catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 3 :: 2004.01.30 — 2004.02.12


On the need for monks

The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman discusses tactics for survival in the coming dark age.

“For a zoned-out, stupefied populace, ‘democracy’ will be nothing more than the right to shop, or to choose between Wendy’s and Burger King or to stare at CNN and think that managed infotainment is news.” So says Morris Berman in the opening chapter of The Twilight of American Culture. Although it is true (as evidenced by this quote) that Berman doesn’t pull any punches, it would be a mistake to assume that he spends the entire book railing on how American culture has become endless idiotic entertainment devoid of serious discussion and meaningful talk.

Rather, Berman takes that as a given.

He sees America as a vast empire similar to Rome: an empire that has brought order and advancement to a barbaric world, but now is in the beginning of its inevitable decline. Even as Rome was built upon the philosophy and literature of Greece, so, says Berman, is America built upon the ideas of Europe. And like Rome, we are turning into a nation in which the gap between the haves and have-nots is so vast that the only way we can stave off rebellion is by offering the masses bread and circuses (or in our case, fast food and television). Since this is a given though, Berman spends the majority of the book asking what we can do about it.

He does hold out some slim hope for a recovery of our culture, but argues that even if artists emerge who can capture the imagination and ideas of our inane populace, they will have a hard time fighting against the corporate superpowers. Instead, he says, we need to consider how we can survive the inevitable dark age to come. The answer, Berman says, is that we need monks.

Even as much of Roman thought and literature was preserved by a group of Irish monks who copied over manuscripts, so we need to find some way of preserving the admirable aspects of our culture for when civilization returns someday. Berman doesn’t envision traditional monks who live in the woods and wear Jedi knight outfits. Rather he is talking about a special group of people who opt off the corporate treadmill, steer away from saturation advertising (and perhaps media altogether) and try to get enough distance to be able to discern the good and noble from the pointless and silly, then hand it down somehow. He holds up people like documentary filmmaker and activist Michael Moore, who has done much to illuminate the connections between corporations and political leadership. Spanish revolutionary industrialist Jose Maria Arizmendi developed a factory ownership system that attempted to close the gap between workers? pay and management?s. Educators Earl Shorris and Will Fitzhugh have pioneered ways of getting inner city students excited about school and helping them achieve remarkable levels of schooling. Physician William Thomas has found ways to make nursing homes places of life rather than death. All of these people are taking the first steps, trying to step out of our world, see what needs to be different, and then showing others.

Even this flash of optimism is short-lived, though. Berman describes this as a rear-guard action. The point of these efforts is not to change the world, but to help people see (by contrast) what the world should be but isn’t. From these symbolic actions will rise, thinks Berman, a sub-culture that will be sufficiently intelligent and aware to be able to preserve what needs preserving.

Berman admits that the next problem comes in bringing civilization out of its preservation mode. Using as an example the classic science fiction book, A Canticle for Liebowitz, Berman hypothesizes that the day may come when the preservers no longer know what they are preserving. How a new civilization arises and learns to use that data is, admittedly, a mystery to him.

I found Morris’s arguments to be compelling. I don’t know whether he intends them as a call of alarm or really as an early blueprint for the coming dark ages, but it seemed to me that there might be an interesting metaphor here for Christians in the 21st century. I am not implying that we should turn our backs on the unwashed hordes, but Berman does seem to assume that there should be some group capable of discerning the truth in our culture and making that truth available to the world as a whole. I found myself wanting to point out to him that Christians could do this discerning business. I wanted to say that Christians are doing it already, but when I found myself searching for examples, I didn’t come up with as many as I would hope.

In short, The Twilight of American Culture is a wake up call for Americans, but perhaps something even more than that for American Christians.

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