Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why America Failed

The anthropologist, Hugh Brody, describes in his 'Out of Eden' the paradox of how nomadic hunter gatherers or pastoralists have found themselves bound to particular places, living within them from a knowing particularity and love whereas farmers have found themselves ultimately restless, imagining that the grass always will be greener in the next valley (or having exhausted their current valley, the next one becomes greener by default)! Thus, is the cult of progress inaugurated.

A fundamental restlessness haunts 'civilization' and this has become increasingly magnified in time.  Morris Berman argues, in the completion of his trilogy on America, 'Why America Failed' that this acquisitive restlessness, 'hustling' is the term used, characterised America from the outset. The rhetoric of republican virtue morphed from serving the public, a view of the moral purpose of life as bound to community, to one of merely private benefit even before the Revolution was out of the blocks. We are measured by what we accumulate and we accumulate not moral worth or social connection but material things. As Wendell Berry remarks people never allowed themselves to truly arrive in the US, to see its manifold possibilities, before they were re-creating it in their own fractured images.

Hustling grandly re-designated as 'progress' and adorned with panoplies of technological achievements (worshipped with a more than almost religious fervour) is not a viable foundation on which to build a society that works and Berman tellingly portraits reasons why he believes that America as a society does not work: evidence that is both statistical and qualitative.

My favourite haunting statistic is that United States devours two-thirds of the world's anti-depressants!

This dominant tradition of being on the make (and often the take) has been opposed. An alternative tradition has always existed - whether it be Thoreau or Lewis Mumford - but it has rarely enjoyed power and only once, Berman argues, thrown up a President namely Jimmy Carter. He read books, indeed poetry, and had the temerity to propose a life of civil virtue and restrained consumption to his fellow citizens and was replaced quickly by Ronald Regan, the arch-fantasist, who soothed away American fears that the party was over by running up huge debts on the collective credit card whose bill has yet to be paid.

Berman, in his bravest chapter, argues that there is only one other point in US history when the dominant narrative has met with a politically powerful opposition namely in the South as it confronted the North, a confrontation that, as we know led to civil war, and the North's triumph.

Brave because to argue this requires the reader to accept a very nuanced argument that undermines the simplistic stereotype of a war against slavery. Berman, never doubting that slavery was abominable, wants us to see North pitched against South as two alternative views of what a society could be - economically liberal, materialistic North meets agrarian, aristocratic South. It was a 'clash of civilizations' and quotes Lincoln to compelling effect in his defence. In the North, money is the measure of all things and the liberty to create more of it, in the South, it is character and honour. Both carry immense shadows but the shadow, in the South,  that is slavery, should not blind us to the virtues, held in the South, of a slower, more communitarian and meaning bound society. Nor what the South might have become if allowed to follow the logic of its own development rather than define itself (in defeat) against a hated 'other'.

One unresolved intellectual question (for me) was if the dominant tradition was with America from the beginning where did the 'alternative South' come from and why did it become embedded 'there' in opposition to the 'North'? Why was the 'South' so different?

The book is framed as a tragedy, written by an author whose well-argued and compelling belief is that the country of his birth bears a fundamental flaw from its beginnings, one that will and is slowly unravelling it and there is no hope beyond more benign rather than violent collapse (or slow deflation, ending with a whimper rather than a bang)!

It is sobering but probably only for the small minority who know that they live in and with a hustling, materialist addiction: an addiction that is a powerful strand in the world in and beyond America. Most addicts, as Berman quietly laments, do not reform this side of death!

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