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A Question of Values Paperback – October 26, 2010
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About the Author
Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe, North America, and Mexico, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College, the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria. Berman won the Governor's Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, and the Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992. In 2000 "The Twilight of American Culture" was named a "Notable Book" by the New York Times. Other published work includes "The Reenchantment of the World" (1981), "Coming to Our Senses" (1989), "Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality" (2000), and "Dark Ages America" (2006).
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Top customer reviews
And what is he describing?
Well, he approaches our culture in several ways -- politically, psychologically, economically, and (for lack of a better word) spiritually. In fact, the political aspect is really seen as less important than the forces below the surface that drive it. Whether Bush or Obama is in office doesn't matter all that much, since both fiercely uphold the great myths of American exceptionalism & progress, and the true religion of our culture, unlimited consumerism. The result is a world that glitters with electronic toys & gadgets, that flexes enormous military muscles, that floods the globe with pop product of every kind -- all in a desperate attempt to deny its own essential hollowness.
While he provides plenty of studies & statistics to back up his argument, much of it is made even more effectively through anecdotes of daily life, ones that we'll all recognize: the disintegration of civility in so many ways -- the distortion of genuine individuality into a narcissistic mantra of "Me! Me! Me!" -- the ubiquitous cellphones & iPods & SUVs & plasma TVs -- the rampant anti-intellectualism -- the public fascination with "Survivor," "American Idol," Lindsay Lohan, torture porn, and so forth.
So he's describing an immature, childlike culture that's aggressive, greedy, needy, and terribly frightened -- especially of growing up. That's something I really took away from these pages. It seems the model American of today is frantically trying to remain in perpetual adolescence; the notion of maturity, of aging gracefully & wisely, of developing into a whole human being, simply isn't an option. And not only do we pay the price for it, so does the rest of the world, all too often in blood.
I called this book a diagnosis. At this point the reader may ask if there's any cure. There is -- but it's not one that America will ever take, not unless total catastrophe forces it to do so. Because the only cure is to step back from the relentless pursuit of power, (false) security, status, and then completely reassess what we are, and what we could be. That's something America has never been very good at, and less so with each passing year. Berman quotes W. H. Auden to this effect: "We would rather be ruined than changed, / We would rather die in our dread, / Than climb the cross of the moment / And let our illusions die."
For the majority of Americans, this is simply unacceptable. Easier & happier by far to continue as we've always done, consuming the world's resources within an insulated, artificial bubble that we firmly believe will never burst. As Theodore Roszak wrote more than 40 years ago, once you've sold your soul for a new washing machine [or cellphone or computer game or ...], what's left but to pretend that it was worth it?
Except, as Berman makes quite clear, the bubble will burst. And soon. And probably quite violently.
If you're ready to let your illusions die, then start with this urgently recommended book!
A complete review of all of the issues, themes, and concepts presented in this book is beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say, Berman's strongest writing, in my view, attempts to understand America's problems from a psychological point of view rooted in America's long history and its "cultural DNA." Three essays in particular, entitled "conspiracy vs. Conspiracy in American History," "Locating the Enemy: Myth vs. Reality in U.S. Foreign Policy," and "Democracy in America" form the heart of Berman's argument and analysis and are worth the price of the book alone. Berman challenges his readers to awaken to the fact that the American system, essentially a corporate/commercial system, reinforced by its national leaders and blindly followed by its misguided citizens is very destructive for both the United States and the world at large. Ultimately, this path is a path toward total socioeconomic failure and systemic breakdown. What is more, is that Berman regards this as something that has already occurred. This is, perhaps, the most brilliant and enlightening point that is made in "A Question of Values." The United States is long past any coherent structural changes that may have helped it out of the mess that it is in. In fact, as Berman persuasively argues, it is, and always has been, in many ways, very difficult to get critical information into a system that wallows in such self-righteous ignorance and clings to, what is ultimately, mistaken notions of "progress." As a result, only the abyss awaits. The themes illuminated here should be adorned with Morris Berman's most recent book entitled "Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline."
"A Question of Values" also seeks to shed important light, often ignored by other serious social critics, on the cultural atmosphere and general cultural tone that exists in the current United States. For those who are concerned with the over-all lack of civility and increasing violence that seems to be overwhelming and swallowing up the culture, pay particular attention to Morris Berman's personal anecdotes that are delightfully sprinkled into the text of these essays. Much wisdom and insight can be gleaned in his observations.
Do not hesitate to pick up a copy of this book. It doesn't get any closer to the heart than this. This book digs deep and will ultimately get under your skin and force you not only to to recognize the uncomfortable truths about the human condition, but the myriad emotions you will experience upon engaging with this work. Simply put, "A Question of Values" is a touching, beautiful, and poetic piece of writing with important social commentary.