The Twilight of American Culture
by Morris Berman
WW Norton, 2000, paper
No people can be both ignorant and free.
As in the case of Rome, America is not able to grasp that the
outside world sees its behavior through a very different lens
than it sees itself-which is to say, that neither polity was or
is able to understand its role in precipitating certain events.
The reaction in the Roman case was to talk of "barbarians";
our reaction was hardly more sophisticated. Both civilizations
exacerbated the situation, and weakened themselves, by projecting
the enemy "out there"-by believing that the attacks
upon it had emerged from a political vacuum.
... a nation in which 87 percent of eighteen- to twenty-four year
olds (according to a 2002 National Geographic Society/Roper Poll
survey) cannot locate Iran or Iraq on a world map and 11 percent
cannot locate the United States (!) is not merely "intellectually
sluggish." It would be more accurate to call it moronic,
capable of being fooled into believing anything ...
George W. Bush is America at this point, as surely as Richard
Nixon was a few decades back. His values are ours; and if he displays
a kind of "dementia" or mental vacuity ... it has to
be said that he's in good company. Indeed, vast numbers of Americans
regard him as sincere and courageous-possibly even wise.
The United States is evolving into an a corporate oligarchy that
merely wears the trappings of a democracy.
... the Republican and Democratic parties represent corporate
interests, rather than genuine democracy ...
Collapse of Transformation?
Lewis Lapham, Waiting for the Barbarians
Sallust's description of Rome in 80 B.C.
- a government controlled by wealth, a ruling-class numb to the
repetitions of political scandal, a public diverted by chariot
races and gladiatorial shows - stands as a fair summary of some
of our own circumstances ....
... four factors are present when a civilization collapses:
(a) Accelerating social and economic inequality
(b) Declining marginal returns with regard
to investment in organizational solutions to socioeconomic problems
(c) Rapidly dropping levels of literacy,
critical understanding, and general intellectual awareness
(d) Spiritual death-that is, Spengler's
classicism: the emptying out of cultural content and the freezing
(or repackaging) of it in formulas-kitsch, in short.
In terms of wealth disparity, the United States leads all other
major industrialized nations.
... by 1999 the unemployment rate was the lowest it had been in
twenty-five years, but during that same time period real hourly
wages fell significantly, the median household income went down,
and the national poverty rate rose. The number of low-wage jobs
proliferated dramatically. The past twenty-five years, notes Finnegan,
have produced "the first generation-long decline in the average
worker's wages in American history.
The middle class, defined by almost any
measure, has been shrinking conspicuously for some time."
Thus the White House boast that 70 percent of the workers who
lost their jobs between 1993 and 1995 found new ones by early
1996 is hollow, for the great majority of that 70 percent found
only part-time jobs or ones paying less than their previous wages.
Since 1979,43 million jobs have been erased in the United States.
We are, in short, drifting toward a situation
such as exists in India, or Mexico, or Brazil, and nothing is
being done to halt this. During the period from 1991 to 1994,
for example, the number of Mexican billionaires went from two
Ernesto Canales Santos, a corporate attorney
who has represented many of these men, calls it "the Aztec
pyramid model," much of which was made possible by U.S. investment,
and which, in turn, had repercussions for our own lopsidedness.
Thus David Calleo (The Bankrupting of America) writes: "The
advanced part of the [American] economy seems a more and more
prosperous enclave, barricaded within a deteriorating nation.
Rather than providing a model for the third world, the United
States appears to be imitating it." "If anything,"
adds David Rieff of the World Policy Institute, "America,
with its widening income gap, its vast, deepening divergences
in everything from education to life expectancy between rich and
poor, is less democratic today ... than it was in 1950."
... Between 1979 and 1990, the number
of American children living below the poverty line rose an astonishing
22 percent. A 1996 article entitled "India's Child Slaves,"
in the International Herald Tribune, notes that 15 million children
in India work eleven to twelve hours daily in dangerous conditions,
and are beaten if they try to escape. In the silk industry-financed
by the World Bank-children as young as six and seven years of
age are forced to plunge their hands into scalding water. To avoid
starvation, many Indian families send their handicapped offspring
to wealthy Arab nations to beg. Girls under ten are sold into
prostitution, and India is hardly alone in this (Asian countries
employ an estimated 1 million child prostitutes). Worldwide, according
to the UN's International Labor Organization, 250 million children
between the ages of five and fourteen are now employed across
Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and this involves slavery, prostitution,
and work in hazardous industries.
Global corporate hegemony, multinational and transnational in
nature, means by definition that these events are linked by a
web of interdependent markets, investments, and trade agreements.
The wealth of America's top quintile is implicated not only in
the poverty of South Central Los Angeles but also in the slums
of Buenos Aires. 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.
(Just do it!) By 1996, the 447 richest people on the planet had
assets equal to that of the poorest 2.5 billion-42 percent of
Core countries are those in the privileged regions of the Northern
Hemisphere such as the United States and Western Europe. It is
in these regions that financial, technical, and productive (usually
industrial) power is concentrated, power that is controlled by
an elite. The periphery, on the other hand, contains the exploited
regions that sell their resources and labor to the core without
ever having access to the latter's wealth. The enrichment of the
core is structurally dependent on the impoverishment of the periphery.
Of the 158 countries in the United Nations, the United States
ranks forty-ninth in literacy. Roughly 60 percent of the adult
population has never read a book of any kind, and only 6 percent
reads as much as one book a year, where book is defined to include
Harlequin romances and self-help manuals. Something like 120 million
adults are illiterate or read at no better than a fifth-grade
level. Among readers age twenty-one to thirty-five, 67 percent
regularly read a daily newspaper in 1965, as compared with 31
percent in 1998.
In 1953, Ray Bradbury published Fahrenheit 451 - later made into
a movie by Francois Truffaut - which depicts a future society
in which intelligence has largely collapsed and the reading of
books is forbidden by law. People sit around interacting with
screens (referred to as "the family") and taking tranquilizers.
Today, nearly five decades later, isn't this largely the point
at which we have arrived?
... the content of most TV programming assumes an audience of
... the college/university situation in the United States has
finally wound up in the position of the Church in the late Middle
Ages, which sold people indulgences (read diplomas) so that they
could get into heaven (read a well-paying job).
As Marshall McLuhan once pointed out, if you could ask a fish
what was the most obvious feature of its environment, probably
the last thing it would say would be "water." If you
swim in it all the time, you just don't notice it; this is how
any culture functions.
In the case of the United States, the
"water" is corporate consumerism. It functions as a
kind of "skin" that covers everything, like an all-encompassing
mantle-a total environment, as it were. This is our ethos, our
civilizational essence. This mental toxicity permeates every part
of our landscape, and if you can just stand back for a moment
and look, it appears in clear detail: the fact that most "news"
is actually business news; the constant stream of "cold calls"
you get from various companies asking you whether you want to
change your long-distance carrier, or have a chip in your windshield
removed, or obtain a lower rate on your mortgage; the public perception
of the president not as a statesman but as, in effect, a corporate
CEO; the pursuit of shopping as entertainment for 98 percent of
the population, which never thinks that there might be something
wrong with this.
"The challenging writer is archaic - she goes begging for
a publisher, and when she finds one goes begging for attention.
Difficult books have always depended on loyal coteries, but as
these have dwindled we find publishers less and less willing to
take a chance .... If literature survives at all, it is as a retreat
for those who refuse to assimilate to American mass culture.
... Americans are quick to call intellectuals - who have no power
at all -"elitist," yet remain oblivious to the real
oligarchic elites, which are corporate. (Can you imagine, in this
country, a TV program along the lines of Cheers that ridiculed
wealth instead of intelligence?) This is a mass culture, the argument
goes, one that doesn't just cater to wealthy WASPs. The problem
is, exactly what is this "everybody" being let in to?
In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville feared that the American experiment
would result in an "egalitarian dismissal of excellence,"
and much later, Hannah Arendt pointed out that mass culture was
not culture, but entertainment, and that to believe that a society
could become cultured via this process was a fatal mistake. The
expression "dumbing down" means just that. This so-called
democratization is not an attempt to get the less able to stretch
themselves a bit; rather, it is a reduction of everything to the
lowest common denominator and the regarding of that as some kind
of political triumph. We have to remember, as social critic Wendy
Kaminer puts it, that "a concern for literacy and critical
thinking is only democratic.' The point-as Tocqueville effectively
said-is that a society cannot function if nearly everyone in it
is stupid, or trained to be.
... Robert Kaplan in an essay entitled "Was Democracy just
a Moment?" published in the Atlantic Monthly in December
1997. Kaplan points out that a world government is now emerging,
one of international corporations and markets, and that this is
happening "quietly and organically, the way vast developments
in history take place." Of the world's one hundred largest
economies, he says, fifty-one are corporations rather than countries,
and the five hundred largest corporations account for 70 percent
of world trade. This dense "ganglion" is the real arbiter
of power, worldwide. "Corporations," writes Kaplan,
"are like the feudal domains that evolved into nation-states;
they are nothing less than the vanguard of a new Darwinian organization
of politics ... the forefront of real globalization." The
future social landscape can already be seen in cities such as
St. Louis or Atlanta, which are corporate enclaves dedicated to
global business. Indeed, they don't seem to be cities at all,
but collections of "hotels and corporate offices with generic
architecture, 'nostalgic' tourist bubbles, zoned suburbs, and
bleak urban wastelands Kaplan quotes urban affairs expert Dennis
Judd, who claims that "life within some sort of corporation
is what the future will increasingly be about." As communities
become "liberated" from geography, says Kaplan, as specific
territory becomes politically meaningless, democracy perforce
must fall apart. We are, he adds, in a phase of historical transition
that will last a century or more, and when this globalization
process is over, so will civil society be. As this process rolls
out, "the masses become more indifferent and the elite less
accountable," and the (increasingly shrinking) middle class
spends its money on lotteries, health clubs, and antidepressant
drugs. Spectator sports provide mass diversion, while a new form
of professional combat, called "extreme fighting," is
attracting sellout crowds eager to see blood. "The mood of
the Coliseum," writes Kaplan, "goes together with the
age of the corporation, which offers entertainment in place of
values." As in the case of Rome, we are drifting toward a
society comprised of an elite with little loyalty to the state,
and a servile populace content with some equivalent of bread and
The Monastic Option
As Michael Grant points out (in the Fall of the Roman Empire),
the pattern was for the richest noblemen to become dramatically
richer, such that the situation was, by the fifth century, grotesque.
The taxes levied to maintain the army were massive, and they fell
largely on the poor; but the Roman rulers also managed to ruin
the middle class, which had been the backbone of the empire. It
was this class, says Grant, that had held the culture of the ancient
world together, and by the fourth century, it was going under.
By the fifth century, it was gone, and it did not reappear in
Italy until the rise of the mercantile families of the High Middle
Turning to the factor of declining marginal
returns, Joseph Tainter once again does a good job of showing
how nonviable Rome's policy of geographic and military expansion,
which worked initially, eventually became. By the third century,
nearly every denarius collected in taxes [by Rome] was going into
military and administrative maintenance, to the point that the
state was drifting toward bankruptcy. The denarius, which had
a silver content of 92 percent in Nero's reign, was down to 43
percent silver by the early third century. The third century saw
even greater increases in the size of the army and the government
bureaucracy, followed by further debasement of the coinage and
enormous inflation. The standing army rose from 300,000 troops
in A. D. 235 to about 600,000 a mere seventy years later. Investment
in complexity was not merely not paying off but also bleeding
the state dry. By the time the fifth century rolled around, Rome
was an empire in name only.
Spiritual and intellectual collapse were
unavoidable in such a demoralized context, especially because
the economic life of the cities was virtually destroyed. For centuries,
the aim had been to hellenize or romanize the rest of the population-to
pass on the learning and ideals of Greco-Roman civilization. But
as the economic crisis deepened, a new mentality arose among the
masses, one based on religion, which was hostile to the achievements
of higher culture. In addition, as in contemporary America, the
new 'intellectual" efforts were designed to cater to the
masses, until intellectual life was brought down to the lowest
common denominator. This, according to the great historian of
Rome, M. I. Rostovtzeff, was the most conspicuous feature in the
development of the ancient world during the imperial age: primitive
forms of life finally drowning out the higher ones. For the truth
is that civilization is impossible without a hierarchy of quality,
and as soon as that gets flattened into a mass phenomenon, its
days are numbered. "The main phenomenon which underlies the
process of decline," wrote Rostovtzeff, "is the gradual
absorption of the educated classes by the masses and the consequent
simplification of all the functions of political, social, economic,
and intellectual life, which we call the barbarization of the
Religion played a critical role in these
developments. By the third century, if not before, there was an
attitude among many Christians that education was not relevant
to salvation, and that ignorance had a positive spiritual value
(an early version of Forrest Gump, one might say). The third century
saw a sharp increase in mysticism and a belief in knowledge by
revelation. Charles Radding, in A World Made by Men, argues that
the cognitive ability of comparing different viewpoints or perspectives
(quite evident in Augustine's Confessions, for example) had disappeared
by the sixth century. Even by the fourth century, he says, what
little that had survived from Greek and Roman philosophy was confused
with magic and superstition (much as we see in today's New Age
beliefs or in the so-called Philosophy section of many bookstores).
In fact, the study of Greek-and therefore of science and philosophy-was
completely abandoned. By the sixth century, the dominant mentality
was superstitious, as people now lacked the capacity to manipulate
abstractions logically. When Boethius published his works on philosophy,
contemporaries assumed they were about the occult sciences, and
he was accused of being an astrologer and magician. Thus in The
Demon-Haunted World, Carl Sagan comments on the loss of knowledge
of anatomy and surgery during this time and the corresponding
rise in reliance on prayer and miraculous healing (which are vastly
popular in the United States today), including the use of chants,
horoscopes, and amulets. Only a warped version of the classical
culture of antiquity remained, and by 650, says Pierre Riché,
scholars in Gaul "were conscious of their role as the last
defenders of the classical culture that distinguished them from
the Barbarians." In Spain, Isidore of Seville tried to restore
proper Latin pronunciation but he was ridiculed by the clergy
for his efforts. "Short of the mass destruction of the libraries,"
writes Radding, "a more complete collapse of a classical
civilization is hard to imagine."
Levels of literacy were never high in
the classical world, to be sure, yet William Harris, in Ancient
Literacy, notes a rise in literacy among Roman citizens between
250 and 100 B.C., and a decline in the same during AD. 200-400.
A bourgeoisie had maintained a literate culture that was severely
attenuated by the latter dates. We see a decline of urban elites,
and of inscriptions on stone. The drop in literacy in the Roman
Empire was particularly sharp after the third century There was
a decline in the availability of texts, for example, and the period
saw a basic cultural shift, an extensive loss of awareness of
past achievements in the writing of history, as well as in philosophy
and literature. Even by AD. 400, works by Cicero were difficult
to find, and by the end of the sixth century, the very few leading
intellectuals of the Latin West who did exist, such as Gregory
of Tours (b. AD. 538), could barely write coherent sentences.
From Gregory's books, for example, we know that his spelling was
faulty, his syntax shaky, and his arguments elementary. This is
a far cry from the writings of Boethius, and it didn't take very
long to happen. From AD. 600 to 1000, most people forgot how to
read or think, and, in fact, forgot that they had forgotten. There
was an inability, says Radding, to approach texts critically,
even among the "leading lights" of European culture,
such as Alcuin of York in the eighth century. "Scholarship"
consisted of collecting quotes and facts, and the reasoning used
by these scholars in their own works bore little resemblance to
the classical texts they admired. Real scholarly debates and understanding,
genuine logical interaction, did not reappear until the eleventh
century, when, for example, Berengar of Tours argued that the
eucharistic wafer could not actually become the body of Christ.
In fact, the mental landscape of the twelfth century was so different
from that of the preceding six that it is only by this kind of
bas-relief comparison that we see how dark the Dark Ages really
And so the proverbial lights went out
in Western Europe. The parallels with contemporary America are
not identical, to be sure, but they do seem a bit disturbing.
Although our own disintegration, as stated earlier, will be unique,
inasmuch as it is happening under the guise of "dynamic"
transformation, it nevertheless contains similar elements. The
factors of hype, ignorance, potential bankruptcy, and extreme
social inequality are overwhelming, and they make a kind of spiritual
death - apathy and classicist formalism-ultimately unavoidable.
The Testimony of Literature
A second example of the monastic option in literature is Ray Bradbury's
novel Fahrenheit 451 ... appearing in its earliest version in
1950, is extraordinarily prescient. Leaving aside the issue of
direct censorship of books-rendered unnecessary by McWorld, as
it turns out, since most people don't read anymore-most of the
features of this futuristic society are virtually upon us, or
perhaps no more than twenty years away.
As already indicated, the society depicted
in Fahrenheit 451 has banned books and immerses itself instead
in video entertainment, a kind of "electronic Zen,"
in which history has been forgotten and only the present moment
counts. The central character, Guy Montag, is a 'fireman"-that
is, his job is to locate renegades who have sequestered books,
arrest the former, and burn the latter. He has done this for ten
years, living a banal but undisturbed existence, when he begins
talking to Clarisse, the sixteen-year-old girl who lives next
door. She has been labeled "antisocial," but as she
puts it, "It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn't
it?" High school classes, she tells Montag, are devoid of
any real content, and the whole thing is dangerous anyway. "They
kill each other," she says; "six of my friends have
been shot in the last year alone." When Clarisse hangs out
in subways or at soda fountains, and eavesdrops on conversations,
she discovers that people don't really talk about anything: "They
name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and nobody
says anything different from anyone else." Her uncle, she
says, told her that in his grandfather's time, students had responsibilities,
no one got murdered in the schools, and people had things of value
to say. In any case, she admits, she hasn't any real friends,
and is labeled "abnormal"; but there's no one to be
friends with anyway, so what's the difference?
Partly through contact with Clarisse,
Montag begins reading some of the books he confiscates, aware
that, in the language of Walter Miller, he is surrounded by Simpletons.
He falls ill and cannot go in to work. Finally, his boss, Beatty,
who curiously enough knows something about cultural history, pays
him a visit and takes it upon himself to explain to Montag how
their profession came to be. "The fact is," he tells
we didn't get along well until photography came into its own.
Then-motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television.
Things began to have mass . . . . And because they had mass, they
became simpler . . . . Films and radios, magazines, books leveled
down to a sort of pastepudding norm ....
Everything was designed for a quick sell,
everything had to have a snap ending, until finally the cultural
pattern became: "Out of the nursery into the college and
back to the nursery." Life turned into slogans, sound bites;
the goal was to whirl the mind around "under the pumping
hands of publishers, exploiters, [and] broadcasters . He goes
School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories,
languages dropped. English and spelling gradually neglected, finally
almost completely ignored .... Why learn anything save pressing
buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts?
Magazines "became a nice blend of
vanilla tapioca," and books were turned into "dishwater."
As a result, censorship wasn't even necessary, because practically
no one was buying books anyway. Technology and mass exploitation
had carried the day. Intellectual became a dirty word. Finally,
censorship and burning of books were instituted as an afterthought,
a kind of icing on the cake, to ensure that the leveling process
was complete; that no one was different from anybody else, so
that all could finally be "happy"
Montag later expresses his angst to Faber,
an English professor who had been dismissed forty years before,
when the last liberal arts college was forced to shut down because
of lack of students and financial support. (For some odd reason,
Faber's college didn't hit on the idea of turning its curricula
into tapioca or dishwater.) Faber tells him that, yes, they might
form underground classes in thinking and reading, but "that
would just nibble the edges." The cancer is far too advanced
for these sorts of trifles: "Our civilization is flinging
itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge." Faber
also confirms Beatty's analysis, adding that the fireman's job
is really superfluous now, a circus act of sorts, because "the
public itself stopped reading of its own accord." "I
remember the newspapers dying like huge moths," he says;
"no one wanted them back. No one missed them."
Montag finally escapes to the outskirts
of the city, where he locates people who hide in the woods, memorize
the classics, and then teach them to their children. This is,
of course, the heart of the monastic option, and Bradbury sums
it up as follows:
Someday, some year, [when] the books
can be written again, the [forest] people will be called in, one
by one, to recite what they know and we'll set it in type until
another Dark Age, when we might have to do the whole damn thing
over again. But that's the wonderful thing about man; he never
gets so discouraged or disgusted that he gives up doing it all
over again, because he knows very well it is important and worth
The Dialectic of Enlightenment
Richard Powers, Gain
The limited-liability corporation: the last noble experiment,
loosing an unknowable outcome upon its beneficiaries. Its success
outstripped all rational prediction until, gross for gross, it
became mankind's sole remaining endeavor.
"Dare to think!"
No country (after 1880) developed the
kind of commercial aesthetic, the type of brokering class, the
form of institutional circuitry, or the variety of spiritual accommodations
as those that emerged in the United States. The United States
was the first country in the world to have an economy devoted
to mass production, and it was the first to create the mass consumer
institutions, and the mass consumer enticements that rose up in
tandem to market and sell the mass-produced goods.
If democracy is gradually being transformed into something else,
then Europe and the United States will suffer the same fate as
earlier civilizations. That is to say Rome believed that it was
the final expression of Greek culture, the republican ideal, whereas
we believe that we are the final expression of democracy, that
we are bringing freedom and a better life to all humankind. Kaplan
ends his article on a cryptic note, saying that "we are poised
to transform ourselves into something perhaps quite different
from what we imagine." But given his analysis, it is not
that hard to fill in the blank. Just as Rome began by embodying
Greek ideals, it looked strikingly different-that is, precisely
the opposite-during the period of its collapse. What began as
substance survived only as shadow, while the transmuted substance
finally contradicted the shadow. As for us, says Kaplan, we shall
"sell" democracy to hybrid regimes that will, for economic
reasons, take on democratic trappings, while the political reality
is something else; and in the process of doing that, we too shall
become-are becoming-a hybrid regime, For a zoned-out, stupefied
[American] populace, democracy will be nothing more than the right
to shop, or to choose between Wendy's and Burger King, or to stare
at CNN and think that this managed infotainment is actually the
news. Corporate hegemony, the triumph of global democracy/consumerism
based on an American model, is the collapse of American civilization.
So a large-scale transformation is indeed going on, but it is
one that makes triumph indistinguishable from disintegration.
There are many examples we might give
to demonstrate this process; as already noted, higher education
is one of the more conspicuous ones. Universities retain an aura
of elitism (positively conceived); they are seen as the loci of
the most advanced thinking in the land, places where men and women
are free to pursue the sciences and the humanities and thus imbibe
the highest elements of culture. Latin mottoes adorn the crests
of many of these schools, boasting of "light" and "truth."
The reality, however, is something very different, as thousands
of these institutions have literal or de facto open admissions
policies in the name of "democracy" The democratization
of desire means that virtually anyone can go to college, the purpose
being to get a job; and in an educational world now subsumed under
business values, students show up-with administrative blessing-believing
that they are consumers who are buying a product. Within this
context, a faculty member who actually attempts to enforce the
tradition of the humanities as an uplifting and transformative
experience, who challenges his charges to think hard about complex
issues, will provoke negative evaluations and soon be told by
the dean that he had better look elsewhere for a job. Objecting
to a purely utilitarian dimension for education is regarded as
quaint, and quickly labeled "elitist" (horror of horrors!);
but the truth is that there can be no genuine liberal education
without such an objection. "Thinking, reading, and art require
a cultural space," writes Russell Jacoby in Dogmatic Wisdom,
"a zone free from the angst of moneymaking and practicality.
Without a certain repose or leisure, a liberal education shrivels."
Unfortunately, notes Bill Readings in
The University in Ruins, this voice is fast disappearing, and
he argues that this is due to the phenomenon of globalization,
which is undermining the original Enlightenment project. The "good"
Enlightenment saw teaching in terms of cultural continuity and
the development of critical judgment; in this context, the faculty
member was the key player. The "bad," globalized Enlightenment
sees education as an expression of the technobureaucratic notion
of "excellence," or "total quality management";
therefore, the key player is the administrator. The university
may look like an institution for the advancement of higher culture,
in other words, but its content and organization are corporate,
and the result is that the coinage of education is severely debased.
("Another bad effect of commerce," wrote Adam Smith
in Wealth of Nations, "is that the minds of men are contracted,
and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or
at least neglected.)
I had an opportunity to see these tendencies at their worst when
I was unexpectedly hired by a trendy "distance learning institute"
a few years back. On the face of it-that is, from its published
study guides-"Alt. U," as I shall refer to it, sounded
quite reputable, and that was what originally drew me in. As I
soon discovered, however, the actual educational practice was
something else. Like President Clinton, Alt. U had no real identity;
it was a kind of corporate creation driven by popular rhetoric
and content to identify itself with whatever was academically
avant-garde. A large percentage of the students were corporate
employees trying to advance their careers by adding Ph.D. after
their names, and because the school was 100 percent tuition-driven,
these students effectively called the shots. It was thus impossible
for Alt. U to enforce (assuming it had even cared about) real
academic standards, because this would have threatened its financial
base. Hence, an ideology prevailed that any academic authority
was an "abuse of power," and an instructor who had any
notion of serious academic accountability was quickly dropped
by the students in favor of one-and there were many-who made very
few rigorous intellectual demands. Since mentors had to attract
"mentees" in order to survive, it behooved them not
to demand very much. As far as I could make out, most applicants
were accepted, and the screening interviews were bogus: In the
case of the two students I did reject (and this meant they were
really bad), one was admitted anyway, and the other was reinterviewed
twice. Grades for study units completed boiled down basically
to Yes and Not Yet, so the student who just kept at it, no matter
how inadequate, eventually obtained a Ph.D.
As for the faculty, it was not clear how
they had been hired, beyond the fact that they seemed to fit in
with the group. Merit was at best a secondary consideration, and
a good number of them were embarrassingly unqualified: not only
breathtakingly ignorant but aggressively anti-intellectual in
their outlook, and contemptuous of any individual expression that
violated the group mind. Thus I was ridiculed for using the word
desultory, and attacked for reading George Steiner. When I once
referred to Francis Bacon at a faculty meeting, my colleagues
seemed to have no idea whom I was talking about. These "retreats,"
as they were called, contained large doses of traditional-institution-bashing
and had the flavor of cult rituals, binding the group together.
The dean took me aside at one point and told me that I would do
a lot better at the place if I were to start publicly praising
the institution at the retreats - a suggestion reminiscent of
the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Reading over student work, I
was amazed at how feeble most of it was, how little effort was
required of these doctoral candidates, and how easily their work
received a passing grade. At one thesis defense I attended, the
experimental design was deeply flawed, but the ethos was, Keep
your mouth shut. At another, the thesis was little more than a
rehash of a famous scholar's work, but again, pointing out lack
of originality (originality being the point of a thesis, I always
thought) was not acceptable. Many of the theses at Alt. U were
purely selfindulgent: A single mother of forty-five, say, would
research the topic of the trials and tribulations of single mothers
in their mid-forties! The protocol was never to call students
"students"; rather, they were "colearners,"
and in an odd sense, this was accurate, because Alt. U was a classic
case of the blind leading the blind.
Traditionally, we have regarded (the media) as the bastion of
a free society. One thinks of Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine,
of Emile Zola shouting, "J'accuse!" in the Dreyfus Affair,
or perhaps of Woodward and Bernstein as recently as 1974. What
are the press and the media now but institutions designed to generate
an endless stream of minute, useless information as a form of
news -entertainment ("nuzak")? Consider the so-called
feeding frenzy that broke out in January 1998, when President
Clinton was accused of having some sort of sexual relationship
with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. Not only was the ratio
of hype to factual content something that bordered on infinity
but, in a parody of itself, television also began to air programs
on the subject of its own hyperfrenetic coverage. As in the case
of the corporate university, there is a tremendous amount of energy
that is evident in all of this; the media packaging of the whole
event made one feel that exciting things were going on. But actually,
very little was going on, because the fact content of the news
was almost nonexistent; rather, the coverage dealt with allegations
and the interpretations consequent upon them. As a few observers
pointed out, it was really the continuation of the 0. J. Simpson
trial, but with different dramatis personae. So we have an educational
system that is not really about education, and a press that is
not really about the reportage of the news.
When we look at where we have come since
the Renaissance, we see the expansion of secular and scientific
knowledge to the point that it has made the technocommercial world
of the twentieth century possible, from the endless "cold
calls" one receives for hundreds of superfluous products
and services to Nike's exploitation of women and children in Indonesia.
The Enlightenment turned into its opposite, leaving us with James
Beniger's "control revolution," William Leach's "land
of desire," and Ben Barber's "McWorld," all of
which, in turn, evoked a series of disturbed responses: the New
Age, deconstruction, Gaia, the Unabomber, sentimental ecology,
religious fundamentalism, Deepak Chopra-ism, "education"
along the lines of Alt. U, and so on. Pushed far enough, yang
becomes yin, and brilliance turns into bullshit.
"Vital kitsch," the promotion
of commercial energy at the expense of genuine content, of real
substance, will be the reality for most Americans in the twenty-first
century, in one form or another, and it will be fueled by the
globalization process. Most of those who claim to oppose the world
of corporate scitech consumerism will themselves become commodities,
making the round of the talk shows and selling "soul"
or "green earth" or "total health" as the
latest commercial fad. Their ideas will become slogans on T-shirts;
they will become the trendy spearheads of the latest form of "liberation,"
soon to be forgotten for the next fad on the horizon. John Updike
captures the larger landscape of all this in his 1998 collection
of stories, Bech at Bay, when he has his protagonist say:
Greedy authors, greedy agents, brainless
book chains with their Vivaldi-riddled espresso bars, publishers
owned by metallurgy conglomerates operated by glacially cold beancounters
in Geneva. And meanwhile language.. . is becoming the mellifluous
happy-talk of Microsoft and Honda, corporate conspiracies that
would turn the world into one big pinball game for child-brained
Does the reader doubt the accuracy of
this description for a moment? Disney, now linked to McDonald's
in a cross-licensing partnership, organizes play around its own
version of American values, giving our children toys, dolls, coloring
books, and images that are burned into their brains. Our kids
are hooked on this stuff no less fiercely than by the added nicotine
in cigarettes and the ads that got them smoking in the first place.
Our entire consciousness, our intellectual-mental life, is being
Starbuckized, condensed into a prefabricated designer look in
a way that is reminiscent of that brilliant, terrible film, Invasion
of the Body Snatchers (a great metaphor for our time). We are
becoming a nation of "pods," for there is very little
that can resist the American commercial process, and if something
does make it into the public eye, it is almost by definition devoid
of the opaque richness, the inaccessibility, that things of real
quality inevitably have. "Business," wrote the American
essayist john Jay Chapman in 1898 (Practical Agitation), "has
destroyed the very knowledge in us of all other natural forces
Writing about the subject of handicrafts,
Rosemary Hill, the British potter and art critic, comments: "To
make objects by hand in an industrial society, to work slowly
and uneconomically against the grain, is to offer, however inadvertently,
a critique of that society." This is a good description of
the principles embodied in the monastic option, but it needs to
be construed in a much larger cultural sense than handicrafts.
Craftsmanship should apply to all of life, and since its core
value is the work itself-the very opposite of the purpose of American
corporate consumerism-those genuinely committed to the monastic
option need to stay out of the public eye; to do their work quietly,
and deliberately avoid media attention. Indeed, a Taoist rule
of thumb might be that if the larger culture knows about it, then
it's not the real thing. We are now ready, then, to ask, Who is
this new monastic "class," and what activities might
it reasonably pursue?
The Monastic Option in the Twenty-First
Michael Moore - defines a democratic economic system
It's not called capitalism and it's not
called socialism. A system that on one hand is fair to everyone
- everyone gets a decent slice of the pie - but on the other hand
doesn't stifle creativity, that encourages an individual to excel
and to help us all progress as a society.
John Maria Arizmendi (Spain)
"To live is to renew oneself."
How is it, in the United States, excellence in sports is celebrated,
while excellence in scholarship is considered elitist?
American civilization is in its twilight phase, rapidly approaching
a point of social and cultural bankruptcy. The gap between rich
and poor has never been greater; our long-term ability to pay
for basic social programs is increasingly in question; the level
of ignorance and functional illiteracy in this country is so low
as to render us something of an international joke; and the takeover
of our spiritual life by McWorld-corporate/consumer values-is
nearly complete. An economic superstar, the United States is,
in reality, a cultural shambles, an "empire wilderness."
The comparisons with Rome are quite startling: The late empire
saw extremes of rich and poor, and the disappearance of a middle
class; the costs of bureaucracy and defense pushed it toward bankruptcy;
literacy and Greek learning melted away into a kind of New Age
thinking, and so on. A Dark Age descended on Western Europe, and,
inadvertently or not, a new monastic order acted as a holding
operation, preserving the records of classical learning until
such time as a cultural renaissance was possible. In the eleventh
and twelfth centuries, this material was rediscovered, then fl
ed back into the European mainstream, becoming the lifeblood of
If the twentieth century was the American century, the twenty-first
century will be the Americanized century, and it will have its
roots in a new global economy, in which consumerism will be a
British philosopher Stuart Hampshire
If the supernatural claims about the
Creator's intentions are dismissed, there remains no sufficient
empirical reason to believe that there is such a thing as the
historical development of mankind as a whole .... What we see
in history is the ebb and flow of different populations at different
stages of social development, interacting with each other and
exhibiting no common pattern of development. Using older historical
categories, we can reasonably speak of the various populations
flourishing and becoming powerful at some stage and then falling
into decadence and becoming comparatively weak; and historians
can reasonably look for some general causes of these rises and
falls. Even if some such general causes can be found, they will
not by themselves point to a destiny, and to an order of development,
for mankind as a whole.
old Quaker saying
"Let your life speak. In the end,
that's the only thing that really matters."