Dr. Morris Berman
© The Washington Times Communities
Cultural, as well as scientific, historian and social critic Dr. Morris Berman.
Florida - Many Americans think that their culture is on a downward spiral; Morris Berman thinks that Americans can't think.

Our economy is weak, our education system is failing, and we've substituted the internet for real social interraction and real thought. We live in an ocean of information and have lost the capacity to pull knowledge from it, the critical capacity to test information for truth.

Morris Berman is a prominent cultural and scientific historian, and also a well-known social critic. He's written extensively about everything from the values of Western civilization to our country's financial woes. His work challenges us to look at facts from a far more comprehensive perspective.

In this first part of our discussion, Dr. Berman shares his views about contemporary American thought - or lack thereof - as well as the relationship between personal responsibility and individualism.

Part 1 - America's culture of "Me, Myself, and I"

Joseph F. Cotto: Lateral thinking is not a concept with which many are familiar. Particularly in the West, most of us have been taught to think in a critical fashion. Do you believe that the rise of lateral thinking will be good for American society?

Dr. Morris Berman: I guess I'm wondering who "most of us" is, particularly in the United States. Educationally speaking, nothing can save the U.S.; we are simply too far gone. Hence, linear or lateral doesn't matter. All the evidence is that Americans just don't think, and don't really know what that consists of.

I discuss a lot of this in the first two books of my "American Empire" trilogy, The Twilight of American Culture and Dark Ages America. The statistics are astounding. For example, 20 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth, and an additional 9 percent say they don't know which revolves around which. Something like 70 percent don't believe in evolution. It's like the Enlightenment never happened.

Nor is a university education of much help these days. In their book Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reveal that after two years of higher education, 45 percent of American students have learned nothing at all, and after four years, 36 percent; and they say this especially applies to critical thinking abilities. Most Americans don't know the difference between an argument and an opinion; they literally have no idea as to what evidence is. Some researchers have even identified a phenomenon called "negative learning," by which they mean that after four years of college, the students know less than when they matriculated - and this apparently applies to some of the most prestigious universities in the country.

It's easy to call this ignorance, but it actually may be stupidity. The impact of screens on the brain - from television onwards, and then especially with the rise of the personal computer - is apparently quite negative, affecting things like synaptic connections. I discuss this in the third volume of my trilogy, Why America Failed, in chapter 3, "The Illusion of Progress." I would also recommend Nicholas Carr's book, The Shallows. The footnote references in these books will lead readers to the studies that have been done in this regard. Coupled with the data accumulated from the late 1940s on (J.Z. Young et al.), that the brain is a whole lot more plastic than we ever realized, you get a picture of American thinking abilities that is little more than a joke.

Finally, as to lateral thinking per se - years ago I wrote a book called The Reenchantment of the World, in which I argued for the importance of lateral, as opposed to critical or linear, thinking. Given what has happened since then, I now feel like a pre-Reformation Loyola. Thus we have someone like Deepak Chopra telling his admirers, "You must get beyond the prison of the intellect!" The problem is that he is addressing New Age audiences who never managed to get into the prison of the intellect in the first place; they should be so lucky! Let them spend twenty years inside of that "prison," and then we'll talk about the importance of lateral thinking.

Cotto: One of the gravest concerns cited with modern society is a pervasive attitude of nonchalance toward personal responsibility. What are your opinions about this?

Dr. Berman: I guess the first thing that occurs to me is: Responsibility toward whom? Oneself? The people around you? The larger community (assuming such a thing even exists)? You see the problem: It depends on whom one is talking about.

Americans are guided by an "ethic" of extreme individualism; it's kind of our pride and joy, the far end of what Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty." I recall a story I heard in San Francisco when I lived there in the 1970s, and everyone was hog wild over "est," the brain child of Werner Erhard (I called it the spirituality of selfishness). This woman was telling me that a friend of hers, just fresh from an "est" seminar, agreed to help her move. So they loaded a lot of stuff into her car and set off to her new apartment. The traffic, however, was practically at a standstill, and the "friend" got very impatient. He finally told her he needed to take care of himself, and that he was responsible only for himself. So he got out of the car and left her to fend for herself.

Erhard, of course, saw his teaching as some sort of holistic breakthrough, but the guy was merely Ayn Rand warmed over, and this vignette illustrates the "ethic" of narcissism pretty well. It's not an accident that Alan Greenspan was a protégé of Ms. Rand, and that the economy and society of the United States (not to mention the culture) revolves around the ideology of Me, Myself, and I. Caring for another person is generally regarded as foolish and/or weak, in American society; charity is basically the bourgeois version of justice.

I recently had an opportunity to witness a very different kind of personal responsibility when I spent six weeks in Japan. What is first and foremost in the Japanese mind is one's impact on those around you. When the Japanese wear a hospital mask, it is not, as in the United States, to protect themselves from others' germs; it is to protect others from your germs. You ride the subway in Tokyo and no one is talking into a cell phone, because that would be regarded as rude, as intruding on others with your private conversation. In fact, subway cars have an icon of a cell phone mounted above the doors, with the word OFF superimposed on it.

The typical American scenario - you're in a restaurant trying to have a quiet dinner with a friend, and three feet away a woman is literally hollering into her cell phone about the details of her recent gall bladder operation - would evoke feelings of revulsion in a Japanese person. The general American attitude to the social environment is "Hey, I can do whatever I want, and if you don't like it, too bad for you." Finally, that means we are not living in a society at all. Margaret Thatcher famously told us that "there is no such thing as society," and if you believe that, all you can look forward to is cultural disintegration; which is what we see all around us.

Part 2 - The decline of the American Dream

Dr. Morris Berman_1
© The Washington Times Communities
A great deal of people are always looking for a reason to believe.

Some choose to place their faith in social constructs, such as political parties. Others devote their respective livelihoods to religious action. Yet more build their entire lives around the hopes and dreams of those around them.

In any case, the quest for self-fulfillment is one of the most familiar happenings in human history.

In this second part of our discussion, historian and social critic Morris Berman shares his thoughts about the societal ramifications of ideology. He also tells us about his views regarding the traditional left-to-right political spectrum, as well as that fabled American Dream.


Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. In the long run, what do you think this does to any given society?

Dr. Berman: Maybe the solution boils down to having a sense of humor, which is generally in short supply among the people you are describing. Eric Hoffer explored the theme of the desperate search for certainty in a book he wrote more than sixty years ago, The True Believer. He may have been talking more about fundamentalism (religious or secular, it doesn't really matter) than about belief as such; the problem is that it's a slippery slope, and believers generally tend to wind up as fundamentalists, thinking that there is only One True Reality, namely theirs.

What Hoffer pegged - correctly in my view - was the Void at the center of all this, the tremendous need to keep the wolves (i.e., psychological disintegration) at bay, such that it was not the particular faith that mattered, but only the need to stuff the emptiness within. Hence, he said, you find a lot of conversion going on: Marxists will suddenly become Catholics, for example, or vice versa. The real point is the form, not the content. It is for this reason that I regard folks such as Richard Dawkins, or the late Christopher Hitchens, as "religious atheists." Their attitude is one of intense zeal, the mark of the true believer. As far as God goes, they don't say, "Well, you can take it or leave it." No: they are jumping up and down, screaming that religion is bunk. Methinks the ladies doth protest too much.

The reason I think humor is important is because there really is a difference between belief and fundamentalism. It depends on how you hold your belief. Look, I'm a Jew; I think there are some good things about Judaism, and some not so good things (on balance, however, more good than bad; but that's just my opinion). If someone were to come up to me and declare, "Hey, I think Judaism is a pile of crap!", my response would be: "Well, it isn't for everyone, that's for sure." When I see orthodox Jews getting all worked up about exactly what is kosher or not, I can't help thinking of Christ's response to the Pharisees: "What comes out of your mouth is more important than what goes into it." What could be more obvious?

Similarly, when I see Muslims going nuts over some novel by Salman Rushdie, or some cartoon in a Danish newspaper, or over this recent (ridiculous) film slandering Islam, my reaction is: Hey, did you guys ever hear of chilling out? Of water off a duck's back? Sometimes no reaction at all is better than burning down the U.S. consulate in Libya, doncha think? My point is that the danger to society is not belief itself, whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Neo-liberal, but the fervor with which any belief is held. We all need to lighten up a bit, I think; isms are such dangerous things.

Cotto: Here in the United States, we just had yet another presidential election. During this year's Republican primaries, many marginal candidates found popular favor, and gained international attention because of their adherence to "true" conservatism. When it comes to political matters, do you find that the traditional left-right spectrum is a valid way of approaching complex situations?

Dr. Berman: One of my favorite historians is Jackson Lears, of Rutgers University. Here's what he wrote in the New Republic in 1994: "In imagining more humane ways of life, why are recollections of the past held inferior to fantasies of the future? Perhaps because myths of progress continue to mesmerize intellectuals at all points on the political spectrum, from The Nation to the National Review." This summarizes the problem pretty well, I think.

Whether we are talking about Left or Right, Obama or Romney, the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, they all believe in the American Dream. Their definition of "progress" is strictly material, nothing more - and thus pretty impoverished as a concept. The argument is about how wealth should be distributed, or redistributed; it's not about the fact that the Dream is an illusion. Both The Nation and the National Review talk about restoring the American Dream, when in fact what we need to do is abolish it. The whole premise is wrong, based on the notion of infinity - of permanent growth - which is not possible in the real world.

As one colleague of mine has written, permanent growth means permanent crisis. The planet doesn't have the resources for that, and it won't be long until we run out of oil, and the fight for food, water, and energy will become quite violent (well, it is already). Both Left and Right think the latest software app is groovy. Both believe that our salvation lies in technological innovation and economic expansion, when the truth (as Nathaniel Hawthorne pointed out ages ago) is that this is the road to ruin.

To go back to Question 3 for a moment, both see these things as universal truths; rarely do they talk of the limits to growth, or of the spiritual poverty that this "growth" and "progress" entail. For the most part, their focus is on the quantity of life, not the quality. Both ends of the political spectrum are enamored with, say, heart transplants, or the latest bit of medical technology. For them, this is "progress." But neither side talks about how, when we were kids, doctors used to make home visits, take time with their patients, and get paid out of pocket, with no corporate intermediary. Reinstating all of that would be true progress, it seems to me, and it would affect many more Americans than those in need of the latest chic technological innovation.

This business about recollections of the past that Prof. Lears refers to...In 1979 Peter Berg and I mounted a conference in San Francisco called "Listening to the Earth." One of the speakers was Gary Snyder. I wanted to bait him a little, I remember, just to see what he'd say (I already knew the answer), so in a panel discussion I asked him if he didn't think his Zen-environmental vision wasn't a bit romantic, unrealistic. "You know," he replied, "there are definite limits to always barreling forward, and taking no heed of the past. There will come a time when that won't work, and we'll have to check out the used parts bin, and recover some of the stuff we cavalierly threw away."

Well, that time has come; it's just that the Right and Left in the United States haven't figured it out yet. And they may never do. How did Thomas Hobbes put it? "Hell is truth seen too late."