First, depression is a disease of civilization. He spoke of research done on a hunter-gatherer tribal people. What the researcher found was that depression was almost non-existent among them. They lived a hard life and often hard deaths, but they weren’t clinically depressed. Nor did they have many of the other diseases of civilization, all of which are related to inflammation in the body.
He points out that studies have shown that depression is related to inflammation in the brain, at least partly caused by an unhealthy ratio between Omega 6 fats and Omega 3 fats. Combined with the stresses and social isolation of modern society, clinical depression has become a massive problem.
Second, clinical depression is a growing problem. Each generation has higher rates of depression than the generation before. It correctly can be called an epidemic at this point and it increases as people age. The younger generations will as they age, if the pattern holds, have 50% or more experiencing clinical depression.
This gets at an issue I continually return to. Everything is getting worse for the young generation such as poverty, economic inequality, unemployment and homelessness. My generation is the first generation do worse than their parents in the 20th century. My generation as children had poverty rates not seen since the Great Depression and had the worst child suicide rates since such things were recorded. How bad does society have to get before even children become so desperate and hopeless that they kill themselves?
Most people in the older generations never personally experienced these kinds of conditions. Because of this, they have no tangible understanding, no sympathy. They can’t see how this is a systemic problem throughout society, a problem transcending individuals and even generations.
I’ve previously discussed this a bit in terms of capitalist realism (see here and here), but I’ve never gone into much detail about this before. The analysis behind the concept of capitalist realism is based on the collective inability to imagine alternatives and hence collective inability to perceive the problems of the present system. The individual is the product and the scapegoat of capitalist realism.
* * * *
I decided to look more closely at the increasing rate of suicide.
There definitely is something going on in society. It’s hard to make a simple assessment, but obviously particular demographics are hit really hard, specifically the youth demographic (also particular states and white men). A lot of it seems to do with the economy such as with peaks during industrialization and the Great Depression and then a slow rise during the era of globalization. Overall national suicide rates go up and down. It is only with particular demographics that you see long-term trends.
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.
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.
“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…
Out in the theater right now is The World’s End. It stars Simon Pegg who also wrote it along with the director, Edgar Wright. It’s a funny, playful movie and the viewer should pay attention to the details. This ends the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy with the preceding movies of Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007). All are worth watching, if you like this kind of over-the-top humor.
The World’s End is aptly titled.
Pegg plays Gary King, an alcoholic who is growing older and now looking back on his past. He gets his old friends together and they return to their hometown, Newton Haven. Gary wants to finish the Golden Mile which they attempted once before but never finished. The Golden Mile is a pub crawl. It includes twelve pubs and the last pub, of course, is named “The World’s End”. A simple enough premise, but completing the pub crawl turns out more difficult than their first attempt. This puts a spin on the saying that you can’t go home again. The hometown of Gary and his friends is very much not the same place it once was nor the people the same either.
Before seeing this movie, I checked what else was playing at the moment – for example (in no particular order): Riddick, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Elysium, This is the End, The Wolverine, and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. All of these are of similar themes: fantasy/scifi, good vs evil, dystopia, apocalypse, hero’s quest, etc. These are themes that have been popular this past decade.
These are also themes that were popular in my childhood. I thought of this because this movie’s characters, actors, writers and director all share the same childhood era. All are GenXers, specifically on the young end. Like myself, all of them (except one) was born in the 1970s (I was born in 1975).
This is a movie made by GenXers and mostly for GenXers. The worldview and philosophy it portrays is (stereo)typically GenX. The story is about a loser who is full of himself, equal parts annoying and charming. He is the anti-hero fighting against everything: against growing old, against settling down, against giving up youthful optimism, against the monotony of life, against conformity, against the system; so much against the world he confronts that it is hard to say what he is for. He just knows something is wrong with the way it all is and he just wants to make things right, even if only in one small way: to complete the Golden Mile.
In the end, he does more than that. He becomes the hero he never sought to become. The normal world of mundane existence had no place for a person like him. He didn’t fit in and couldn’t play by the rules. But when the shit hits the fan, he is finally in his element. All that vague sense of unease takes the shape of an actual enemy to be fought. It turns out that is all he needed.
The moral of the story is about the malcontent refusing to accept failure. It is about following one’s dreams even when to others they seem pointless and pathetic, about living out one’s fantasy and so make fantasy reality. It is about freedom defeating bureaucracy, rebellion defeating the status quo, the individual defeating collectivism. It is about fighting the good fight, righteousness regained… in a very messed up world that isn’t as simple and straightforward as it first appears.
It is bits and pieces of so many movies my generation grew up with. It is a loving parody about GenX, a generation that embraced youth culture and is now hitting middle age. Many GenXers have become the authority figures that we saw our generation challenging in the movies of our childhood.
It never seemed to be our appointed role to be the simplistic good guys of the early movies of cowboys and WWII soldiers. In movies, our generation was more likely to be portrayed as evil children or rebellious teenagers. As a small generation, maybe we instinctively understood the world was so much larger than us and not on our side. We never thought we’d save the world and everything would go back to normal (whose ‘normal’?).
Like in The World’s End, victory as such happens on an individual level. The world still ends, the world as we know it. Yet for others, they return to some semblance of their former lives. But there is no going back for Gary King. There are more good fights to be fought. I’m sure, as the story goes, he’ll go down fighting.
I’m presently reading the book Generations by William Strauss and Neil Howe. I’ve read other books by them and I’ve had this book for a few years. I can’t remember when I first discovered these authors and their generations theory. It was probably sometime in the early 2000s, although it could’ve been some years earlier.
I’m already familiar with their theory, but I’ve mostly just studied it in terms of recent generations. The book Generations, however, covers the entire history of America beginning with the Colonial era. If you’re seriously interested in generations theory, this large book (over 500 pages) goes into great detail with a section analyzing every single generation.
What is interesting about their theory is that it proposes a cyclical view of history. The world progresses, but does so through repeating patterns. The cycle (approximately 80 years) consists of 4 generational archetypes (each approximately 20 years), although historical events can alter the cycle or even (very rarely) cause stages in it to be skipped. The cyclical nature of it makes it fascinating and easy to learn. The generations of today and the relationships between them will mirror those of the past.
I’m part of Generation X, although I’m on the younger end of it. Older GenXers were entering the workforce when I was still a young child. Despite this, I do fit the generational archetype. My experience might be slightly different than older GenXers, but my attitude toward the world is similar. The main difference is that the Clinton era shaped my young adult mind more than Reagan era.
I tend to study things from a more personal perspective, seeking to connect the subjective and the objective. A theory such of this is perfect for the way my mind works in seeking connections. In American history, my generation archetype has formed 5 separate generations since colonial times. My generational archetype is labeled ‘Reactive’ because it is the generation that reacts to the idealists (such as the Idealist Boomers or, to go further back, such as the Idealist Transcendentalists). The Idealists are sure of themselves and full of themselves which often leads to lots of conflict and divisiveness (principled leaders unwilling to compromise even if it means sending the young off to war, the young in question often being the Reactives). For this reason, Reactives are often a cynical lot who don’t expect much good out of life. Reactives are survivalists who grow up in hard times and often are despised by older generations.
This is where my mind became most intrigued. I want to do a comparison of one factor among the Reactive generations, but I will limit myself to the 4 generations following the colonial era. The factor I will focus on is war.
– Liberty Generation: fought in Revolutionary War (1775, age 34-51)
– Gilded Generation: fought in Civil War (1861, age 19-39)
– Lost Generation: fought in World War I (1914, age 14-31)
– Generation X: fought in War on Terrorr (2001, 20-40)
I would offer analysis of this, but the analysis that I wrote was somehow deleted by crappy wordpress.
My basic point was that Reactive generations tend to make a lot of sacrifices for society (willingly and unwillingly). Besides dying in demoralizing wars, they experience low rates of education along with low rates of stable families (meaning high rates of divorced parents which leads them to be latchkey kids) and, as both children and adults, experience high rates of poverty, violence and suicide. For all these sacrifices, they tend to be disliked and feared by other generations or else simply forgotten about. This is particularly exemplified by GenXers lost between the two largest generations in US history, the reform-minded Boomers and the civic-minded Millennials.
I just wrote about Corey Robin’s view that the conservative movement is inherently reactionary. I understand his point and I think it is valid, although I would tend to place it in a larger context (of history and psychology). At the moment, however, my mind is focused on a somewhat smaller context: culture wars. I was thinking that the culture wars fit into Robin’s framework of a reactionary conservatism.
Before I noticed Corey Robin’s book, I was having some discussions with a conservative. The issue of culture wars came up. It is an issue that is both very personal for me and for many others, on both sides of the spectrum. But it is personal for different reasons.
The Silent and Boomer generations were born before and in many cases grew up before the present culture wars even began (i.e., the 60s; and not really gaining full momentum until the late 60s). Also, they didn’t know the hardships and sacrifices previous generations made. They didn’t experience the oppression that led to the rise of working class movements during the Populist and Progressive Eras. They didn’t experience having to fight for basic rights and protections during an era when industrialism arose. They didn’t experience WWI, didn’t experience Prohibition and the Great Depression, didn’t even experience WWII to any great extent (although some Silents would have memories of it from childhood).
The era of the early lives of Silents and Boomers was a time of mostly peace and prosperity. It was a time when liberalism reigned without much challenge (progressive reform, high union membership, enactment of EPA, progressive taxation, building of infrastructure, the G.I. bill, etc), and this liberalism created a booming economy and growing middle class (along with increasing social mobility, career opportunities, and civil rights). Silents and Boomers, especially the latter, grew up in privilege and entitlement. They only knew the benefits of what previous generations had fought for but not the hardships and sacrifices. For this reason, they became in many ways selfish generations who dismantled much of what they had benefited from, pulling up the ladder behind them so that later generations would struggle and suffer (if you’ve paid attention, you’d notice that Boomer-dominated unions often are more protective of the rights of older workers than of newer workers who tend to be of the younger generations entering the workforce).
Silents and Boomers were those who started and fought the culture wars. Maybe they did so because they had life so good. Since they didn’t have to worry about survival, they could distract themselves with cultural issues of identity politics, abortion and abstract idealizations about family values. Silents played a particularly interesting role as the leaders of the culture wars and as the reactionaries to it (while the Boomers originally played the role of the troops on the ground in their protests and grassroots activism). It was the Silents like Reagan who were the great dismantlers of the Great Society and they justified it with the culture wars which was partly just a superficial facade placed on the old class wars of the previous generations. So, war on poverty became the war on the poor (on the welfare queens, on the drug addicts, on minorities, on immigrants, on anyone who was part of the lower class).
From my perspective as a GenXer, I feel like saying “Pox on both your houses!” The left and the right of the culture wars seemed to have lost any vision of what made America great and instead focused on winning battles, battles whose costs they didn’t understand (or else didn’t care about… in their correct assumption that future generations would be forced to deal with it). The Silents and the Boomers knew a world prior to the culture wars, but GenXers did not. The culture wars is the only America I’ve ever personally experienced in my life. The culture wars touches upon everything. When the culture wars started, the Silents and the Boomers all took sides. The 60s typically are portrayed as just a time of left-wing activism, but that isn’t the reality. It was the 60s that involved the renewal of evangelism and the rise of the religious right as a political force. Furthermore, the hippies and the police who beat them up, the veterans and the anti-war protesters, all of them were of the same generation(s), all of them responding to the conflict of the times that would form their entire worldview by which they would rule for the next half century.
There is a distinction to be made about how and when the culture wars played out on the right. By the time the culture wars came around, the militant right such as the KKK had been demolished as an effective political force (the KKK had been the culture warriors of the past in defending American ‘white’ culture, defending capitalism and the capitalist class, defending family values, etc). After the culture wars went into full gear, left-wing groups such as the Weather Underground and the Black Panthers took the place as the new militant radicals. Left-wingers, however, were radicalized for the very reason they weren’t in power and they became more radicalized as they lost ground. From Nixon to Reagan, the early culture wars involved the left-wing against the Establishment (which was being taken over by a new breed of reactionary conservatives along with a new breed of centrist ‘liberals’ who denied left-wing politics from having power in Washington). Many older conservatives remember this time as an eroding of cultural values, but what they don’t realize is that this erosion as much came from the top as it was a time of shifting from liberal leadership to conservative leadership and the struggle of power that happened during this shift.
To a liberal, it is no accident that the preceeding era of peace and social cohesion was during liberal leadership. The new conservative movement led by the likes of Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan was a reaction against the first half century of liberal reform, (starting with the Populist Era bringing working class politics into the mainstream, leading to the Progressive Era victories aligning the working class with the liberal class, and culminating in the Great Society). This liberal era ended with the liberal moment of the 60s and the conservative backlash that followed was dramatic. The liberal movement (along with American society in general) never fully recovered from the trauma of the assassinations of so many of their greatest leaders over such a short period of time. The left-wing became radicalized in response to an increasingly radicalized right-wing leadership and activism. It was at this time that liberals and moderates were being pushed out of the Republican Party (the very party, by the way, that began with anti-slavery abolitionists, working class free soil advocates, and those friendly to the then budding Marxist socialism).
As liberals see it, this new era was a dark period of the ending of the liberal reign and the beginning of the conservative reign. To conservatives (especially those of older generations), however, they only see the liberal reaction to this shift and not what liberals were reacting to. In losing political power, liberals turned to identity politics and cultural issues. Some were usurped into the academic fold or became yuppies seeking materialism and success. Others more cynically turned away from their naive youth toward Reagan neoconservatism and libertarian neoliberalism or else they got religion and joined the ranks of the religious right. Everything was translated into terms of the culture wars which undermined and suppressed the class awareness that was the foundation of the labor movement. The reason left-wingers made so much fuss at the time was because they were losing power, not because they were gaining it. Conservatives somehow managed to play the victim card for so many decades even as their power and influence increased, often making the argument that the privileged and well off were in some strange way being victimized by the poor and disenfranchised. The right-wing made the culture wars into a class war, denying their own classism while projecting it onto their opponents. When liberals and left-wingers pointed out this obvious class war, they were attacked for promoting class war. Those on the left couldn’t win for losing at that time.
Later on, the culture wars became a one-sided battle of the conservative movement against anything and everything. Conservatives wanted to “take back” America. After all, they saw themselves as the only “True Americans”, the heirs of the Founding Fathers (just ignore the radical left-wing criticisms of Paine and Jefferson). This second phase of the the culture wars began to gain momentum in the 1980s but didn’t fully manifest until the 1990s. This historical period is analyzed well by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas? and David Sirota in Back to Our Future. When I was growing up, I was largely ignorant of this conservative movement, although it was permanently in the background of the mainstream media world I was immersed in. It only became clear with two events: the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing and the 1998 Lewinsky Scandal in 1998. The right-wing was on the attack.
So, right-wing militants followed the previous left-wing militants. However, there was a difference. The previous left-wing militants were reacting against a conservative establishment, but when the right-wing militants came along there was no liberal establishment. At that point, the liberal class had long ago lost its privileged place in society (as described by Chris Hedges in Death of the Liberal Class) and had mostly retreated from activism into academia and non-profits (the only ‘liberals’ who maintained their political power and influence were those that shifted to a more neoliberal stance or else became progressive neoconservatives).
Anyway, all of that formed the background for Generation X. Many GenXers were pulled into this conservative movement, some even joining the far right anti-statists and culture warriors. On the opposite end, a particular segment of GenXers tried to slowly rebuild the broken foundations of the liberal movement. In the 1990s, the culture was blandly liberal in a general sense even as left-wingers were fighting a battle on two fronts, attacked by the Gingrich Republicans on one side and by the Clinton Democrats on the other side. It was the right that had captured the political narrative and the collective imagination. Liberals lacked strong visionary leadership. Even the most moderate of liberals were on the defensive. Centrist and corporatist ‘liberals’ like Clinton became quite talented at playing on the defense by way of triangulation and compromise, but they were constantly backing off from every new fight, playing it safe.
This is where my young adulthood comes in. I graduated from high school in 1994, the year Kurt Cobain died (the symbolic death of the alternative culture that began to erupt in the 1980s). I became aware of the right-wing at this time by my listening to the paranoid conspiracies on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM and also by my occasionally catching some of the early right-wing radio shows such as Laura Schlessinger (her show was nationally syndicated in 1994). I even felt some affinity with elements of this right-wing, but 9/11 changed all of that. The right-wing pundits and activists went into overdrive. The only choice offered seemed to be between the right-wing fascist Bush administration and the right-wing anti-egalitarian Ron Paul libertarians. No liberal alternative (or even moderate conservative alternative) was being offered in the mainstream politics portrayed by the mainstream media. Left-wingers such as Nader and Chomsky only had relevance as nuisances and distractions. I voted for Nader and found myself attacked by ‘liberal’ Democrats.
As everyone knows, the 2000s (AKA the ‘Noughts’) was a depressing decade. I feel so tired out by the endless political conflict and I’ve grown to hate the culture wars, especially the right-wing version of it (“compassionate conservatism”). For some reason, right-wingers are trying to keep the culture wars alive, going so far as even to inject the religious right’s culture wars into the formerly libertarian-minded Tea Party movement. The culture wars makes me sick to my soul… and that is no exaggeration. I’m tired of it all. I wish everyone would just let the culture wars die. My generation has been hit the hardest by the culture wars and it hasn’t done us any good. It’s turned some of us into ranting pundits and lunatic clowns, the Becks and the Palins who are trying to push American society over the edge. The culture wars have come to fruition in a nihilistic fantasizing about societal decline and a cynical longing for Apocalypse. The right-wing is losing momentum in gradually losing support, but as they go into decline the right-wing just gets uglier in their antics.
For many Americans (moreso among the older generations), the class wars remain relevant because the past remains alive in their minds and hence in our collective consciousness. This particularly can be seen with Boomers. Their sense of identity was solidified with the culture wars of the 60s, whether as liberal progressives or conservative reactionaries. The culture wars are real to them because they’ve dominated society for a half century. The media made by and/or for them was often steeped in the culture wars ethos. The memories of the 60s keeps replaying in their heads, having almost become mythical at this point. In talking with the conservative I mentioned above, one thing became apparent. The culture wars was an apt metaphor. There are two distinct sides, both seeking to gain victory by forcing their enemy into defeat or retreat. One side has to win at the cost the other side losing. There is no win/win scenario. This is fueled by a mentality that there is an absolute right and wrong. There is something dualistic (almost to the point of Manichaeism) about the Boomers worldview with their utopian ideals and apocalyptic visions. Culture warriors just know they are right and others are wrong. Their entire identity is built on this demand to be righteous. They refuse to accept that differences exist and that the world won’t collapse just because they aren’t allowed to dominate. Both sides used the government as a pawn in their battles, and the real loser in this was democracy itself (along with the American citizenry that democracy is supposed to work for, rather than for special interest groups). Culture warriors were willing to try to win at almost any cost and that cost turned out to be very high.
As a GenXer, I grew up in the world made by the Boomers. Even as an adult from the mid 90s to the present, the impact of Boomers was mostly in the foreground and the impact of GenX was mostly in the background. If GenXers wanted to play in politics or the marketplace, we largely had to play according to the rules set down by the Boomers (the internet seemingly the only place where GenXers could operate on their own terms). I feel disappointed in my generation for having conceded so much to the Boomers. I know we were a small generation and couldn’t fairly compete with the Boomers, but still I wish we had been more of a thorn in the side of power. Instead, we in many ways just played along and made things even worse, embracing the Reagan era mantra of greed and self-centeredness (my generation playing no small part in helping to cause the economic problems), too many of us becoming politically cynical and apathetic in the process or else bitterly angry in our fight against such apathy. The closest most GenXers got to political involvement was to become anti-statists and anarchists fighting against the New World Order or against the the liberal elites (depending on one’s ideological persuasion), but it was a politics without vision or even much hope, just reactionary activism against Boomer’s society (Tea Party GenXers like Beck and Palin being the prime examples of this GenX style activism). I didn’t get a full doseage of Reagan rhetoric as I was on the younger end of GenX, but I’ve seen its impact on my generation.
Despite my emotional response, I’m still able to step back and look at all of this somewhat objectively. I’m fascinated by the close connection between culture war and class war. They seem to be two sides of the same coin. Generally speaking, both the left and right usually see the culture war of the other side as blatant class war, both sides agreeing that there is a culture war going on even while disagreeing about eachother’s motives, the difference being that the left is more likely to see culture war and class war as inherently linked. Most liberals probably don’t take as an insult the conservative allegation that they are pushing class war. The liberal agrees there is a class war, although they would simply add that the rich are winning. Conservatives often use rhetoric grounded in obvious class war, but for some reason they are unwilling to admit to it. I think it’s because there is no way to admit to the class issue without also admitting to the race issue, those two also being inherently linked (or so it seems to my liberal-biased mind).
I have some further thoughts on generations and activism.
For Boomers, activism is about the past. Old hippies romanticize about 60s activism. In conservative activism like the Tea Party, aging non-hippy Boomers likewise obsess over 60s activism but for different reasons (see the documentary ‘Generation Zero’, popular among Tea Party supporters, which essentially blames hippies for all the problems of society since). Boomers, on both the left and right, are motivated by the past, sometimes inspired and at other times one might say enlivened. As a GenXer, I intimately know Boomer nostalgia; I understand how it is embedded in our culture and how to an extent it has become internalized by many GenXers; however, it doesn’t usually bring out the best in GenXers. Corey Robin argues that conservatives are reactionary; to this I would add that GenXers are also reactionary which would explain why Reagan conservatism (the ultimate reactionary conservatism) was so appealing to my generation (GenXers literally having been the strongest supporters of Reagan’s presidency), although many of those GenXers have at this point turned away from their youthful conservatism or at least turned away from shamelessly idolizing capitalist greed and self-interest (some turning instead to the left and others going even further right into politicized religion).
How activism manifests among GenXers is apparent when one compares different protest movements.
I’ll begin with the Bush era anti-war movement since I was personally involved with it. As far as I can tell, the anti-war protests were mostly a youth movement consisting of lots of GenXers and the first wave of Millennials hitting adulthood. The anti-war protests seemed fairly positive and inclusive in unifying a diversity of veteran and new activists, from Ron Paul libertarians to pacifist liberals, from anarchists to socialists, from social justice Christians to social justice atheists.
The protest movement that followed was the Tea Party. It began with a righteous cause and had great potential. It could have followed the example of the grassroots populism of the anti-war protests, but was coopted by corporate interests and the religious right… and so became a more narrowly defined movement that was far to the right of even the average Republican. The Tea Party also included many GenXers, especially in the leaders that took over (i.e., Beck and Palin), but overall it was slanted toward an older demographic that included more Boomers and fewer Millennials. I was just now thinking that this is a key element. The higher percentage of Boomers seemingly either brought out the worst in the GenXers involved or brought out the worst GenXers (by worst, I mean righteous anger that increasingly shifted toward bitterness and divisiveness).
That now brings us to the present with the Occupy protest movement. It seems more similar to the anti-war protests with many GenXers involved but even more heavily weighted toward a Millennial demographic. Once again, the Millennial presence seems to bring out the best in GenXers or else, opposite of the Tea Party, seems to bring out the best (most positive and inclusive) GenXers. In spite of the 99% meme which could be interpreted as class war, it was the Tea Party that expressed a more strident message of class war (or so it seems, once again, to my liberal-biased mind)… after all, 99% of the population is pretty damn inclusive, especially considering that even some of the 1% supports their message (if you want to hear a clear promotion of class war, then check out the 53% message; and while you’re at it check out this respectful liberal response to that attempt at class war; it’s ironic that the 53% is intended to be a criticism of the 99% since, when one thinks about it rationally, it becomes obvious that the vast majority of the 53% are part of the 99% lol).
It’s a very strange time we live in. We are overdue for some massive social change of the likes not seen since the Progressive Era. For much of this past decade, I’ve been closely watching the polling and demographic data. It was obvious a shift was happening and my prediction was that it likely would be toward the left (eventually), but until now the mainstream media and politics managed to resist these changes that could be seen in the general population. According to Strauss and Howe’s generation theory (Fourth Turning), change was gound to come and they were right on the money with the predictions of theirs that I’m familiar with (such as their early 90s prediction of increasing security in schools). At the same time, the culture wars no longer have the influence they once had. Millennials simply don’t care about the culture wars. The Tea Party demonstrates the decline of the culture wars. As it was increasingly coopted by the religious right and their culture wars, the Tea Party movement increasingly lost public support to the point that the movement is now less popular than either the Republican or Democratic Parties (the parties themselves being very unpopular at present), less popular than even Muslims and atheists.
I don’t know where that leaves us as a society. I’ll be watching the Occupy movement closely in the hope that something will come of it. If the culture wars are finally dead (at least for the time being in their present form), then what will replace them?
I just noticed a reference to David Sirota’s recent book, Back to Our Future. It looks interesting. After reading some reviews and hearing some interviews, I decided to purchase the book on my Kindle. So far, I’ve only read the beginning and skimmed later sections. This post is more about my initial response, but it’s a very thorough initial response.
To put it simply, this book provides analysis of 80s culture’s impact on politics and how that impact continues.
•Atari: Best-selling videos Missile Command, Combat and Space Invaders sold techno-militarism to a generation of future drone pilots.
•Rambo: Embittered vet refought America’s wars and “gets to win” this time.
•Ghostbusters: The movie’s lesson: When government fails, these private security contractors saved us from interdimensional “terrorists.”
•World Wrestling Federation: Theatro-sport in which American good guys like Sgt. Slaughter body slammed foreign bad guys like the Iron Sheik.
•Mr. T: No matter what character this Mohawk-wearing strongman played, he represented racial stereotyping and threw it back in our faces.
•The Cosby Show: The pre-Obama image of the “post-racial” brand, the Huxtables were the first black family to dominate TV.
•Ferris Bueller: John Hughes’ cheeky truant glorified “going rogue” years before Sarah Palin.
•Air Jordans: Best-selling sneakers pushed the idea that we can each be superstars if we “just do it.”
•The Yuppie: Upwardly mobile wealth-obsessed Alex P. Keatons rejected ’60s idealism for modern materialism.
•“Greed is Good”: Gordon Gekko’s line from Wall Street became the decade’s most famous phrase — and its most enduring ethos.
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My discovering this book was serendipitous. I happened upon a reference to it the other night. A few hours prior, while at work, I had been talking to a coworker about all things apocalyptic, the Japanese nuclear plant problems being the starting point of the conversation. She mentioned something about a tv show and I was reminded of how many post-apocalyptic movies there were in the 1980s when I was a child. Between that and evil children movies, a child of the 80s was almost inevitably warped in the head.
I’m a child of the ’80s, and I was deeply impacted by that decade and that pop culture — and for many reasons, that pop culture is back in a lot of ways. So I started thinking about why it’s back — and some of it is Hollywood laziness, some of it is coincidence — but it’s really kind of eerie, too, with the crisis at the Japanese nuclear power plant happening; you know, the last time that kind of thing was happening was at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, in the ’80s. So there’s a real zeitgeist of the ’80s returning.
I don’t know that Sirota discusses the post-apocalyptic genre, but it seems to fit in with his overall analysis. The nuclear accidents back then made nuclear apocalypse an increasingly real possibility which was imaginatively portrayed in various entertainment media. As a GenXer born in 1975 (the same year Sirota was born), I’m well aware of the impact of 80s culture.
Sirota takes this a step further and says this impact is continuing as if the 80s somehow stunted America’s natural development. The country was going in one direction with the civil rights movement, environmentalism and other things, but then the 80s came and a different attitude took over: hyper-individualism, capitalist greed, paranoia of government, aggressive militarism, ultra-nationalism, racial fear-mongering, class war, culture war, radicalization of religion, etc. Americans haven’t yet collectively recovered from the trauma of the 80s. There were the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, and it’s been the 80s ever since. An endless nightmare as if Reagan were still president.
[T]he ’80s speak to us today for one simple reason: “Because it’s still the ’80s. The calendar doesn’t say ’80s, but we’re still looking through an ’80s mind-set.” Think Charlie Sheen. Think Lehman Brothers. Think McMansions.
As William Faulkner said: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
The ’80s set the stage for our lives today, Sirota says, and he explains it best in his introduction: “Almost every major cultural touchstone is rooted in the ’80s. … The Sopranos was an update of an ’80s Scorsese flick (Raging Bull and later Goodfellas).The Wire was Baltimore’s own Colors. Curb Your Enthusiasm is a Los Angeles-set Seinfeld. American Idol is Star Search.” And so on.
[ . . . ] “The reason you see so many remakes is not just because nostalgia resonates,” Sirota says, “but because (’80s movies) are still culturally relevant.”
Part of his argument relates to his realization that most people aren’t political at all, or rather don’t consciously identify as political, don’t consciously think out their political views. And, even those who are consciously political as adults, usually didn’t identify as being political when growing up. Nonetheless, it’s obvious that everyone has political views. Even children, when asked, can offer views on political issues. We all gain our political views from somewhere. Sirota thinks that pop culture has a greater impact on our minds and worldviews than we normally realize. He even goes so far as to see it playing a role of pseudo-propaganda in some cases and outright propaganda in other cases. This can be seen to some extent as part of the normal enculturation process, but the 80s were anything other than normal… and, in the process, a new norm was created for American society.
So I’d been reading some social research, and one thing that’s been coming up is that pop culture and entertainment — especially for children — is just as formative to how we see the world as news; as children, this entertainment that’s packaged as non-political, it can be as reality-shaping as reality is.
All the buzz in the entertainment/tech world about the blockbuster new video game Homefront brings back memories of the 1984 film Red Dawn — and rightly so. The creator of Homefront is none other than John Milius, the writer/director of the 1984 film that later became the deliberate namesake of the most famous operation in today’s Iraq War. But it should also bring back memories of the larger militarist themes that continue to define our entertainment culture — themes that ultimately bring up the direct but little-examined connections between the Pentagon and the entertainment industry. It is the legacy of those connections, first intensified in the 1980s, that continue to embed militarism in seemingly non-political products like video games and action movies.
As I show in , much of the video game industry was subsidized by the military and military contractors, and many of the earliest games were consequently martial in thrust. Think: Atari Combat and Missile Command, which then grew into a larger video game world that, as one Konami executive said in 1988, “takes anything remotely in the news and makes it a game.” You could see that in Nintendo’s Iran-Contra era game Contra just as you can see it in today’s hits like Call of Duty. And in almost each of these games, the ideology of militarism (i.e. military action solving all problems) is reiterated and reinforced.
Same thing when it comes to the Pentagon-Hollywood relationship since the 1980s — only in that case, we’re now seeing military officials quite literally line-editing scripts to make them more pro-military.
– – –
Several points stand out to me in Sirota’s analysis.
First, Sirota argues that the 80s was when violence became normalized. Violence became a central part of our collective psyche: movies, video games, etc. Part of this had to do with the Vietnam War, the first major military loss that shook America’s collective confidence and righteous nationalism. Americans had internalized the violence from the Vietnam War footage and were now trying to come to terms with the sense of national failure that came after the withdrawl from Vietnam. It was maybe something like a collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Sirota does mention the Vietnam War. He talks about the explanations given such as what he calls the “hands tied behind their backs” myth. I guess the idea was that if the soldiers weren’t held back, they could’ve demonstrated some real violence that would’ve forced the enemy into submission.
Second, the obsession with violence was inseparable from the obsession with hyper-individualism. This partly was represented by fear and hatred of government, the belief that the government can’t do anything right, that the government is the enemy of the people, of local governance, the enemy of communities, of religions, of capitalism, the enemy of all that is good. In general, all collective action and activism was looked upon with suspicion. Nothing good could come from people working together cooperatively toward the common good. Only individuals (or else individuals working together for the purpose of profit, i.e., private contractors: The A-Team, Ghostbusters, etc) could solve problems. People couldn’t rely on government, the FBI, or the police to solve their problems… and, so, people instead had to hope for a hero figure to come to town. And it was considered admirable when things got done, even if it meant breaking laws and committing violence. This hero worship also led to our culture of idolizing celebrity and wealth (a celebritocracy borne out of a distorted vision of meritocracy).
“A lot of the changes that happened (in the ’80s) weren’t good,” Sirota admits. “The deification of celebrity, for instance. The individual. Michael Jordan could soar above all the rest. It wasn’t about the team anymore. That wasn’t so good.”
[ . . . ] “It was the outlaw with morals. The guy working on the inside for the common good,” Sirota says. He says that trend translated to sports, pointing to a poster of bad-boy Barkley. “He broke the rules but he was a good guy.”
As for ’80s greed, the examples are endless both then and today.
He cites Michael J. Fox’s The Secret of My Success (1987) as glorifying the ’80s goal of “working your way up to huge sums of wealth.”
But another 1987 movie perhaps summed up the era best. Wall Street (which co-starred Sheen) lives on because of three famous words uttered by Michael Douglas: “Greed … is good.” The sequel, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, was released last year. Still relevant. Bernie Madoff, anyone?
“The young of the ’80s didn’t want to save the world,” Sirota says. “They wanted to get rich. It became the norm, and it’s the norm today.”
Third, Sirota explains how all of this was disconnected from reality. It had become a collective myth that couldn’t be questioned. He gave some examples about the enemies the media and government demonized during the 80s.
The US government was using propaganda about the Godless commies for the purpose of justifying the building up of the military-industrial complex, but the US government had plenty of data in their own reports that the Soviet Union was technologically inferior by far and was destroying itself trying to keep up with US technological advancement. The US government knew the commies were no real threat, but the myth of a powerful enemy was necessary and desired. To have a powerful enemy, gives a nation a sense of meaning and purpose even if it’s an utter lie.
The other example shows how lies when repeated enough become collective reality. On some level, I suspect most Americans were aware that the commies couldn’t be used as a scapegoat forever. The Cold War was drawing to a close and so the search for a new great enemy was already beginning. The new enemy to be feared was Islamic terrorists (which was already at that time starting to become the new standard enemy in American entertainment).
In our fighting the commies, we had at times aligned with radical Islamic fundamentalists and theocrats. I think many people realized that this would eventually lead to blowback, that our allies once we were finished using them would turn against us. More importantly, we just needed an enemy. If we had to create that enemy by funding, training and arming radical Islamic fundamentalists, by overthrowing democratic governments and supporting oppressive regimes in the Middle East, then so be it. Creating enemies is no easy task. It takes a lot of money and time, a lot of effort and planning, a lot of destruction and loss of life. But what the 80s have taught us is that endlessly fighting enemies of our own creation is something worth fighting for.
– – –
Here is another related factor that Sirota may or may not touch upon. The attitude of seeking enemies was an all-encompassing way of making sense of the world and hence of making public policies.
Worst of all, the demented paranoia of the 80s even led to the American people becoming the enemy. There was evidence of this mentality from earlier times such as with COINTELPRO from the decades prior, but the 80s brought it to a whole new level. COINTELPRO only targeted specific groups. The War on Drugs, however, targeted the entire American population. In many ways, it was worse than even McCarthyism. The War on Drugs has done more damage than probably any other public policy in American history. I doubt there is any US policy that has led to more people being imprisoned, more people having their lives destroyed, more increase in violence, more increase in a corporatist elite profiting off of the suffering of others, more targeting of the poor and minorities. My God, even Prohibition wasn’t this damaging. The War on Drugs has been going on for decades which has only led to an increase in drug use and drug-related violence. Now, the War on Terror (funded by the black market for drugs) has ratcheted up even further this paranoid oppression and authoritarian fear-mongering.
The 80s created a schizophrenic mentality. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the supposed even greater enemy of commies, terrorists, and drug dealers. The government was the enemy and yet the government was necessary to fight the enemy that is hiding within. Any American potentially might be a commie, a terrorist, or a druggy (or a gangsta, or a welfare queen, or an illegal alien, or an eco-terrorist, or a radical liberal). Everyone potentially was an enemy. No one could be trusted. It was everyone against everyone. A society of trust and cooperation was a thing of the past. The role of the government in helping average Americans was seen as evil and the power of the government to hurt the enemy was seen as good.
So, spending on social services and infrastructure (what conservatives like to call socialism) were reduced as the military-industrial complex (along with the alphabet soup agencies) continued to grow (along with the debt). Both fiscal and social conservatism were ironically used as part of the propaganda to increase the power of the ruling corporatist elite. Fiscal conservatism!?! Give me a fucking break! Neocons like Reagan believed in fiscal conservatism in the same way a pedophile priest believes in God. Even if their belief is genuine and earnest, those negatively effected would hardly find much comfort. I don’t know if a laissez-faire ideology correlates to reality any more than Christian theology. What I do know is real are the impacts that those who believe in such things have on the real world and on real people. And the enduring results of 80s culture of greed ain’t pretty.
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What appeals to me about David Sirota’s view is that he is putting this all in the context of the larger history of the 20th century. The 80s concretized a particular worldview of culture war that continues to this day, and it continues to be grounded in mainstream culture. He explains this well in giving a summary about his book:
The book really has four basic sections. There’s a section about how the 1980s redefined our memories and our ideas of the 1950s and the 1960s, basically by remaking our memories of the 1950s into this idyllic time of calm and prosperity, and remaking the 60s into things that are bad, things like chaos and assassination — and so that ’50s vs 60s battle is still something that influences groups like the Tea Party and so forth, and it really divides along political lines.
[ . . . ] You know, the 1980s really was the time when there was this conflation between entertainment and real — Reagan was constantly referencing movies and pop culture in his speeches; you know, he’d been an actor himself. And so people might say, oh, The A Team wasn’t a big deal, Dukes of Hazzard wasn’t a big deal — but The A-Team, this one one of the highest rated shows for preteens, this show with the premise of four, you know, private contractors on the lam from a government that can’t do anything right. This stuff has a real impact on how you think about your world.
“You know what’s wrong with parents today? They still think they can change the world.”
With all the angry right-wingers, fear-mongering fundies and cold-hearted neocons these days, it’s hard to remember there was a time when a Republican could be portrayed as being a genuinely kind, lovable character. With all the horrifying results of trickle down economics, all the rampant crony capitalism following deregulation and all the cynical class war against the working class, it’s hard to imagine that fiscal conservatism once upon a time could’ve been shown as almost quaintly charming in it’s innocent naivette. It’s understandable that many at that time were persuaded, inspired even, by Michael J. Fox’s role:
The world has changed. The contemporary equivalent of Alex P. Keaton would be Eric Cartman from South Park. In the episode “Die, Hippie, Die”, Cartman sees hippies as dangerous vermin to be exterminated.
“Every time one of these ex-hippies comes prancing in from yesteryear, we gotta get out the love beads and pretend we care about people.”
~ Alex P. Keaton
“For the past several days I’ve been noticing a steep rise in the number of hippies coming to town.… I know hippies. I’ve hated them all my life. I’ve kept this town free of hippies on my own since I was five and a half. But I can’t contain them on my own anymore. We have to do something, fast!”
~ Eric Cartman
Alex as the charming fiscal conservative has morphed into Cartman the not-so-charming bigoted conservative. And yet both capture some basic essence of the desire of many contemporary conservatives to rebel against society (a corrupt, lazy and generally inferior society that deserves being rebelled against).
The radicalization of the conservative movement is one of the oddest phenomena in US history. There were always radical elements in American society, but something about Goldwater’s campaign allowed the radicals to take over the entire conservative movement. Now we have Cartman-like pundits on the radio and on cable. They still rail against mainstream culture despite having become so much apart of mainstream culture that they now help to shape it. That, of course, doesn’t stop them from acting like victims as if hippies were somehow still a dominant force. The right-wing mindset is forever stuck in the past which blinds them to the present. To the right-winger, Cartman’s paranoia is the reality they live in.
Alex P. Keaton continues to be relevant more than a couple decades after Family Ties ended. Having gained power, the conservatives inspired by the likes of Alex may now feel disgruntled by their failure which has inevitably followed from their success. But that doesn’t stop them from believing, doesn’t give them pause, doesn’t cause them to doubt their ideology. It remains relevant because the True Believers keep it relevant:
Still, it’s tempting to conclude that Keaton’s near-iconic status requires more explanation. Last summer in the New Republic, Rick Perlstein, the left-leaning author of a book on Barry Goldwater, argued that, even now, after years of Republican rule, the “culture of conservatives still insists that it is being hemmed in on every side.” Having been “shaped in another era [the mid-1960s], one in which conservatives felt marginal and beleaguered,” conservative culture—Perlstein had in mind everything from “Goldwater kitsch” to Fox News—still feeds on this antagonism, reflecting a sense that righteousness is always at odds with the decadent mainstream.
Alex P. Keaton fits this vision perfectly. Throughout the show’s run, he was on his own: His parents were liberal, his sister was a ditz, and his one conservative ally, Uncle Ned, was a fugitive and then a drunk. Still, he persevered.
Conservatives nowadays have plenty of Uncle Neds who may seem like frauds and failures to those who don’t share their capitalistic idealism. Still, conservatives persevere.
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Not only do they persevere, their becoming disgruntled has made them even more rabidly motivated. And big money has given their minority voice a big megaphone. This is what the Tea Party is or has become, arguments aside about how it began. Tea Party leaders and icons, such as Beck and Palin, represent this tendency toward nostalgia that Sirota writes about (Back to Our Future, pp. 27-8):
Now, during the Obama presidency, the Tea Party opposition is an exact analogue to the Reagan vanguard, all the way down to the latter-day roots of its very name—in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the The New York Times labeled what were then the first contemporary antigovernment/antitax revolts “modern Boston Tea Parties.” Not surprisingly, the goal of today’s Tea Party protesters is a return to the politics of the fifties-worshiping, sixties-bashing 1980s.
Tea Party protesters and their leaders in the conservative movement acknowledge this intrinsically in their choice of language and extrinsically in their most unfiltered declarations. For example, an essay posted on the website of Freedom Works, the organization that sponsors Tea Party demonstrations, says protesters are enraged by “the sense that the country that they grew up in is slipping away right before their eyes.”
[ . . . ] Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s media field general, says it is about “real outrage from real people who just want their country back”—and he’s very clear that “back” means before The Sixties™. In one recent diatribe, Beck praised Joe McCarthy for “shin[ing] the spotlight on the Communist Party” in the 1950s. In another, he insisted “fifty years ago people felt happier” than they do today because today “we have less God,” prompting his guest to agree by saying, “Something happened in the 1950s where everything went down … that’s when they started taking God”—“they” being the hippies, “God” presumably being a reference to mid-twentieth-century courts barring prayer in school.
This kind of nostalgia now slashes its way through today’s politics and policy debates, and its lack of connection to specific issues betrays its eighties-crafted anchor in intergenerational conflict.
[ . . . ] “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower,” Bob Dole told Politico in a discussion about 2012 presidential candidates.
The language—“back,” “real people,” “deviating from,” “slipping away,” “the way it was,” “different country than I grew up in,” “legacy,” “better time”—underscores the fierce yearning for a fantastical authenticity and conformity of old-time fifties America, sans the real-world downsides like lynch mobs, religious bigotry, burning crosses, chauvinism, union-busting, and smokestack pollution that plagued the mid-twentieth century. Whether or not Tea Party leaders are specifically pointing to the actual 1950s is less important than that the broader movement is advocating that bigger, 1980s-manufactured concept of The Fifties™.
The tragedy, of course, is the elimination of the kind of moderate Republicanism that once played a pivotal political, cultural, and legislative role in the real 1950s and 1960s. Conservatives today accept no compromise positions on taxes, national security, social issues, or anything else, because to Republican leaders, conceding such middle ground is akin to aiding and abetting the hippies—an unthinkable proposition, but not just to them.
That passage caught my attention. I’ve been thinking about the Tea Party for quite a while now. Last year I started to write a post about the documentary Generation Zero. The documentary created quite a buzz at the time (at least, on Fox News), but it is mostly unknown outside of the Tea Party crowd. I only heard about it because of a blog I follow which focuses on the topic of generations. The documentary is based on the generation theory of Strauss and Howe.
I never finished writing my post about Generation Zero. I felt like I was missing some element to bring my thoughts together. Sirota’s analysis may be that missing element. It wasn’t a bad documentary per se. However, it did fall into this mythology of everything wrong with America is the fault of the hippies.
Sirota is correct that the nostalgic worship of The Fifties has become popular again. And Sirota is correct that this nostalgia is disconnected from reality, from the actual history of the 50s. John Oliver of The Daily Show did an awesome clip (Even Better Than the Real Thing) which utterly lambasted this naive vision of the past that is favored by right-wingers.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with looking for the positive in the past. But one can’t learn from the past by turning it into a Hallmark movie or a Norman Rockwell painting. One particular detail that caught my attention in the above passage is Bob Dole’s saying that, “It’s kind of a time for another Eisenhower”. If only Republicans were genuine about their reverence for the good ol’ days, many liberals would be more than happy to cooperate. In the good ol’ days of the first half of the 20th century, liberalism was triuphant and politicians were usually unwilling to publicly denounce liberals for fear of their political careers being destroyed by doing so. As Eric Alterman pointed out in his book Why We’re Liberals (p. 4):
It may shocking to some to discover that for much of the past century, the term liberal suggested, in the words of historian John Lukacs, “generosity nay, magnanimity; not only breadth of a mind but strength of soul.” A liberal was someone “free from narrow prejudice,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Even the enemies of liberalism sought legitimacy within it. In 1960, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published an article by the philosopher Charles Frankel in which he observed that it would be difficult to locate a single major figure in American politics who could not find a favorable remark or two about American liberalism. Indeed, he wrote, “Anyone who today identifies himself as an unmitigated opponent of liberalism…cannot aspire to influence on the national political scene.” Frankel noted that even politicians who indulged in attacks on “liberals” were usually sufficiently cautious in their criticism to attach qualifiers to the word, lest they be accused of antiliberalism themselves. Southern conservatives, for instance, complained about “Northern liberals,” often insisting that they themselves were liberals in matters of social welfare. Even Joe McCarthy usually restricted himself to attacking “phony liberals,” leaving open the inference, as Frankel put it, “that he had nothing against genuine liberals, if only he could find one.”20 Later the same year, “Mr. Republican,” Senator Robert A. Taft, claimed the liberal label for himself, stating—accurately, as it happens—that he was in reality “an old-fashioned liberal.”21 The party’s successful 1952 presidential candidate, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, was also on board: “To be fully effective,” Ike explained, “we need in Washington liberal and experienced members of Congress.”22 As late as 1968, voters heard this moving tribute to the virtues of liberalism: “Let me give you a definition of the word ‘liberal.’…Franklin D. Roosevelt once said…It is a wonderful definition, and I agree with him. ‘A liberal is a man who wants to build bridges over the chasms that separate humanity from a better life.’” The speaker? That famous liberal presidential candidate: Richard Milhous Nixon.
Eisenhower was more progressively liberal than most Democratic politicians are today. So, these right-wingers aren’t being genuine when they reference the past as if, prior to the hippies, all of American society was ruled by the far right. Today’s Republicans, unlike Eisenhower, aren’t moderate about anything. Moderate Republicans are an endangered species. How can the right-wing loons of today bring up Eisenhower’s name when the right-wing loons back then thought Eisenhower was a commie (and mainstream Republicans back then thought such right-wingers were radicals and extremists). You’d be hard pressed to find even a self-identified liberal in contemporary mainstream politics who would make the type of statements Eisenhower made such as (Letter to Edgar Newton Eisenhower, November 8, 1954):
“You keep harping on the Constitution; I should like to point out that the meaning of the Constitution is what the Supreme Court says it is. Consequently no powers are exercised by the Federal government except where such exercise is approved by the Supreme Court (lawyers) of the land.
“I admit that the Supreme Court has in the past made certain decisions in this general field that have been astonishing to me. A recent case in point was the decision in the Phillips case. Others, and older ones, involved “interstate commerce.” But until some future Supreme Court decision denies the right and responsibility of the Federal government to do certain things, you cannot possibly remove them from the political activities of the Federal government.
“Now it is true that I believe this country is following a dangerous trend when it permits too great a degree of centralization of governmental functions. I oppose this–in some instances the fight is a rather desperate one. But to attain any success it is quite clear that the Federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. The political processes of our country are such that if a rule of reason is not applied in this effort, we will lose everything–even to a possible and drastic change in the Constitution. This is what I mean by my constant insistence upon “moderation” in government. Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things. Among them are H. L. Hunt (you possibly know his background), a few other Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or business man from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
“[ . . . ] I assure you that you have more reason, based on sixty-four years of contact, to say this than you do to make the bland assumption that I am surrounded by a group of Machiavellian characters who are seeking the downfall of the United States and the ascendancy of socialism and communism in the world. Incidentally, I notice that everybody seems to be a great Constitutionalist until his idea of what the Constitution ought to do is violated–then he suddenly becomes very strong for amendments or some peculiar and individualistic interpretation of his own.“
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So, what exactly are conservatives today reminiscing about? Where did they get their revisionist history from?
Sirota argues that much of this revisionist history and 50s mythologizing came from the 80s. That is the origin of the problem we now face. The 80s is the source of much revisionist history because the 80s is the point where the country started heading back toward some of the worst elements of the past. An example of this is how bigotry was championed in the 80s and was put in deceptive packaging to make it more socially acceptable. This racism has been disguised in the language of culture war and class war, but the underlying racism is obvious for anyone who has their eyes open. Most recently and most obviously, there has been a resurgence of this racism which can be found in the Tea Party. As Sirota wrote in his book (p. 212):
In light of the blitz, to blame Obama for seeking “to transcend, if not avoid, the issue of race” is to yet again avoid blaming the real culprit: the white America that since the 1980s demands reticence on race from all black public figures as the price of public support. Sure, as a purely tactical matter, you can credibly argue that Obama’s Cosby-esque deal with white America is a self-defeating Faustian bargain. Survey data show roughly six in ten whites openly admit to believing in at least one bigoted stereotype, and a recent study showed that when asked about health care legislation, a significant number of whites expressed less support for the exact same bill if it was coming from President Obama rather than from a white Democratic president. A black leader who tries to circumnavigate that intense bigotry by avoiding race may be emboldening the bigotry inevitably coming his way. Similarly, American politics is increasingly steered by a largely white Tea Party movement whose supporters are, according to polls, disproportionately motivated by racial resentment. An African American leader who goes out of his way to downplay that right-wing racism to the point of rebuking former president Jimmy Carter for criticizing it—well, that only helps the Tea Party opposition play its duplicitous dog-whistle games.
I was already aware of this. I have a post about the study done where Tea Party supporters admitted to having racially prejudiced views. Of course, this is nothing new… but I guess that is why it’s so disheartening. One of Sirota’s basic points is how we as a nation are atavistically mired in our own dark past. We are stuck in this manner because the distorted 50s mythology has appealed to what has been a white majority in this country, and the appeal becomes stronger as whites increasingly lose their majority status. In the words of Sirota from the article, “The Motto of Mad Men”:
As one tea party leader told The New York Times: “Things we had in the ’50s were better.”
To the tea party demographic, this certainly rings true. Yes, in apartheid America circa 1950, rich white males were more socially and economically privileged relative to other groups than they are even now. Of course, for those least likely to support the tea party—read: minorities—the ’50s were, ahem, not so great, considering the decade’s brutal intensification of Jim Crow.
But then, that’s the marketing virtuosity of the “I Want My Country Back” slogan. A motto that would be called treasonous if uttered by throngs of blacks, Latinos or Native Americans has been deftly sculpted by conservatives into an accepted clarion call for white power. Cloaked in the proud patois of patriotism and protest, the refrain has become a dog whistle to a Caucasian population that feels threatened by impending demographic and public policy changes.
I’m not sure how many people understand the way this came about. I’ve met many conservatives who seem to have a dim awareness that the world was once different when they criticize the Democratic Party as being the party of racists because it used to have it’s stronghold in the old KKK South. What conservatives forget, in making this criticism, is that the Republicans are now the party of the South. Republicans purposely gained the South by using the Southern Strategy which was an often overtly racist strategy. It began with Nixon, but became even more important with the campaigns of Reagan and Bush Sr. From Sirota’s book (p. 18):
The magma of resentment politics that had been simmering underground since the late 1970s exploded during the stretch run of the 1980 presidential campaign. In August of that year, Reagan channeled white rage at the civil rights movement by endorsing the racist euphemism states rights, an endorsement that came during a speech to a Confederate-flag-waving audience in the same Mississippi town where three civil rights workers had been murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.
I remember reading last year about Reagan’s campaign. I was shocked and amazed by the bravado of so blatantly referencing a violently racist past just for the sake of winning an election. You can’t get any more cynical than that. As I recall, the speech that started off his campaign was that very speech given at that town which was famous for having previously hosted the Ku Klux Klan’s murdering of civil rights workers. That was the beginning of the Republican Party and conservative movement we know today. That is the past America that conservatives feel nostalgic about.
– – –
I find myself simultaneously repulsed and fascinated by this history of American culture. I’m generally interested in any analysis of generations. It’s very strange how whole generations can get caught up in a single worldview, especially with our mainstream media today which offers everyone the same entertainment and news.
We live in interesting times. Boomers are losing power as GenXers are coming into power. Whites are losing majority position as minorities are gaining majority position. Religious fundamentalism and politicized religion is becoming less popular as religious diversity and non-religiousness are becoming more popular. We’re in a new century with a media of the likes never before seen. The world is becoming globalized and Americans are trying to find meaning and purpose in a time when everything is shifting.
Not everyone responds to this change with a positive attitude and an open embrace. But I, for one, am ready to leave the era of the 80s behind.
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Note: I think that is all I have to say right now. I’m sure I’ll have more thoughts once I read more of the book. Maybe I’ll continue my thoughts by eventually finishing my post on the documentary Generation Zero.
Sadly, almost the only attention Iowa gets is from Steve King. I truly hope people in other states don’t actually think King ‘represents’ the average Iowan.
What many people don’t realize is that Iowa is a rather moderate state. We are the real Middle America. The Midwest isn’t Deep South Lite. Yes, we have our share of the worse kind of Republicans, but the Midwest is also known for having a strong element of progressivism. Gay marriage is legal in Iowa and the legalization of medical marijuana was being discussed in Iowa recently.
Because of Iowa’s moderateness, the Tea Party has had a hard time getting momentum in here. The harsh rhetoric of fear-mongering and hate speech simply doesn’t appeal to most Iowans. Polarizing rhetoric works best in poor conservative states where there is great socio-economic disparity, but in Iowa we are relatively less class conscious and we have more of an attitude of respecting our neighbors. Here is from a Tea Party in Iowa:
Doug Burnett, the event’s first speaker, urged the crowd to stress the positive rather than the negative.
“Let’s watch our words. Thoughts become attitudes, attitudes become words and words become actions. I hear too often people saying, ‘I’m scared. I’m scared for my country. I’m scared for my way of life’ and I don’t doubt the sincerity of that sentiment, but I do question the accuracy of the words.
“Scared is negative. It’s powerless. It’s debilitating. Scared is what happens when you wake up in the middle of the night to that bump, right?
“We’re frustrated. We’re angry. We’re concerned and trust me, many times I look at our elected leaders and I see the boogey man, but we are the Tea Party and we aren’t scared of anything. Are you scared? We don’t do scared.
“Think of words that are positive and accurate, like ‘I’m engaged. I’m empowered. I’m moved to action.’”
Maybe we moderate Midwesterners (excepting Rep. King of course) could be a model for the rest of the country. This is particularly true for the younger generations of Americans who have been turned away from politics because of all the divisiveness, negative rhetoric and partisan bickering. For example, Christian Fong is a young Iowa Republican who has started a bipartisan organizing campaign.
Christian Fong says The Iowa Dream Project is targeting Iowans who’re considered Millennials or part of Generation X. “The goal of the project is twofold. One, it’s just to get young people involved and engaged. I think every Iowan of any age will look and say, ‘Iowa’s going to be a better place when our young people are involved and engaged in making their communities better,’” Fong says. “But secondly it’s about making the tone something that is inviting to the next generation.”
Fong intends for The Iowa Dream Project to foster discussion about ideas and solutions rather than to be a new place for finger-pointing. “I think the next generation often looks at kind of the mean-spirited kind of slogan shouting that masquerades as political discussion and they despise it,” Fong says. “They want nothing to do with it.”
Today’s “Tea Party” rallies are a bit of a turnoff to most young people, according to Fong. ”You don’t even have to understand the issue to be able to hurl a slogan at the other side. It’s not respectful. It’s not honoring your peers. It’s not ideas-based. It’s really not what the next generation is looking for,” Fong says. “Whether it’s a political movement, a political party or a candidate — if they want to win the next generation, they’re going to have to say, ‘In five or 10 years, this is what we want Iowa to be and these are the specific steps we’re going to have to take to get there.’”
This post will repeat a bit of some thoughts I’ve written about recently. I’m trying to formulate my thinking, but I’m not entirely clear. I see a shift in trends and I think generations is particularly significant. Some recent related posts:
The main point in my recent thoughts is that the cultural tide is shifting and with it so is politics. With the Goldwater revolution of movement conservatism, the entire political spectrum shifted to the right. The Democratic party became centrist while the Republican party became increasingly entrenched in it’s fundamentalist base.
The culture war was a war of ideology and perception which the GOP was winning in many ways. It was true that divorce rates were up and drug use, but conservatives failed to understand the real causes. They got tough on crime and started righteously preaching morals.
How conservatives ultimately lost the war is that evidence became more clear that the Christian right wasn’t any more moral than the rest of society. Preachers were caught in money and sex scandals. The abstinence-only programs were absolute failures. Everything that Christians preached against were the worse in the most fundamentalist states (teen pregnancy, STDs, divorce… heck, even gay website membership was the highest in the Bible Belt), and the poor and needy were worse off in those same states (especially on women’s health issues leading to low birth rates and high infant mortality). Furthermore, the War On Drugs was a failure and a waste of money. The entire tough on crime attitude had led to the highest prison rates in the world and research has proven the entire legal system is racially biased.
Republicans have been in scandal after scandal, failure after failure. Finally, with Bush’s presidency, even conservatives were getting fed up. Also, various factors (such as increased immigration rates) led to a more culturally diverse society which favors a liberalism. The conservative xenophobia has become increasingly rabid and people are reminded of the Civil Rights movement when the GOP made a move for power by embracing and promoting racist hatred and fear.
The culturally diverse young generation came of age during Bush’s presidency. Some would claim it was the greatest failure in the modern history of presidents, but certainly it was a near fatal blow to the Republican party. Conservatives left the Republican party in droves, splinter groups formed, protests ensued, purity tests were demanded, and the libertarian tendencies became apparent again. Republicans had disliked libertarians more than liberals, but now the average Republican realized they had no where else to turn.
GenXers particularly have been attracted to libertarianism, but way before the Republican exodus. But this new demographic of libertarians are much more liberal and diverse than they were in the past. The progressive tendencies of Millennials and other factors are pushing the entire political spectrum to the left. The new conservatism will be centrist and moderate. The Neocons had their day in the sun, but a new era has begun. As Strauss and Howe point out, whichever party is in power when the shit hits the fan will be the party that gets sidestepped by the young generation in the Fourth Turning.
What feels conservative is that it’s a return of populism, but it’s not the populism of the right. In some ways, I think the leftwing populism is more libertarian than the rightwing version (as Chomsky would argue). If libertarianism is true conservatism, then leftwing populism is true libertarianism. Just check out history and see which group early last century was fighting both the government and the corporations.
In these times of change, labels become very confusing. The progressive Millennials show greater signs of moral behavior than do the Boomer religious right. It’s all there in the data. If valuing family and community is conservative, then Millennials are probably the most conservative demographic. However, it’s not a me and mine conservatism (my family, my community). Instead, it’s a we and ours attitude. To Millennials, there are no real and fake Americans. We’re all Americans. If patriotism is conservative, the Millennials would also seem to win on that account.
I’m not arguing about which generation is the best generation. As a GenXer, I have plenty of criticisms of Millennials. I’m just trying to understand the implictions of all this whether or not the trends match my personal opinions.
The Republican party is having an identity crisis… actually, the entire conservative movement is a bit up in the air. This is an opportunity for an entire party and maybe the rightwing movement in general to redefine itself. Whites are a shrinking demographic and so the new identity can’t focus on “white culture” Fundamentalist Christians are a shrinking demographic and so the culture wars don’t mobilize the populace. Certainly, the libertarian militia groups aren’t going to form the core of any mainstream party… but libertarianism as a general attitude might be what will reinvigorate the ideals of conservatism. There is a catch to this, though. This new libertarianism will have to be inclusive of both the right and left varieties if it’s to gain populist support.
What this means is that fundamentalism and “white culture” can no longer be the defining values of conservatism. Conservatives will have to free themselves of some of their xenophobia and become inclusive of an increasingly diverse nation. It will have to be a libertarianism that seeks to defend everyone’s rights, not just the rights of whites or fundamentalists or gun owners. The Republicans have an image problem, and it’s going to take a while to convince certain groups (blacks, gays, muslims, etc) that they’re truly welcomed as equals. The Republican party will make this shift or it will die out and a new party will replace it.
I could be wrong. I am considering all the demographic and polling data I’m familiar with and so my speculations are at least based in the facts I’ve come across. A shift is happening. Many people, both liberal and conservative, have been feeling dissatisfied with the sociopolitical status quo. The shrinking demographic of whites would like to think that the solution to the problem is to hold even tighter to the values of “white culture” The shrinking demographic of fundamentalists would like to believe the old culture wars can still be won. I think they’re wrong. We’re in the middle of this change. What we do now will influence it to an extent, but I think it’s mostly already set in whatever direction it will go.
One last thought… it doesn’t matter all that much who is right. Demographics are destiny and destiny is blind to our moral opinions. Let’s assume that “white culture” (or Western Civilization if you want to be more melodramatic) is superior to anything else ever conceived by any nation or people. Okay. Assuming that, present minorities will outnumber whites in the near future and whites will be the new majority. Those who promote this ideal of “white culture” also see it as inseparable from Christian fundamentalism. Christianity in general is shrinking in the US, and specifically fundamentalism seems to be losing power and/or seems to be in the process of being redefined. The only way white fundamentalist Christians can maintain their influence would be to take over the government and force their ideology on everyone else. That would be interesting. I’m sure they’ll try.
A lot of things are changing and I don’t think there is much anyone can do to stop it. People worry about the New World Order and I understand the criticisms, the fears. Even so, history of all civilization has been a steady increase in the size of nations and hence an increase in the size of the governments. Any given government could collapse or be destroyed, but that just creates a power vacuum where another government comes in. If the militia secessionists could overthrow our government, it wouldn’t lead to a libertarian utopia. The early Americans overthrew the British and then created another government that inevitably and quickly grew in size and power. The Civil War was fought about Federal power and States’ rights, but it just led to an even greater Federal government. The world is becoming increasingly globalized and no one is likely to stop that. Or, rather, the only thing that will stop any of this is if civilization in its entirety collapses (through plague, nuclear apocalypse, environmental collapse, etc). Otherwise, welcome to the world as it is and as it is becoming.
Going by the polls, Millennials more than any other generation seems to understand this shift. Instead of fighting it, they seem to be embracing it with open arms. I don’t know what the future will look like, but it’s going to be a Brave New World. Join in the march or let yourself be carried along… it doesn’t matter. We’re all going to get there together one way or another.
I think that you have written an excellent article on the evolution of religion and one that I enjoyed,
I am an evangelical fundamentalist who takes the Bible as the inspired word of God as He is revealed in the scriptures. That leads me to treat all men with tolerance and to know that I do not hold all the answers.
I find that the one truth in the Bible that holds the most hope for the future is that of the need for strong families. Using grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and the like as role models grounded in faith will solve a number of problems in our nation.
A feeling of family as opposed to a feeling of “I” will make abortion, gay marriage and other questions not so polarizing.
Thank you again for a wonderful read.
What stood out to me is that this belief is based on a hope rather than on any facts. A simple perusal of demographic data shows that the Bible Belt is one of the highest concentrations of immoral behavior. Many have pointed out (including myself in several other posts) that there is no clear correlation between ideological moralizing and moral behavior, and my guess is that the more ideological the moralizing the less moral the behavior..
Specifically, the emphasis on family caught my attention with the above comment.
Boomers are known as the Me generation which is largely true, but this misses the larger view. Their youthful transgressions of “immoral” behavior (drugs, free love, etc.) led to a backlash, but the backlash came from within the Boomer generation and not outside of it. The Boomers did two things: (1) they focused their self-interest towards money and materialism instead of mere pleasure and freedom, (2) they supported a major uprising of the Evangelical Right. Before the Boomers, the GOP was the party of civil rights (e.g., Marin Luther King, jr.) and Evangelism was the religious movement of civil rights. But with Reagan GOP became the party of big business and Evangelical Christianity became righteously ethnocentric. An ideological shift happened in politics and the Boomers added a dimension of ideological polarization. This strange Boomer-caused phenomenon lasted for almost a half century.
However, we are now again at the beginning of a new era. Supposedly, GenXers are more focused on family and are more conservative than Boomers, but GenXers are less ideologically divisive. Also, an even larger generation (the Millennials) is taking the stage, and they’re even more different than Boomers. On measurements of moral behavior, they tend toward the lowest numbers that have been seen in a long time. They are conservative in certain ways including a focus on family, but at the same time they’re extremely socailly liberal.
My basic point is that society is re-focusing on the value of family on personal rather than ideological terms, but this re-focusing is going against the ideological grain of fundamentalist “family values”. Millennials embrace both the importance of family and the importance of civil rights issues such as gay marriage. Suck on that fundamentalists!
I just watched most of this following video. It’s a good video about the data on the various generations. But if you’re already familiar with generations theory, then you probably won’t learn anything new.
The video just reminded me of the changing nature of politics. Liberal and conservative are labels that, as they’ve been used in the past, don’t apply to what politics is becoming.
Both GenXers and Millennials are more conservative in certain ways than the Boomers, but in less obvious (read: less loud and divisive) ways.
GenXers aren’t politically active in a direct fashion because they mistrust big government and politics in general. Instead, GenXers prefer influencing society through volunteering and the private sector. GenXers have had massive influence on society considering their small size, but this influence has primarily been through the technological industry and in particular through creating new social media.
Millennials are even more conservative in their lifestyles despite being very liberal in their political beliefs. On the level of personal choices, rates of such things as sex an pregnancy are down. They accept the idea of sacrificing individual needs for the collective good. They want a government to build and support community. They value family and they value cooperation. They are politically opposite of GenXers libertarianism.
What is going to change in the liberal direction is that government will play more of a role. The reason for this is because only government can ensure a fair egalitarian society and only government can guarantee civil rights. The GenXers may agree with the good intentions, but many GenXers fear such a potentially oppressive nanny state. Certain freedoms may be sacrificed in the name of equality… and safety.
The ironic thing is that on the social level this future possible society may be more conservative than what we’ve seen in recent decades with the rise of the Evangelical right. The Millennials, unlike the Evangelicals, won’t simply be a loud minority. The Millennials don’t need to be loud because they shall change society through sheer force of numbers.
What is clearly ending is the GOP vision of the invisible hand of the market (which never existed anyways) and trickle-down economics. Some will consider this to be a redistribution of wealth, but Millennials will see it as fair redistribution of opportunities. Millennials refuse to believe the Republican propaganda that government fails because the Millennnials have observed how the government has particularly failed when Republicans were in power. Of course, a party that preaches failure will fail. Quite different from GenXers, Millennials are optimistic. They know they’re inheriting large problems and so far that reason they know that large solutions are demanded.
The question now will be whether Millennial optimism will pay off and whether GenXer cynicism will help balance it.