Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The End of Things . . . and a New Beginning

by Bernie Quigley – Published in The Free Market News Network, March 25, 2005

Toward the end of Victoria's reign came the great patriotic charge that the sun never sets on the British Empire. There will always be an England. In June of 1897 when her Diamond Jubilee was proclaimed, the Empress of India resembled a celestial world monarch rivaling anything in antiquity. But at the same time came the haunting cry from Europe's fin de siecle poets - the World is Coming to an End! It won't be long now! Exactly one hundred years later, the same hubris would stalk America - the Dow Jones will rise to 35,000 and everyone will be rich! The cloning of the sheep Dolly was said by one nationally prominent pundit to be the greatest achievement of the generation and The Human Genome project would be the benchmark event in the history of science. Once again science would prove us to be God's great creation. But at the same time came the dark refrain - if we don't all die from the Y2K bug!

It seemed to end as quickly as it did for Victoria. Within five years the soaring NASDAQ had crashed and the failure of the Thai baht disassembled half the world's currencies. The unkindest cut of all came from the Human Genome Project when initial findings showed certain grains of rice to have a more complex genetic structure than the typical NASDAQ investor.

Patterns of history have always puzzled historians and business writers. Arnold Toynbee found a mystical dimension to them when half way through his life's work he read Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West and studied C.G. Jung's work on psychological patterns. Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. pioneered thinking on the theme that business trends and commerce run in cycles and other historians had written that religious sentiment runs in cycles. Not long ago historians William Strauss and Neil Howe wrote that not only do religious feeling and business trends run in cycles, but that these cycles appear to alternate. Their fascinating book looks to the Roman historian's concept of the saeculum; the theory that history runs in cycles of 80 to 100 years. The writers link identity to each generation and its countervailing attitude to the previous generation (and its attachment to the generation which preceded that). It is a remarkable picture over time, giving history a series of interweaving paths, ascending and returning, like the patterns on the ceiling of the mosque at Cordoba, removing the categorical quality of events which form history and finding instead something more akin to the river of life.

What is interesting and implicit in their writing is the shared consciousness of the generation rather than the individual consciousness of each person making up the generation and the historical period. In many ways this is obvious - that a war-generation would relate to Dwight Eisenhower and their children to Bob Dylan, but what is not so obvious is the pattern of what is accepted and rejected by the larger culture, which evolves in a series of generational channels at various purposes and counter purposes. Bankers and advertisers follow these trends intuitively, and follow closely to stay on events, lest they fail to anticipate the next big thing or an economic downturn. The authors point out in their most interesting book, The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny, that all historical periods are "post-war periods" and every eighty years or so a human cycle of four generations concludes itself in catastrophe and rebirth.

The book explains why the great gods fall like the petty gods; each becomes "post-seasonal" and submits to the ravages of time. It also explains why when a popular writer like Nora Ephron -- as she says -- gets an idea, 40,000 other people seem to get the same idea at just the same time. Because she is right on the beat of a generation and is representative of the mind-set of her generation.

Being born in 1946 was to be born at the beginning of the first chapter in a new book of life. It has been said that Eisenhower finished off the last chapter of Europe and particularly that of the Victorians, and my generation born at war's end was removed from it. We were born free in the U.S.A and beholding to none outside our borders. For many of us it felt like the beginning of the world and we were our own First Peoples. Or as the Mayans put it, that we were born "between creations" and awakening to a new world of TV and electrified music. Now we begin to face death, all of us together, like one great wave rising gradually along the shore and tumbling together over at tide change, running in a line across the sand.

There is a kind of inadequacy to generational identity. Whether it is the World War II veteran late in years meeting with his compatriots at the V.F.W. hall, or the retiring environmental lawyer recalling the glory days of Woodstock, it is not enough. Generationality can be its own country and its own religion, but those who relate exclusively to their generation have no other country or religion. They are not from anywhere. They have nowhere to go. I find that people with a strong sense of place hold on to something ineffable between generations and so do cultures with a nobility tradition. But culturally we have flowed with Carl Sandburg's celebration of Common Man and in opposition to the idea of nobility - perhaps Senator John McCain alone carries the candle of nobility and duty to his ancestors and holds that flame cupped in his hands, in memory of his fathers who have gone before. Strauss and Howe note that from Roman times to our own the saeculum seems to have shrunk from 100 years to 80 - our fast attachment to the large picture of world corporation, federalism and globalism perhaps, coming at the cost of local church, local tradition, local custom, folkways and character speeding up the process since Roman times. But we learn from this book about things which we had ourselves intuited. For example, that American Revolution or not, we in the United States share more with England than we think. (As I discovered when I found myself mourning for Princess Diana, a woman I'd not given two thoughts to in her short, unhappy lifetime.)

Bill Clinton is a high-profile generational personality, but like most Southern people, white and black, he has another dimension. And when his Hollywood friends fail him, when he finds that a post-seasonal president is worth only one or two books for the big money, he can leave behind the federalist and globalist abstraction to which he was called to be god-king and return to a real place with real people. In the South I'd heard people say the same thing about Bill Clinton that they say about Elvis; he never should have married that Yankee woman. And like Elvis, they hated him at first. Now they are starting to love him. He has a place to return to after his application to his work in the world. I can see him as a great Southern preacher, finding in his heart the Christ that blasts through the Southern Appalachians with a force so sweet and fierce. The end of mid-life's work can have the positive effect of burning away the facile generational consciousness and opening the door to a deeper awareness and a fuller life toward one's end. As it says in my family's Book of Common Prayer (the old, contraband edition, outlawed years back), " . . . by returning and rest we shall be saved."

Strauss and Howe's generational model provides a useful tool. Anyone who has worked with young people will find a truth in it. College administrators use it to work with and understand students half their age. Tom Brokaw has written thoughtfully about the generational historical cycle and appears to have timed his retirement to it. Likewise, it is said about Al Gore.

One of the book's potent forecasts - the authors call the book a prophecy - is this: all post-war cultures begin to go to pieces at the end of the third generation, roughly 60 years from the end of the previous war, as each generation lasts approximately 20 years in its direct impression on events. Go back to the last saeculum which began in 1865 at the conclusion of the Civil War and come forward 60 years. That would be 1925. That was the year of the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. It would be followed in 1926 by Earnest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. These books are taught still as some of the great works and indeed they are. But they also benchmark a new attitude in America: disenchantment with the American condition and a turn of events in which real men well past the age of 30 suddenly find manly preference for drinking absinthe all night in Paris saloons and doing knife tricks with Irish poets, and failure and disillusionment of new money tycoons. In England, it was the same story and the title still remembered today would be Robert Graves' Good-Bye to All That (1929). As Toynbee learned from Spengler and Jung, history casts a shadow and sometimes the shadow falls first on public events. Public attitudes quickly circulated around these new attitudes and they would fulfill their own prophecy. Soon it would all come crashing down.

It is good to remember because those of the post-war Baby Boomer's generation like myself know well when the sixtieth year is as we were born in year one. It is next year. And as history projects a shadow, sometimes it also drags a shadow - many of us, children primarily of common men and women; foot soldiers in World War II - and indeed most of us, had grandfathers who worked in factory and field. But we now sit at computers, order Organic Shade Grown Mexican or Serena Organic Blend at Starbucks and hold some investments. Many of us, it is proudly said, are the first of our families to go to college. Unfortunately, for many of us we will be the last to go to college as we leave behind so few offspring. The New York Times reports that in what may be Portland's trendiest and fastest-growing neighborhood, the number of school-age children grew by only three between the census counts in 1990 and 2000, according to demographers at Portland State University. "The neighborhood would love to have more kids, that's probably the top of our wish list," said Joan Pendergast of the Pearl Neighborhood Association. "We don't want to be a one-dimensional place."

But generational identity alone is one-dimensional. Today we have come to take for granted guarantees from government just as our forefathers and mothers did when they carried soup cans to factory workers and cut tobacco on Southern farms and plantations. As the distinguished historian David Smiley who wrote of race and Southern history said: "It was directly after the Civil War that American citizens began to ask the government for the same guarantees in every-day life that the slave had." Increasingly, it seems obvious that they won't be there.

Sometime around the year 2005, say Strauss and Howe, America will enter the Fourth Turning. "The nation will be more affluent, enjoy better health, possess more technology, emcompass a larger and more diverse population, and command more powerful weapons - but the same could be said about every other Unraveling era society compared to its predecessor. They were not exempt from the saeculum; nor will we be."

They make five crisis projections: the first, beset by fiscal crisis, a state lays claim to its residents' federal tax monies. Declaring this an act of secession, the president obtains a federal injunction. The second is a terrorist attack; the third an impasse over a federal budget that reaches a stalemate; the fourth, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announce the spread of a new communicable virus; the fifth; growing anarchy throughout the former Soviet republics prompts Russia to conduct training exercises around its borders. They point out that it is highly unlikely that any one of these scenarios will actually happen. But what is likely, they say, is that the catalyst will unfold according to a basic Crisis dynamic that underlies all of these scenarios: "An initial spark will trigger a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies." First published in 1997, the authors show remarkable prescience.

It is the catastrophic failure of systems that have run their course that causes the turning. Tom Brokaw had this in mind when he wrote his book The Greatest Generation as it is the crisis and catastrophe and its repair which creates the new world and also creates the generation which brings the new world forward. That generation is formed in the crisis. It is not formed out of philosophy or idealism but out of need and the need to survive. Brokaw's Greatest Generation like the ancestors which John McCain honors in his book Faith of My Fathers is the Fourth Generation of the last saeculum.

The great crisis which the authors predict lies just ahead. But so too does the Victory Generation which looks to a Gray Champion like John McCain to solve the crisis and create the new world that will bring us forward into the new millennium.

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