But to get to the point, there's a book I've been hyping for almost 20 years now as the book about American history, the book without you having read it, I don't know how in the heck you manage to either understand anything about American history, or even keep it all straight in your head: Neil Howe and William Strauss, Generations. I know some of the reasons I've had a hard time getting people to actually sit down and read it. It is thick as a brick, and it starts out kind of slow and very, very deliberately. The reason it does so is the other reason why (until recently) you'd heard very little about it except from cranks like me; Strauss & Howe set out to do something that all professional academic historians had declared impossible, namely, identify an easily understandable and completely predictable recurring trend in American history, one with dominating and important influence over how the country's history has turned out, and will continue turning out. Grand Unified Theories of History were, and still are, frowned upon, so the first couple of hundred pages of Generations are grindingly methodical specifically in an attempt to prove to academic historians that no, we're not the only ones who noticed some parts of this, no, they're not all that controversial even within your field, no, we're not making as sweeping a set of assertions as you might think, and no, we didn't pull this out of our backsides without doing a ton of rock-solid statistical analysis first and developing a solid theoretical model.
And at the end, it goes further, and it won my heart thereby at the time, by adding, and no, they weren't expecting anybody to believe them yet. Instead, based on their theoretical and statistical analysis, they made not quite 90 years' worth of predictions for American history and said that if their theory was right, more of their predictions than could be expected by chance were going to come true; if substantial numbers of them did not, it would prove their theory false. As I said, it's been just shy of 20 years since Generations came out. And with very few exceptions, those 20 years have been very, very, very good to Strauss & Howe. In fact, their book and the work of its small but devoted cult of follow-on researchers who were impressed by them early on have become mandatory reading for political campaigns this year.
By coincidence, I've been going through it again myself for about a month now, slowly and carefully. phierma and cos_x and I have been getting together Tuesday nights to catch each other up on our favorite TV series and movies for a long while now, a chance to socialize while they get work done on their various projects. When we ran low on TV series and movies that one of us had that the other(s) were eager to catch up with, it turned out that they love to be read to, and I love to read aloud, so we started working on books, and their choice for the second book was Strauss & Howe, Generations. Last Tuesday night, we got to the first of the "prediction" chapters ... and I got halfway down the first paragraph and my own jaw fell right out of my head. You see, this would be my first time re-reading it since 9/11, and one of the things that I had failed to remember was that something very, very like 9/11 was something that they predicted. They completely failed to predict the exact timing; on the contrary, they specifically said that New York City being attacked, and a major chunk of it destroyed, by Islamic terrorists was a distinct possibility at any time. What they were specifically saying was that if their theory was true, how America would react would be different based on whether it happened in 1990, 2000, 2010, or 2020. And as I started going through the paragraph on how they predicted America would react and how America would change if we were attacked in the year 2000 or in the first couple of years thereafter, my jaw dropped right off all over again. They nailed it. In spooky, but in hindsight not astonishing, ways.
This is the point where, in order to make any sense out of the rest of this, I have to oversimplify their theory in an entirely unconvincing way, one that most of you will flatly refuse to believe because you haven't read the book and seen their extensive statistical and historical and scientific evidence for their argument. But here's the best I can do. They define a "generation" as a group of people, born in a consecutive range of years, who can't help having a lot of traits in common because they were all roughly the same age during major world-changing events. A major war, like say World War II, has different effects on elderly leaders and recent retirees, on people in mid-life career, on people of fighting age or people just enter the workforce, and on children. Individuals will differ, but everybody who was (again, same example) a child during World War II is going to have some things in common with other people who were children during World War II. Since a "phase of life" is roughly 20 or so years, they hypothesized, and their statistical research backed them up, that while demographic wobbles don't follow the same pattern, a new generation comes along about every 20 years. And as they statistically analyzed the generations on a wide variety of traits, they discovered that they can be generalized into only four types, and that they repeat in a specific pattern with one and only one important exception so far in American history going back to the 1620s. Because your attention is at a premium, rather than generalize, let me give specific examples, the four generations who made up most of the American population on September 11th, 2001, from oldest to youngest:
- John McCain's Silent Generation were aged 59 to 76 on 9/11. They were the kids who were just too young to be part of WWII, on average born ten years too late to be war heroes or to have made heroic sacrifices on the home front. They spent their young adulthood sucking up to the GI Generation who'd fought that war and who swept into unquestioned political power after the war. Then around 1965 or so, they were (this time) just barely too old to be part of the Consciousness Revolution, their average member just over that magic "over 30" line that the next generation after them, who dominated the Consciousness Revolution, defined as untrustworthy, and their youngest members already young adults with families and too many responsibilities to go chasing off after a cultural revolution. Not that that stopped them; embarrassing numbers of them spent the 1970s in binges of destructive behavior from trying to pretend they were still uninhibited teenagers (when they had been no such thing in their actual teenage years), leaving an amazing trail of broken marriages and substance abuse hospitalizations behind them.
- George W. Bush's Boom Generation were aged 41 to 58 on 9/11. Their childhood came just as the last of FDR's and Billy Sunday's Missionary Generation were dying off, and if some of them didn't know that, they did grow up noticing that America, while wealthy and powerful, was also smug, self-satisfied about its wealth and power, deeply corrupt, and completely lacking in any meaningful national conversation about values. They grew up as teenagers and 20-somethings to make that their mission, starting an all-out intra-generational war on campuses, mostly between the fundamentalist, reactionary, authoritarian right wing of their generation and the free-spirited, revolutionary, utopian left wing of their generation. The left wing won all the battles but lost the war, not that almost any of them ever admitted that. What really undid them was that by the late 1970s, the wreckage that the Silent generation had made of their kids chasing after the liberal Boomers' Consciousness Revolution, and the even more appalling wreckage the early-wave liberal Boomers had made of their own lives let alone their kids, sparked a massive counter-revolution, splitting them mostly by age: the first half of their generation generally fundamentalist Republican, the last wave (who were too young to see or experience the worst of the wreckage first-hand) still secular or New Age utopian socialists. Per Strauss & Howe, if you think they're the first idealist generation to experience this split, you are 100% wrong. In the 1980s and 1990s this split became known as the Culture Wars. But by the end of the 1990s, they were beginning to reach real positions of power, and it was starting to produce a counter-trend towards trying to find a "third way" within both ideological wings of their generation, a set of ideals they could (mostly) all coalesce upon, that would be the new national consensus. The project was, at best, half complete on 9/11.
- For Barack Obama's (and Lyndie England's) 13th Generation, aged 20 to 40 on 9/11, the wreckage the Silent and Boom had made of American family life, mostly by neglecting their kids (and sometimes outright despising them as annoying distractions from more important things, as if anything could be more important) during their various ideological and spiritual and religious and political crusades, wasn't something they had to read about in the newspaper. Even the relatively unscarred survivors like Obama knew plenty of casualties first-hand, people whose lives had been no different than their own who ended up dead, crippled, in prison, on the economic scrap heap, strung out on drugs, trapped in criminal gangs, or otherwise destroyed. A few of them, especially some of the ones who were raised on at least a little of the Boomers' early liberal spiritual values, tend to retain the compassion to attribute their own survival and success to luck; the rest, having been raised on a rising tide of reactionary right-wing spiritual values, attribute their own survival to innate superiority over the losers. (Again, if you think they are the first generation to come after an idealist generation and turn out this way, you need to go back and look at the Lost generation or the Gilded generation.) Still, on 9/11, almost everybody in that generation looked at it as their crisis; as young adults and rising adults, it was going to be them who did all the work and took all the risks. Typically, to the disgust of the process-and-fairness oriented Silent generation, they didn't ask "what's fair?" To the even greater disgust of both the left-wing and right-wing ideologues of the Boom generation, they didn't ask "what's right?" No, a generation that grew up fast and hard and mostly on their own cut straight to the bottom line and asked "how much is this going to cost?" Some believed the Boomers who said it wouldn't cost much, would result in power and glory and wealth, and rushed off to any old desert hellhole the Boomers asked them to go to. Some counted the cost a little more accurately, and better estimated the trivial gains, and took firm stands on pure cost-benefit lines: Afghanistan is worth it, Iraq isn't.
- The Millennial Generation's (no obvious name jumps out at me for an example) youngest members had only just been born on 9/11; their eldest members had just graduated high school. These (mostly) kids were told on 9/11 not to worry, and that everything we as a country was about to do was For The Children. This completely and utterly failed to surprise them; for their entire life, for as long as any of them can remember, everything has been For The Children, in hopes that they wouldn't grow up ill-educated, burned out, jaded, cynical, mercenary, amoral, and nearly unemployable like Gen X and Gen Y. They were assured that years later, it would be their turn to band together in teams with peer-enforced morality, like they had been since their first DARE classes in grade school, and clean up whatever mess the Boomers and the 13th Generation had made of world by then. 100% unshakably convinced that when they do, the whole US government and the entire US population will be on their side and give them everything they need to do so, few if any of them have complained about this.
- If the terrorists destroyed part of New York City in the 1990s: The GIs would still be clinging to power, the Silent Generation would be at their most inclined to dither and debate rather than act, and the mostly still powerless Boom would still be in full-fledged ideological internal warfare, both within themselves and against the (then still mostly hated by the Boomers) GIs. The government would achieve very little, would be accused of lying about the threat, government evacuation plans would be elaborate, sophisticated, and completely unworkable. The few young 13er entrepreneurs who rushed to the scene of the catastrophe would mostly go unnoticed; the only ones who would make the news would be the ones pilloried for scalping the attack survivors during the rescue. We would end up rebuilding the damage sections of New York but doing little if anything else, leaving the main problem to be dealt with all over again decades later.
- If instead the terrorists destroyed part of New York City in the 2000s: The Silent Generation might be in charge; at the very least, they'd make up a lot of the manpower in Congress and in the White House staff. More likely, they predicted, it would be a Boomer president technically in charge. They couldn't predict, in 1989, if it would be a liberal new ager or a reactionary fundamentalist. Either way, they predicted that the Silent generation White House staff and top military brass would draw up for him an elaborate, technocratic reaction, a carefully negotiated and calibrated proportionate response that could be made to look like a bigger response. The Boomer president would present it to the nation as a moral challenge, a war between right and wrong, but be mostly accused by most people of just saying so to shill for his own side in the ongoing argument with other Boomers. A 13er Generation military, seeing a chance to gain quick and easy glory kicking around impoverished third-worlders, would ride jauntily off into the desert. (Strauss & Howe's naive overconfidence in the American legal system is probably what prevented them from predicting how many of those 13er troops would actually be piratical mercenaries rather than in US uniform; an amazing oversight, since they do document the huge numbers of pirates and mercenaries in similar generations before them.) Whatever then went wrong would be blamed on their poor education, surly attitudes, poor morals, and the lawless gang-like behavior of their worst members, not Boomer ideological divisions or Silent generation poor generalship. And since generations like the 13th make rotten soldiers, historically, well, yes the result would be disastrous, so yes, there would be plenty of scapegoating afterwards. Some of it would consist of quests for the worst of the "bad apples" in the military. But the main result would be a re-ignition of the old ideological wars within the Boom Generation, a screaming match between liberals and conservatives over who lost the War on Terror, postponing for years any attempt to build a national consensus behind a single set of shared values. How intense a re-ignition of those conflicts? One possible outcome they present all too much evidence for is the possibility of religious civil war in the US some time in the 2010s, one that would use up and destroy the Millennials' optimism and teamwork habits instead of benefiting from them.
- If instead the terrorists destroyed part of New York City in the 2010s, preferably late 2010s: A few elderly Silent might still be in Congress and in a few offices in the Pentagon, finding satisfying work making sure that there were good, fair procedures for dealing with captives. But the reigns of political power at nearly all levels would be in Boomer hands. A terrorist attack on American soul would be the final catalyst to end their internal squabble once and for all, and whether the result was called compassionate conservatism or third-way liberalism (two terms Strauss & Howe couldn't predict in 1989, but their description is clear enough) it would be the new American political consensus for decades to come. All internal American struggles over, the country would rally to war against the terrorists and any perceived allies of the terrorists, confident that we were right and broadly unified. Grizzled and old-before-their-time 13er veterans of some early 21st century brush-fire war would find that the new crop of Millennial soldiers were nothing like the grunts they served with, that these kids were great kids ... and enthusiastic and uncomplaining cannon fodder. Cynical 13er business executives, if curbed of their natural instinct to war profiteer, would turn their pragmatic attention to squeezing out maximum productivity to (profitable) national service, churning out a new generation of wonder-weapons (produced by research teams of bright, excited Millennial scientists) in amazing quantities. America would march a multi-million-man army into the Arab world equipped with insane numbers of ultra-tech vehicles and weapons, and Save The World.