Is it me, or have you also noticed that those please-parody-me two-minute commercials once confined to late-night TV — the ones featuring old quarterbacks with false teeth and magic crystals for washing the sides of your house — are suddenly on in early evenings also? Our economic free fall must have led reputable advertisers to cut back, opening slots for opportunistic schlockmeisters.
None of that would surprise Morris Berman.
An itinerant scholar who left the United States for Mexico in 2006, Berman’s viewpoint can be gleaned from the titles of his second trilogy: Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed. (His first trilogy concerned the evolution of human consciousness.) Berman is convinced America is fatally trapped in a culture of hustling, defined by David Masciotra, a journalist and fan of Berman’s, as “the surrender of everything to market forces and the sacrifice of life to consumer culture.” In a 2013 interview, Berman told Masciotra:
Over time the hustling culture swallowed everything up. There used to be margins, interstices, where creativity could flourish. But as things began to speed up in this country from about 1965 on, a kind of industrial, corporate, consumer “frenzy” took over, which meant there was no time for anything except getting and spending.
Do we need any more proof of this than the rush to re-open our economy while the coronavirus remains unchecked?
Berman doesn’t see salvation for the United States; oblivion, here we come! But he does see salvation for the individual: to live as what he calls a new monastic, “someone who breaks away from the mass dream and starts living his or her own life.” Berman couldn’t do that in the US, which is why he moved to Mexico.
For those of us unable or unwilling to abandon the US, he suggests we start by embracing sadness. “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.” Another step is to read literature “that depicts difficult decisions and quiet acts of integrity, stuff that’s out of the limelight, and which can add up over time.” And then we can seek awareness, “the process of becoming transparent to [ourselves]” until we see through “the programming imposed by [our] culture.”
I embarked on that three-step program a long time ago. My father supported us by putting together the catalog for a mail order company that peddled cheap trinkets from Japan. He brought home the catalog every month, and devoted son that I was, I read it front to back. One month I discovered a new item: an antenna that would make black-and-white TVs broadcast in color. “Can I have one, Dad?” I asked.
“Because it doesn’t work.”
With the simple logic of a child, I asked, “If it doesn’t work, why do you sell it?”
To which he had no answer except a sad face I still remember these many decades later.
From that moment, I’ve grappled with America’s culture of hustling. My first book, The Hamlet Syndrome, written with Adrienne Miller, is about that very subject: what we called the heart-or-dollar dilemma.
Paradoxically, I find reassuring Berman’s pessimism over the hydrochloric corrosiveness of our quick-buck culture. Like my father, I made compromises to get by (although I like to think not as many), and it’s left me uneasy. Berman, as unsparing of himself as of his former country, acknowledges hustling’s inescapability: “I was living in Washington, D.C. for eight years before I moved to Mexico, and I told myself I would be like the proverbial lotus in a cesspool. All that happened was that I became a dirty lotus.”
And while you’re reading those, I’ll be buying some of those eye-bag reducers they’re advertising on the local news.