April 28, 2006


Historian Morris Berman outlines the fall of the American Empire in Dark Ages America

by Vince Darcangelo
Boulder Weekly

Morris Berman's Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire probably won't make anyone's Best Books for the Beach list this summer. Let's just say it doesn't have a happy ending—or beginning or middle. What Dark Ages America does have is a heavy helping of facts and commentary concerning the modern-day United States—and the news isn't good. Berman offers a hard, honest look in the mirror many Americans aren't willing to take, declaring that America's global supremacy has reached its end. Putting us in historical context, Berman draws comparisons between 21st-century America and the latter days of the Roman Empire, concluding that America is entering a dark age that will reduce us to second- or third-rate status by 2040, and that it is too late to reverse course.
A cultural historian, Berman first garnered attention with his 2000 book The Twilight of American Culture, in which he rightly predicted that America would soon come under attack as a counter-response to our corporate- and military-driven global policies. In Dark Ages America, Berman says that we've yet to learn the lessons of 9/11 and have set a course for cultural collapse and global irrelevance. He does so by discussing the moral decay of American culture, the blundering invasion of Iraq, the near-comical political missteps of the Bush administration, and an in-depth exploration of America's global policies in the 20th century, examining our postwar rise and our post-Vietnam fall.
On Monday, Berman will appear at the Boulder Book Store. Prior to that he hooked up with Boulder Weekly to discuss the fall of the American Empire, why we can thank Jimmy Carter for 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, and what kind of beer he'd like to drink with everyone's favorite ex-president.
Boulder Weekly: What was the motivation for writing Dark Ages America, and what sort of response do you hope the book elicits?
Morris Berman: I never expected to write it. I had written The Twilight of American Culture, and it appeared 15 months before 9/11... After 9/11, something was staring at me so obviously. In Twilight, I had done a comparison of the contemporary United States and Rome in the late-empire period. I compared the two in terms of structural factors that were doing each civilization in and arguing that they were the same factors.
But there was one point of comparison that I completely overlooked, and that became apparent only after 9/11—that was that Rome was invaded and then fought a long war of attrition that was finally lost. That's what happening to us. There is no way we're going to defeat terrorism. It's an elusive technique. How can you defeat terrorism?
Not that al Qaeda can win, but they've got lots of time and lots of anger. They're going to keep doing what they're doing, and we're going to keep disintegrating.
There was the motivation. As far as my guess of what difference it will make, I would say none at all... I expect to be vilified and ignored.
BW: Which would you prefer?
MB: There is this saying that bad press is better than no press. I don't know if that's true. Part of the problem of being vilified is that it usually involves a distortion.
BW: If what you're saying is true and there's nothing we can do about it, shouldn't I be stockpiling weapons for the coming Dark Age instead of reading this book?
MB: The question is what you would use the weapon on. Maybe we should just shoot ourselves. In Twilight I talked about the one thing people could do was cultural preservation... I saw that as the only solution, but it's not really a solution. When finally the only thing that can be done is what individuals can do, that means the system has completely broken down. Our problems are structural, and if problems are structural, then the solutions have to be structural. That's Sociology 101. Individual solutions are nice, but they're not solutions, they're responses. It would be nice if people preserved things, but I don't believe there's a hope in turning this situation around. It's not a question of whether optimism is good and pessimism is bad. It's a question of, alright, if you don't believe what I'm saying when I say there is no way of turning things around, show me the levers of social change, point to them, tell me how this is gonna happen.
And don't point to the Democratic Party, because the Democratic Party is intellectually bankrupt and politically impotent. Don't talk to me about Hillary, for God's sake. She's rattling the sabers against Iran. What a joke. The Democratic Party has essentially bought into the Republican Party. We saw that during the Clinton years; he was just a Republican in Democratic clothing. The choice between the Republicans and Democrats is the choice between empire and empire-lite.
We do not have a large section of this country up in arms. They just aren't. They may give Bush a low approval rating, but the truth is that if we were winning the war in Iraq his approval rating would be very high. It's not a moral objection or a political objection—most Americans have no understanding of the war in Iraq; they don't even understand what happened except that it didn't work out well. We're in a situation where we can torture people. To my knowledge, we're the first modern nation that has made torture legal. On top of that, we put the guy who legalized it head of the Department of Justice. George Orwell move over. This is surreal.
And Americans aren't upset about that. They're not upset about Abu Ghraib. I would even argue that Bush got reelected because of Abu Ghraib, not in spite of it. It's not like Americans are upset that people can be detained indefinitely without trial and the right to an attorney. They're not upset that the NSA is spying on them. I don't know what it would take to get the American people upset. You could probably herd Iraqis into gas chambers and Americans would say, "Gee, we shouldn't be doing that." The days of Vietnam protests are definitely not here. We don't have a similar situation. We don't have a public that's aware, outraged or even upset. We have a public that basically is drugged, apathetic and interested in shopping.
BW: In the book you say that America "may be only one more terrorist attack away from a police state." Should this occur, how do you think the American public would respond? Do you think people would have this moment of recognition that they were complicit in the erosion of civil liberties that permitted the institution of a "police state"?
MB: I don't think so. After all, there's a large section of statistics about American awareness, including American attitudes toward the erosion of civil liberties. Something like a third are opposed to the Bill of Rights. I have to say this is true even of people that are very intelligent... The truth is that very bright people in large numbers voted for George W. Bush, supported the war and continue to think that he's even wise. And these are quite intelligent people. You have to ask how is that happening. There's something going on with this enormous blind spot that comes out of fear and a preconceived framework and so on. It's not like people are turning around and saying there's something horribly wrong, we're on the wrong track. When you have bright people supporting these policies and the erosion of civil liberties and so on, the comparison, it's a bit of a strain, but 10 percent of the Nazi party held Ph.Ds. This is not merely about the ignorance or stupidity of the American people in terms of a blue-collar ignorance of the Bill of Rights or something like that. It's bright people saying that this is OK. What could be more powerful in terms of digging ourselves into a grave? So when I say we might be one terrorist attack away from a police state, it seems pretty obvious because we're going to respond by rallying around repressive policies, not by saying that somehow we're exacerbating the whole problem. Even bright people are going to say that. I don't see what hope there is.
After all, after 3/11—when 200 people were killed in the bombings of Madrid—three days later there was an election and they voted out Aznar, who backed Bush, and they voted in a socialist government. This is what I call an intelligent populace.
BW: Do you think that all this could get so awful that it could lead to a second American Revolution?
MB: Yeah, I think it would, but if a revolution occurs in the United States, it can only happen from the Right. It can't happen from the Left. We don't have a tradition of that... It's not like we have this enlightened public. We're not like Europe. We don't have their understanding of things. Americans don't make those kinds of connections; we're not trained historically. In order to understand what's going on right now with the American Empire, you have to figure out—and this is the crucial point—that 9/11 did not emerge out of a political vacuum. It had a history. We did certain things over a long period of time in the Middle East and to Arab people. Since they could never get a hearing, finally that's what occurred. That doesn't justify the death of 3,000 civilians—I'm not saying that. But how do you justify the death of a half million Iraqi children over the sanctions? How do you justify the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis now? The butchery that we've visited upon that nation, what they did to us was nothing compared to what we've done to them, but Americans don't make those kinds of connections.
It was the same thing with the Ayatollah Khomeini revolution. After all, we put the Shaw in power in 1953. That regime was brutal; it tortured people. We supplied the torture equipment and the torturers and everything else. Then the American people, when that revolution takes place and they take our hostages, instead of the American people saying, "Well, what would you expect?" They react with horror and outrage and their feelings are hurt. This is really bright. Boy, that's really thinking historically.
When I say hopeless, I'm talking hopeless. How many books have I read? Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam. There's so many that have shown that the nation's going to hell in a basket, let me give you the data, and then in the last 10 pages somehow they pull a rabbit out of a hat. I mean, optimism is a great thing, but if it's not based in reality it's called stupidity. My question to Putnam or any of those folks is, well, that's great, but show me the mechanism of how that's going to change. Show me who it is. In order for that to happen, Americans have to make certain types of connections. And to sit around and say the people that precipitated 9/11 are simply evil and insane, this is not an analysis. We're not going to have that analysis. It's not going to happen.
BW: What's interesting to me is that you look at Jimmy Carter and his role in current events. While you applaud some of the stuff that he did, you point out in the book that even he made diplomatic errors, in particular the Carter Doctrine in 1980 that started the military buildup in the Persian Gulf. You attribute both 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq to Carter and his response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. If the most levelheaded president of my lifetime can screw up this badly, then what hope is there? Carter was the alternative. What alternative is left?
MB: Yeah, it's a tragic story. I have to tell you, if there's one person I'd like to sit down and have a beer with, it's Jimmy. I wonder what's in his mind in the sense that he was the person who really understood that we were causing our problems. The whole business about spiritual malaise and soul searching and having to cut back on energy and how we were engaged in human-rights violations, he saw it all. And then, under the pressure of losing popularity and the influence of [Carter's National Security Advisor] Zbigniew Brzezinski—who, after all, is a Pole who hated the Soviet Union—the Carter Doctrine emerged. Not only that, Brzezinski, in 1998, did an interview in Paris in which he admitted that he and Carter started training the Muhjadeen planning to draw the Soviet Union into Afghanistan six months before they invaded. They set a trap for them. 9/11 is the blowback from Carter's policies. What an incredible irony.
The real problem is that we've never been able to get out of the Cold War mentality. As much as Carter tried, he couldn't do it. He couldn't see that what the Soviet Union was doing with Afghanistan was a defensive move against the Arab world, which we then, of course, got into later on.
So it's very, very hard to break that grip of this Cold War belief that there's this great evil out there and our goal is to combat it. It's now quite clear from KGB documents that have been opened up that the Soviet Union was risk-averse. They were not interested in engaging us. We were the ones goading. In fact, their greatest fear was Germany, not the United States. That whole war is now being rewritten. When I see in the National Security Statement of 2002, written by Condoleeza Rice, when I see her writing that during the Cold War we faced a risk-averse adversary, this is a statement that could never have been uttered during the Cold War. Now it's OK to say it because we have replaced the enemy with another one—and this one, of course, is different and completely black and dark and horrible. We've always got to have a Hitler.
BW: It would appear that the Cold War was largely an invention designed to maintain the U.S. and U.S.S.R. as superpowers. However, this battle of gestures led to proxy wars, such as Afghanistan, that mobilized the Arab world, in turn creating a fervent enemy that is real.
MB: Finally, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's essentially what really happened. I'm not saying to our readers that I think 9/11 was imaginary or that it didn't occur. I'm saying that finally you do enough crummy things to a certain segment of the world and, you know what, they're going to get angry.
BW: Going back to Jimmy Carter for a moment, you quote historian Gaddis Smith regarding Carter, saying that he failed "because he asked the American people to think as citizens of the world with an obligation toward future generations." You then ask, rhetorically, who really failed, Jimmy Carter or the American people. Looking at that moment in U.S. history—that hiccup of reason and perceived failure in U.S. diplomacy—do you think this was the point at which America was lost? Was Carter our last shot of getting out of that Cold War mentality?
MB: I think so. If we wanted to think not solely in terms of personality but in structural terms, George Modelski, a political scientist, wrote a book Long Cycles in World Politics. He distinguished in every civilization four phases. The final phase, the serious bit of decline, he assigned to the period 1971-1975. What he really said was in 1971 you had the repeal of Bretton Woods, and that was the launching of finance capitalism—in other words globalization really took off at that time. The second thing that occurred was Vietnam, which bled us incredibly—not only morally, but it cost roughly two-thirds of a trillion dollars in 1967 dollars. That was so debilitating to us, and we lost the war on top of it.
It was only at a point like that, where we were so weakened, that the patient is willing to turn to the therapist when they're about to have a nervous breakdown. That's what happened to the United States. By 1974 you had [Sen.] Frank Church doing all those hearings about all the crummy things the CIA was doing. There was Watergate. There was a crisis of nerve. Then Jimmy comes along from a Christian point of view that I admire. Bush sits around reading the gospel of death. Jimmy Carter's kind of Christianity was not necessarily turn the other cheek, but that the world was more complicated than just the enemy being out there. In classic terms, original sin exists across the board. What's ours? He really wanted us to do some soul searching. By 1976, when he got elected, I think we needed that. The American people were willing to listen to someone who was talking in those terms.
The only problem is that's to swim against the tide of American history. Our whole history, from the revolution, has been posited about defining ourselves in terms of opposition. It was about not being someone else. There's a problem with that. If you're going to define yourself in terms of what you're not, in a certain sense you're never going to figure out who you are. That's the Achilles heel in American history, that we don't know. As a result you're always going to be nervous, you're always going to be on edge, and you're always going to be projecting the problem outward. Jimmy comes along at the right time and says lets not look outward and look at ourselves. For a couple years we were willing to do that, but it was something so out of step with the rest of American history that it couldn't be sustained. So you had, at that time, the mobilization of things like the Committee on the Present Danger, Paul Nitze, the great Cold Warrior, was a part of that, Jeane Kirkpatrick writing this criticism of Carter being friendly to left-wing regimes and not right-wing regimes. It just increasingly undermined the idea of soul searching and not supporting dictatorships.
Then finally you had the Hollywood version of what the future of America would be in the person of Ronald Reagan... He weaved a story, a "Morning in America" and how great it was going to be. It was based on no reality whatsoever, and that's exactly what people wanted to hear. They took the Hollywood version, and we're living the consequences of that now. All the vilification of George W. Bush is entertaining—and I'm certainly willing to pitch in and help—but the truth is that Bush didn't come out of nowhere any more than 9/11 came out of nowhere. We have a history too. It takes a nation of ignorance and violence to produce a president like Bush. He really reflects very important trends in the American public. And although I would say in many ways the presidency of George W. Bush is a quantum leap over previous things, it is not without its continuous strands. We're living with the consequences of that and with an American people that are much more interested in fantasy than reality.
BW: You state at the end of Chapter Four that for us to reverse course "requires a grace, a flexibility and an imagination" that you believe Americans don't have. What do you think it would take for Americans to acquire this grace, flexibility and imagination? Would it require outside intervention?
MB: Well, in a dramatic sense, an act of God, because it's not going to happen. To take the examples of two nations that were on a supremely self-destructive course—Germany and Japan in the '30s and '40s—what it took to get them to turn around was that they were utterly and totally destroyed... It wasn't going to stop until the United States in particular came along and made it impossible for them to continue.
I don't believe that al Qaeda is going to destroy us. They're going to erode us, but it's not like they're going to be firebombing Minneapolis. It's not going to happen in the same way, but what will happen—the appropriate model is not Germany or Japan but ancient Rome. It basically died from a thousand cuts.
I have to tell you that somewhere—I don't believe he's in a cave; I have a feeling he's in a library at the University of Islamabad working the Internet—but somewhere Osama bin Laden is looking at this, and he's saying, "Thank you, George W. Bush. You did it better than I could have ever imagined."
BW: You pose the question: Who will take over for us, China or the European Union? Who would you say is the frontrunner right now? Could you see a third possibility, such as a Middle Eastern power, say Saudi Arabia, rising to take the place of the American Empire? And if so, would it be one Arab country or a conglomerate similar to the European Union?
MB: I don't think that the Arab nations have it to get their act together. Those regimes are terribly corrupt. They also are very oppressive of their people. I think that the Arab nations will play... the role of the source of attrition that weakens us beyond belief and beyond repair. Their historic role is that they will be the thousand cuts that debilitate us.
While we're wasting all our money, time and energy fighting this shadow enemy, the money is piling up in China and the E.U. They consider us, privately, quite pathetic... They're busy building their economies and doing the types of things that intelligent civilizations do. So, it's hard to know in that contest what will happen. But I have no doubt in my mind that by 2040 we will be taking our marching orders from other people.
BW: What do you think that will look like? Will it be a situation where we kind of disappear? Or will it be more like England, where they're still a relevant country, they just don't have the empire like they used to?
MB: Yeah, they live under a cloud and, the famous phrase, they've become America's poodle. I see something like that as the likely scenario. These things move slowly, and there's a cultural lag. But let me give you the relevant scenario:
Most historians understand now that Britain was really economically in serious trouble and really had feet of clay by the time the Boer War ended in 1902. Looking back, that was really when the rot set in. And by the end of World War I they were in real trouble. That's when the breakup of large estates occurred, and all the economic analysis that's been done of England says that they didn't have a hope in hell by certainly 1918, but even by 1902.
However, the appearance of England in 1902—after all, Queen Victoria was still alive—was the sun never sets on the British Empire. This was the great power. Down to something like 1950, that was still the image of England.
Then an interesting thing happened—the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower was very angry with England, France and Israel, and he threatened to cause the pound to be devalued if England didn't back off. They knew they had to do it. At that moment, the cultural lag caught up to reality. At that moment there was an international shift. Everybody understood what some people understood in 1910 and 1920 and 1930: that England was no longer a serious player. We are no longer a serious player. It's just that there are very few people now who recognize it. There has to be something that's equivalent to Suez. There was some hint of that when Rumsfeld went over to Germany and said to Joschka Fischer, who was then the foreign minister, you've got to join us and we're going to defeat Iraq, and he said, "I'm not convinced of any of this." That Germany would say to the United States that you're full of crap, there was already a hint that something had shifted, but it didn't have the international force of something like Suez. But Suez is in our future. There is no doubt in my mind about that. There will come a time when there will be an incident, and it will be understood that the United States has eaten itself alive and doesn't have the clout to respond. After that, it will slowly drift in the direction that England has drifted today. People will pay lip service to its grandeur and its history and all that, but a poodle is not a tiger.
BW: You mentioned before that if you could sit down and have a beer with anyone, it would be with Jimmy Carter. Would it be a Billy Beer?
MB: Would it be what?
BW: Billy Beer?
MB: What is Billy Beer?
BW: That was Carter's brother's beer in the '70s.
MB: What did it taste like?
BW: Crap.
MB: Well, I'm hoping Jimmy and I can find a nice little microbrewery.
Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

April 25, 2006

The Black Hole of Bethesda: Life in the Twilight Zone

Occasionally I get a letter from a reader of myTwilight of American Culture, complaining that history and sociology are all well and good, but that I should give the public more of the actual details of the decline of the United States. They are right, of course, the more so since we swim in the raw data of the latter on a daily basis. A recent encounter with the American medical establishment provided me with clear evidence that “twilight” is hardly an abstract concept.

My regular doctor, a very intelligent, white-haired gentleman of the old school, also happens to be a gastroenterologist, and so is always on my case about having a colonoscopy. (“I’m lucky you’re not a neurosurgeon,” I once kidded him. “Would be too late in your case anyway,” he shot back.) He had given me one six years ago, when I briefly had a real job and therefore had real health insurance; but one reason I kept putting it off was that as a free-lancer, I was now paying a high monthly premium for insurance that was, in the crunch, worthless. Somehow, my insurance company always had a reason why this particular claim (whatever it was) was not covered, and I could either let it go–my usual choice, since arguing with them was pointless–or appeal it, in which case I would get a check for $50 or so six months later. So I kept telling him I couldn’t afford it, until he finally offered to cut me a deal. “I usually get a grand for the job,” he said; “I’ll do it for you for $600. In addition, you should call the surgery facility in Bethesda and tell them that for a significant reduction in price, you’ll pay them up front. Finally, you can try to negotiate with the anesthesiologist, who also charges a grand.”

So I took his instructions. I called Judy at the surgery facility; she told me that if I brought the cash in an envelope, she’d drop the cost from $1000 to $470. As for anesthesia, I decided to go without, and save myself at least $600, probably more. “I don’t recommend it,” my doctor said; “the procedure takes about fifteen minutes, and without anesthesia it’s going to hurt.” “Hey,” I told him, “a total of $1070 out of pocket is already more than I can afford; I’m a writer, you know what we make.” “Your call,” he shrugged.

Two months later, the day before the procedure, I called Judy once again. She had no memory of our conversation, so I had to tell her that we had agreed upon $470, and that there would be no anesthesia. “I’m sorry I can’t remember; I just dropped my daughter off at the testing place, where she’s taking her SATs. I’m concerned about her doing well, so I guess I’m not thinking very clearly.” “No worries,” I told her; “they now add something like 200 points for free. All American high school kids are now above average, so I’m sure she’ll do well.” She laughed. “Yeah...I know, you’re right.”
“Listen,” I said, “why don’t you take down all my data now, so that when I come in tomorrow, I won’t have to do reams of paperwork.” She agreed, noted the various meds I was on and so forth. “See you tomorrow,” she said brightly.

I arrived the next day, and handed Judy $470 in a plain brown envelope. It felt like hush money, or some sort of payola. Then they took me back to the pre-op room; it turned out that there was no record whatsoever of yesterday’s phone conversation with Judy, so I had to repeat everything I had told her the day before, including the bit about no anesthesia. Then my doctor came in. “How’s it going?” he asked. “Fine. Listen,” I said, “you’re doing me a favor by cutting me a deal, so I’m going to write you a check right now, before we get started.” He grunted; I handed him a check for $600. He pointed to the OR. “See you in there when you’re ready.”

So next I’m lying on the hospital cot, hooked up to a monitor, and he’s telling me about his vacation in Germany and Switzerland as he’s poking my anus. “OK, here we go.” Before too long I was screaming. It seems that there’s no problem when the plastic tube traverses straight colon, but when it goes around a bend–watch out. While I was screaming, I reflected on the fact that this would be a useful technique for extracting information at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, except that I had no information to disclose. It was unbearable, and of the fifteen minutes I spent on the cot, I probably screamed for three. In the middle of this, my doctor’s cell phone went off, and he took the call. I tried to say, “If it’s for me, tell them I’ll get back to them later,” but I was too busy screaming. “Can’t talk right now,” my doctor said, and rang off. (Then why have the damn thing on? I thought.)

Finally, it was over. I got off the cot and slowly made my way back to the pre-op room to dress. My doctor stuck his head in. “Doing OK?” “Yeah...I guess so. Say, it says on this sheet the nurse gave me that I need to make a follow-up appointment for two weeks from now.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t bother with that, since we’re economizing here”; meaning: we only schedule those things to make more money, but since you are relatively broke, I’m not going to screw you. “See you in five years,” I said.

Out in the waiting room, the receptionist handed me an envelope. “Here are your personal effects,” she said. I looked at it closely: “Seymour Hockenhauser” was clearly printed at the top. “I’m not Seymour Hockenhauser,” I told her, handing it back. “Oh,” she said, “didn’t you give me anything?” “I guess not,” I replied. “Have a nice day,” she said.

I dragged my sorry ass out to the parking lot. One advantage of not having anesthesia is that you get to drive yourself home.

Ik Is Us: The Every-Person-for-Themselves Society

Although I was born in America, I am only first generation, my family having emigrated from eastern Europe in 1920. As a child, I was raised in what might be called a European socialist ethos: you help other people. As a result, I have been living in a state of culture shock on a daily basis for nearly six decades. As lawyer “Jackie Chiles” (a Johnnie Cochran look-alike) says in the final episode of Seinfeld, “You don’t have to help anybody! That’s what this country’s all about!”

Not helping other people is systemic in the United States. It’s not a question of immorality as much as amorality: we aren’t raised with an ideology, or even a consciousness, in which the other person counts. I remember, when I was fifteen years old, some boy in my school whom I knew only vaguely–Tom, I think his name was–was walking around on crutches after knee surgery. Much to my surprise, he asked me if I would carry his books for him from his home room to his first class, as he couldn’t manage to do this while on crutches. I did it for two weeks, and didn’t think twice about it. About a week into this routine, Tom’s mother called mine. “You know,” she said, “Tom asked about a dozen students, including good friends of his, and they all said that they couldn’t do it because they didn’t want to be late for their first class. Your son is a saint.” “My son is not a saint,” my mother fairly snorted, stating the obvious; “he’s just doing what he’s supposed to be doing.”

Fast-forward forty-five years, and I am returning home, on crutches, from knee surgery. As I approach the side door of my building, someone who also lives in the building is coming down the walk, busily talking on a cell phone. He looks at me briefly, then takes out his plastic pass key, swipes it in the little magnetic coding box, opens the door and goes in. The door shuts behind him; I’m standing outside of it, now fumbling in my wallet to find my own plastic entry card. Suddenly, the man–apparently seized by a rare moment of human fellow-feeling–pushes the door open from the inside. He doesn’t come out and hold it open for me, mind you; he just pushes it open, so I can sort of squeeze myself through the doorway on my crutches. He then hurries down the hall to the elevator, leaving me in the dust, as it were. Not a word is exchanged.

A few months later–the end of August 2005, to be more precise–I have an appointment at the University of Maryland Hospital in Baltimore, and need to check out the men’s room before I take the elevator upstairs. I walk in on a scene in which a man has collapsed on the floor, and someone else is trying to get him up on his feet. “Hold on,” I say; “I’ll go get help.” The first person I see outside the men’s room, about six feet away, is a police officer sitting on a bench. “Can you help?” I ask him; “some guy just collapsed on the floor of the bathroom.” “I don’t work here,” he replies; “go to the Inpatient Desk.” Given the possible emergency nature of the situation, I don’t bother to argue with him about the irrelevance of his nonemployment for helping another human being, but take off for the Inpatient Desk. “Can you help?” I ask the woman at the desk; “a man has collapsed on the floor of the bathroom down the hall.” “You’ll have to talk to Security, over there,” she gestures. I run over to the Security officer, repeat the story for the third time. “I’ll call the Fire Department,” he says. What relevance the Fire Department has to somebody passing out in the bathroom I have no idea, but I just say, “It’s this way.” He is already walking ahead of me, and when he reaches the men’s room, keeps on going. “Here!” I shout; “it’s right here.” He just keeps on walking down the hall.

A few days after this incident, hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. As we all know, the response of the federal government was very slow: for several days, people were left to fend for themselves, and vast numbers were without food or water. During this time, a friend of mine, a lawyer, sent me an online video that was made by MSNBC the day after Katrina hit the city, showing people looting a Wal-Mart store. This in itself was not that shocking; basically, it’s what I and probably a lot of other Americans would expect. The kicker was that the police were there, wheeling shopping carts, and looting right along with the looters. When Martin Savidge of NBC News asked one policewoman what she was doing, she replied, “Jus’ doin’ mah job.”

Is the reader beginning to notice a pattern here? In one form or another, this is America in microcosm, and it is disturbingly reminiscent of the worldview of the Ik of Uganda as described by the anthropologist Colin Turnbull in The Mountain People. The Ik had been reduced to a condition of savage self-interest due to economic hardship. Turnbull describes how, when someone in the tribe died, neighbors (as well as children and siblings) would fight over the person's few belongings, and abandon the corpse. Turnbull comments that in this system of mutual exploitation, affection and trust were actually dysfunctional. "Does that sound so very different from our own society?" he asks at the end of the book. These words were written in 1972; one can only wonder what Turnbull would have thought of American life thirty-three years later, were he still alive. What, after all, can be the fate or the future of a country in which the police join the looters in their looting while all around them people are dying by the thousands?

Any ideas?

The Real Gold

I confess I never gave much thought to Colombia during most of my life; or at least, not more than I did, let's say, to Kenya or Bangladesh. Real ignorance on my part, to be sure (familiarity with the work of Gabriel García Márquez notwithstanding); but my impressions of Colombia were formed by the American (U.S.) media, so what typically came to mind when the country was mentioned were drugs and violence. Then suddenly, a short time ago, I received an invitation to speak in Bogotá, so I just decided to suspend any prejudgments I had and get on the plane.

The occasion was a lanzamiento, or "launching" of the second edition of a book of mine that had been translated into Spanish a few years back. During the week of my visit, my sponsor, whom I'll refer to as José, arranged a dinner at which I would be able to meet a number of distinguished writers from the Latinoamerican world. These were folks who had won an international competition–drawing on Colombia, Spain, Mexico, and Venezuela–and who had, as a result, come to Colombia and give a week of workshops to aspiring writers. We met, all ten of us, at a fairly elegant restaurant in downtown Bogotá, at about 8:30 p.m.

It was a delightful evening. What was most striking to me was the ambience, the energy that moved around the table. Put a collection of leading writers, academics, businessmen, artists–practically anybody, really–together in the United States, and what you frequently wind up with is a bunch of aggressive egos competing to be Number One. The conversation will be subtly boastful, filled with witty put-downs and a kind of controlled (or not-so-controlled) narcissism that is so common in the U.S. that we don't even notice it; anthropologically speaking, it's just part of the air we breathe. These Latinos, by contrast, were gracious, suave, and low-key. They joked a lot, reflected on art and literature, and obviously enjoyed each other's company. I couldn't help thinking that whereas so much ritual interaction in the U.S. seems to have a tacit agenda or subtext of promoting oneself at the expense of others, the interaction among this group was about respecting each other, making everybody feel valued. It's a cliché, of course, but sometimes you can't see the "given" of your own culture until you are confronted with the "otherness" of another one.Dinner over, we all shook hands and parted. José and I and another writer, Alberto, walked out of the building and onto the street. As Alberto walked away, I noticed he was rather overweight and walked with a slight limp. There was something very human about this; something real and vulnerable. And then, he unexpectedly turned toward me and said, quite simply, "Bienvenidos." It was casual, but nevertheless very poignant: deliberate inclusion of the outsider; recognition.

A couple of days later, having some free time on my hands, I decided to visit Bogotá's famous gold museum, the Museo de Oro. Actually, I was finding it a bit boring. Anthropological significance aside, gold just doesn't turn my crank, even when it is artistically crafted. Standing in front of one display, I looked around to discover that I was surrounded by something like fifty schoolchildren, ages twelve to sixteen, all
in uniform. Three schoolgirls moved closer to me; the most "courageous" asked me, in Spanish, if I had the time. I showed her my watch. "Tres y diez," I tell her. "Are you a visitor?" she continued (she's now eight inches away from me). I was suddenly aware that what was happening would strike an odd note in an American (U.S.) context. For one thing, Americans are not terribly interested in foreigners, as far as I can make out; only twelve percent of U.S. adults own a passport, for example. And American schoolgirls would not be likely to approach a white-haired man in his sixties unless it was part of an inside joke. I was startled by the simplicity and directness of this encounter; clearly, this young lady had every right to be taken seriously. We chatted for a while in Spanish, as two of her girlfriends listened in, intently. I told her I was a writer from the United States, here to talk about one of my books. I asked her what school they were all from (San Agustín), and what the class subject was (anthropology). Finally, we stopped talking and just smiled; I touched her lightly on the shoulder and said, "Adios."

About an hour later I was sitting at the entrance to the museum, indoors, at the far end of a low stone ledge, writing these notes, when my three new "friends," along with the rest of the horde, swept through the lobby. They all crowded onto the ledge, the three girls making a point of plunking themselves down right next to me, causing me to scramble to shove my briefcase and jacket out of the way, so as to make room for them. Two of the girls were hugging each other, which struck me as being very sweet, and–again–something one just doesn't see in the U.S. The "courageous" one looked over at my notes.

"Qué escribe?" she said, looking up at me. I couldn't very well tell her I was writing about her and her friends, so instead I asked her what other class trips they had all been on. "This one is the first," she said, "but next month we're going to the planetarium." I asked her what she thought about gold; she just shrugged. "Perhaps the stars will be more exciting," I suggested. She laughed. At this point their teacher announced that they needed to leave, and they all stood up to go. As they swarmed away, the two younger girls, who were still hugging each other, turned around andlooked back. "Bye," one of them said in English, smiling at me. "Bye," I replied. The hall emptied out; it was suddenly silent again. I sat there, thinking about the sheer "innocence," the natural friendliness, of the whole interaction–interaction of a kind that no longer seems to be part of the U.S. social landscape. How much, I thought, we have lost, without even realizing it.

So I didn't find any drugs or violence in Colombia, though I have no doubt that they are there. But I couldn't help reflecting on the possibility that there are different types of violence in this world, and that the relentless destruction of "social capital," as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls positive human interactions and relations, has to be one of the most pernicious forms, especially when it seems to permeate an entire society (sort of like odorless gas, or like something that got put into the water supply). What have we norteños paid in return for our extreme individualism, our constant competition, and our sad confusion of "goods" with "the good life"? Another sociologist, Robert Bellah, puts it this way: “Our material success,” he writes, “is our punishment, in terms of what that success has done to the natural environment, our social fabric, and our personal lives.”

I guess there's no turning back now.

©Morris Berman, 2006

The Denial of the Body in the 21st Century

“Make Love Not War.” It was a favorite slogan of the 1960s; one often saw these words on placards at Vietnam protest marches. The motto was based on the work of the Austrian psychiatrist, Wilhelm Reich, who argued that when people are deprived of satisfying sexual love, their repression turns into aggression. Now we are faced with a possible American war against Iraq, and one can’t help wondering if Reich’s analysis still holds true.

Of course, one of the problems with Reich is that he construed the idea of the repression of erotic life much too narrowly. As I argue in my book, Cuerpo y Espiritu: La historia oculta de occidente, eros—the life of the body—is not just about sex. The ability to breathe deeply, to feel the sun on one’s cheek, even to smell the strong aroma of coffee in a Barcelona café—all of these things are avenues into our emotional life. They bespeak a world of primary satisfaction. The notion that there can be a life of the mind separate from the body is a Puritan fantasy, and it has done the human race untold harm. It leads to a world of secondary satisfaction, a world of substitute satisfactions that we normally call “addictions”. This includes psychological “drugs” as well as chemical ones, and in this category we can put the lust for power, for control, for violence itself. War is a heady wine; it enables us to get high not only from rage and destruction, but from the self-righteousness, the phony moral indignation, that is used to justify this behavior.

Why would the United States suddenly want to go to war with Iraq, especially when the latter has no clear tie to the Al Qaeda network, and when the CIA has bluntly told President Bush that Saddam Hussein is less of a threat left alone than if attacked? As a number of scholars and journalists have pointed out, this war—if it indeed comes to pass—is not really about Iraq as a political opponent or about its alleged weapons of mass destruction. More significant is the American desire to take over Iraqi oil fields, as well as the the intention of having a controlling (military) presence in the Middle East—a key feature of America’s plans for global hegemony. But there is a hidden dimension to all of this, I believe, where the life of the body needs to get factored into the equation. The former American president, Jimmy Carter, alluded to this in an essay he wrote for the Washington Post several weeks before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Remarking that “there is no current danger to the United States from Baghdad,” Carter said that war fever was being fomented by “a core group of conservatives trying to realize long-pent-up ambitions under the cover of the proclaimed war against terrorism.”

I do not wish to make too much out of this; it is easy to get seduced by a kind of psychological reductionism. War, as we all know, is a complex phenomenon; it cannot be attributed to a single cause, and I am not making any such claim. But Carter’s remark does beg the obvious question: Where do these pent-up ambitions come from? Reading Nicholas Lemann’s descriptions of Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (New Yorker, 7 May 2001; 14/21 October 2002)—to take only two members of the pro-war team—one is struck by how “out of touch” these individuals are. Nothing, or so it would seem, could be more lacking in their lives than an awareness of the body and its emotions. Cheney’s perfectionism is so legendary, and his anger so rigidly under control, that he has suffered a string of heart attacks as a result. Watching him on television, one has the impression of someone barely able to conceal his contempt, his posture of virtuous inflexibility. As for Ms. Rice, the picture that emerges is one of a life that is extremely “successful,” at the cost of her having no loves and no real friends. In television interviews, she tends to talk in clichés, and of a black-and-white world of good vs. evil. There is a terrible sadness to people such as these, whose body language reveals how crippling the life of secondary satisfaction finally is.

Who pays for it, in the end? They do, of course; secondary satisfaction, by definition, misses the whole point of life. Such people look like heroes; the truth is that they are victims. But the real losers in this game are the victims of the victims, as it were: three million people, in the case of Vietnam, for example. What the civilian death toll might be in Iraq, should war come to pass, is as yet unclear. It is hardly the best way to begin the twenty-first century; but as long as the denial of the body is the central motif of our existence, we shall continue to make others suffer—and die—for the lives we are ultimately afraid to live.

©Morris Berman, 2002
3701 Connecticut Ave NW #618
Washington DC 20008

A Force that Gives Us Meaning

(keynote address for a conference in Cali, Colombia, October 2005)

“They create a wasteland and they call it peace.”–Tacitus, 1st century A.D.

Sometimes I think it all began when the human race sat down. Pascal wrote that the hardest thing in the world for a human being to do was to sit quietly in a room. He was right, of course, but that is probably because we weren’t meant to sit quietly in a room. We were designed to move, to walk, and for hundreds of millennia that’s what Homo sapiens did. Not just coincidentally, war does not show up in the archaeological record until the Late Paleolithic–say, about 15,000 B.C. Conflict and aggression, of course, were always with us; but systematic, organized conflict and aggression–war, in short–is a relatively recent phenomenon, and coincides with the beginnings of sedentism, urbanism, religion, and social inequality (also known as politics). In one form or another, human beings have been doing pretty much the same thing since the Neolithic era.

It also has a lot to do with where we locate meaning. “The mystery of the world is the visible,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “not the invisible.” Frank Lloyd Wright said that his god was Nature, which he spelled with a capital N. For the hunter-gatherer, the visible world was not some mysterious code, imbued with hidden meaning, which we had been placed on the earth to figure out. Rather, the world as it presented itself was its own meaning. “Meaning” becomes an issue only if you believe something is being withheld; if there is no mystery, if what you see is what you get, then “meaning” is a nonissue and you can just live your life. When life itself is not enough, that’s when problems arise.

If life itself is not enough, if you are convinced that there is a hidden meaning somewhere that you need to uncover in order to feel all right, then you are caught in what I call the “Neolithic dilemma”: there is a hole in the soul, and something out there, somewhere, is going to fill it up. For some people that something is alcohol; for others, fame or wealth. Many pursue romantic love; others try to lose themselves in work. But the one activity guaranteed to fill the void (for a while, at least) is war. “War,” as the American journalist Chris Hedges recently wrote, “is a force that gives us meaning.” There is something intoxicating about going to war; it has an erotic feel to it that is dizzying in its intensity. Who can forget the image of the actor Slim Pickins, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie Dr. Strangelove, riding a nuclear warhead like a cowboy on a bronco and shouting “yahoo!” as the bomb descended to oblivion? In many ways, war is the ultimate religion, and it is no accident that religion has been the cause of so many wars.

One thing religion does, or has a tendency to do, is split the world into Good and Evil; a mental framework sometimes referred to as “Manichaean.” Manichaeanism makes things very convenient for us; at the very least, you don’t really have to think a lot, which can be an enormous relief. But even beyond that, it enables us to harden our ego boundaries; to fill ourselves with anger, rage, or self-righteous virtue, and thus never have to look at the secret parts of ourselves that are fearful, that hurt, that make us feel ashamed. In his book The Forgiving Self, psychologist Robert Karen writes:

The binary, black-and-white mentality offers the shelter
of simplicity. There are good behaviors, bad behaviors;
good people, bad people; right thinking, wrong thinking;
righteous nations, wicked nations. The potential to live
[this way] . . . represents a significant part of our psychic
life, for many people the most significant part. It is
associated with blaming, revenge-seeking, scapegoating,
xenophobia, warmongering, the draconian treatment of
prisoners, as well as idol worship, cult phenomena,
religions of the “one true faith,” and chauvinism.

Another word for this is “paranoia,” the etymology of which is very interesting. In Greek, it means “like knowledge”–i.e., that which is not genuine knowledge but nevertheless resembles it in structure. Illusion, in short. War requires a lot of illusion; in particular, the belief that the problem is entirely “out there.”

One of the best illustrations of this phenomenon in recent times, at least to my mind, is Ronald Reagan. No complexities in the world for him: the United States was “the city on the hill,” the Soviet Union “the evil empire”–end of discussion. Well, I never thought much of the Soviet Union myself; it was certainly no place I ever wanted to live. But by the time the Vietnam war was over, it had become clear to many Americans–at least for a brief moment in time–that our house was not exactly in order either. The war in Vietnam was a lie; it had no purpose beyond its own perpetuation; we had killed literally millions of innocent civilians; and the perpetrators of the war, including Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, were unable to say why we were there because they didn’t know themselves. Financially, in terms of both military and subsequent social costs, the war is estimated to have set the United States back two-thirds of a trillion dollars (in 1967 dollars, no less); as for the spiritual cost of the war, that is incalculable. It tore the nation apart; political scientist George Modelski, in Long Cycles in World Politics, dates the period 1971-75 as the beginning of the end of the American empire.

It was on the wings of this debacle that Jimmy Carter was elected to office, in 1976. President Carter understood the spiritual cost of the war; he told the American public that the country had gone astray, that the time had come for some serious soul-searching. The time was over, he said, for finding fault on the outside; we needed now to look within ourselves, look at the way we were living. As I said, it was a very brief moment; the temptations of the binary, Manichaean world view were too powerful to resist. By the time Mr. Carter delivered his famous “spiritual malaise” speech in 1979, the American public was done with self-reflection and ready to get on with business as usual, i.e. blame the enemy. Ronald Reagan, a simple-minded actor with a clear black-and-white formula, came along at just the right time, enabling the country to return to the stupor of denial. In the 1980 election, he won by a landslide; and in Republican circles to this day, the Carter presidency is ridiculed as a joke, as the epitome of weakness, when in reality just the reverse is true: Mr. Reagan’s bellicosity was weakness disguised, and Mr. Carter’s attempt at soul-searching the real strength.

And the Neolithic drama never ends. War serves too many psychological purposes for us to let go of it. “Our world,” writes Robert Karen, “is full of people who thrive on power and acclamation and feel empty and worthless without it.” Two and a half years ago, on the eve of the war in Iraq, Jimmy Carter published a short article calling the venture a mistake, and asserting that it was the work of a few individuals in the White House and the Pentagon who had never resolved their own frustrated, pent-up ambitions. As Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, later admitted, the “neoconservative” crowd was never really concerned about any purported weapons of mass destruction. Rather, he said, the inner circle simply agreed that this was the best way to sell the war to the American people, and they were going to have this war come hell or high water. The result, as is now plain to see, is a mess: Shias and Sunnis are united for the first time in their history (by their hatred for the U.S.); the Bush administration vows to “stay the course,” without being able to say exactly what that course is; we are again bogged down in what may prove to be another Vietnam-type situation; nearly 2,000 American soldiers have died, and according to a study done by the Johns Hopkins University in late 2004, so have about 100,000 Iraqi civilians; and the spiritual and financial cost is once again increasing exponentially. Asked by reporters at his April, 2004 press conference whether he felt he had ever made a mistake, the Manichaean “president of good and evil,” as the philosopher Peter Singer calls Mr. Bush, was nonplused: apparently, the possibility had never occurred to him.

It’s not that the United States can go on forever; no nation, no civilization, can. The choices now open to us, as the historian Immanuel Wallerstein recently wrote, are to decline rapidly or to decline gradually; there are no other options, much as Americans would like to believe the contrary. At this point in U.S. history, when our hegemonic strength is really a mirage, to foment war–especially a phony, let alone colonial, one–is to put ourselves firmly on the path of rapid decline. The alternative, brilliantly spelled out by W.H. Auden many years ago, is by now tragically foreclosed; but it does go to the heart of what it means to be a human being—a crucial part of what the human struggle is about. Auden wrote:

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

– Morris Berman, Cali, Colombia, October 2005