A resounding, if sometimes overwrought, indictment of all that is wrong with American culture, from arrogance to xenophobia and all points between.
As sociologist and cultural critic Berman (Wandering God, 2000) notes, the rest of the world hates us because we don’t know it hates us—and don’t much care. The American empire is both military and cultural, and both are weaker than we think; two pitiable Asian nations are enough to pin down our vaunted fighting forces, and “many of America’s values in the early twenty-first century are corrosive, and unless the nation can do some rather elaborate soul searching, it needs to lose influence in the rest of the world.” Neocons will dismiss the claim that America’s influence is anything but benign, but Berman fires with both barrels at a culture that, he argues, is rapidly slipping into “second- or third-rate status” as an international power, to be replaced, one supposes, by China, which by Berman’s account is just an Asian iteration of the same problem, in which society is an arena for personal enrichment with none of the requisite reciprocal obligations. The great mass of Americans, by Berman’s depiction, live lives driven by “infantile needs and impulses,” thereby—and here he grows breathless—making possible a society marked by latchkey kids, college graduates who can’t find America on a world map, idiotic television shows, obese mall-goers, knee-jerk reactionaries and a president who “lack[s] the ground-level gray matter necessary for the job.” Not that it’s all Bush’s fault. By Berman’s lights, he’s a symptom—but also a cause, a perfect exemplar of a Darwinian society that doesn’t believe in Darwinism, a country of a few wealthy people and of “competition, extreme individualism, and loneliness forced onto everybody else,” what passes for freedom these days.
There’s no room for comfort in Berman’s critique: If he’s right, we’re doomed. Hope he’s wrong, then, but by all means consider his provocative argument.