Dark Ages America: The Final Phase Of Empire Paperback – Mar 27 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Particularly compelling is Mr. Berman's discussion of America's need for an enemy, an Other upon which to focus in order that we never turn our attention to the emptiness at the center of the American psyche: The Red Menace, the Cold War, the War on Drugs, The War on Terror. Each of these wars has served to diminish and even outlaw critical thinking about America's empiric career. In a constant state of emergency, history for Americans is a set of bullet points which are cynically served up as justification for the latest military adventure. Berman's anecdotes and survey findings paint an American populace that is self-absorbed, provincial, and willfully anti-intellectual, a people for whom bullet points more than suffice.
We watch television shows about tightly knit families and groups of friends, staving off the loneliness generated by the individualistic, devil-take-the-hindmost ethos that is America's real civil religion, Berman says. We turn away from the terror that we inflict on innocent people in order that we may claim their oil wealth and so keep this dwindling life-blood flowing in the veins of the American project of global empire. We pay no attention to the vast sums of money spent to prop up the energy-military-industrial complex. Instead we are distracted by cynical stories of welfare queens, wicked tax and spend liberals, evil dictators and axes of evil, our resentments kept well-stoked and smoldering.
On a personal note, landing at Kansas City International Airport the other day, my vision of America altered by my in-flight reading of Mr. Berman's remarkable work, I saw the landscape through new eyes, a landscape I now understood to have been systematically vandalized by the corporatocracy: big box stores, chain hotels and restaurants, strip malls and gas stations, a landscape everywhere repeated across the United States, a landscape we intend to impose upon the world in order to fulfill our destiny as bringer of freedom as expressed through consumption.
While this cookie-cutter landscape had always before aroused in me a sense of unease, an unease that had become in me clich? and so easily subdued, with the assistance of Berman's perspicacious vision, I became alive to the fact that this American landscape represents in physical form the ingenuity and monomania of America's new empiric form.
Empty of community, driven by the ethos of radical individualism, I saw an interlocking system of endless consumption in which we are all driven by the relentless stoking of our vanity and desire by clever marketers who have taught us to confuse social goods with economic goods, and by a political structure which mystifies cause and effect, which ruthlessly condemns anyone who has the temerity to question the course of this bleak, empty empire.
And given their boundless enthusiasm for hi tech, they are likely to find the notion absurd. How can we possibly be in the Dark Ages, when our copying machines would have seemed supernatural to medieval monks?
But the shadows on the wall of Plato's Cave are not any more real when displayed on a 62-inch flat screen TV.
Whatever crimes this book may be charged with, its worst offense is stating the plain truth.
Of course everyone will complain about the shortage of recommended cures.
But if a doctor isn't sure how to save a patient with a dozen fatal diseases, the patient's chance of survival is better if she at least knows what ails her.
What do all of these seemingly disparate phenomena have in common? According to Morris Berman, they are all indicative of a nation that is rotten to the core, an empire on the verge of collapse, and they are all the consequences of the laissez-faire, dog-eat-dog, me-first-and-devil-take-the-hindmost ethos that has permeated American culture since it's inception.
Ironically, this ethos is the "shadow side" as it were of those ideals that once made the United States great in the eyes of the world: its traditions of challenging monarchic authority and of guaranteeing individual freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Berman argues that this shadow side undermined any sense of community or commons and paved the way for a contemporary society in which financial success is the sole standard of achievement. Without any higher goals or deeper virtues than winning at any cost, American success has been surprisingly and shockingly empty. As well, because this ethos of empty consumerism has been predicated upon the maintenance of global inequities through militarism, much of the world (especially the so-called Third World) has grown to see the US as a belligerent Goliath bent on global domination, instead of as the self-righteous David of our national fantasies. The sense of false egalitarianism that pervades our culture (but that is opposed to any redistribution of wealth) means that being smart is shameful, that ignorance is endemic, and that we gleefully re-elect a moron as President because he doesn't threaten our own collective intellectual shortcomings. Our fascination with technology as a panacea has also contributed to the breakdown in civil society at home (e.g., the cell phone anecdote above) and to our lack of concern for those abroad (e.g., seeing smart bombs as somehow "benevolent" weapons). Finally Berman also discusses in some detail specific cases of US intervention in Iran, Iraq, and in the affairs of the Palestinians and their unintended but inevitable consequences in the blowback of 9/11 and the subsequent "War on Terror."
The picture he paints is not a pretty one and is one that most Americans will reject out of hand, precisely because, I think, it is so accurate. Like Dorian Gray, we are going to want to keep our true picture hidden from ourselves as long as we can, but unlike that famous literary monster, our false image (in this case, of global benefactor) no longer convinces those in the rest of the world. Contrary to what many of the reviewers here would have you believe, he also does not romanticize the other modes of social and economic organization that the 20th and 21st centuries have seen, including tribal fundamentalism, suffocating collectivism, or state communism, seeing in them situations that are as pernicious, if not more so, than the televoid consumerism the US seeks to export to every swath of land on the globe.
Most of the one- and two-star reviews of this book are indicative of the very trends that Berman addresses. They reduce his nuanced musings to the tired right-wing tropes of a "liberal elite" that "blames America," insist that the global US military presence is protecting the world from "someone else's" imperial schemes instead of being prima facie evidence of our own global domination, and even fall back on our military supremacy as some kind of litmus test for how civilized we are. As Berman notes throughout the book, we Americans have little patience for nuance and alternative perspectives, and have an uncanny ability to see the world in precisely upside-down terms.
Which is not to say that the book's critics are entirely mistaken; _Dark Ages America_ is far from flawless. His arguments at times draw on his own gut reactions to things, rather than on solid evidence (not necessarily a bad thing, but something that contradicts his thesis that we need to privilege reason over faith). As well, his prose is often long-winded, and the evidence he musters is sometimes self-contradictory (why, for example, does the laissez-faire, me-first ethos manifest in terms of a Christianist hive mind?). Finally, he overlooks the other converging catastrophes that we seem to be facing in the next century---global warming, peak oil, the total collapse of seafood stocks---and how these relate to the end of American empire. The value of the book far outweighs these relatively minor criticisms, though.
And, alas, Berman does not provide simple solutions, like "rocking the vote" or "electing Democrats," which would be the approach of traditional liberals who think that, with some tinkering, the system can be saved. He leaves the reader left scratching her head, wondering what, if anything, she can do to halt this juggernaut, and this has left him open to charges of being a pessimist. Instead I feel that he is guardedly optimistic about humanity's overall ability to survive and adapt. As he says in conclusion (p. 327),
"My own belief is that there is no warding off the Dark Age; all the evidence points in that direction. But you can certainly do your best to keep it out of your head, which is a contribution of a sort. What is thus called for is long-term study and thought, in an effort to come up with a serious alternative to global bourgeois democracy---blueprints for a better time, perhaps, and for another place."
In other words, those who already suspect that something is profoundly wrong need to be regularly reminded that their resistance to the "colonization of the imagination" is worthwhile and sane. For that reason alone, this book is profoundly important and should be read by anyone, left, right, or center, who considers themselves a radical (in the original sense of returning to the "root" of the problem in order to work out solutions).
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