Book Review: "The Twilight of American Culture"

Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture, W. W. Norton, 2000, CDN $34.95.

Review by
Jeffrey Shallit
Department of Computer Science
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, N2L 3G1.

Morris Berman has seen the future, and he doesn't like it.

Berman is, according to the book jacket, "an innovative cultural historian and social critic" who has "held visiting professorships in the United States and Europe".

He believes that the US, like ancient Rome, is exhibiting signs of imminent societal collapse: rising economic inequality, falling literacy, rising anti-intellectualism, and spiritual death through an expanding corporate culture.

Berman provides a familiar litany of what's wrong: 53% of Americans don't know that the earth takes one year to revolve around the sun; 60% of adult Americans have never read a book; 70% of Americans believe in the existence of angels.

Drawing inspiration from the Dark Ages, Berman advocates a remedy in what he calls the "monastic option". During a time of intellectual stagnation, monks preserved and copied classical wisdom. This knowledge was then available for the cultural renewal that started in the 12th century. Following this precedent, Berman suggests that what he calls NMI's (new monastic individuals) start preserving what's best in Western culture so that it can survive the coming storm.

What's an NMI? You're an NMI if you love your occupation, aren't focused on celebrity culture, and haven't sold out to the corporate world to get where you are. NMI's are creative and nomadic. Hmmm, doesn't that sound suspiciously like a description of a certain cultural historian and social critic who's held visiting professorships in the United States and Europe?

As Berman admits, his notion of NMI has much in common with "Class X" from Paul Fussell's 1983 book, Class. Fussell dissected American culture into nine socioeconomic classes, from "Bottom out-of-sight" to "Top out-of-sight". All of these classes are more or less despicable, except for an exceptional tenth class, Class X, which (surprise!) includes people like Fussell himself. Similarly, Berman's description of NMI's sounds like he is, with deep appreciation, looking into a mirror: "the NMI is the purist [sic] embodiment of the human spirit". Beware of books where people just like the author are depicted as saviours.

Despite a reputation as an intellectual, Berman frequently bases his argument on questionable sources. For example, he claims that 42% of Americans cannot locate Japan on a world map -- an eminently believable statistic -- but the impact is diminished by the realization that Berman's source is Garrison Keillor, the public radio variety show host. Two pages later, Berman devotes more than a page to the sad results when Jay Leno asked basic questions about American history of high school students and undergraduates. Americans' ignorance is legendary, but Jay Leno doesn't exactly have a reputation as a researcher well-versed in statistical methods. Yet another example is taken from "Car Talk", a public radio comedy show. Perhaps the example is true, and perhaps not, but couldn't Berman be bothered to check for himself? Never let facts get in the way of a good anecdote, I suppose.

Although Berman decries the abilities of today's students, he's not exactly Nabokov himself. In one section, he misuses the term "cybernetics", and, in another, includes this embarrassing sentence:

	The group included men, women, and people of color.

Often Berman's arguments are based more on emotion than dispassionate analysis. Like many on the Left, he dislikes globalization, but can't coherently explain why. He remarks

	In 1991, the Nike Corporation made $3 billion in profits,
	paying its factory workers in Indonesia -- mostly poor,
	malnourished women -- $1.03 a day, not enough for food
	and shelter.

This is incoherent because it does not tell us what is wrong with Nike's behavior. Is Nike employing slave laborers or busting unions, both of which we may defensibly decry? Or are its workers making a rational choice that, in the context of Indonesian employment opportunities, $1.03 a day is better than nothing -- even if the wage seems small by Western standards? Would Indonesia somehow be better off if Nike refused to employ any Indonesians at all? Berman doesn't say. An economist friend comments that Berman's analysis shows "more political bias than analytical acumen." Later, Berman remarks, "I am not an economist." No kidding.

In these days of dot-communism, social critics can hardly resist the tempting target of the Internet, and Berman is no different. The Internet is to blame, we are told, because it

	disrupt[s] the `vertical' experience provided by
	the printed word...  What hypertext provides, in
	contrast, is a `horizontal' experience of skimming
	across related (or, for that matter, unrelated) ideas,
	opening up kaleidoscopic windows, as it were... 
	Subjective space evaporates, to be replaced by mental
	theme parks that assist in the process of moving our
	culture from wisdom to schlock. [1]

I find this "analysis" the worst sort of gobbledygook, similar to the nonsense that Alan Sokal parodied so effectively in his famous hoax on Social Text. But even if it has meaning, Berman ignores all the benefits of electronic texts. To name just two:

(1) the ability to include supporting data that in the print medium would be excised to save paper;

(2) the ability to cheaply preserve and quickly retrieve valuable yet obscure cultural documents.

For example, as I write this, the outcome of the US presidential election is still in doubt, but it is trivial to retrieve detailed polling data on all congressional races and ballot measures, something not easily available in print. Similarly, I was recently able to find online a technical report report written by Semour Papert, debunking many of the claims of philosopher Hubert Dreyfus. This report was never published in a refereed journal and hence would be difficult to find in traditional libraries. If these successes mean my "vertical experience" has been disrupted, then disrupt away, please.

Despite being poles apart politically, Berman's analysis has much in common with Allan Bloom's bad and unintentionally hilarious 1987 polemic, The Closing of the American Mind. There is the same sourness, the same disdain for youth and youth culture. Both Berman and Bloom hunger for a better time long gone, when there were no McDonald's restaurants or Internet terminals in libraries. Both see literature and philosophy as the pinnacle of human achievement, and view science, mathematics, and technology with suspicion, even hostility.

Ultimately this is all familiar and well-trodden ground. Indeed, Berman argued much of it in his execrable 1981 anti-rationalist screed, The Reenchantment of The World. The reader with a need to feel superior to most of North America would be better advised to read Paul Fussell's much wittier book Class or even Joe Queenan's Red Lobster, White Trash, and The Blue Lagoon. Berman closes his introduction as follows: "I promise to do my best not to entertain you." This is one goal of the book that he has achieved.

[1] I wonder if Berman is also ideologically opposed to the academic footnote, which has much the same function.
Postscript added June 6, 2003: Neither Berman nor Berman's fans liked this review very much, but were unable to refute the problems I found with the book. Nevertheless, some of Berman's fans border on the psychotic. For example, here is an actual e-mail mesage I received about my review:

Only a complete asshole (pride your self on one dubious achievement)would
characterize The Reenchantment of the World in such a dismissively 
pejorative fashion as to lay eternal discredit to anyone bearing your name.
If you recant I will gladly urinate on your wretched paltry soul from paradise.
It could only improve you.  P.S. Goebbels sends his best wishes.
He eagerly awaits your demise. 
Talents such as yours are apreciated in certain circles. 

The charming misspellings, and the implication that anyone who disagrees with Berman is a Nazi, are only part of the fun.