Is American culture dead as Bush looms large?

[I’m off to New York this weekend – wheeeeee! – so the following piece from the Reuters wire seemed particularly appropriate. Within three months I’ll be living permanently in the country he describes… Can’t wait! :-)]

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Morris Berman has a good idea what he will do if George W. Bush is elected U.S. president in November: run to the toilet and get sick at the thought that Americans could elect a man he calls “as dumb as a stick.” Berman says it is a tough call, but he thinks if Bush wins he would be the dumbest man ever to hold the highest office in the land. He does not believe the Texas governor has ever read an intellectually challenging book and sees him as the poster boy for everything that is wrong with an America where being an intellectual is taboo.

But then Berman has been pretty angst-ridden about America lately. The Johns Hopkins University teacher, who calls himself a Marxist idealist, has just published his latest book, The Twilight of American Culture, and his prognosis is bleak. Most people cannot read, never mind spell, he says. Bill Gates and his billionaire buddies seem to have all the money, while the greatest country on Earth, which used to export ideals like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, now flogs fried chicken and mind-numbing sitcoms. Spirituality is dead, Americans are Prozac-popping and directionless, families are falling apart and, even in the hallowed Oval Office, the business of nations has been put on hold for peccadilloes with interns.

It is a question of culture, of style as well as substance, and, for Berman at least, American culture is dead — if not totally dead, then twitching on the emergency-room floor with no health insurance and nary a doctor in sight. Berman sees Bush as the poster child for America’s collapse, which he likens to the fall of the Roman Empire. “I’m guessing George W. Bush has never read a serious book in his entire life. What does it say that we have a serious candidate for president in this country that is literally as dumb as a stick?” Berman asked rhetorically. “He can’t write a grammatical sentence and he can’t give a grammatical speech unless it’s written by somebody else and he’s reading it off a teleprompter. And the American public will probably elect him president.”

Berman, a fan of Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, recalled a recent article in an Illinois newspaper that asked people if Bush was intelligent enough to be president. “One woman said, ‘He’s pretty smart, but he doesn’t know very much.’ She’s the perfect Bush voter, and there are millions of her out there,” he said in mock horror. Berman, who talks in a Woody Allen-like patter, recalled a litany of statistics from his book that point to the demise of America as a home for middle-class intellectuals: The number of people reading a daily newspaper has halved since 1965. A 1995 survey showed 40 percent of adults could not name America’s Second World War enemies. About 120 million Americans read and write English at no better than an 11-year-old’s level.

As for the popularity of self-help books, don’t get him started on that one. “Self-help books are essentially watered-down sayings on tea bags that have been made into books. Chicken Soup for the Soul — every other book is ‘the soul.’ Why did we get so preoccupied with the soul? Because we are so dumb we can’t think of anything else,” he said. But it was not always like this. Back in the 1960s, Berman believes, America was different: “There was an allegiance to the basic notion that somehow the United States was a force for good in the world, that it really was doing valuable things in terms of democracy and the economy,” he said. “Now there is a spiritual apathy and a feeling that regardless of who you elect the government is corrupt. It’s become materialism for its own sake, as if there were no other purpose in life except to make money.”

Part of the blame for reading and being an intellectual falling from grace in America can be laid at Hollywood’s doorstep, Berman said. “In the case of Cheers, all the people that have any intellectual interests whatsoever are portrayed as pompous, full of themselves and pretentious,” he said of the TV comedy that enjoyed huge ratings for more than a decade. And the people (in Cheers) who basically don’t know their ass from their elbow are warm and authentic and the real grit of America, but they basically can’t spell a word like pretentious correctly.”

America’s malaise is not something that can be remedied with a Band-Aid or even a brilliant president. Things have gone too far for that, Berman believes. He predicts America will fall into a deep economic depression leading to a “dark age” like none before. “Every civilization in the history of the world comes to an end. There are no exceptions,” he said. “We are not going to beat the odds, American hubris and optimism aside.” Is there no hope — not even a glimmer? No happy, Hollywood ending? “Twilight implies a dawn,” he said. “So in some ways this book is a clarion call to people to do acts of preservation of the culture and leave a memory trace that then will get picked up maybe 200 years from how in terms of a cultural revival.” But there is some consolation: He does not expect the dark age to start until late in this century when, thankfully, most of us will have shuffled off this mortal coil.