Saturday, December 22, 2007

Bill Strauss, 1947-2007

This has been a very sad week for me because of the death on Tuesday of my friend, college classmate, and intellectual inspiration Bill Strauss, who lost an eight-year battle with pancreatic/liver cancer that began in 1999. I first met Bill at our 25th reunion in 1994, although I had already read and taught his first book, Chance and Circumstance, about the Vietnam-era draft, during the 1980s. By that time he was also the producer of the Capitol Steps comedy troop--which has been the focus of the obituaries that have appeared in both the Washington Post and the New York Times this week--and the co-author, with Neil Howe, of the book Generations, of which I was vaguely aware. It was perhaps a year later, I think, that I picked a copy of Generations off the shelf of my school library and sat down to read it. I was so excited that I could hardly sleep for the next several nights.

Being amateur historians, Bill and Neil had retained the right to think big. As they explained it to me much later, they began the book simply as a discussion of what different generations had contributed to American life, but in the midst of their work--under circumstances which they could never fully remember later--they had a striking epiphany. They suddenly saw a recurring pattern both of generations and of eras in American life, linking contemporary events and individuals with different eras in the past. As I have explained many times here, it revolved around an 80-year cycle in national life, punctuated by the great crises (1774-1794, 1857-1868, and 1929-45) that had redefined the nation. And already, in the early 1990s, they foresaw a new crisis coming during the next twenty years. There was much about which one could argue in Generations. Strauss and Howe had done plenty of reading and had an eye for a revealing quote or fact, but I did not think they had researched the various periods of American history as thoroughly as I had done for various crisis eras in European history in my book, Politics and War, which had taken about a decade to write. They had insisted upon strict boundaries between generations, and I thought (and still think) that they had some of them wrong. Like the Prophets they were, they stated their conclusions vigorously, leaving them open--then and later--to lots of carping reviewers who simply didn't believe that they could have discovered this new America that had been right under all our eyes. For some reason, I did not have that kind of jealousy. I experienced a kind of excitement that only one other contemporary has been able to give me--Bill James, when I picked up his first widely published Baseball Abstract in 1982. I felt immediately that they were more right than wrong, and that they had opened up enormous avenues for future research--and not only in American history. Two years later they came out with a new book, The Fourth Turning, and I reviewed it for the Boston Globe. (Even then I had had, I think, only one phone conversation with Bill about Generations.) Here is the review, which makes interesting reading today.

Six years ago, in ``Generations,'' Strauss and Howe laid out a provocative and immensely entertaining outline of American history, based on a four-stage cycle of generations and historical periods. Now, in a somewhat shorter, more focused and even more provocative sequel, they have recast their argument with an eye on the immediate future. There, they see an inspiring, chilling era of tragedy and triumph. The ``fourth turning'' to which their title refers is nothing less than a national crisis on the scale of the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Depression or the Second World War -- and they expect it to arrive sometime during the next decade. That crisis will be the climax of the fourth great ``saeculum'' in American national life -- they employ the Latin word referring to the span of a normal long life, that is, between 80 and 100 years. Their argument can be understood only with reference to history, but space does not allow all four of the great cycles of US history to be laid out. We can,
however, understand their view of the current saeculum, which began around 1964, by analogies with two previous, completed ones: the (somewhat accelerated) Civil War saeculum from about 1822 through 1886, and the Great Power saeculum from 1886 through 1963.

Like every other saeculum, they argue, this one began with an Awakening --in this case, the consciousness revolution of the 1960s and '70s, parallel to the Transcendental Awakening of the 1820s and '30s (which gave rise to abolitionism, among other movements), and the Missionary Awakening of 1884-1908 (which focused on social issues). All Awakening eras feature social activism among the young, increased substance abuse and an emphasis on women's and minority rights. They are driven by young adults (most recently, the baby boomers) who are rebelling against the consensus of the ``High'' periods in which they grew up -- the Jeffersonian High of roughly 1800-1820, the post-Civil War High of 1865-1885 and, most notably, the ``American High'' of 1945-1963, whose consensus atmosphere is so deeply
missed by so many older Americans today.

Awakenings, however, produce ideological ferment rather than ideological consensus, and lead directly not to the golden age foreseen by the young people they stir but rather to an Unraveling in which divisions over values become worse and worse, and the glue that holds society together rapidly weakens. Few will be inclined to dispute the authors' contention
that we now find ourselves in an ``Unraveling'' that began around 1984, parallel to the pre-Civil War crisis of 1844-1861 and the turbulent era of 1908-1929. Both these periods were marked by a general loosening of moral standards and a strong backlash in response; a splitting of the electorate along religious, ethnic and racial lines; an increasingly contentious tone in politics and a growth in votes for third parties; an explosion in crime; and an outburst of nativism in response to the new immigration. Sound familiar?

Another political parallel is equally chilling. From the 1830s through the early 1850s, the great ``Compromise Generation'' of Webster and Clay held things together until the eve of the Civil War. Its present-day generational counterpart is the Silent Generation (born 1926 through
1942), who have generally played a conciliatory political role, but who have never made it to the White House and are now fleeing the Congress in droves (see Sens. Nunn, Cohen, Heflin et al.), leaving national leadership to the more contentious baby boomers. Indeed, the authors openly hope for the election of a more conciliatory ``Silent President'' in 2000, perhaps to postpone the crisis for a few more years and give us time to prepare.

Unravelings have always had interesting effects within American homes, the authors also argue, and here, too, contemporary history is bearing them out. The generations with the most difficult childhoods are born during Awakenings and grow up during the Unravelings: the Gilded Generation that had to fight the Civil War, the Lost Generation (born 1883-1900, according to the authors, though the latter date should perhaps be 1905) and now Generation X, whom Strauss and Howe prefer to call the Thirteenth Generation. These young contemporaries of ours went through childhoods featuring an explosion of divorce, abortion, drug use, crime and a well-publicized erosion of educational standards.

Yet even six years ago, the authors' first book suggested that something had changed dramatically around 1982, when society took a renewed interest in children, and movies began featuring cuddly infants rather than monsters (as in ``The Exorcist,'' ``Damien'' or ``Rosemary's Baby''). Now, of course, younger children have become the focus of the nation's
political life, and their nurture and discipline have moved onto center stage of the national agenda. Boomers never asked their parents to help them do their homework; Generations Xers had little homework to do; but the new generation of Millennials asks for, and gets, help on their assignments almost every night of the week.

This is essential, as well as natural, the authors argue, because the Millennial Generation will inherit the task of their ``GI'' grandparents and great-grandparents: that of dealing with the next great crisis. Like those born from 1905 through 1925, they will be team players, able to band together to handle any task during their youth (building dams in the 1930s, winning World War II in the 1940s), and carrying the same can-do attitude through their middle years (roughly 2023-2045), which -- provided they and their elders do successfully resolve the crisis -- will be the scene of another great American High of confidence, rebuilt infrastructure
and stable families. Nothing lasts forever, though, and when new and troubling events disturb the consensus, the children of the new High will begin a new Awakening, and aging Generation Xers and midlife Millennials will finally see firsthand what their parents went through in the famous 1960s.

``The Fourth Turning'' is weakest on the point of greatest practical interest: what, exactly, the new crisis is likely to involve. The authors present a series of scenarios combining, in various ways, a financial crisis, a collapse of federal authority, a racial or regional civil war,
or an international crisis perhaps involving terrorism -- but none of them seems completely convincing. Yet here, too, history is on their side. No one in the 1760s would have predicted the American Revolution; almost no one in 1928 would have foreseen either depression or world war. Only in the 1850s was the shape of the coming crisis fairly clear, and even then
few if any would have predicted war on such a scale, fought to such a drastic conclusion. We must watch, perhaps, for problems that fashionable solutions can only make worse, since these are the ones most likely to spin out of control.

As a baby boomer like the authors, I put down ``The Fourth Turning'' with a mixture of terror and excitement. Despite the turbulence of the last 30 years, most of us born during the High have lived relatively comfortable and rewarding lives, free of serious economic or physical threats to our well-being. It requires a big leap to believe that all this could change.
Yet at the same time, my pulse quickens as I think that the next two decades could see the kinds of apocalyptic events in whose shadow I was born, and about which I have read all my life; that somewhere in my generation may lurk a Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt who will lead the nation through the crisis; and that if I live to be 100 -- as hundreds of thousands of my contemporaries are expected to do -- I might even get a glimpse of the new Awakening. Strauss and Howe have taken a gamble. If the United States calmly makes it to 2015, their work will end up in the ashcan of history, but if they are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets. And they have given themselves and their contemporaries
plenty of time to find out.

Given the events of the last ten years, I am proud that that was the only really appreciative review that the book received in any mainstream outlet. Neither contemporary academia nor contemporary journalism is very receptive to genuinely new ideas. But the authors also started a website, where a group of diligent and enthusiastic amateurs--joined by two professionals, myself and David Krein--set to work elaborating the implications of what they had to say both for the United States and for Europe. For a couple of years it was the most exciting intellectual community to which I had ever belonged, thanks to Lis Libengood, Stanley Alston, Matthew Elmslie, and Bill himself, to cite only a few of the leading historical lights. Meanwhile, the theory found its way into my next book, American Tragedy: Kennedy, Johnson, and the Origins of the Vietnam War, which, I now realize, became a love letter to an age of innocence, the postwar High, and which concluded with a warning of the crisis to come.

To mark Bill's death I have decided today to do something somewhat different--rather than once again recapitulate some of the major conclusions he and Neil helped me to reach, I am going to show how it has broadened my view of daily life. For the last ten years I have reflexively seen many things through generational glasses, and today is no exception. Let me simply refer to three news items and explore their generational implications.

Page 1 of today's New York Times includes a story on troubles inside US Air, which has been going to pieces since its merger with America West. Our arlines' problems have a distinctly generational flavor. Aviation was a new, protected industry during the High and into the Awakening. The CAB set fares, one could fly non-stop between any pair of major cities and eat real food, and every job was unionized, protected, and highly paid. De-regulation ushered in successive rounds of cost-cutting, the mantra of Boomer capitalism, and led to a world of much cheaper fares, hubs, frequent stops, and inedible snacks. Now even cheap fares are threatened because energy prices have doubled for the second time in my lifetime (the first being in the 1970s.) In the 1970s people still cared about the effects of energy costs on average Americans and grown-ups ran the government, and we cut energy consumption 30%. In the last six years we have hardly cut it at all. The Times also notes that the pilots of America West and US Air have been unable to reach a compromise on the allocation of seniority and the rights that go with it within the new merged airlines. Mediation and arbitration have both failed and a lawsuit has resorted. I have to believe the more cooperative GI generation would have worked this out forty years ago (although seventy years ago, one should note, jurisdictional fights between the AF of L and CIO often became quite violent.)

A feature about Mike Huckabee is also interesting. Of course, Huckabee's very candidacy is an indication of how much has changed--an Arkansas Republican who rejects evolution would hardly have found his way onto the political map forty years ago, but now looms as one of the most possible Republican candidates. But the feature shows that, behind his bland and charming exterior, Huckabee is 100% Boomer, for better or for worse, distinguished, like so many of us (yours truly included) by a terrifying belief in his own opinion. As governor he raised taxes, tried to close rural schools, and pardoned violent criminals, just because he thought it was the right thing to do. He also showed a healthy concern for his economic well being, creating a wedding registry at Target (he had been married for many years at the time) to enable his friends to help furnish the governors' mansion and frequently having difficulty distinguishing campaign, personal, and state funds. If it felt good, in short, he did it.

And then there is the most recent set of Zogby polls, showing Barack Obama beating all the major Republican candidates in a trial heat, and Hillary Clinton losing to several of them--including Huckabee. (Bill Strauss would have gotten a kick out of that. A man of very strong moral convictions, he had a very low opinion of Senator Clinton's husband and told me in one of our last conversations that he would vote for Obama, but not Hillary, against Huckabee.)
A substantial portion of the population is clearly already sick of the Clintons and will become much sicker of them if Senator Clinton actually wins the nomination. In a party nominated by professional politicians this would doom her candidacy even if she genuinely had extraordinary qualifications--which she does not. But that will not deter her or her supporters from pushing on to the end out of a sense of entitlement. Worse, if she is nominated and loses--as I fear she would--her acolytes will simply take that as one more proof that the country isn't ready for some one as enlightened as they are.

As I understand the idea of the Crisis or Fourth Turning, the bulk of the nation (though never all of it) pulls together and mobilizes to solve problems that have simply become too big to ignore. Perhaps it will take a real economic collapse or another and more serious terrorist attack to bring us to that point. There are other possibilities as well; Russia is already well into its crisis but has found no unifying or inspiring mission for its people, only a depressing mix of authoritarianism and runaway capitalism that could, alas, be a major wave of the future. But we must not despair, remembering those who despaired in 1857 (after the Dred Scott decision) or in the depths of the Depression in 1930 or in Britian after the fall of France. Sadly, we need catastrophe to bring out greatness. Inspired by Bill Strauss, I am not willing as yet to give up on our own.

Thank you, Bill. We'll miss you.


Anonymous said...

David - thank you so much for posting these thoughts. I hadn't visited the Fourth Turning site for a couple of weeks, so I had not seen this very, very sad news. My condolences to you as Bill Strauss's friend, but to our whole community of "Generations/Fourth Turning" fans, too. Strauss & Howe together brought a whole new dynamic to my understanding and appreciation of where we've been, and how who we are, when we are, has such an influence on what we choose to do today as a collective, and where we may be headed in our future.

I'm going to miss the wisdom and spirit William Strauss shared with us all. And I'm headed over to visit the site.

Wes Volkenant

Ralph Luker said...

Thanks for posting this at Cliopatria, David. Would you mind sending me an update on your current e-mail address? Send it to ralphluker*at*mindspring*dot*com. Many thanks.

Nur-al-Cubicle said...

Oh, sad news. My 6th degree of relationship to Mr. Strauss was seeing the Capitol Steps in 1993.