Saturday, May 20, 2017

Are We Headed For War?

I used to think historical events could be explained by the personalities of "great men." It's probably a byproduct of the way history is taught in school. For example, the pat explanation for the American Revolution is that Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. loved liberty and made it happen. I never stopped to consider that liberty-loving people have lived in every age and place, but can only put their ideas into action when other factors out of their control happen to line up.

Generational trends, meaning changes in the collective personality of a population that occur over the scale of several decades, are one of those historical forces that do not move according to the desires of a few "great men." Generational trends used to be commonly discussed, but most historians today only care about race and gender as drivers of history.

The runup to the Civil War was dominated by the Transcendental Generation. The Transcendentals came of age during the boring 1820s, the so-called Era of Good Feeling. Without external events to react to, the young Transcendentals turned to perfecting themselves from the inside.

The Transcendentals were intuitionists. They believed you should just make up your mind about things, and then defend your opinions rigidly against such inconveniences as tradition, reason, the opinions of other people, and science. An important feature of the Transcendentals was that it was not enough to simply march to the beat of your own drum - it was important to live in a community where everyone else marched to the beat of that same drum. I'm caricaturing here, but you can draw your own conclusions from a few historical examples.

When John Humphrey Noyes conjured a variety of strange sexual rules in the 1840s, he didn't just go around giving speeches about them. He started his own town, the Oneida Community, in which these rules would be law. The Brook Farm community allowed people to do whatever type of work they wanted and still receive equal pay. The Fruitlands people shunned hot baths and drank only water. None of these ideas worked for very long, but that wasn't the point. The point was, you drew morals from deep down, then demanded that they be law.

As applied to private conduct, Transcendentalism looked like harmless eccentricity. And it had a universal brotherhood theme. Here's Emerson in 1841 bursting with love for friend and stranger alike:

We have a great deal more kindness than is ever spoken.  Maugre all the selfishness that chills like east winds the world, the whole human family is bathed with an element of love like a fine ether. How many persons we meet in houses, whom we scarcely speak to, whom yet we honor, and who honor us! How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth.

But when rationality is rejected, compromise is impossible. This inevitably drew Transcendentals out of their inner perfectionism to meet the great political and moral question of the day, slavery. The Transcendentals offered the harshest criticism of the Compromisers who kept the nation together through the 1850s. For the most part the Transcendentals came to believe slavery was the most important moral wrong of the day, and if it took war to end it, then so be it. Emerson sounds positively pacifist in the quote above, but listen to him in 1860:

Civil war, national bankruptcy, or revolution, [are] more rich in the central tones than languid years of prosperity.

But I'm talking about the Transcendentals as a complete generation, not just the adherents of a philosophy out of Harvard. The Transcendental generation of the South said that slavery was not merely an economic arrangement, but, guess what, a moral imperative. Here is John C. Calhoun in 1837:

Never before has the black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.

Conventional histories tell us that the special nature and urgency of the slavery issue, abetted by increasing cotton prices, made civil war inevitable. But cotton production had been booming since the cotton gin was invented in 1793. Why did a resolution of slavery become urgent in the 1850s? Why did war come in 1860 and not 1800?  To answer that, we have to look at generational changes in mood. Heading into the 1860s, a generation came to power that would not compromise. They thirsted for a final and total resolution, got the war they wanted, and then largely departed from public life. As soon as the war was over, the younger generation began undoing the Transcendentals' resolution, with the Jim Crow system enforced in the South and tolerated by the North.

The Baby Boomers have almost perfectly recapitulated the evolution of the Transcendentals from gentle philosophizers to fire-breathing warmongers. Like the Transcendentals, the Boomers came of age during the culturally sterile 1950s. Their parents doted on them in new, child-centered suburbs. And like the Transcendentals, the Boomers came to detest the very stability and calm their war-scarred parents and grandparents had offered. They searched for the inner demons and demanded everyone else join them, or at least honor their struggles. The Boomers carried out their inner perfectionist program from 1964 to 1980, and after a lull, Act II may be upon us.

If the Boomers are the new Transcendentals, what is going to be their galvanizing issue, their slavery? I think it could be globalization, or the financialized economy, or whatever you want to call it. (It'll have a name in fifty years.) The Boomer generational personality wants a final, climactic resolution of something, and this may be it. They auditioned one thing, the Vietnam-era draft, but that was mainly an issue for the young.  The economy affects everyone. The Boomers may finally have their cause.

On one side, you have the Boomer Donald Trump, who is a pragmatist (not a Boomer characteristic) but also carries the classic Boomer/Transcendentalist personality of apocalyptic rhetoric, disdain for custom, and a resistance to analysis. On the other side, you have the Washington establishment, largely a creation of Boomer presidents Clinton and Bush, with its consensus of globalized, neoliberal economics and military interventionism, and most importantly, its institutionalized deformation of what is allowed to be debated (leave trade deals to the experts, but please do wear yourselves out arguing over transgender bathrooms.) Are we headed for war? I would look for the withering away of compromiser voices in Congress. I would look for a sustained, calculated urgency, the drumbeats like the Southern secessionist conventions of 1860 and Lincoln's refusal to yield federal property to the seceding states.  Finally, I would look for acts of violent resistance like the Harper's Ferry raid.

Other American generations have driven us to war. The generational theorists call them "prophet" generations. When the next younger generation (always a less ideological, more pragmatic, but more passive generation) is at least assertive enough to restrain the prophet generation from its excesses, the outcome is positive. An example is World War II, when the prophet generation of that time, the one of FDR and Douglas Mac Arthur, was restrained by the next youngest generation, the "Lost Generation" of Patton and Eisenhower. Today's equivalent of that younger, more practical generation is my own, Generation X. We are a hardened, cynical, sometimes selfish bunch. Are we up to the task that fate may be about to dump in our lap?