Morris Berman: A Question of Values

A Question of Values is Morris Berman’s seventh book of cultural history and social criticism and his first book of essays, which were written between 2007 and 2010.  The book covers four general topics: American culture and politics, the human existential condition, the nature of progress, and thoughts on where we are headed. (He thinks not a good place.)  He feels our problems are as much ethical as they are political.

In the second essay in the book “conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History” Berman outlines four American values that he feels are problematic and that are at the core of our accelerating decline.  He suggests these four values or “unconscious mythologies” negatively influence how we behave with each other and the rest of the world. No matter where we are politically, whether we reject them or not, these mythologies are part of our DNA. Because of that reality, Berman feels we need to bring to consciousness the following notions that are not serving us well.

The first is the idea of Americans as the “chosen people,” and of the nation as a “City on a Hill.” He attributes this notion to the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony John Winthrop who said: “ He [God] shall make us praise and glory. . . .For we must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.”

In other words, the idea is that it is our unique mission to bring democracy to all the peoples of the earth because the American way of life is superior to all others. Berman underscores that the idea of American exceptionalism—that America is the manifestation of God’s will on earth—runs deep in the American psyche. It was the belief in American exceptionalism that eventually sold Americans on the Iraq War, which after the weapons of mass destruction lie failed, transformed into a mission to bring American democracy and the American way of life to the Middle East.

Berman’s second unconscious mythology is of the existence in the United States of what he calls a “civil religion.” Even though Americans claim to be highly religious, the real religion of the American people is America itself.

To be an American is regarded (unconsciously by Americans) as an ideological/religious commitment, not an accident of birth. This is why critics of the United States are immediately labeled “un-American,” and are practically regarded as traitors. (Quite ridiculous, when your think about it: can you imagine a Swedish critic of Sweden, for example, being attacked as “un-Sweedish?”)  The historian Sidney Mead pegged it correctly when he called America “the nation with the soul of a church,” while another historian, Richard Hofstadter, declared that “It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one.”  Quite obviously, this is not a position that encourages self-reflection.

The third unconscious mythology, according to Berman is the existence of a “supposedly endless frontier into which the American people would expand geographically. Eventually, it became an economic frontier, and finally an imperial one—Manifest Destiny gone global. . . .The American Dream envisions a world without limits, in which the goal, as the gangster (played by Edward G. Robinson) tells Humphrey Bogart in Key Largo, is simply ‘more.’”

Finally, Berman identifies us as having a national character based on extreme individualism—Emerson’s “Self Reliance.” He notes a shift occurred in the definition of the word “virtue” in the Colonies in the 1790s. Previous to this time, the word virtue referred to the European idea of the capacity to rise above personal interest and devote oneself to the public good. But, he says, by 1800, the definition was reversed. Virtue came to mean the ability to “further oneself in an opportunistic environment.” Jeffersonian Republicans championed this idea as a way to break with all things European. “Life was not to be about service to the community, but about competition and the acquisition of goods.. . .The “self-made man” is expected to make it on his own.”

Berman goes on to say that

American history can be seen as the story of a nation consistently choosing individual solutions over collective ones. One American who did dissent, however, was Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. In Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions he wrote: “The philosophy of self-sufficiency is not paying off. Plainly enough, it is a bone-crushing juggernaut whose final achievement is ruin.”

As if to underscore Berman’s point, on October 11, 2008, Harold Bloom wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled “Out of Panic, Self-Reliance.” In it he said, referring to the economic crash and the upcoming election:”

Regardless of these differences, whoever is elected will have to forge a solution to today’s panic through his own understanding of self-reliance. As Emerson knew in his glory and sorrow, both of himself and all Americans: “The wealth of the universe is for me. Every thing is explicable and practical for me …. I am defeated all the time; yet to victory I am born.”

Interesting, that Bloom didn’t question the “wealth of the universe is for me” mentality that contributed to the economic crisis, but, instead, celebrated it.

Berman acknowledges that these same unconscious mythologies drove technological innovation and the “Yankee can-do mentality.” However, he feels that “in dialectical fashion, they have begun to turn against us, and the crash of 2008 is merely the tip of the iceberg.”

Morris Berman is a well-known cultural historian and social critic. He has taught in a number of universities in Europe, North America and Mexico. Berman won the Governor’s Writer’s Award for Washington State in 1990, and the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992. In 2000, his book Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by The New York Times.