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Why the American Empire Was Destined to Collapse

Author and social critic Morris Berman says the fact that we're a nation of hustlers lies at the root of our decline.

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NP: Most political analysts place the blame for our current situation on major institutions, whether it is Wall Street, Congress, the Bush or Obama administrations, and so on. You agree with them to a great extent, but you also seem to place a lot of emphasis on the American people themselves—on individual values and behavior. Why is that? How do you see that as a factor?

MB: The dominant thinking on the left, I suppose, is some variety of a “false consciousness” argument, that the elite have pulled the wool over the eyes of the vast majority of the population, and once the latter realizes that they’ve been had, they’ll rebel, they’ll move the country in a populist or democratic socialist direction. The problem I have with this is the evident fact that most Americans want the American Dream, not a different way of life—a Mercedes-Benz, as Janis Joplin once put it. Endless material wealth based on individual striving is the American ideal, and the desire to change that paradigm is practically nonexistent. Even the poor buy into this, which is why John Steinbeck once remarked that they regard themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Hence I would argue that nations get the governments they deserve; that the wool is the eyes.

In addition, all of the data over the last 20 years show that Americans are not very bright, and not even the bright ones are very bright—it’s not merely a question of IQ. A Marist poll released on July 4, 2011 showed that 42 percent of American adults are unaware that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776, and this figure increases to 69 percent for the under-30 age group. Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t know from which country the United States seceded. A poll taken in the Oklahoma public school system turned up the fact that 77 percent of the students didn’t know who George Washington was, and the Texas Board of Education recently voted to include a unit on Estee Lauder in the history curriculum, when they don’t have one on the first president. Nearly 30 percent of the American population thinks the sun revolves around the earth or is unsure of which revolves around which. Etc. etc. How can such a population grasp a structural analysis of American history or politics? They simply aren’t capable of it.

NP: So, basically it’s only a matter of time before students are taking courses in the historical significance of Kim Kardashian? What are the deeper, structural obstacles, in your opinion, to the American public accepting your general argument?

MB: It seems to me that it would involve a complete reversal of consciousness. I remember after the publication of the German edition of Dark Ages America , a major Berlin newspaper, the TAZ, or Tageszeitung, ran a review of the book called “Hopes of a Patriot.” One of the things the reviewer said was that America might be able to save itself if it decided to pay attention to its more serious critics. What would it take for most Americans to regard someone like myself as a patriot, and someone like Dick Cheney as a traitor? Or Ronald Reagan as a simpleton who did the country enormous damage, and Jimmy Carter as a visionary who was trying to rescue it? As I said, this is not a matter of intelligence as IQ, because in America even the bright are brainwashed—just check out the New York Times . It’s more of an “ontological” problem, if you will.

Let me give you a concrete example. A friend of mine who is a dean at one of the nation’s major medical schools was very taken by my discussion of Joyce Appleby’s work, in my book Dark Ages America. He went out and bought her essay, "Capitalism and a New Social Order," in which she describes how the definition of “virtue” underwent a complete reversal in the 1790s—from putting your private interests aside for the sake of the greater good, to achieving individual material success in an opportunistic environment.

 
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