HOW BAD IS IT?
By George Sciallaba
Pretty bad. Here is a sample of factlets from surveys and studies conducted in the past twenty years. Seventy percent of Americans believe in the existence of angels. Fifty percent believe that the earth has been visited by UFOs; in another poll, 70 percent believed that the U.S. government is covering up the presence of space aliens on earth. Forty percent did not know whom the U.S. fought in World War II. Forty percent could not locate Japan on a world map. Fifteen percent could not locate the United States on a world map. Sixty percent of Americans have not read a book since leaving school. Only 6 percent now read even one book a year. According to a very familiar statistic that nonetheless cannot be repeated too often, the average American’s day includes six minutes playing sports, five minutes reading books, one minute making music, 30 seconds attending a play or concert, 25 seconds making or viewing art, and four hours watching television.
Among high-school seniors surveyed in the late 1990s, 50 percent had not heard of the Cold War. Sixty percent could not say how the United States came into existence. Fifty percent did not know in which century the Civil War occurred. Sixty percent could name each of the Three Stooges but not the three branches of the U.S. government. Sixty percent could not comprehend an editorial in a national or local newspaper.
Intellectual distinction isn’t everything, it’s true. But things are amiss in other areas as well: sociability and trust, for example. “During the last third of the twentieth century,” according to Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, “all forms of social capital fell off precipitously.” Tens of thousands of community groups – church social and charitable groups, union halls, civic clubs, bridge clubs, and yes, bowling leagues — disappeared; by Putnam’s estimate, one-third of our social infrastructure vanished in these years. Frequency of having friends to dinner dropped by 45 percent; card parties declined 50 percent; Americans’ declared readiness to make new friends declined by 30 percent. Belief that most other people could be trusted dropped from 77 percent to 37 percent. Over a five-year period in the 1990s, reported incidents of aggressive driving rose by 50 percent — admittedly an odd, but probably not an insignificant, indicator of declining social capital.
Still, even if American education is spotty and the social fabric is fraying, the fact that the U.S. is the world’s richest nation must surely make a great difference to our quality of life? Alas, no. As every literate person knows, economic inequality in the United States is off the charts – at third-world levels. The results were recently summarized by James Speth in Orion magazine. Of the 20 advanced democracies in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. has the highest poverty rate, for both adults and children; the lowest rate of social mobility; the lowest score on UN indexes of child welfare and gender inequality; the highest ratio of health care expenditure to GDP, combined with the lowest life expectancy and the highest rates of infant mortality, mental illness, obesity, inability to afford health care, and personal bankruptcy resulting from medical expenses; the highest homicide rate; and the highest incarceration rate. Nor are the baneful effects of America’s social and economic order confined within our borders; among OECD nations the U.S. also has the highest carbon dioxide emissions, the highest per capita water consumption, the next-to-largest ecological footprint, the next-to-lowest score on the Yale Environmental Performance Index, the highest (by a colossal margin) per capita rate of military spending and arms sales, and the next-to-lowest rate of per capita spending on international development and humanitarian assistance.
Contemplating these dreary statistics, one might well conclude that the United States is — to a distressing extent — a nation of violent, intolerant, ignorant, superstitious, passive, shallow, boorish, selfish, unhealthy, unhappy people, addicted to flickering screens, incurious about other societies and cultures, unwilling or unable to assert or even comprehend their nominal political sovereignty. Or, more simply, that America is a failure.
That is indeed what Morris Berman concludes in his three-volume survey of America’s decline: The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Dark Ages America (2006), and Why America Failed (2011), from which much of the preceding information is taken. Berman is a cultural and intellectual historian, not a social scientist, so his portrait of American civilization, or barbarism, is anecdotal and atmospheric as well as statistical. He is eloquent about harder-to-quantify trends: the transformation of higher (even primary/secondary) education into marketing arenas for predatory corporations; the new form of educational merchandising known as “distance learning”; the colonization of civic and cultural spaces by corporate logos; the centrality of malls and shopping to our social life; the “systematic suppression of silence” and the fact that “there is barely an empty space in our culture not already carrying commercial messages.” Idiot deans, rancid rappers, endlessly chattering sports commentators, an avalanche of half-inch-deep self-help manuals; a plague of gadgets, a deluge of stimuli, an epidemic of rudeness, a desert of mutual indifference: the upshot is our daily immersion in a suffocating stream of kitsch, blather, stress, and sentimental banality. Berman colorfully and convincingly renders the relentless coarsening and dumbing down of everyday life in late (dare we hope?) American capitalism.
In Spenglerian fashion, Berman seeks the source of our civilization’s decline in its innermost principle, its animating Geist. What he finds at the bottom of our culture’s soul is … hustling; or, to use its respectable academic sobriquet, possessive individualism. Expansion, accumulation, economic growth: this is the ground bass of American history, like the hum of a dynamo in the basement beneath the polite twitterings on the upper stories about “liberty” and “a light unto the nations.” Berman scarcely mentions Marx or historical materialism; instead he offers a nonspecialist and accessible but deeply informed and amply documented review of American history, period by period, war by war, arguing persuasively that whatever the ideological superstructure, the driving energy behind policy and popular aspiration has been a ceaseless, soulless acquisitiveness.