Morris Berman on America's culture of "Me, Myself, and I"

Have Americans gone past ignorance to stupidity? Can we no longer think? Part one of an interview with historian and social critic Dr. Morris Berman.   Photo: Cultural, as well as scientific, historian and social critic Dr. Morris Berman

FLORIDA, December 22, 2012 — Many Americans think that their culture is on a downward spiral; Morris Berman thinks that Americans can’t think. 

Our economy is weak, our education system is failing, and we’ve substituted the internet for real social interraction and real thought. We live in an ocean of information and have lost the capacity to pull knowledge from it, the critical capacity to test information for truth. 

Morris Berman is a prominent cultural and scientific historian, and also a well-known social critic. He’s written extensively about everything from the values of Western civilization to our country’s financial woes. His work challenges us to look at facts from a far more comprehensive perspective.

In this first part of our discussion, Dr. Berman shares his views about contemporary American thought — or lack thereof — as well as the relationship between personal responsibility and individualism.    


Joseph F. Cotto: Lateral thinking is not a concept with which many are familiar. Particularly in the West, most of us have been taught to think in a critical fashion. Do you believe that the rise of lateral thinking will be good for American society?

Dr. Morris Berman: I guess I’m wondering who “most of us” is, particularly in the United States. Educationally speaking, nothing can save the U.S.; we are simply too far gone. Hence, linear or lateral doesn’t matter. All the evidence is that Americans just don’t think, and don’t really know what that consists of.

I discuss a lot of this in the first two books of my “American Empire” trilogy, “The Twilight of American Culture” and “Dark Ages America.” The statistics are astounding. For example, 20 percent of Americans believe the sun revolves around the earth, and an additional 9 percent say they don’t know which revolves around which. Something like 70 percent don’t believe in evolution. It’s like the Enlightenment never happened. 

Nor is a university education of much help these days. In their book “Academically Adrift,” Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa reveal that after two years of higher education, 45 percent of American students have learned nothing at all, and after four years, 36 percent; and they say this especially applies to critical thinking abilities. Most Americans don’t know the difference between an argument and an opinion; they literally have no idea as to what evidence is. Some researchers have even identified a phenomenon called “negative learning,” by which they mean that after four years of college, the students know less than when they matriculated—and this apparently applies to some of the most prestigious universities in the country.

It’s easy to call this ignorance, but it actually may be stupidity. The impact of screens on the brain—from television onwards, and then especially with the rise of the personal computer—is apparently quite negative, affecting things like synaptic connections. I discuss this in the third volume of my trilogy, “Why America Failed,” in chapter 3, “The Illusion of Progress.” I would also recommend Nicholas Carr’s book, “The Shallows.” The footnote references in these books will lead readers to the studies that have been done in this regard. Coupled with the data accumulated from the late 1940s on (J.Z. Young et al.), that the brain is a whole lot more plastic than we ever realized, you get a picture of American thinking abilities that is little more than a joke.

Finally, as to lateral thinking per se – years ago I wrote a book called “The Reenchantment of the World,” in which I argued for the importance of lateral, as opposed to critical or linear, thinking. Given what has happened since then, I now feel like a pre-Reformation Loyola. Thus we have someone like Deepak Chopra telling his admirers, “You must get beyond the prison of the intellect!” The problem is that he is addressing New Age audiences who never managed to get into the prison of the intellect in the first place; they should be so lucky! Let them spend twenty years inside of that “prison,” and then we’ll talk about the importance of lateral thinking. 

Cotto: One of the gravest concerns cited with modern society is a pervasive attitude of nonchalance toward personal responsibility. What are your opinions about this?

Dr. Berman: I guess the first thing that occurs to me is: Responsibility toward whom? Oneself? The people around you? The larger community (assuming such a thing even exists)? You see the problem: It depends on whom one is talking about.

Americans are guided by an “ethic” of extreme individualism; it’s kind of our pride and joy, the far end of what Isaiah Berlin called “negative liberty.” I recall a story I heard in San Francisco when I lived there in the 1970s, and everyone was hog wild over “est,” the brain child of Werner Erhard (I called it the spirituality of selfishness). This woman was telling me that a friend of hers, just fresh from an “est” seminar, agreed to help her move. So they loaded a lot of stuff into her car and set off to her new apartment. The traffic, however, was practically at a standstill, and the “friend” got very impatient. He finally told her he needed to take care of himself, and that he was responsible only for himself. So he got out of the car and left her to fend for herself. 

Erhard, of course, saw his teaching as some sort of holistic breakthrough, but the guy was merely Ayn Rand warmed over, and this vignette illustrates the “ethic” of narcissism pretty well. It’s not an accident that Alan Greenspan was a protégé of Ms. Rand, and that the economy and society of the United States (not to mention the culture) revolves around the ideology of Me, Myself, and I. Caring for another person is generally regarded as foolish and/or weak, in American society; charity is basically the bourgeois version of justice.

I recently had an opportunity to witness a very different kind of personal responsibility when I spent six weeks in Japan. What is first and foremost in the Japanese mind is one’s impact on those around you. When the Japanese wear a hospital mask, it is not, as in the United States, to protect themselves from others’ germs; it is to protect others from your germs. You ride the subway in Tokyo and no one is talking into a cell phone, because that would be regarded as rude, as intruding on others with your private conversation. In fact, subway cars have an icon of a cell phone mounted above the doors, with the word OFF superimposed on it. 

The typical American scenario—you’re in a restaurant trying to have a quiet dinner with a friend, and three feet away a woman is literally hollering into her cell phone about the details of her recent gall bladder operation—would evoke feelings of revulsion in a Japanese person. The general American attitude to the social environment is “Hey, I can do whatever I want, and if you don’t like it, too bad for you.” Finally, that means we are not living in a society at all. Margaret Thatcher famously told us that “there is no such thing as society,” and if you believe that, all you can look forward to is cultural disintegration; which is what we see all around us.

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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