22 September 2006

Generational politics

In the early ’90s, Generation Xers like me started to develop some generational consciousness. There was something weird going on in the gap between Xers and our elders that was tricky to put your finger on ... at least until you figured out something that is obvious once you think about it, that the Xers’ gap experience is just plain different from the Baby Boomers’ experience. Once you step away from the previous example, things become a lot clearer.

It was at that time that I found out about Niel Howe and William Strauss, a pair of historians who have a theory about generational cycles in American history and culture. They say that American culture moves in a four-generation cycle, with recurring generational archetypes: Prophets, Nomads, Heroes, and Artists. Boomers are Prophets, while Xers are Nomads, like the Lost Generation that come of age in the 1920s. Folks born since around Reagan's inauguration they call “Millenials,” and Howe and Strauss classify them as Heroes, like the generation that came of age in the Great Depression and WWII.

Their theory is that this generational cycle corresponds to a historical cycle, moving through what they call “turnings:” a High, an Awakening, an Unravelling, and a Crisis. In their book The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy, they said that past Crises included the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the Great Depression / WWII. If you do the math that means that we're just about due for another Crisis. The book was published six years ago and the subtitle turns out to be disconcertingly apt.

So I want to talk about our Crisis, and how it connects to the generations.

I thought of them when I read yet another great post from Digby, this time about the disconcerting implications of recent Boomer veneration of the “Greatest Generation” who came of age during the last Crisis and fought World War Two. It's worth reading Digby's whole post, but I'll quote just a bit to make my point about the generational dynamics here.

I don't think younger people can understand the depth of the generation gap between the baby boomers and their parents, the Greatest Generation. It was a chasm and it turned families inside out for many years. But by the 90's our parents were starting to get very old and for many of us, the fetishizing of the Greatest Generation was a form of generational rapprochement.

For conservative baby boomers, however, it had much more resonance. Vietnam was their war, of course, the most lethal, meaningful hot war of the Cold War, but they had largely avoided it like most of their age group, even as they extolled the warrior virtues and supported the policy. (This led to cognitive dissonance that never left them.) They also sat out or opposed the successful, defining social movements of their generation — civil rights and women's rights — and were looking back at a life made up of nothing more than petty culture war resentment. By the time they came into power even the Cold War was over — resolved by the last presidents of the Greatest Generation. It looked as if the conservative baby boomers were going to be left without any meaningful legacy at all. You could feel their emptiness.

Digby argues that the architects of the Bush administration stood ready to turn that void into the hunger for endless war which I've commented on before.

... if you follow the talk of a grand Clash of Civilizations with “Islamofasists” since 9/11 ... you see that there is an unwholesome satisfaction at the prospect
I see some transparent hungers at work.

I also suspect that there's a kind of generational hunger at work here, too .... [I reference Strauss and Howe's prediction of a Crisis] .... The wheel has turned, and it's that time again. I've felt the call myself, a hunger for national purpose. But the kind of national purpose that speaks to me is very different than what these hawks dream of—their dream is of endless, bloody war.

Digby's piece is largely a reaction to an excellent article by Christopher Hayes from In These Times about how Greatest Generation nostalgia in the ’90s helped to set us up for this attitude.

The WWII that emerges from accounts of the late ’90s is one scrubbed clean of its moral complexity. There is no mention of American big business financing the build-up of the Nazi war machine, no America First campaign determined not to shed American blood for European Jews, no firebombing of civilians in Dresden. The war was difficult, yes, and bloody, but pure and just: a battle, not to put too fine a point on it, between good and evil.

In the hands of the men who would come to dominate American military policy in the Bush administration, this Manichean framework was a useful template to apply indiscriminately to any and all of the military confrontations they had long sought. To the neocons and some breakaway lefties, al-Qaeda members are “Islamofascists,” 21st century heirs to the murderous ideologies of Nazism, fascism and totalitarianism. It is always Munich 1938, every dictator is a “tyrant,” and anyone opposed to a state of perpetual war is guilty of “appeasement.”

In short, in the ’90s many Boomers were psyching themselves up for this bloodthirsty decade, and we didn't know.

I remember that when I first read Howe and Strauss, I had a hard time accepting their prediction that the Prophet Boomers—who of course produced the hippies—would mature into a generation that would send Hero Millenials off to war, just like the Hero Greatest generation before them. I don't have a hard time with that one at all, any more.

Shortly after 9/11, I was near Ground Zero in Manhattan with a friend who had also read Howe and Strauss. We saw a couple of New York's Finest interacting with a gaggle of kids and teenagers there. It was close enough to 9/11 that the kids' natural immunity to the solemnity of any occasion did not protect them from the aura of Ground Zero. The cops still wore the haloes they all had in the wake of their valor on 9/11. Kids, heroes, and a smoking hole in the ground: there was something spooky happening. The kids were very deferential to the cops. There was hope in the eyes of the cops. And there was hope in the eyes of the kids, too, but a different kind. I couldn't quite name what was happening, but my friend did.

“Look at that,” she said. “We're ready to send them off to war. And they're ready to go. It'll be easy.


Anonymous said...

Sorry this is a bit long, but your post covers a lot of ground.
I find the concepts in the book you mention intersting, I've always thought like something like that existed.

However, the people you quote have a perspective of conservative thought that baffles me. Maybe I don't understand, but it sounds like they are saying that the conservatives in the parents of the hippy generation have no legacy. If thats the case, nothing could be further from the truth. They see themselves as the winners of the cold war against Russia, in which Reagan, their hero, delt the final blow. THEY prevented worldwide nuclear war, and the spread of communism, in spite of the 'whining liberals'.
An argument could be made quite the oppisite, in fact, that it is the liberals of that generation, and the following, who worked so hard to shut down that 'hot battle in the cold war', who are hungering for a something to be FOR, and for a legacy, ever since. Which is why they perpetually reframe every conflict the country engages in (except Clintons, curiously) as "another Vietnam".

It further mystifies me that people think it is conservatives that want an "endless war". It is them that claim sucess and victory at every oppertunity, while it is the far left that drops the word 'quagmire' at every oppertunity. The Far left perpetually reframes the conflict as being endless, and without a clear objective, as they imagine Vietnam was.

In fact, the argument could be made, and it is, that it is the Far Left Liberals who want the war without end because it is their cultural Gestalt to protest, and without war to protest, they would have to be "for" something specific, which apart from communist utopias, has never manifested.

I wonder where this person gets the idea that conservatives didn't go to war in Vietnam? I Know I've heard from more than a few.

THis "unwholesome satisfaction" is not due to some unfulfilled psychological need, it is the result of seeing that a world-wide problem that was left to fester throughout the 90's is finally being delt with instead of ignored. If there is a hunger for national purpose, it is only a response to the percieved self-absorbed purposlessness that preceded it. Here I would like to refute the idea that a "few breakaway leftists" support this purpose. The truth is that a large majority of the left sees terrorism as a legitimate threat to Americans. Regardless of if they are right or wrong. It is reflected in the democratic party platform that most liberals are concerned about terrorism, and believe that America needs to do even more to prevent it. Including war. In fact, I would say that Most of my extreem California Liberal friends and family feel that islamofascism is a real problem, one that requires the use of force (among other tactics).

I am left wondering if these people know/talk to any conservatives, or are content to just write about them, and distort thier perspectives and psychological motivations to suit their own fantasies.

Speaking of fantasies, one thing that always baffles me is this stilted language of "sending kids off to war". One popular argument is that Congresspersons should "send their kids off to war if they believe in it so much".

Remember I mentioned that the left superimposes the concept of Vietnam-like quagmire on every conflict we enter into. Vietnam was the last war we "sent" anybody to.
Most importantly;
We are not "Sending" "Kids" off to a "endless war" What Is happening is that Adults of nearly all ages are voulenteering to enter into a conflict with specific aims, with up to 80% of them, including many who were injured, returning for a second and even third tour.
To frame what is happening as "Forcing our mindless, helpless children into an endless conflict for our own psychological satisfaction", is not only is an incredible disservice to our military servicepeople, but validates the conservatives view that the left wishes to superimpose the specter of Vietnam on every conflict it encounters, while painting its own countries motivations in as sinister and evil a light as possible, for its their ideological purposes.

Jonathan Korman said...

That's a provocative and interesting comment, and I'm embarassed that I don't have time to respond at the length I'd like. So instead, a few quick observations.

Certainly, there are a handful of folks deep in the left who have romantic vanguardist dreams that are best served by having endless causes to protest against. But that hardly characterizes the left and center-left in general.

But it's absurd to say that the idea of a Long World Conflict With Islamist Terror is the invention of liberals. There's plenty of conservative rhetoric to this effect, including from the President himself. A war that ends when terror is defeated is endless war. Am I missing something?

Follow the link to that earlier post I referenced above, and you'll find plenty of references to conservatives' dreams of endless war.

Jonathan Korman said...

Coming back to pick up a few points.

it sounds like they are saying that the conservatives in the parents of the hippy generation have no legacy

Sorry that wasn't clear. The parents of the Baby Boomers, in the Greatest Generation, obviously do have a legacy. But in the post I quoted and linked, Digby contends that among Boomers, liberals have a legacy of social change (the Women's and Civil Rights movements) while conservatives do not.

You make a valid point, Anonymous, that conservative Boomers imagine themselves as the heroes who won the Cold War, which may undercut Digby's argument for conservatives' sense of emptiness. But I think you seriously misunderstand liberals' perspective if you think that they envy the conservatives their participation in the thrilling victory in the Cold War, which simply wasn't that interesting to them. As Digby says, liberal Boomers see themselves as agents of important social revolutions. (In fact, Xers like me are a little tired of them constantly patting themselves on the back for it.)

I wonder where this person gets the idea that conservatives didn't go to war in Vietnam?

Because most Americans didn't go to war in Vietnam. It was not a mass experience as WWI and WWII were. And most notably, the neoconservative architects of the Iraq war almost universally did not serve in Vietnam.

And as for the “War on Terror” and the Iraq War having “specific aims,” I for one would like to hear what those are.

the left superimposes the concept of Vietnam-like quagmire on every conflict we enter into

I'll certainly agree that the left sees Vietnam as a mistake that we don't want to repeat. No more quagmires. I've written before about how the left and right in the US drew different lessons from Vietnam.

But it is hardly strange that after 42 months at war in Iraq, with no end in sight, liberals are calling Iraq a “quagmire,” now is it? Since those of us, like me, who worried that Iraq would become a quagmire have been proved right by events that were entirely under the control of conservatives, I don't think there's any room to say that talk of quagmire is a result of some liberal desire, but rather a recognition of reality.