whereas the most Westernized group had a three- to-fivefold increase in same.

■Ornish recounts several other studies with similar results, all indicating that beyond any physical factors, social and emotional factors—love, in a word—were No. 1 in promoting health and longevity. As an aside, I should mention a study conducted by William Vega of U.C. Berkeley that found that Mexicans living in the United States had twice the rate of mental illness as Mexicans living in Mexico:

http://berkeley.edu/news/berkeleyan/1998/1021/immigrant.html

It really comes down to the way we live.

This brings me back to my adventure with the license plates. I expected it to take two days; I wound up staying with the family of Raquel’s niece, “Brenda,” for nearly a week. The Mexican bureaucracy is something to behold, possibly worse than that of India. Just when you think you’ve got all your ducks in a row, one more obstacle pops up for you to deal with. Clearly, this was not going to be a two-day operation.

But it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I don’t think I was quite prepared for what I was about to experience. Despite the fact that the family had Raquel’s word for it, that I was a fabulous guy (and who, really, could deny it?), I was a total stranger to these folks: we had never met. Yet from the moment I arrived at the front door, I was folded into the warmth of Brenda and her family as though I had been living next door to them for twenty years. It kind of took my breath away. The love that permeated this family was both dense and palpable, and I was suddenly part of it. They were literally kissing and hugging each other (and me) almost constantly. The small children related to me in the same way, not at all afraid of a strange adult, as is usually the case with American (i.e., U.S.) children. There was a coffee mug in the house that had the word “Family” printed on it (in English), with slogans like “celebrates together,” “eats together,” “laughs together,” “stays together”—a gigantic cliché, except that this family was living that cliché. If this were a U.S. sitcom, it would be regarded as a joke, a kind of satire. But this was no fantasy of some nonexistent loving community in New York, along the line of Friends. No, this was the real enchilada. (In fact, I suspect shows like Friends are popular because they depict what Americans badly want, but cannot have.)

It also turned out that family connections extended to the local bureaucracy. Without this, I could have wound up spending a month or so with Brenda & Co. (which would have been fine with them). But because business relations and official relations are not (as in the U.S.) contained in sharply different categories from family relations, Brenda was able to finesse the bureaucracy and get the job done. Within a week I had the plates, even though on the official level the obstacles were formidable. Once again, I was amazed at how the family went all out for me, ignoring their own schedules, schlepping me from one government office to another, and translating the bureaucratese into normal Spanish for me. Since they didn’t expect a peso for their efforts, I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be able to repay them. But they weren’t thinking in those terms, in any case.

A few vignettes may serve to drive home the point.

■Three doors down from Benda was a neighbor, “Elena,” who lost her daughter-in-law in a car crash fourteen months before I visited, and who (since her son was working full-time) took the two surviving grandchildren in, to raise by herself. As luck would have it, several months after that her husband of forty-one years died, and she was left alone with the two kids. Brenda’s family then swung into action, basically taking Elena and the children into their house. Elena came over several times a day, and often slept over with her grandchildren. I wish to emphasize that there was no blood relation between Elena and Brenda or her family. She was “merely” a neighbor. In the U.S., people typically don’t even know the names of the people living next door to them.

■While I was there, Brenda’s brother-in-law and his wife, who were currently living and working in China, were back in Mexico for a month’s holiday. After they came over, and after the usual flurry of hugging and kissing, “Emilio” gave each of Brenda’s kids 200 pesos. The next day, Brenda told me that “Ricky,” her seven-year-old, had wanted to give her the 200 pesos. “I don’t need it, Mami,” he said to her, “and I know you have to struggle a lot.” Brenda told me it was all she could do to keep from crying. I tried to imagine a U.S. child doing something similar, but I couldn’t. The data on the sharp decrease in empathy in America during the past three decades are well-established.

■Half an hour ago, while I was sitting in the living room writing this essay, Ricky came through, went to the kitchen, fetched himself a popsicle (bolis) out of the fridge, and then asked me if I wanted him to get me one. This to a foreigner sixty-three older than himself, whom he knew for all of three days.

■Emilio, his wife, and I had a long and interesting discussion about life in China. They were extremely intelligent and articulate; it was the kind of discussion that is generally hard to have in the United States anymore, because Americans are, by and large, not very articulate, not particularly interested in other nations, and given to “thinking” in slogans. On another occasion, Brenda’s husband, “Jorge,” said to me: “I mean no disrespect, but can you tell me why the United States always has to go to war with someone? And why it supports Israel, which is massacring women and children in Gaza?” Why indeed. Should I have replied, “Because we are a collection of ignorant, and quite violent, people, who are suffering for lack of the kind of family life you and Brenda have, and thus need to hurt other human beings as a result”? But of course, I respected his honest questions, and we had a good discussion of issues that most U.S.-persons don’t give a damn about.

Brenda told me that every time she goes to the U.S., she has the impression that Americans believe that Mexicans sit around under trees wearing sombreros and drinking cerveza all the time. But that’s only part of the stereotype, of course; overall, it’s that Mexicans are backward, inferior, living a million miles from the “progress” exhibited by the go-go capitalism of their northern neighbors. And yet, what is the family and social life of that “superior” civilization? A divorce rate of 50 percent; kids who are abandoned, both emotionally and literally; the highest number of single-person dwellings of any country in the world; the greatest amount of antidepressant use of any country in the world; and—as many studies have by now affirmed—a large population living lives of quiet desperation. In the occasional “world happiness studies” that appear from time to time, Mexico typically ranks in the top five, whereas the U.S. is much farther down the list.

All of this is not to suggest that life in Mexico is perfect. It’s not, by a long shot, and an annoying bureaucracy is a minor issue compared to the poverty, corruption, and racial bias that are depressingly rampant in Mexican society. But on the interpersonal level, the country has got things right. It doescelebrate family, as that coffee mug says; its priorities are not ones of hustling, trying to make huge amounts of money, being “important,” or getting “ahead” (of what, exactly?). I have a saying I like to repeat, from time to time, that in Mexico nothing works and everything works out, whereas in the United States, everything works and nothing works out. That’s been my experience after eight years of living here.

So yes, dear reader, I got my plates. But that was the least of what I got. Gracias, Brenda; voy a regresar.

 

©Morris Berman, 2014

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

 

 

Our Exciting Future: 2016

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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 Mitt-Romney-2016

Published on Dark Ages America on June 19, 2014

 

It’s kind of fun, watching the American media getting all worked up about the 2016 presidential election, 2+ years in advance. As if it mattered, who was in the White House. As if the important national decisions emerged from a mouthpiece of the corporations, the banks, and the military, as opposed to originating with the corporations, the banks, and the military, themselves. And if the media are clueless, so are the American people, of course, who get very exercised over the differences between Tweedledee and Tweedledum. (One party is insane, and the other is full of shit.) Well, as I keep telling you guys, the American people aren’t exactly a collection of Einsteins.


Nevertheless, I confess that I got all hot and bothered myself over the following article that just appeared on CNN:

 


Poll: Romney the frontrunner in 2016?

(CNN) – He’s said over and over that he won’t run for the White House a third time, but a new poll indicates that if Mitt Romney changed his mind and made another bid for president, he’d be the frontrunner among Republicans in the first-in-the-nation primary state of New Hampshire.

According to the Suffolk University/Boston Herald survey, which was released Thursday, 24% of Granite State Republicans and independents who lean towards the GOP say that Romney would be their first choice for their party’s presidential nomination.

Among the potential 2016 GOP contenders, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was a distant second, at 9%, with Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky at 8%, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush at 7%.

While the survey may make headlines, it’s important to remember that Romney’s very well known in New Hampshire. He owns a vacation home in the state, has often appeared at GOP events in New Hampshire, and was governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Romney easily won the 2012 Republican primary, but lost the state by six percentage points to President Barack Obama in the general election.

Romney on 2016: ‘The answer is no’

And the 2012 GOP presidential nominee has been very clear about his 2016 intentions.

“I’m not running,” Romney said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” a line Romney’s used in interviews every time he’s asked about whether he’ll make a third bid for the White House. Romney’s wife, Ann, has also been adamant against another run.

“Very sorry, Mrs. Romney. We had to ask the question,” Suffolk University Political Research Center Director David Paleologos joked to CNN…. Paleologos added that the results speak to “the weakness of the GOP field at this point in time.”

Without Romney, Christie and Paul were tied at 11% as the first choice for the nomination among Republicans in New Hampshire, with Bush and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas each at 8%.

The Suffolk University/Boston Herald poll was conducted June 14-15 and June 17-18, with 800 likely voters in New Hampshire questioned by telephone. The survey’s overall sampling error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

 

The fact is, I was brokenhearted, two years ago, when Mittney lost. He is my kinda guy, really: a walking haircut with nothing underneath it. America deserves no less, IMO. And what’s the alternative, really? Hillary, a major yawn. What is she? A lackey of the imperial state, who knows who her friends are (the corporations, the banks, and the military). All we can expect–and she’s likely to win, sad to say–is an extension of the Obama presidency; which is to say, ad hoc crisis management, to no purpose at all. She’s a tedious person; every time I see that depressed, pasty face in the news, I think of 3-day-old cottage cheese.

The tragedy of Mittney is that no one really understood that he stood for absolutely nothing at all, and at this juncture in American history, when decline is the inevitable order of the day, that’s a good thing. Who better to lead us into the American “future,” namely nowhere, than a Nowhere Man? He keeps saying he’s not a candidate anymore, but if polls have him as the GOP “frontrunner,” maybe he’ll reconsider. Yes, he’s a moron; but Hillary is a douche bag. I know whom I’d rather have leading us into the abyss. And so it is with some fervor, I hope not entirely futile, that I feel compelled to cry out:

COME BACK, LITTLE MITTNEY! WE LOVE YOU! DON’T FAIL US IN OUR HOUR OF NEED!

 

©Morris Berman, 2014

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

[amazon text=www.amazon.com&template=carousel&asin=B00A323CPU, B00KSR2Z6Mz, B00JSZMC5E, B00I7J6BEU, B00D0O7AZ, B00HWGLW9I, B0015KGXR8, B0097DHRMK, B00J39MTF8, B00GO83VUI]

 

Thoughts on a Rainy Day

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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revenge-of-the-nerds

Published on Dark Ages America on May 19, 2014

Who are we, really? Does anyone really know him- or herself? Buddhists say that personality is a ghost, that the self is an illusion, but it strikes me as being a pretty real illusion (whatever that means).

Here’s an odd story. When I was in elementary school, I had a friend named David, and this friendship lasted from ages 5 to 16, when his parents moved away and David wound up at a different high school. The next time I saw him was in 2000. Apparently, I did some TV show (c-span, maybe) about the Twilight book, and David caught the show, contacted me, and we got together in Upstate NY, where he was then living. He had become a physician, had been a rebel, attacking the whole corrupt system of insurance and HMOs. Not popular with his colleagues, as you might imagine. He was also an early champion of the MRI, when there was a lot of doubt about introducing it. Anyway, he made a dinner reservation for us just down the street from our old elementary school (which had burned down years ago; this was its replacement), and after dinner we walked around the small building, smoking cigars despite the light drizzle that had started to come down.

Now you have to understand that from my own perspective of myself—from elementary school running through college (but not in grad school, which was a whole different ball of wax)—I was a nerd. I was heavily nerdile, with interests that were not ‘cool’. I was not ironic or hip, in the accepted American style; girls had no interest in me, for the most part, and I had very few friends. This left me a stranger in a strange land; and from a fairly early age I had a hard time identifying with America, or relating to Americans, most of whom struck me as obtuse. Conversations with them were boring, at least for me; who cared about the new Mustang, or the World Series (they did, obviously)? (Revenge of the Nerds is one of my favorite movies, as you might expect.) But given the social context, and the fact that children and teenagers are in the process of developing their identities (and even their frontal lobes), I was very much conflicted by the reality that I didn’t fit in: simultaneously wanting, and not wanting, to be part of the mainstream. As Goethe once observed, adolescence is funny only in retrospect.

Anyway, there we were, David and I, walking around our old elementary school, when he suddenly said to me, completely out of the blue, and apropos of nothing: “You know, when we were kids, you were my hero.” “Yeah, right,” I replied. What kind of crap was this? “No,” he said, “I’m serious. The fact is that you made knowledge, and learning, cool. At age 7 you were reading poetry and playing chess. Who does that, at age 7?”

I was literally thunderstruck. How was this possible? I mean, I’m sure most of the kids around me regarded me as completely square, someone you don’t bother giving the time of day to. And here’s this old pal telling me that I was a role model for him! He obviously knew me, or saw me, in a way that was very different from the way I saw myself. I stood there, in the rain, trying to rethink my childhood, which had suddenly taken on a whole new dimension.

Just so you know, before I go on with this story: a year later David got cancer, and took a room at the NIH in Bethesda. I was working in DC during those years, so every Friday after work I would drive up to the hospital in Maryland and sit with him, talk with him for a few hours. I thought he would make it, pull through, but he didn’t: he died in 2002, and then, with a heavy heart, I drove 12 hours through a blinding snowstorm to Upstate NY for his funeral. My real sadness, however, was rather selfish: here I get reunited with an old friend, after all those years, and after only one year of renewed friendship the Universe takes him away. Shit.

Anyway, fast-forward now from age 7 to my early 20s, when the Vietnam war was in full swing. Once again, I was aware of my own strangeness, in America. Sure, many Americans demonstrated against the war, but percentage-wise it didn’t amount to much: most were for it, until we were clearly losing the battle. Very few saw through it, realized it was a neo-colonial war in which we were using our sophisticated military technology to pound a peasant people, who had no beef with us and certainly did not constitute a threat, into the dirt. But it went beyond that. Ho Chi Minh was a Gandhi-type figure, a great statesman and intellect who wrote poetry. America has no comparable figure—George Washington is not really in the Ho/Gandhi category, it seems to me. And America’s contemporary leaders, like LBJ and Nixon, were gross, vulgar, and violent. Can anyone imagine them writing poetry? I realized I felt a closer bond to Vietnamese peasants (who do read poetry, in fact) than to the folks around me, with whom I was supposed to feel connected, but didn’t. And what I found during my recent trip to Vietnam was just that: a very gentle, very gracious people, with (amazingly enough) no bitterness toward the US, although we murdered 3 million of them and tortured tens of thousands. As a people, they are about as far apart from Americans as one might imagine. Now back home, I’ve been reading Neil Jamieson’s book, Understanding Vietnam, and here’s what he says:

“It is very difficult for Westerners, especially Americans, to apprehend how significant poetry can be as an expressive mechanism in society. For many of us poetry has connotations of elitism, obscurity, impracticality. Few of us read poetry, and fewer still have a real appreciation of it. But in Vietnam this is not the case. Many Vietnamese read poetry with enjoyment, commit it to memory, and recite poems to each other with unfeigned enthusiasm. Everyday speech is liberally sprinkled with poetic allusions. Even the poor and the illiterate imbibe deeply of a rich oral tradition that has incorporated much that originated in the written literature of the educated elite. Poetry has been and remains much more popular and important in Vietnam than in the United States.”

As an example, Jamieson cites the immensely popular poem by Phan Khoi, “Old Love” (1932). The author tells how he was not able to marry his true love because of restrictive social mores, which required both of them to agree to the marriages that their respective parents had arranged. In a very real sense, their lives were destroyed. And then, 24 years later, quite by accident, they run into each other. The poem concludes:

“Twenty four years later… A chance encounter far away… Both heads had turned to silver; Had they not known each other well, Might they not have passed unknown? An old affair was recalled, no more. It was just a glance in passing!

…There still are corners to the eyes.”

And this is the real truth of our lives, what shimmers for us at the deepest level of our being. The real revenge of the nerds is the life that goes its own way, that is not hip, one that the mainstream—at least in America—will never understand. A peripheral vision, if you will. Yes, my friends, there are still corners to the eyes.


©Morris Berman, 2014

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

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A Collection of Degraded Buffoons

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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Published on Dark Ages America on March 19, 2014

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A few years ago I read a monograph by Sara Maitland called A Book of Silence. Lately, I’ve been thinking how precious silence is, how little of it exists in the U.S., and how I now have an abundance of it in my own life; so I decided to reread the book. Here’s a bit of text worth thinking about:

“In the Middle Ages Christian scholastics argued that the devil’s basic strategy was to bring human beings to a point where they are never alone with their God, nor ever attentively face to face with another human being….The mobile phone, then, seems to me to represent a major breakthrough for the powers of hell—it is a new thing, which allows the devil to take a significant step forward in her [sic] grand design. With a mobile, a person is never alone and is never entirely attentive to someone else. What is entirely brilliant about it from the demonic perspective is that so many people have been persuaded that this is not something pleasurable (a free choice) but something necessary.”

2001 Ape with iphone.jpgEverywhere you go in the U.S., you see Degraded Buffoons on phones. People talk on them while driving cars (resulting in lots of accidents, including fatalities), or while running down the street. You go into a café, and half the clientele are either on phones or on laptops, distorting what used to be a social experience, or a private creative experience (reading, writing), into a hustling experience—a rude hustling experience. The issue of people never being attentive to another person is so obvious: I’ll be talking with someone, their phone rings, and they completely forget that they are having a conversation with me and immediately go off on some diatribe with someone a thousand miles away. There is not even the faintest awareness that this is rude beyond belief. Indeed, it’s a good example of what Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to call “defining deviancy down”—that over time, what used to be regarded as vulgar becomes the norm. We’re pretty much at rock bottom by now.

I remember, a number of years ago, having a leisurely lunch with my then girlfriend at an outdoor café in Philadelphia. We were the only customers, and it was a nice balmy afternoon. Suddenly, some bozo runs up to the café, his cell phone rings, and he yells: “This is Joe Blow! What can I do for you?” This is what I mean by a Degraded Buffoon—a man reduced to nothing but hustling. He doesn’t say, “Hi, this is Joe Blow, how are you? What’s happening in your life?” No, it’s “Let’s do business!” Nor does it bother him to be disturbing a couple having a quiet lunch six feet away from him—fuck everybody else, I’m Joe Blow! Hard to describe how stupid he looked: crew cut, hatchet face, a bundle of tension. And I thought: yes, this is America, my friends; this rude, stupid piece of trash is who we really are.

Shortly after her cell phone discussion, Ms. Maitland takes up the topic of how (quoting Ernest Gellner) “Our environment is now made up basically of our relationships with others.” Not our relationship with a larger spiritual reality, or with nature, or with ourselves. No, it’s always with others, as though this were the only source of happiness. Kind of sad, when you consider how thin those relationships typically prove to be. She continues:

“This idea, that we feel ourselves to be happy and fulfilled only when we are interacting with other people, creates a dissonance with the equally popular mythology that stresses individual autonomy and personal ‘rights’. If I need interpersonal relationships and I have a right to what I need, it is obviously very difficult to have relationships of genuine self-giving or even of equality. However, this problem is not addressed, is indeed concealed, within popular culture. The consequence of this, almost inevitably, is the creation of an increasing number of lightweight relationships—relationships that appear to connect people, but are not vulnerable to the requirements of love, and therefore tend to lack endurance and discipline.”

This is an interesting observation: that friendship requires love and—horror of horrors!—staying power, discipline. When I left the U.S. (thank god), I think I had a total of three or four genuine friendships, after all of those decades of living there. One thing I discovered about Americans was that they have no idea of what friendship really is, and that it does take love, endurance, and discipline (effort, in short). These are alien concepts to Degraded Buffoons. “Lightweight” is precisely the right word here. Over the years, I noticed that it was not uncommon for people to disappear from my life, and the lives of others, overnight, and without so much as a word of explanation. In a few cases this even happened after a year or two of knowing someone, having had dinners together, having had (I thought) meaningful discussions. And then: poof! They’re gone, and apparently could care less. If you live in a world of noise, cell phones, and hustling, why would any one person mean anything to you? And this is the norm, in the U.S., my friends; what I’m describing—you all recognize this—is hardly aberrant.

What kind of lives are these? What kind of empty, stupid lives? People in a rush, people blabbing inanities on cell phones, people who have no idea what silence is and who probably fear it; people who can’t begin to imagine what love, endurance, and discipline consist of. These are what we call Degraded Buffoons.


©Morris Berman, 2014

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

The Week In Doom September 29, 2013

Off the keyboard of Surly1
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Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on September 29, 2013

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 divide and conquer

 

“The enemy is not a market economy but a market society … The nation is simply breaking down; trapped in a vicious cycle of violence and madness too cruel and distressing to even contemplate. The brute fact is continual decay and insanity. As William Ophuls reminds us: “So the silent, stealthy erosion of the civilization’s moral core proceeds unchecked. Once the damage is done, however, it is too late. Nothing is left but to suffer the consequences.”

~Morris Berman

On the Diner we imagine what collapse will look like. The stories cited below are case studies that illustrate that collapse looks like a society in which nothing works, in which trust is broken, and in which the refs are paid to throw the game.  Each of the items culled from recent headlines illustrate failed institutions representing a people who dare not wish for anything better. Each reflects a symptom of the building pressure cooker is that American society,  where on one tier elites take care of their friends, and on another angry people misdirect their anger toward those different from themselves, precisely what the one per cent’s hustlers and fixers want them to do.
We  sleepwalk through a world in which nothing works. We conceal ourselves, we hide part of our souls, with good reason. For all of our bravado, we are afraid of the present, of the future, of one another. Our President declaims a farrago of lies to the UN, with over 40 misstatements of fact in a single utterance, and corporate media remains obsequious. Officer Friendly morphs into an Imperial storm trooper. Our courts can no longer reliably convict a crook and insure he will remain convicted. And where our jobs and identities are  so closely bound in a culture obsessed with winners, losers, and the myth of rewarding work,  that work becomes increasingly more difficult to find as it continues to shed meaning.

Thus far the hustlers have been able to keep the wealth flowing upward while only dropping folks near the margins off the economic cliff. However, more and more of us grow closer to the margin with every passing day. Perhaps more and more people will start assuming their “ultimate form”  (see below) as the emerging reality of the rigged casino sends them over the edge. As Berman noted above, quoting Ophuls, “Nothing is left but to suffer the consequences.”

 Obama  reaffirms the imperial project

 

What possible reasons could  conservatives have to be unhappy with the current President?

This past week saw American president Barack Hussein Obama, of late Kenyan–socialist–anti-colonialist–usurper–illegitimate–still–awfully–dark fame squarely announced himself  the neocons’ man in the Executive Office. Obama’s speech strikes the right tone in many areas. Pity they’re just words. Suffice it to say that if you read it for yourself, you’ll find the makes the case that the United States reserves the right to use force in Syria when it deems necessary, and by the way, couldn’t you, United Nations, do a little more than a whole then  hold our coat for us?

In the speech, Obama ties elements of the Arab spring to Syria, and once again cites “overwhelming evidence” that the Assad regime used chemical weapons.  The moment came framed in language worthy of the best lickspittle acolyte of the discredited Bush regime:

It is an insult to human reason – and to the legitimacy of this institution – to suggest that anyone other than the regime carried out this attack.

This puts the number world governments, as well as a sizable portion of the American public in the category of offering an “insult to human reason.”  Oh well, I’ve been called worse by MKing inside the Diner Forum.

 

And then there was the part that has gotten us peaceloving neurotics in a tizzy, the one referred to in the accompanying meme.  The part where Obama says that the United States is “prepared to use its military to defend our core interests in the Middle East.” And to ensure the free flow of energy to the world, meaning the continued free flow of petroleum products to the SUVs of soccer moms across the US.

The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure these core interests in the region.

We will confront external aggression against our allies and partners, as we did in the Gulf War.

We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world. Although America is steadily reducing our own dependence on imported oil, the world still depends upon the region’s energy supply, and a severe disruption could destabilize the entire global economy.

We will dismantle terrorist networks that threaten our people. Wherever possible, we will build the capacity of our partners, respect the sovereignty of nations, and work to address the root causes of terror. But when its necessary to defend the United States against terrorist attacks, we will take direct action.

And finally, we will not tolerate the development or use of weapons of mass destruction.

lovebombs-anthonyfreda-072812As regards Syria, ironies abound: the single greatest actor for peace has been the former KGB guy, whereas the greatest threat to peace is the Nobel peace prize winner.

 With this speech, Obama lays the foundation stone for whatever his legacy will be–likely the reassertion of the American imperial project. Beneath the honeyed words lie many lies, such as

“We consider chemical weapons in Syria to be a threat to American national security…”

“we have worked to end a decade of war”

“…new circumstances have also meant shifting away from a perpetual war-footing,”

and, my favorite  as a former Occupier,

“we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals, whether that means opposing the use of violence as a means of suppressing dissent…” 

Obama’s address to the UN General Assembly was actually an astonishing string of brazen lies and falsehoods.  David Swanson counts 45.  (Check out his blog if you’re scoring at home.)

This naked declaration of imperialism solidifies the aspirations of the defunct Project for a New American Century as the guide star for American foreign-policy. The radical right-wingers who drove the Bush Dynasty into a program of eternal war have gotten their ticket punched this week. The speech might as well be the Full Relief Act for War Manufacturers of 2013, those same folks who are prepared to fight endless foreign energy wars down to your last daughter and son.  We have already rejiggered our economy such that, if you want to have the sort of middle-class lifestyle available to our parents, you would do well to spend a career in the military, so that you can retire after 20, draw a pension, get your lifetime healthcare, PX shopping piveleges, etc., and double dip, as a civilian employee at the command you just left. (We see this all the time in Southeastern Virginia, one of the seats of Empire.  Nice little revolving door.)  And if you don’t want to wear one of those snappy white plastic suits as an Imperial storm trooper?  Well then, you’ll just either have to cobble together rent and food working a couple of low-wage, no–benefit part-time jobs, or even better, a “bullshit job.”

Bullshit Jobs

Some time ago, on the occasion of a young friend’s birthday, we found ourselves at a party where we came face to face with the realities of life for the many young people in this country who have not entered a gate-kept profession.  We saw the dilemmas faced by otherwise intelligent, hard-working young people without access to the sorts of factory jobs or construction jobs prevalent 40 or 50 years ago.  I was moved to write an article about it then.

Many of us are old enough to remember when it was possible for working-class kids, particular those without a higher education, to go to work, get a job, and make a life for themselves. Own a house, own a car, to maybe own a vacation home or a boat—none of that was beyond the reach of a factory worker making a decent wage. For the young people in attendance at this party last night, the new normal looks like this: part-time work, topping out at 35 hours per week, so as to not incur the obligation of paying for benefits, no health insurance, living either at home, or in an apartment with several other people to share expenses, no car, and an uncertain future.

So we’ve created a society along the apparently desired lines of Central American oligarchies, with lines firmly  dividing the leisure class from the class of eternal toil.  Thus is policy made, and government duly responsive to the dictates of its owners. Add to this toxic shitbath the prevalence of bullshit jobs. We all know how difficult such jobs can be.  As if wearing a polyester uniform and a paper hat were not enough, imagine being on the receiving end of this:

 

Now comes David Graeber  examining the prediction in the early 20th century of an eventual 4 hour day, and how we got unproductive, meaningless work instead.

In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week. There’s every reason to believe he was right. In technological terms, we are quite capable of this. And yet it didn’t happen. Instead, technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more. In order to achieve this, jobs have had to be created that are, effectively, pointless. Huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed. The moral and spiritual damage that comes from this situation is profound. It is a scar across our collective soul. Yet virtually no one talks about it.

 

It is indeed a mystery. Why would capitalism create empty and meaningless jobs, especially since it is in the self-interest of each individual company to be as “efficient” as possible, which in most cases means feeding jobs into the wood chipper?  You would expect this sort of thing in the Soviet Union, where everybody was expected to be employed, and where the old saw had it, “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.” Yet as Graeber observes,

While corporations may engage in ruthless downsizing, the layoffs and speed-ups invariably fall on that class of people who are actually making, moving, fixing and maintaining things; through some strange alchemy no one can quite explain, the number of salaried paper-pushers ultimately seems to expand, and more and more employees find themselves, not unlike Soviet workers actually, working 40 or even 50 hour weeks on paper, but effectively working 15 hours just as Keynes predicted, since the rest of their time is spent organizing or attending motivational seminars, updating their facebook profiles or downloading TV box-sets.

Which is precisely what happens, as anyone who works in a corporate environment will attest.

 This Week in Police Overreach

Behavior for which American society tried, convicted and executed Axis soldiers seventy years ago has become the norm today. Obama  campaigned on closing the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Gitmo has now been with us for so long it now elicits a shrug, as if to say, “Well, what can you do?” as if we were taking about sunspots… “Torture” has become “enhanced interrogation.” Those keeping score at home can credit Orwell for noting the importance of controlling the use of language in creating the narrative du jour.

This space has made frequent note and comment on the militarization of local police forces. And as these forces are armed with storm trooper outfits, tanks, drones, and all the abundant fruits of weapons manufacturers, a pervasive attitude of “us against them” has taken hold, such that even a routine traffic stop can become an opportunity to court death.

There is madness in the air we breathe.  We could legitimately argue that everyone in America today is insane. You can feel it as you walk around grocery stores or as you drive down the streets. No more sympathy, no more reasoning, and no more communication to attempt to solve community problems. Everyone is stressed and it takes very little to push some people over the edge– like this cop.

Would it appear from this video that the officer in question, Ofc. Eric Hart, used an unreasonable and unnecessary level of force? Yet the Toledo Blade has his supervisor saying thus:

“He’s not in trouble, but to keep things aboveboard, we put him on administrative leave until an internal investigation is fully complete,” the chief said. “I’m not saying he did anything wrong, but we’re trying to show we’re not trying to sweep this under the rug or cover it up.”

In the four-minute, 50-second video, a woman shouts at Officer Hart that he is harassing people. The woman, who screams and shouts throughout the encounter, also claims Officer Hart smashed her cell phone when she tried to call 911.

A quote by Henry Giroux comes to mind:

“The increasing militarization of American society is matched by its increasing depoliticization and its increasing incapacity to make moral judgments and act with compassion against the most shocking injustices.”

 (His brilliant op ed, “Beyond Savage Politics and Dystopian Nightmares” is well worth a read.)

 

Imagine the resultant hue and cry had the victims depicted in the video had been Blacks or Hispanics. The first expected response a cry of racism and white supremacy. But the truth is more subtle, and more compelling:  abuse of institutional power and generalized wickedness in America today have affected everyone at every level society. We Americans made a bargain with the devil, the devil has returned to collect his own… speaking of whom…

 

DeLay conviction overturned

 

As part of the continual soap opera that is the American system of  jurisprudence, we unearth this little nugget. As any reasonable person would tell you, clearly justice has prevailed.

(CNN) – Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s conviction on money laundering charges was overturned Thursday by a court in Texas.

DeLay, who was once one of the most powerful men on Capitol Hill, was convicted in 2010 for allegedly trying to influence Texas elections by trying to channel nearly $200,000 in corporate donations to Republicans running for the state legislature, which is prohibited by Lone Star state law. Delay, who served more than two decades in the House before resigning in 2006, was sentenced to three years in prison.

“Because we conclude that the evidence was legally insufficient to sustain DeLay’s convictions, we reverse the judgments of the trial court and render judgments of acquittal,” said an opinion from the District Court of Travis County, Texas.

DeLay was visiting Capitol Hill on Thursday. He was praying in the House chapel when his phone rang and his lawyer told him the news, a source close to DeLay told CNN.

DeLay then headed over to lunch with his former colleagues in the Texas delegation at their weekly lunch. “He said he felt vindicated,” Rep. Randy Neugebauer told CNN as he left the lunch.

Vindicated, indeed. Are we not all reasonable men?

***

“In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man. If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place. Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, no matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place. The highest goals require no justification; all secondary goals have finally to justify themselves in terms of the service their attainment renders to the attainment of the highest. This is the philosophy of [ social ] materialism, and it is this philosophy – or metaphysic – which is now being challenged by events.”

~Craig Dilworth (2010-03-12). Too Smart for our Own Good (p. 400 – 405). Cambridge University Press.

Nothing works. Trust is broken. Institutions are failed. Government is captive to corporate interests. We hide ourselves because it is unsafe to show ourselves. That which does not contribute directly to corporate profit is openly mocked.  The prevailing narrative–”work, shop, consume, die” –is reinforced by a daily drumbeat of messages in corporate media and by the many idols to Mammon that receive our daily embrace.  All of these “secondary goals” as Dilworth has observed serve only to reinforce the highest goal.  Yet we keep running, hamster like, on our materialist treadmill,  in the hopes that someday, someway, somehow we will be able to buy a ticket off the ride.

The cop on the beat of 40 years ago has become Terry Taser,  a walking object lesson in fear, likely to blow at any time, like the pervasive and eternal “threat of terror,” the financial system, or the Keystone XL pipeline.  He simply reflects the building pressure cooker of American society. Ultimately the flow of cheap energy is the morphine drip that sustains the cadaver of late industrial society. It is cheap energy that enables the imperial project, and that ultimately pacifies an increasingly restive population whose tension mounts as our institutions, traditions, lifestyles and families fail, and fall, one by one like dominoes.

***

And a fitting epilogue to This Week in Doom:

2 Concealed Carry Holders Kill Each Other In Road Rage Incident

Two men are dead after pulling guns on each other during a road rage incident on Wednesday night.

Police said the dispute began when one car was tailgating another in the Michigan town of Ionia, population 11,400.

Both drivers pulled into the parking lot of a local car wash and stepped out of their vehicles, according to ABC affiliate WZZM-TV. Witnesses said the tailgating driver fired first, and the other driver returned fire.

When ambulances arrived, the men — Ionia residents James Pullam, 43, and Robert Taylor, 56 — were given medical care and transported to a local hospital, where they were pronounced dead, Detroit News reported.

 

Want to know what collapse looks like? It looks like this.

 

 

 

In Treatment

From the keyboard of Morris Berman

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Published on Dark Ages America on September 17, 2013

In Treatment

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In Treatment was an HBO TV series that debuted in 2008 and ran for three seasons, starring Gabriel Byrne in the role of a psychotherapist named Paul Weston. It was based on an Israeli series of the same name (Be Tipul, in Hebrew); apparently, many of the episodes were verbatim translations of the Hebrew originals. Personally, I found the show highly addictive. Dr. Weston has a veritable parade of troubled patients traipse through his office, and their problems are unfailingly gripping, even mesmerizing. He seems to be a good therapist, although the results are rather mixed: some folks improve, some seem to go nowhere, one may have even “accidentally” committed suicide (triggering a lawsuit from the dead patient’s father). But the most powerful aspect of the show is that in the fullness of time, nothing is quite what it seemed to be. Paul’s own therapist (played by Dianne Wiest) seems to be empathic and supportive, but winds up using Paul as material for a novel she writes, in which the “Paul” character is cast in a very bad light. One of Paul’s patients, an Indian man living in an unhappy situation with his son and daughter-in-law, tricks Paul into getting him deported back to Calcutta, which is where he wants to be. Paul falls in love with his second (and final) therapist (played by Amy Ryan), but knowing how the mechanism of transference works, can’t decide if it’s love or illusion. What she gets him to see, in the course of a few weeks of therapy with her, is that he has spent his entire career getting over-involved with his patients as a substitute for having a life of his own. At age 57, the ground has shifted from under his feet; he has no way of knowing what is true and what is invented, and as he tells his therapist, “I’ve lost my way.” He even wonders if he ever loved his ex-wife, or whether he is capable of love at all.

The final session is a tour de force by virtue of being anti-climactic. Paul ends his therapy and walks out into the Brooklyn night, having nowhere to go and nothing to do. This is as un-Hollywood as it gets: no satisfying wrap-up, no happy ending, just a state of wandering through the world with no meaning and no sense of direction. The most one can extract from this last scene, if one insists on being optimistic, is the Socratic dictum, “Ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.” Maybe. But for the time being, existential loss is just that—loss. The gray night of the soul, perhaps, except that to me, the non-resolution of the story had an almost religious quality to it.

Which is probably why I watched the last episode several times, on DVD. I had been in Paul’s situation at age 28, when I came to the conclusion that my academic career was a farce; or at least, unreal. I remember I was living in England, on leave from my university in the United States to write my first book, and a British graduate student came to see me for advice about his research and his career. I can’t remember what I told him, but I remember feeling hollow, formulaic. Could I encourage him to pursue something that I no longer believed in? It was late afternoon by the time he left, and it was already starting to get dark. I sat in my chair and looked out across the room, feeling depressed. I had no idea what life was about, or how I might ever feel happy again. I felt like an empty shell. As the months passed, the dark night of the soul became increasingly dark.

How all that got turned around is another story, and a rather involved one, best saved for another time. But in a nutshell, it involved faith, which to me meant betting everything on something that was invisible, and in contemporary American culture very much of a long shot. Not God, I hasten to add; but definitely something involving the life of the spirit. I guess, at the end of the final episode of In Treatment, I wanted to pull Dr. Weston into a nearby café and talk to him about belief. Why, I’m not sure. Perhaps because he’s such a sympathetic, earnest, and honest character; perhaps because I felt that people with that level of integrity deserve a good life. Perhaps because I would have felt lucky to have had him as a therapist, or at least, a friend. I really don’t know. But belief is not really transferable, in any case. It’s hardly a matter of an intellectual decision, but rather something that emerges from your body, in a visceral way. There are no shortcuts in the life of the spirit, as it turns out; each of us has to find our own way.

I guess it says something that In Treatment ran for three seasons. Americans are not big on ambiguity, or non-resolution, after all; they aren’t a terribly sophisticated people, in my experience. But are Israelis so different? I guess I would have to say yes: more honest, more in-your-face. Two Israeli films come to mind that have this quality of non-resolution, and are (like Be Tipul) very powerful because of it. The first I saw about twenty or thirty years ago, and can’t recall the name; but it involved a New Age guru living in the suburbs of Tel Aviv, and his devoted followers, who come to his apartment once a week for a group session. The guru, meanwhile, gets increasingly wigged out, until he finally becomes convinced (inasmuch as everything is supposedly in the mind) that he can fly. So he jumps off the roof of his apartment building, only to discover that gravity has other plans for him. In the wake of his death, his disciples are not able to put their shattered lives back together, and become like the children of Israel, wandering through the desert, but without Moses to guide them. I found it a very courageous film.

The second film is called The Footnote (2011), starring Shlomo Bar Aba and Lior Ashkenazi as a father and son caught up in an epic Oedipal struggle. I won’t bother to recap the story here, except to say that it ends on a huge existential question mark. The moment of truth has arrived in the relationship, and it is up to the father to bite the bullet or cop out, in accepting or not accepting a prestigious award that was actually meant for his son. As he is in line to be called and walk up to the podium, the film ends. It’s unclear what he is going to do. (At this point I had actually stopped breathing.) All three of these stories—Be Tipul, the flying guru, and The Footnote, affected me very deeply, and in recent weeks I’ve been trying to figure out why. Because they are Israeli, and I’m Jewish? Nah, that didn’t really ring true. And then it hit me: all of them involve uncertainty. Of course, if you were to ask me how I feel about uncertainty, I would tell you that I hate it; but I’m not sure I do. I may not love it, but I’m certainly intrigued by it. My first memory, at age two-and-a-half, was precisely about this theme; and I recall that Camus wrote somewhere that our first conscious moment contains the issue that we will dance around for the rest of our lives. As one psychoanalyst puts it, the infant’s first sensory experiences presage the way he or she will view and construct the external world. But here’s the catch: the external world that we seek out is in synchrony with our first sensory experiences; and if those experiences are, for example, ones of uncertainty, then what the adult will seek out—for comfort(!)—is uncertainty. This, then, is a paradoxical type of harmony, what this psychologist calls “primal confusion,” or the paradox of finding solace in uncertainty.

In the Jewish tradition, when you paint your house, you are supposed to leave a small but visible section of one of the interior walls blank. The idea is that only God is perfect, so it’s important for us humans to be imperfect as a reminder of this. I believe there is a similar tradition in Navajo weaving, of leaving one strand loose, unwoven, so that there is a place for the Great Spirit to enter. And the asymmetry of Japanese art may be based on the same sort of premise. Uncertainty—things out of order, out of kilter, unfinished and incomplete—is, on this interpretation, a great gift. Dr. Weston left the therapist’s office to float around Brooklyn like a rudderless ship; but if his therapist was right, he had never really lived an authentic life, and now that terrifying opportunity had been presented to him. Ditto, the devotees of the flying guru. And something similar is going on at the end of The Footnote, where the father could, if he chose, abandon his need for a hollow Oedipal victory and come clean—in public, no less.

I have not enjoyed uncertainty in my life; I have endlessly pursued ways to be able to stand on terra firma. But I have never escaped the aura of that first primal awareness, which stimulated me to search for the sources of security in human life for the next sixty-seven years. Nor is it an accident that my current research is on Japanese culture, which is based, like karate, on the creativity of empty space—the “meaning of meaninglessness,” as one Japanese philosopher called it. I have always envied those who were blessed with a deep sense of security, who moved through life free of anxiety—or so it seemed. I guess I still do. But there is no getting around it: for better or worse, without uncertainty I wouldn’t be, to quote the epitaph on Kierkegaard’s tombstone, that individual.

©Morris Berman, 2013

Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992, and the Neil Postman Award for Career Achievement in Public Intellectual Activity (from the Media Ecology Association) in 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–-The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

Culture of Denial

Off the keyboard of Lucid Dreams

Published on Epiphany Now May12, 2012

Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasbord inside the Diner

Afterward

3/12/13

The Post Petroleum Human Tribe is continuing to evolve. We are unplugged and wired in without wires. We drop down the memory hole and immerse our minds in remembrance. So that we don’t forget where we came from.

The American Hologram is a real program being projected within the Matrix. There are other programs, but this one is dominant in the industrialized senseless suburban consumer consumption wasteland artifact of 20th century chemical monkey man.

We’re coalescing for the future of the Post Petroleum Nation at a little place called the Foxstead. We’ll be hiding in plain site. When you look at us we’ll be directly ahead, in the woods, visible in your blind spot. Don’t bother looking to hard because we have vanished in our 21st century anonymity. We are legion and you can’t even see us. Hiding in plain site. Waiting for you to blink to make our next move. And you thought you would always remain in control of the masses.

Also, let me just say, in this afterward that’s happening in the forward spot, that I made my way back to “Where the Wasteland Ends” and it expanded my mindscape greatly.

The last bout of books that I have acquired and began perusing have come to me through two sources, Morris Berman and John Michael Greer. The book I’m currently reading is titled “Where the Wasteland Ends”and is authored by Theodore Roszak. It was first published in 1972. I’m 30 pages in and I’m already beginning to lose interest and for different reasons than one might expect. In fact, I’ve never even experienced a lose of interest such as this and it’s what I can only term as a type of exhaustion. It’s an intellectual and emotional exhaustion that protrudes from a dawning realization that the world is suffering from a legendary case of denial. As I read these books that were published years before I was born (in this case 8 years before I was born), and as I look around at the world today to see the furtherance of our march into the wasteland, I can only throw my arms up in despair and then drop my hands into the soil. I put them into animal shit and dead and dying biomass. I mix it all together with the steam rising behind me from the hot compost pile. I mix this all into red dirt in an effort to make cultivated plant seeds a nurturing place to grow. This brings me peace and hope, and the need for these necessary books is fading. I know what needs to be done and why things are the way they are. There is simply no reason for me to read about it any longer, it’s just depressing.

 
The fact that over 40 years ago books were already being written about the “Wasteland” or the Matrix or the American Hologram is proof enough that nothing is going to change or save our empire from this downward spiral. It’s a pretty hopeless realization. Yet it’s true none-the-less. The easy way out is through denial, and I’ve noticed that this is indeed an innate reaction, a knee jerk reaction. Intelligent people simply know on some unconscious level that there is very little meaningful action they can take to change any of this truth. They are wrong to think that unconsciously, but that doesn’t stop them. And so the realization just never happens for hundreds of millions of people because it’s just too depressing. The 100th monkey is not going to wake up from this chemical induced coma of denial until the death march of our empire is over. 40 years ago maybe, but now…it’s simply too late.
 
I didn’t sit down with the intention of writing a depressing blog, but even amidst my liberation I have been fighting this underlying current of depression lately. It’s taken me some time to figure out why I feel this way. I am taking all the actions I can to learn as much about growing food as possible. I have changed my entire life around to meet these mandates, and I have taken my family with me. As a result I am able to tend to plant life on 1.65 acres as my job. My job is now to learn as much as I can about growing food and that is simply amazing. I have had the good fortune to learn the truth behind the saying that the best fertilizer is the gardener’s feet. I’m present and unmedicated for my wife and son. Yet still there is this dreaded sadness that erupts through the fissures in the psychic ground that is supposed to protect me. The sadness is coming from a place that is much larger than I, and it has the capability of strong arming all of my defenses and there is nothing I can do about it. Ahhhh denial, it’s one hell of a drug.
 
I have come face to face with the source of this sadness. It’s become more tactile to me because I have had time to tease out it’s form and it origination. We’ve always had the answers about the antidote to the machine, to the wasteland. We put all of our cards into building the Wasteland and now we’re going to take them to bed for a self induced nightmare. How is anyone to deal with such horrible truth if not with denial? The only way through it is to feel it and that means a heavy blanket of sadness. I understand that what I am doing is the best I can do. It’s not only the best I can do, it’s the only meaningful course of action for me. I’m following my bliss. I know that food production is the most important element of this mess. It’s the one thing that I know with certainty is necessary now and in the future. It’s the one thing that allows me to be a whole person. Everything inside and outside is aligned though me with the simple act of growing soil. I am not in denial, and yet that comes with an immense cost because just about everybody I know is in denial about this. My friends, that is a recipe for loneliness, and no doubt one that I’m sure most of you are intimate with.
 
I suppose this means I have grown to big for this round of skin. I no longer feel the need to read books about how fucked up it all is. The truth is that it’s always been fucked up cause our species is, and worse than that even because we don’t have to be. Our species chooses to remain agents of destruction because of cowardice. Nobody wants to deal with the mess we have made, and so they hide in their convenient suburbanland and are at peace with trading their humanity for consumerism. Our species has made a Faustian deal…their humanity and honor for the numbness of complete denial. Not only do they lose their dignity, but they lose their future progeny’s as well.
 
Waking up from the Matrix becomes a sad ordeal rather quickly. I knew I was alone in the Matrix, but I had no idea about what it was like outside of it. I do have a small kernel of hope however. I don’t want to leave ya’ll with nothing but depressing truth. I have hope that I will find others like me because I already have. The problem is that I have met them 70 miles from where I’m at in Asheville NC. I’m referring to the group of souls I met at the Permaculture In Action event that I have been attending. For the first time in my life I have met a large group of people whom all view the world through the same type of eyes. We are all different. We come from different places, backgrounds, and times. This group spans from 18 to 60 something years old. The easiest way to describe it would be to say that we are a tribe, but in the 21st century a tribe can exist only with it’s members spread out in a vast region….a pack of mostly lone wolfs. I’m on the outskirts of our region with only one couple a few more miles further out than I. Our people are spread out in a 100 mile long diameter around Asheville NC. It only took one day for us to all bond into this tribe. The one guiding principal has been permaculture. We have all met each other because we share that one interest, but that one interest spans the breadth of a people whom have been freed from that cultural denial that I have been speaking of. We are united in our decision to do something about this culture of denial. I have plans to write about this Permaculture In Action Tribe that I have found, so I won’t continue much about it now.
 
I think we are the beginning of humanities long muddling trudge into a new environment. Our empire is just beginning to approach the back side of Hubbert’s curve. We have been on the bumpy plateau since 2006 or so. To my mind Hurricane Katrina was the harbinger for this new reality. We’ve probably got another five years left before we begin our descent in earnest. Those of us who are aware are already at the bottom of the back side of Hubbert’s curve. That’s where you find yourself upon waking up from the Matrix. We’re looking at a culture, an empire, of denial and trying to figure out just what the hell we’re going to do about it. The fact is that we’re going to have to just let the empire plummet to the flat ground after Hubbert. The best we can do is have things ready for when they arrive. I think I’m going to continue asking this question here at Epiphany Now. If you are reading this, and you haven’t acted on the information you know to be true, the information that hails from your soul, then what are you waiting for? We of the Post Petroleum Human Tribe need all of the help we can get.

Mammon is Hungry: Husband’s Suicide One Day, Wells Fargo to Evict Wife The Next

Comment on this article here.

 

A recent quote from Diner Karpatok get me thinking the other day about the nature of our post- industrial society, and several thoughts and issues began to intersect. And then I came across the story of Norman Rousseau, below.

Deep within the bowels of the diner, the original exchange, part of a longer thread:

Quote from: Karpatok on May 22, 2012, 01:18:21 AM

“To really feel the pain of the prisoners, the pain of the raped children, the pain of the animals. Martin Buber wrote of the recognition of the reality of the Other. He called it I and Thou. I and Thou together is the full reality of consciousness. To the extent that one cannot embrace the reality of the Thou, one is not fully human... To the extent that one does not let oneself feel that pain, one also cannot experience joy. We are not solipsists living in isolation and doubting the reality of the forest, we are not autistic unable to respond to others; if we are we are very sick.” 

My reply:

To lapse serious for a moment, this is indeed the nut of the matter. And it is the illness at the heart of who we are, our addiction to the paradigm of unlimited growth, and in our “devil take the hindmost” politics. We used to believe, or at least proclaim, “E Pluribus Unum;” there was a time when we even taught it. There was a time where our institutions weren’t corrupt with moral rot. There was a time when people believed that a “rising tide would life all boats.”  Indeed, there was a time when we cared about our neighbor, when we would not pull a crust of bread out of a hungry child’s mouth to give it to a war profiteer or a Wall Street bankster. There was a time, or so we believed, when our churches were not full of pederasts and thieves, when we actually held with what was taught from the pulpit and lived accordingly, or semi-accordingly, according to our lights.

If, as is written in Matthew, “By their fruits shall ye know them,” then we are well and truly fucked. Because by our actions we invert every single thing that Jesus is reported to have said, and which every great teacher and moral leader teaches. By our actions, we clearly worship Mammon. When a vulture capitalist destroys a workforce, dumps pension obligations off on taxpayers, and pockets handsome sums for his trouble; when a company lays off thousands in the name of “efficiency,” leaving the remaining workforce stressed and gasping– and fearful of the next wave; when we balance the budgets on the backs of the poor; when we steal people’s houses through corrupt application of refinancing rules (thinking Wells Fargo here): we do the work of Mammon.

 

 

Several years ago I read an article in The Atlantic about the Muslim Brotherhood, and why the originator came to hate the United States. One of the reasons was that he came to hate the manicured, watered lawns in Kansas as an obscenity, when there is so much hunger, privation and suffering across the globe. There is a good reason the rest of the world hates us, and at the root is our wasteful, cannibal culture, that chews up everything in sight, as well as our utterly debased materialism with no organizing set of beliefs aside from profit.

I feel like Jeremiah today, but from here it is crystal clear that we are doomed. Which is, of course, part of what led me to this collective, to RE’s notion of “save as many as you can, ” and to thoughts of “what do we do next?”

It may not matter, but it is incumbent upon us to live and work as if it does.

Karpatok also added:

“Why did I shudder and flinch when my foreman lover said about construction hires at the 7Eleven, “Tu est Patrona, tu dau lucru si ei manunc.” That is ,” You are their patron, you give them work and they can eat.” Who the hell was I to have that power over them to grant life and life to the children on the dirt floor far away? But to do it without acknowledging them, without asking their names,how did they get here,[they walked a thousand miles under the burning sun el norte,el norte] how many children did they have, where were they from exactly? So in a tiny way we touched each other while they carried with their small bodies the huge stones to build the patios, the same stones with which they had built their pyramids before the Conquistadores had arrived. And now the huge houses for which the patios were built in Prince Georges county are all foreclosed and abandoned. Who are we all, passing in this conflagration?” 

Who indeed? How we exercise the power that we have over one another, as we pull the levers and grease the gears of the virtual machines that increasingly govern our life says much about who we are– and who we have become.

 

Mammon remains hungry, and the story of his (our) endless lust for human flesh is best illustrated by the following story, well told by Mandelman on the blog “Mandelman Matters” (http://mandelman.ml-implode.com/2012/05/husbands-suicide-yesterday-wells-fargo-to-evict-wife-tomorrow-anyway/#.T7HDX8Iw28Y.twitter). This story goes on at some length, but the length is necessary to place this tragedy in its appropriate context:

 

 

 

 

Wells Fargo claimed that Norman and Oriane Rousseau had missed a mortgage payment.  But the payment HAD been made in person at a Wells Fargo branch by Cashier’s Check, and Mrs. Rousseau has the receipt for the transaction.

 

The Rousseaus file a dispute with Wells Fargo over the supposed missing payment.  Wells Fargo “investigates” and comes back saying that the Rousseaus had stopped payment on the check.  They stopped payment on a Cashier’s Check?  Seriously?

The teller’s receipt establishes that the cashier’s check was in the custody and control of Wachovia on April 1, 2009, and the research by the Cashiering Department should have concluded that Wachovia screwed up by not applying the cash-equivalent funds to the Rousseau’s account. After delivery and acceptance to the branch office, it was Wachovia’s responsibility to safeguard the instrument; Wachovia itself effectively stopped payment on the cashier’s check

Concerned that they could not resolve the payment dispute but told they should apply for a loan modification, the Rousseaus hired a law firm and submitted a loan modification application.  After that it was standard operating procedure at Wells Fargo… we lost this, and we lost that, resend this, and resend that… for almost a year.

Wells Fargo then of course told the Rousseau family not to make their payments, that they were being considered for a loan modification and that making their payments would immediately disqualify them.

So, they saved their payments just in case Wells decided to deny them a modification.  Saved every single one just in case the bank decided to act like… well, Wells Fargo Bank.

Then Wells sent them a Notice of Default, but when they called to say they wanted to reinstate their loan, Wells said what they always say… IGNORE IT… don’t worry about it, everything’s fine, it’s just an automated sort of thing… why, you’re being considered for a loan modification.

Then Wells filed a Notice of Sale on October 28, 2010.  Their home would be sold on November 22, 2010.  And still Wells said… IGNORE IT… it’s just another automated sort of thing… your loan modification is still pending… and please re-submit some documents.

It was November 10, 2010… just 12 days before their home was to be sold… when the Wells Fargo representative told the Rousseau’s that their loan modification had been denied.  The reason: Insufficient income.

Yeah, but you know the funny thing about that is that their income hadn’t changed a nickel since they applied for the loan modification.  So, what’s the deal?  Did it take Wells Fargo a year to figure out the Rousseau’s income was insufficient? That same day the Rousseaus found a lawyer and discovered they had a RIGHT TO REINSTATE their loan.  (Nice of Wells not to tell them that, by the way.)  They contacted Wells and requested a reinstatement quote… TWO DAYS LATER Wells finally gave them the phone number for RCS, the trustee.

 

But, RSC said that reinstatement would take two weeks and trustee sale was going off as planned in 8 days.  Wells got them their reinstatement quote too… it was dated November 15, but received via email on November 17, 2010.

And it expired in two days and had to be received in Texas by November 19, 2010.

The Rousseaus had more than enough in savings to reinstate their loan, they told Wells Fargo that… but now they couldn’t get the money from their IRA in time for the 2-day deadline and Wells refused to postpone the sale.

So, the Rousseau’s home sold at the trustee sale on November 22, 2010.

Next the Rousseaus go through a series of lawyers.  Finally, they get a good one and in July of 2011, the court grants an injunction contingent on them making a monthly payment of $1800.

But, by December of 2011, Wells finally wore the Rousseaus down and they just couldn’t make December’s payment.  They used up all their money fighting Wells Fargo, and Norm had been unemployed since the foreclosure.  He was taking odd jobs as a handy man to make ends meet.

Wells Fargo immediately goes to court… gets the injunction dissolved… then proceeds with the Unlawful Detainer… the lockout is set for May 15th, 2012… at 6:00 AM.

THAT’S TOMORROW MORNING… AT 6:00 AM.

Over this past weekend, Norm Rousseau talked with their attorney who is working pro bono by the way.  Basically, his lawyer tells him…

“Look… let’s face the facts here.  We’ll proceed with the lawsuit.  We’ll fight like hell to get you back in the home, but you have to be ready with some sort of plan so you’re not left homeless and on the streets.”

Norm found someone who has a 27-foot motorhome he can use, but after he gets it home on Saturday… it stops running… it won’t start.  But, Norm Rousseau is a man in his 50s with mad skills.  He goes to work around the clock taking apart the engine, doing everything he can to get it running so that on Tuesday morning he will have somewhere to house his family.  He’s up all night Saturday night, but still can’t get it running.  It’s too big to tow with a car.

His mind must have been wandering late on Saturday night.  What must a man, a father, a provider be thinking when he knows that everything in life has somehow gone terribly wrong and there’s nothing left to do?  He must have been imagining the sheriff pulling up to evict his family on Tuesday morning… just two days away, as the motorhome’s engine lay in pieces in his driveway.

 

I can only imagine what must have been going through his mind as he worked tirelessly, without sleep, on that engine and electrical system… as the clock ticked away the hours, I’m sure going faster and faster as time was running out.  Damn, it’s already 11:00 PM… then it’s 3:00 AM… and then 5:00 AM… and then before he knew it… a most unwelcome sun was shining… 9:00 AM…

 

I can almost hear him thinking: “Damn it, what am I going to do?  How could this have happened?”  I can hear him swearing under his breath as he fights with the old parts trying to get them to work together again… I can see him staring at the engine as the will to go on was leaving his soul…

 

Norman and Oriane Rousseau had bought their home in Ventura, California in 2000, putting nearly 30 percent down, which was their life savings.  In 2006, every time they went into the World Savings branch they’d get pitched on refinancing into one of World’s infamous Option ARM loans… that are now illegal, I believe.  After a couple of years of being pitched, they finally bought into World Saving’s lies.

They had told World Saving’s loan officer, ERIC COOPER, that they were only interested in obtaining a conventional 30-year, fixed-rate loan.  They wanted consistent payments over the life of the loan.

But COOPER assured them that they could significantly reduce their monthly payments… by more than $600 per month, with a lower interest refinanced loan. COOPER said that the new Pick-A-Payment loan product was better suited to their situation.

He described the Payment Option ARM as the new industry standard.  He pointed out that the lower interest rate and payment flexibility were valuable advantages that were not available with other loan products.  And he said that even more importantly, unlike the previous WORLD loans, the interest rate was tied to an index with historically low rates that were continuing to decrease.

According to COOPER, industry experts projected the interest rates to continue to fall, and so their monthly payments would be EVEN LOWER than their initial payments.

 

 

Even under the worst case scenario, COOPER assured them, the historical data for the index indicated that changes in the interest rate would only be slight, and if an increase should occur it would have a negligible effect on their monthly payments… no more than a few dollars.

And besides, COOPER explained, the loan would only be around for a couple years, as they should expect to refinance within the next two years to take advantage of even more favorable interest rates and as the steadily rising housing values would surely increase the amount of their equity in the property.

Then COOPER went for the close…

On the condition that the Rousseaus apply for the new loan that very day, he would agree to waive their pre-payment penalty, stating that there would be virtually no costs to refinance beyond a $35.00 application fee.

COOPER also convinced the Rousseaus that it was in their best financial interests to consolidate approximately $25,000 in unsecured debt in the refinance transaction, citing the benefits of the lower interest rate and the convenience of having only one payment.

The Rousseaus provided COOPER with accurate and truthful information regarding their income and assets, and COOPER was such a nice guy that he offered to complete the Quick Qualifying Loan Application on their behalf.

It was right around November 1, 2007, that WACHOVIA arranged for a notary to complete the closing at the Rousseau’s home.  The notary discouraged their review of the documents and directed them straight to the signature lines, but the Rousseaus noticed that a pre-payment penalty in excess of $4000.00 was included in the closing costs… the fee that COOPER had promised to waive if they applied that same day.  They called COOPER and he apologized for the oversight, but tried to get them to sign anyway, because it would only add a couple of bucks to their payment.

They said… no… they’d reschedule the appointment and wait for the four grand to be taken off their bill, thank you very much.

Two weeks later, the notary returned and they signed the paperwork for their new $368,000 state of the art loan.

Now, the Rousseaus didn’t know it at the time, but COOPER was a lying sack of garbage that had misrepresented just about everything having to do with their new loan.

The 7.2% interest rate of the new loan was actually higher than their old loan and higher than the 6.8% quoted by COOPER.  The “significant reduction in monthly payments” was an illusion accomplished by comparing the fully amortized payment of the 2006 loan with the negative amortizing minimum payment due under the new loan.

The new loan, at annual change dates, added deferred interest to principal and the loan amortized, with payment increases capped at 7.5% for ten years.  Then, the new loan recast when negative amortization reached 125%.

 

 

The Rousseaus were never told about the new loan’s fully amortizing payment of $2,497.94 per month, in fact their payment amount was intentionally misrepresented by COOPER.  And the new monthly payment could never decrease because it represented the minimum payment possible… the negatively amortizing option that meant payments would increase at each change date.

But that wasn’t enough for our boy COOPER.  The Rousseaus were charged $2,640.00 in origination fees for the “low cost” refinance, which made a tidy profit for World/Wachovia/Wells/Whatever bank.

And best of all, an undisclosed Yield Spread Premium (“YSP”) of $4,195 was charged for placing them in a loan with an interest rate .50% higher than they qualified for, and that YSP increased their monthly payments by $123.32, or $44,395.20 over the life of the loan.

The truth is that the Rousseaus were a heck of a long way from being considered well qualified for their new loan. Their fully amortized payment represented a total debt-to-income ratio of 27.91%, but that percentage was based on income figures that were grossly overstated by guess who? That’s right… COOPER.

The Rousseaus told COOPER their total gross annual income was, $76,000, but somehow it got listed as $136,800 on the application.  You know… the application that good old COOPER was nice enough to fill out for the Rousseaus.

So, it was Sunday… yesterday… around 10:00 AM… and Norm couldn’t get the motorhome running.  He must have realized that he couldn’t handle the shame of seeing his wife and stepson evicted with nowhere to go… living on the street.  I don’t know how anyone could face that reality.  I don’t think I could. 

 

How could it be that just 12 years before they had put their life savings down on their first and likely last home?  They had done everything right, but nothing was right anymore, and I’m sure to Norm Rousseau, nothing would ever be right again. 

 

Their church had offered to help them, maybe find them somewhere to stay temporarily, and that would be fine for his wife and her son… but not for him.  I’m sure he wept as he looked at the engine parts laying there, realizing that it was over.

 

Norm Rousseau called me a couple of months ago.  He wasn’t asking me to help him, in fact, he never even told me about what he was going through with Wells Fargo.  No, Norm was concerned about someone else who was losing a home.  A really good person who’s done so much for so many others, was how he described her.  It wasn’t right what the banks were doing he said.  He was hoping that I could do something to help someone he knew, because she was someone who had helped others… but he didn’t say a word about himself.

 

Norman Rousseau gave up over that engine that sits in pieces in his driveway today, the sun shining down making the metal parts hot to the touch.  Maybe it was the frustration of having nowhere to turn for justice, maybe it was the shame he felt that somehow he had let his family down… even though that was not the case at all.

 

Sometime mid-morning on Sunday Norm Rousseau ended his own life.  He went into his bedroom, covered his head with a blanket so as to contain the mess… and shot himself.  At one point he could have reinstated his loan, that’s what he had planned to do, but Wells Fargo had made that impossible… they stripped him of everything he had.

 

And now, his wife and stepson are to be evicted at 6:00 AM tomorrow morning.  They have nowhere to go, they have no money, they are still in shock over the loss of Norm.

And I don’t know what to do really.  I’m going to call the sheriff’s office in Ventura… see if I can persuade them to drag their feet for a week before locking them out.  Their lawyer is trying to file something with the courts, but maybe you can think of something too.

Maybe you can forward this article to people in the media.  Tell them what’s going on… maybe someone will care enough to do something.  It’s 11:21 AM and I’ve been up all night again, I can’t really keep this up much longer… but somehow I felt like telling Norm’s story was the very least I could do.

Since Wells Fargo had already done the very least they could do.

Rest in peace, Norm Rousseau.

***

The psychopaths in charge of Wells Fargo have already killed another American. Wells Fargo, Mammon’s agent on earth, now has Norman Roussseau’s blood on its hands. And these are people who never missed a house payment. Given that Wells’ only responsibility is to generate profits for shareholders, and devil take the hindmost, perhaps Cooper’s behavior, described above, is to be expected. And thus the wages of “corporate personhood:” if we knew a person willing to do whatever it takes to generate a profit, lie, cheat, steal, kill, wouldn’t we call that person a psychopath? Instead, executives get fat bonuses, banks build giant buildings as monuments to themselves, or as temples of Mammon, and we whistle down the street knowing that the business of America is business. And this is why Occupy has sprung from the streets and alleys, and resistance is beginning to form. And why the state maintains such an overweening interest in squelching nonviolent protest.

How we the sheeple can sleep through this slow-motion Kafkaesque nightmare without getting our ample butts off the couch and into the streets is simply beyond me.

 

In the blog, “The New Inquiry (http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/how-bad-is-it/),” George Scialabbla answers the question, “How Bad Is It?” with precision, and by invoking the writer whose work whose works are highly instructive in these times, the man I call the arch-prophet of Doom, Morris Berman:

“Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years. Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.

Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.”

This all sounds very much like Kunstler territory, as that stylist regularly decries the burgeoning illiteracy of the neck tattoo crowd, the NASCAR crazies, and the vulture capitalists. Citing Robert Putnam in bowling alone, he notes that “all forms of social capital fell off precipitously.” We stick our noses and computers and on social networking sites, and leave behind having friends to dinner, card parties, making new friends face-to-face, trusting one another, joining volunteer organizations, and otherwise being vitally involved in our respective communities.

And while we members of the “precariat” toil for our bread, the quality of life in the world’s richest nation continues to spiral down to Third World levels. Recently summarized by James Speth and Orion magazine, you’ve heard it all before. The US has the highest poverty rate for both adults and children, lowest rated social mid-ability, lowest score on you and indexes of child welfare and gender inequality and of course, remarkable levels of economic inequality. Thus the legacy of trickle-down economics.

Scialabba goes on to invoke Morris Berman. For those not familiar with his work, Berman is a cultural and intellectual historian, so his portrait of American civilization is anecdotal and atmospheric as well as statistical. Scialabba puts it well:

 

“He (Berman) is eloquent about harder-to-quantify trends: the transformation of higher (even primary/secondary) education into marketing arenas for predatory corporations; the new form of educational merchandising known as “distance learning”; the colonization of civic and cultural spaces by corporate logos; the centrality of malls and shopping to our social life; the “systematic suppression of silence” and the fact that “there is barely an empty space in our culture not already carrying commercial messages.” Idiot deans, rancid rappers, endlessly chattering sports commentators, an avalanche of half-inch-deep self-help manuals; a plague of gadgets, a deluge of stimuli, an epidemic of rudeness, a desert of mutual indifference: the upshot is our daily immersion in a suffocating stream of kitsch, blather, stress, and sentimental banality. Berman colorfully and convincingly renders the relentless coarsening and dumbing down of everyday life in late (dare we hope?) American capitalism.

 

In Spenglerian fashion, Berman seeks the source of our civilization’s decline in its innermost principle, its animating Geist. What he finds at the bottom of our culture’s soul is … hustling; or, to use its respectable academic sobriquet, possessive individualism. Expansion, accumulation, economic growth: this is the ground bass of American history, like the hum of a dynamo in the basement beneath the polite twitterings on the upper stories about “liberty” and “a light unto the nations.” Berman scarcely mentions Marx or historical materialism; instead he offers a nonspecialist and accessible but deeply informed and amply documented review of American history, period by period, war by war, arguing persuasively that whatever the ideological superstructure, the driving energy behind policy and popular aspiration has been a ceaseless, soulless acquisitiveness.” Not surprisingly, Berman finds parallels to the fall of Rome in our current state. By the end of that empire, Berman noted that economic inequality steeply rising, the legitimacy of the state was waiting, popular culture utterly the based, and civic virtue among the elites had disappeared. This made the effectiveness of the state and the projection of military power unsustainable. Scialabba points out this is 21st century America in a nutshell. Our foreign policy for the past 50 years has brought us to the turn where, in the period of time after 9/11 we have flailed about looking outside ourselves for the solutions to vague and undefined threats, ramping up internal Stasi-style security apparatus to bend, fold, spindle and mutilate the citizenry. “Our response to 9/11 is been utterly hysterical, and our inability to make an effort to understand the long festering consequences of our Imperial predations portended is clearly as anything could the demise of American bloat global supremacy.”

 

Scialabba adds, “What will become of us? After Rome’s fall, wolves wandered through the cities and Europe largely went to sleep for six centuries. That will not happen again; too many transitions — demographic, ecological, technological, cybernetic — have intervened. The planet’s metabolism has altered. The new Dark Ages will be socially, politically, and spiritually dark, but the economic Moloch — mass production and consumption, destructive growth, instrumental rationality — will not disappear. Few Americans want it to. We are hollow, Berman concludes. It is a devastatingly plausible conclusion.”

 

 

Jesus is quoted in Matthew as having said, “By their fruits shall ye know them.”  By our fruits, or deeds, we clearly worship Mammon, and Norman Rousseau was a blood sacrifice. For all of that and more, as Berman notes, we are doomed, if for no other reason than the Lords of Karma will see to it. After all, Nature bats last.   And, as to how we treat one another, Karpatok reminds us of Martin Buber’s I and Thou: “To the extent that one cannot embrace the reality of the Thou, one is not fully human..” 

What are we? What have we become? Ray Kurzweil whispers of the Singularity, as we dispense with one another with all the empathy of machines.

It is thus on my heart on a Sunday morning, with the soft breezes of her Virginia spring whispering through the trees. . . a holiday weekend, where the sun is bright, the birds chirping in trees bursting with bright green, my neighbors bustling about readying themselves for church. Yet Mammon lurks, hungrily.

 

 

 

 

 

Donner Party America: “They Eat Each Other”

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If you’re not familiar with the work of Morris Berman, you might wish to become so immediately. Berman is a cultural historian and social critic, former academic, and author of many books, including a trilogy observing the decline of America.

The Donner Party story and analogy, drawn from the interview below, seemss particularly apt. The observation of the native expedition party, that “they eat each other” reminds me of the observation that the United States has a “wetiko,” or cannibal culture, that Thom Hartmann made in his book,  “The Last Days of Ancient Sunlight.” In that book, Hartman made the point that we needed a new set of stories around which to organize our culture. Berman however, is having none of that. In his view it is far too late. And that is, of course, the view that motivates many on this board. Interesting how these lines tend to converge at some as yet undefined but seemingly-just-over-the-horizon vanishing point.

I first encountered Berman in his book, “Dark Ages America” several years ago. Some of the themes therein are continued in his new book, “Why America Failed,” which is the subject of this interview below with author Nomi Prins.

Berman’s argument is that the seeds of America’s decline were sown from the very beginning. That the culture of hustling, materialism, and the pursuit of personal gain without regard for its effects on other people have been the powerful forces that have motivated Americans from the very beginning ever since the Pilgrims landed in America. We seem to have this idealized view of the founders, and their unselfish beliefs that motivated the creation of our sacred founding documents. The truth is, the fix was in from the very beginning, they created a commercial republic from the start with an eye to preserving property. Wasn’t long before naked self interest had replaced the common good as the primary social good in the colonies.

   
   

The American story was always about growth, expansion, the limitless frontier. All we had to do is get those damn Cherokees out of the south and look at the farmland that would be opened up. As invention proliferated and industry expanded it was growth, growth, growth, things were good. The nation expanded, and so did our appetites. The hustler ethos seemed to work for everybody, in those halcyon days when “a rising tide lifted all boats,” or so the prevailing story had it… To put the lie to that assertion, tour the Gilded Age mansions of Newport, RI, then compare with  the photography of Jacob Riis or Lewis Hine, who documented the plight of the urban and immigrant poor in the cities. And infer the future that the political classes have in story for us…

  

Having found “the air too thin” in the US, Berman now live in and writes from Mexico. In  The Twilight of American Culture, Morris Berman compared the current state of the United States to the  sunset hours of ancient Rome. It is thus tempting to compare Berman’s recent work to the personal reflections of a retired Roman statesman, like Ovid writing from exile on the Black Sea.

Perhaps Berman is more a retired Seneca or Tacitus, drinking wine in a villa rustica, considering  the state of his walled garden, and a new life far from Greek banking failures, TBTF banks, and police state repressions.

One of the interesting theses that Berman puts forth in this book is that there was an always another tradition evident in America, the communitarian tradition which he posits as having been represented, and having died with the old south in the Civil War. Provocative and interesting. Most who land on this page now see that the vision of unlimited growth is a Ponzi scheme and that the wheels are beginning to come off the wagon via the multiple vectors of peak oil, credit crunches, extend and pretend, et al. That’ll be no surprise. Berman’s analysis is cogent, his eyes clear and he is a compelling read. and I recommended everybody pick up at least one of his books.

Surly

 

Why the American Empire Was Destined to Collapse
Author and social critic Morris Berman says the fact that we’re a nation of hustlers lies at the root of our decline.
March 7, 2012  |

 

Several years after the Wall Street-ignited crisis began, the nation’s top bank CEOs (who far out-accumulated their European and other international counterparts) continue to hobnob with the president at campaign dinners where each plate costs more than one out of four US households make in a year. Financial bigwigs lead their affluent lives, unaffected, unremorseful, and unindicted for wreaking havoc on the nation. Why? Because they won. They hustled better. They are living the American Dream.

This is not the American Dream that says if you work hard you can be more comfortable than your parents; but rather, if you connive well, game the rules, and rule the game, your take from others is unlimited. In this paradigm, human empathy, caring, compassion, and connection have been devalued from the get-go. This is the flaw in the entire premise of the American Dream: if we can have it all, it must by definition be at someone else’s expense.

In Why America Failed, noted historian and cultural critic Morris Berman’s brilliant, raw and unflinchingly accurate postmortem of America, he concludes that this hustling model, literally woven into the American DNA, doomed the country from the start, and led us inevitably to this dysfunctional point. It is not just the American Dream that has failed, but America itself, because the dream was a mistake in the first place. We are at our core a nation of hustlers; not recently, not sometimes, but always. Conventional wisdom has it that America was predicated on the republican desire to break free from monarchical tyranny, and that was certainly a factor in the War of Independence; but in practical terms, it came down to a drive for “more” — for individual accumulation of wealth.

So where does that leave us as a country? I caught up with Berman to find out.

Nomi Prins: Why America Failed is the third book in a trilogy you wrote on the decline of the American Empire. How did this trilogy evolve?

Morris Berman: The first book in the series, The Twilight of American Culture (2000), is a structural analysis, or internal comparison, of the contemporary US and the late Roman Empire. In it, I identified factors that were central to the fall of Rome and showed that they were present in the US today. I said that if we didn’t address these, we were doomed. I didn’t believe for a moment we would, of course, and now the results are obvious.

After 9/11, I realized that my comparison with Rome lacked one crucial component: like Rome, we were attacked from the outside. Dark Ages America (2006), the sequel to Twilight, is an analysis of US foreign policy and its relationship to domestic policy, once again arguing that there had to be a serious reevaluation of both if we were to arrest the disintegration of the nation. Of course, no such reevaluation took place, and we are now in huge economic trouble with no hope of recovery, and stuck in two wars in the Middle East that we cannot seem to win.

By the time I sat down to write the third volume, Why America Failed, I was past the point of issuing warnings. The book is basically a postmortem for a dying nation. The argument is that we failed for reasons that go back more than 400 years. As a result, the historical momentum to not undertake a reassessment, and just continue on with business as usual, is very powerful. At this point we can no more reverse our downward trajectory than we can turn around an aircraft carrier in a bathtub.

NP: So you’ve been analyzing America’s decline for over a decade. Was there a particular, specific inspiration for Why America Failed?

MB: I was originally inspired by the historian Walter McDougall (Freedom Just Around the Corner) and his argument about America being a nation of hustlers. The original working title was Capitalism and Its Discontents, the point being that those who dissented from the dominant ideology never had a chance. The crux of the problem remains the American Dream: even “progressives” see it as the solution — including, I have the impression, the Wall Street protesters — when it’s actually the problem.

In my essay collection, A Question of Values, I talk about how we are driven by a number of unconscious assumptions, including the notions of our being the “chosen people” and the availability of an endless frontier (once geographical, now economic and technological). For a while I had The Roots of American Failure as the title, but more to the point would be The Failure of American Roots — for even our success was a failure, because it was purely material. This is really what the American Dream is about, in its essence, as Douglas Dowd argued years ago in The Twisted Dream.

There is a story, probably apocryphal, of a Native American scouting expedition that came across the starving members of the Donner Party in 1847, who were snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and resorted to cannibalism in order to survive. The expedition, which had never seen white people before, observed the Donner Party from a distance, then returned to base camp to report what they had seen. The report consisted of four words: “They eat each other.” Frankly, if I could summarize the argument of Why America Failed in a single phrase, this would be it. Unless Occupy Wall Street (or some other sociopolitical movement) manages to turn things around in a fundamental way, “They ate each other” will be our epitaph.

I should add that Why America Failed is actually part of a lineage, following the path initially staked out by Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward and Louis Hartz. Between 1948 and 1955 they all argued something similar; I just updated the argument.

NP: What do you say to people who don’t believe America has failed; who may just see the country as going through a bad patch, so to speak? What evidence have you compiled for the argument that the United States has failed?

MB: The major evidence is, of course, economic, and there is by now a slew of books showing that this time around recovery is not really possible and that we are going to be eclipsed by China or even Europe. These are books by very respected economists, I might add; and even a US Intelligence report of two yrs ago, “Global Trends 2025,” says pretty much the same thing, although it adds cultural and political decline into the mix. The statistics here are massive, but just consider a single one: in terms of collective wealth, the top 1 percent of the nation owns more than the bottom 90 percent. If we have a future, it’s that of a banana republic. And there will be no New Deal this time around to save us; just the opposite, in fact, as we are busy shredding any social safety net we once had.

NP: How does this relate to the rise of the Tea Party, or the Occupy Wall Street movement?

MB: Americans may be very vocal in claiming we’ll eventually recover, or that the US is still number-one, but I believe that on some level they know that this is whistling in the dark. They suspect their lives will get worse as time goes on, and that the lives of their children will be even worse than that. They feel the American Dream betrayed them, and this has left them bitter and resentful. The Wall Street protests are, as during the Depression, a demand for restoring the American Dream; for letting more people into it. The Tea Party seeks a solution in returning to original American principles of hustling, i.e. of a laissez-faire economy and society, in which the government plays an extremely small role. Thus they see Obama as a socialist, which is absurd; even FDR doesn’t fit that description. There are great differences between the two movements, of course, but both are grounded in a deep malaise, a fear that someone or something has absconded with America.

NP: Most political analysts place the blame for our current situation on major institutions, whether it is Wall Street, Congress, the Bush or Obama administrations, and so on. You agree with them to a great extent, but you also seem to place a lot of emphasis on the American people themselves—on individual values and behavior. Why is that? How do you see that as a factor?

MB: The dominant thinking on the left, I suppose, is some variety of a “false consciousness” argument, that the elite have pulled the wool over the eyes of the vast majority of the population, and once the latter realizes that they’ve been had, they’ll rebel, they’ll move the country in a populist or democratic socialist direction. The problem I have with this is the evident fact that most Americans want the American Dream, not a different way of life—a Mercedes-Benz, as Janis Joplin once put it. Endless material wealth based on individual striving is the American ideal, and the desire to change that paradigm is practically nonexistent. Even the poor buy into this, which is why John Steinbeck once remarked that they regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hence I would argue that nations get the governments they deserve; that the wool is the eyes.

In addition, all of the data over the last 20 years show that Americans are not very bright, and not even the bright ones are very bright—it’s not merely a question of IQ. A Marist poll released on July 4, 2011 showed that 42 percent of American adults are unaware that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776, and this figure increases to 69 percent for the under-30 age group. Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t know from which country the United States seceded. A poll taken in the Oklahoma public school system turned up the fact that 77 percent of the students didn’t know who George Washington was, and the Texas Board of Education recently voted to include a unit on Estee Lauder in the history curriculum, when they don’t have one on the first president. Nearly 30 percent of the American population thinks the sun revolves around the earth or is unsure of which revolves around which. Etc. etc. How can such a population grasp a structural analysis of American history or politics? They simply aren’t capable of it.

author Morris Berman

NP: So, basically it’s only a matter of time before students are taking courses in the historical significance of Kim Kardashian? What are the deeper, structural obstacles, in your opinion, to the American public accepting your general argument?

MB: It seems to me that it would involve a complete reversal of consciousness. I remember after the publication of the German edition of Dark Ages America, a major Berlin newspaper, the TAZ, or Tageszeitung, ran a review of the book called “Hopes of a Patriot.” One of the things the reviewer said was that America might be able to save itself if it decided to pay attention to its more serious critics. What would it take for most Americans to regard someone like myself as a patriot, and someone like Dick Cheney as a traitor? Or Ronald Reagan as a simpleton who did the country enormous damage, and Jimmy Carter as a visionary who was trying to rescue it? As I said, this is not a matter of intelligence as IQ, because in America even the bright are brainwashed—just check out the New York Times. It’s more of an “ontological” problem, if you will.

Let me give you a concrete example. A friend of mine who is a dean at one of the nation’s major medical schools was very taken by my discussion of Joyce Appleby’s work, in my book Dark Ages America. He went out and bought her essay, “Capitalism and a New Social Order,” in which she describes how the definition of “virtue” underwent a complete reversal in the 1790s—from putting your private interests aside for the sake of the greater good, to achieving individual material success in an opportunistic environment.

As a dean, my friend interacts with faculty a lot, at department meetings, cocktail parties, or whatever. He took these opportunities to raise the topic of the rapid redefinition of virtue in colonial America, only to discover that within 30 seconds, the eyes of whomever he was talking to glazed over and they would change the subject. Tocqueville said it in 1831, and it is even more true today: Americans simply cannot tolerate, cannot even hear, fundamental critiques of America. IQ has very little to do with it. In an ontological sense, they simply cannot bear it. And if this is true for the “best and the brightest,” then what does this say for the rest of us?

NP: What do you think can be done to reverse the situation? Is there any hope for the American Dream?

MB: At this point, absolutely nothing can reverse the situation. If every American carries these values, then change would require a different people, a different country. In dialectical fashion, it is precisely those factors that made this nation materially great that are now working against us, and that thus need to be jettisoned. What we need now is a large-scale rejection of the American Dream, and an embracing of the alternative tradition I talk about in Why American Failed. These are the “hopes of a patriot,” and they are simply not going to be realized.

NP: Can you mention briefly what some of those alternative traditions are ? You have a chapter that’s attracted some controversy regarding the Civil War – how does that relate?

MB: As I mentioned earlier, the working title of the book was Capitalism and Its Discontents. The reason I liked it (for various reasons, my publisher didn’t) is that it does reflect the thesis of the book: that although there was always an alternative tradition to hustling, with one exception America never took it, and instead it marginalized those alternative voices. The exception was the antebellum South, which raises real questions as to the origins of the Civil War, which were not about slavery as a moral issue, no matter how much we like to believe that. As Robin Blackburn writes in his recent book, The American Crucible, antislavery ideas were far more about notions of progress than about ones of racial equality. That’s a whole other discussion, however, and I have it out in the book for an entire chapter.

But the main narrative here is that from Captain John Smith and the Puritan divines through Thoreau and Emerson to Lewis Mumford and Vance Packard and John Kenneth Galbraith to Jimmy Carter, this tradition of capitalism’s discontents never really stood a chance. It never amounted to anything more than spiritual exhortation. Reaganomics, also known as “greedism,” was not born in 1981; more like 1584. The result is that for more than four centuries now, America has had one value system, and it is finally showing itself to be extremely lopsided and self-destructive. Our political and cultural system never let fresh air in; it squelched the alternatives as quaint or feeble-minded. Appearances to the contrary, this is what “democracy” always meant in America—the freedom to become rich. The alternative tradition, in the work of the figures mentioned above, sought to question the definition of “wealth.” If the dominant culture was following the template of “they eat each other,” the alternative tradition can be encapsulated in that famous line from John Ruskin: “There is no wealth but life.”

NP: Speaking of wars, having just undergone Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration, and actually the Republican candidates as well, have begun to vilify China, and have amped up the volume regarding Iran. You talk about our need as a country to have an external enemy. In what way do you believe that need will manifest itself in any coming military actions?

MB: I deal with this issue in A Question of Values. America was founded within a conceptual framework of being in opposition to something—the British and the Native Americans, to begin with—and it never abandoned that framework. It doesn’t really have a clear idea of what it is in a positive sense, and that has generated a kind of national neurosis. I mean, we were in real trouble when the Soviet Union collapsed; in terms of identity, we were completely adrift until the attacks of 9/11 (just think of how frivolous and meaningless the Clinton years were, in retrospect). War is our drug of choice, and without an enemy we enter a kind of nervous breakdown mode.

Hence the saber rattling against Iran now, or the foolish decision to set up an army base in Australia to “watch” China. What bothers me is that we are doing all of this unconsciously, and we always have. Mr. Obama, like most of his predecessors, is little more than a marionette on strings (Mr. Carter being the only postwar exception to this pattern, in a number of significant ways). Once again, true intelligence is ontological, and as a nation, we are sorely lacking in that department.

NP: But haven’t we heard all this before? After all, there is a long history of the so-called “declinist” argument, that the country is in permanent decline and has no future. Such books come and go; meanwhile, the country goes on. What makes your book, or books, different from previous assertions that “it’s all over”?

MB: Decline takes time; an empire doesn’t come to an end on August 4, A.D. 476, at two in the afternoon. Similarly, declinist analysis also takes time: the books you are referring to form a continuous argument, from Andrew Hacker’s The End of the American Era in 1970 to George Modelski’s Long Cycles in World Politics in 1987 to Why America Failed in 2011. And there have been a good number of declinist works in between. These books are not wrong; rather, they are part of an ongoing recognition that the American experiment is finished. Even then, we can go back to before Professor Hacker to Richard Hofstadter (1948), who called the US a “democracy of cupidity”; or to C. Vann Woodward (1953), who wrote that we were probably doomed because we had put all of our eggs in one ideological basket, namely laissez-faire economics. During these years the country hasn’t just “gone on”; what it has done is progressively fallen apart, and these writers have made it their business to document the process.

NP: Finally, you moved to Mexico a number of years ago. Is all this why? Do you ever see yourself coming back to America?

MB: There are a lot of answers to that question, and yes, some of the reasons can be found in the above dialogue. You know, the air is really “thin” in the United States, because the value-system is one-dimensional. It’s basically about economic and technological expansion, not much else; the “else” exists at the margins, if it exists at all. I first discovered this when I traveled around Europe in my mid-20s. I saw that the citizens of those countries talked about lots of things, not just about material success. Money is of course important to the citizens of other countries, Mexico included, but it’s not necessarily the center of their lives.

Here’s what the US lacks, which I believe Mexico has: community, friendship, appreciation of beauty, craftsmanship as opposed to obsessive technology, and—despite what you read in the American newspapers—huge graciousness; a large, beating heart. I never found very much of those things in the US; certainly, I never found much heart. American cities and suburbs have to be the most soulless places in the world. In a word, America has its priorities upside down, and after decades of living there, I was simply tired of being a stranger in a strange land. In A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis and his colleagues conclude that happiness is achieved only by those who manage to escape the American value-system. Well, the easiest way to escape from that value-system, is to escape from America.

Nomi Prins is a journalist and senior fellow at Demos. She is the author of Other People’s Money: The Corporate Mugging of America and Jacked: How “Conservatives” are Picking Your Pocket (Whether You Voted For Them or Not).

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The Doomstead Diner Daily December 16The Diner Dai [...]

Searching but not finding.The author makes some go [...]

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Bernie Sanders: Concentrated Wealth is Concentrate [...]

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A new study found that the Great Recession correla [...]

From 2003 to 2005, Gina Haspel was a senior offici [...]

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We saw them in the small college coliseum at my un [...]

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No disrespect meant; I just couldn't help thi [...]

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Alternate Perspectives

  • Two Ice Floes
  • Jumping Jack Flash
  • Error

There Will Be Blood…and Many More Lies By Cognitive Dissonance   I suppose if we randomly stopped pe [...]

A Few Screws Loose By Cognitive Dissonance     Twice a year, usually in the spring and fall, I haul [...]

The Honor Box By Cognitive Dissonance   It is commonly said the fish rots from the head down, meanin [...]

Animal Spirits and Over Extended Markets By Cognitive Dissonance     Animal spirits is the term John [...]

  (Edit: I've tried to write on this subject for a while now and failed, realizing I would not, [...]

Event Update For 2018-12-14http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

Event Update For 2018-12-13http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

Event Update For 2018-12-12http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

Event Update For 2018-12-11http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

Event Update For 2018-12-10http://jumpingjackflashhypothesis.blogspot.com/2012/02/jumping-jack-flash-hypothesis-its-gas.htmlThe [...]

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Sustainability

  • Peak Surfer
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Decapitalism by Yellow Vest"And so this is the anger of the mass of people, saying we’re not going to be put off, we’re no [...]

The Sound of a Second Shoe Dropping"To avoid the worst of the predicted outcomes, global carbon emissions must be cut by half by 2 [...]

Wildfires and Wildcats: California's Oil Ban"California will be the first State to enact a leave-it-in-the-ground supply side strategy. [...]

The Arithmetic of Plastic"Isn’t it time we asked why we design a material to last forever and then put that into objects [...]

The Cool Alternative to Climate Apocalypse"How much better that our bad habits fall away like the cocoon left behind as a butterfly emerg [...]

The folks at Windward have been doing great work at living sustainably for many years now.  Part of [...]

 The Daily SUN☼ Building a Better Tomorrow by Sustaining Universal Needs April 3, 2017 Powering Down [...]

Off the keyboard of Bob Montgomery Follow us on Twitter @doomstead666 Friend us on Facebook Publishe [...]

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To fight climate change, you need to get the world off of fossil fuels. And to do that, you need to [...]

Americans are good on the "thoughts and prayers" thing. Also not so bad about digging in f [...]

In the echo-sphere of political punditry consensus forms rapidly, gels, and then, in short order…cal [...]

Discussions with figures from Noam Chomsky and Peter Senge to Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama off [...]

Lefty Greenies have some laudable ideas. Why is it then that they don't bother to really build [...]

Top Commentariats

  • Our Finite World
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it was africans who sold africans to the slave shippers and traders [...]

Correct Jason, slavery existed long before a small portion of the “white race” decided to profit fro [...]

i dont see how it can evolve into anything other than a version of fascism people ''demand [...]

Information is made possible by energy dissipation. Self-organized balancing prices are a high form [...]

Technically, and in a very abstract way of thinking, from an evolutionary standpoint, life forms evo [...]

Thin gruel is Turkeys main export although it has been a hard row to hoe, literally, for a while now [...]

We could support independence for the Kurds and ignore Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey if we just impl [...]

RE Economics

Going Cashless

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Simplifying the Final Countdown

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Bond Market Collapse and the Banning of Cash

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Do Central Bankers Recognize there is NO GROWTH?

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Singularity of the Dollar

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Kurrency Kollapse: To Print or Not To Print?

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SWISSIE CAPITULATION!

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Of Heat Sinks & Debt Sinks: A Thermodynamic View of Money

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Merry Doomy Christmas

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Peak Customers: The Final Liquidation Sale

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Collapse Fiction

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Technical Journals

Climate change is an unprecedented risk that humans have not previously experienced. It is accepted [...]

The effects of neighborhood-scale land use and land cover (LULC) properties on observed air temperat [...]

An objective definition of climatologically homogeneous areas in the southern Balkans is attempted w [...]