One of my favorite bumper stickers from the campaign last fall was: “1.20.09: End of an Error.” Because it was not only the end of W. but really the end of the conservative era that began with Reagan. But, isn’t there a better descriptor for the last 25 years than “conservative era”? Isn’t there a book or other work of art that defines the seismic shift in American spirit today?
To that end, our fair Fight Club recently read “Promised Land: 13 Books That Changed America” by Jay Parini. Parini skillfully makes the case that these 13 books each captured (in some cases precipitated) an historic pivot point in American history. Parini takes a chronological approach beginning with “Of Plymouth Plantation: 1620-1647” by William Bradford and ending with “The Feminine Mystique” by Betty Friedan first published in 1963. This begs the question: what book (or other medium for that matter) captures or defines the American zeitgeist since 1963?
For once, Fight Club was speechless. No one could think of a book that describes the many pivot points we’ve had since 1963. Finally, Rich H. threw out Google, the search engine. Though Google does not provide any commentary on our current times, it provides a means to an end and certainly represents the disruptive nature of the Internet. Everyone seemed to agree that was a good choice. Then, Matt H. threw out Star Wars, the pop culture phenomenon created by George Lucas. Given that we’re all men in our 30s, the Star Wars demographic, we all agreed. I thought this was an interesting choice because, although the first movie came out in 1977, it nicely sums up the 80s for me. Reagan was elected, we were fighting a good war (if by proxy) against the “evil empire,” and the “force” (recently deregulated and unfettered capitalism) was on our side. There was an optimism and bullishness about our future, especially after the dissolution of the USSR.
But, it seems to me to be a sad commentary that, in the company of Walden, Huckleberry Finn, and On The Road, the best we could come up with is Google and Star Wars. Is there no work of art that broadly captures the huge changes in our lifetime? In the 46 years since “Feminine Mystique” is there no book that resonates broadly on the pivots of Vietnam, AIDs, end of the Cold War, ever-growing income gap, 9/11, Iraq, Barack Obama? Perhaps there have been too many pivot points and we’re just disoriented? Maybe the great American road story has run out of pavement and our Great Expansion is over? Maybe we lit out for the territory in search of the promised land and, like Sal, simply found that the road ends at the Pacific.
In any case, we find ourselves a year into this Great Recession and, upon looking around at the flotsam and jetsam, are disgusted with the 25 years of binge-consumption, greed and avarice it represents. We were too tolerant and permissive with men like Bernie Madoff, Rod Blagojevich, Mark Foley, Ken Lay, Bernie Ebbers, and Charles Keating.
In spite of our transgressions with these scoundrels, they do not define us. We call out to the better angels of our nature – to the grown-ups, The Greatest Generation. What do our grandfathers say about our current situation? Well, they’re wringing theirs hands – some saying I told you so, others like Arthur Levitt and Alan Greenspan are actually apologizing. But, mostly they’re implicated, swept up in the “New Economy” and “New World Order” – guys like George H.W. Bush, Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, and Dick Cheney.
The American character is both Ben Franklin and Sal Paradise. Some of the time we embody the Yankee ethic ofsobriety, practical ingenuity, common sense and fair play. At other times, it’s all sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll. But, it’s not to say that we’ve experienced some moral decline (see Dr. Spock). This dual nature of the American character was there from the beginning. William Bradford chronicles the virtuous and God-fearing Plymouth Plantation while scolding his fellow colonist Thomas Morton who had the nerve to…
… set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing about it many days together, inviting the Indian women, for their consorts, dancing and frisking together (like so many fairies, or furies rather) and worse practices. As if they had anew revived & celebrated the feasts of ye Roman Goddess Flora, or ye beastly practices of ye mad Bacchanalians.
Fair reader, what say you? Does the Campbell’s soup painting by Andy Warhol, “Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe, or “An Inconvenient Truth” with Al Gore, capture the zeitgeist? Or, maybe that’s what makes Parini’s 13 books that much more remarkable – they only come around once in a great while.