A Nation Without Qualities

In this sharply witty and insightful novel, Morris Berman depicts a version of choosing the "monastic" option, introduced in The Twilight of American Culture. Put the iPhones down, log out of Facebook. Take a couple of hours and have a coffee, listen to some classical music and read the New York Times. In this manner at the least do harm and do not participate in the corrupt hustle which has contaminated every institution in America. Get with a group of like-minded people. Maybe even band together and do something which helps others.

The Man Without Qualities is a quick, breezy read and comic, which is appropriate for political satire. A weighty seriousness would undermine the message, which seems to be the possibility of authenticity, not necessarily realization. We see early on when the leader of the authentic movement, a retired German literature professor, George Haskel, realized as the "Dullness Institute," literally sends Hillary Clinton to Bellevue when she is challenged at an NYU rally by a question she or any other politician can't possibly answer: "What can any candidate do us for us at this point in American history?" Addressing the crowd he continues, "Does anyone here really believe Hillary can turn things around? Shouldn't we all just stop wishing and striving and just go home instead?" HRC's response is laugh out loud funny: "'You,' she shrieked pointing at me. 'You--' Her face swelled to twice its normal size, and turned purple. She was now rolling around the stage, apparently rabid."

In this wishful fantasy, a hundred thousand people throwing their phones into the Potomac may be authentic, dropping out, but could also be viewed as treasonous by the worshipers of the almighty Hustle. Similarly, Americans who do not willingly embrace debt slavery (a subset of the Hustle) are probably not viewed as good Americans. So, the DI is a counter movement that turns into the Authentic Party. It madly gathers followers, some real-life personalities, and generates enough resources to sue some crooked corporations for "trillions." Trillions? George wins the Nobel Peace Prize. Then, and I don't think this gives much away, the AP turns revolutionary and plans a two-million person march on the White House to demand that the President step down. There is a confrontation in the Oval Office and while the President agrees to some concessions, he will not step down. So he tells George and his top level advisers that he will leave them for one hour to decide what to do. The military is on full alert. The book ends with this standoff, but it's pretty clear what George has decided. Still, this leaves us wondering what the President will do.

I doubt Dr. Berman is suggesting that something like this is really possible, especially if we consider his conclusion at the end of Why America Failed. Thomas H. Naylor, in a January, 2012 review for Second Vermont Republic, writes, "Berman makes it very clear that his book has no "happy chapter" because the endgame is not going to be very pretty."