The Twilight of American Culture

by Morris Berman

WW Norton, 2000, paper


Thomas Jefferson
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.

Robert Kaplan
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 to twenty-eight.

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 the population.

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 morons.

... 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.

Sven Birkerts
"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 circuses.


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 Ages.

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 ancient world."

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 were.

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 Montag,
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 on:
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 doing.


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.

Immanuel Kant
"Dare to think!"

William Leach

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 consumers.

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 except business."

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 Century

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?


Alternative Visions

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 cultural renewal.

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 full-blown religion.

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."

Morris Berman page

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