Thursday, September 10, 2009

2009 is not 1929

By Bernie Quigley

- for The Hill on 9/3/09

The headlines on the Washington Post shows how entrenched the mainstream press is in the romance of Rooseveltism and the Great Depression. “The President Pulls a Jimmy Stewart Moment” it read, referring to the Frank Capra movies of the ‘30s. But 2009 has no bearing on the 1930s, which was an era of total complicity and cooperation between government and the entertainment and information industries, and to pretend they do is dangerous and absurd.

Robert Samuelson, the economist at the Washington Post, says economists should learn a little history. All the talk today relating to the fiscal crisis is of the crash of 1929. But the situation today couldn’t be more different.

A little knowledge of literature wouldn’t hurt. The literature of 1920 tells us that America was at the end of an age of ideals and suppositions long before 1929. The crash of 1929 was an external manifestation of a collective psychological collapse or depression that had already occurred. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald was published in 1925 and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway was published in 1926. These widely popular books were in their way end-or-the-world books; books of abandoned faith in ways gone just before.

World War I brought the death of Europe. It was a war which no one really won. But then in 1923 there was an attempted coup in Germany, evidence that the vast destruction and the moral degradation of the Great War – the mustard gas, the shell shock, the mud and the trench war – was not yet over and the worst was yet to come. In 1925, Hitler published Mein Kamph. History loomed and so did Hitler.

But no way will our historic turning resemble 1929. If anything, our day more closely resembles the rural America of the 1830s. A harbinger in our day might be seen in the TV show Lost, part soap opera, part Saturday matinee, part New Age cult film. It starts with a plane crash and follows in a long, epic struggle; a struggle for the life and death of the American soul, crashing, burning and striving to be born again.

It implies a breakage – a breach of faith - in the spiritual cohesion and continuum. We experienced this in the early 1800s when there were wild mystic variations and awakenings to the usual Western traditions. Cults and new religions arrived with wild preachers in beards. Pilgrims in bear skin shouting would roam these hills to find the dharma path and often found madness instead.

The great spiritual transformation of the early 1800s which brought the world Joseph Smith and the Mormons and Emerson and the Transcendentalists was for the English Protestants who settled in New England the end of an epoch; the completion of a long spiritual striving which started when the Puritans landed.

This season with the death of Ted Kennedy another epoch ends. That of the Irish, Jewish and others ethnics who arrived here between the 1830s and 1910 in the great migration from Europe. The Irish from that period are now Americans. And anyone who attended U. Mass. in the early ‘70s as I did would have seen the same pattern. Thousands of South Boston-born Irish from families Catholic for well over a thousand years, the first in their families to attend college many of them, filling the football stadium to bask in the aura of a 12-year old Hindu guru and god incarnate. Woodstock memories reawakened this season by Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock give evidence to this. The middle post-war generations were a time of shamanism – Mick Jagger, Madonna and Michael Jackson might even qualify - and utopianism and it lingers up here in northern New England’s hills today. Today the top 10 faiths identified by 150 million Facebook users are Christian first, Hindu fifth, Buddhism sixth and Jedi, a contemporary expression of Taoism, tenth. Jewish ranks seventh.

Both these periods experienced cultural and religious breakage or radical change. Decline of the cultural traditions preceded a major economic crisis. In both periods the dominant cultural group yielded power and position. Both periods were prelude to a full restructuring and reorientation of the American condition. But both signaled early before the coming chaos the nature of the crises ahead and the world and its economies that would arise – born again - after the storm had passed.

In 1941 when North Carolina’s W.J. Cash wrote his classic, The Mind of the South, critical of Confederate nostalgicos he expected to be universally condemned. Instead, the book was widely acclaimed by 50 Southern newspapers. The South had let go and was ready to move forward. Time for us to leave Great Depression and World War II behind as well before we get ourselves in real trouble.