Sounding the alarm on American culture

PROMISE AHEAD By Duane Elgin William Morrow 224 pp., $23

THE TWILIGHT OF AMERICAN CULTURE By Morris Berman W.W. Norton 224 pp., $23.95

Duane Elgin's new book, Promise Ahead, has a hopeful sounding title and message. But the "promise" that lies ahead, Elgin warns, can be realized only if we start to think, feel, and act in a way that will enable us to move past petty, selfish, and ultimately self-destructive individualism, nationalism, industrialism, and consumerism.

This certainly sounds like a fine plan, but how might we even dare to hope such farsightedness will prevail?

Looking around at some dismaying current behavior - obsession with ethnic, racial, and religious identity; attraction to instant gratification; reckless disregard for the long-term consequences of one's actions - Elgin notes that these are the characteristics of teenagers. His hope is that humankind will soon give up these immature and irresponsible ways: in sum, that we, as a species, will finally "grow up."

One sign that we may be "growing up" is the environmental movement. Elgin succinctly explains the gravity of the crisis. Trends like global warming, overpopulation, pollution, the depletion of resources, as he illustrates, are no joke. But Elgin views the history of the human species as a long process of maturation:

In our prehistoric "infancy," we had a weak sense of our own potential and lived in superstitious awe of a nature we didn't understand. With the dawn of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, we reached our "adolescence," gaining an ability to understand and manipulate nature but with too much of a sense of independence and separation from it. Continuing this paradigm, Elgin hopes we will now begin to develop a wise and "adult" sense of belonging and stewardship with regard to nature.

As he discussed in his 1981 book, "Voluntary Simplicity," there is a lot that each of us can do to help bring this about.

Morris Berman also has some ideas about what individuals can do to alleviate what he foresees as a kind of second coming of the Dark Ages. In his brilliantly observant, deeply thoughtful, and lucidly argued book The Twilight of American Culture, he asks us to take a long, hard look at the sorry state of civilization.

Americans would like to believe they are exporting their most cherished ideals to the rest of the world. But what they are actually exporting, Berman argues, is a corporate hegemony that is already making a mockery of those ideals. Looking around, Berman finds signs that the current state of American civilization has a lot in common with that of the Roman Empire as it descended into barbarism: a widening gap between the rich and the poor; rapidly declining levels of literacy, critical thinking, and "general intellectual awareness"; the pursuit of shallow diversions; and the death of what Freud called "superego" and what is still commonly known as conscience.

While many today, Republicans and Democrats alike, are cheerleaders for a "new world order" dominated by multinational corporations of unprecedented size and power, Berman cites the warning words of capitalism's most famous champion, Adam Smith: "Another bad effect of commerce," wrote Smith, "is that the minds of men are contracted and rendered incapable of elevation. Education is despised, or at least neglected."

Indeed, as Berman demonstrates, the bottom-line, "whatever sells" mentality of the corporate commodity culture dovetails all too neatly with the abandonment of standards and pandering to interest groups that currently pass for liberalism. Berman finds a bitter irony in the fact that Americans often accuse intellectuals of being elitist, but seldom seem to notice, let alone question the far more pernicious elitism of corporate power. True liberalism, he would remind us, is elitist in its very nature, for it insists that we judge people on the basis of virtue, merit, and achievement, rather than on the basis of their race, creed, or class.

Berman finds the current blend of reckless capitalism and wrecked standards so lethal that he does not think it can be stopped. But what we can do, he suggests, is exercise what he calls the "monastic" option. Like the patient monks of the Dark Ages who faithfully copied and guarded the classical manuscripts, those who still value the intellectual and spiritual treasures of our cultural heritage can keep the flame alive for a new dawn.

Berman goes on to describe some of the interesting and impressive individuals who have been doing just that: a man who decided to teach the classics to the poor and the homeless; a retired violinist in Brooklyn who turned an old barge into a floating concert hall; a filmmaker who made a movie about the fate of autoworkers left jobless by a plant closing; a physician who transformed a nursing home into a vibrant and flourishing setting for gardens, pets, and visiting children.

While Berman is depressed by the cultural trends, Elgin focuses on the still more terrifying threat of the demise of our species. Yet ironically, Elgin is more upbeat about the future. Whatever their very real differences in focus, argument, and tone, however, both these books alert us to important problems and offer suggestions that are genuinely constructive.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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