End of an Error, But An Historical Pivot?


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.


1 Response to “End of an Error, But An Historical Pivot?”

  1. 1 bobbyjones March 27, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Kurt Andersen writes a fantastic article in Time, “The End of Excess: Is This Crisis Good for America?” I’ve copied some of the best paragraphs below.

    “The popular culture tried to warn us. For 20 years, we’ve had Homer Simpson’s spot-on caricature of the quintessential American: childish, irresponsible, willfully oblivious, fat and happy. And more recently we winced at the ultra-Homerized former earthlings of WALL•E.”

    “Our great national rehab won’t be easy. But it wasn’t only in olden times that Americans have coped with breathtaking flux and successfully undertaken dramatic change. In fact, we’ve just done it. During the era recently ended, we adapted to hundreds of TV channels and multiple phone companies and airlines that arise and disappear as fast as strip-mall stores. Women have come close to achieving real equality; being gay has become astoundingly public and unremarkable. And speaking of shaking off addictions, half again as many of us smoked cigarettes in the early ’80s. We watched (and helped) the Soviet Union and its European empire collapse and watched (and helped) China change from a backward, dangerous Orwellian nation into a booming, much less Orwellian member of the global order. During just the past 15 years, we’ve managed to reduce murders in New York City by two-thirds; grown accustomed to the weird transparency and instant connectedness of the new digital world; sequenced the human genome; and inaugurated a black President. That’s change.”

    “Only six months ago, we thought we might be on the verge of a remarkable new era — thanks to the possible election of Obama. It is bizarre how secondary that epochal change now seems. It’s as if Jesus had returned — but just afterward extraterrestrials landed, and as a result everybody stopped paying much attention to the holy dude.”

    “Once the crises have passed, however, I think we’ll rediscover the ramifications, small and large, of the enlightened national turn we made last Nov. 4 and start enjoying the dawn of a new era of racial reconciliation.”

    “The utterly international nature of our present economic hell makes it all the scarier. But in the long run, I think we will also see an upside: the meltdown amounts to a spectacular moment of global consciousness, this generation’s version of the Apollo astronauts’ iconic 1968 photograph of the earth from the moon — an unforgettable reminder that all 6.7 billion of us are in this together, profoundly and inextricably interdependent. (The sublime always has a bit of terror mixed in.)”

    “If you want to feel encouraged about our economic near future — not this damned decade but the one to come — ignore the stock traders and go talk to some venture capitalists. They aren’t quite giddy (after the ’80s and ’90s and ’00s, beware all giddiness), but they are optimistic about an imminent tide of innovations in technology, energy and transportation. Recall, please, the national mood in the mid-’70s: after the 1960s party, we found ourselves in a slough of despondency, with an oil crisis, a terrible recession, a kind of Weimarish embrace of decadence, national malaise — and at that very dispirited moment, Microsoft and Apple were founded. The next transformative, moneymaking technologies and businesses are no doubt coming soon to a garage near you.”

    “The baby boomers were historically fortunate: they missed the Great Depression and World War II, and though they grew up with the hideous ambient hum of potential nuclear Armageddon, until they reached middle age, the only great national trauma was the one — the ’60s and Vietnam — in which they were the self-regarding stars. The so-called millennials, on the other hand, have come of age during a period defined by the digital revolution, 9/11, financial bubbles bursting, a possible depression and the election — possibly their election — of an African-American President: the makings, frankly, of a healthier, more useful generational creation myth than assassinations, antiwar protests and countercultural bacchanalia (which, by the way, enabled the risk-taking, party-hearty, quasi-utopian paradigm of the past quarter-century). In other words, the kids are all right.”

    “Yes, we must start spending again, and we will. But we’ve all known people who, having survived the 1930s, never lost their Depression habits of frugality. And so it will be again. We don’t need to turn ourselves into tedious, zero-body-fat, zero-carbon-footprint ascetics, but even after the economy recovers, deciding to forgo that third car or fifth TV or imperial master bathroom or marginally cooler laptop will come more naturally.”

    “For our past two centuries, a key to national prosperity and power was the extraordinary physical scale of our land, our population, our natural resources. China has similar advantages today, and partly because we have already been there and done that, paving the way, it has been able to develop in fast motion, cramming 100 years of development into 30. But I’m reminded of Philip Johnson’s apt, bitchy description of Frank Lloyd Wright during the forward looking 1930s “as the greatest architect of the 19th century.” Twenty-first century China is the greatest country of the 20th century. Muscular industrialism gets you only so far. Further increases in productivity and prosperity require ingenuity and enterprise applied at the micro scale — digital devices and networked systems, biotechnology, subatomic nanotechnology. As China and other developing countries finally achieve the industrial plenty that we enjoyed 50 years ago, the U.S. can stay ahead once again by pioneering the next-generation technologies that the increasingly industrialized world will require.”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


Blog Stats

  • 91,913 hits

%d bloggers like this: