Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

Review: Heroes of the Fourth Turning

I have been a student and fan of the Fourth Turning theory for over a quarter of a century. Imagine my surprise and delight when I learned that a play which incorporates the theory is running off-Broadway. It’s called Heroes of the Fourth Turning, written by Will Arbery and directed by Danya Taymor. I got a ticket for it as soon as I could, and luckily my BFF was able to come along as well. It’s premiering at Playwrights Horizons, which is basically a development house supporting playwrights and producing new works.

Since I am so interested in the aforementioned theory, I wanted to review not so much the play itself as how it presents and incorporates the Fourth Turning concept. So I will be looking at the play through a soda straw, so to speak. But I will start with a brief summary review from a general perspective.

The play we saw is an excellent production. It’s well written, well directed and well acted. It has one long act, entirely set on the back porch of a house in Wyoming, on a very specific night in the year 2017. It has great tech too, with the set design and dark lighting pulling you into a setting that seems very real.

There are only five characters, and the premise of the play is that four of them are from the same college class and are reuniting seven years after graduation. Their dialogue establishes their characters, the tensions between them, and reveals secrets from their past – good dramatic stuff. The fifth character is their former teacher/mentor, who arrives later in the play to add a little generational conflict.

The Fourth Turning idea comes into the script because one of the Millennial graduates is familiar with the theory. She explains it in detail in an animated monologue, which absolutely amazed me to behold, seeing as I’ve been interested in generational theory for so long. I certainly never expected to see it explained one day on stage in New York City.

Now this character knows about the theory thanks to Steve Bannon, which is possibly how many people first encountered it back in 2017. And she’s interested in Bannon’s ideas because she is a conservative Catholic and a Trump supporter. In fact, the college the four graduates attended is a conservative Catholic institution – so the play ends up being a kind of exposé of the Red State perspective. We can see why it is set in Wyoming.

The director’s notes mention that the play is meant to shine light on how people on this side of the political spectrum think, but not necessarily to empathize with them. Judging from their reactions, the audience did not approve of the characters’ beliefs at all (at least that was my impression). The conservative stances on abortion and LBGTQ seemed particularly upsetting. Of course, this is not surprising coming from an audience in New York. The promotional material makes a point about how this show is giving a perspective not usually presented to theater audiences.

The playwright, Will Arbery, actually comes from a conservative, Catholic background himself (though he makes clear in his notes in the program that he voted for Obama), which I guess is why he was motivated to write about the subject of conservative thought. It’s kind of a weird twist of fate that the Fourth Turning theory is associated popularly with the political right, seeing as it could just as easily be applied in a story about supporters of Bernie Sanders.

It’s understandable why a theory about a cyclic return to civic renewal would appeal to a minority group of beleaguered traditionalists. Kudos to Will Arbery for making that connection. He also incorporates the idea of different generations – one of the graduates is a Gen Xer, since he is ten years older than the others, who are Millennials, while the professor is a Boomer who was a Goldwater girl, like Hillary Clinton. It’s the Millennials who are ostensibly the Heroes of the play’s title, and whether or not they are ready for the challenge of the Fourth Turning is for you to decide.

Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a brilliant play. If you are interested in what a play could have to say about generational theory, or what it could reveal about conservative politics in the Trump era, or just want some good character drama, it is worth seeing. You’ll have to hurry, though – it’s only up through November 17. I hope it finds another venue because it is a wonderful work and very pertinent to our time.

A Commute in America

A Commute in America

Pictured above is St. Paul’s, a 150 year old Catholic church located in Wilmington, Delaware. I used to drive past it every day on my commute to work. Between the exit ramp off the highway and the commuter lot in the commercial district where I worked there were a few blocks of gritty urban neighborhood to drive through, with this church planted in the midst of it, like a watchtower, or a fortress. This quick drive by provided a glimpse of a world unlike either the one I had just left at home, or the one I was traveling to at work.

There might be someone at the bottom of the ramp, begging with a cardboard sign, despite the posted warning of a fine for solicitation. A homeless person might be visible camped under the highway overpass (just to the left in that picture) – a figure seated amidst a jumble of bags and tarps, maybe with a shopping cart. Just down the street from the church there was a ministry which one must assume served food, given that there would sometimes be a long line of people at the door.

This was America, or a part of it anyway. These were Americans, of all colors and ages, though it seemed they were disproportionately older. But maybe I was just seeing the ones like me. Wondering if I could handle being my age – early fifties – but impoverished, desperate for a handout. And then I would park my car in the lot, and get on the shuttle bus that drove me to the office, and the bus would be full of people who were mostly young and mostly Asian. I would feel conspicuously out of place, a middle-aged white guy who was apparently on a different path in life than most other middle-aged white guys.

Of course, in the Asian countries my coworkers were from, there are teeming masses of poor people – people even poorer than the ones whose world I briefly became a part of during my commute to Wilmington. I just didn’t see them, because they were not the ones granted visas to come to the United States and work cushy tech jobs. And of course there are plenty of Americans my age prospering as well as I am, or better. I just happen to be in a field – finance tech, data warehousing – whose workforce is primarily Indian. India has reaped the reward for educating so many of its youth in the field of information technology.

The United States, meanwhile, is going to bring back manufacturing using trade wars. And tighten its grip on fossil fuel extraction. As far as I can tell, that is the current strategy for expanding economic opportunity for its citizens, which is the role of government in this new age of neoliberalism. I wonder, though, what kind of opportunity will be provided for the poor people of Wilmington.

Some people thought Trump was going to bring an end to neoliberalism, except he’s a crook and a liar. How could they not see that? And now we’re in the mess we’re in today.

Joe Biden for President, I guess.

Welcome to New Sweden

Welcome to New Sweden

Would you believe that I live, work and play in Sweden? Or, rather, what used to be Sweden? That’s right – the Kingdom of Sweden once laid claim to a part of the east coast of North America, back in the colonial era before England snatched it all up. It was established in the lower Delaware Valley, in what would today be called the tri-state area. The sites of what are now Wilmington, DE and Philadelphia, PA are included in the former colony.

The replica Kalmar Nyckel sailing on the Christina river in Wilmington, DE.

There’s even a famous ship involved in the founding, akin to the Mayflower that legendarily landed at Plymouth Rock. The Swedish ship was called the Kalmar Nyckel, and it came to North America with Swedish colonists in 1638. The settlement they founded was Fort Christina, named after the Queen of Sweden. There’s a replica of the ship that plies the former waters of New Sweden for the benefit of tourists, and I sometimes see it when I am at work in Wilmington. But all that remains of the fort is a marker.

The Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, DE

There is a little bit left of the old colony of New Sweden in the urban landscape of the area, mainly in the form of three churches known as the Old Swedes Churches. There is one in Wilmington and two in Philadelphia. The one in Wilmington is a National Historic Park, and you can visit and get a tour for $5. When I went, the guide first wanted to know if I am of Swedish heritage, which I am not, because many Americans who are of Swedish extraction come to the church out of, I guess, genealogical curiosity. Then he showed me around the church and grounds, and told me a little history. It’s a remarkable site to visit, with its many very old graves, and original masonry dating from the late 1600s.

As the guide related it to me, the Europeans who first settled here weren’t in New Sweden for very long. The colony was ceded to the Dutch after a war and became part of New Netherland. But even that status was brief, as it all went to England in 1676. By then the Kalmar Nyckel had been sunk in battle. Now the people who lived here got along with their lives pretty well no matter who was officially in charge – it really didn’t matter to them which monarch on the other side of the Atlantic ocean ostensibly ruled them. Part of the logic, I suppose, of living in the New World, which eventually would lead to complete independence from European monarchy.

New Sweden is something of a very minor footnote in American history. The Dutch influence was actually greater in the early colonial era – I’m sure you know what old New York used to be called. And most Swedish-Americans today live in the midwest and descend from immigrants who came in the late 19th century. But I am reminded of the Old Swedes’ historical presence every time I cross Swedesford road, on the northern edge of the former colony of New Sweden. America’s old history remains faintly visible through its modern facade.

The Quiet Rage of Millennial Retsuko

The Quiet Rage of Millennial Retsuko

I recently finished watching Season 2 of the Netflix series Aggretsuko, which I recommend if:

  • You like anime.
  • You need a show with short episodes to watch during meals or whatever.
  • You want to see a show that captures the Millennial zeitgeist.

Yes, I really do think this show does the last thing on the list, which is a big reason why it fascinates me. Plus, all the anthropomorphised animal characters are just adorable.

Restuko at work.

Aggretsuko is an anime, full of the tropes of that genre. You have to watch it in Japanese, with subtitles. It’s main character, Retsuko, is a young single woman working an ordinary office job. She is self-conscious, anxiety ridden, stressed by the demands of everyday life, and feels pressure to fit in and appear normal from her peers and social media – in others words, a Millennial. She remains calm – if nervous – on the outside, while cultivating an inner rage that comes out in private moments.

It’s not only the peer pressure and the burnout that make Retsuko so Millennial. As her story develops and she grows as a person, she is able to adapt to the many aggravations coming from the personalities that surround her. She matures, and learns to own her rage, while remaining true to herself. And what she learns about herself is that she just wants a conventional life.

Aggretsuko is loaded with references to modern pop culture and social trends. It satirizes modern life, but there is no nihilism here. In the end, the ordinary aspects of life – a job, a family, friends – are celebrated and valued. And when Retsuko rages, she doesn’t rage destructively to take down society, but rather constructively to find her place in society. Now how Millennial is that?

The Land Back in Time

The Land Back in Time

Don’t you just love beautiful rural country? When I am driving through rolling, wooded terrain that is cut through by small waterways and dotted with rustic buildings, it takes me back to a part of the country where I spent a great portion of my young life. When I’m driving through this kind of country, I always say, “this reminds me of Virginia.” Where I live now, just west of Philadelphia, the countryside of Chester, Berks and Lancaster counties in Pennsylvania is most certainly like this. It can be quite rugged, even though it is so close to the coast, and often feels like I’m back in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, where I went to college.

If you look at a topographic map of the Eastern United States, you can see why this is so – below the Mason-Dixon line, the eastern mountain chain lies far from the Atlantic Ocean, and there is a vast coastal plain (the sandy pine lands of the South), but north of that line, the mountain chain veers eastward and the plains dwindle away, so that the foothills lie very close to the coast. This is the land where I live now. I still find it a bit startling that there is rural, mountainous terrain so near the urban coastal strip where I work, since it’s not what I have been used to my whole life.

In addition to the difference in terrain, there is also an apparent cultural difference between the inland counties and the urbanized coast. Inland, I don’t see nearly as many non-white people, and it feels like I am back in the Appalachian mountains of my youth. In fact, central Pennsylvania is actually Northern Appalachia, and shares much in culture, ethnicity, and political outlook as the rest of the mountainous east. Now, I say “apparent” cultural difference because I know that many people, such as myself, move freely in and out of this milieu. They may sometimes just be dabbling in rural life.

Joanna Furnace in Berks Country, PA

Which was basically what I was doing this past weekend when I attended the annual Hay Creek Apple Festival, sponsored by the Hay Creek Valley Historical Association and held at Joanna Furnace. This is an old iron smelter that was active in the 1800s, before the once prosperous and powerful iron industry died out in the region, and has since been renovated and turned into a historical site that is open to the public.

Last weekend the site was filled with food vendors selling food that in large part involved apples (hence the name of the festival), which are widely grown in Pennsylvania. This state actually has a huge agricultural sector, and much of the beautiful rural country of which I write is farmland. In fact, with the presence of so many Amish and Mennonites, traveling through this farmland can feel like going back in time.

Apple cheeked me

In addition to food vendors, there were family-friendly activities and a large flea market. I was there to support the Morgantown Arts Center, which had a booth with arts and crafts, as well face painting. You can find the arts center on Main Street in Morgantown, PA – they have paint and sip nights, classes, open studio nights, and more.

When I did find time to step away from the booth and walk around, I checked out the buildings in the complex. There was a booth where the archaeological organization that does the renovation was set up – the structures are mostly recreated from evidence, once the foundations are located. The furnace itself is original; for practical reasons it would have been the sturdiest structure at the site. It’s basically a giant brick tower that was filled with charcoal and iron ore and burned fiercely hot until the iron melted out, but of course it isn’t operational.

A 1930 Model A on display at Joanna Furnace

The flea market was set up in a parking area and people were selling mostly antiques and collectibles, and some original art. In all, walking through the event gave me the impression that central Pennsylvania lives in its past. It’s not surprising to me that this part of the country went to Trump in 2016, since he was promising to bring the past back to them.

There’s a lot to celebrate in this part of Pennsylvania’s history, and all of the rural beauty here speaks of another time. What it will do with the future, I cannot be sure. I have to go down to the city to make my living.

Boomers Invented the Internet, but…

Boomers Invented the Internet, but…

As we all know, it was a Baby Boomer who invented the Internet. Al Gore, to be precise. Ha ha, I jest. But in all seriousness, it actually was a Boomer who invented the World Wide Web. Well, an Englishman the same age as the American Boomer generation. That was when the Internet skyrocketed into public awareness and use (it had been around for decades already in academia and government) and the Boomer generation was still relatively young, and was involved in the grunt work of technology research and development.

Now it’s younger generations who are on the leading edge of technology development and the Boomer pioneers are for the most part resting on their laurels. Steve Jobs has been deified and Bill Gates is busy spending his billions on humanitarian projects. Meanwhile, the Millennial generation has taken over Internet culture and formed a hivemind that is whimsical and heartwarming (doggy memes, anyone?), and also unforgiving in its enforcement of social norms (fear the hashtag). Generation X has been ghosted, and Boomers? – well, their cultural reputation on the Internet has not survived in very good shape.

For proof of this last assertion, all you have to do is get on Facebook and join “a group where we all pretend to be boomers.” It’s easy to do, trust me – I applied and got accepted right away. Here you will encounter the Millennial stereotype of what a Baby Boomer is – basically an old white Christian who supports President Trump, is hopelessly out of touch with modern values and, on top of that, embarrassingly clueless about how the Internet works. Boomers are always posting “MAGA” and “God bless America,” misinterpreting what they see younger people doing online, and going to church and to potlucks.

As for posting memes, well Boomers probably shouldn’t even try. Their memes are dated in style, atrocious in design, and express antiquated values. They should just stick to GIFs of the minions from Despicable Me, inexplicably a Boomer obsession. The idea of a Boomer meme is something you will also find on the subreddit TheRightCantMeme, where a lame meme by the political right is implicitly associated with the Boomer generation.

This stereotyping, of course, is unfair to the legions of Boomers who are on the political left. Not to mention those who are very savvy to the ways of the Internet. Perhaps these Boomers are not on Facebook so much; my guess is they are on Twitter instead. But this association, by a younger generation, between the Baby Boomers and the reactionary politics of Trump supporters (who are not all Baby Boomers, is my point) clearly marks the Boomer outlook as a fading thing of the past. The Internet – and thank you for it, Mr. Gore – belongs to a new generation.

Silent of the Week: Martin Scorsese

Silent of the Week: Martin Scorsese

As a Gen-X film idolater, my two favorite genres of film are science fiction and crime drama. The latter in particular is something like a hallowed tradition in the field – just think of how many of the great classics are crime movies. It might have something to do with the film industry’s strong ties to the United States of America, a country which has long glorified crime and violence.

So for this week’s Silent in the spotlight, I choose Martin Scorsese (b. 1942), who has directed some of the greatest crime movies that ever entertained my generation. He’s been at it since the 1970s and is still going strong, and I’m just going to focus in this post on his film directing career. You can tell how much he has influenced people my age by this homage, by avant-garde rock band King Missile, to Scorsese and all of his excellent films:

And this is just up until 1993, before Casino! There’s been so much since then, including his contribution to the genre of good Nick Cage movies (Bringing Out the Dead) and his huge list of collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio, which started with Gangs of New York, then continued with The Aviator and his award-winning masterpiece, The Departed.

But wait, that’s just his films from before the Great Financial Crisis! Since then, he has directed all of these excellent films: Shutter Island, Hugo (proving that it’s not all crime and violence with this guy), The Wolf of Wall Street, and Silence.

You might think it couldn’t get any better, but now he’s coming out with what might be the perfect crime movie. Showing that his generation is always keeping up with the latest trends, he is teaming up with streaming giant Netflix to produce The Irishman. It features a cast of cream of the crop crime movie actors, and covers one of the most well-known stories in the history of the mafia – the disappearance of teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa. It’s like the 1970s will never die – certainly not as long as the Silent Generation is still around.

Subreddit of the week: wholesomememes

Subreddit of the week: wholesomememes

In this social era one of the roles of young adult Millennials is to clean up the culture after a long period of decadence and degradation called the Unraveling (I’m talking “turnings” theory here). I submit that an excellent example of this phenomenon is the subreddit wholesomememes. Here you will find only happy and affirming thoughts, positivity and love. It’s the Internet’s biggest safe space.

I also submit that the subreddit acts as a forging ground of an emerging values consensus for the new order of the ages. If it fits into this subreddit, its acceptable values. That means that inclusivity is in, and religious moralism is out. All the weird culture that our society has generated over the past decades is in – as long as it serves to boost the esteem of others and bring us all together.

They have it on Twitter, too, if you like that.

Entering a New Political Era

Entering a New Political Era

I’m reading the Federalist on my old timey Kindle. 😀

I’ve been reading the Federalist papers and while I certainly agree that they are an intellectual treasure and a great achievement of the American generation of the Revolutionary period, I often find the arguments weak. Hamilton in particular is prone to argument from incredulity (“nobody could possibly believe that…”) and a special brand of argumentum ad populum (“any intelligent person could see that…”). Now obviously there’s considerable risk in establishing a Constitution more or less from scratch, and despite the best efforts of the founders to find precedents they had to make important choices about the structure of the government without being able to predict the eventual consequences. As Machiavelli put it, there is nothing more difficult to plan than the creation of a new system. In their pamphlets, Hamilton et alia were just trying to pummel their opponents into submission with repeated assertions that their system was as good as it could get – as anyone could plainly see.

One of the most important trains of argument in the Federalist papers relates to separation of powers and checks and balances. These are foundational principles of government going back to the classical ancients whom the founders admired so much, as articulated by the influential Enlightenment era philosophe Montesquieu. One such check, of course, is the legislature’s power of impeachment – hugely important for restraining the much feared threat of a tyrannical executive. As ancient Republican Rome had rejected Kings, so would the new American Republic.

The other great fear expressed in the Federalist papers is that of faction – the natural tendency of men to form groups based on mutual interest and then, in Hamilton’s phrase, use “cabal and intrigue” to manipulate the system in their favor. Vesting the power of choosing representation in the people would – as anyone could plainly see – prevent such factions from working against the interests of the public, at least for very long.

So you can imagine that reading the Federalist in these times has been painful, as I’ve watched the chief executive abuse his powers, enabled by partisanship within a party that has lost its integrity, but nonetheless has popular support despite its many policies that work against the people. A chief executive who is, apparently, untouchable. Hamilton, I imagine, would be flabbergasted. No one could possibly believe that the legislature would tolerate a charlatan in the highest executive office who intrigues with foreign powers, he might have written. Yet here we are.

Or have been, I add, hopefully. With the House finally opening an impeachment inquiry into the President, I can see that there’s still life left in this old Constitution of ours. The fact that the Senate voted unanimously for the release of the whisteblower complaint means that Congress has at least a little integrity left. So maybe, just maybe, we have entered a new chapter in the saga of our ongoing Constitutional crisis – a turning point which will decide if We the People still retain our sovereignty.

What I Learned About The Constitution

What I Learned About The Constitution

They handed these out to the audience members.

Last weekend I went to Washington D.C. and saw the show What the Constitution Means to Me. That’s where I got this pocket copy of the Constitution of the United States of America, which I have been carrying around. The show was amazing, funny and sad, and thought provoking.

The play is kind of a stand-up routine, and kind of a biographical monologue, and kind of a lecture on political philosophy, and kind of a lot more. It ties in playwright Heidi Schreck‘s experience debating the Constitution in high school with the further evolution of her thinking about it, in light of later life experience and developments in jurisprudence.

Using the vehicle of a recreation of her high school debates, Schreck specifically discusses the 9th amendment, and section 1 of the 14th amendment. The 9th amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, and basically says that the Constitution is not making claims about the limits of anyone’s rights; it’s not saying, “we’ve listed these rights, and that’s all you get.” So there is room in the future to define more rights of the people and limitations of the government in infringing upon them.

The 14th amendment was part of the Reconstruction era, and an important followup to the 13th amendment which banned slavery. Section 1 of the 14th amendment is clarifying that all States within the Union are bound to the laws of the United States; it is explicitly binding the States to the Federal system which is the genius of the government of the United States. For in the U.S., you are a citizen both of the State in which you reside and of the United States as a whole. And the government of your State of residence cannot deny you rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.

That is why a gay couple can get married today, even in a State where the government in charge would like to deny them that right. And that is why, in my opinion, secession or splitting the country up would be a terrible, terrible idea. It would leave too many disadvantaged people without essential legal protection. I’ve thought about that before, and this play helped fix that belief in my mind.

Now Schreck is mainly concerned with the issues of reproductive rights and of violence against women. In discussing this, she pulls her family history into the narrative, going back to her mother’s experience growing up in a troubled household. As she relates this to the story of women’s rights under constitutional law, a depressing picture emerges in which women are underprivileged, lower-class citizens. Just consider that women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920.

The stark truth is that the law is in the hands of those who interpret it and enforce it, and these tend not to be women. Schreck’s disappointment at this state of affairs becomes the overarching theme of her play. And this raises some compelling questions – is the Constitution still working? Is it reformable? The show shifts formats at the end to address these questions in a fun and exciting way.

If you feel that the Constitution doesn’t work for you, well, you may well be in the majority, considering that many people today have tuned out of the democratic process. I mean, technically our President should be a dotted outline, considering how many people didn’t vote in 2016. But if the government is so corrupt or ineffective, does that really mean we should give up on it?

Heidi Schreck’s play doesn’t answer that question for you, but it will make you think about it. It sure did for me, and I’m glad I got a chance to see it. I hope you will, too. It is probably too late to see it in D.C., but it should be touring in numerous American cities next year.