Saturday, April 26, 2014

Dramaitc change

   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.



      

14 comments:

Ezra Silk said...

Hi Cousin David,

You write: "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."

That statement may be true in a general sense, but I am a so-called Millennial, and I do hold out hope that the world can be governed by reason. Please see my proposal for a strategy to build a movement that can revive democracy, restore the middle class, and prevent the collapse of civilization. It's called "The Climate Mobilization," and it is inspired by the WWII mobilization.

http://www.theclimatemobilization.org/text-version/

Best,
Cousin Ezra

PJ Cats said...

Dear Mr. Kaiser,

I would like to disagree with you on your pessimism, but I can't find fault with it, really. A number of things spring to mind, reading this latest post. 1) When I went to college, I did a course on literature and the First Wold War. We were made to read a book, if I recall correctly, by a prof. (!) Winter, who claimed that the First World War is not at all the great watershed everybody else says it is, because some things continued, his main argument being that people still buried their dead with some ceremony. This gives a firm indication of the level of academics nowadays. 2) I read a book by Elizabeth, 'The Sixth Extinction'. In the biological realm, it is as much spring as in any of Pasternak's woods. Species are dying more rapidly than after the meteorite that caused the dinosaurs to go extinct. Here's a link to a review of the book, and if you read the comment section (for as long as you can stand), you'll have more proof of the sorry state of mankind. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/10677720/The-Sixth-Extinction-An-Unnatural-History-by-Elizabeth-Kolbert-review.html 3) Through my favorite website thebrowser.com, I stumbled upon an interview of HG Wells with Josef Stalin. I think it must have been in the midst of his great purge, but it's an astonishingly interesting read, especially concerning his comments on capitalism. Socialism really should be more alive than ever, but something has happened, I guess the capitalist brainwashing is just very strong. It's here: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/04/h-g-wells-it-seems-me-i-am-more-left-you-mr-stalin
With that, I wish you a happy weekend from our cloudy Netherlands, where it smells quite lovely of fresh morning rain.

Aunt Katie said...

Professor

Great complex post.

I have just been reading Howard's "Structure and Process In History" essay. A valedictory address at Oxford,1989.

I don't know whether his view plays well with Strauss or Howe.

I tend to see his views as influenced, not only by some of the older historians whom he cites, but also by such social political analytic philosophers whom he does not, such as my old professor at Kings, Peter Winch.

While I have differences with Winch and Howard, they are closer to my view than, say, S & H.

all the best

tructor man said...

David,
I am very impressed with your young cousin Ezra's "Climate Mobilization".
This is exactly the kind of effort needed for today's Millennials.
I have sent it to my kids for our grandkids, and to Cong. Walter Jones (R-NC), who can sometimes break rank with his GOP know-nothings.
In the obverse, I've been reading many of George Pelecano's novels of moral crisis in the working & criminal classes of 1950-80's Washington DC. Major themes: breakdown of morality & authority; hypocrisy of racial integration; parallels between racism and anti-gay discrimination; long hard road of ethnic integration into American mainstream. Microcism of larger society's fall, but with hope.

David Kaiser said...

To Crocodile Chuck,

I will be glad to post your comment and link if you can resubmit it in more polite form. Thank you.

DK

CrocodileChuck said...

Mr. Kerry, and indeed the United States, appear to be both incorrect with the facts around the situation in Ukraine, and on the wrong side of history:

http://vineyardsaker.blogspot.com.au/2014/04/john-kerry-and-last-resort-rule-as.html

Mr. Kerry has form: he was also wrong footed by Putin in August, '13 with respect to the chemical weapons attacks in Syria, which he clumsily exploited as an excuse for the US to attack the country.

Last, I would like to thank Mr. Bradley for his courtesy in allowing me to re-post.

CrocodileChuck said...

Mr. Kaiser

As stated in my recently posted comment, thank you for your courtesy in allowing me to re post.

And, foolishly, I was thinking of something/someone else whilst submitting it, and [I believe] mistakenly referred to you as david bradley.

If you do post my comment, I hope your administration rights extend to editorial correction! Thanks again. NB I tried to find your email on the web, but this was the only channel I could find for a 'private message'.

Joseph Young said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zosima said...

“Silent Generation (1925-42) maintained and even extended the achievements of the New Deal, and preserved the world Roosevelt and Missionary Generation had bequeathed them--the world into which I was born... 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.”

This is the reason I reject generational analysis. It’s just too sweeping to think that an entire generation of people would base their political outlook on some spiteful revenge against their parents, without regard to their own economic needs or any other consideration. Also, the voting data doesn’t back up your repeated claim that the Boomers have led the conservative trend. Boomers, ages 48-66 in 2012 voted for Romney 52-48. But the over 65’s, who would be mostly Silents, voted for Romney 56-44. That same voting pattern occurred in 2008, Silents (over 65’s) voted for McCain (a guy who didn’t know he owned 7 houses) by 8 points, Boomers when for Obama by 1 point. In 1980 and 1996 also, the generations that were older than the Boomers voted more heavily for the Republican candidate. These were the four elections where there were significant age related voting differences, and in each case the pre-Boomers voted more conservative. Please explain?

Skimpole said...

I'd like to second Zosima's skepticism about generational analysis. Consider this passage on John Kerry and the recently failed Middle East peace talks: "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.)"

It's hard to argue that generational immaturity explains this failure. 16 years before recognizing the Soviet regime, 19 years before full relations with a United Vietnam, 22 years before dealing with China, five decades of trying to isolate China, more than six decades of keeping North Korea in the cold, not to mention the 26 years of refusing to deal with the PLO: clearly there is a long tradition of the United States refusing to recognize, let alone negotiate with other countries.

These reasons have long roots. Since the Monroe Doctrine and the collapse of the Spanish Empire, the United States has been far more powerful than any other country in the hemisphere. Moreover, the United States is both more Protestant and more European than other American countries, and its diplomatic service has been disproportionately more so. This has not encouraged either empathy or tact with the United States' neighbors. Nor has the country's relative isolation before 1941.

Kerry's recent failure is not rooted in the Boomers' collective sins. It is understandable given the United States' long held position of trying to encourage Israel to support peace while subsidizing its intransigence. The reasons for the strength of the pro-Israel are many, and generational analysis does little to explain them. Obviously the Israel lobby is more powerful than the Palestinian one. The demagoguery of the silents Martin Peeetz and Norman Podhoretz took place in a particular context. From 1979 to 2004 it suited the interest of many people that the flagship of American liberalism should be controlled by a man who despised most liberal causes. Meanwhile, after 1965 many conservatives realized that resentment over the civil rights revolution could produce a national conservative majority. The only problem was at the same time they had to convincingly argue they weren't racist. So on the one side Commentary's argument that the civil rights movement was OK up until the Moynihan report, was much more plausible than National Review's use of constitutional pettifoggery to hide racist malice. And on the other side unconditional defense of Israel could serve as an anti-racist cause so much more comfortable than integrating housing, the workplace and education, with the (usually darker skinned) Palestinians serving as the perfect scapegoat.

I'd also like to cavil with the idea that the Republican party is rejecting science. The Taliban reject science and much Arab politics will seriously harm it. By contrast, the conservative attitude to science is clearly far more supportive. They are just willing to ignore it when it counters the self-interest of their constituencies. If pretending Darwinism isn't true helps get evangelical voters, fine. But this isn't a new phenomenon. As the books of Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner show, as well as Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's "Merchants of Doubt", conservatives have a long history of ignoring science on issues such as lead, acid rain, DDT, tobacco and much else.

David Kaiser said...

It is not that Boomers have led the conservative trend, Zosima, it is that they have consistently stood for maximum individual freedom in every sphere--both sexual (on the left) and economic (on the right.) That's why virtually all our institutions, from the federal government on down, are so much weaker than they were a half century ago. That's also why they have been completely unable to produce any politicians who would effectively defend the legacy of earlier generations--except, perhaps, for personal entitlements.
My statement about the Republicans and science didn't refer to all science. It referred to the idea that social science, applied by the government, could improve the lot of society--one of the basic ideas of the Enlightenment. The Republicans reject that lock, stock and barrel.

Bubbalouis said...

Cousin Ezra,

Your Climate Mobilization is full of scientifically and factually wrong statements.

Take this boner: The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that if carbon dioxide emissions continue their unrestricted growth, the earth will warm between 3.6°F to 10.8°F by 2100.[2] "

The IPCC AR5 released on March 31, 2014 said nothing of the kind. It says 1 to 3.5 degrees C. http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR5/report/final-drafts/ Figure 1-4.

Your entire document seems crafted by the thinking of Blll McKibben, or Michael Hoexter, who don't have a scientific course to their names. Inspired by WWII mobilization? Are you friggin' kidding me? You don't know how WWII was mobilized; that info only came to light 2.5 years ago after a military historian discovered it misfiled at the The National Archives.

And lastly, you don't understand strategy.

Bubbalouis said...

My statement about the Republicans and science didn't refer to all science. It referred to the idea that social science, applied by the government, could improve the lot of society--one of the basic ideas of the Enlightenment. The Republicans reject that lock, stock and barrel.

So do a lot of Democrats and Progressives. I agree with you that social science, applied by the government, can and should improve the lot of society. That's what a government is for, and moreover, that's what the economy is for: pubic purpose.

It is a disgrace that Baby Boomers ('m one) have allowed matters to get to this. A real disgrace, and the Milliennials have no clue how they've been duped.

Bubbalouis said...

I also want to add that I concur with this 100%:

"It is not that Boomers have led the conservative trend, Zosima, it is that they have consistently stood for maximum individual freedom in every sphere--both sexual (on the left) and economic (on the right.) That's why virtually all our institutions, from the federal government on down, are so much weaker than they were a half century ago. That's also why they have been completely unable to produce any politicians who would effectively defend the legacy of earlier generations--except, perhaps, for personal entitlements."