Morris Berman reviews “Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?”
Morris Berman — author of The Twilight of American Culture, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed, and a frequently mentioned source of trenchant (and apocalyptic) cultural criticism here at The Teeming Brain — has offered a characteristically perceptive and incisive review/critique of the new documentary Heist: Who Stole the American Dream? by filmmakers Frances Causey and Donald Goldmacher.
Here’s the film’s trailer:
Morris’s critique is built on ideas he has put forth in his books, including, especially, Why America Failed. He argues that although Causey and Goldmacher do an excellent job of providing “an alternative narrative to what’s been going on in this country since 1981” by thoroughly exploring and exploding the reigning master-myth of trickle-down economics and thus giving us all “an exercise in counter-brainwashing,” they show a lack of historical perspective by dating the dawn of the era of greed unbound to Reagan’s ascendency in 1980. In fact, says Morris — and this is his basic thesis in Why America Failed — America was founded on greed and hucksterism. “Greed,” he writes,
showed up on the American continent in the late sixteenth century, when what would later become the United States started to be colonized by a particularly aggressive and entrepreneurial segment of the English middle class … One might argue that Reagan represented a “quantum leap” in this ideology, but he hardly invented it; from Day One, it is what America has been about. Credit-default swaps are merely the inevitable culmination of a process that has been going on for more than four hundred years.
Moreover, he says it’s mostly a waste of time, and in fact it’s flat-out inaccurate, to engage in conspiracy theorizing by accusing the economic masters of the universe of conducting secret machinations to accomplish their ends, because they really believe in the ideology they preach, and therefore they’ve been doing it out in the open. Says Morris,
[R]egardless of any evidence to the contrary, they were and are convinced (conveniently for them, of course) that if they could become rich with no holds barred, everyone would be better off. This is not just a pose; they really did, and do, believe this. The goal was not to screw the working class, in other words; it was to create a template for even greater levels of business profit and expansion … I do think we need to realize that these convictions are held as deeply by this class as are the semi-socialist convictions of the political left.
But beyond even that, there’s the fact, which can come as a real gut punch when you really start to grasp it, that not only the ruling elite but most of the so-called “99 percent” believe in this master ideology. Morris is fond of quoting John Steinbeck’s remark that “In the U.S., the poor regard themselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” In other words, according to Morris — and it’s an argument informed by his reading of many significant historians and sociologists — the basis of the widespread discontent in America today isn’t so much a recognition that the system itself is corrupt in its essence and needs to be scrapped but an angry belief that most of us are being cut out of our rightful share of it. “Over and over again,” he writes,
I heard OWS tell us that we needed to cut the pie up in a fairer way. Not once did I hear them say that the problem was the pie itself; that it was, in the final analysis, rotten … In ideological terms, the only difference between rich and poor in this country is that the latter don’t have any money … It is hardly an accident that Mr. Reagan won the election in 1980 by one of the biggest landslides in American history, or that every year, when polls are taken of the “who’s-your-favorite-president” variety, Mr. Reagan comes out on top or close to it. Consider also the unrelenting popularity — for decades now — of a book such as Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand. If Alan Greenspan was her protégé, so are we all; we all swim in the stagnant pool of her ideological pathology.
Therefore, Heist’s self-alignment with Occupy Wall Street’s rallying cry to “take back the country” rings hollow, especially in light of the fact that
Even a casual observation of Americans, and of American behavior, will tell you that we have no such drive and initiative — we seem exhausted, spiritually spent — and truth be told, we are not very bright, as a people. I remember marching against the invasion of Iraq in DC in 2003, and noticing how many of the signs were misspelled. Friends tell me of conversations they had with the OWS folks, and how out of it these people were — with beliefs such as “all we need to do is switch to solar energy, and our problems will be solved” (one example among many). A good friend of mine, a prominent journalist, gave a talk at OWS in DC on U.S. foreign policy last October, and all of fifty people showed up (only two of whom were under sixty, by the way); the majority weren’t interested and had no time for serious intellectual analysis … I am frequently in Mexico City, and I can’t tell you how often I’ve had conversations with taxi drivers about history, literature, and philosophy — all initiated by them. Try having similar discussions with a taxi driver in New York, see how far you get. Or just go out into the street of any American city, and ask the first person you run into how many justices there are on the Supreme Court, or what nation we seceded from in 1776, or where Europe is, or if they can define “retrograde” or “trachea.” If that doesn’t wake you up, my friends, nothing will. Bottom line: we are a collection of dummies, and dummies cannot “take back the country” any more than they can discuss the implications of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.
(Perhaps not tangentially, the “good friend” and “prominent journalist” mentioned above is probably Chris Hedges, and the speech was probably this one, delivered on October 9, 2011:
Hedges and Morris have been closely aligned with each other for years, even as they’ve sometimes expressing pointed disagreements over some issues.)
If all of these long quotations give you the idea that Morris has written a very long and involved review essay, then you’re catching on. It’s titled “Sociopaths Rule” and is entirely worth your time to click through and read in full. Also be sure to see the extensive comments section, which ran to such great length (200 comments) that it maxed out his blog’s capacity/policy, so that yesterday he was obliged to start a new post just to continue the conversation.