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Wednesday, 25 July 2007 00:00

Deer hunting in the twilight of American culture

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The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. 224 pages.

When I think of political curmudgeons, of gloomy prognosticators, of bleak Cassandras prophesizing doom, my mind turns to either extreme environmentalists or to right-wing survivalists whose garage shelves still hold Y2K canned goods. Both groups routinely predict the end of the world, the first by heat and global chaos, the second by global chaos and violence.

Now, however, my prejudices are in need of adjustment, for I have discovered some writers of the left who also turn a gimlet eye on our present circumstances and on our future. In Deer Hunting with Jesus: Dispatches from America’s Class War (ISBN 978-0-307-33936-2, $25), Joe Bageant, an online columnist popular among progressives, describes his return to the town of his boyhood, Winchester, Virginia. After renewing old friendships, and after spending time with his friends and family in Winchester’s churches, bars, and trailer parks, Bageant gives us in Deer Hunting a blistering critique of the way in which Republicans, Democrats, our government, and our culture treat working-class poor whites, whom Bageant calls “American serfs.”

It didn’t take too many visits to the old neighborhood tavern or to the shabby church I attended as a child to discover that here in this neighborhood in the richest nation on earth folks are having a hard go of it. And it’s getting harder. Two in five residents of the North End do not have a high school diploma. Here, nearly everyone over fifty has serious health problems, credit ratings rarely top 500, and alcohol, Jesus, and overeating are the three preferred avenues of escape.

Though Bageant explores fundamentalist Christianity — his brother is a preacher — the health care system, and other areas, he is at his most effective in the first half of the book describing the lifestyles of the working class poor, those whose daily goal in is simply to hold onto their mobile home and their cars. He explains why these people have voted Republican for the last 30 years — the issues are largely cultural — and how the Democrats, through their contempt for these voters, particularly on the national level, lost both their votes and their confidence.

In a chapter titled “Valley of the Gun,” Bageant humorously explains to liberal Democrats why his redneck relatives and friends, and even he himself, feel so nostalgic about guns and remain so fervent about owning and shooting guns. After citing numerous statistics showing that advocates of gun control are way off target (pun intended) in their ideas regarding gun safety and the use of guns in crime prevention, Bageant goes on to chastise Democrats for focusing on this issue — “... they not only were arrogant and insulting because they associated all gun owners with criminals but also were politically stupid.” Quit losing votes advocating gun control, Bageant advises, and move on to more important matters like fair wages and health.

In The Twilight of American Culture (ISBN: 0-393-32169-X, $13.95), Morris Berman, also a liberal, takes a look into the future and doesn’t like what he finds there. He sees three current rivers of thought and action — globalism, cybernetics, and deconstruction — as roaring together with the force of a flood and demolishing much of our civilization.

Like Bageant, Berman explores the dark side of the American Dream, the side that our politicians, no matter what party, disregard for fear of seeming either pessimistic or extreme. He demonstrates how foolish we’ve become in our solutions to our problems. He is particularly concerned with what he calls “the inability of the American public to distinguish garbage from quality ....” Backing his arguments with data, with quotations from public figures or their work, and from personal experience, Berman demonstrates how tightly in lockstep the American culture moves. One small example of Berman’s thesis may be found in Paris Hilton’s recent dominance of newspaper and internet headlines. The enormous attention paid to the problems of a silly rich woman with a name like a hotel and a brain like an unmade hotel bed reveals the shallowness, the dismally moronic side to our culture and our thinking.

Berman’s critique of culture and politics is on a higher intellectual plane than the punditry of Bageant. His sources range from Augustine to Don DeLilo, from Roussea to Robert Kaplan’s Atlantic Monthly essay “Was Democracy Just a Moment?” Berman’s analysis is as far-ranging as his research. He spends some time comparing America’s fall to that of Rome; he examines the monasteries and their role in the cultural wasteland of the Dark Ages; he looks at the relevance of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and their meaning for today’s world.

Essentially, Berman shows his readers that American culture is composed almost entirely of kitsch, that it is in the interests of large corporations to support such a culture, and that there is little any of us can do to prevent McWorld, a corporate Mass Mind culture. “It doesn’t take an Emerson or an Einstein,” Berman writes, “to recognize that the system has lost its moorings, and like ancient Rome, is drifting into an increasingly dysfunctional situation.”

Unlike some in the doom-and-gloom school, however, Berman offers hope on an individual basis during America’s coming meltdown. While organized efforts will be unable to address the slide into McWorld — these efforts are inevitably absorbed into the system — individuals will make a difference in terms of preserving the treasures of Western civilization and passing them on to future generations. Whatever your politics, both Bageant and Berman are worth reading.

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