Featured Post

New book available! David Kaiser, A Life in History

Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian,  A Life in History.   Long-time readers who want to find out how th...

Monday, February 05, 2007

Prophet generations

My last post has sparked a couple of interesting comments to which I will try to reply, all the more so since the issue of Prophet generations has played such a big role in what I have to say here.
According to Strauss and Howe, Prophet generations are those born in the wake of the great political crises that create new orders. In American history, they identified the Transcendental generation (born 1792-1821), the Missionary Generation (which I would date from about 1863 to 1884), and the Boom generation (1943-60). In each case, the Prophet generation provided the leaders in the next crisis. Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, as well as Lee and Stanton and Seward and Gideon Welles and Thad Stevens and Alexander Stephens, were Transcendentals; FDR, Hoover, George Marshall, MacArthur, Harold Ickes, and Cordell Hull were Missionaries. Less distinguished members of these generations include James K. Polk and Franklin Pierce, and Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. The major role of Prophets, however, is not political, but intellectual and moral.
The first prophets in recorded history were Adam and Eve, brought into the world that the Lord had created, and found perfect. (I owe this insight to Matthew Elmslie, a Canadian computer scientist who was one of the original contributors to the fourthturning.com website.) Like so many GI parents of the 1950s, he provided them with everything they could possibly need, but forbade them from eating from the tree of good and evil, lest they challenge his view of the world. When they did so, he punished them--and that, to my mind, is the real flaw in the Genesis story, since in real life, as those of us who remember the 1960s know so well, it is the Prophet children who actively reject their parents' creation, rather than the parents who expel them from it. And that has the drama which has been replayed in American history again and again.

The Transcendentals' first contribution to American life was really the founding of American literature; they included Melville, Hawthorne, Whitman and Alcott and Harriet Beecher Stowe. There, typically, they concerned themselves with the great moral questions of American life, and, in Whitman's case, with the celebration of the Self. All this was all to the good, but their political performance was something else. The Transcendentals, inheriting the federal union, decided that the slavery issue was more important than preserving their parents' work. Northern abolitionists called the Constitution an agreement with hell and refused to compromise to preserve the Union; southern fire-eaters openly called for a new slave empire even if that meant the dissolution of the American Empire. It was Lincoln, one of our two greatest prophets, who actually identified this process in 1838, as it was just beginning, in an extraordinary address which he gave at the Springfield Lyceum as a young man beginning to make his way in politics. Here is how he saw the conflict between his parents' legacy and the ambition of his contemporaries.

But, it may be asked, why suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?

We hope there is no sufficient reason. We hope all dangers may be overcome; but to conclude that no danger may ever arise, would itself be extremely dangerous. There are now, and will hereafter be, many causes, dangerous in their tendency, which have not existed heretofore; and which are not too insignificant to merit attention. That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one.--Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it:-- their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius distains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object, and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down.

Here, then, is a probable case, highly dangerous, and such a one as could not have well existed heretofore.

The drama played out exactly as Lincoln had foreseen it, and he himself played the critical role. After his southern contemporaries rent the Union asunder to preserve and extend slavery, he led the fight to maintain it, but gradually adopted the additional objective of abolition to give the great struggle a new meaning. Meanwhile, the Republican Party emerged from the war dedicated to high tariffs, economic expansion, and free markets (at home) as well, and those principles embodied the new orthodoxy amidst which the Missionary Prophet generation grew up.

The new Prophet generation mounted few direct challenges to the restored constitutional order, but like all such, they focused upon emerging questions of good and evil. The free market, many of them gradually concluded, did not serve the interests of the people, and some government regulation was essential to assure some economic justice, and perhaps to moderate cycles of boom and bust both on the farm and in industry. The Progressive Era saw the first, quite limited response to these concerns. But meanwhile, other Prophets boldly trumpeted the glories of the free market and had apparently triumphed in the 1920s, an era of unbridled capitalism. Like the Boomers who run our economy today, they showed no self-restraint and no concern for those who did not share in prosperity. Their irresponsibility contributed to the Depression, and Herbert Hoover, a devoted free-marketeer, refused even then to abandon his principles.

The intellectual record of the Missionaries before 1929 was more impressive, especially in the social sciences. My two favorite Missionaries in the intellectual sphere were Charles A. Beard and W. E. B. DuBois, both historians of a decidedly political bent. Both saw contemporary events with extraordinary clarity and knew how to put them in context, and both tried to awaken the conscience of the United States to extend the promise of the Constitution in new directions--in Beard's case economic, in DuBois's, racial. But sadly, both of them, in my opinion, eventually allowed a mixture of their high ideals and their jealousy--a critical Prophet trait--to obscure their judgment about the crisis that the nation passed through in their old age. Beard died bitter, having written two brilliant but critically wrong-headed books about FDR's foreign policy and having refused to admit that the Second World War had done any good. DuBois supported the war and even appreciated in 1948 that Negro Americans (as he called them) seemed on the verge of a great new era, but he quickly found himself on the wrong side of the Cold War and ended his life a Communist, dying, in a coincidence with no parallel save the deaths of Jefferson and Adams, on the eve, literally, of the 1963 March on Washington. Missionaries, in any event, oversaw the first great expansion of American higher education and essentially founded the historical profession,discipline of political science, and that of literary criticism. Yet their major writers--Dreiser and Stein and Sinclair Lewis, Sandburg and Frost--do not seem to rise to the level of their Transcendental forbears. (The Lost Generation of Faulkner and Hemingway filled the gap.)

Politically, however, the Missionaries provided the man to solve the crisis they had created, Franklin Roosevelt--as spoiled a child as any Boomer, who had been given a great deal in life without appearing to work very hard for it, but who proved both in the Depression and the Second World War that he had an extraordinary gift, both rhetorically and intellectually, for coping with desperate crisis. It was he, not the "greatest generation" whom he led, who grasped the danger posed by the Axis and took the critical steps--most notably the huge armaments program that he began in 1940--that enabled the country to meet it. He, more than any other man, created the world in which today's Prophet generation has spent their lives, but there is no sign as yet that we have produced his equal.

The Boomers, I now believe, were destined in any event to turn against their parents' world and much of what it stood for. The details of their trajectory, however, owed an enormous amount to their parents' catastrophic mistake, the Vietnam War. That war undoubtedly deserved all the criticism that it received, but it also encouraged the worst tendencies of a Prophet generation. To thousands if not millions of Boomers it was not simply a miscalculation born of hubris or an error in judgment, but rather proof of the fundamental corruption of their entire world--a world which was probably as just, for all its imperfections, as any that had been built up until that time. (It is fashionable to dismiss the 1950s and early 1960s as hopelessly racist, sexist, and homophobic. The last two accusations have more than a grain of truth, but it was actually the GI generation, white and black, that did the most to end legal segregation and give black people the vote. It is no accident that GIs believed in a color-blind society and Boomers have rejected, sadly, that idea.) In any case, the idea that American and western civilization had shown itself to be hopelessly hypocritical and bankrupt spread like wildfire, particularly in American academia, and the humanistic tradition that the Missionaries had put together and that the GIs had (rather lifelessly, to be sure) tried to maintain has been a casualty of the last forty years.

Boomers took longer to take over the economy and politics, but they have shown no more respect for tradition there than in the Academy. Oliver Stone, another brilliant if deeply erratic Boomer, documented their destruction of the economic order in Wall Street, and we now live under a reign of finance capital that any Babbitt of the 1920s could only envy. Republican Boomers have spent the last six years busily tearing down the Great Society and the New Deal, privatizing the government, and taking us on an ill-advised Crusade to rule the Middle East. And I am afraid that they have proven the accusation of our parents--that we were nothing but indulged, spoiled brats--to be correct. GIs might have set out to conquer the Middle East, but they would also have marshalled the resources to do the job. George Bush, who is reduced to arguing that the sacrifice of the American people consists of having to watch bloody images from Iraq on their television screen, suffers from the classic delusion of his generation--that we can have whatever we want without paying for it.

In my own field I have been enormously disappointed by the performance of my contemporaries in the Humanities, all the more so because of the impact it has had on my own career. Both literary criticism and, increasingly, history have become theoretical word games that cannot even be understood by intelligent lay people. Perhaps, as the comment above argues, Boomers have produced great scientists, and I would like to have that case fleshed out. Certainly in medicine we have not, as far as I can see, produced a Pasteur or a Jonas Salk. Drug companies shamelessly try to devise new and marginally more effective palliatives for chronic diseases like arthritis, rather than new vaccines or radical new careers that might actually eliminate one of the remaining diseases as infectious diseases were eliminated in the past. But I claim no expertise in hard science, and if my contemporaries have excelled, more power to them.

Strauss and Howe and Bill James have dazzled me because they literally discovered new ideas about topics of consuming interest. (I can be as jealous as the next Boomer about some things, but not about ideas--I have never felt anything but admiration and thanks towards people who showed me something I couldn't have seen myself.) I suppose I am closer to Paglia and Krugman because all of us have been willing to acknowledge the contributions of our forbears and have rejected (with, in Paglia's case, results similar to mine) the idea that we can safely disregard everything that was written or thought before 1968. In many ways Boomers have improved American life. We eat better and pay more respect to human feelings than our parents' generation, and the status of women has enormously improved. But the more powerful among us have abused our parents' greatest gift: the opportunity, born of having grown up in a quiet era, to think and feel for ourselves, and to regard ourselves as ends, not means. If Barack Obama--who, like Strauss and Howe, feels he was born too late (1961) to be considered a Boomer--becomes the next President, it will probably mean that we are not destined to produce a Lincoln or an FDR, but I will not be able to blame the rest of the country, and especially the younger generations, for casting us aside.


Matthew E said...

Nice article.

The first prophets in recorded history were Adam and Eve[...]

I am, as you probably expected, delighted to see this passage in there.

If Obama makes it to the presidency, you don't think that'll be the end of Boom presidents, do you? I expect there'll be Boomers in the White House for the next two or even three decades (although perhaps not uninterrupted).

Anonymous said...

Damn right about history and literature, though there are some good pop historians and sociologists out there. I knew there was a reason I get more out of genra fiction then out of modern lit, though the Good Old Stuff still holds its appeal.

Strange if this crisis' Grey Champion should be an Xer!

Unknown said...

Don't you think that if Barack Obama is elected President and turns out to be extremely successful, that the span of the "Prophet Generation" will be expanded to include 1961?

David Kaiser said...


That thought had occurred to me, but Barack, as you may now, adamantly agrees with S & H that he is NOT a Boomer, so I doubt that redefinition will happen.

Matthew E said...

Well. Most of the world is convinced anyway that the Boom birthyear span is '46-'64, so they're going to get it wrong anyway. Whatever.

Anonymous said...

"the idea that American and western civilization had shown itself to be hopelessly hypocritical and bankrupt spread like wildfire, particularly in American academia"

This is a common though incorrect impression. The most striking development in American academia of the last 50 years is the enormous commitment to the sciences, particularly the natural sciences. Take a look at the faculty of almost major university, add up the number of faculty in the Med school, the Engineering school, and the various science depts. You easily get a majority of the faculty. Moreover, look at where universities have expanded recently and with to continue to expand, its the natural sciences. Nothing could be farther from the rejection of western civilization than the large resources poured into the natural sciences. Indeed, far from rejecting the values of their predecessors, American academia is really dominated by scientists who have enthusiastically embraced the intellectual traditions they inherited from the preceding generations.

“Perhaps, as the comment above argues, Boomers have produced great scientists, and I would like to have that case fleshed out.”

By any reasonable measure - volume of science, quality of science, number of people involved, there is no doubt about the achievements of the Boomer generation of scientists. Beyond producing a remarkable number of individual scientists, its also quite clear that the level of average science is considerably higher than it was 25 years ago.

I do agree that some Boomers would like to get something for nothing but its interesting who these people are and they are not all Boomers. In many ways, the paradigmatic individual in this category is Ronald Reagan, who was elected in large part because the electorate didn't want to hear Carter's prescriptions for self-sacrifice and diminished expectations.

Anonymous said...

I don't think Obama can be considered a Boomer since he didn't graduate from law school until 1991 and really entered the work force during the economic downturn of that era. Really marking him as an X'er in overall outlook and experience.

Historically, when a new generation takes over the presidency it pretty much spells the end for the previous generation's aspirations. Kennedy in '60 and then Clinton are examples. Who thought it would be us much maligned "slackers" guiding our country through such perilous times. And we're a pretty tiny generation, too.