The Saeculum Decoded
A Blog by Neil Howe
May 222012
 

On the Fourth Turning Forum, there is an interesting discussion going on about exactly when the last 2T ended and when the 3T began.  Some readers wonder if the years of the Summer of Love, Woodstock, and the Chicago 7 could really belong to the same era as the first term of President Ronald Reagan.  It’s a good question.

My short answer is that the one big theme that ties both ends of this (or any) awakening era together is a society-wide determination to defy convention, shed constraints, and throw off every manner of social obligation.  Early in the last 2T, this impulse erupted most strongly against cultural standards and social authority (giving rise to the “counter-culture,” minority “power,” and epic demonstrations and riots).  Late in the last 2T, it rose up most strongly against fiscal burdens and economic burdens (giving rise to “tax revolts” and “deregulation”).  The people involved in these movements were not the same, but they certainly overlapped and each group ultimately drew sympathy from across the aisle.  Meaning: Even Republicans went along with the looser manners and mores that sprung up in the mid-60s, and even Democrats recoiled the horrors of dysfunctional statism during the stagflation of the late ’70s.

A nice way to track this directional shift (from the culture to the economy) in the rebellion against authority is to look at the UCLA Freshman survey from 1967 to 1980: Boomer freshmen born in the late ’40s were 3-to-1 more likely to say the most important goal in life is “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” rather than “be financially well off”; by the time to you get to last-wave Boomer and first-wave Xer freshmen (yes, Jonesers), the split is 2-to-1 the other way.  Yet by 1983 and 1984, everyone started to climb onto the same page.  Republican Ronald Reagan brought the Beach Boys to the White House (amazing to recall how controversial this was!), showing that the uptight GOP was coming to terms with Good Vibrations.  And hippies were turning into yuppies (with “babies on board”), while a fair number of New Deal veterans were voting for lower taxes, showing that statist Democrats were coming to terms with Free Agency.  In Reagan’s first term, the battle was still raging.  By the beginning of his second, the battle was over.  And so a new turning was born.

For a long answer, take a close look at The Fourth Turning, pages 199 through 207.  I think Bill and I did a pretty good job defending 1984 as a pivotal year.

In 1984 Steve Jobs’ Apple came out with a lousy computer but a brilliant ad.  The iconic slogan: “1984 won’t be like 1984.”  The ad instantly appealed to everyone (hippies and yuppies) and showed just how much everyone agreed that the Establishment was dead—and how much everyone was comfortable with that.

 

May 202012
 

Wonderful generational clip from the NBC show, “Community.”  Every role is nicely done: The Millennials kids, who know how to suck up to Boomers by flattering their mythic role in American cultural history; the Boomer (Chevy Chase), who enjoys being sucked up to; and the Xer (Joel McHale) who is disgusted by the whole thing.  The medley itself is pretty good, going from Be-Bop in the late ‘40s to New Wave in the ‘80s.

My thanks to Matt Duran, astute Millennial culture maven, for contributing this one:

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k3Ue_Dj2GXk

 

“That Baby Boomer Santa” raises an interesting question: How much does the popular post-war music of Christmas actually revolve around Boomers?  You may have seen this funny chart, from the xkcd webcomic site, which was passed around last December.  Provocative tag line: “Every year, American Culture embarks on a massive project to carefully recreate the Christmases of Baby Boomers’ Childhoods.”

 

 

This chart is accurate, so far as it goes.  The vast majority of the pop Christmas “songs” we hear on the radio did indeed become hits during the years when Boomers were being born and growing up as little children.  And nearly all of them were written and first recorded and sung (in their “classic” versions) by G.I. composers, band leaders, and vocalists (e.g., Bing Crosby, Bop Hope, Nat King Cole, Gene Autrey, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, writer Robert May, et al.).  We sometimes forget that one or two them (“I’ll be Home for Christmas”) exude the haunting melancholy of a nation that had sent 12 million men abroad to fight a brutal war.  OK, a few late-wave Lost were involved (like Irving Berlin); and a few Silent and even Boomers, especially on the “rock” songs (“Jingle Bell Rock” by Silent Bobby Helms in 1957 and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by 14-year-old Boomer Brenda Lee in 1958).

But my main point is that–though Boomers participated in this “White Christmas” explosion as child listeners—the inspiration for these songs was totally G.I.  They were celebrations of hearth and home.  They expressed the poignant longing for domestic tranquility by a history-tossed generation that just wanted (in the words of a returning soldier in Best Years of Our Lives) “A good job, a mild future, and a little house big enough for me and my wife.”  Yes, other generations participated in this mood while it lasted.  So maybe it’s fair to say that these songs were really more an expression of the (First Turning) era more than any one generation.

Boomers, truth to say, participated less in the spirit of this mood than any of the older generations they recall in their childhood—Lost, G.I., or Silent.  And by the time they came of age in the Second Turning, they began to move the culture in a direction that frontally attacked the treacly domesticity and bourgeois conventionality of those sweet violins and those basso profundo (G.I.) male voices.  And that took us straight to Jimmy Hendrix and Neil Young—and all the other artists who are gently lampooned by the “Glee” Millennials in the “Community” clip.  The only genuine “turning” outlier in the above list of twenty most popular Christmas songs is Jose Feliciano’s “Feliz Navidad.”  Not only was this song written and sung by a Boomer, it was surely a Second Turning song—intended to celebrate America’s emerging multicultural reality rather than our passing “melting-pot” aspirations.  This, at last, was the voice of that new generation, not the old.

One last note.  Throughout history, First Turnings have almost always been the eras in which society’s celebration of the conventional and the domestic reaches its paradigmatic apogee.  When did Christmas first become a widely celebrated family holiday in the United States, with all of its Victorian and Dickensian trappings—the fat Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas card, the huge family gatherings, the commercialization of gift giving, etc.?  During roughly the two decades from the late 1850s to the late 1870s.  That is to say, during a (short) Fourth Turning, the Civil War, and then during the subsequent First-Turning era of Reconstruction and Victorian nation building.  This is when Dickens’ Christmas Carol became hugely popular, Prince Albert’s Christmas trees (a favorite with the queen) started appearing throughout America, piano sheet music of carols sold briskly, states at last made Christmas a public holiday (even in New England, where Puritans had earlier always denounced Christmas celebrations), and the whole commercial angle (cards, gifts, photos, meals) got underway.

The young children of that era: The Missionary Generation, like Boomers a moralizing generation that would later became famous both for destroying an older cultural paradigm (the Victorian) and for giving birth to new one (the Modern).

Apr 222012
 

So why has Hunger Games broken so many box-office records in its first few weeks in theaters?  Sure, the trilogy was a huge YA reader hit before it became a movie.  But the books weren’t exactly Tolkien, nor did they have the same celebrity status as the Harry Potter series.  And even if the books did generate a lot of buzz behind the movie, that just begs another question: Why was the trilogy so popular to begin with?

I have no idea.  But I do think there are several themes in the film that strike an obvious resonance with 4T America.

Theme One is the overwhelming imagery of the 1930s.  In the film, we see images either of America’s dire want and deprivation—think of dirt-eating Appalachia before the TVA arrived—or we see images of National Socialism triumphant.  On the one hand, scenes of semi-starved District 12 are deliberately filmed as a black-and-white evocation of rural America in the middle of the Great Depression.  Think of the Time Magazine’s cover picture for October 13, 2008: A stark photo of breadlines in the early 1930s.

On the other hand, the computer-assisted scenes of the Capitol of Panem look like Berlin as it might have been redesigned by Nazi architect Albert Speer.  Fortunately, history did not allow him time to complete this task.  He did a brilliant job, however, with the Nuremberg rallies, which look like Panem’s Capitol on a smaller scale.  And what isn’t directly Nazi-inspired comes from Art Deco or Art Nouveau.

I’m certainly not the first one to point this out: See this article in the Atlantic for example or this very nice blog post.  I’ve even seen a youtube video pointing to the striking similarity between the Hunger Games Mockingjay pin and Herman Goering’s Luftwaffe badge.  I’ll show a couple of examples here, the most striking of which is the CGI movie image of “Avenue of the Tributes.”  The insignia for each district look disturbingly similar to badges handed out by the U.S. National Recovery Administration (NRA).  Note btw the task assigned to District One: “Luxury.”  Hey, it’s a job and someone’s got to do it.

 

 

Why is this important?  Because the specter of National Socialism loomed large over America at the depths of the Great Depression.  As government aggregated greater authority under FDR, many suggested (both on the populist left and the authoritarian right) that perhaps government should go further.  In 1935 Sinclair Lewis wrote the novel It Can’t Happen Here about a fascist take-over of the United States, which was popular enough to be turned into a stage play in 1936.  In Lewis’ novel, it was not so much that large numbers of people really wanted a dictator.  It was just that no one any longer cared much for the liberal and democratic alternative.

Theme Two is the imagery of a vast gap or distance between the privileged and the subjected.  By most calculations, inequality by income in the United States (as measured by the Gini Coefficient) has recently reached the highest levels since the late-1920s and 1930s.

In Hunger Games, the rich are hi-tech and garish.  The poor are resilient and plain.  In the OWS era, the relevance is clear.

 

 

Theme Three is the imagery of a staged yet savage competition among the young for survival.  I think Hunger Games can be read as a metaphor for team-working and risk-averse Millennials entering a young-adult economy defined by survivalist Gen-Xers, who are accustomed to competing against each other in a no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all economy without safety nets.  Gen-Xers know all about Survival Games.  They think nothing of working for businesses governed by the Jack Welch managerial philosophy–which is to fire X percent of your workers every year “pour encourager les autres.”  Life is a gigantic Las Vegas casino.  ”May the odds be ever in your favor.”  How X can you get?  If Millennials fear anything, it is this future.

How things have changed.  When Boomers were young, William Golding wrote a much-discussed novel about kids killing each other that was quickly turned in a movie.  It was called Lord of the Flies.  And why were the kids killing each other?  Because they wanted to.  Because they were accidentally separated from the adults who would otherwise have enforced order and restrained them.  Hunger Games turns the story entirely around.  In this world, it’s the adults who deliberately stage the teen-on-teen gladiatorial contests.  Hunger Games is by no means the first in this genre.  During the Gen-X youth era, we’ve seen novels and movies like The Long Walk (Stephen King) and Battle Royale (a ‘90s Japanese classic).  And how many Xer “reality shows” have followed this same basic model—with Donald Trump or Simon Cowell or some other middle-aging Boomer yelling “you’re fired” at a young person?  The number is beyond counting.

If you’ve seen the film, then you recall the scene where the competition-trained blond jocks chase down and kill an unseen screaming victim.  An image came to my mind: Karate Kid I (1984), where the Aryan Cobra Kai kids (dressed in skeleton uniforms) chase down and catch Daniel-san and would have beaten him to a pulp had not Mr. Miyagi intervened.  This enormously popular movie persuaded countless millions of young Gen-Xers to practice martial arts, buy a gun, or do just about anything to defend themselves in a friendless world.

But here’s what’s changing.  In today’s new 4T era, what felt OK or normal for young Gen-Xers seems outrageous and unacceptable for young Millennials.  For a generation of kids so fussed-over and protected—now to be sent out with bowie knives and machetes to eviscerate each other from throat to gut?  No, the line has to be drawn somewhere.  And this is what adds a whole new edge (so to speak) to the movie.

I originally had a Theme Four in mind, which is the horrifying Oprah-style interviews of young victims about to be sent to their death.  Here is a glimpse of modern American decadence that deserves fuller treatment.  In the heyday of imperial Rome, gladiators once shouted “morituri te salutamus!” to the clamoring coliseum crowds (we who are about to die salute you).  In Hunger Games, the contestants confess personal secrets like they were on Jimmy Fallon’s ever-nice late-night show.  The effect is truly chilling.

But the hour is growing late.  I’ll come back to this in another post.

Mar 192012
 

This is called a preemptive posting.  If there’s ever a question I get asked a lot, it’s this: When did the Fourth Turning start?  So rather than wait for someone to ask again, let’s get right to it.

Readers of The Fourth Turning already know that 4Ts in history are dated and internally subdivided into stages by four critical events.  The first event, the catalyst, triggers or starts the 4T.  It is “a startling event (or sequence of events) that produces a sudden shift in mood.” The second, the regeneracy, marks the beginning of “a new counter-entropy that reunifies and re-energizes civic life.” The third, the climax, is “a crucial moment that confirms the death of the old order and triumph of the new.”  The fourth is the resolution, “a triumphant or tragic conclusion that separates winners from losers, resolves the big public questions, and establishes the new order.”

So to ask when the current 4T began is to ask, when was the catalyst?

Pending stunning new developments, I believe the catalyst occurred in 2008.  It’s a date that is looking better and better as time goes by.  The year 2008 marked the onset of the most serious U.S. economic crisis since the Great Depression.  It also marked the election of Barack Obama, which could yet turn out to be a pivotal realignment date in U.S. political history.

Let’s look at each of these separately.  First, the economy.  Yes, the U.S. recession technically started in December of 2007, but neither the public nor the market felt it until the spring and summer of the following year.  In fact, if I had to give the catalyst a month, I would say September of 2008.  The global Dow was in free fall.  Banks were failing.  Money markets froze shut.  Business owners held their breath.  Thankfully, America’s leaders succeeded in avoiding a depression by means of a massive liquidity infusion and fiscal stimulus policies whose multi-trillion-dollar magnitude has literally no precedent in history.  Today, for the time being, the U.S. economy seems safe again, though to be sure it has emerged weaker and more fragile—and certainly more leveraged—than it was before.

Yet at the time, behind closed doors, many of America’s top leaders believed that they were skirting the edge of a catastrophe that could have exceeded 1932 in its destructive potential.  And they were probably right.  Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson later recounted (in On the Brink) that in the last two weeks of September, 2008, they were only “days away” from “economic collapse, another Great Depression, and 25 percent unemployment.”  At one Thursday-evening meeting, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke famously urged legislators to “break the glass” and pass a bailout package with the simple admonition: “If we don’t do this, we may not have an economy on Monday.”

And, to add even greater edge to this catalyst, we were at that time just six weeks away from the election of Barack Obama, who brought a new party to power and was America’s first African-American President.  Would he have won without the meltdown?  Who knows.  It would have been a much closer election.  Yet as time goes by, we may see something more important in the 2008 election—how it may mark the beginning of a new political realignment.  Admittedly, it’s still too early to say.  Obama’s approval ratings are still relatively low, and the GOP—though showing deep fissures and light turnouts in this year’s primaries—may still experience a resurgence.  This is a call that will be much easier to make a year or two from now.

People have asked me how confident I am about 2008.  All I can say is, the catalyst has to be sometime around 2008 given the generational dividing lines.  As a rule, a new turning starts a few years (typically 2 to 6) after each living generation (especially the new youth generation) enters a new phase of life.  2008 was 4 to 6 years after the oldest Millennials reached age 21 and graduated from college—and 3 years after the oldest Boomers (born in 1943) started to receive their first Social Security retirement checks.  In terms of phase of life, this is right on.

On the other hand, 2001 was too early—and Bill and I repeatedly explained this to many readers who once told us that 9/11 “must be” the catalyst.  We agreed that the mood shift was sudden and dramatic.  But we pointed out that it the living generations were simply too young: The oldest Millennials, for example, were barely college sophomores.  As time passed—and as the Greenspan bubble welled up under the U.S. economy and as public disillusionment set in over the U.S. invasion of Iraq—our initial doubt was justified.  9/11 will go down as one of the more famous crisis precursors in American history.  A crisis precursor is an event that foreshadows a crisis without being an integral part of it.  Other such precursors in American history include the Stamp Act Rebellion (1765), or Bleeding Kansas (1856), or perhaps the Red Scare (1919).  Incidentally, the media did several retrospectives on the 1919-20 bombings in the wake of 9/11—since they represented, prior to 9/11, the most destructive act of political terrorism by foreigners ever attempted on U.S. soil.

OK.  Now let’s move on to the next question: Where is the regeneracy?

I think it’s pretty obvious that the regeneracy has not yet started.  So how long do we need to wait for it?  And how will we know when it starts?  Those are good questions.  I recently went back over The Fourth Turning to recall how we dated the stages of the each of the historical 4Ts.  And I found that we were very explicit about dating the other three stages (catalyst, climax, and resolution) for each 4T.  But we were always a bit vague about dating the regeneracy, treating it more like an era than a date.  There is a reason for this.  We may like to imagine that there is a definable day and hour when America, faced by growing danger and adversity, explicitly decides to patch over its differences, band together, and build something new.  But maybe what really happens is that everyone feels so numb that they let somebody in charge just go ahead and do whatever he’s got to do.  I’m thinking of how America felt during the bleak years of FDR’s first term, or during Lincoln’s assumption of vast war powers after his repeated initial defeats on the battlefield.

The regeneracy cannot always be identified with a single news event.  But it does have to mark the beginning of a growth in centralized authority and decisive leadership at a time of great peril and urgency.  Typically, the catalyst itself doesn’t lead directly to a regeneracy.  There has to be a second or third blow, something that seems a lot more perilous than just the election of third-party candidate (Civil War catalyst) or a very bad month in the stock market (Great Power catalyst).

We are still due for such a moment.  We have not yet reached our regeneracy.  When it happens, I strongly suspect it will be in response to an adverse financial event.  It may also happen in response to a geopolitical event.  It may well happen over the next year or two.  Given the pattern of historical 4Ts, it is very likely happen before the end of the next presidential term (2016).  Which means we already know who will be President at that time: Either Obama or Romney.  (Or at least this is high probability: According to Intrade, it is now over a 96 percent bet, so if you disagree you can make 25-to-1 by betting against global future traders.)  It’s interesting that both men are temperamentally similar—cool, detatched, capable of gravitas–and that one could imagine either playing a Gray Champion role if history required it.  It’s also worth noting that Romney is the only GOP candidate who could steal a sizable share of the Millennial vote that would otherwise go to Obama.  (Romney has consistently done better in the GOP primaries with voters under 30; Santorum and Gingrich with voters over 50.)

Next question: When will the 4T climax take place?  To be honest, I have no idea.  On timing, let me toss out my guess based on the typical pattern of historical 4Ts: The climax may arrive around 2022-2025.

And when will the resolution occur and the entire 4T come to a close?  Again, there is no way to know.  If the 4T turns out to be of average length, I would say 2026-29.  At that time, an entire saeculum will draw to a close.  And the first turning of a new saeculum will commence.

Let me add one more thought.  Bill and I once explained the dynamic of seasonal turnings by applying a four-fold typology of social states invented by Talcott Parsons.  It seemed to work pretty well.  Parsons said that each state was defined by the demand and supply for social order, each of which could be high or low.  So here are how the four turnings may be defined:

Demand for Order        Supply of Order

1T     High                            High

2T     Low                             High

3T     Low                             Low

4T     High                            Low

The point here being that 4Ts are pretty chaotic.  During 4Ts, the future seems much less certain than in retrospect.  They are mostly defined not so much by how much institutions provide order, but by how much people want order.  Here’s where the Millennials will play a key role.

Dec 282010
 

Google’s recent release of their database of books makes for some interesting generational research. The Ngram tool gives insights into the comparative occurrence of various words over the last two hundred years (from a large sample of books). Some interesting examples:

Try “sex”. Or try “erotic,” takes off in the Third Turning (Unraveling) 90s just as “sex” tires.  Or try “love” (and “death”), which are both less used nowadays than ever before.  I had a history prof once who used to say that there was a law of compensation or trade-off, in any era, between thinking about sex and death.  Eras obsessed with one regard the other as taboo.  In Victorian times, no one could talk about “sex” but everyone talked about “death” all the time.  (Just think how much care went into gravestones and funerals!)  Today, of course, it’s the reverse.

Try “Man”, used in the 19th c. was used all the time as an all-purpose reference to person, individual, society, etc.  (It was used 5 or 6x as much as “woman.”)  That ubiquitous usage began declining after 1900—and dropping much faster after the late 1960s.

“Woman” usage has naturally been much flatter, though with a fascinating upward surge in the 3rd Great Awakening (peaking in 1900), a deep downward slide in the 4th and 1st Turning of the 1930s through the 1950s, and a resurgence again starting exactly at the beginning of the Consciousness Revolution.

And these from my friend Pete Markiewicz:

First Turning (the High) devaluation of ‘woman’
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=woman&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Nice spike on wars
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=gun&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

A word appearing in the Third Turning (Unraveling)
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=multicultural&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

A word jumping in the 2T
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=revolutionary&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

A word jumping in the (old) 2T
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=missionary&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Some interesting peaks and valleys
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=magical&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Same, different
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=different%2C+same&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Hippie and its echo
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=hippie&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Commune
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=commune&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Unity
http://ngrams.googlelabs.com/graph?content=unity&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=0&smoothing=3

Oct 112010
 

I have argued before that “Mad Men” is a fundamentally unhistorical rendition of how most Americans felt and behaved in late First Turning (the High) America.  To summarize, my point was basically that most of the roles are played by Generation X (born 1961-1981) who meticulously “look” like circa-1960 business-world people—but who fail to reflect the authentic mood of the era as it was lived and experienced.  Instead, the actors come across as Gen-Xers dressed in 1960 clothing and trapped in 1960 social mannerisms.  Let me put aside all instance in “Mad Men” where the script is simply impossible—like characters telling each other to “get in touch with their feelings.”  Even aside from such obvious anachronisms, most scenes (to my eye and ear) are suffused with a sense of oppressive tension and cynicism.

Well, in this columnStepanie Coontz (well-known author and first-wave Boomer) begs to differ.  She says that “Mad Men” is an incredibly accurate portrayal of the period.  Yet she says so for reasons which I think pretty much support my own assessment.  She says the show accurately portrays the suffocating gender chauvinism that prevailed in America just before the sexual revolution began to set things right.  I agree that it does this.  And, I would argue, it does this so effectively because the cast is so clearly ill-at-ease in the world they inhabit.  To take contemporary Gen-Xers and thrust them back into 1960 life roles would be tantamount to physically throwing just about anyone into a jail cell.  No one looks comfortable when they are locked up.

I would argue that to portray a period in which everyone feels out of place is probably not an accurate portrayal.  Coontz, of course, may disagree.  She may say that most Americans really were, objectively, miserable in the 1950s.  Most likely what she really means to say is that most Americans, men and women, *should* have felt miserable if they had only known how they were being abused by their own social norms.  But then again most Americans didn’t really come to this understanding until after the ‘60s were over… and after Coontz had launched her writing career.

Ponder the epistemological question.  To what extent should the mood or tone of an era be judged by standards not widely held until after the era was over?  The best way to think about this question is to imagine how Hollywood, in the year 2060, will portray our own America circa 2010.  (The Washington Post Outlook section had a recent essay on exactly this question.)  What horrible injustices will we be accused of tolerating daily?  One can imagine many candidates.  To the left, what may come most easily to mind is how we all routinely ravage the environment; to the right, how we routinely terminate the lives of millions of the unborn.  (Both candidates were mentioned in the Post piece.)  I submit that no one really knows and that to subject our own present-day world to such a radical perspective, which might require each of us to confess crimes to a tribunal organized by the new regime, would not be an accurate representation of what it actually feels like today to live in our world.

Let me bring this discussion back around to generations, turnings, and cyclical versus linear time.  One thing Bill and I discovered many years ago, even before The Fourth Turning appeared, was that most people who really do not like our perspective on history have fairly strong ideological motivations.  These tend to be people whose ideology colors their perspective on history, who see history moving from absolute error toward absolute rectitude, and who (therefore) are really bothered by a view of history that is not linear.  In this view, the idea that there might be something archetypal in a bygone generation or era of history seems bizarre, even perverse.  There can be no archetype for social dysfunction and blatant injustice.  It’s like a disease.  When it’s over, you hope and expect it never returns.

Apr 302010
 

This interesting—and implicitly generational—piece by Henry Allen discusses the changing assumptions about America’s role in the world.  This view that Allen describes, of America as history’s existential good guy, is very linked to the psyche of his Silent (born 1925-1942).  It is simply so hard for this generation ever to believe that there are vast numbers of people in the world who really don’t like us or would even enjoy seeing us suffer, and not for anything particular we have done but (to use the phrase that became popular after 911) simply for who we are.  It’s fascinating, in retrospect, that the Silent interpreted the warmth with which a war-devastated world regarded Goliath America just after WWII as genuine affection, as opposed to transient gratitude triggered by necessity.  Gratitude is a very difficult emotion for any society, or even for any individual, to sustain over time.  Especially, when the gift we have received cannot be paid back.  Often, we end up resenting the emotional burden.  Case and point: France’s fraught attitude toward America since our nation-saving intervention in two world wars.

In any event, Generation X (born 1961-1981) seems entirely unmoved by the emotional tensions and turmoil that Allen describes.  I would suggest he is describing something that pretty much affects his generation alone.

Back in the 1990s, Allen interviewed me at length about a feature story he was doing (it was later published in the WP) on how people of different ages react to that old Warner Brothers cartoon about Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote.  In a talk he was giving at a local college, he discovered by accident that all of the (Xer) students sympathized with the coyote, not the roadrunner.  He was flabbergasted, because for as long as he could remember, he and his peers had always rooted for the roadrunner.  He wrote a moving account—Allen is a wonderful writer—about why these differences arose.  And he gave a fairly good rendition of some of the basic generational drivers that may be behind the shift.

Could these two differences be related?  When you look at America’s role in the world, what view do you take—that of the Roadrunner (beautiful, swift, above the fray, never has to think about eating—and never worried about losing), or that of the coyote (ugly but clever, determined, just another dog who’s got to get a meal—and always too-aware of the probability of failure).

Mar 102010
 

Jim Quinn has written a number of essays about America’s entry into the coming Fourth Turning (Crisis).  Here is another good one, probably the best one he’s done:

http://theburningplatform.com/economy/21st-century-breakdown

He refers in this essay to the film “Generation Zero.”  Please don’t ask me more about this film than I know.  Yes, I’m interviewed in this film, and turnings and generations are used as the central organizing theme.  Yes, I’ve known the director (Steve Bannon, based in LA) for a while.  The film will be released in theaters later this spring.  Yes, it features over a dozen conservative talking heads (from Charles Krauthammer to Lou Dobbs), and has been a big hit at tea parties, the CPAC convention, and (earlier this evening) on Fox News.  No, it’s not really partisan in any party (Democrat v. Republican) sense, but it is very populist.  But yes, it is visually very striking.  Here is a trailer:

There are already many reviews of this movie.  Here is Jim Quinn’s: http://www.lewrockwell.com/quinn/quinn23.1.html.

Dec 282009
 

Check out this article in the NY times:

Frustrated With West, Turks Revel in Empire Lost

OK, we got it: We’re all into our imperial “roots” these days. The Russians are reveling in nostalgia about Stalin and the glory days of the USSR. The Chinese are confessing their cultural ties to Confucius and all those pre-western millennia when China was indeed the “Middle Kingdom” (those characters still form the Mandarin anagram for China). And yes the Persians, reaching a bit further back, are playing up big the glorious imperial precedents of the Achaemenids (CyrusDariusXerxes, et al.) and the Sassanids (ever hear about Shapur the Great?). But now the Turks join the ranks of the revanchism brigade. I could have told them all along that the EU would never accept them. Their Ataturk-inspired “westernization” has reached a dead end. So now it’s time to turn back to the great Ottoman Empire.

Maybe you were taught in high school or college that this was the perennial “sick man of Europe”? How wrong you were! Did you know that if they had taken Vienna in 1683, they could have driven straight into the heart of Europe? Maybe Lawrence of Arabia, who did so much to help the Arabs liberate themselves of the Turkish Empire, did history a bad turn. From 1517 to 1924, the Ottoman Turk “Sultan,” number one in political power, chose the “Caliph” of the Muslim world, number one in religious authority. Not only were the Arabs under the Turk thumb. Islam itself was under the Turk thumb.

Well, thanks to Lawrence, the Turkish thumb eventually disappeared. And ever since all hell has broken loose. Question: Now that Obama has blown a fateful (and deadline-delimited) trumpet on behalf of our effort in Afghanistan, and now that he has to worry that Al-Qaida could (even if Obama is successful in roughly 550 days) just as easily regroup in Somalia or Yemen, could it not be the moment to enlist the aid of the ancient Turkic virtue? Their empire, revived? Their noble Janissaries? The Turks were always better warriors than the Arabs. It was the Turks who booted out the Crusaders. And the Turks (Mamluks) who turned back the Mongols. Why not turn back to the Turks again? Just a thought.

Dec 252009
 

Very nice piece in the NYTimes by an officer who is almost certainly a Generation X (born 1961-1981) (he started serving too early to be a Millennial (born 1982-200?), and he is not high enough ranking to be a Boomer (born 1943-1960)). Any survey of generational divisions in today’s the armed forces uncovers Xer officers who feel bollixed by their Boomer superiors. The Xers want to decentralize decision making, reduce the bureaucracy, give more initiative to leaders on the ground, make decisive choices, and embrace risk rather than shun it.

Why all the smothering oversight? To reduce American casualties, of course, say Boomer and Silent (born 1925-1942)elders. To create an idiot-proof (Boomer-speak for Xer-proof) safeguard against bad headlines for political leaders back at home. But, counter the Xers, what if this approach simply ensures that America’s effort is ineffectual and that we are still there ten years from now, still slogging around and suffering casualties?

Speaking of the Nomadarchetype at war, I am reminded of the memorable scene in the movie “Patton.”  Omar Bradley (who was given all the best lines because he advised the director) got owned in one exchange after castigating George for being too aggressive in a particular attack in the Sicilian campaign and suffering needless casualties. Patton’s response—and I loosely paraphrase from memory: “Sure, Brad, some died. But we broke through, didn’t we? We brought this war closer to an end, didn’t we? If we did it your way, we might still be pinned down there, dying as we speak.” It is an interesting question whether the war would have been over in Europe in 1944, instead of 1945, if Patton had remained Bradley’s superior during and after D-Day. Germany might never have been divided, and the Soviet postwar domination of Central Europe would have been much weaker.

Ulysses Grant was another famous Nomad warrior who understood better than his elders (except for a few, like Lincoln and his friend Sherman) that sometimes you have to take risks, including the risk of losing lives, to get the job done. This is how the midlife Xer-in-charge pushes the mood toward the Fourth Turning (Crisis).

The final remarks in this article explicitly and eloquently point to the tethering of Generation X leaders:

“The culture of risk mitigation could be countered with a culture of initiative. Mid-level leaders win or lose conflicts. Our forces are better than the Taliban’s, but we have leashed them so tightly that they are unable to compete.”