The World Is Ending Again!

“Whether the response is lashing out, turning inward, tuning out, or giving up, Americans are becoming increasingly paralyzed by disagreement, disillusionment, and despair. Indeed, many Americans seem to agree these days on only one thing: This is the worst of times.”

R. Putnam & S.R. Garett, The Upswing (excerpt)

Along with a revised edition of the classic Bowling Alone, a new book has come out by Robert Putnam. With his new work, Shaylyn Romney Garrett joins him as co-author. The title is The Upswing with the accompanying subtitle of “How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again.” The basic premise appears to be that the mood at present resonates with the complaints and fears of an earlier era when the mood soured in the decades following the Civil War. As Americans headed into the next century, many voices lamented the end of an age, as if a new age would not follow (John Higgs, Stranger Than We Can Imagine).

Based on their generations theory, William Strauss and Neil Howe would give a simple response. This pattern has repeated many times over. But living memory is so short. In fact, it’s the loss of living memory of the last cycle that drives it to swing back around again. The old is made new again, as if a foreign land never seen before. That is why it requires an historical awareness to realize we’ve been here before and what to expect as we move into the next phase. Even as we are in the Crisis that turns the wheel of the Fourth Turning, something else is emerging upon which different social institutions and collective identities will be built. 

This cyclical view of humanity and society is the most ancient of understandings. But in modernity we have falsely come to believe that there is endless linear progress into the unknown and unpredictable. That is the empty pride of modern Western civilization, that we are unique, that we have broken the chains of the past. Maybe not. Jeremiads of moral panic about decadence and decline usually presage moral revivals and rebirth (Jackson Lears, Rebirth of a Nation: The Making of Modern America, 1877-1920). That has been the pattern, so some argue, for centuries now. Is there a reason to think this time will be different?

In every generation that reaches this point in the cycle, there are those who confidently declare this time will be different, that this time it will be permanent, that further change is now impossible, that further innovation has ended, that the vitalizing force of society has been lost, that the younger generations aren’t up to the task, maybe even that we’ve entered the end times. Yet, so far, these predictions have been disproven over and over again. We act out what we suppress from awareness. So the more we deny the reality of cycles the more we become trapped in them. Our historical amnesia dooms us to falling back into patterns we don’t see.

* * *

‘The Upswing’ Review: Bowling Alone No More?
by Yuval Levin

“Drawing ingeniously on a vast array of data—economic, political, cultural, social and more—Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett persuasively demonstrate that Gilded Age America suffered from civic and social strains remarkably similar to our own. Then they explore how, from the final years of the 19th century until the end of the 1950s, an extraordinary range of forces in our national life, in their words, “shaped an America that was more equal, less contentious, more connected, and more conscious of shared values.” Finally they consider why, all of a sudden and without clear warning, “the diverse streams simultaneously reversed direction, and since the 1960s America has become steadily less equal, more polarized, more fragmented, and more individualistic.” 

“They chart this path from “I” to “we” and back again to “I” across essentially every facet of the American experience. Drawing some lessons from the Progressive Era, broadly understood, they suggest that a return toward a culture of “we” would need to involve a restoration of civic ambition directed toward pragmatic, concrete, incremental changes. That means building new institutions to address new problems, and it means paving paths from shared frustrations toward accommodations and reforms that could endure. It means devoting time to local service organizations and religious and professional groups, and talking less about how things got so bad and more about how to make them better where we are. It means fighting corruption and combating despair. And it means helping a rising generation think about its future, rather than drowning in debates about past feuds and divisions. 

“But the key, for Mr. Putnam and Ms. Garrett, is to move from broad categories of action like these to specific instances of practical organization and engagement. This is why the example of America in the first half of the 20th century can be so powerful. It is a positive answer to the question that threatens to debilitate anyone looking to turn things around in contemporary America: Is revival even possible? The authors make a strong case that a recovery of solidarity is achievable.”

Rate of Moral Panic
Technological Fears and Media Panics
The Crisis of Identity
The Disease of Nostalgia
Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration
Old Debates Forgotten

Stranger Danger and Our Kids

No Adults Allowed
by Lenore Skenazy

The signs on every playground in my city, New York, say this: “Playground rules prohibit adults except in the company of children.”

Apparently, because any adult who simply wants to sit on a bench and watch kids at play could be a creep, it’s best to just ban them all. The idea that children and adults go naturally together has been replaced by distrust and disgust. [ . . . ]

By separating the generations this way, we are creating a new society, one that actively distrusts anyone who wants to help a kid other than his own. Compare this anxiety with what goes on in Japan. There the youngest kids wear bright yellow hats when they go to school.

“Doesn’t that put them in danger?” asked a friend I was telling about this. To her, a kid who calls attention to himself is a kid who could be attracting a predator.

But attracting adult attention is exactly what the yellow hats are supposed to do. In Japan, the assumption is that the easier it is to see children the easier it is for grown-ups to look out for them.

Japan’s belief is that children are our collective responsibility. America’s is that children are private treasures under constant threat of theft.

Which brings me to the flip side of our obsession with stranger danger: the idea that anytime a parent lets her kids do anything on their own, she is actually requiring the rest of us grown-ups to “baby-sit” them free of charge. [ . . . ]

It didn’t matter that he was perfectly well-behaved, only that when a store employee asked his age, he was deemed an unbearable burden to the store. The manager had him detained until his father could come pick him up.

This detention outraged many people, but a significant contingent sided with the store, saying that the employees there shouldn’t have had to “baby-sit” the boy.

But, but — no one did have to baby-sit him. He was just a person in public, albeit a young one.

‘Stranger Danger’ and the Decline of Halloween
by Lenore Skenazy

Take “stranger danger,” the classic Halloween horror. Even when I was a kid, back in the “Bewitched” and “Brady Bunch” costume era, parents were already worried about neighbors poisoning candy. Sure, the folks down the street might smile and wave the rest of the year, but apparently they were just biding their time before stuffing us silly with strychnine-laced Smarties.

That was a wacky idea, but we bought it. We still buy it, even though Joel Best, a sociologist at the University of Delaware, has researched the topic and spends every October telling the press that there has never been a single case of any child being killed by a stranger’s Halloween candy. (Oh, yes, he concedes, there was once a Texas boy poisoned by a Pixie Stix. But his dad did it for the insurance money. He was executed.)

Anyway, you’d think that word would get out: poisoned candy not happening. But instead, most Halloween articles to this day tell parents to feed children a big meal before they go trick-or-treating, so they won’t be tempted to eat any candy before bringing it home for inspection. As if being full has ever stopped any kid from eating free candy!

So stranger danger is still going strong, and it’s even spread beyond Halloween to the rest of the year. Now parents consider their neighbors potential killers all year round. That’s why they don’t let their kids play on the lawn, or wait alone for the school bus: “You never know!” The psycho-next-door fear went viral.

“Stranger Danger” to children vastly overstated
by Glenn Fleishman

Of nonfamily abductions, just 115 children (90 reported) in 1999 were estimated to fit a stereotypical kidnapping by a stranger or slight acquaintance. Forty of those were killed. That’s 1 child out of every 750,000 kidnapped, and 1 out of about every 2 million killed.

Of all children reported missing (whether the estimate or based on reports), 99.8% were returned home or located; the remaining number were virtually all runaways.

Family, through noncustodial abduction or kicking a child out; a child’s own action as a runaway, for whatever cause and for whatever duration; and accidents are most of these reports. All of these problems can be mitigated by various means, but none of them fit into our picture of not letting a kid walk down the street because she or he will be snatched.

You wouldn’t know any of this from reading typical parental advice regarding stranger danger.

Of Puppies and Predators at the Park
byy Lenore Skenazy

The problem is that the very premise makes it seem as if this is a situation kids are routinely faced with, something as common as, “Would your kids eat a cookie if someone offered it?” What is so hard to understand is that first of all, the vast majority of crimes against children are committed not by strangers they meet at the park but by people they know. That means they are far likelier to encounter their abuser at the dinner table than at the park. So it is bizarre to keep acting as if the park is teeming with danger.

Secondly, there is something twisted and weird about only looking at risk when we think of kids. Every aspect of children’s lives is seen as somehow dangerous: what they’re eating, wearing, watching and doing and, of course, what could happen to them if they ever left the house.

Which, increasingly, we don’t let them do — despite there being a crime rate that is similar to the one in 1963.

Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis by Robert D Putnam review – concerned, scholarly
by Richard Reeves

The concatenation of advantages and disadvantages is visible in economic sorting at the neighbourhood level, leading to social sorting in terms of schools, churches and community groups. Putnam writes: “Our kids are increasingly growing up with kids like them who have parents like us.” This represents, he warns, “an incipient class apartheid”.

Bootstraps Aren’t Enough
by W. Bradford Wilcox

For the well-educated, the phrase “our kids” may well bring to mind conditions of relative affluence, in which children grow up in a family with two married and attentive (even overattentive) parents; attend high-performing schools; and feel themselves embedded in a network of friends and mentors ready to help them navigate life’s challenges. By contrast, “their kids”—the kids of poor and working-class parents—face a world in which social capital is in short supply. As Mr. Putnam shows powerfully and poignantly—combining reporting with empirical analysis—the disparity results in too many children in nonaffluent circumstances feeling alone, emotionally stunted and unable to summon the will to climb today’s economic ladder into the middle or upper class.

Richer and Poorer
by Jill Lepore

The American dream is in crisis, Putnam argues, because Americans used to care about other people’s kids and now they only care about their own kids. But, he writes, “America’s poor kids do belong to us and we to them. They are our kids.”

Robert Putnam: When Did Poor Kids Stop Being ‘Our Kids’?
by Sarah D. Sparks

“If it takes a village to raise a child, the prognosis for America’s children isn’t good: In recent years, villages all over America, rich and poor, have deteriorated as we’ve shirked collective responsibility for our kids,” Mr. Putnam wrote. “And most Americans don’t have the resources … to replace collective provision with private provision.” [ . . . ]

Mr. Putnam, whose 2000 book Bowling Alone looked at declining civic ties among adults, argues that students in poverty growing up in the middle of the last century had greater economic and social mobility than their counterparts do today in large part because adults at all socioeconomic levels were more likely then to see all students as “our kids.”

The terrible loneliness of growing up poor in Robert Putnam’s America
by Emily Badger

“If we can begin to think of these poor kids as our kids,” he says, “we would not sleep for a second before we figured out how to help them.”

Why you should care about other people’s kids
interview by Paul Solman

PS: Sure, but Herrnstein’s point was that it could be genetic, it could be nurture, but that sort of mating is happening and it’s going to pose a huge inequality problem in this country.

RP: He’s right. And if it were just genetics, there might not be anything we could do about it. But if it’s partly just the resources that we’re investing in these kids, which is my thesis, that’s fixable in principle. That’s not like a law of genetics. My argument is basically we need to think of these kids coming from poor backgrounds and broken homes – they’re also our kids.

When I was growing up in Port Clinton 50 years ago, my parents talked about, “We’ve got to do things for our kids. We’ve got to pay higher taxes so our kids can have a better swimming pool, or we’ve got to pay higher taxes so we can have a new French department in school,” or whatever. When they said that, they did not just mean my sister and me — it was all the kids here in town, of all sorts. But what’s happened, and this is sort of the bowling alone story, is that over this last 30, 40, 50 years, the meaning of “our kids” has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed so that now when people say, “We’ve got to do something for our kids,” they mean MY biological kids. [ . . . ]

PS: But liberals like you make this argument about all kinds of things, like infrastructure or education: pay now or you’ll pay more later. Americans feel that they’re already paying enough in taxes and they don’t trust that those investments will be made efficiently enough.

RP: America’s best investment ever, in the whole history of our country, was to invest in the public high school and secondary school at the beginning of the 20th century. It dramatically raised the growth rate of America because it was a huge investment in human capital. The best economic analyses now say that investment in the public high schools in 1910 accounted for all of the growth of the American economy between then and about 1970. That huge investment paid off for everybody. Everybody in America had a higher income.

Now, some rich farmer could have said, “Well, why should I be paying for those other kids to go to high school? My kids are already off in Chicago and I don’t care about [other kids].” But most people in America didn’t. This was not something hatched in Washington – small town people got together and said, “Look, we ought to do this for our kids… We ought to have a high school so that every kid who grows up here — they’re all our kids — gets a good high school education.”