In this provocative, scattershot jeremiad, cultural historian Berman (The Twilight of American Culture) likens America to ancient Rome on the brink. On the geopolitical plane, he contends, the United States is a belligerent, overstretched empire, saddled with huge deficits and a hollowed-out economy, vulnerable to terrorist blowback and, worse, collapse if foreign creditors finally pull the plug. The rot is cultural and spiritual, too: Americans are cold, alienated shopaholics immured in suburban anomie, each encased in a private bubble of iTunes and media noise and indifferent to the public good. Culprits include globalization, technology and, more fundamentally, the individualism and commercialism that is the bedrock of American identity. Because American civilization is a "package deal," the author considers it impervious to piecemeal reform and, given Americans' ingrained "stupidity" and willful blindness, unsalvageable. Berman's attempts to tie every American dysfunction to an all-encompassing sickness of soul overreaches, leading him to lump together serious issues like poverty and the Abu Ghraib outrages with trivialities like annoying cell phone yakkers or the "freedom fries" phenomenon, which he bemoans as "symbolic of an emptiness at the core." Often stimulating and insightful in its particulars, his indictment, like the jingoism it abhors, is too sweeping and essentialist to fully capture American reality. (Apr.)
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A despairing analyst of contemporary America, Berman continues criticism begun in The Twilight of American Culture (2000). One character crystallizing Berman's thoughts is President George W. Bush, under whom, according to Berman, the U.S. is incipiently, if not actually, suffering a "presidential dictatorship," a "de facto Christian theocratic plutocracy." In that vein, Berman undertakes a wide-ranging condemnation of American economic and foreign policy of the past 50 years, which he believes has propelled America into disastrous decline. That Berman inveighs against free markets and thinks the cold war was partly a dynamic of the Soviet Union acting defensively infuses this work with a solidly leftist viewpoint. In Berman's vigorous arrangement of evidence, current events are propelling us upon an irreversibly downward trajectory toward a societal situation resembling the Dark Ages. However, Berman offers no positive ideas to reverse this perceived free fall, making his tome more of an alarm than a solution. Gilbert Taylor
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