Trading Words For Punctuation

Found Book Review
January 16, 2008, 10:08 am
Filed under: Time to Get Political | Tags: , , ,

While searching for something else, this review popped up of a book read years ago by yours truly. Give it a chance, the book might be appealing to you. The house copy stays at the house, sorry.

Monks in the Garbage Heap

by Stephanie McMillan

(Appeared in City Link, June, 2001)

The statistics about the ignorance of American adults cited by Morris Berman in The Twilight of American Culture (W.W. Norton & Company; $23.95) are stunning.

Roughly 60 percent of us have never read a book of any kind, and only 6 percent reads as much as one book a year. One hundred twenty million are illiterate or read no better than at a fifth-grade level. A majority of us cannot say what a molecule is, don’t understand that the earth revolves around the sun each year and don’t know that Germany was the enemy of the United States in World War II. Many of us cannot even locate ourselves on a world map.

This type of mass intellectual nosedive, Berman argues, is the first of four elements common to the collapse of civilizations throughout history. He discusses each element in detail and makes a good case for the notion that the United States is rapidly going the way of the Roman Empire.

The second element, accelerating social and economic inequality, is no longer exposed only by leftists, Berman notes, but is increasingly part of mainstream public discourse. No other major industrial nation has such a disparity of wealth as the United States has. He presents some of the well-known statistics, which do not become less outrageous for their familiarity. The top 1 percent of the people owns 47 percent of the nation’s wealth, and the top 20 percent owns 93 percent. Bill Gates’ net worth in 1998 was larger than the combined net worth of the bottom 40 percent of all American households.

Berman points out that structural inequality is global: “The wealth of America’s top quintile is implicated not only in the poverty of South Central Los Angeles but also in the slums of Buenos Aires.” He continues, “What do we imagine [is] the social and economic reality behind the cleverly crafted decaf latte with 2 percent milk that we enjoy on a sunny autumn afternoon in a chic cafĂ© with our friends? The truth is that it is a bitter brew; that the affluence of the few is purchased at the misery of the many.”

“Declining marginal returns with regard to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems” is the third element, and in plain language, it means the more complex social programs become, the less efficiently they are able to meet people’s needs. After analyzing various sources of data on Social Security, the aging population and declining birth rate, Medicare and the national debt, Berman concludes that “a structural crunch does seem likely sometime in the 21st century.”

To Berman, spiritual death (the fourth element) doesn’t mean being nonreligious, but means having corporate consumerism etched into our very beings at the expense of our individuality and genuine creativity. “This mental toxicity permeates every part of our landscape,” he asserts, referring to the pervasiveness of kitsch and hype in America. “We live in a collective adrenaline rush, a world of endless promotional/commercial bullshit that masks a deep systemic emptiness, the spiritual equivalent of asthma.”

Berman savages various contemporary cultural phenomena such as the substitution of civility with corporate politeness (“thank you for choosing AT&T”), the widespread lack of motivation of youth, infantilism as ideology (flaunting the inability to grow up), entertainment substituting for education and the insipid “mental theme park” of the New Age industry. Citing the specific example of Deepak Chopra’s book Escaping the Prison of the Intellect, Berman dryly notes, “The problem is that Chopra seems to be addressing an audience that for the most part hasn’t managed to find its way into the ‘prison of the intellect’ in the first place.”

All in all, Berman argues, the United States is free-falling to the garbage heap. Arising in its place is a brutal, global corporate hegemony pushing the culture of McWorld, empty of everything but schlock, social inequality and consumerism.

The changes are slow, historical and beyond our ability to control, he asserts.

“Trendy formulas for change, ranging from ‘paradigm shifts’ to recycling your newspapers, are simply not going to cut it.” Instead, Berman puts forth a strategy of preserving whatever knowledge and meaningful cultural elements we can on a small scale, with an eye toward a different historical period when it can be appreciated. The preserved knowledge would then serve as the seeds of a future cultural renaissance.

He labels those who would do this preservation “new monastic individuals.” NMIs are the type of people, he says, who would rather lose their jobs than sell their souls; who create not for money but out of passion; who do not try to establish themselves or their activities into a fixed, co-optable form. He cites examples such as David Barsamian (who runs a weekly program on NPR called Alternative Radio), the creators of anti-ad magazine Adbusters and filmmaker Michael Moore (Roger & Me, TV Nation, The Awful Truth). Anyone can be this kind of person, he argues, as long as one has integrity. “Central to all of these examples is the rejection of a life based on kitsch, consumerism and profit, or on power, fame and self-promotion. And don’t worry about being marginalized; this is good.”

Overall, Berman’s arguments are quite persuasive, if troubling for their hopelessness. The sensitive person does indeed have a difficult time functioning in the harsh wasteland of contemporary American culture, and constant gross injustices cause many to walk around in a state of perpetual rage. It does appear, at times, that television is turning us all into idiots and that the diverse cultures of the world are rapidly being buried by Michael Jackson cassettes and bottles of Pepsi. It can be tempting to just write the whole thing off and work on individual projects, casting our hopes toward the brighter future that might emerge from the chaos of society’s total collapse.

This strategy of preservation seems, however, a bit like bomb shelter mentality, and indicates a certain pessimism about the ability of the majority to fight for their own interests and win (or even to realize what their interests are). Berman puts his faith in individuals rather than in collective action, even though historically, substantial social changes have been accomplished through mass action (coupled with ripe conditions).

To hunker down with our personal acts of cultural preservation bespeaks a certain blindness to the various forms of wisdom possessed by ordinary people, even if they do generally favor action movies over classic literature. It is shortsighted and unfair to write off the majority of humanity as irredeemable rubes and passive spectators, without the potential to affect or create history.

Plenty of people the world over, illiterate or not, love their own traditions and cultures, and are mightily resisting being steamrollered by the corporate monoculture of McWorld. Whether they will succeed or fail is unknown, but their success is no doubt largely dependent on how powerfully broad and united the effort can become.

Though Berman’s treatise presents no solution that doesn’t coldly abandon most of us to a long slide into a new Dark Ages, it is, in spite of itself, a rousing wake-up call. It presents an organized analysis of the problems in enough horrific detail to provoke outrage, and with it, the will to push through despair toward action. The Twilight of American Culture was written before the global anti-capitalist movement burst onto the social scene; perhaps Berman would now concede that we are not so utterly brainwashed as we seemed just a short time ago.