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Dark Ages America [Paperback]

Morris Berman
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 27 2007
In "Dark Ages America", the pundit Morris Berman argues that America has entered a dangerous phase in its historical development from which there is no return. As the corporate-consumerist juggernaut that now defines the nation rolls on, the very factors that once propelled America to greatness - extreme individualism, territorial and economic expansion, and the pursuit of material wealth - are, paradoxically, the nails in America's coffin. Within a few decades, Berman argues, the United States will be marginalised on the world stage, its hegemony replaced by China or the European Union. With the US just one terrorist attack away from a police state, Berman's book is a controversial and illuminating look at American society now and its ills.

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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.

From Booklist

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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Bloody Truth is Painful May 30 2009
Format:Paperback
In a carefully researched presentation, Dr. Morris Berman walks us carefully through the founding of the United States of America to the 21st century in 2006 and describes in painful detail what we have done to ourselves and others over that period of time. I am a frequent user of our library system and have the pleasure of rewarding myself with one to two hours of reading every day. Dark Ages America is the best written evaluation of our present circumstances that I have read to date. His work is interesting to read and his references display the breadth and depth of his scholarship. I strongly suggest everyone read this timely illumination of history.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Stinging Rebuke of American Foreign Policy March 13 2011
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
In "Dark Ages America", Professor Berman provides an extensive review of American foreign policy throughout the second half of the twentieth century as it impacts the future US global standing. The book is full of interesting assessments of how America has evolved as a world hegemon through the clever and often sinister leveraging of financial and military resources. He uses the term 'empire' to describe what the US has become by wielding power and influence to effect regime change, conduct foreign wars, promote the greenback and help divide the world into ideological camps that either support or oppose American domination. While most of the history that Berman trots out here is well known and already picked over, how he uses it to forecast the nation's future going forward in the 21st century is, to say the least, interesting and thought-provoking. The George W. Bush administration efforts to push the American international agenda to the extreme in risky ventures like Iraq and Afghanistan is proof that the US is on a slippery downward slope. Economically, wars drain national treasuries, as well as diminishing moral stature. Added to which, the national culture has been shaped over the centuries to see itself on a meteoric path to historical greatness or 'Manifest Destiny". By buying into the various political doctrines such as corporate capitalism that evoke international supremacy, the majority of American leaders, especially of the conservative persuasion, cannot switch tracks fast enough to avoid the inevitable collapse of the dream. Read more ›
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Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  101 reviews
181 of 191 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dark Destiny April 27 2006
By Panopticonman - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A work of breathtaking erudition and synthesis, DARK AGES AMERICA offers no hope for arresting America's career as a self-destructive global hegemon. While that's a difficult conclusion to swallow, Berman amply defends his thesis, drawing his supporting evidence from a variety of disciplines: history, cultural studies, polling data, economic analysis, sociology and social psychology. The possibility of America's turning away from its dark destiny, which in Mr. Berman's analysis is now clearly manifest, is made to seem remote, and, regrettably, convincingly so.

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.
166 of 180 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars the sad truth April 9 2006
By Fred Strohm - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Americans, perhaps even more than the citizens of other nations, are fond of repeating that their country is the greatest nation on Earth. They are not the ideal customers for the news that their nation is in the Dark Ages.

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.
167 of 184 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Unpalatable Argument, But Difficult to Refute March 29 2006
By Al Max - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
As a true-blue American, my blood rings with the "Gee Whiz, we can lick this" attitude that is in so many of our DNA, and that traces back to Howdy-Doodee, Will Rogers, Horatio Alger, and so many real and not so real characters. The idea that some problems, and some bad state of affairs, are simply not solveable is difficult to swallow. It seems well, unamerican. So it's ironic that Morris Berman's argument that America itself is heading downhill, and is, in a sense, unsolveable is so well made. He makes a strong case that we are on the downhill slope of empire, trapped in our own hubris, with too many systemic flaws built into the operating system. His work is comparable, I suspect, to Kevin Phillips' new book, American Theocracy, which, according to reviews, also paints a dark picture of our future. Whatever side you take on this country's future, Morris Berman's latest book is well worth reading.
45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars For those who suspect that something is terribly wrong with contemporary America Nov. 28 2006
By Jason Mierek - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The guy behind you in the theatre bellows into his cell phone for the first fifteen minutes of the film, and then threatens to kick your butt when you ask him to be quiet. Someone in a Hummer sideswipes your car on the interstate off-ramp and then explains to the police that she shouldn't be ticketed because she couldn't see your car from "up there." The U.S. invades and occupies a sovereign nation based on ever-changing rationales and in violation of international law, kidnaps and tortures that nation's citizens, and then wonders why the world responds with contempt and violence. Meanwhile, those American citizens who protest the actions of their government, including things as beyond the pale as the legalization of torture, are called traitors.

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).
35 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Courageous Author, A Great Book April 6 2006
By Dean DeHarpporte - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is the best book on the state of this faltering nation that I have ever read. It is an in-your-face description of a fatally overextended America where overwrought consumerism, mindless selfishness, and hopeless ignorance born of an obsession with individuality - and neglect of the values of community - has run wild. An America which has lost the virtue of its founders and whose sole purpose for existence has devolved into brutalization of other countries to force them to conform to our interests in a game where we make the rules up as we go along. Inevitably, our neighbors will become our enemies and circle our wagons. Most books that paint such gloomy (in this case more like abysmal) pictures offer a helpful laundry list of measures we can take to redeem ourselves. But it is to the great credit of Berman that he has the courage to explain in excruciating detail that he can see no path toward redemption, that the next vision that will lead to the next great civilization will arise elsewhere and elsewhen while or after the greatness that was the United States of America passes into the detritus of history. The only question Berman doesn't address is "Who will tell the children?"

The book will never be acclaimed by the mainstream because it tells the truths that no one in power wants to hear. It is a bitter pill indeed. But don't let that stop you from reading it.
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