Monday, March 29, 2010

Winter is Coming

It's been a long time, so of course memories sift and drift down below consciousness and any possible recall, but once in a while I shock myself with the thought that I only can remember two events in my low-rent academic career at VCU without really digging. One is a multi-media presentation I gave on African art in a large Colosseum of a classroom, which went far beyond the requirements. It preshadowed my short but productive career at Richmond Public Schools in Media Services and gave me one chance to actually use the skills I'd learned while happily working in radio. The second was during a class entitled American Ideas, captained by the wise Dr. Ruth See, in which I found out about not only the Great Awakening of the 1730s and 40s but that it was followed in the next century by another one which also resulted in revolution and civil war twenty years later. Hmm -- was there a trend here, and could we identify it when it came around again?
If spurred to look in depth at such historical cycles, what you will easily find are best-sellers like Future Shock and The End of History or, heaven help you, the barrels full of partisan screaming matches that fill our libraries and the whole front area of the giant bookstore chains. Don't waste your time. For example, The End's thesis was that the end of the Cold War was the last big event ever. If you submitted this drivel to Dr. See, she would have politely and gently made you eat it.
I mentioned way back in a previous post a long-ignored and barely available book by an eccentric jewel of a writer (considered undereducated and nonprofessional by the critics) named Freya Stark, whose Rome Beyond the Euphrates analyzed fatal over-reaching by empires. Too bad for us and millions in the Middle East that the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld triumvirate did not, and could not in any case, learn its timeless lesson. A cycle of very successful resource exploitation followed by population growth which overshot those resources or drastic climate disruption which decimated them was postulated in 1972's Limits of Growth and its sequel 30 years later. Denial has been the response to this "inconvenient truth," because we currently believe in exponential growth simply because we have had a century of affordable energy which has made for very successful resource consumption and we like it that way. It's non-negotiable, as old Dickie spit out. Like saying summer isn't going to yield to the next season just because we don't want it to.
Embarrasing as it is to admit, The Fourth Turning came out in 1997 and I only heard about it this year. The authors (Strauss and Howe) apply generational theory to history and find that America in particular has recurring 80-100 year cycles. Each of these has four turnings, or four seasons, of about 20 years each, reflecting underlying rhythms which are hard-wired into the nature of our society. Generations have different characters than the one preceeding and the one following, in a repeating pattern. The first is the High, wherein the mood is confident, conformist and complacent (The Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy years). The second is the Consciousness Revolution, an era of personal liberations (the 60s campus revolts to the 80s tax revolts). Civic institutions come to be mistrusted. The Culture Wars is the third turning (Reagan to the 2008 financial meltdown). Institutional decay and drift follow the glitz and official optimism with aggressive moralism and violence-tinged nativism. Finally, after a dramatic tipping point (the Boston Tea Party, John Brown's raid, Pearl Harbor, Black Tuesday and 9/11+2008), comes the monumental Crisis, oddly enough often triggered by the miscalculation of a foreign power.
In the current as well as the past Culture Wars periods, parents fear that the American Dream which was there for their parents and barely still there for them will not be for their children. They don't believe civil institutions are worth paying for. Decency campaigns are waged by anxious, tired old radicals whose heyday was thirty years before (the Gay 90s for those in the 20s and of course the late 60s for those today).
Short-lived triumphs of the French and Indian War, the Mexican War and WWI led to unravelings like ours after the end of the Cold War. Pessimism inevitably followed the wearing-out of collective purpose. The hardened Abolitionists of the fractious 1850s were once the spiritualists who explored Transcendentalism and utopian communities thirty years previously (I'd say like the Tea Baggers/60s idealists right now).
When the Crisis arrives, people have to put community ahead of self once again; there will be new leaders and a new social contract will develop. Winter will come in its time and things will die before new growth emerges.

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