- Why America Failed by Morris Berman
For those who have read the first two books of Morris Berman’s trilogy (The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America), Why America Failed reads like a kind of post-mortem. While the first two books survey the deplorable state of our culture in the present, Berman, in his third volume, takes a more historical view, in a forensic sense. What were the causes? What led to where we are now which is moving toward a moribund political and social culture?
Berman distills the dystopia down to its most elemental basis: defined and driven by the hustler mentality with technology as its delivery system. Hustling is material acquisition without restraint (even spending money we don’t have, leading to “debt-slavery”). There is no such thing as enough is enough. This has been the driving force of our culture.
Chapter Four, “The Rebuke of History,” presents what seems an interesting yet unconventional analysis of the causes of the American Civil War and how they shaped the “techno-hustler” culture which was to engulf the entire country and ultimately be our undoing, though its roots extend back to our beginnings.
Berman writes, “In contrast to the zeal for money that characterized the North, the South was guided by ideals of honor, courage, amiability, and courtesy” (139). This is a diametrically opposed culture compared to the drive for material progress of the North. This was the essence of the clash: two different ways of life. Not just slavery, an abomination by any standards of course. Not just preservation of the Union (which was Lincoln’s driving objective).
I hope any detractors of Berman’s portrayal of the antebellum South do not make false associations about him supporting a culture which embraced slavery, employing the logic of those who label Mark Twain a racist for using the “N” word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
So, is this “Goodbye, Farewell, Amen”? Open the gates and flee the realm? Berman does address “the question of where contemporary ‘Southerners’ can go to escape [the] dystopia . . .” (137). Near the end of the book, Berman discusses pockets of civility and community in Europe and even Mexico. For those who know the reality and stay, there is the monastic option he introduced in The Twilight of American Culture. Step off the hustler grid and carve out a little corner, do something meaningful, and even in a small way make a difference. “If you want a non-hustling life,” Berman writes, “you are definitely better off hitting the road” (178).
In chapter five, “The Future of the Past,” Berman does not offer a light on the horizon, which as he says books of this sort are expected to provide. The culture of the hustler demands that the citizenry remain mired in the fantasy that prosperity is around the corner no matter what. Berman will not pander to that. He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville from 150 years ago: “I know of no country in which, speaking generally, there is less independence of mind and true freedom of discussion than in America” (166). This is the milieu in which we exist. [End Page 198]