I wrote the other day about the Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Generation. I came across a few things that got me thinking more about generational change and the conflict that ensues among the generations involved. First, let me touch again on those earlier generations.
As I explained in that post, the Ku Klux Klan was founded and mostly led by the generation(s) that preceded the generation that came of age in the early 20th century. That new generation was the Lost Generation who were born, according to Strauss and Howe, from 1883 to 1900. In the KKK post, I offered a quote by a Lost Generation writer that seemed to specifically speak to the condition of that generation that formed the KKK. It was from Ernest Hemingway and went as follows: “Broad lawns and narrow minds.” Just for the fun of it, I’ll now add another quote from a member of the Lost Generation, William Carlos Williams, which I’ve quoted before:
“It has become “the most lawless country in the civilized world,” a panorama of murders, perversions, a terrific ungoverned strength, excusable only because of the horrid beauty of its great machines. To-day it is a generation of gross know-nothingism, of blackened churches where hymns groan like chants from stupefied jungles, a generation universally eager to barter permanent values (the hope of an aristocracy) in return for opportunist material advantages, a generation hating those whom it obeys.”
One might call the Lost Generation cynical. It reminds me of my own generation, GenX.
For my purposes here, let me accentuate the point that the Lost Generation was born and grew up during the first era in US history of a major population boom. More significantly, it was the first era of truly large mass immigration.
Those immigrants were either members of the Lost Generation or their parents. These perceived foreigners were considered undesirable people by many Americans. They were the dreaded ethnics from Germany, Eastern Europe and Southern Europe. Unlike today, these people weren’t considered white or at least their whiteness was highly questionable. In response to this incoming horde, the KKK defended WASP values which they considered 100% Americanism.
Here is a graph from a Pew report:
U.S. Birth Rate Falls to a Record Low; Decline Is Greatest Among Immigrants
by Gretchen Livingston and D’Vera Cohn
That graph brings me to another point I was making in that previous post. We are in another similar era as that which the Lost Generation was born into. GenX was born and grew up during this new era of mass immigration began (early 1960s onward). The earlier mass migration hit a peak when the Lost Generation was hitting its 20s and thirties. The exact same thing happened for this recent mass migration in relation to GenX.
Both generations grew up experiencing change as normal. Also, both generations grew up to accept, cynically or otherwise, that they would suffer the worse of these changes. The Lost Generation and the GenX found themselves on the wrong end of the powerful generation that preceded them. In the case of the Lost Generation, that included the likes of the fundamentalist KKK. For GenXers, it was the rise of a new right-wing with fundamentalism at its head. Both eras of change brought on inter-generational conflict and culture wars.
The reason for this is that there had been a period of relative stability directly before each of these eras of change. This relative stability was largely connected to the lesser number of immigrants during those previous generations.
Right before the Lost Generation was the Missionary Generation. Missionaries were born following the mass migration that happened during the mid-1800s. They grew up knowing only the world following directly after the Civil War. It was the Reconstruction Era, a time of restructuring and re-establishing the social order and racial/class hierarchy. During their young adulthood, they became involved in the Populist Era which allowed their generation to shape the political, economic and religious trends that would be the foundation for the 20th century. It was because of the immense influence they had that all the change at the turn of the century felt like everything that had been accomplished was being undone or at least being dangerously challenged. They couldn’t comprehend all the changes that were happening with industrialization, urbanization and globalization.
And before GenX was the Boomers. They are an interesting case. They were the largest generation and only recently became the second largest following the birth of the Millennials. They’ve exerted disproportionate power and influence because of their large numbers and because of the smaller numbers of GenXers. My generation simply had to play along or else simply react to what the Boomers demanded. The culmination of all things Boomer came to a head during this past decade when the Boomers finally became the majority of politicians in Washington (or at least in Congress), the last of the moderate and moderating Silent Generation either ousted or forced to submit, although the younger Silents were easy to bring in line as they shared more of the same history. You can understand the Boomers (and the younger Silents) by looking at this second graph from the same above Pew report:
As you can see, precisely as immigration was at its lowest the birth rate peaked. This is when the Boomers were born, a very atypical era. This generation grew up with historical amnesia and they thought their childhoods were normal and hence should be held up as the norm. They were scared shitless when this false norm was challenged by the larger contingencies of reality, just as scared shitless as the generation that formed the KKK.
This relates to the core issue of my thinking at the moment: technology.
The Missionaries were born into the beginning of industrialization that began to grow with Reconstruction. Before the Civil War, there was no national railroad system for railroad tracks were incompatible from one region to another. Reconstruction brought forth the collaboration of big government and big business which is what the Populists were responding to in the last decades of the 19th century. The Lost Generation were born into this and new nothing else. Boomers, however, were born when industrialization had reached its peak following WWII and immediately deindustrialization was beginning and globalization was finally becoming a force to be reckoned with.
Before I further discuss the technological angle, I’ll go into the details of precisely who was being impacted by these technological changes and how they were being impacted. This brings me not just to the distinctions of generations but also of ethnicity and race as they all overlap in American history. The dominant group has always found a way to maintain their own power. At the turn of the century, organizations like the KKK sought to defend America against those who didn’t fit the WASP definition of white American. The largest portion of these immigrants, from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, were Germans which just added to the already large German population that had come in the previous centuries.
What Boomers experienced was an America that had been cleansed of overt German culture for the first time in American history. This was the historical amnesia that was intentionally created by the propaganda of the burgeoning Cold War. It maybe goes back to the Civil War conflict between the monocultural South and the multicultural North, and in victory Northerners came to see the value of Southern (mono-)culture. Americans at that time weren’t just uncertain about immigrants from foreign countries. They were uncertain about the migrations happening within the US as well which the railroads made inevitable. Germans, like Catholics and Southern blacks, were the target of the likes of the KKK, but it certainly went well beyond the KKK into the larger society. As I previously explained:
“Much of the political foment following the Civil War involved the German population or was in reaction to the German population. Germans fought for workers’ rights and farmers’ rights, the two coming together within the Populist movement. Germans fought against corporatocracy in the way they fought against empire back in Europe. More importantly, they won many of the political battles they fought and we today benefit from their struggle such as with the 8 hour work day and 5 day work week (try working every waking moment continuously 7 days a week and then tell me you aren’t grateful for their struggle and sacrifice). On the other side, Prohibition and Sunday laws were partly enacted in order to control the influence of ethnic immigrants such as Germans and Irish who were fond of their drink.
“The ugliness of nativism became a central issue on the national stage when World War I began. The media of the day portrayed Germans as being vile and dangerous which led to mobs forming and many Germans dying. Also, the Germanic culture was nearly eliminated. German newspapers were censored, German names of buildings and streets were changed, German traditions were attacked, and German-Americans experienced political and economic oppression. They were arrested, imprisoned, and deported. They had hard time finding work. Their formerly influential culture suddenly became a liability. Along with the impact of World War II, nearly all traces of German heritage had been eliminated. Many German-Americans experienced a cultural forgetting that scoured the German culture from the collective memory of American history.”
During the early 20th century, it was a slow process of non-Wasps being allowed into the white mainstream society. Ethnic Americans quickly adapted the white identity because of the privileges it allowed. In doing so, whites (WASPs and former ethnic immigrants) disproportionately benefited from Progressivism, as I’ve noted bebore (in relation to When Affirmative Action Was White by Ira Katznelson):
“It isn’t a matter of the original intention of many progressive reforms. Racism was rampant, but most people weren’t overtly thinking in terms of racism. Even so, racism was able to trump other concerns by co-opting the policies that were implemented. It became white affirmative action by default. The wording of progressive reform didn’t state it as white affirmative action, but that was the result successfully implemented by the racists in power who wished to maintain their grip on power. Progressivism was just a convenient front for old racial injustices. This is how Jim Crow was rooted in the New Deal.
“Framing white privilege as affirmative action helped me to see the profound impact that it has had. It wasn’t just racist policies in the South or even isolated racist incidents in the North. It was a systematic strategy that was nationwide, even if the strongest impetus was in the Jim Crow South. With this new framing, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.”
All of this was coming to fruition in the 1950s and 1960s. A new social order had been made with Jim Crow and the white-classifying of ethnic Americans. This new social order was at its height when it was also being most strongly challenged. This was the beginning of the Civil Rights Era, but it was also the time when blacks were beginning to feel economic hard times coming for them, the economic hard times that would take another half century to trickle up to middle class whites. This connects to what I was writing about in terms of mass incarceration and deindustralization (and relates to the urbanization that followed the original industrialization):
“This really is an extension of deindustrialization which has been going on for a half century. Before that, industrialization had been an equivalent replacement for an agricultural society. As the article points out, half the population was employed in farming a little over a century ago. Most of those people moved to the cities and found factory jobs. That seemed like progress. But things have been quite different with deindustrialization for there has been fewer jobs created than destroyed.
“This connects to my recent preoccupation with mass incarceration. Black communities have been hit hardest as blacks have been concentrated in the inner cities. Racist houing and home loan practices and sundown town policies forced blacks into the inner cities. Housing projects, highway bypasses, poverty, underfunded schools and general ghettoization (along with other aspects of structural racism) have trapped them there. And now they are less than desirable places to live. But that wasn’t always the case.
“During the early 20th century, the inner cities were thriving communities. This is where many of the early factories were located and so blacks were highly employed. Deindustrialization, along with globalization, decimated these communities. In the 80s and 90s, much of the American population was doing great, but blacks were being hit by unemployment rates not seen by whites since probably the Great Depression. Most of the jobs left and with them the hope of escaping the inner city. Poor blacks became surplus humans. At least under slavery, they were necessary to the economy. Now they had become useless eaters, a problem to be solved or eliminated.
“The War on Drug became the perfect solution and so it was purposely targeted at the victims of deindustrialization. Since we had no jobs to offer poor blacks in this brave new world of globalization, we decided to wharehouse them in prisons and housing projects or else concentrate them in isolated inner city ghettoes. That way at least they would be hidden from sight where the rest of us wouldn’t have to acknowledge this evidence of our society’s failure and dysfunction.”
Right there is the the crux of the matter.
There is the motivation and there is what it leads to. The turn of century changes that the older generations were responding to brought them to enact such things as Prohibition. Likewise, the older generations when GenXers were being born and raised decided the War on Drugs was a good idea. The difference is that Prohibition only lasted slightly over a decade and the War on Drugs is still going strong more than four decades later (Nixon declaring it back in 1971). The reason for this is that the Boomer Generation is relatively larger per capita than was the Missionary Generation and so their political influence has been stronger, more well established and longer lasting.
We are a society that is lagging behind by decades. The change that we need has been stunted. However, the Boomer’s reign is coming to an end. Our recession has shown the dysfunction of the government during this past decade when Boomers were the majority. This has led to the younger generations to consider the very ideologies that originally became so influential among the Lost Generation during the early 20th century.
This isn’t just a change of politics, economics and demograhics. It is a change of culture.
This is where media and technology comes in. The Lost Generation experienced the rise of many media technologies. When they were children, the first developments were being made for the phonograph, radio, film and even the television. It was in the 1920s as young adults (the youngest in their 20s and the oldest in their 30s) that they saw sound brought to film and the television began to be better developed for commercialization. This utterly transformed society and the same fears we hear about technology today were spoken of back then (for example, the freedom that the telephone allowed in talking to anyone at anytime brought on the fear of sexual licentiousness for who knows what those teens might talk about and plan when given the freedom to do so). However, maybe there is something truly different about technology today.
The reason I was thinking about this angle is because of an article I came across (via Matt Cardin). It is Hatchet Job by Mark Kermode — review by Will Self:
“McLuhan’s point is that when it comes to the impact of new media on the human consciousness – both individual and collective – content is an irrelevance; we have to look not at what is on the screen, but how the screen is used. McLuhan saw in the early 1960s that all the brouhaha about what imagery was shown on television and what words were spoken was so much guff; the transformation from what he termed “the linear Gutenberg technology” to the “total field” one implied by the instantaneity of electricity was all that mattered, and this was a change in the human mind as well as the human hand. McLuhan’s global village is indeed all about us now, and it already exhibits social, psychological and cultural behaviours that are entirely different from those implicit in the technologies of mass broadcast and individual, concentrated absorption.
“Film is far more akin to the printed book than it is to the web page; and as for the criticism that accompanied it, this too owed its cultural traction to top-down and one-way technologies of dissemination. Kermode expends a lot of Hatchet Job on explaining that phenomena such as audience test screenings effecting change in movies are as old as the medium itself, while the auteur theory of film-making was always suspect and fragmentary. But what he wants to preserve against all comers is the work of narrative art as something that is given entire and unchangeable by its makers to its receivers. Unfortunately, like all Gutenberg minds, Kermode can only have an inchoate understanding of what’s going on”
That is the change that has happened over this past century. So, what is the future and whose future will it be?
“[ . . . ] what he can’t bear to contemplate is that films also may become dialogic. Why not? For those who think that narrative art forms are in a state of crystalline stasis it’s worth taking a slightly longer view: film is only just over a century old, the novel as we commonly understand it a mere two centuries old – the copyrights that protected them are about 150 years old. At the moment, the wholesale reconfiguration of art is only being retarded by demographics: the middle-aged possessors of Gutenberg minds remain in the majority in western societies, and so we struggle to impose our own linearity on a simultaneous medium to which it is quite alien. The young, who cannot read a text for more than a few minutes without texting, who rely on the web for both their love affairs and their memories of heartache, and who can sometimes find even cinema difficult to take unless it comes replete with electronic feedback loops, are not our future: we, the Gutenberg minds have no future, and our art forms and our criticism of those art forms will soon belong only to the academy and the museum.”
Well, it won’t be the future of Boomers, those Will Self describes as “the middle-aged possessors of Gutenberg minds”. I’d point out that it isn’t so much the middle-aged as it is those that are well beyond that point, those coming to the end of their careers or already retired. Boomers weren’t just a large generation. They, at least those who were well off, were the first generation to have such relatively long and healthy lives.
Because of this, we are in some ways worse off than the generations who lived through Prohibition, the Depression and two world wars. There is going to be massive change that will make the present older generation more upset than the most irate Klansmen as the KKK lost power following the Depression. The backlash and the reactionary politics, the inter-generational conflict is going to be like nothing ever seen before. The more change is delayed the more drastic it will be when it finally comes, like water being held back by a dam when that dam is slowly cracking. The Millennial Generation is the floodwater filling the dam beyond capacity. And the coming decades of the 21st century will be the little town at the bottom of that dam.
Imagine what will happen when the War on Drugs and mass incarceration ends as when Prohibition and Jim Crow ended. Just imagine…