Plowing the Furrows of the Mind

One of the best books I read this past year is The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally. The book covers the type of data HBDers (human biodiversity advocates) and other hereditarians tend to ignore. Kenneally shows how powerful is environment in shaping thought, perception, and behavior.

What really intrigued me is how persistent patterns can be once set into place. Old patterns get disrupted by violence such as colonialism and mass trauma such as slavery. In the place of the old, something new takes form. But this process isn’t always violent. In some cases, technological innovation can change an entire society.

This is true for as simple of a technology as a plow. Just imagine what impact a more complex technology like computers and the internet will have on society in the coming generations and centuries. Also, over this past century or so, we saw a greater change to agriculture than maybe has been seen in all of civilization. Agricultural is becoming industrialized and technologized.

What new social system is being created? How long will it take to become established as a new stable order?

We live in a time of change and we can’t see the end of it. We are like the people who lived during the time when the use of plows first began to spread. All that we know, as all that they knew, is that we are amidst change. This inevitably creates fear and anxiety. It is a crisis that has the potential of being more transformative than a world war. It is a force that will be both destructive and creative, but either way it is unpredictable.

* * * *

The Invisible History of the Human Race:
How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures
by Christine Kenneally
Kindle Locations 2445-2489

Catastrophic events like the plague or slavery are not the only ones that echo down the generations . Widespread and deeply held beliefs can be traced to apparently benign events too, like the invention of technology. In the 1970s the Danish economist Ester Boserup argued that the invention of the plow transformed the way men and women viewed themselves. Boserup’s idea was that because the device changed how farming communities labored, it also changed how people thought about labor itself and about who should be responsible for it.

The main farming technology that existed when the plow was introduced was shifting cultivation. Using a plow takes a lot of upper-body strength and manual power, whereas shifting cultivation relies on handheld tools like hoes and does not require as much strength. As communities took up the plow, it was most effectively used by stronger individuals , and these were most often men. In societies that used shifting cultivation, both men and women used the technology . Of course, the plow was invented not to exclude women but to make cultivation faster and easier in areas where crops like wheat, barley, and teff were grown over large, flat tracts of land in deep soil. Communities living where sorghum and millet grew best— typically in rocky soil— continued to use the hoe. Boserup believed that after the plow forced specialization of labor, with men in the field and women remaining in the home, people formed the belief— after the fact— that this arrangement was how it should be and that women were best suited to home life.

Boserup made a solid historical argument, but no one had tried to measure whether beliefs about innate differences between men and women across the world could really be mapped according to whether their ancestors had used the plow. Nathan Nunn read Boserup’s ideas in graduate school, and ten years later he and some colleagues decided to test them.

Once again Nunn searched for ways to measure the Old World against the new. He and his colleagues divided societies up according to whether they used the plow or shifting cultivation . They gathered current data about male and female lives, including how much women in different societies worked in public versus how much they worked in the home, how often they owned companies, and the degree to which they participated in politics. They also measured public attitudes by comparing responses to statements in the World Value Survey like “When jobs are scarce, men should have more right to a job than a woman.”

Nunn found that if you asked an individual whose ancestors grew wheat about his beliefs regarding women’s place, it was much more likely that his notion of gender equality would be weaker than that of someone whose ancestors had grown sorghum or millet. Where the plow was used there was greater gender inequality and women were less common in the workforce. This was true even in contemporary societies in which most of the subjects would never even have seen a plow, much less used one, and in societies where plows today are fully mechanized to the point that a child of either gender would be capable of operating one.

Similar research in the cultural inheritance of psychology has explored the difference between cultures in the West and the East. Many studies have found evidence for more individualistic, analytic ways of thought in the West and more interdependent and holistic conceptions of the self and cooperation in the East. But in 2014 a team of psychologists investigated these differences in populations within China based on whether the culture in question traditionally grew wheat or rice. Comparing cultures within China rather than between the East and West enabled the researchers to remove many confounding factors, like religion and language.

Participants underwent a series of tests in which they paired two of three pictures. In previous studies the way a dog, a rabbit, and a carrot were paired differed according to whether the subject was from the West or the East . The Eastern subjects tended to pair the rabbit with a carrot, which was thought to be the more holistic, relational solution. The Western subjects paired the dog and the rabbit, which is more analytic because the animals belong in the same category. In another test subjects drew pictures of themselves and their friends. Previous studies had shown that westerners drew themselves larger than their friends . Another test surveyed how likely people were to privilege friends over strangers; typically Eastern cultures score higher on this measure.

In all the tests the researchers found that, independent of a community’s wealth or its exposure to pathogens or to other cultures, the people whose ancestors grew rice were much more relational in their thinking than the people whose ancestors were wheat growers. Other measures pointed at differences between the two groups. For example , people from a wheat-growing culture divorced significantly more often than people from a rice-growing culture, a pattern that echoes the difference in divorce rates between the West and the East. The findings were true for people who live in rice and wheat communities today regardless of their occupation; even when subjects had nothing to do with the production of crops, they still inherited the cultural predispositions of their farming forebears.

The differences between the cultures are attributed to the different demands of the two kinds of agriculture. Rice farming depends on complicated irrigation and the cooperation of farmers around the use of water. It also requires twice the amount of labor that is necessary for wheat, so rice-growing communities often stagger the planting of crops in order that all their members can help with the harvest. Wheat farming, by contrast, doesn’t need complicated irrigation or systems of cooperation among growers.

The implication of these studies is that the way we see the world and act in it—whether the end result is gender inequality or trusting strangers— is significantly shaped by internal beliefs and norms that have been passed down in families and small communities . It seems that these norms are even taken with an individual when he moves to another country. But how might history have such a powerful impact on families, even when they have moved away from the place where that history, whatever it was, took place?

Society: Precarious or Persistent?

I sometimes think of society as precarious. It can seem easier to destroy something than to create a new thing or to re-create what was lost. It’s natural to take things for granted, until they are gone. Wisdom is learning to appreciate what you have while you have it.

There is value to this perspective, as it expresses the precautionary principle. This includes a wariness about messing with that which we don’t understand… and there is very little in this world we understand as well as maybe we should. We ought to appreciate what we inherit from the generations before us. We don’t know what went into making what we have possible.

Still, I’m not sure this is always the best way to think about it.

Many aspects of society can be as tough to kill as weeds. Use enough harsh chemicals, though, and weeds can be killed, but even then weeds have a way of popping back up. Cultures are like weeds. They persist against amazing odds. We are all living evidence for this being the case, descendants of survivors upon survivors, the products of many millennia of social advance.

In nature, a bare patch of earth rarely remains bare for long, even if doused with weed-killer. You can kill one thing and then something else will take its place. The best way to keep a weed from growing there is to plant other things that make it less hospitable. It’s as much about what a person wants to grow as about what a person doesn’t want to grow.

This is an apt metaphor for the project of imperialism and colonialism. Westerners perceived Africa and the Americas as places of wilderness. They need to be tamed, and that involved farming. The native plants typically were seen as weeds. Europeans couldn’t even recognize some of the agrarian practices of the indigenous for it didn’t fit their idea of farms. They just saw weeds. So, they destroyed what they couldn’t appreciate. As far as they were concerned, it was unused land to be taken and cultivated, which is to say made civilized.

Most of them weren’t going around wantonly destroying everything in sight. They were trying to create something in what to them was a new land and, in the case of the disease impact in the Americas, a seemingly uninhabited land in many cases. Much of the destruction of other societies was incidental from their perspective, although there was plenty of systematic destruction as well. However, my point is that all of this happened in the context of what was seen as “creative destruction”. It was part of a paternalistic project of ‘civilizing’ the world.

In this project, not all was destroyed. Plenty of indigenous people remain in existence and have retained, to varying degrees, their traditional cultures. Still, those who weren’t destroyed had their entire worlds turned upside down.

An example I was thinking about comes from Christine Kenneally’s recent book, The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally.

The areas of Africa where many slaves were taken were originally high functioning societies. They had developed economies and established governments. This meant they had at least basic levels of a culture of trust to make all this possible. It was probably the developed social system and infrastructure that made the slave trade attractive in those places. These Africans were desirable slavves for the very reason that they came from highly developed societies. They had knowledge and skills that the European enslavers lacked.

This where my original thought comes in. From one perspective, it was simply the destruction of a once stable society built on a culture of trust. From another perspective, a new social order was created to take place of the old.

The slave trade obviously created an atmosphere of fear, conflict, and desperation. It eroded trust, turning village against village, neighbor against neighbor, and even families against their own kin. Yet the slave trade was also the foundation of something new, imperialism and colonialism. The agents of this new order didn’t annihilate all of African society. What they did was conquer these societies and then the empires divied up the spoils. In this process, new societies were built on top of the old and so the countries we know today took form.

If these ancient African cultures were genuinely precarious societies, then we would have expected different results. It was the rock-solid substratum that made this transition to colonial rule possible. Even the development of cultures of distrust was a sign of a functioning society in defensive mode. These societies weren’t destroyed. They were defending themselves from destruction under difficult conditions. These societies persisted amidst change by adapting to change.

It is impossible to make a value judgment of this persistence. A culture of distrust may be less than optimal, but it makes perfect sense in these situations. These people have had to fight for their survival. They aren’t going to be taken for fools. Considering the world is still ruled by their former colonizers, they have every right to move forward with trepidation. They would be crazy to do otherwise.

In comparison, I was thinking of societies known for their strong cultures of trust. Those that come to mind are Scandinavia, Germany, and Japan. These societies are also known for their xenophobia. They may have strong trust for insiders, but this is paired with strong distrust of outsiders. So, there is some nuance to what we mean when we speak of cultures of trust. Anyway, it is true that cultures of trust tend to lead to high economic development and wealth. But, as with the examples of Germany and Japan, the xenophobic side of the equation can also lead to mass destruction and violent oppression that impacts people far outside of their national borders.

As for cultures of distrust, they tend to primarily keep their distrust contained within their own boundaries. Few of the former colonies have become empires colonizing other societies. The United States is one of the few exceptions, probably because the native population was so severely decimated and made a minority in their own land. It also should be noted that the U.S. measures fairly high as a culture of trust. I suspect it requires a strong culture of trust to make for an effective empire, and so it oddly may require a culture of trust among the occuppiers in order to create cultures of distrust in the occupied and formerly occupied societies. That is sad to think about.

Cultures tend to persist, even when some people would rather they not. Claiming societies to be precarious, in many cases, could be considered wishful thinking. Social orders must serve one purpose before all others, that is self-perpetuation.

The core of my message here is that we should be as concerned about what we are creating as what we are destroying. The example of Africa is an example of that. A similar example is what happened to the Ottoman Empire. In both cases, they were divided up by the conquering nations and artificial boundaries were created that inevitably led to conflict. This formed the basis for all the problems that have continued in the Middle East and the Arab world extending into North Africa.

That world of conflict didn’t just happened. It was intentionally created. The powers that be wanted the local people to be divided against themselves. It made it easier to rule over them or to otherwise take advantage of them, such as in procuring/stealing their natural resources.

We Americans inherited that colonial mess, as we are part of it. America has never known any other world, for we were born out of the same oppression as the African and Middle Eastern countries. Now, the U.S. has taken the role of the British Empire, the former ruler now made a partner to and subsidiary of American global power. In this role, we assassinate democratically-elected leaders, foment coup d’etats, arm rebel groups, invade and occupy countries, bomb entire regions into oblivion, etc.

The U.S. military can topple a leader like Saddam Hussein and destroy the social order he created that created secular stability, but the U.S. can’t rebuild what it destroyed. Anyway, that isn’t the point. The U.S. never cared about rebuilding anything. It was always about creating something entirely new. Yet the Iraqi people and their society persists, even in a state of turmoil.

The old persists as it is transformed.

What exactly persists in these times of change? Which threads can be traced into the past and which threads will continue to unwind into the future? What is being woven from these threads? What will be inherited by the following generations?

Imagination, a Force to Be Reckoned With

I’m constantly surprised by the lack of imagination with so many people. This even includes many intelligent people who I know are able to think outside-the-box and to consider alternative perspectives. But imagination is a genuine talent, separate from intelligence.

I guess I’m surprised because I take imagination for granted. It is a talent that either I was born with or I learned young. As long as I can remember, I was always creative and curious. I have many other inadequacies and deficiencies, but a lack of imagination hasn’t tended to be a failing of mine.

Imagination is one of the most frustrating talents to possess. Cognitive imagination is to conceive of other possibilities and emotional imagination is to perceive other experiences. I’m about equally proficient in both at this point in my life, although my natural ability is more in the direction of emotional imagination.

I have a natural instinct for empathy which can be problematic, as it relates to hyper-sensitivity and some social anxiety, and hence contibuting to my introversion, depression, and certain anti-social tendencies. I can’t watch the news without the experience of complete strangers being emotionally or even viscerally real to me, as if I’m there with the people being shown. There is a paper thin boundary surrounding my emotional experience.

When I imagine possibilities, they are real to me while I imagine them. A possibility isn’t just an abstract thought. I build my imaginings out of my personal experience. The ability to reconstruct one’s experience into new forms is something I couldn’t begin to explain. I’m not sure how I go about doing this. It simply comes naturally to me. I normally don’t think about it. My imaginings just happen in the way lifting my arm just happens. The intent and the result are so nearly simultaneous as to feel seamless.

The one thing that is hard for me to imagine is not being the way I am. I constantly live in a world of possibilities and empathy. The type of person who is strongly and narrowly focused, who is practical and simply sees the world “as it is”, such a person is almost beyond my imaginative capacities. It is as if I don’t even live in the same world as those people, and they’d probably say the same thing about me.

My imagination has been honed over my lifetime. I’ve gained a fair amount of experience of the world and even moreso I’ve gained knowledge. Those are two central factors that are beyond imagination as mere talent. Anyone can gain experience and knowledge and by doing so expand the range of their imagination. But few people ever get around to going beyond the experience and knowledge they gained when they were young.

Most people just know what they know. This is typically constrained by what they’ve been taught and told. Even their experience has been constrained by the social world they are part of. Few ever venture outside of this safe zone of certainty and familiarity, even just in imagination, much less in actuality.

To venture into the unknown is a risk. I’m not so much thinking of the risk to life and limb. I’m more considering the risk of change and of being changed. There are certain experiences that can’t be forgotten, certain ideas that can’t be unthought, certain possibilities that can’t be unimagined. Once this happens, you can’t return to what you left as if everything is the same. Once something becomes real in your experience or your mind, it isn’t easily made unreal again.

To even just think of a possibility, even without seriously imagining it, is dangerous. You begin to give it the force of thought. You’ve welcomed it into your mindspace and it may not be so easily dislodged. As I see it, that was the power of the Enlightenment. New ideas and imaginings were introduced. They acted like mind viruses and transformed the people who came into contact with them. Once you have the notion of freedom and independence, how can you go back to drudgery and oppression?

We face a similar era of new radical thought. We are at a time when people are more seriously considering what democracy means, what it could or should mean. Many who fear change have gone to great lengths to contain this contagion. Once people genuinely imagine the possibilities of democracy, how can they go back to being satisfied with mere voting? Once people have felt deep in their gut the possibility of self-governance, why would they ever again be satisfied with being ruled by an elite? Once people begin to take seriously the freedom part of the free market ideal, can they ever again be contented with capitalism and corporatism?

Imagination isn’t easy. But sometimes conditions are just right that the imaginations are sparked even for the unimaginative. Much of what we feel able to imagine depends on what our society tells us can be imagined. When new possibilities are in the air, the floodgates of imagination are opened. Then, instead of just a rare talent, imagination becomes a dominant force.

Ku Klux Klan and the Lost Generation

My dad was watching a C-SPAN talk about the Ku Klux Klan. The speaker was James Madison who is a professor from Bloomington, Indiana. My parents are from Indiana which once was a major center of KKK activity. The Indiana Klan became its own separate organization at one point and it was very powerful:

“At the height of its power the Klan had over 250,000 members, which was over 30% of state’s white male population. The highest concentration was around the central part of the state. Klan membership was discouraged in some parts of the state; in New Albany, city leaders denounced the Klan and discouraged residents from joining. Other cities, including Indianapolis, were almost completely controlled by the Klan, and election to public office was impossible without their support. Street fights occurred in Indianapolis between the Klan members and minority groups. Statewide, estimates of native white male Indiana Klan membership ranged from 27 to 40%.
“The Klan had a large budget, based on a percentage of membership fees and dues. With more than 50,000 dues-paying members in Indianapolis, the Klan had access to tens of millions of dollars. A large part of these funds went to helping the poor, but millions were also poured into bribing public officials, paying off enemies, purchasing weapons, and contributing to political campaigns.”

I notice the mention of Indianapolis as a stronghold. That is where Bobby Kennedy gave his moving speech where he told an unaware crowd about the death of Martin Luther King jr. He was warned about doing that because it was a crowd of black people and the police thought it might turn into a riot, and such worries are understandable given this KKK history.

My parents grew up in central Indiana which is precisely where the Klan was most concentrated.

File:Indiana Klan percentage.jpg

Oddly, as the map shows, Southern Indiana had the weakest Klan concentration. In the quote above, it mentions that some parts of the state such as Albany at the Southern border actively discouraged the Klan. That is where my mom’s family originally lived when they came to Indiana from Kentucky. So, it is hard to blame the Southern influence on Indiana.

However, the first KKK headquarters in Indiana was set up in Evansville which is in Southern Indiana. Evansville is only a county away from where Abraham Lincoln lived as a boy and right next door to the county where the German Harmonists built their community, later to be bought and used by a Welsh socialist whose family was in the same social and political circles as Abraham Lincoln.

Anyway, none of that is the point of my bringing this up.

My dad is a conservative who grew up in conservative Indiana, right there in that heart of the former KKK. Now, that is what is known as red-blooded 100% American conservatism. My dad is a fairly typical American conservative or, as Todd Snider more fully describes it, “Conservative Christian, right wing Republican, straight, white, American male” (see below for the accompanying video). He is mostly a paragon of the WASP identity, although he has some genetics in him that aren’t Anglo-Saxon.

This show about the KKK was an eye-opener for him, but not in the way you might suspect. Listening to their activities, he realized they were largely a normal civic organization focused on charity work. The Second Ku Klux Klan gave money to churches, promoted public education, supported family values, etc. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if the KKK gave Christmas presents to orphans and helped old ladies across the street.

I told my dad that the KKK was basically the conservatives of their day and he agreed with me. Some months earlier, I had told him the exact same thing and he probably thought I was being unfair and mean. To most people, making a comparison to the KKK is about the same as making a comparison to Nazis.

We have a hard time seeing things for what they are or were. We put things into the context of our own time and judge them accordingly. That is problematic with something like the KKK which is easy to caricature and criticize with straw-man arguments. Most Klan members weren’t violent people who spent their every free moment thinking about how to oppress others. If anything is scary about the KKK, it is that completely normal people belonged to it and most of the time they did completely normal activities. They were good citizens, devoted husbands, loving fathers, and practicing Christians.

The KKK wasn’t necessarily all that different from any other number of civic organizations from that time. The Second KKK was even modeled on many of those other organizations:

“In an era without Social Security or widely available life insurance, men joined fraternal organizations such as the Elks or the Woodmen of the World to provide for their families in case they died or were unable to work. The founder of the new Klan, William J. Simmons, was a member of twelve different fraternal organizations. He recruited for the Klan with his chest covered with fraternal badges, and consciously modeled the Klan after fraternal organizations.
“Klan organizers, called “Kleagles”, signed up hundreds of new members, who paid initiation fees and received KKK costumes in return. The organizer kept half the money and sent the rest to state or national officials. When the organizer was done with an area, he organized a huge rally, often with burning crosses, and perhaps presented a Bible to a local Protestant preacher. He left town with the money collected. The local units operated like many fraternal organizations and occasionally brought in speakers.”

Those civic organizations have interesting histories. The KKK was created partly in response to new immigrants, but many fraternal and community organizations were created by and for new immigrants. The Germans were well known for their organizations that were a thorn in the side of those who wanted to force the non-English to assimilate. The Germans, until WWII, had more or less successfully resisted assimilation and the KKK didn’t like that. These ethnic and/or populist civic organizations, German and otherwise, were sometimes closely tied to labor organizing, another thing the KKK would have not appreciated.

Interestingly, the Second KKK arose at the same time and for the same reasons fascist movements arose in Germany and Italy. In the US, Germans formed the German American Bund which supported Nazi Germany before WWII. Like the KKK, the Bund formed large marches in cities where Germans were concentrated. Fascism was in the air. The characteristics of fascism included reactionary populism, social conservatism, folk religiosity, patriotic nationalism, ethnocentric nativism, etc. Despite their differences, the KKK and the Bund were expressions of the same basic shift within society at that time.

These organizations weren’t evil incarnate. They were simply people trying to bring order back to what felt like the chaos of a changing society. Industrialization challenged every aspect of traditional communities and traditional religion. There was a mass migration of people from rural areas to urban areas, especially from the rural South to the urban North. The turn of the century brought new international movements of socialists and anarchists. Bombs were exploding in public places and assassination attempts, some successful, became more common. Corporations were becoming brutally oppressive. Fights and shootings broke out between unions, Pinkertons, police and sometimes even federal troops. Then WWI came along and totally shook up the social order, forcing diverse people into contact with another and overseas giving black soldiers their first taste of real freedom.

This was the culture war that formed the groundwork for the culture war of today. And like today it was a generational conflict. This was the era when the Lost Generation came of age. They were a generation that largely grew up in the cities, many of them born there and many others moved there as small children.

I’m reminded of my mom’s family since all of her grandparents were of the Lost Generation. Her paternal grandfather, Willie Clouse, was born in Spring Mill. At the time of his birth, it was an abandoned water-powered mill town which industrialization had made obsolete, especially since the railroad tracks had bypassed it. At age five, his family moved to nearby Mitchell which was a city that grew larger because of the railroad. As a young man, he followed the railroad jobs to Lafayette where my mom was later born. Born poor rural white trash, he had become a respectable working class man in the big city and his grandchildren would go to college.

I don’t know too much about his experiences during this time, but a lot of change was happening. The change probably seemed positive to him for it was all he knew. The older generation, however, was a lot less happy. Most of the founders and leaders of the Second Ku Klux Klan came from the generation before the Lost Generation and some from the generation before that.

The Lost Generation worked in factories as children or, in the case of Willie Clouse, he might have been working in the Mitchell Quarry where he was later working at when he got married. That generation had to grow up fast. They didn’t get much parenting or other supervision for their parents were working and extended families weren’t what they used to be back in the small towns. They also didn’t get much education.

However, because of their childhood labor, the Lost Generation had their own money and so weren’t dependent on anyone else. They were the first consumer generation. It was because of the competition of child labor that the KKK promoted public education. They thought it unfair that a grown man had a hard time finding a job because employers could simply hire a kid for a fraction of the cost. That is why the GI Generation grew up with such a relatively cushy childhood, no child labor and plenty of public education. The KKK helped make the Great Generation so great.

The Lost Generation didn’t know such greatness. They had their own world war, of course, but it was an ugly, violent and pointless war. Still, it made them the first generation of Americans to see the larger world. This created the expatriate community of artists and writers in Paris. They may have been a doomed generation, but they knew how to express themselves and they had clear opinions to be expressed. What they saw of America was, as Ernest Heminway wrote, “Broad lawns and narrow minds”. That was the description of the older generation who formed the Second KKK, an organization filled with all the respectable people of society: businessmen, police officers, judges, politicians, and most important of all lots of ministers.

The members of Lost Generation were many things, but respectable they were not. They were immigrants and the children of immigrants, hoboes and migrant workers, gangsters and bank robbers, socialists and anarchists, drunks on Cannery Row and Bonus Army veterans camped out in Washington, DC. The Lost Generation members of my mom’s family in Southern Indiana included moonshiners and moonshine runners. They were born into a rough world, lived rough lives and often had rough endings. They were what the KKK so feared, what the older generation saw as a threat to the American Way.

These younger Americans didn’t have respect for tradition and social order, especially not the young blacks and the young women who demanded equal rights, the women even gaining the right to vote in 1920. It was in this early twentieth century era when the NAACP was founded and when the IWW was organized. This is when the Triangle Factory Fire occurred and when the Scopes Trial took place. This is when the Russian Revolution succeeded and the Red Scare began in force. This was also a time of the largest wave of immigration in US history, specifically the first decade of the new century; and in response it was during this decade that the idea of the Melting Pot first appeared, assimilation no longer being seen as a natural process and instead as a forced action of melting the individual down into a collective American identity.

With the ending of rural life, it was the end of the independence of the small family farmer. Americans worried that men would lose their manliness and women would forget their place. The Boy Scouts were founded, national parks created, fishing and hunting promoted. The middle class life of domesticity and family was also put forth as an ideal. The nuclear family became the new national standard with clearly demarcated gender roles.

The Lost Generation tried to navigate this new society that was forming out of all this change. Maybe this is why so many of them aspired toward being great writers and artists. They were seeking to portray what society was and what it could be. From the Lost Generation, you had on one hand Grant Wood with his American Gothic and on the other hand Norman Rockwell with his illustrations for The Saturday Evening Post.

It was maybe inevitable that the KKK wouldn’t last. The new generation wasn’t going to embrace their vision of society, although racism would continue on in many new forms.

I wanted to write about this because I’ve been interested in that era for a long time. My dad just reminded me of it again with his telling me about what he had learned of the KKK. It got me thinking again of the Lost Generation.

History seems to go in cycles. In the generation theory of Strauss and Howe, my generation of GenX has played the same role as did the Lost Generation. In recent decades, we have found ourselves in a similar time of change. Instead of Prohibition, we have a War on Drugs. Instead of a mass wave of immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, we have a mass wave of immigrants from outside Europe. Instead of the Great Depression, we have a Great Recession. Instead of Progressive Era reform, we get healthcare reform. Instead of a new generation of optimistic GIs, we have a new generation of optimistic Millennials.

With that in mind, I’ll offer you a song by Todd Snider who is on the older end of GenX. He was born in Oregon, the Northwest having once been another stronghold of white supremacy, nativism and the KKK. There were many sundown towns in the US, but Oregon was a sundown state into the 1920s. In the following song, Todd Snider explains his rejection of the social role the older generation had expected of him, instead embracing an alternative lifestyle:

Culture As Agent of Social Change

I’ve become aware of a particular conflict that hides a deeper issue.

There are the partisans who often promote the view of voting for the lesser of two evils or else they promote the personality cult of a particular politician, the idea being that the right party or the right politician can save us from the problems or at least save us from these problems getting worse. The critics of this are often the right-wingers and left-wingers who instead propose particular ideologies or direct action tactics in the hope that change has to be forced from a more outside perspective.

I’m thinking both are wrong. What keeps things the way they are has to do with cultural factors that go much deeper than either party politics or ideological systems. So, what can change these problems must go deeper. I don’t know what that means, but what I sense is that parties and ideologies only barely touch the surface. Culture is hard to talk about and that is probably why it is often misunderstood and even more often ignored.

I’m not even sure what I’m trying to communicate by my use of the term ‘culture’. I’ve been studying the cultures of immigrants and regions in the US. It’s clear that it is fundamentally culture that has defined this country and it’s clear that it is fundamentally culture that has determined the events of history. But all of this is easier to see in hindsight. What is happening now in American culture? Where is it heading? How can it be shifted from within toward more positve ends?

 * * * *

I can imagine what some political activists would think of my thoughts here. There is a certain kind of political activist who would see this discussion of ‘culture’ as basically metaphysical speculation. For them, politics is about action, about making things happen, about results.

I don’t exactly disagree, but I was just wondering if intelligent and effective action might be possible. Political activists have been trying the same basic tactics for a long time and they keep getting the same lackluster results. Simply getting attention for a protest doesn’t accomplish a whole lot and neither does getting your favorite politician elected.

It seems to me that something is being missed in all these political maneuverings and manipulations. I wish I could explain this better. I sense this ‘cultural’ issue is the most centrally important aspect to politics and society in general, but I don’t know if most people would understand what I’m trying to get at.

Culture is like the air we breath. It can seem intangible for the reason we are almost incapable of lookiing at it objectively. We are in it and so we take it for granted.

Anytime there is a massive shift in a society, especially in terms of politics, there is always a shift of culture that precedes it, sometimes preceding it for decades or longer. Cutlure usually shifts slowly and imperceptibly, but occasionally like a fault line a massive earthquake can occur when there are major realignments.

Here is the core question: Are we merely victims of such over-arching cultural shifts or can we control them to a certain extent? If we are victims to these underlying cultural factors, then we are victims to all of society and any political action becomes mere blind fumbling. But how to convince people to take culture seriously? Everyone on some level probably knows culture matters and yet few people ever give it much thought. Unless this changes, we will continue to be victims.

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Most people think of culture in terms of the groups we identify with because of similarities. Politicians are always playing off of our cultural prejudices, conservative politicians seeming to be particularly talented at this.

This is culture as ideological identity, as groupthink. This is culture as race (whites vs blacks, whites vs minorities), as origins (native-born vs foreigh-born), as ethnicity (European vs Asian), as religion (Christian vs Muslim, Protestant vs Catgholic), as region (North vs South, East Coast vs WEst Coast), etc. Or else added all together such as WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant).

But this isn’t primarily what I’m talking about. This barely scratches the surface and oversimplifies even these superficial factors.

It’s true, as this view portrays, that culture relates to how we perceive ourselves and others in context of how we perceive our society. However, this just points to what we are aware of and only the elements that are obvious enough to be made into stereotypes. On the other hand, there is a more complex level of culture that underlies and shapes our perceptions, including our perceptions of cultural stereotypes.

As such, to change perception is to change everything. Our perceived choices and perceived actions would change. Our perceived relationships and perceived realities would change. We are all trapped in a reality tunnel or else many overlapping reality tunnels. We can’t see outside of a reality tunnel until we’ve shifted to a new rality tunnel and maybe not even then. To consider a shift of culture on this fundamental level is in a sense a metaphysical speculation, but it is metaphysical speculation that points toward metaphysical action, the shifting of our very sense of shared reality.

I’m speaking of cultural paradigms. What is the cultural paradigm that makes some particular social/political/economic system or lifestyle seem possible and desirable?

Socialism used to seem both possible and desirable to average Midwesterners earlier last century. In fact, it seemed so possible and desirable that a successful socialist government was created and maintained for decades in Milwaukee. But now average Midwesterners no longer think according to that cultural paradigm.

What changed and how? There was political oppression from the Cold War that destroyed that cultural paradigm and caused many of the defenders of it to become less vocal or less radical or else flee the country. However, the fundamental Northern European culture that made this cultural paradigm possible still exists and still functions to some degree. The social democracy of the Midwest is the remnant of this cultural paradigm. It is a seed that could again manifest as effective socialism once again. What is stopping it from doing so? There are people alive right now in Milwaukee who were alive when the socialists governed the city, some of these having been socialists themselves or somehow involved with the socialist government. What has become of this still living memory?

In desiring and seeking change, what are we missing or misunderstanding?