Saturday, February 28, 2009

An Exhausted Age (Part II)

In the last post, I argued that the turning of centuries does mark a turning of the ages, a new epoch, but that it takes time. Previous centuries didn't get under way for a good fifteen years: 1517, 1610 or '25, 1715, 1815, 1917. All the talk about President Obama marking a new age is appropriate, but perhaps premature. But the biggest weakness of this talk is that it so seldom considers what defined the 20th century. How can we know a new age is dawning if we don't know what the last age was?

I'd like to offer the argument that the 20th century was an age of exhaustion. In 1920, Warren Harding's winning campaign theme -- and it won him 60% of the popular vote, 73% of the electoral vote, and every state outside the South, plus Tennessee -- was "a return to normalcy." The Harding-Coolidge decade is best known for its free-market economics (for which it should be commended), and these too were a repudiation of Wilson's progressivism (including amending the Constitution to create a federal income tax), but in fact, the free-market part was the one vestige of 19th century thinking.

Meanwhile, the '20s were marked by the imposition of massive tarrifs and America's first -- and drastic -- laws against immigration. In other words, a key part of "normalcy" was isolationism. The '20s are also known, of course, for a massive coarsening of social mores. Not for nothing does Russell Kirk see this decade less in terms of the free market than in terms of selfishness and hedonism. The free market connected the '20s to the past, but everything else set the stage for the century to come. "Normalcy" may have included a return to old-fashioned economics, but it was not about tradition. 1920's normalcy meant a retreat into the self.

The reason is obvious. In 1920, normalcy meant getting away from the horrors of the Great War, the war to end all wars. The bloodshed was atrocious, the economic cost catastrophic. Normalcy meant shutting out the terror of the old world. As a campaign theme, it is significant not that people wanted normalcy, but that they defined it in this way. Normalcy was a cry of exhaustion.

The War to End All Wars. One of the most interesting trends of the 20th century was the desire for finality. This would be the last war. Then, we would found a League of Nations, to simply outlaw war -- forever. Then came another war, and a somewhat more successful version of the League of Nations, that did more or less outlaw war -- at least while the world was run by people exhausted in World War II.

Consider the way we talk about the Holocaust. Don't get me wrong: I do not deny that it was one of the greatest crimes in the history of humanity. I have been to Auschwitz, and to the museum in Washington, many times. But consider the slogan, "never again." Never? Of course we never want it to happen again. Of course we will do what we can. But never? Is that within our grasp? The remarkable thing about the 20th century was that Hitler was not alone in seeking a "final solution," a cure-all that would end our problems "forever," the end of history, and a reign that would last a thousand years.

Economic trends moved in the same direction. Russia's great revolution, of course, was supposed to provide a final solution for the problems of the proletariat. Once you got things set up right, poverty would be over forever: never again! We were more balanced in America, but our own socialist revolution aimed at the same goal. First the New Deal, then the Great Society, are almost defined by their opposition to Jesus's maxim, "the poor you will always have with you." No! Never again! We will eliminate the need for charity, eliminate the need for competition, and hard work, and scraping to get ahead, and establish a just "system," with a safety net that no one can fall through. A system in which no one ever fails. Never again.

So too the Civil Rights movement. Again, don't get me wrong. I think it was a great thing to make sure everyone could vote, and get a fair trial. These are "civil rights," properly defined: but where you eat lunch is a more complicated issue. The Civil Rights movement quickly shifted from a concern about actual civil rights, that is, rights proper to citizens, into an attempt to abolish race and ethnicity.

I can't possibly do this justice in a little corner of this post, but look, ethnic tensions, too, will always be with us. There are different groups in society. The attempt, beginning mid-way through the 20th century, to eliminate these things is destined to fail, since "prejudice" (that is, judging the present in light of the past), recognition of difference, and the presence of different groups within the broader society, are all as natural as natural can be.

But in the '60s, we were all about homogeneity, about permanently eliminating difference, so that we would no longer have to struggle to understand each other. Never again! We are tired of these challenges, so we will abolish ethnicity forever. Whether or not you agree with me that this is a bad thing, do you see the exhaustion behind it, the frustration with the inherent challenges of life?

In the 20th century, the highest virtue was tolerance. Tolerance is a good thing: in its proper context. St. Peter says, "love covers a multitude of sins." Where there is love, there is tolerance. But the 20th century isn't about love. It was, in fact, about eliminating loves, eliminating anything that sets people apart as different, or causes them to think too critically. Love is about drawing people together. Without love, tolerance is about leaving people alone.

The sexual revolutions of the 1920's and 1960's are part of this dynamic. Old sexual mores were about society taking care of people, protecting them against bad decisions, calling them to greatness. The Sexual Revolution banished greatness in favor of leave me alone. Just as the 20th century increasingly tried to banish religion, with its normative claims, its concern to help people attain some higher ideal. This is the replacement of love with tolerance. And indeed, this plays a part in modern social welfare: the goal of the welfare state is not to "care" about people, but to make care irrelevant, so that people don't need families anymore, or communities, or ideals. Social welfare is not about economic responibility; it is about replacing the challenge of personal charity with a system.

The 20th century was an age of exhaustion. True, there was energy to fight big fights: to eliminate poverty, and racism, and sexual inhibitions. People fought hard for these things. But they fought no harder than people had previously fought: the people who had fought to eliminate poverty and racism on a personal level, through personal charity; the people who fought to reform the laws of society in accord with moral truth; and the people who fought to get themselves out of poverty, to get themselves past unfair stereotypes, to live an upright life. I dare say Al Smith fought a lot harder as a kid working in the Fulton Fish Market than FDR fought sitting in the White House outlawing poverty. The difference of the 20th century was not fighting hard, but fighting for permanent solutions, fighting to make these fights not matter anymore, fighting to make life easy from here on out. In the 1920's Americans fought hard to get foreigners out of their country -- so they wouldn't have to worry about the outside world anymore.

And then, of course, there's that great cord that connects Woodrow Wilson and George W(ilson) Bush: making the world safe for democracy. I am sympathetic to the concern to liberate others from tyranny, and also to the argument that tyranny in foreign lands can be a threat to us at home. What concerns me is the naive belief that if we just get the right system in place -- in Germany and Japan, in Russia, or in the Middle East -- than democracy will replace tyranny forever. There's some truth to the claim that "freedom is on the march," but beware cries of "never again." Democracy is a muddling through, not a permanent solution, and it gives us Putin at least as often as Lincoln.

The exhaustion of the 20th century is most evident in Europe. There has not been war there for sixty years, and that is a great thing. But is there life? Germany doesn't fight because Germany doesn't have the will to fight. I'm glad to be done with Hitler, but the Germans don't even love themselves anymore. Is that a good thing? The exhaustion of the last century, in foreign policy, in morals, in economics, is anything but a permanent solution.

Economically, the 20th century saw us take loan upon loan. Notice the irony: we tried to find permanent, bureaucratic ways to solve our problems. We wanted never again to face economic difficulties. And we only dug ourselves deeper into the dirt. Nothing could be less permanent than the 20th century's desire to outlaw poverty. Meanwhile, Europe has finally lost the will to stand up to the Moslem onslaught; their rejection of conflict prevented them from attacking each other, but it will not keep them from being attacked. And throughout the western world, our hopes to banish the need for sexual morals has only left us with a cultural wasteland. Perhaps we would find better solutions if they didn't have to be final.

The 20th century was an age of exhaustion; today we face the exhaustion of that age. Obama claims to bring a "new" politics, in which we no longer have to worry about ideas, we can spend our way out of problems while claiming fiscal responsibility, and we can "agree to disagree" about moral issues. The rhetoric is new, but the exhaustion, the refusal to face decisions, the hope that we can just wish away the things that scare us: all of this is oh-so-20th-century.

What does the age ahead hold? Who can say?! But I predict an end to claims that ideas don't matter, an end of tolerance, and more vigorous conflict, both at home and abroad, as we face the debts of our parent's irresponsibility. The generation that is now dying fought a horrible war, saw awful things, and hoped they could just retire to the suburbs, where everything would be nice and we wouldn't have to fight anymore. They let their children go crazy in the '60s, because they couldn't bear any more conflict. They let their government spend their country into the ground, because they couldn't bear to face any more sacrifices. But that generation is all but gone, and the generation raised in their homes is slowly fading from power. The next century must pay the debts. And so many of us are tired of the exhaustion, ready for something new.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

An Exhausted Age (Part I)

There has been an awful lot of talk about how Obama's election marks the turning point to a new era. I am sympathetic to the basic idea. Not every age is the same. The verities of the twentieth century, the things that defined public life and culture, are not eternal verities. History does not go in a straight line.

I have been reading the multi-volume history of the Church by the great French Catholic historian Henri Daniel-Rops. I was struck by a comment he made, in the volume on the seventeenth century, about the turning of centuries. He notes that ages typically turn over, not at the year '00, but usually some twenty years later. The Victorian Age, for example, did not really come to a close until World War I; TR stood at the cusp, but lived in a world more like the 19th century than the 20th.

The 19th century itself didn't start until around Waterloo, in 1815. Again, Napoleon and Jefferson were certainly turning a new page, but they were only the beginning. The struggles that defined the nineteenth century -- industrialism, the American civil war, the migrations of people, the hegemony of the middle class, etc. -- did not start till later. (Paul Johnson's exquisite The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830 makes this case brilliantly.)

Until Louis XIV died in 1715, France, and all of Europe, was still deep in the grand siecle. The Enlightenment, and the 18th century, didn't really start till later. William and Mary's "glorious revolution" of 1688 was a harbinger of things to come -- but also profoundly enmeshed in the struggles of the English 17th century, symbolized by the bloody transition from the absolute monarchy of James I (who lived till 1625), through the revolution of Cromwell's Parliament, to the balance begun with William and Mary (whom Parliament brought in to boot the legitimate king, Mary's older brother James II). The Hanoverian Georges, who really mark the English century, didn't come to the throne till 1714.

But can we really think of the 17th century without Richelieu (beginning in 1624), the Thirty Years War (began 1618), and the English new world (Massachusetts founded 1630)? Henri IV didn't die till 1610. And in the realm of culture, Vincent de Paul began the Mission in 1625, Bacon published the Novum Organum in 1620, and the Galileo controversy began in 1616.

And though Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509), the victor of the Wars of the Roses, certainly marked a new stage in the history of England, it's hard to deny that the 16th century begins with Henry VIII, Luther at Wittenberg (1517), and the intellectual accendancy of Erasmus (In Praise of Folly: 1511). Michaelangelo and Titian came onto the scene around 1508, Raphael about 1513. And Holy Roman Emperor Charles V wasn't crowned till 1519.

There's a prima facie absurdity about thinking in terms of centuries. How much does the year '00 really matter? And of course, it matters nothing in itself -- but much in the way it affects our thinking. Rome has been celebrating epoch-marking jubilees since way back in the Middle Ages, driving home to leaders and commoners alike that the ages are turning. And though it's true that the Middle Ages had no "historical consciousness" in the sense of thinking through the historical context of past authors, they were quite fond of referring to themselves as moderni, in contradistinction to the ancients. Seeing ourselves as part of a new age is nothing new.

And surely the turning over of a new century contributes much to this thinking. Henry Adams is famous for contemplating the new age dawning in the year 1900, but surely he was not alone. It's easy to imagine Napoleon thinking he marked a new age -- the despotic version of "change you can believe in" -- that updated things for the new century; probably the French revolutionaries had the same epochal mind. Did Jefferson know that he was the first president of the 1800s? Yes.

Nor is this anything new. I don't think it's hard to imagine Henry VIII and his father thinking that the 16th century was going to be something new. The turning of the centuries, so profoundly celebrated by the Catholic Church, encourages men of every age to rethink what it means to be modern. The generation coming of age today knows very well that their parents grew up in a different century. I don't think there's anything new about that awareness. Barrack Obama, Peggy Noonan, and all the rest of them talk so incessantly about this being a new century -- and they stand in a long tradition.

This contemporary awareness of the turning of ages is, no doubt, self-fulfilling. In any case, it's a good way of explaining what seems to be a fact of history: the 1300's were not at all like the 13th century, was not like the 12th, was not like the 11th. And all the more so in the ages closer to us. There is truth in the conflation of the French word siecle, and the Latin saeculum: words meaning both "century" (100 years) and "age." Each century is a new age.

But the birth of a new age takes time. Looking back, it's hard to miss the number 15: 1917 (height of World War I, fall of the Romanovs), 1815 (Waterloo), 1715 (death of Louis XIV -- George I came to England the year before), 1618 (the Thirty Years War), 1517 (the 95 theses). Sure, 15 itself is a coincidence, but perhaps fifteen years represents about the length of time it takes for a new generation to come of age. In 2009, the millenial generation is just coming to self-consciousness; Peggy Noonan's columns are probably more like birth pangs -- the old generation telling us that something new is coming -- than the real thing. The seventeenth century couldn't start till Henri IV (1610) and James I (1625) were dead, the eighteenth till the death of Louis XIV (1715) and good Queen Anne, the last of the Stuarts (1714) .

And that dying, that passing of the old guard, has nothing to do with modern media or technology. If anything, we'd expect the Media Age, with its excessive conformity, its intrusion of the elites into our every thought, to make the birth of a new age take longer.

Which is all to say, talk about a new age dawning is historically warranted. The 21st century will not be like the 20th. But reports of the old age's demise may still be premature.

What's most lacking in many of these reports -- and in the rhetoric of the President -- is any serious consideration of what marked the 20th century. ("Partisanship" is about as shallow as you can get.) In the next post, I'll give one take on the spirit of that age. I can't predict what the next age will be like, but maybe knowing what is passing will help us to guess.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


The central thing to know about technology, I guess, is that technology should aid us in living a traditional life, rather than fundamentally remaking our life. That principle, however, needs a lot of working out. For now, I will just discuss one corner of the technological revolution, ubiquitous but not quite world-shaping the way cars, television, or the Pill are: that is, plastics.

Plastic was a word, of course, long before there were plastics. Plastic is an adjective, meaning moldable (from the Greek plassein, to mold or shape). The plastic arts, for example, are things like sculpture or pottery. One modern dictionary defines plastics as "any of a group of synthetic or natural organic materials that may be shaped when soft and then hardened." Ironically, this part of the definition also covers metal and glass.

But, by a common linguistic device, the word plastics has come to refer exclusively to the subset of substances synthesized entirely for their plasticity; metal and glass may be "plastic," but they retain too much of their own nature to be properly "plastics." And that, I think, nicely sets out a corner of the technology question: it is one thing to use naturally occurring substances, and even to refine or synthesize them (as metals are smelted for purity and combined for strength, and we imitate the natural processes by which heat makes glass from sand), but it is quite another thing to create something totally new, purely for its moldability to our purposes. It is akin to the difference between hiring a free man to work for us on his terms, on the one hand, and cloning slaves, on the other. Plastics are designed to have no nature of their own, but to do as we tell them.

That is a little apocalyptic, so let me take a moment to sing the praises of plastics. It is hard for me to miss a central instance in the life of our family. My first son was born with what amounts to a catastrophic plumbing problem in his head. The day after his birth, a surgeon installed a plastic hose that allows fluid to drain from his cervical ventricles into the rest of his body the way it drains from yours and mine. Without this little hose his head would swell until his brain collapsed under the pressure. With the hose, his brain is fine. A little plastic can do a lot of good. My son's ventricular shunt is not the only reason I say this, but it is the most dramatic: technology is a fabulous servant of life, and I do not think we can rail against technology without expressing a callousness about human life itself.

Nor is the role of plastics in medicine confined to limit cases. My third child was recently born, at home, with midwives, in the most traditional way imaginable, and one of the easiest, healthiest births imaginable (literally forty-five minutes of labor). There came a moment not long after birth, however, when little William was having trouble breathing. Our midwives, who mostly wield herbs and common sense, quickly grabbed their oxygen tank and revived our precious child. The hose and mask, of course, were plastic. (And the synthetic process by which oxygen is isolated and compressed in a metal tank is analogous to the production of plastics.) I do not know what would have become of William without the oxygen; I do know that our midwives are quite radical in their preference for traditional methods. It seems to me that that makes two of my three children who owe their life to plastic medical equipment deployed within twenty-four hours of their birth.

Other deployments of plastic are less urgent, but nonetheless salutary. I think computers, televisions, and the like are dangerous -- they run the risk of defining our lives, rather than helping them. Nonetheless, they can help us get information and stay in touch in ways we otherwise could not. I type, of course, upon a keyboard made of plastic, as I look at a plastic screen.

The wires that carry my signal are all covered in plastic -- and, let it be noted, some of the first ground-breaking discoveries in plastics were made in trying to find a way to insulate wires for more humdrum concerns like heat and lighting. Proclaim that you hate computers, and even electric lights, those banes of traditional living, but on a Minnesota day that has dipped well below zero Fahrenheit, I cannot help being thankful for the electricity that keeps us warm. (Actually, our house is heated with natural gas -- but the process by which the gas comes to us is analogous to the ultra-synthesis of plastics; the spark that lights the gas is electric; our thermostat uses plastic-insulated wires; and my mother's new gas furnace delivers steam to the radiators using pvc piping, which is far more efficient than the eighty-year-old insulated pipes in our old house -- and thus lets her devote far less of her life to earning money for heating. About two days of my Ph.D. income this month will go entirely to heating our tiny apartment.)

To appreciate the goodness of plastics, let's imagine life without them. I, an intellectual, could throw out not only my computer, but even my plastic pens, and work with ink and quill, as indeed did my forefathers in the intellectual life. Perhaps I would only read books similarly printed. My intellectual master, Thomas Aquinas, did as much -- though he had to tramp all over Europe to find even the monuments of his own tradition. The point I would like to make about such a life is that it revolves around "technology" -- or rather, it's lack -- more than mine does. The intellectual life must keep contact with the world of flesh-and-blood. But to be constrained by one's ability to hunt down a quill, and keep it sharpened and inked, to be constrained to only the books that are so written and delivered, is to make the intellectual life the slave of the material -- which, it seems to me, is precisely what we want to avoid. We should be careful not to let technology rule us. But rejecting technology takes us deeper into the same problem.

The same goes for family life. Surely family life is much destroyed when it revolves around a plastic screen. (I am pretty sure televisions no longer have glass screens, but in any case, the thing is mostly plastic, and all technology.) But the opposite is just as true. To let our children die so we can oppose plastics, technology, and the over-complicated modern life, is insanity. To give up heat, or the synthetic blankets that wrap our newborn infant, is to become the servant of technology. To never call Grandma because we would have to use a plastic phone: insanity.

This is not to encourage insouciance. The danger of plastics is that the over-synthesized life comes to be denatured. I recall countless times lying on the floor, or the couch, of my grandparents' living room, pondering the wooden ceiling (stained and preserved, of course, with utterly synthetic materials). Wood is alive. It is something to work with, more a partner than a slave. Even the cheap Ikea desk at which I now sit has its knots and its grain. Glued together and mass-produced it may be, but the thickness of the shelves, the very construction of the glued joints, is determined by the material, not by the human creator.

There is, I believe, no more important lesson in life than this: we are not our own makers; we do not make our own world; we are coworkers, working with natures, whether material, personal, or social, that are given to us, and that will assert their own character if we fight against it. A beautiful wooden ceiling is alive with its own life, a dance between the carpenter and his materials. So too our own life, and our communal life, is about working with creation, entering in, indeed, to the very work of God who made it. A too-thin wooden shelf will snap under the weight -- as will a psyche or a community.

The danger of plastics is that we come to think we alone are the creators. Plastics are our slaves. They still have their own natures, to be sure -- any engineer will tell you that you have to work with them, and accept their limits. Nonetheless, my wife and I are cautious about surrounding our children with too many plastic toys. The world of Mickey Mouse -- and now far beyond -- is a world defined by our whimsies. Wile E. Coyote can fall off a cliff and suffer no ill effects, of body or soul. The plastic world is too much like that. A wooden train, tin soldiers: these maintain a character of themselves. Our plastic Thomas the Tank Engine is ready-made, a personality dreamed up by Central Marketing and mass-produced so that our children can plug into that man-made fantasy world.

Which is all to say, a world without nature is dangerous. I am glad for something that can be shaped into a ventricular shunt, or an oxygen mask, or even a computer, a pen, or a wire insulator. These things serve our life (or at least, the computer can serve our life), and they can only be at all if we have materials that bend to our will. But life itself does not bend to our will. It is given. And a life that makes use of plastics for its own ends should not become a plastic life, in which all seems to be merely our own creation.