SHELF LIFE- Doom and gloom: Berman paints grim picture

Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire

By Morris Berman

416 pages, $26.95 

W.W. Norton

Doomsday narratives sell. The specter of imminent collapse, destruction, and dissolution figures heavily in our collective imagination, even in the minds of those who aren't enthralled by Hollywood or by public figures like Pat Robertson.

Author Morris Berman spoke at the New Dominion Bookshop Friday, May 19, to promote his new book, a sort of doomsday polemic entitled Dark Ages America: The Final Phase of Empire.

Echoing the sensationalism of the title, the dust jacket inscription describes the book as "a sobering work that reveals how America has entered an inescapable social, cultural, and economic dark age."

The book offers a familiar array of complaints and criticisms of American culture, which devolve loosely into a general theory: The U.S. today resembles the aging Roman empire, our people full of hubris and ignorance– and we will share Rome's fate.

Drunk on its boundless power and influence, the empire decays from the inside. In the final phase, it enters into a war of attrition, and ultimately does not survive the stress caused by overextension. 

For all his sense of high purpose, Berman's theorizing and moralizing often hit below the belt. The book scores a number of easy points: many Americans have no idea how many ounces are in a pound; 11 percent of young adults can't find the United States on a world map. 

When he's not patronizing the young or the working class, Berman does offer some statistical evidence of serious social and economic problems: the infant mortality rate in the U.S. is among the highest for developed democracies; our health care system is dreadfully insufficient. 

These are real concerns, and such criticism is timely and well taken. Indeed, many are concerned by the erosion of civil liberties, by legally sanctioned torture, and by the image of the U.S. abroad. Regarding the budget deficit and rampant consumer culture, Berman will also find many sympathetic readers concerned about our "habit of borrowing against the future" and our "celebration of consumerism as self-expression."

But Berman's rationale too often devolves into shadow-boxing and fear-mongering. His version of cultural criticism is a particularly acidic dose of armchair wisdom. "History is no longer on our side," he laments. "Time is passing us by, and the star of other nations is rising as ours is sinking into semidarkness." 

To defend his theory, Berman offers poll statistics and other anecdotal evidence– evidence that is more spoof than proof, more derision than persuasive argument. Apart from being unreliable, the practice of parading poll statistics as the "truth" can be offensive to people serious about social reform. 

After the flood of anecdotes, what we are left with is little more than an exercise in creative writing, an imaginative project fueled by an artist's obsession. Berman picks and chooses facts from the cultural palette to paint a particular picture-– his picture of "medievalization."

When a few in the audience took issue with his theories, Berman was generally dismissive of the attempts to engage in substantive discussion– that is, discussion addressing nuance, factual omission, and something other than dead-end commentary like "There are no levers of social change today" and "History doesn't work that way." 

Berman's fatalism resembles the attitude of people disillusioned by the current administration's policies: "They... make democracy impossible, because they close down discussion." 

A legitimate complaint, but Berman's paralyzing fatalism seems equally closed-minded. When someone in the audience asked him to consider progress made during and after the civil rights movement, Berman responded with the same dismissiveness that peppers his writing: "The Dark Ages were not uniformly monochromatic," as he says early in the book-– another confusing, not to mention meaningless, generalization. 

Berman is at least careful to allude to one of the precepts of honest scholarship: the contingency of competing historical accounts is inescapable. "True" historical account usually means one man's truth– a responsible statement for a scholar and cultural critic to make, equally applicable to reckless political leaders and to authors of doomsday narratives.

Morris Berman

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