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.