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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Hitting bottom?

 Last spring and early summer, I gave an on-line version of my favorite course, Generations in Film, which uses movies from the 1930s to the present to illustrate different generations and turnings.  Beginning with movies about young members of the GI generation like They Made Me a Criminal and Mister Roberts, the course traced the decay of American institutions, culminating with The Social Network and The Big Short.  Then, as I have often in the past, I ended with one of my favorite films of all time, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

Set in the 1930s, this film features three main characters played by actors from the generation they are portraying: the Missionary Walter Huston (a Canadian, and their generations are a few years behind ours); Humphrey Bogart of the Lost Generation; and the young GI Tim Holt.  Strauss and Howe defined Missionaries as the Prophet archetype, the Lost generation as Nomads, and the GIs as Heroes.  They are thus parallel to today's Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials, which is why I have always liked using the movie to wind up.  Spoiler alert: if you haven't seen the movie you might want to skip the next paragraph--I don't want to spoil the great treat you have in store.

The film begins with Dobbs (Bogart), down and out in Tampico, Mexico, and his chance meeting with another, younger American, Curtin (Holt.) Later, spending a night in a flophouse, they meet the elderly Howard (Huston), talking about his many experiences as a prospector.  Before long, the three of them are embarked on an expedition into the mountains, where they eventually strike it rich.  Howard quickly emerges as the leader--rather like his contemporary FDR--not only because he's an experienced prospector, but because he knows the psychological pitfalls of the trade, as well.  Dobbs, it turns out, trusts no one, and is just out for himself.  Curtin tries to be a loyal teammate and is the only one with real plans for the future--he wants to acquire land and grow fruit.  Eventually they start for home with $35,000 apiece, but chance takes a hand.  Howard has to stay behind for awhile with some local Indians while Dobbs and Curtin continue alone.  Dobbs decides to try to make off with the whole haul himself and tries to kill Curtin, but fails.  Later he encounters bandits who kill him, and don't realize what it is that he has stashed on the back of is burrows.  Howard and Curtin eventually catch up, but by then, the wind has blown all the gold away. Philosophical as always, Howard bursts into hysterical laughter, and Curtin joins in. And then, Howard assures Curtin that he has plenty of time ahead of him--time enough to make three or four more fortunes.

It occurred to me preparing for that last class last summer that at the end, Howard and Curtin have hit bottom, with all their dreams in ruins.  And it also occurred to me that our nation today, wracked with partisanship and dysfunction, apparently unable to cope responsibly with the pandemic, and struggling under the yoke of a hopelessly inept leader, was waiting to hit bottom as well.  I could not however imagine exactly what that would look like.  Now we know.  We can't yet be sure, but I think we hit bottom on January 6, when an angry mob stormed into the Capitol in a vague, largely unorganized attempt to terrorize the House and Senate into refusing to certify Joe Biden's election--brought together and encouraged by Donald Trump, by far the worst President in the history of the United States.

Although much remains to be learned about the origins of those events, I cannot bring myself to describe them as an actual coup attempt.  We have survived Donald Trump because his primary characteristic isn't narcissism or power lust, but ineptitude.  Had he put the Pentagon in the hands of al all-out supporter and formed a secret organization to coordinate mob action all over the country as a pretext for martial law, storming the Capitol might have been part of a real coup, even a successful one.  That however was way beyond the capability of him or his minions.  A lack of organization characterizes political movements on both sides of our fence today. Black Lives Matter opposes organization in principle, since any leadership enjoys a privileged identity, the concept it is formed to combat.  Extreme Trump supporters are anarchists.  These are not the kind of movements that make successful revolutions.

The events of January 6, it seems to me, have done two things. First, they clearly established that Trump and his supporters have been engaging in indefensible behavior, including not only their insurrection, but the whole campaign against the election  That has finally united a significant number of Republican officials with all the Democrats behind the position that Trump must not only leave the White House, but also face disqualification from further political office through impeachment.  Meanwhile, Joe Biden is already planning an all-out attack on the pandemic and the recession it caused--a demonstration that the government can solve big problems.  And thanks to the Georgia electorate, he has a real chance to do so.  Narrow Democratic control of the Senate will not bring about a rebirth of the New Deal, or Medicare for all, but it will allow the Senate, as well as the House, to function, and to pass important relief measures.  That's the first step on the road to political recovery.

Joe Biden will take office as the first President from the Silent generation, of which he is one of the youngest members.  He was fully shaped by the last great era in which the US government could do things like building the interstate highway system, encourage the construction of millions of new houses and schools, and pass civil rights bills   He wants to revive that legacy.  Meanwhile, Generation X is taking over from Boomers in positions of power throughout our society--although Boomers, alas, still numerically dominate the Congress. Gen X will go along with new measures not out of ideology, ut out of necessity.  The conviction of Trump--and I think he will be convicted because Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment need to drive a stake through his political heart--will send a signa about acceptable behavior  We don't know whether we will face a long outburst of random political violence.  It might conceivably become necessary to suspend the writ of habeas corpus--a measure which the Constitution allows "in time of invasion or rebellion, as the public safety may require."  But in any case, for the first time in a long time--certainly since 2010--things seem to be moving in the right direction.  Let us hope that continues.


Unknown said...

Dr. Kaiser,

In the past you had convincing arguments for why the 9/11 attacks and the response to the 9/11 attacks were the kickoff event to this fourth turning. Have recent events swayed you to revisit this position? Please forgive me if you have a more up to date post discussing this, as I haven't gone back through them to find it.

-Ryan J. Heilman
(A former student of yours)

Bozon said...

Here's a squib.

I had adverted to Bannon in a past comment.

"A great crisis in 2008, followed by an even greater one in 2020, as an "authoritarian, severe, unyielding" leader from the baby boomer generation resists a historic moment of change afoot in the US.

"Would you believe this was all predicted almost 25 years ago? In a book championed at the highest levels of the Trump administration, no less? Oh, and it was also written by the guys who invented the term "millennial."

"It was all predicted in 1997 in Neil Howe and William Strauss' "The Fourth Turning," and, depending on who you ask, it was either a breakthrough in "generational theory," a strange work of pseudo-science, or both."

I go with "both".

All the best

David Kaiser said...

Dear Ryan Heilman,

I have not changed my mind Right now I'm inclined to believe that the crisis began with the successful theft of one election (2000) and is ending with the failed theft of another (2020). Where and when did we know each other? Thanks.

Bozon said...


S & H history is sort of a cross between Julia Child and Marcella Hazan.

All the best

Unknown said...

Is your film course archived on-line? Got links?
I don't recall your mentioning it prior to this. Interested in seeing the whole thing.

Unknown said...

"The conviction of Trump--and I think he will be convicted because Mitch McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment need to drive a stake through his political heart--will send a signa about acceptable behavior"

This statement may be more optimistic about Trump and Trumpland than recent polling indicates. Republican legislators are still fearful that the cult of Trump will "primary them." Thus, only ten Republican House members voted for impeachment, and we know how many Senators voted to investigate the election of Biden. If Trump is convicted by the Senate, it will demonstrate the will and power of McConnell, who will have chosen between endangering the reelection of existing Republican members of the Senate or a major step in permanently eliminating from the party the cancer that is Trump.

Bozon said...


Re Hitting bottom? I think not quite yet.

I am going to put it in as stark terms as possible, by analogy.

Assuming a Russia China strategic alliance long now in place, which policy?

Chamberlain, or Churchill?

You can go out appeasing or go out swinging.

I invite your readers:

Take a shot.

All the best