Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was one of the books I used to teach in my course, "War and Revolution in the Twentieth Century." Strauss and Howe had not written their books in those days, but Pasternak's book is, among other things, the history of a fourth turning or crisis, in this case the First World War and Russian Revolution. And near the end of the book, musing in a lonely cabin in the Urals, Zhivago, writing for Pasternak, pens a remarkable passage about historical change.
"He reflected again that he conceived of history, of what is called the course of history, not in the accepted way, but by analogy with the vegetable kingdom. In winter, under the snow, the leafless branches of a wood are thin and poor, like the hairs on an old man's wart. But in only a few days in spring the forest is transformed: it reaches the clouds, and you can hide or lose yourself in the leafy maze. This transformation is achieved with a speed greater than in the case of animals, for animals do not grow as fast as plants, and yet we cannot directly observe the movement of growth even of plants. The forest does not change its place, we cannot lie in wait for it and catch it in the act of change. Whenever we look at it, it seems to be motionless. And such also is the immobility to our eyes of the eternally growing, ceaselesslychanging history, the life of society moving invisibly in its incessant transformation."
Strauss's and Howe's view was not dissimilar, because they rightly assigned such importance to the emergence and death of generations. The Websters and Clays of the Compromise generation held the Union together from 1820 through 1850, but when they disappeared from the scene the Civil War was only a matter of time. In the same way, the GI generation (born roughly 1904-24) and the Silent Generation (1925-42) maintained and even extended the achievements of the New Deal, and preserved the world Roosevelt and Missionary Generation (b. 1863-83) had bequeathed them--the world into which I was born. That world was still very much alive when Strauss and Howe published Generations and The Fourth Turning in 1993 and 1996, respectively, and indeed, they expected the Crisis they foresaw to restore some of its most important aspects. But that is not what has happened. Instead, with frightening speed--the same speed which Pasternak saw in the change of seasons--their world has disappeared.
And that, I think, will turn out to be a turning point in western history, because their world was the climax of the process that began with the Enlightenment, the attempt to use human reason to design and create a better world. To that, Roosevelt and the other Missionaries, as No End Save Victory shows quite clearly, had added a moral dimension: they were specifically seeking a relatively just economic order at home that would allow every American to live a decent life, and an international order within which all nations could live in peace. They understood, critically, that neither of those things would come easily or automatically: they required effort, imagination, and sacrifice. The Boom generation quite naturally took all their achievements for granted. Boomers have concentrated, for the most part, on wringing maximum enjoyment and advantage from the world they inherited. As a result, that world is disappearing along with them.
The first Boomers, my own contemporaries, were typical items of mass production. Our parents provided for our material needs, sent us to good public schools and remarkably cheap colleges, and assumed that we had no feelings. That led in turn to an extraordinary explosion of emotion in the late 1960s and 1970s and to a loosening of restraints on behavior that continues until this day. But it also led to the erosion of the idea of any universal moral or intellectual standards. That change first emerged in academia, where by the 1990s everyone's view of history or literature was deemed to be equally valid or invalid, conditioned by their race, class and gender. But it has gone so far now that critical scientific questions like global warming have become matters of faith. More importantly, the whole Republican Party has repudiated the idea of government using reason and science to improve our lives. The market, they argue--that is, the law of the jungle--will produce the most just outcomes. It is perhaps because these views represented the most complete rebellion against our parents' values that they have come to dominate the Boom generation, the majority of which voted Republican in the last election.
What is really frightening, however, is that the younger generations now coming to power--Gen Xers and Millennials--have no experience of a world run on different values, and thus, no belief that it is even possible. Boomers, to be sure, led them down this path. If a GI had remarked, "Books are a dying medium--young people don't read them," he would have done so not only in sorrow, but in an attempt to reverse the trend, because he understood that books were part of the foundation of western civilization. But when Steve Jobs made that remark--and while I can't find it on google, I am positive that I read it at the time--he was simply stating a trend which he was proud of recognizing, accelerating, and profiting from. Today's young people have not experienced college as an experience that opened up new intellectual worlds. It has rather been a very expensive series of hoops to jump through in order to become one of the winners in our winner-take-all economy. This is all they know and it won't occur to them to try to make it something different.
And this, it seems to me, is why the Obama Administration has been so hopeless in selling the ACA. Yes, it now has seven million sign-ups and is benefiting real Americans, . Nonetheless, Democratic candidates in states like Georgia, where it was desperately needed, are running without mentioning it. That is because it represents the idea that government can improve the lot of all the people--and in much of the country, that idea has given way to the idea that government simply takes from the deserving and gives to the undeserving.
Let's go a step further down the health care road. The key to solving our health care problem is simple. We simply have to recognize that health care, which we all need sooner or later, is a public good, like roads, schools, and national defense. It should not therefore be a source of profit. Yet the extent to which profit rules health care is once again on display. The FDA has just approved the use of a new opiate, timed-release hydrocodone, over the objections of its advisory panel. Drugs like hydrocodone, it is clear, have led hundreds of thousands of Americans into addiction, and many have turned to heroin, which is both cheaper and more readily available. It seems that the drug companies were determined to break into the multi-billion dollar market for narcotics in this country, but that have disadvantages in that will not provide them as cheaply as criminal gangs. We obviously need the moral courage to recognize that addictive opiates are not a real solution to anyone's long-term health problems, but because they can make money for drug companies, that is lacking in today's world.
The last American representative of the world I grew up in on the world stage seems to be John Kerry. He is four years older than I am,, and he too was a diplomatic brat. He belongs to the diplomatic tradition of John F. Kennedy, George H. W. Bush, Richard Nixon and my own father, all of whom believed (yes, including Nixon) that diplomats were supposed to solve problems among nations. (Hillary Clinton showed no sign of grasping this in her four years as Secretary of State.) Yet because such people now lack the backing and moral authority that they used to have, his efforts to revive the Middle East peace process have collapsed completely. That is another symbol of where we are, and another fearful warning of where we might be going.