Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Morris Berman on the Decline of Western Civilization

To witness meaningfully to Jesus Christ today, Jesus Christ must speak a new word to us and the Holy Spirit must inspire us to discern and affirm it. We always do well to remember that Jesus himself is the source, center, and goal of our witness. Without him we can do nothing.
Then, we must grow more familiar each day with the biblical witnesses to Jesus. The Bible is by far the most unconventional collection of books ever written. Jesus best likes speaking to us through the words of his Bible and always speaks to us words that are consistent with them.
Finally, we need to have as realistic an understanding as possible about the context in which we witness to Jesus. Jesus never speaks to us words of general information let alone trivia. He always speaks the best possible words about who he is, who we are, and how we might best share his truth, freedom, love, and vitality with those we’re with.
To improve our realistic understanding of our contemporary global technological context, we will reflect briefly on the introduction, “The American Crisis,” written by Morris Berman for his book, The Twilight of American Culture (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000).

As of 2000, Morris believed that American culture suffered from significant disorder. He noted two of many books analyzing it: Lewis Lapham’s Waiting for the Barbarians and Robert Kaplan’s An Empire Wilderness. Those authors provided proof of “crumbling school systems and widespread functional illiteracy, of violent crime and gross economic inequality, of apathy, cynicism, and what might be called ‘spiritual death’” (2). I believe that, since 2000, we may safely say that this disorder has only gotten worse.
While that may be so, Morris points out ways we distract ourselves from noticing. Our happiest and most effective way: focusing our attention on everything new, including television “news,” technological gadgets, celebrity scandals, movies, fads, and economic indicators.
These distractions keep us from discussing, for example, that nationally and globally we are suffering from an increasing fierce inequality of wealth. Because the mass media of communication are actually owned by those benefiting from this, it is deliberately hidden. Publicly proposed remedies sound good but change nothing. We also have a vanishing middle class suffering increasing threats and decreasing numbers.
Western Civilization, having for centuries uniquely emphasized freedom, reason, and the dignity of the individual, has kept their outward forms but drained them of meaning. This loss of meaning was described by Oswald Spengler in The Decline of the West (1918-1922) as happening when civilizations enter their “twilight” period. Two examples from the history of Olympia: the Egypt of the Pharaohs in the centuries before its conquest by Alexander and the Roman Empire in the two centuries before its conquest by Turkish Muslims.
Ironically, this complete draining away of  cultural meaning is disguised today by what appears to be strong cultural vitality. Through the corporate media, we are exposed to so much enthusiasm about so many different people, places, events, objects, and goals. “The problem is that since this vitality celebrates nothing substantive beyond buying and owning things, it itself is the cultural decline I am talking about” (3).
Morris identifies the cause of our increasing disorder as the destructive control of our civilization by large, interlocking, transnational corporations. This corporate control has displaced the reality of democracy.
Corporate forms of entertainment have also wholly displaced other forms. They now dominate our personal and societal ways of thinking, feeling, and living. This domination has closed our cultural and personal repertories to any other alternatives.
We all recognize that corporations control the mass media of communication. But they are also writing curricula and publishing textbooks that influence how our children think from the day they begin attending public school.
The Global Technological System (GTS), controlled now by corporate (and governmental) executives, is not simply a collection of tools we use to mediate our relationship with nature. The GTS itself has displaced the natural world, and even the social world of cities, as our context. Consequently, all its elements, the satellite links, electrical circuits, microwave transmissions, internet connections, transportation networks, have become invisible through familiarity. This makes coming to terms with it more challenging yet.
Morris points out that our present crisis developed over a centuries-long period of time. There will be no short easy solutions to it. Such simplistic answers, important to dismiss now as dead ends, include sudden “paradigm shifts” in the thinking of a majority of people, the next new fad for renewal sweeping through churches, recycling, expanding or restricting rights for homosexuals, or even a commitment to making “major changes based on legislation, grassroots activism, and an act of will” (7). Our crisis is much deeper and more serious than these alternatives can fix.
To respond creatively, what we need, first, is an accurate diagnosis of the problem based on rigorous realism. We need to choose an accurate understanding of our terminal illness over the illusion that little is wrong with us and we’ll be getting better soon anyway.
Creative responses to the crisis will also require the same sort of incremental yet steady changes to structures, functions, and purposes that got us into the mess we’re in. Putting a new person, or political party, into office won’t matter.
Studying history acquaints us with how civilizational change occurs: slowly. It took Rome centuries to fall. It took decades for the Soviet Union to do the same. Both did so finally because their own internal contradictions prevented any further creative responses to a growing number of internal and external challenges. “The dissolution of corporate hegemony, when it does occur—and our own ‘Soviet watershed’ is at least forty or fifty years down the road, as of this writing [2000]—will happen because of the ultimate inability of the system to maintain itself indefinitely” (8).
I’m less certain than Morris that the end of corporate hegemony lies perhaps fifty years from now. I wonder if perhaps the systemic economic failure of 2008 marked the beginning of the end for the GTS as well as for the historical era of exuberant Olympianity we’re now in.
The creative response to current disorder that Morris will advocate is what he calls the “monastic option” (9). Of it, he says it “is certainly a long shot, but at least there is some historical precedent for deliberate acts of cultural preservation forming a geological accretion of their own and eventually turning things around” (9). Even if not useful in doing so, however, such activities will be meaningful for those doing them.
The monastic option was first pursued by individuals, in the lands of what had been the western Roman Empire, who, beginning in “the fourth century A.D.” (8), abandoned the conventional but destructive ways of thinking, feeling, and living of their disintegrating society and culture to develop what became monasteries. They “experienced themselves as strangers in a strange land. What Roman culture had discarded, these monks treated as valuable; what the culture found worthwhile, they perceived as stupid or destructive” (8). In their monasteries, they saved and copied the best books “that represented the greatest cultural achievements of that civilization—material that, six hundred years later, proved to be a crucial factor in the dawn of a new European culture” (9).
Morris quotes appreciatively E. M. Forster who, in a 1939 essay entitled, What I Believe, wrote about an aristocracy of the spirit not based on power “but an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate and the plucky” (9). That’s how Morris sees individuals, working alone and together, to preserve the best of what has been.
That's also how I think we may understand prophetic witnesses to Jesus as we respond with Christ's vitality to the decline--and looming collapse--we are facing.
In speaking of monks, Morris is not doing so literally but analogically. He doesn’t see people today literally living again in monasteries and practicing sensate deprivation as a religious exercise. Rather, he sees people practicing, as medieval monks before them did, a “renunciation” (16) of the decaying sensate culture surrounding them. This involves a commitment to resist the Olympian worldview pressed so hard by the corporate media. It means understanding the difference between reality and the illusion presented by the evening news; honesty and advertising; corporate restaurants and locally-owned establishments with genuine food, history, and character(s); fads passing for wisdom and insight into the human condition found in the Bible as well as classics of Western civilization; the internet as tool and as home; the two-party system and democracy; a classic and a bestseller. Morris sees the elitism of monks as good: a desire to maintain such Enlightenment standards as “the disinterested pursuit of truth, the cultivation of art, the commitment to critical thinking” (10) against a cultural tidal wave of relativism.

Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.