Why America Failed by Morris Berman
Posted on July 6, 2012
Here I am nestled all snug in my chair, while echoes of fireworks ring in my ear.
It’s the 6th of July. A sort of blasé denouement to the spectacle of the 4th. Ice cream having been consumed by the gallon, hotdogs grilled by the dozen, and patriotic parades long since petered out, we are left with the less than thrilling job of picking up spent bottle rockets and laundering our mustard stained pro-America t-shirts. It’s our independence ennui–our red white and blues.
Now that the shared excitement of pyrotechnics and Kenny Chesney are fading away into the recesses of memory, we are confronted with some depressing realities. No, it’s not the tinnitus you’re sure you’re developing after failing to heave that M-90 in time. Ask anyone who watches, reads, or listens to any news outlet (with the possible exception of The Onion), and you’re sure to find a large majority of people who are convinced the United States is going to hell in a handbasket. Ask a liberal, and you’ll hear trepidation about the influence of corporate money in political elections. Ask a conservative, and they’ll tell you they’re considering moving to Canada now that the Supreme Court has upheld the PPACA (irony alert). Ask an environmentalist, and they’ll just point outside and shake their head. If you ask me, I’ll probably lament the fact that within the last two years various agencies of our government have felt the need to deny the existence of aliens, zombies, and mermaids. See here for more details. I’m a fan of the X-Files, but come on!
While most people will express some degree of pessimism regarding our country’s prospects, historian Morris Berman–in his book, Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline–will not provide you with any quasi-hopeful postscript. This book is part 3 of a trilogy about the decline of American culture, and it feels like Berman is going for a grand finale. We’re talking last movement of the 1812 Overture, bring down the house style criticism. If you’re holding out even the least bit of hope that America will get its act together and pull out of whatever funk you currently think it’s in, this might not be the book for you. If, however, you’re historically minded and want some context on how we got where we are today, you could do worse than flip through Why America Failed.
Berman divides his book into five chapters, each critiquing a different aspect or historical period of American society. For all his specificity, Berman identifies “hustling” as America’s root problem. By “hustling,” Berman means the nonstop, sometimes reckless pursuit of wealth for its own sake–not as a means to an end. He refers to various cultural critics (including Vance Packard, Lewis Mumford, and Jimmy Carter) as voices of reason who have failed to stem an inevitable tide of destructive consumerism and rising inequality. Though he gives these counter culture figures a platform on which to speak, Berman acknowledges their wisdom seems muted, diluted, and irrelevant in a technocentric world. Their message might have been eloquently stated, but it fell on deaf ears. Of this, Berman paraphrases Samuel Gompers, writing:
“The poor in America have never wanted a fundamentally different type of society; they just wanted a larger cut of the pie.”
Berman goes on to critique the whole idea of progress, saying that it is essentially an illusion ensuring the temporary survival of our ultimately unsustainable economy. His opinion of technological gadgetry is especially dim. Berman quotes Adam Gopnik to support his argument, writing:
“What can possibly be done to save a culture that thinks iPads represent ‘progress,’ while everything humanly valuable is going down the drain? What are the chances that this culture might ever be able to rethink its definition of progress?”
And then he talks about the Civil War. That’s right. The Civil War. But he doesn’t just talk about it. He makes the (some would say radical) claim that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery, but about two fundamentally different and mutually exclusive ways of life fighting against each other for survival. The North stood for economic growth, technological progress, and a meritocratic organization of society. The South stood for economic stagnation, adherence to tradition, and an aristocratic organization of society. And because the North won, we as a society abandoned our more humane, genteel, and old world ways to embrace a more impersonal, efficient, and brisk pace of life. Lest you think Berman is espousing some form of thinly veiled racism, he acknowledges several times that the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery was immoral and antithetical to any sort of utopian vision of life. All the same, Berman seems to mourn the loss of a “more dignified” way of life that he attributes to the South’s defeat.
While I find Berman’s argument convincing, I think his rationale for assigning a higher value to antebellum southern society (I wonder if he subscribes to Southern Living?) than northern society is tenuous. There were obvious pros and cons to each, but I don’t think southern hospitality excuses the moral culpability of a society that enslaved an entire race of people. We might do well to slow down our pace of life, unplug from our devices every now and then, and talk to our neighbors (yeah, those people who live next door to you). But we might also be able to innovate ourselves out of this sorry mess we’ve got ourselves into using our Yankee know-how. If not, I hear Sweden’s pretty nice.