Morris Berman: The decline of the American Dream

Dr. Morris Berman discusses ideology and the American Dream. Photo: Dr. Berman

FLORIDA, December 23, 2012 — A great deal of people are always looking for a reason to believe.

Some choose to place their faith in social constructs, such as political parties. Others devote their respective livelihoods to religious action. Yet more build their entire lives around the hopes and dreams of those around them.

In any case, the quest for self-fulfillment is one of the most familiar happenings in human history. 

In this second part of our discussion, historian and social critic Morris Berman shares his thoughts about the societal ramifications of ideology. He also tells us about his views regarding the traditional left-to-right political spectrum, as well as that fabled American Dream. 


Joseph F. Cotto: Whether they should be rooted in theism or politics, various ideologies often attract droves of willing participants searching for a universal truth of some kind. In the long run, what do you think this does to any given society?

Dr. Morris Berman: Maybe the solution boils down to having a sense of humor, which is generally in short supply among the people you are describing. Eric Hoffer explored the theme of the desperate search for certainty in a book he wrote more than sixty years ago, The True Believer. He may have been talking more about fundamentalism (religious or secular, it doesn’t really matter) than about belief as such; the problem is that it’s a slippery slope, and believers generally tend to wind up as fundamentalists, thinking that there is only One True Reality, namely theirs. 

What Hoffer pegged—correctly in my view—was the Void at the center of all this, the tremendous need to keep the wolves (i.e., psychological disintegration) at bay, such that it was not the particular faith that mattered, but only the need to stuff the emptiness within. Hence, he said, you find a lot of conversion going on: Marxists will suddenly become Catholics, for example, or vice versa. The real point is the form, not the content. It is for this reason that I regard folks such as Richard Dawkins, or the late Christopher Hitchens, as “religious atheists.” Their attitude is one of intense zeal, the mark of the true believer. As far as God goes, they don’t say, “Well, you can take it or leave it.” No: they are jumping up and down, screaming that religion is bunk. Methinks the ladies doth protest too much.

The reason I think humor is important is because there really is a difference between belief and fundamentalism. It depends on how you hold your belief. Look, I’m a Jew; I think there are some good things about Judaism, and some not so good things (on balance, however, more good than bad; but that’s just my opinion). If someone were to come up to me and declare, “Hey, I think Judaism is a pile of crap!”, my response would be: “Well, it isn’t for everyone, that’s for sure.” When I see orthodox Jews getting all worked up about exactly what is kosher or not, I can’t help thinking of Christ’s response to the Pharisees: “What comes out of your mouth is more important than what goes into it.” What could be more obvious? 

Similarly, when I see Muslims going nuts over some novel by Salman Rushdie, or some cartoon in a Danish newspaper, or over this recent (ridiculous) film slandering Islam, my reaction is: Hey, did you guys ever hear of chilling out? Of water off a duck’s back? Sometimes no reaction at all is better than burning down the U.S. consulate in Libya, doncha think? My point is that the danger to society is not belief itself, whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim or Neo-liberal, but the fervor with which any belief is held. We all need to lighten up a bit, I think; isms are such dangerous things. 

Cotto: Here in the United States, we just had yet another presidential election. During this year’s Republican primaries, many marginal candidates found popular favor, and gained international attention because of their adherence to “true” conservatism. When it comes to political matters, do you find that the traditional left-right spectrum is a valid way of approaching complex situations?

Dr. Berman: One of my favorite historians is Jackson Lears, of Rutgers University. Here’s what he wrote in the New Republic in 1994: “In imagining more humane ways of life, why are recollections of the past held inferior to fantasies of the future? Perhaps because myths of progress continue to mesmerize intellectuals at all points on the political spectrum, from The Nation to the National Review.” This summarizes the problem pretty well, I think. 

Whether we are talking about Left or Right, Obama or Romney, the Tea Party or Occupy Wall Street, they all believe in the American Dream. Their definition of “progress” is strictly material, nothing more—and thus pretty impoverished as a concept. The argument is about how wealth should be distributed, or redistributed; it’s not about the fact that the Dream is an illusion. Both The Nation and the National Review talk about restoring the American Dream, when in fact what we need to do is abolish it. The whole premise is wrong, based on the notion of infinity—of permanent growth—which is not possible in the real world. 

As one colleague of mine has written, permanent growth means permanent crisis. The planet doesn’t have the resources for that, and it won’t be long until we run out of oil, and the fight for food, water, and energy will become quite violent (well, it is already). Both Left and Right think the latest software app is groovy. Both believe that our salvation lies in technological innovation and economic expansion, when the truth (as Nathaniel Hawthorne pointed out ages ago) is that this is the road to ruin. 

To go back to Question 3 for a moment, both see these things as universal truths; rarely do they talk of the limits to growth, or of the spiritual poverty that this “growth” and “progress” entail. For the most part, their focus is on the quantity of life, not the quality. Both ends of the political spectrum are enamored with, say, heart transplants, or the latest bit of medical technology. For them, this is “progress.” But neither side talks about how, when we were kids, doctors used to make home visits, take time with their patients, and get paid out of pocket, with no corporate intermediary. Reinstating all of that would be true progress, it seems to me, and it would affect many more Americans than those in need of the latest chic technological innovation.

This business about recollections of the past that Prof. Lears refers to…In 1979 Peter Berg and I mounted a conference in San Francisco called “Listening to the Earth.” One of the speakers was Gary Snyder. I wanted to bait him a little, I remember, just to see what he’d say (I already knew the answer), so in a panel discussion I asked him if he didn’t think his Zen-environmental vision wasn’t a bit romantic, unrealistic. “You know,” he replied, “there are definite limits to always barreling forward, and taking no heed of the past. There will come a time when that won’t work, and we’ll have to check out the used parts bin, and recover some of the stuff we cavalierly threw away.”

Well, that time has come; it’s just that the Right and Left in the United States haven’t figured it out yet. And they may never do. How did Thomas Hobbes put it? “Hell is truth seen too late.”

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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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