"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

America’s Culture of Hustling–Dark And Empty?

Morris Berman, a cultural historian and social critic, has said that America’s frenetic ‘culture of hustling’ has eliminated meaningful purpose in our lives.  We are so busy acquiring and doing, he says, that we are losing touch with the more substantial elements of our nature.  We are losing the ability to reflect and ponder, and our values have shifted even more from the moral and good to the crass and meaningless.

Berman is another in a long line of doomsayers who predict the decline and fall of civilization, berate us for our profligate, godless ways, and see us all tumbling into a sinkhole of despair. The answer is the old New Age nostrum – get in touch with yourself, slow down, allow the real you to emerge, be content not happy.

It took me a long time, Berman said, to understand that I, or, my ego, had no idea what was best for me. Some part of happiness undoubtedly derives from a Zen enjoyment of whatever is in front of you, but a big part of it is knowing who you are and being that person. This is ontological knowing, and it’s very different from intellectual knowing. (From David Masciotra, The Atlantic, 8.14.13)

The fact that Berman sells so much of his gushing feel-good nostrums is more of an indictment of American culture than any frenzied St. Vitus’ Dance of crass materialism. The current market for self-help books is an estimated $11 billion and growing every year.  Many of these titles offer advice on how to increase self-worth, self-image, and self-esteem.  We really all are remarkable people, authors claim, but only need to know how to get in touch with and express our inner selves.  Here are some of the Top Ten self-help bestsellers:

Drive by Daniel H. Pink. (Riverhead.) A look at what truly motivates us, and how we can use that knowledge to work smarter and live better.

Awaken the Giant Within : How to Take Immediate Control of Your Mental, Emotional, Physical and Financial Destiny! by Anthony Robbins

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

As a former academic, Berman has devoted a lot of time and ink on identifying the causes of America’s malaise, and it here that he is far off base. His glib and patronizing assumptions about work, for example, are simplistic and ignorant:

In the film Definitely, Maybe, Berman says, Ryan Reynolds works for an ad agency and says to himself at one point that he never imagined he’d be spending his days trying to convince people to buy Cap’n Crunch for their kids instead of Fruit Loops. As far as striving goes, Goethe wrote: “Man errs as long as he strives.” Sit still, meditate, just let the answer arise from the body. (It may take a while.)

Very few Americans are emotionally or spiritually wedded to their jobs.  The least fortunate drive busses or work at the Post Office and look forward only to getting home.  The more fortunate and intellectually agile value process over product. Ironically, advertising is a perfect example of an industry which rewards creativity, marketing savvy, and innovative uses of media and places no value on product.  Mad Men today as ever before could care less about the tires, soap, or cars that they sell. Their only commitment is to selling them. 

The best most of us can hope for is to find that same positive twist on work. Doing a job well, seeing customers return, never spilling the soup. There are no such things as morally or spiritually superior jobs, and driving a bus, hawking beer, or working at an ad agency are all small cogs in a national economic engine.  Enjoying them because of the product or service they provide is a luxury at best.

The more insulting aspect of Berman’s admonitions is the assumption that most Americans have the option of selecting jobs on the basis of value.  Hundreds of thousands of the working poor sweat at two low-paying jobs, clean houses by day and fast-food kitchens by night, earn the minimum wage, eat fast food and canned spaghetti, and fall asleep before they can get it up or roll over. There is no time, let alone inclination to think deep thoughts when you are working on an assembly line, flipping burgers, or emptying bedpans.

These legions of workers are not crass materialists, they are putting food on the table.  If they have any time at all for reflection it is at church on Sunday where, thankfully, they can be given the Word, promises of Life Eternal after this Vale of Tears.  They don’t have to work for salvation.  Just knowing God and accepting Jesus is enough.

Most Americans have a dull sense that their lives are fundamentally “off”—because for the most part, they are. They hate their lives, but to get through the day, besides taking Prozac and consulting their cell phone every two minutes, they talk themselves into believing that they want to be doing what they are doing. This is probably the major source of illness in our culture, whether physical or mental.

Who are these Americans? The people I meet at Walmart, or waiting tables, or driving a truck don’t have “a dull sense that their lives are fundamentally ‘off’”.  They look at the hand they have been dealt, and play the only cards they have. Of course they would like to summer on the Vineyard, ski at Gstaad, and sip Opus One if they even knew they existed. Most of these Americans have far less ambitious goals – a few less hours work a week, a little more pay, a few dollars in the bank. In one of his most outrageous and self-serving statements Berman says:

Most people who work in an institution won’t admit it, but on some level they know that there’s no “song” there; they are just going through the motions. From my own experience, I know this is true of academic institutions, but I worked for a corporation at one point and it was sheer horror. Most of the employees consisted of very overweight women with dull eyes; they were already dead, they just didn’t know it. This would be the opposite of enchantment.

In his interview with Berman, Masciotra summarizes the author’s major theme – the need to detach oneself from materially measurable pursuits and to pursue more leisure, creativity, and relaxed living.  Without a thought to the majority of Americans for whom ‘relaxed living’ is not even a fantasy, Berman replies:

This is, in some ways, the subject of my book Why America Failed. America is essentially about hustling, and that goes back more than 400 years. It’s practically genetic, in the U.S., by now; the programming is so deep, and so much out of conscious awareness, that very few Americans can break free of it. They’re really sleepwalking through life, living out a narrative that is not of their own making, while thinking they are in the driver’s seat.

Leaving Berman’s patronizing admonitions and the working poor aside, his criticism of everyone else engaged in the rapidly changing, high-tech, socially mediated world is completely off-base.  He concludes that there is something inherently wrong about texting, checking emails, friending on Facebook – peripatetic lifestyle that sucks energy and inner resources away from the contemplation of being. 

Nonsense. Young people who are active in social networks are no different from any who have preceded them.  Who is to say that an exciting electronic environment enabling thousands of social interactions instead of dozens is worse because of its dissipation of attention? Is hanging out with the guys down at the bowling alley a richer and more meaningful existence? How can he assume that an electronic, increasingly virtual world filled with an unimaginable variety of ideas, information, visual and aural images, is less engaging or personally productive than playing checkers with little brother?

I know few young people who are so one-dimensional, able only to interact virtually.  All but a few obsessive geeks divide their time between their social media environment and the real world in which they eat, drink, play, run, jump, and fuck with energy and enthusiasm.

When asked what Americans can do to awaken themselves or escape the entrapments of materialism, Berman ends the interview the way he started – pablum, nostrums, meaningless fantasies:

Literature can help, however; not the lit of heroic stories of derring-do, but just the opposite: literature that depicts difficult decisions and quiet acts of integrity, stuff that’s out of the limelight, and which can add up over time.

Where do these charlatans come from?


  1. Good to see someone else has some issues with Morris Berman.
    All I have seen elsewhere is uncritical adulation.

  2. Sour grapes! Morris Berman is dead right about the American psyche, you just can't handle the critique that's all. And I agree with Morris when he'd said"Most Americans are bitter, resentful and depressed and they're just Soma through life".


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