In The Twilight of American Culture (2000), Morris Berman points out that, despite surprising energy, Western civilization is collapsing under the growing burdens of increasing inequality, debt, ignorance, and meaninglessness. Rather than having us wallowing in despair, however, Morris invites us to respond creatively by becoming new monastic individuals (NMIs). NMIs provide a meaningful alternative way of living that is incognito not grandiose, humble not arrogant, and nomadic not fixed in rigid forms of thought and organization. To stimulate our imaginations, Morris describes the lives of some NMIs today.
David Barsamian runs a program called “Alternative Radio.” He has interviewed people who, through observation, facts, and logic, have been able to dismiss corporate media focus on welfare as misplaced (Frances Fox Piven), debunk corporate news coverage in general as misguided (Jeff Cohen), and expose our cultural understanding of foreign policy as hopelessly misinformed (Noam Chomsky). Furthermore, David runs his operation on a small budget, sends tapes of his interviews free to radio stations brave enough to broadcast them, and relies solely on sympathetic listeners for income. According to Morris, David is an NMI because he helps to free us from “a world dominated by market and utilitarian values—one of the greatest contributions an NMI can make” (140).
What might compromise the integrity of David as an NMI? What sort of temptation might we want to be careful to resist? A desire for greater success, fame, and profitability. “The day you see Barsamian on ‘Larry King Live,’ you can be sure Alternative Radio has lost its edge” (140).
Jose Maria Arizmendi (1915-1976) was a Spanish priest who went to work in the Basque parish of Mondragon in 1941. In 1956 he started a cooperative factory with a handful of other men. Eventually he and the people of his parish started a technical college, a bank, and dozens of other cooperatives with a salary differential of only 6:1 (compared to 400:1 in corporations). By working together, the people of Mondragon were also able to keep themselves employed during times when the people in the more conventional towns around them were experiencing serious unemployment. Through all this, Jose stayed incognito and humble, resisting all “attempts to honor him and personalize the movement he had founded” (145).
Morris also mentions a form of alternative education known as the Clemente Course in the Humanities founded by Earl Shorris in 1995. Earl started the course to provide poor people with the ability to think critically about themselves and their world by studying the Great Books of the Western World. The program has been remarkably meaningful to its participants. As Earl explained, “the true division in education is between a market-driven culture and the humanities, not between an Asian poet and a European one” (148). The authors of those books proved themselves to be “‘the implacable enemies of the silence in which humanity perishes’” (148). His students reveled in their unparalleled examples and issues, ethics and logic, questions and stories.
In 1987, Will Fitzhugh started a quarterly journal of history dedicated to publishing high-quality research papers written exclusively by high school students. Foundations rejected his early applications for financial support because they regarded his journal as “‘elitist’ because it accepted only  the best work. (How is it, in the United States, that excellence in sports is celebrated, while excellence in scholarship is considered elitist?)” (150-151). Its existence has encouraged aspiring high school students to write their very best despite a culture that wrongly equates athletic skill with virtue and intellectual skill with snobbery.
Morris notes the “loose institutional underground movement” (151) known as home schooling. By doing so, he is not identifying all home schoolers as NMIs. Rather, he is affirming those parents “who are being ‘monastic’ on behalf of their children: they cannot afford to send them to private schools, but they recognize that the public school system runs the gamut from useless to dangerous” (151).
Retired musician Olga Bloom decided to create a space where unknown but skilled musicians could perform great music and people needing low-priced tickets could enjoy it. In 1974 she bought an old barge and, with the help of local longshoremen of Brooklyn, transformed it into a small but superb concert hall. “Bargemusic, as the project is called, has sparked a cultural renaissance in the area…that continues to this day” (153). Olga did this to affirm the value of music and creativity which lie outside the range of conventional corporate significance.
When William Thomas took over management of a nursing home in upstate New York in 1993, he understood how the sterility of such institutions encouraged their residents to die. He decided to change all that. He brought in almost 12 dozen domestic pets, stuffed rooms with plants, replaced lawns with vegetable gardens, hosted a daycare center, and encouraged older children there to bond with his residents. By introducing all sorts of life into his home, he enhanced the vitality of all who lived there.
Signs of the monastic option which Morris advocates: “traditions of craftsmanship, care, and integrity; preservation of canons of scholarship, critical thinking, and the Enlightenment tradition; combating forces of environmental degradation and social inequality; valuing individual achievement and independent thought; and so on. But central to all of these examples is the rejection of a life based on kitsch, consumerism, and profit, or on power, fame, and self-promotion” (157).
Copyright © 2016 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.