Scholar and critic Morris Berman has written about a great many topics during his distinguished career, but for the last decade his central focus has been on what he perceives as the assured collapse of American culture and civilization, a process that is well under way and impossible to reverse. Berman does not expect readers to find this proposition convincing without some evidence and argument, and so he provides it, along with some practical suggestions about how at least some of us might undertake the important work of cultural preservation.
When The Twilight of American Culture was first published in 2000 its thesis must have seemed a little strange to anyone enraptured by the "prosperity" decade of the 1990s, but even then the major long-term trends Berman identifies as central to cultural decline were already clearly evident and even accelerating (they would shortly go into hyperdrive, providing fodder for Berman's subsequent books). The first part of the book is devoted to an examination of four important tendencies at the heart of U.S. cultural decline: (a) rapidly increasing social and economic inequality; (b) the increasing ineffectiveness of "organizational solutions" to our socioeconomic problems, even on those occasions when we are prepared to invest resources in such projects; (c) a staggering decline in literacy and all of the intellectual skills rooted in literacy; and (d) a kind of "spiritual death" expressed in the overwhelming triumph of kitsch in our culture. Berman amasses statistical and anecdotal evidence, arguing his points in a manner that is largely convincing. At several points he invokes comparisons with the transition from antiquity to feudalism in the west, and these are carefully considered rather than superficial, but even without the historical parallels his argument is persuasive.
Berman holds out no hope that the decline he outlines can be reversed, and he expresses disdain for the many who suggest otherwise, claiming that their proposals amount to little more than band-aids that take no account of the long-term, social-structural magnitude of the changes that have already done much to ensure our decline will continue.
So what can be done? Berman offers hope through what he calls the "monastic option" of working to preserve those aspects of our culture - the arts, sciences, history, and practices representing the best of our inheritance - through modest yet determined effort. To become what Berman calls the "new monastic individual" is to set oneself against the dominant tendencies and embrace the social ostricism likely to result from such work. But Berman insists this is work worth doing because it offers the best hope for cultural re-invigoration over the long term. Because Berman does not expect either the process of decline or renewal to transpire in less than a century, those who are now willing to undertake "monastic" work cannot reasonably expect to see the fruit of their efforts rewarded during their own lifetimes. Nevertheless, Berman argues that the "monastic option" constitutes a sound and genuinely hopeful way of confronting our present condition and avoiding the despair that might otherwise swallow us up.
It's hard to say whether you'll find Berman's arguments persuasive or convincing, but even if you disagree with his assessment of the current climate and his proposals for dealing with it, I think The Twilight of American Culture is a book worth reading, arguing with, and thinking deeply about. Berman has much to teach us, and no American who cares about the future of our society should ignore the evidence he presents here.