America the Material
“A Question of Values” is an alternately sobering and inspiring collection of essays by noted historian and cultural critic Morris Berman. Berman pulls no punches in laying bare the truths about who we are, not just as a nation, but also as individuals wrapped up in the destructive pursuit of material excess. In the unswerving style of his other writings, he rips apart the national illusion of greatness.
The book is divided into four sections: “Lament for America,” “Mind and Body,” “Progress True and False” and “Quo Vadis?” (Where are you going?). Each part examines the American identity from a historical, spiritual, technological and alternative future perspective, respectively. Taken together, they ask the imperative questions: How did we get to this point, and how do we get out? Or will we? (Here being a country caught in a societal malaise of promoting external accumulation over internal compassion.) Taken together, the sections inspect our inner and outer fabric as a nation.
In Section I, the second essay, “Conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History,” Berman dissects America’s profound sense of self-importance, a central theme of the entire collection. He discusses how the “post-election euphoria in the United States over Barack Obama was nothing more than a bubble, an illusion, because the lion’s share of the $750 million he collected in campaign contributions” came from Wall Street. Thus, the fact that Obama proceeded to promise to rein in Wall Street’s excesses lay in stark and rather public contrast to his own connections with the banks.
This political sleight of hand is part of a larger problem for which Berman lists four descriptive conspiracies (or fallacies): First, that we are a chosen people (so we get to do whatever we want); second, that America itself is a kind of religion; third, that we must endlessly expand, whether it be geographically or financially; and, lastly, that our national character is composed of extreme individuals going back to our colonization. This he considers to be the main reason why “American history can be seen as the story of a nation consistently choosing individual solutions over collective ones.”
Berman expertly interweaves narrative and analysis, supported by anecdotes, historical fact and a plethora of quotes from historians, philosophers and authors, spanning Plato to Chris Hedges. With an ardent voice and poignant prose, Berman brings us to his conclusion that the only hope for America is to stop believing its own hype — something he doesn’t consider very likely. Ranging from Wall Street bailouts to political delusion, to 9/11 and the Iraq war to the Virginia Tech massacre to the interplay with China, Berman’s lament isn’t for an America that lost its way, but for one that never had a heart, but rather a colossal ego that raids other nations with self-righteous impunity.
The collection also provides a guide not just on what to think, but how to think. In Section II, Berman subtly balances the more dour aspects of the first section with a chattier discourse, relying on a combination of outside sources and his own entertaining life experiences. The section covers the message in certain modern Greek tragedies, like the movie “Damage,” and the very mortal question we all ask ourselves at different points in our lives: If I had to do it all over again, would I do it differently? And if so, would I wind up in the same place anyway? In his essay “Be Here Now,” Berman examines the need to be present in one’s life, because of the rapidity with which it flashes by. As Zen as this sentiment is, coming at the heels of his historical analysis, it centers our own focus, not selfishly, but with self-awareness. For in the end, as Berman writes, “there is no forcing things to make sense: either they do or they don’t, and there is no guarantee that they will.” It’s the thought about them that counts. Or doesn’t.
Section III spans the socially bankrupt practices resulting from endless technological advances, through the disastrous global competition for food and water. If we measure progress by consumption, how can it ever stop until there’s nothing left? According to Berman it can’t, which underscores a phenomenon he dubs “catastrophism.” As he puts it, “it is a fair guess that we shall start doing things differently only when there is no other choice; and even then, we shall undoubtedly cast our efforts in the form of a shiny new and improved hula hoop, the belief system that will finally be the true one, after all of those false starts; the one we should have been following all along.”
In Section IV, Berman brings us full circle in our assessment of national identity, taking us to Asia, a target of Ben Bernanke’s snotty finger-wagging this month. Berman notes the irony that “when Mao Zedong called the United States the paper tiger in the 1950s, everybody laughed.” As we know now, this pronouncement wasn’t so far off base. Our Washington finance chiefs, notably Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner and Fed Chairman Bernanke, want to keep pumping, printing and devaluing our money to create the illusion of national economic well-being while demanding that China keep its currency strong. And thus America’s national ego carries on, as Berman illustrates.
In “A Question of Values,” Berman not only warns us that America must change or die, but he calls on each of us to stop and imagine the potential of living in a better way. As such, there is also something uplifting about the book; it makes you want to call your parents to see how they are doing, or check in with your friends or your community. You know, be more in touch. Help someone.
When Berman’s last book, “Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire,” came out in 2006, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani declared it “the kind of book that gives the Left a bad name.” There is no doubt that Berman’s work hits American ideals where it counts, but Kakutani’s kind of knee-jerk rather than introspective response is precisely the reaction that illustrates Berman’s thesis.
If there is anything missing from Berman’s collection, it’s that it offers no pat remedies of the kind that authors tend to stick into the wrap-up chapter. But, it’s the lack of a clearly delineated way out of our collective malaise that is the most honest answer of all. It is the basis of our entire value and priority system that is off. So, the only possible strategy for any kind of national redemption is to reassess our core values and original construction. There’s no easy way to achieve that. Still, any hope of resurrecting ourselves as a nation begins with a keener awareness of who we really are and why, and to that end, Berman’s book of essays will inspire much-needed introspection.