George Orwell is one of many figures whose life and work testifies to the truth of the theory of generations and turnings put forth 40 years after his death by Strauss and Howe. He was a British nomad, born in 1903 (the British cycle has consistently been a few years behind our own). He described his early education at the hands of two British Prophets, his school headmaster and his wife, and he was enough of a Nomad to go out east in the British imperial police after graduating from Eton. He lost faith in every ideology during the 1930s, but when the Second World War broke out he rediscovered his patriotism and became an active participant in Britain's Fourth Turning. Most importantly of all for my purposes today, he wrote very sensitively about the emotional and ideological impact of great political crises. I devoted a post some years ago to his great essay, "Notes on Nationalism," which detailed the characteristics of ideologues, and today I would like to quote briefly from a parallel essay, also written during the Second World War, called Looking Back on the Spanish War.
" I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies
anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part
inaccurate and biased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the
abandonment of the idea that history COULD be truthfully written. In the
past people deliberately lied, or they unconsciously coloured what they
wrote, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must
make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that 'facts' existed
and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost
everyone. If you look up the history of the last war in, for instance, the ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA, you will find that a respectable amount of
the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German
historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but
there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which
neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis
of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species
of animal, that totalitarianism destroys. Nazi theory indeed specifically
denies that such a thing as 'the truth' exists. There is, for instance,
no such thing as 'Science'. There is only 'German Science', 'Jewish
Science', etc. The implied objective of this line of thought is a
nightmare world in which the Leader, or some ruling clique, controls not
only the future but THE PAST. If the Leader says of such and such an
event, 'It never happened'--well, it never happened. If he says that two
and two are five--well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me
much more than bombs--and after our experiences of the last few years
that is not a frivolous statement."
Many readers will, of course, have immediately recognized one of the core ideas of 1984, which laid out what a totalitarian High might be like, and also gave more than a hint of the primal forces that might bring it down. That, however, is not what I am after today. Instead I want to use this passage to illustrate one of the bizarre aspects of our current era, one which is rapidly getting worse. I believe more strongly than ever that we are not destined in the next decade or two to see another massive conflict on the scale of the twentieth century's world wars, if only because modern states no longer have the necessary organization or command the necessary loyalty to fight them. But emotionally and intellectually, the atmosphere of both domestic and international politics is resembling those years more and more. Both individual peoples (including our own) and different nations have lost the ability to agree on basic facts.
The Russian-Ukrainian crisis is one example. Putin has evidently sold the bulk of the Russian people on the idea that Fascists run the new government of Ukraine. Not content with that, his propagandists are now arguing that the Ukrainian government staged the downing of the Malaysian airliner in order to turn public opinion against the separatists and the Russians. Meanwhile, Hamas and Israel are busily trading allegations, and the Israelis are insisting that the ratio of about 25 to one between Palestinian and Israeli deaths--a pretty standard ratio in these conflicts--is actually the fault of Hamas. The Middle East has been agog with conspiracy theories for decades, and more than once at the War College I tried vainly to convince students from Arab countries that the United States was not in fact behind every major political development in their region, or that it could not snap its fingers and remove the Assad regime in Syria if it wanted to do so.
The same problem is getting worse and worse in American politics. Republicans deny that global warming is man-made, and insist that immigrants are coming to the United States to live off the bounty of the federal government--two claims with little or no basis in fact. Paul Krugman has repeatedly pointed out that most economists continue to argue that the government has been pursuing inflationary policies that would drive up interest rates, even though this has not happened. Saddest of all, from my point of view, one of the ideas that Orwell cited as fashionable--that truthful history cannot be written--is now orthodoxy in most history departments. So is the idea that different genders and races have different realities. Conservatives constantly argue that the federal government is more intrusive and expensive than ever, another claim that is manifestly false. We cannot even agree upon whether looser gun laws increase gun deaths or decrease them--partly, to be sure, because the NRA has intimidated the Congress into passing laws forbidding government bodies from compiling statistics on this question.
And here, to me, is the really frightening point: only a great war, in all probability, could rebuild a general consensus around basic facts. That was how the arguments of Orwell's day were resolved--by the victory of the United States and the Soviet Union, whose views of reality ruled the territories they occupied for at least the next 45 years. That was how the United States settled the issues of slavery and the union in the 1860s. Let me repeat that I have no wish to see another huge war, but the absence of one means that we will have to live with alternative views of reality among leading political groups for decades to come. This is in fact what happened in France roughly from 1815 to 1962 or so, a period of nearly two full saeculums, the 80-year periods on which Strauss and Howe focused. There was not a single moment in all that time at which many influential and powerful Frenchmen did not reject the essential basis of their government. (It was de Gaulle, one of the greatest statesmen of the twentieth century, who finally solved this problem.) The relationship between victory in war and legitimacy is a complicated one, and most of us correctly identify great wars as bad things. Nonetheless, they played a key role--and perhaps an indispensable one--in creating civilization as we have known it.
I remember my father remarking, perhaps half a century ago, that television, contrary to the fears of many, had not produced a great demagogue. He was right, but I do not think the technology was the reason. That era was generally unfriendly to demagogues because the nation's victory over the depression, the Nazis and the Japanese had created a genuine national consensus, as Barry Goldwater discovered 50 years ago. We have now destroyed that consensus. So far we are threatened not with one demagogue, however, but with many. They include "commentators" and talk radio hosts, politicians like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Darrell Issa, and many more. They threaten all established political structures. The market for truth--the market for which Orwell wrote his early, almost unknown works--is more than ever a specialty market, and it will so remain for some time to come.