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Dark Ages America - Introduction

© Morris Berman

Editor's note: Below is the complete Introduction to Morris Berman's book, Dark Ages America - The Final Phase of Empire. An excellent book, in my opinion. Let me know what you think about it - open discussion thread here [ -click- ]:

T H E  O M I N O U S  T I T L E, Dark Ages America will very likely be incomprehensible to most of my fellow Americans, especially to those who reelected George W. Bush in 2004. Indeed, for the majority, there appears to be little doubt that America is at the zenith of its military power, capable of shaking up the world as it sees fit and charged with the mission of bringing the light of democracy to the darkest corners of the globe. Does it make sense, they will undoubtedly ask, to talk of a new Dark Age, when American power extends so far and wide?

Yet for some members of this society, the title might not be so farfetched. For them, the future appears potentially treacherous; they believe that it is not at all clear where we are going as a civilization, or whether we can throw any light on other people, much less on ourselves. These individuals have become quite jittery, or even despondent, about America's terminal decadence. For them, the downward spiral of our culture and the exponential, even cultlike growth of forces that threaten our long-standing secular and humanistic values are causes for increasing alarm. For this segment of the population, then, the title Dark Ages America is not likely to be as anomalous as it might first sound.

Of course, it does seem like a gross exaggeration to equate the present (and in my view, final) phase of American history with the Dark or Middle Ages, but I am not trying to be dramatic here. Empires, and civilizations, rise and fall, and they go through a series of stages in the process.

We were already in our twilight phase when Ronald Reagan, with all the insight of an ostrich, declared it to be "morning in America"; twenty-odd years later, under the "boy emperor" George W. Bush (as Chalmers Johnson refers to him), we have entered the Dark Ages in earnest, pursuing a short-sighted path that can only accelerate our decline. For what we are now seeing are the obvious characteristics of the West after the fall of Rome: the triumph of religion over reason; the atrophy of education and critical thinking; the integration of religion, the state, and the apparatus of torture -- a troika that was for Voltaire the central horror of the pre-Enlightenment world; and the political and economic marginalization of our culture. Of course, the Dark Ages were not uniformly monochromatic, as recent scholarship has demonstrated; but then, neither is present-day America. The point is that in both cases "dark" is the operative word.

To understand what we mean by the term, we need to look, historically, at what constituted the light. In his famous essay of 1784, "What Is Enlightenment?," the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote, "Enlightenment is man's release from his self?incurred tutelage," which he defined as his "inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another." Sapere aude! cried Kant; "have the courage to use your own reason! -- that is the motto of enlightenment."

These are fabulous words, and the ideals they embody inspired the Founding Fathers and the American Constitution. Commenting on Kant's call to reason, the Israeli historian Shmuel Feiner writes:
The explosive nature of this brief definition lies in its sweeping criticism of the "old" world, in which man, out of pessimism and passivity, allows the existing order to dictate his life and those possessing religious and spiritual authority to determine for him what is truth. In contrast, the enlightened man is an autonomous, rational, and skeptical person, who has the power to free himself of the shackles of the past and authority, and to pave new and better ways for himself and for all humanity
My question for the reader is this: in all seriousness, which direction do you believe the United States is going in, at this point in time? My guess is that most of you will recognize this as a no-brainer; but to address the issue in greater depth, it might be instructive to consider the extent to which the four post-Roman Empire characteristics of the West apply to our present situation.

The Triumph of Religion over Reason

With the reelection of George W. Bush, and the prospect of long-term Republican hegemony over American politics, it seems likely that American civilization is now transitioning from the twilight phase I wrote about several years ago in The Twilight of American Culture to an actual dark age. Indeed, the British historian Charles Freeman published an extended discussion of this transition as it occurred during the late Roman Empire, the title of which could serve as a capsule summary of our current president: The Closing of the Western Mind. Mr. Bush, God knows, is no Augustine; but Freeman points to the latter as the epitome of a more general process that was under way in the fourth century: namely, "the gradual subjection of reason to faith and authority." This is what we are seeing today, and it is a process that no society can undergo and still remain free. Yet it is a process of which administration officials, along with much of the American population, are aggressively proud. Interviewing a number of policy advisers and people who had known or been close to Mr. Bush at one time, journalist Ron Suskind discovered a consensus among them: they felt the president -- along with his evangelical base -- believes he is on a mission from God and that faith trumps empirical evidence. "A writ of infallibility ... guides the inner life of the White House," writes Suskind. Thus a senior adviser to Bush said that the White House regards people like Suskind as living in "the reality-based community" -- i.e., among people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." But, he went on, "that's not the way the world really works anymore. We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

It sounds heroic, in a baroque kind of way. But as the eminent philosopher Karl Popper argued, falsifiability -- running the risk of empirical refutation -- is the touchstone not only of perceptual accuracy but also of freedom, and even of meaningful discourse itself. Revealed "truth" and faith-generated "reality" are not open to this criterion, which is one reason that Mr. Bush seems to be incapable of acknowledging a mistake. They also make democracy impossible, because they close down discussion; this is why they have typically been the centerpiece of authoritarian regimes (rule by divine right, in one form or another). It is also the case that if a nation is unable to perceive reality correctly, and persists in operating on the basis of faith-based delusions, its ability to hold its own in the world is pretty much foreclosed.

And so, where are we now? Early in 2005 the New York Times reported that increasingly, across the nation, secondary school teachers were leaving the subject of evolution out of the curriculum because they'd get in trouble with their principal if he or she found out they were teaching it. Even when evolution is listed in the curriculum, it may not make it into the classroom. Many administrators discourage teachers from discussing it, and teachers often avoid the topic out of fear of protests from fundamentalist parents. Add to this the pervasive hostility toward science on the part of the current administration (e.g., stem cell research), and we get a clear picture of the Enlightenment being steadily rolled back.

Religion also shows up in the current American tendency to explain world events (in particular, terrorist attacks) as part of a cosmic conflict between Good and Evil, rather than in terms of political processes. This is hardly limited to the White House. Manichaeanism rules across the United States. According to a poll taken by Time magazine -- can this really be correct? -- 59 percent of Americans believe that John's apocalyptic prophecies in the Book of Revelation will be fulfilled, and nearly all of these believe that the faithful will be taken up into heaven in the "Rapture" (the latter discussed in Thessalonians). According to the Book of Revelation, God is going to punish the nonbelievers with various plagues, after which Christ will return to earth -- with a sword in his mouth -- for the final showdown between Good and Evil (the battle of Armageddon).'

The vengeful quality of the apocalyptic vision comes across quite clearly in the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye (one of the founders of the Moral Majority) and Jerry Jenkins, which had, by early 2003, sold more than 62 million copies. One in eight Americans reads these books, and they are a favorite with American soldiers in Iraq. The Book of Revelation is pretty much the road map for the novels, and the worldview is reassuringly black-and-white, with "good" triumphing in the end. At the end of the series, Jews who have persisted in their faith are consigned to the Everlasting Fire, along with Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, and devotees of other "aberrant religions." Seas turn to blood; locusts torment the unbelievers; and 200 million demonic horsemen wipe out a third of the planet -- a kind of cosmic ethnic cleansing, as it were. It doesn't get much darker than this.

Finally, we shouldn't be surprised at the antipathy toward democracy displayed by the Bush administration, a fact that has been reported on, in various manifestations, numerous times. As already noted, fundamentalism and democracy are completely antithetical. The opposite of the Enlightenment, of course, is tribalism, groupthink; and more and more, this is the direction in which the United States is going. Thus Mr. Bush's first official response to his reelection was to create a cabinet of completely uniform voices, as David Gergen, who has been an adviser to four presidents, pointed out -- "closing down dissent and centralizing power in a few hands." In the world of groupthink, loyalty is everything; and it was also this kind of tribalism, I believe, that got Bush reelected. We are moving, or so it seems, toward a one-party system, a kind of presidential dictatorship, one that is fundamentally theocratic in nature.

Nor does one see much by way of grassroots objection to this trend. American hatred of freedom, for example, shows up quite clearly in the statistics of public attitudes toward the Bill of Rights. Anthony Lewis, who worked as a columnist for the New York Times for thirty-two years, observes that what has happened in the wake of 9/11 is not just the threatening of the rights of a few detainees, but the undermining of the very foundation of democracy. Detention without trial, denial of access to attorneys, years of interrogation in isolation?these are an now standard American practice, and most Americans don't care. Nor did they care about the revelation, in July 2004 (reported in Newsweek), that for several months the White House and the Department of Justice had been discussing the feasibility of canceling the upcoming presidential election in the event of a possible terrorist attack, which would have been a first in American history.

In a "State of the First Amendment Survey" conducted by the University of Connecticut in 2003, 34 percent of Americans polled said the First Amendment "goes too far"; 46 percent said there was too much freedom of the press; 28 percent felt that newspapers should not be able to publish articles without prior approval of the government; 31 percent wanted public protest of a war to be outlawed during that war; and 50 percent thought the government should have the right to infringe on the religious freedom of "certain religious groups" in the name of the war on terror. Quite honestly, we may be only one more terrorist attack away from a police state.

The Breakdown of Education and Critical Thinking

Increasingly, the evidence piles up that intellectually speaking, this nation is very obviously "living in the dark." What is one to make of the fact (reported in the New York Times early in 2005) that a number of school districts around the country are now making sobriety tests a regular feature of the school day? Or that millions of American adults are ignorant of the most elementary facts, such as the identity of our enemy in World War II? Or that more often than not, our children graduate from university not knowing the difference between an argument and an assertion, are unable to reason clearly, and don't really know what evidence is? One listens to a radio interview with a travel agent in Arizona who relates how numerous customers ask him questions such as whether it would be cheaper to take the train to Hawaii rather than the plane; or one reads that 11 percent of young adults can't find the United States on a world map, and that only 13 percent of them can locate Iraq. It turns out that only 12 percent of Americans own a passport, that more than 50 percent were (prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall) unaware that Germany had been split into eastern and western sectors in the aftermath of World War II, and that 45 percent believe that space aliens have visited the earth.

As in the Middle Ages, when most individuals got their understanding of the world from a mass source -- i.e., the Church -- most Americans get their "understanding" from another mass source: television. Political and historical "analysis," on this basis, typically amounts to a few slogans they picked up the day before from broadcast news or even from a late-night comedy show. No surprise, then, that on the eve of the 2004 presidential election, 42 percent believed Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11 attacks, and 32 percent believed that he had personally planned them.

And what does it mean when this level of ignorance, and (amazingly enough) an actual pride in such ignorance, finally inhabits the White House? As Los Angeles journalist John Powers writes in his book Sore Winners, Mr. Bush is in fact a mirror of the nation. We can see his fractured image, writes Powers, reflected in the wildly popular dog-eat-dog reality shows, the frenzy over The Passion of the Christ, the celebration of consumerism as self-expression, and the general climate of fear. Bush rules over a "polarized culture of unreality," and it is this culture that created him and gave him his power. Personally, he is a bit eerie, a kind of hologram created by Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, and sold to the American people as a "concocted persona." He takes "obvious pleasure in announcing violence," writes Powers, and is "possessed of a need for order that borders on rage." Yet this robotic behavior has proven to be quite effective in an American context. The lack of intellectual suppleness or curiosity, the distaste for ambiguity, are tailor-made for this particular audience. Once again, both the population and the president can simplistically relate to the world, medieval style, as a battleground between the forces of Good and Evil. Ignorant of historical context, and conditioned by the media to "think" in terms of sound bites and slogans, the American public comes to regard Bush's Manichaeanism and simpleminded view of the world as "sturdy common sense." "If George W. Bush vanished tomorrow," Powers concludes, "everything genuinely awful about this presidency would still be in place.... Bush World is not simply the emanation of one sore winner. It's a collection of ideas, values, symbols, and policies."

Legalization of Torture

More than anything else, I suppose, torture evokes the culture of the Dark and Middle Ages. We associate these eras with barbarism, with "cruel and unusual punishment," and use phrases such as "medieval torture chamber" to characterize them. As we observed, nothing, for Voltaire, was more representative of pre-Enlightenment regimes. What, then, are the implications of Abu Ghraib, which, along with Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, constitutes only "part of an American gulag," as Al Gore candidly put it? Just to understand the larger picture, for a moment: Not only are we supporting governments that routinely practice torture, but in the wake of 9/11 we began transferring suspected terrorists to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, and Morocco to do our dirty work for us, which includes hanging prisoners from the ceiling, subjecting them to electric shocks, forcing objects up their rectums, tearing their fingernails out, and fracturing their spines. It seemed, though, as time went on, that we were willing to be pretty brutal ourselves. Since Abu Ghraib, there have been periodic revelations in the press about American-led torture being worse, and more widespread, than previously thought. Articles began appearing with headlines such as "The US. Military Archipelago," or "Secret World of US. Interrogation." Phrases used in these unflinching reports include "worldwide constellation of detention centers," "elaborate CIA and military infrastructure," and "global detention system run by the Pentagon."

In fact, writes Mark Danner, the author of Torture and Truth, America has been transformed "from a country that condemned torture and forbade its use to one that practices torture routinely." Americans began torturing prisoners after 9/11 and never really stopped. For example, the near drowning of suspects, or "water-boarding," a technique long used in Latin American dictatorships, is now common to us. Yet there was no outcry over any of this, and the few congressional hearings that took place were "distinguished by their lack of seriousness." And what should we make of the post-2004 election outcome of all this, that Alberto Gonzales, the man who wrote the legal briefs justifying the use of torture, is now, in Orwellian fashion, head of the Department of Justice? Add to this the substantial evidence that many of these practices are a standard feature of the domestic prison system, and our return to the Dark Ages would seem to be complete.

Marginalization of the United States on the World Stage

Would you believe it if I were to tell you that the U.S. infant mortality rate is among the highest for developed democracies, and that the World Health Organization rates our health care system as thirty-seventh best in the world, well behind that of Saudi Arabia (which came in as twenty sixth)? That the American legal system, at one time the world standard, is now regarded by many other nations as outmoded and provincial, or even barbaric, given our use of the death penalty? That we have lost our edge in science to Europe, that our annual trade deficit (half a trillion dollars) reveals a nation that is industrially weak, and that the US economy is being kept afloat by huge foreign loans ($4 billion a day during 2003)? What do you think will happen when America's creditors decide to pull the plug, or when OPEC members begin selling oil in euros instead of dollars? The Boston Globe actually compared our habit of borrowing against the future to that of ancient Rome, and an International Monetary Fund report of 2004 concluded that the United States was "careening toward insolvency." Meanwhile, while America is spending hundreds of billions of dollars on phony wars, the money is piling up in Europe and Asia, and in 2003 China finally supplanted the United States as the number one destination for worldwide foreign investment, with France weighing in as number two. Almost any of our domestic economic problems, writes the Washington Post, "is a greater threat to the economy than virtually any imaginable form of terrorism." And in response, we do nothing about it.

Rome in the late-empire period is the obvious point of comparison here, and it is important to remember that it did not so much fall as fall away as it became socially and economically nonviable, as its military was finally strained to the breaking point by what has been called "imperial overstretch." Rome simply became irrelevant on the world stage. Power eventually flowed to the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire, and the revival of Europe, when it began in the eleventh century, occurred elsewhere, to the north. As for the United States, all that awaits it on the domestic front is bankruptcy and popular disaffection; internationally speaking, we'll be looking at second- or third-rate status by 2040, if not before. History is no longer on our side; time is passing us by, and the star of other nations is rising as ours is sinking into semidarkness.

If all of this has been under way since the 1960s or 1970s, it is clear that 9/11 constituted some kind of coup de grace. In the wake of that event, civil liberties were severely compromised, the already huge gap between rich and poor was rendered even more extreme, and we began to behave like a rogue nation, acting as a law unto ourselves. Our whole posture has been one of dealing with symptoms, crushing external manifestations; sophisticated analyses of the underlying causes of terrorism -- let alone of how we might address these -- have a hard time becoming part of our public dialogue ("they hate freedom" or "they are jealous of us -- doesn't exactly qualify as sophisticated). So 9/11 has entered our national mythology as a day on which the United States, a decent and well-meaning nation, was attacked by crazed fanatics hell-bent on destroying its way of life. All indications are that this is how it will be remembered -- at least by Americans. It will definitely not become the day on which we began to reflect on our own fanaticism, on how we were living, and on how historically, we had treated the peoples of the Third World. In fact, it is not likely that such a day of self-examination will ever come to pass. It will, in short, serve the very blindness that brought it on, and that is doing us in. Whatever the outcome of the war on terrorism, or its war on us, one could argue that the terrorists are already winning, in that they have managed to push us further along the downward trajectory we were already on.

So the question remains, What kind of a future does the United States really have? Not a bright one, quite obviously. If "morning in America" was little more than a joke when Reagan uttered it in 1981, it is a total delusion today. I see no way of avoiding the conclusion that the four developments that I have just outlined constitute a new Dark Age. Of course, there are differences as well: we are not literally living in A.D. 600, and I don't wish to stretch the metaphor too far. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to believe that it was more evocative than real. A stretch maybe, but hardly off-base as a description of America's present and near future situation. If the past is any guide at all here, we can pretty much predict that over the course of the next thirty or forty years the only alternative solutions we shall pursue will be at best cosmetic, and will, in the long run, amount to very little.

This leaves one final question, at least in an American context: Why bother to write this book? If we have no way of saving ourselves, what's the point? This is where the goats and sheep part company, in my opinion. Americans have been raised on Walt Disney and Ralph Waldo Emerson; they take optimism in with their mother's milk. Nor is this all bad, of course: optimism can be a very good thing if the situation truly warrants it. But there are no levers of social change today. The Democratic party is politically and intellectually bankrupt, the "greens" are minuscule this side of the Atlantic, and claims for the existence of dynamic grassroots movements or some putative "radical middle" are without any basis in fact. But as many non-Americans, as well as a small percentage of Americans, know, there is value in the truth for its own sake, not just because it may possibly be put to some utilitarian or optimistic purpose. The truth is no less true because it is depressing, and to ignore or suppress it because it may not make one happy is the behavior of fools. This book was written for those individuals, American or not, who are more interested in reality than illusion, more committed to understanding America as it is than in being comforted by a fantasy of what it is, or of what it might supposedly become. And if this is depressing on one level, it may prove to be exciting on another. For the story of the trajectory of American civilization, from Plymouth Rock to Dead?End Iraq, is a fascinating one. If the reader is willing to view this "from the outside," as it were which is to say, dispassionately -- the adventure can be a liberating one; or so I believe. Americans, after all, are not trained to think historically or sociologically, to understand that their culture is but one among many, and thus to be able to grasp it objectively, as a whole. But without this "X-ray" ability, there can be no freedom at all: one is just sleepwalking through life, taking a mass myth for reality. And ignorance is not bliss; it's always better to leave Plato's cave, or so it seems to me. So if I am not able to offer the reader any upbeat message, I'm nevertheless hoping to offer him or her a kind of slow-motion "aha!" experience: "Oh, so that's why . . ." There are, in short, readers who find reality -- whether "good" or "bad" -- finally more fulfilling than fairy tales, and it is to this audience that Dark Ages America is addressed.

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Excerpted from the book Dark Ages America, by Morris Berman. Comments and discussion welcome here.

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Also of interest:
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America: From Freedom to Fascism

Video: Destruction of Habeas Corpus = New Dark Age for US
The Specter of Deflation - Part I

Turn off the TV and think!

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