Here’s the thing: I can look back over the decades of my life and and a few before it started, and I can see, up to 1970 anyway, how each one led to the next. With the help of historians, I can do that back another hundred years, and, allowing for a slower pace of life, for each century or so going back to the dawn of time. There’s an unbroken string of action/reaction, cause-and-effect symbiosis that is an integral part of mankind’s psychological make-up: If this, then that. It has always been the way we work, the way we progress or regress, the way we are.
To pick an arbitrary starting point, the mechanized cruelty and pointlessness of the First World War led directly to the blind and worldwide excess of the 20’s; the greed and forced optimism of the 20’s created a bubble of denial that popped and left us with the shreds of an equally worldwide depression in the 30’s; the great Depression created the fever of fear that dictators and militarist govts exploited to bring on the Second World War in the 40’s; the chaos and instability of the previous three decades combined to feed the reactionism of the 50’s when everybody wanted everybody else to just shut up and be quiet for a while; and the restrictive, constipated, oppressive 50’s gave birth to the wild, untamed questioning and rebellion of the 60’s, exactly as it had to.
So far, it all makes sense. Action leads to reaction, cause leads to effect. And then came the 70’s, a decade that never made sense to me, not when it was going on and not now as I look back. The sudden, violent bedrock changes of the 60’s should rightly have produced either a fervent backlash, which they didn’t, or a quiescent period of re-evaluation, which they also didn’t. Instead we got a decade that seems in retrospect almost unbeholden to what came before it. The explosions rippled mildly through the first half of the decade and then all but died; instead of re-evaluating we went into a deep denial that managed to ignore the implications of those fundamental changes, neither accepting nor rejecting them, explicitly or implicitly. We were in a strange sort of stasis: we didn’t grow much but we didn’t retreat much, either; we didn’t foster any more changes, but we didn’t undo many, either. Everything that happened in the 70’s seems to have happened on the surface, and yet we weren’t asleep–or dead. We just seemed to be functioning mechanically, like robots with very simple, basic programming that only allowed for simple, basic responses.
The 80’s, which should have shown a reaction to the superficiality of the previous decade, blossoming with rich new ideas and a yearning for depth, didn’t do any such thing. While there were changes, they remained largely superficial–maybe even more superficial than before. We got greedier, less concerned with our community than we were with our own well-being–especially our financial well-being–but there was something thoughtless, almost automatic, about our greed. It was as if we were responding to cues without feeling them, or feeling very much about them. We concentrated on self–money, health, sex, and food–and yet never really attached all that much meaning to any of them. We did them by rote; we didn’t advocate or defend them, and we looked down on anybody who did. Even the people who looked desperately for a larger meaning to life never acted as though they expected to find one, or as though they thought one truly existed. Like in the 70’s, we spent the 80’s going through the motions; they were different motions, but they were still just motions.
It’s true that the long, slow swing to the right began in the 80’s but it took 20 years to reach fruition in the Clinton-bashing 90’s, hardly a strong reaction if reaction it was. Considering that one segment of the population was using all its money, power and influence to inflate that reaction artificially, it can’t be convincingly argued that it was a genuine reaction to the decade(s) before for anyone but them, and they were a group whose influence was out of all proportion to their numbers. It could even be argued that since Clinton was elected twice despite their best efforts to destroy him by any means possible, fair or foul, the so-called “conservative swing” is a chimera, an illusion, an artificial construct that never took root in the society as a whole but only appeared to.
Take that away and the 90’s begin to look like more of the same–meaningless, mechanical, endlessly repetitive motions that never meant anything or went anywhere. What should have been a time of reaction to greed and selfishness instead was a time when they expanded, but only slightly, automatically, like a COLA–you barely noticed it, and only then if you were looking very closely. More stasis. For all the fervent motion, more stasis. Three solid decades of–nothing. Minimal change, except technologically.
Maybe, because I was part of the 60’s and grew into adulthood imbued with a certainty that nothing would ever be the same again, my expectations are too high. We changed attitudes, belief systems, and social mores that had been intractable parts of the human landscape for 6000 years,. and yet we didn’t inspire either a serious re-trenching or a massive backlash. We seem to have put the country to sleep, or onto automatic pilot. How could that be? What happened to the action/reaction? the cause-and-effect? Did we short-circuit that, too?
From the vantage point of a reasonable knowledge of the patterns of human history, the last thirty years look like an anomaly. They don’t fit. Something is missing, something vital, something fundamentally human. Where we used to reach for the stars, we reach for a new car. Where we used to dream, we acquire. Where we used to believe, we’re suspicious. Where we used to try to connect, we’re trying to stay disconnected. Where we loved, we fear, and where we dared, we shrink.
Something wonderful happened in the 60’s. The intolerance, bigotry and ignorance that mankind had been wanting to rid itself of for millennia were dealt severe blows from which they haven’t fully recovered, but instead of celebrating that achievement, we turn away from it. We try to ignore it without rejecting it. Instead of taking the obvious steps that would solidify the gains we’ve made, we act like we don’t know what to do next–and don’t want to know.
It’s weird. It’s against the lessons of our history, our psychology, and our needs. What’s going on?