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Month: December 2017

A Star Above

A Star Above

I wrote this story. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas!

A Star Above

Not Quite a Christmas Story

Millions of years ago, in a time long forgotten, the shape of the land was not the same as it is today, and the Earth was ruled by the Saurians.

And it came to pass, one winter’s season, that a bright star shone in the sky above. It was so bright that the Saurians were certain it was a portent. So they asked the wisest among them what the star might signify.

The most wise of all the Saurians had a vision, and told it unto the others. “This star signifies that a child is hatched! A child who heralds a new age to come!”

“What will come in this new age?” cried the other wise ones.

“A new hope, and an end to the wickedness of our kind.”

“It is true that many Saurians are wicked,” agreed the others. “What shall we do now that we know of the meaning of the sign?”

“We must journey to where the child is hatched. If we follow the star it will guide us there.”

So the wisest of the Saurians, as well as two others who were fairly wise themselves, set out on a journey, walking across the great land, keeping the star ahead at all times.

“I think it is growing brighter,” said one of the three wise Saurians, one who had a large posterior and a long, sinuous neck, and came from the swampy regions.

“Yes, it must be nearing the time of the child’s hatching,” said the wisest of the three Saurians, who stood on two legs and could run very fast, and was from the grasslands.

“Is the time of the end of wickedness arriving? What should we do?” worried the last of the three, who had a shell, and a horny head, and was from the rocky places.

“Let us bring gifts to the hatchling,” said the wisest Saurian. “Do we have anything to bring?”

“I have these weeds from the swamp that I like to eat,” said the long-necked Saurian. “They smell real good.”

“I have some shiny rocks that I have collected,” said the horny-headed Saurian. “I think they are very pretty.”

“They are perfect,” said the bipedal Saurian. “We shall bring the fragrant plants and the shiny rocks as offerings to the hatchling who portends the dawn of a new age.”

So they walked on, carrying their gifts, following the star, which grew ever brighter in the sky above. At last they came to a place where a herd of Saurians grazed on the grassy hills.

The wisest Saurian spoke to one of the herd, “Have you heard of a child who is hatched, and portends a new age, as signified by the bright star above?”

“Yes,” said the other, “many of us have gone to visit the child. But it is not hatched.”

“Not hatched? It is still in its egg?”

“The child is born, but not of an egg.”

“A child born not of an egg!” cried the three wise Saurians. “Truly this is a miracle!”

So they went together to where the child was born, and saw it in a little nest, where other Saurians stood around, bowing in awe before it. It was a creature not like a Saurian, tiny and covered in fur.

“That is – different,” said the wisest of the Saurians.

“Yes,” said the other. “It is not a Saurian like us, but a Mammal. And it portends a new age.”

“We have brought gifts for the Mammal child.”

“You can just put them over there.”

And the star above grew ever brighter, and then fell to Earth, and the Saurians and their wicked ways were ended forever. And the Mammal and all of its kind came to rule the Earth in their stead, as they do to this very day.

The End?

In The Zeitgeist With Lady Gaga

In The Zeitgeist With Lady Gaga

I think Lady Gaga is a very talented singer-songwriter, and perhaps underappreciated as a musical artist because there is so much focus on her popularity, branding, and extravagant performance art. I wanted to take a look at some of the songs off of her 2016 album “Joanne” and the ways in which they reflect the Millennial zeitgeist. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) is a Millennial herself, born in 1986 in Manhattan, New York.

The first song to consider is “Come to Mama,” which is like a loving call for a regeneracy mood and an end to the Culture Wars partisan divide. The lyrics refer to divisions of opinion, which could line up with the left v. right split in politics. The chorus evokes the image of a mother with arms outstretched, calling to a child who is crying after a playground quarrel.

So why do we gotta fight over ideas?
We’re talkin’ the same old shit after all of these years
Come to mama
Tell me who hurt ya
There’s gonna be no future
If we don’t figure this out
Oh, come tomorrow
Who are you gonna follow?
There’s gonna be no future
If we don’t figure this out

Mama acknowledges that the child has a grievance but insists that differences must be worked out, as we have been fighting for far too long. I can just picture Lady Gaga reaching out to hug and comfort all the Trump supporters who are upset over the way the world has turned out. Then next all the social justice warriors who can’t stand any opinion that a Trump supporter might have.

The next song to look at is “Angel Down.” This is a lament about the tragedy of gun violence and our society’s inability to cope with it. The setting chosen for the act of violence is the street by a church, and the lyrics speak to the lack of engagement in our society (we used to meet at the church) and the failure of social media to substitute for more traditional institutions in providing moral grounding. We are spectators to the disintegration of society, unable to respond effectively.

I confess I am lost
In the age of the social
On our knees, take a test
To be lovin’ and grateful

Shots were fired on the street
By the church where we used to meet
Angel down, angel down
But the people just stood around

It is like a protest song, but where a Boomer protest song would have castigated the existing leadership, this Millennial song cries out for leadership that is not there.

I’m a believer, it’s chaos
Where are our leaders?
Oh, oh, oh
I’d rather save an angel down

The last song to examine is “Grigio Girls,” which is on the deluxe edition of the album. A Millennial woman sings about a Gen-X friend and mentor who supported her through her quarter-life crisis. She looked up to her friend, admiring how she was able to thrive despite the chaos of the world, and learning from her the Xer art of being still in your personal space and just chilling out.

I was twenty-three
She was thirty-five
I was spiralling out
And she was so alive
A Texas girl real strong
Taught me this strong song

On this foundation she erects her support network, gathering with her peers to share alcohol (the social drug) and have a safe space to vent. In a world of overwrought emotion, you must find a way to keep cool.

So when I’m feeling small
I toss that cork and call
All the Pinot, Pinot Grigio girls
Pour your heart out
Watch your blues turn gold
All the Pinot, Pinot Grigio girls
Keep it real cold
‘Cause it’s a fired-up world

She celebrates the camaraderie of conventional young women gathering and having a conventionally good time.

So we’ll turn on a bachelorette
Dye Ashley’s hair red
And then we’ll have our sixth
Spice girl in this bitch

This song has a deeper personal meaning for the artist, whose middle name, by the way, is Joanne. She explains her intended meaning in this interview:

Things to Come – A Prescient Look At The Future

Things to Come – A Prescient Look At The Future

I recently watched H.G. WellsThings to Come (available on Amazon prime video) and discovered that it tells the tale of a saeculum from Crisis through to the next Awakening, but with a stretched out timeline. It also has early examples of a lot of film tropes.

By saeculum, I mean the social cycle as defined in Strauss and Howe generational theory, which you can learn more about here.


The movie was made in 1936, and its story starts in that year, as the Crisis Era looms. There are rumors of war, making it contemporaneously relevant. There is a bit of a friendly discussion between two characters of the likelihood of war and the nature of progress.

The U.S. uses “peace gas” to end the most recent Crisis Era war.

Then the war comes, and rages for three decades and more. Civilization is ruined, the war is unresolved yet in 1970, and the film has now introduced the post-apocalyptic genre, complete with a plague that turns people into zombie-like creatures. The plague is eradicated, and peace comes at last when a benevolent scientifically advanced alliance deploys a super-weapon – sleeping gas, which they call “the gas of peace.”

Next an expansionist High Era begins, and we get a montage of civilizational development, taking us to a sci-fi world that fits the conventional mid-twentieth century vision of the future. Everything is shiny and sterile, and people dress in styles reminiscent of classical Greece and Rome.

It’s now 2036, and the hubristic future civilization is preparing to send the first humans into lunar orbit, using the method commonly envisaged before the rocket age – a space gun. But the Awakening Era has begun, which is a time of spiritual upheaval and of questioning the current regime. A firebrand preacher arises, denounces the lunar project and stirs up the masses against it. The launch happens anyway and the movie ends with more philosophical ruminations on progress.

So the movie covers a half-saeculum, spread out over a century. It’s as though H.G. Wells understood the saeculum, if not its generation-length timing. It’s impressive that he got two predictions correct – the use of a super weapon to end the Big War, and the fact that the next Awakening begins at the same time as the first manned missions to the moon.

It’s a good film, well worth the hour and a half viewing time. The version on Amazon is colorized and restored, which I think helps to make it more watchable.

Bowling Alone, Revisited

Bowling Alone, Revisited

This is the third in a series of reviews of books about the Third Turning which I am finally reading in the Fourth Turning (the first two are here and here). I am “revisiting” Bowling Alone not in the sense that I have read it before, but rather in that I would like to examine its thesis about the decay of civic life in the late twentieth century from the perspective of life nearly two decades into the twenty-first century.

Bowling Alone, by Robert D. Putnam, published in the year 2000, is perhaps one of the best known popular works of sociology. Its basic thesis is that, in the second half of the twentieth century, the United States experienced a rapid decline in community and civic involvement. This thesis is supported by ample data on group participation, social habits and attitudes, all presented in a plethora of graphs and tables. In fact, the book is worth checking out just to see all the data laid out decade by decade, even if you care to interpret it differently.

A key concept in this thesis is that of “social capital,” defined as the value of social networks in providing “generalized reciprocity.” Social capital comes in two forms: “bonding” social capital tightly connects an in-group, whereas “bridging” social capital is a looser connection between people in different groups. There is even a Social Capital Index that the author calculates from a combination of different surveys.

As Putnam sees it, the loss of community in the country and the depletion of social capital is a serious problem. He describes a “fraying civil society” and laments “the erosion of America’s social connectedness and community.” When explaining how group membership rates don’t tell the whole story, because group attendance rates have worsened even more, he writes floridly that “decay has consumed the load-bearing beams of our civic infrastructure.” To uphold this grim description, he presents strong correlations between the Social Capital Index and other measures such as educational attainment, crime rates, and mortality.

In addition to defining social capital, and demonstrating its correlations, Putnam attempts to isolate what factors are associated with its decline at the end of the twentieth century. He does this with multiple regression analysis (explained in the Appendices – this study is very thorough and data driven), and basically concludes that the primary factor is generational change, accounting for half of the decline. Other important factors include television, changing work patterns, and sprawl – in a word, suburbia.

Now personally, as a proponent of Turnings Theory, I believe that generational change tells the whole story. In all of the graphs showing the decline in civic involvement over time, you see the same pattern, as described in the book on page 80: “modest growth in the first third of the [twentieth] century; rapid growth coming out of the Depression and World War II; a high plateau from the 1950s into the 1960s; and a sharp, sustained decline during the last third of the century.”

This pattern exactly tracks the life course of the Greatest Generation, the great civic generation which dominated the twentieth century. The rise and plateau of civic participation in the middle of that century happens in the First Turning era, when the Greatest Generation is in mid-life, the age range that is the peak of any generation’s influence. The decline occurs as that generation ages out of influence, and younger generations with other priorities and values take their place.

By the end of the twentieth century, with civic participation plummeting, to Putnam’s alarm, the United States has reached the Third Turning era. This is an inward-looking, individualist and opportunist social era. The Baby Boomers are now the ones in mid-life (and at the peak of influence) and Generation X is in young adulthood. A shift from a social order based on social capital to one based on financial capital suits both of these generations just fine.

Hence the transformation from a civic society to a market society, and the loss of a sense of stability. The loss of stability worries people, and there is concern over culture and morals even as the economy is booming. In this generational explanation, the factor of the rise of suburbia is a parallel development. The new suburban lifestyle accompanies the emergent generational constellation of cocooning families and prospering Bobos.

In the data presented in the book, there is a glimmer of hope that a turnaround could be forthcoming. In the section on trends in volunteering, an uptick is detected in the age group 25 and younger. That would be a sign that the Millennial generation, who were the teenagers of the 1990s, might be returning to a life of civic engagement.

This data was accumulated and analyzed in the year 2000. So now that 17 years have passed, has anything changed? I am not aware of any studies similar to Putnam’s that have been done since. But the social mood of the United States has grown darker, less confident, suggesting that the curve continues its downward trajectory.

One obvious development of the new era is the rise of social media, which has brought people together, in a sense. If membership in social organizations counted towards the Social Capital Index at the end of the twentieth century, why not membership in Facebook groups at the start of the twenty-first? Bowling Alone poses a similar question when examining the early Internet. However, online connections seem too superficial to qualify as generating social capital. There’s just not much effort involved in liking and sharing memes – the reason for the term slacktivism.

Another characteristic of our time is the partisan divide that splits political opinion into (at least) two distinct camps. This could be seen as an example of bonding social capital developing within groups, but with no bridging social capital to connect them. In fact, the author acknowledges in Bowling Alone that social capital is not necessarily a social good, as it can have the effect of uniting one group against another. For example, the recent protest marches in Charlottesville, Virginia were facilitated by social capital (people on each side of the protest coordinating and travelling together), and then violence ensued.

One interesting observation from Bowling Alone is that, by the end of the twentieth century, evangelical religion had overtaken mainstream religion in popularity. Evangelical religion is concerned with individual piety and proselytization, whereas the mainstream church works for social betterment. This trend is in keeping with the thesis of a decline in civic involvement.

But it also suggests how a new ideology could form in an individualistic age, and then come to drive political change as a new collectivist age approaches. The values that defined piety for the evangelists in the era of civic decline now provide the requirements for political inclusion in the new order. For the Red State these values are conservative religion and aggressive capitalism, and for the Blue State they are the progressive ideals championed by social justice warriors.

As long as the partisan divide remains strong, there won’t be a society-wide return to civic engagement. But once the conflicts are resolved, hopefully with as few Charlottesvilles as possible, it will be back to the First Turning in the social cycle. By then Millennials will be in mid-life, and maybe, through their influence, a sense of community will be restored. Then, if anyone is around to chart the data, those graphs might start going up again.

A rough life for migrant workers in any era

A rough life for migrant workers in any era

I watched The Grapes of Wrath (1940) last night, and thought it was interesting the way the federal government, in the form of the Department of Agriculture, is portrayed as benevolent heroes. In their government-run camp, they uphold the rights of the migrant workers from Oklahoma against the depredations of the local California law enforcement. This contrasts with what we have today, 80 years later, where the local governments of California protect migrant workers (sanctuary cities) from the depredations of the federal government (Trump-empowered ICE).

Or, alternately, today’s feds are protecting the rights of natives against the crime of migrants who have immigrated illegally. The federal government has the responsibility of protecting the rights of citizens of the United States when state governments fail to do so, and with cruel logic natives could claim to have a right to have no illegal immigrants among them. That is what Trumpistas claim, and so we have a swing from the left to the right across these 80 years, with an added racist tone. In The Grapes of Wrath, the opposing sides are both white, though you could consider them to be different ethnicities using the “11-nation” model: the Okies are Greater Appalachians and the Californians are Left Coasters.

So maybe we are seeing an evolution from fractured groups of whites (the immigrant upheavals of the early 1900s) to unified whites against the browns. The Trump white nationalist model.

Just some thoughts for this fine morning at the end of 2017.