The Home and the World

excerpted from the book

Dark Ages America

The Final Phase of Empire

by Morris Berman

WW Norton, 2006, paper


... under the "boy emperor" George W. Bush (as Chalmers Johnson refers to him), we have entered the Dark Ages in earnest, pursuing a short-sighted path that can only accelerate our decline. For what we are now seeing are the obvious characteristics of the West after the fall of Rome: the triumph of religion over reason; the atrophy of education and critical thinking; the integration of religion, the state, and the apparatus of torture-a troika that was for Voltaire the central horror of the pre-Enlightenment world; and the political and economic marginalization of our culture. Of course, the Dark Ages were not uniformly monochromatic, as recent scholarship has demonstrated; but then, neither is present-day America. The point is that in both cases "dark" is the operative word.

To understand what we mean by the term, we need to look, historically, at what constituted the light. In his famous essay of 1784, "What Is Enlightenment?," the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, "Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage," which he defined as his "inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another." Sapere aude!, cried Kant; "have the courage to use your own reason!-that is the motto of enlightenment?'

These are fabulous words, and the ideals they embody inspired the Founding Fathers and the American Constitution. Commenting on Kant's call to reason the Israeli historian Shmuel Feiner writes:
The explosive nature of this brief definition lies in its sweeping criticism of the world, in which man, out of pessimism and passivity, allows the existing order to dictate his life and those possessing religious and spiritual authority to determine for him what is truth. In contrast, the enlightened man is an autonomous, rational, and skeptical person, who has the power to free himself of the shackles of the past and authority, and to pave new and better ways for himself and for all humanity.

Dark Ages - "the gradual subjection of reason to faith and authority"
British historian Charles Freeman about the Fourth Century during the late Roman Empire - which marked the beginning of what has been called - the "Dark Ages"

Religion ... shows up in the current American tendency to explain world events (in particular, terrorist attacks) as part of a cosmic conflict between Good and Evil, rather than in terms of political processes. This is hardly limited to the White House. Manichaeanism rules across the United States. According to a poll taken by Time magazine ... 59 percent of Americans believe that John's apocalyptic prophecies in the Book of Revelation will be fulfilled, and nearly all of these believe that the faithful will be taken up into heaven in the "Rapture" (the latter discussed in Thessalonians). According to the Book of Revelation, God is going to punish the nonbelievers with various plagues, after which Christ will return to earth-with a sword in his mouth-for the final showdown between Good and Evil (the battle of Armageddon).'

The vengeful quality of the apocalyptic vision comes across quite clearly in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye (one of the founders of the Moral Majority) and Jerry Jenkins, which had, by early 2003, sold more than 62 million copies. One in eight Americans reads these books, and they are a favorite with American soldiers in Iraq. The Book of Revelation is pretty much the road map for the novels, and the worldview is reassuringly black-and-white, with "good" triumphing in the end. At the end of the series, Jews who have persisted in their faith are consigned to the Everlasting Fire, along with Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, and devotees of other "aberrant religions." Seas turn to blood; locusts torment the unbelievers; and 200 million demonic horsemen wipe out a third of the planet-a kind of cosmic ethnic cleansing, as it were. It doesn't get much darker than this.

Finally, we shouldn't be surprised at the antipathy toward democracy displayed by the Bush administration, a fact that has been reported on, in various manifestations, numerous times. As already noted, fundamentalism and democracy are completely antithetical. The opposite of the Enlightenment, of course, is tribalism, groupthink; and more and more, this is the direction in which the United States is going. Thus Mr. Bush's first official response to his reelection was to create a cabinet of completely uniform voices, as David Gergen, who has been an adviser to four presidents, pointed out-"closing down dissent and centralizing power in a few hands." In the world of groupthink, loyalty is everything; and it was also this kind of tribalism, I believe, that got Bush reelected. We are moving, or so it seems, toward a one-party system, a kind of presidential dictatorship, one that is fundamentally theocratic in nature.

Nor does one see much by way of grassroots objection to this trend. American hatred of freedom, for example, shows up quite clearly in the statistics of public attitudes toward the Bill of Rights. Anthony Lewis, who worked as a columnist for the New York Times for thirty-two years, observes that what has happened in the wake of 9/11 is not just the threatening of the rights of a few detainees, but the undermining of the very foundation of democracy. Detention without trial, denial of access to attorneys, years of interrogation in isolation-these are all now standard American practice, and most Americans don't care. Nor did they care about the revelation, in July 2004 (reported in Newsweek), that for several months the White House and the Department of Justice had been discussing the feasibility of canceling the upcoming presidential election in the event of a possible terrorist attack, which would have been a first in American history. In a "State of the First Amendment Survey" conducted by the University of Connecticut in 2003, 34 percent of Americans polled said the First Amendment "goes too far"; 46 percent said there was too much freedom of the press; 28 percent felt that newspapers should not be able to publish articles without prior approval of the government; 31 percent wanted public protest of a war to be outlawed during that war; and 50 percent thought the government should have the right to infringe on the religious freedom of "certain religious groups" in the name of the war on terror. Quite honestly, we may be only one more terrorist attack away from a police state.'

Only 12 percent of Americans own a passport

As in the Middle Ages, when most individuals got their understanding of the world from a mass source- i.e., the Church - most Americans get their "understanding" from another mass source: television ...

As Los Angeles journalist John Powers writes in his book Sore Winners, [George] Bush is in fact a mirror of the nation. We can see his fractured image, writes Powers, reflected in the wildly popular dog-eat-dog reality shows, the frenzy over The Passion of the Christ, the celebration of consumerism as self-expression, and the general climate of fear. Bush rules over a "polarized culture of unreality" and it is this culture that created him and gave him his power. Personally, he is a bit eerie, a kind of hologram created by Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, and sold to the American people as a "concocted persona." He takes "obvious pleasure in announcing violence," writes Powers, and is "possessed of a need for order that borders on rage." Yet this robotic behavior has proven to be quite effective in an American context. The lack of intellectual suppleness or curiosity, the distaste for ambiguity, are tailor-made for this particular audience. Once again, both the population and the president can simplistically relate to the world, medieval style, as a battleground between the forces of Good and Evil. Ignorant of historical context, and conditioned by the media to "think" in terms of sound bites and slogans, the American public comes to regard Bush's Manichaeanism and simpleminded view of the world as "sturdy common sense." "If George W. Bush vanished tomorrow," Powers concludes, "everything genuinely awful about this presidency would still be in place .... Bush World is not simply the emanation of one sore winner. It's a collection of ideas, values, symbols, and policies."

... the U.S. infant mortality rate is among the highest for developed democracies, and that the World Health Organization rates our health care system as thirty-seventh best in the world, well behind that of Saudi Arabia ...

By 1995, 1 percent of the American population owned 47 percent of the nation's wealth; by 1998, the 400 richest individuals in the world had as much wealth as the bottom half of the world's population more than 3 billion people.

An estimated six million American children have been diagnosed with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), including perhaps two hundred thousand between the ages of two and four. One million children now receive Ritalin (methyiphenidate) every day in school; other drugs in the "behavioral" tool kit include Prozac and Pamelar (antidepressants), Risperdal (an antipsychotic), and Adderall, now the most prescribed stimulant in the country. In 2002, the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Prozac for children as young as seven years of age, and in general there was a spike in the use of antidepressant medication for the five-and-under crowd during 1999-2004. All in all, the use of antidepressants among American children grew three- to tenfold between 1987 and 1996, and there was a further 50 percent increase in such prescriptions from 1998 to 2002. In fact, children in the United States now receive four times as many psychiatric drugs as children in all other countries of the world combined. Meanwhile, depression, anxiety, and behavioral disorders are skyrocketing. What we probably need is a drug called Reject-It-All. Unfortunately, the majority opinion seems to be "repress symptoms, no problem." The minority opinion, which points to the obvious-"overcrowded schools, stressed-out parents with little time for the children and a society ... that is intolerant of anything but success"-can barely get a hearing in a culture characterized by frenzy and denial. But when the use of psychoactive drugs triples among two to four-year-old Medicaid patients between 1991 and 1995, the causes are likely to be sociological, not chemical.

As soon as he was inaugurated in 2001, George W. Bush began pushing for a tax cut that would give 40 percent of the benefits to the richest 1 percent of the taxpayers, and less than 1 percent of the benefits to the bottom 20 percent. Passed that May, the tax bill created an even greater upward redistribution of wealth and income than was already in place. It conferred a monthly stipend of at least $50,000 on the four hundred richest Americans, while the bottom 20 percent got, on average, $5.40. The poorest 10 percent got less than nothing, because the meager public services on which they relied were going to be cut or reduced. Finally, in the wake of September 11, the "economic stimulus package" passed in the House of Representatives on October 24 earmarked more than $140 billion in tax cuts for wealthy individuals and corporations, in addition to retroactive benefits that would pay back some of the taxes levied on corporations over the previous fifteen years(!). The Senate, for its part, suggested a tax-cut package that would cost $220 billion over three years, more than half of which would go to the top 1 percent of the population, and 6 percent of which would go to the bottom 60 percent. Political columnist Mark Shields commented that he had never before heard of "going into a war cutting taxes [and] rewarding the richest in society at a time of sacrifice."

The data for 2001-3, reported by the US. Census Bureau, make this trend quite clear. During that time, the US. government spent $400 billion on tax cuts, most of which went to the wealthy, while 4.3 million more Americans fell below the federal poverty line (unrealistically set at $18,600 for a family of four). The total number living in poverty (thus defined) as of 2003 was nearly 36 million people, or 12.5 percent of the total population (note that it had actually been worse-12.7 percent under the Clinton administration, in 1998). Adjusting for inflation, the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour was actually 30 percent less than it had been in 1968. The number of Americans without health insurance grew from 2000 to 2003 by 5.2 million to 45 million, or 15.6 percent of the population. Meanwhile, the proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2005 (as of this writing) is $2.4 trillion, which includes a 7 percent increase in military spending, a 10 percent increase in domestic security spending, and a mere 0.5 percent increase in spending for a vast array of domestic programs. The projections for 2009 are that child care assistance could be cut for as many as 365,000 children, while those individuals earning $1 million or more per year will receive an annual $155,000 in tax cuts. These cuts, if made permanent, will cost the government nearly $1 trillion over the next ten years.

... by 1998 the richest four hundred people on the planet had as much wealth as the bottom half of the population, and 3 billion people live on less than two dollars a day. During the past fifteen to twenty years more than one hundred developing countries suffered failures in growth and living standards that were more severe than anything suffered by the industrial nations during the Depression, and between 1987 and 1993 the number of people with incomes of less than one dollar per day increased by 100 million, to 1.3 billion people. In more than one hundred countries, per capita income is lower today than it was fifteen years ago, and nearly 1.6 billion people live in worse conditions than they did in the early 1980s. In 1998, emerging markets represented 7 percent of the capital value of world markets, but constituted 85 percent of the world's population. A U.N. report of 2003 found that nearly one-sixth of the world's population lived in slums, and predicted that the figure would rise to one-third by 2033; and it specifically held globalization, neoliberal economics, the IMF, and the World Trade Organization responsible for this. "To date," editorialized the International Herald Tribune in 2003, "globalization remains a flawed game whose rules have been fixed by rich nations."


[A] searing indictment of the IMF can be found in Joseph Stiglitz's masterful study, Globalization and Its Discontents. Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate who teaches economics at Columbia University, cannot easily be dismissed, since he writes from the vantage point of an insider. He was chairman of President Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers and senior vice president and chief economist at the World Bank. In a detailed, case-by-case analysis, Stiglitz repeatedly castigates the IMF as destructive and dogmatic, a major source of Third World misery. In country after country, the IMF prescribed "solutions" based on market fundamentalism that took no account of what effect these actions would have on people. Its neoliberal policies often led to hunger and riots; the few benefits that did accrue usually went to the rich. Upper-echelon IMF personnel (for instance, Robert Rubin and Stanley Fischer) typically come from the private sector (Goldman Sachs, Citigroup), have little concern for the environment, democracy, or social justice, and basically act as representatives of the American financial community. They cut fuel and food subsidies to the Third World and insist on cutbacks in health expenditures, while Prada, Benetton, and Ralph Lauren come in for the benefit of the few urban rich, and vast numbers of rural poor wind up worse off than before. From the top floors of luxury hotels, he says, the IMF directors impose policies that destroy people's lives and don't think twice about it. "Globalization," concludes Stiglitz, "seems to replace the old dictatorships of national elites with new dictatorships of international finance."" (Meanwhile, back in the United States, we sit around asking ourselves, . "Why do they hate us?" Duh!)

To Manfred Steger, a specialist in globalization, there is no doubt that neoliberalism, or the Washington consensus as it was developed during the Reagan administration and after, has a civilizational bias. The whole thing, he says, was really a gigantic repackaging of classical laissez-faire economics, now labeled the New Economy. But the "metanarrative," as it is sometimes called-that is, the story underneath the story-is essentially one of "modernization," which casts Western countries (read: the United States and the United Kingdom) as "the privileged vanguard of an evolutionary process that applies to all nations." (And make no mistake about it: the so-called war on terror has the hidden agenda of trying to get Islamic civilization to accept the value structure of Western modernity-an agenda that a dissenting advisory panel within the Pentagon was, by late 2004, calling a "strategic mistake.") Globalization, adds historian and former CIA analyst Chalmers Johnson, is "a kind of intellectual sedative that lulls and distracts its Third World victims while rich countries cripple them, ensuring that they will never be able to challenge the imperial powers."

President Woodrow Wilson, 1901, in defense of the annexation of the Philippines

The East is to be opened and transformed whether we will it or not; the standards of the West are to be imposed on it; nations and peoples which have stood still the centuries through ... [will be] made part of the universal world of commerce and of ideas.

Secular versus Tribal

What Isaiah Berlin called negative freedom is a freedom that was hard won, in the West, through the great bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It is essentially the freedom to be left alone. Societies without this type of freedom tend to be tribal (or organic) in nature, heavily dominated by custom and tradition. In those cultures, the separation of church and state-a mainstay of secular democracy-is usually absent, Thus both Israel and Iran are torn by internal strife along the secular-tribal spectrum, as are Turkey and-as must be obvious in the wake of the 2004 presidential election-the United States. In fact, many American evangelicals probably have more in common with the citizens of Damascus than they do, say, with many of the inhabitants of New York or Los Angeles (something they would not, I am sure, be terribly happy to hear, especially given the profound anti-Muslim feeling among many right-wing Christians).

French scholar Emile Durkheim held that every society was held together by a conscience collective, a "system of beliefs and sentiments" that the members of any given society had in common, and that defined the nature of their mutual relations. Remove this, said Durkheim, replace it with the pursuit of self-interest, and a society would quickly collapse into a Hobbesian state of every man for himself. This, to my mind, is largely what we have in the United States today ...

... it is possible for the conscience collective to be too intense, a condition that anthropologists refer to as "hypercoherence" ... to examine how the essential elements of a culture are internalized by individuals as part of their personalities, Durkheim focused on, of all things, suicide. He proposed that there are two fundamental types of suicide, "altruistic" and "egotistic:' In the former case, the individual is so pressured to conform that he feels he has no identity of his own. In the egotistic situation, on the other hand, the individual feels a constant pressure to stand out, achieve, be apart from the collectivity. Enough intensity in either direction, said Durkheim, and certain individuals will decide to pack it in.

Durkheim also posited a third category, "anomic" suicide, which he said arose when society was turned upside down, when rules and conventions collapsed and individuals felt themselves to be in crisis. Ironically enough, this state of affairs might be descriptive of both Islam and the West. America is disintegrating, in part, because it is living in a moral vacuum. The Islamic nations are in crisis, in part, because they are simultaneously attracted to and repelled by that moral vacuum (Iran is an obvious example of this). My point is that if there is a "clash of civilizations" going on in the world today, as the conventional wisdom has it, one aspect of that is the larger archetypal drama ... is life going to be tribal in nature, or is it going to be secular? Jihad or McWorld, as political scientist Benjamin Barber has put it? This is part of what was involved in the events of September 11.

Barber elaborated on this dichotomy in a talk he gave at the University of Maryland thirteen days after the attack on the World Trade Center. There is no way, he remarked, that this attack can be dismissed as the work of a few crazies, because the terrorists swim in a sea of popular support. Millions of Muslims cheered the event, some openly, others silently. The truth is that for them, the American international economic order is a great disorder. It renders the majority of them poor, and it tramples on their values. Hence, Barber subsequently stated in an interview in the Washington Post, the impulse behind jihad is nothing less than "a holy struggle against something that is seen as evil." A large percentage of Muslims and Arabs view TV programs such as Dynasty or The Simpsons as part of a Western plot to destroy their religious values; they "feel they are being colonized by Nike and McDonald's and by the garbage" of the American media. Should we be so surprised that they applaud our deaths?'

... when Americans asked in the wake of September 11 "Why do they hate us?," they didn't really want an answer. The question was purely rhetorical; what Americans wanted was an explanation that would justify their anger, their demand for revenge ...

Europe and the United States ... have a dual heritage - Judeo-Christian religion and ethics, GrecoRoman statecraft and law-that is really not part of the Islamic tradition, fundamentalist or otherwise. Roman law had the notion of the legal person, or corporate entity, that could enter into contracts and obligations and act as plaintiff or defendant in legal proceedings. This principle made possible the effective functioning of representative assemblies-of government as such. And it is precisely this type of assembly, or corporate entity-Roman senate, Jewish Sanhedrin, parliament of many nations within Christendom - that was absent from the Islamic world. Thus, writes Lewis, "almost all aspects of Muslim government have an intensely personal character .... The Islamic state was in principle a theocracy . Without legislative or corporate bodies, there was no need for representation or collective decision. "Not surprisingly," he concludes, "the history of the Islamic states is one of almost unrelieved autocracy." This is, in short, a tribal and intensely personal world, not a secular and contractual one.

... Western science is based on doubt, experiment, and measurement, and the truth is regarded as unfolding and provisional; whereas in tribal cultures, the truth is typically regarded as revealed - God-given and final. Group solidarity always trumps skeptical questioning or the search for the truth.

Samuel Huntington
" Western intervention in the affairs of other civilizations is probably the single most dangerous source of instability and potential global conflict in a multicivilizational world."

Samuel Huntington
"The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion ... but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence..."

"What went wrong?" is basically "The actions of the United States, as heir to the British Empire in the Muslim world, are what went wrong." In October 2002, for example, Osama bin Laden (OBL) declared the war would go on as long as U.S. policies toward the Muslim world remained unchanged. And his indictment, says Scheuer, "is pretty much factual": American support for the Israeli occupation of Palestine, which involves Israeli attacks on the Palestinian people; brutal sanctions against Iraq (and no its occupation); the 1965 "regime change" and subsequent slaughter of at least a half a million people in Indonesia, whose killers the CIA assisted in coming to power and to whom the US. embassy even supplied extensive hit lists; US. military presence in the Arabian Peninsula (the shift of troops from Saudi Arabia to Qatar in 2003 fooled nobody); support for (or acquiescence in) oppression of Muslims by the Chinese, Russian, and Indian governments (One wonders, however, why OBL isn't similarly enraged at them); and protection of tyrannical Arab regimes so that we can have access to cheap oil. The reason for their jihad against us, said OBL in a statement to the American people, "is very simple: Because you attacked and continue to attack us .... You shall not feel at ease until you take your hands off our nation."

One of the most insightful approaches to this topic is that of the eminent historian Charles Beard, whose work was subsequently enlarged upon by William Appleby Williams (The Tragedy of American Diplomacy). For Beard, foreign policy was really an afterthought; it grew out of domestic policy, which was essentially about money. The centerpiece of the foreign policy strategy of William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Warren G. Harding, he argued, was economic expansion-exporting our economic surpluses. This, in turn, meant pushing open the doors of trade and investment everywhere, whether by polite coercion or by military force. It was only via trade and investment, these presidents believed, that the United States could flourish, and the permanence of its domestic order be assured. In that sense, Beard argued, U.S. foreign and domestic policy were two sides of the same coin.

According to [William Appleman] Williams, when America ran out of frontier-that is, when Manifest Destiny had run its course and there was no more contiguous land to buy, annex, or conquer-the root impulse got channeled into overseas expansion. It was during the 1890s, when the United States was beset by a severe economic crisis, and it recognized that the continental frontier was gone, that the nation clearly formulated the argument that expansion in the form of a foreign economic (or even territorial) empire was the best way to maintain its own prosperity. The decision for imperial expansion was part of the 1896 platform of the Republican party, which captured the presidency and held it for the next sixteen years. The famous Open Door notes of 1899-1900, written by McKinley's secretary of state, john Hay, advocated not traditional colonialism but rather the policy of "an open door through which America's preponderant economic strength would enter and dominate all underdeveloped areas of the world." Nor did subsequent Democratic presidents (Jimmy Carter excepted) attempt to deviate from this projections that, says Williams, can accurately be described as a program of informal empire. As early as 1902, Princeton University President Woodrow Wilson wrote that overseas expansion was the economic frontier that would replace the American continent as the territorial frontier. In effect, the Open Door notes were merely the doctrine of Manifest Destiny gone global.

... Between 1870 and 1900, the American share of world manufacturing went from 23.3 percent to 30.1 percent, making the United States the foremost industrial nation. This rapid growth was a big factor in its desire to flex its muscles in the international arena. America worried that the other imperialist powers would cut it off from the world's economic markets; its industrial growth generated the desire for foreign expansion, which created foreign interests that in turn (it believed) required protection; and it also had a yearning for symbolic greatness-- i.e., the desire to be seen as a major player on the world's stage. Add to this the fact that it was an alliance of Republican businessmen that put McKinley in the White House, an elite clique that advocated an aggressive foreign policy, an active search for markets, and a large navy. These men were empire builders, and under their influence McKinley was emboldened to compel Congress to follow his foreign policy.

Dark Ages America

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