Last week The Atlantic ran an interview with “cultural historian and social critic” Morris Berman on “how American culture misses life’s meaning.” Berman, who got so fed up with America that he up and moved to Mexico, pinpoints the American “culture of hustling,” in which we’re all living on the treadmill of capitalism run by collective consumer values, as the culprit of our failure as a country. Berman puts it like this:
This is, in some ways, the subject of my book Why America Failed. America is essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years. It’s practically genetic, in the U.S., by now; the programming is so deep, and so much out of conscious awareness, that very few Americans can break free of it. They’re really sleepwalking through life, living out a narrative that is not of their own making, while thinking they are in the driver’s seat.
It’s also especially hard to break free of that mesmerization when everyone else is similarly hypnotized. Groupthink is enormously powerful. Even if it occurs to you to stop following the herd, it seems crazy or terrifying to attempt it.
This is not a new criticism; we’ve heard before that we’re all robots chained to the clock, fed on achievement and advertising, and there’s something to be said for that. But Berman also makes some more astute observations. He argues that the buying and spending “frenzy” that began building momentum in the 60s made a rarity of the “silence and slow time” it takes to be creative. He also argues that palliatives (Prozac and cell phones seem to be popular enemies of his) are dangerous because sadness is an important part of experiencing life in its full. The interviewer, David Masciotra, asks, “You write that sadness is very important. Why? What do people miss when they neglect the opportunities presented by sadness?” Berman responds,
What you miss is depth, because the bottom line is that life has a tragic dimension, and no amount of Oprah or Tony Robbins can change that. To hide from sadness—and one way or another, that’s what Americans struggle mightily to do—is to remain a child all your life. Most Americans have never grown up.
For Berman, the solution, the way to grow up, has to do with the universe and awareness and other fluffy words. At work here is the chimera of limitless human potential which starts with breaking away from societal tethers and cultivating “awareness,” which Berman defines as “the process of becoming transparent to yourself.” The problem is not us, it is something that’s been done to us. It’s in our culture, it’s in our past, it’s in the water. It’s the hustle. You have the power in yourself, you just need to wake up and realize your latent potential. Ok, I should back up a step. Self-awareness is not a bad thing and oftentimes, learning more about your own psychology can be helpful, but it’s just not an end in itself—it’s not going to save us. And, it proves pretty ineffective for improving behavior. To requote a New Yorker review that we already covered here, “Self-knowledge isn’t a cure for irrationality; even when we know why we stumble, we still find a way to fall.” We who are dying need a saving that comes from outside of ourselves.
We love to believe this, though—the myth of our own power. Another reason that Berman’s philosophy is attractive is that he does describe the problem well. It’s easy to resonate with him when he says that “[we] have a dull sense that [our] lives are fundamentally off,” because most of us probably do feel that we’re not living fully in the moment, and most of us probably have a vision of what a “meaningful” life is that we create in contrast to our own. And yet, this ironic need, this subtle malaise that Berman preys on, is, at least in part, a result of this same consumer culture; I know that I sure am lacking explosive joy in the small things of life that the people in the McCafe commercials seem to have, with their white smiles and their blueberry-pomegranate smoothies fresh off the dollar menu. The problem with the Berman solution (which is what, exactly?) is that he seems to be selling some false idea of meaning. He claims that we’ve lost all sense of enchantment; our work—in academia, in corporations—doesn’t “sing” to us anymore (I haven’t traveled extensively, but in my experience, job dissatisfaction isn’t a problem specific to America).
And so, while Berman doesn’t promise happiness, which is wise, he does seem to imply that life’s significance can only lie outside of traditional American jobs and lifestyles and, therefore, there is no way to lead a meaningful life if you don’t have the privileged option to quit your job, leave your zombie coworkers, and move abroad. In other words, there is no room in this vision for redemption; we’re too far gone. Berman seems right about a lot of things—our modern mass production and hyper efficiency bend is far from healthy and rest is not valued highly enough, but it’s challenging to engage in dialogue with someone who works with such intangible terms. And, ultimately, pinning your hopes to the universe or your true self always rings a little hollow because it lacks the promise of a flesh and blood savior who will make all things, even “the corporate-commercial-consumer-militarized-hi-tech-surveillance life,” new.
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