My most recent Silent of the Week posts featured Democratic politicians, as the two stories that dominated the beginning of the year were impeachment and the Democratic primaries. That’s all on the wayside now, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking over news feeds. The crisis has thrust numerous leaders into the limelight, with some reputations faring well, and others not so well.
A highly credentialed physician and immunologist, Fauci has had a long career in the Federal government. He has been at the forefront of government policy and research involving epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS and Ebola, as well as bioterrorism. He has been in his current role as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since the 1980s, serving under many Presidential administrations.
A long and distinguished career as a specialist mark him as a member of his generation, whose legacies include expertise and working within the system. Another legacy of his generation is acting as a tempering influence on the volatile personalities of the Boomers who came after them. And boy does he have that work cut out for him now, as evidenced by a recent meme of him face palming during a task force press conference.
For giving us hope that there is at least someone intelligent with expertise working within the White House in this most desperate time, and for valiantly continuing his long service under this most feckless of administrations, I name Anthony Fauci my Silent of the Week.
Some time ago I started reading Citizens, by Simon Schama. I finally finished it and posted a review on Goodreads, as part of my reading challenge. Here is the review reproduced for this blog, as well as some additional thoughts on what lessons the French Revolution might have for our own time.
First, the review.
At 875 pages (not counting the bibliography and index), Simon Schama’s Citizens looks like a formidable work to tackle. But his eloquent prose and touching, personal approach to history make for an easy read. There is certainly enough to write about the French Revolution to fill 875 pages, covering the span of time from the Revolution’s origins in the Enlightenment Era, up to the dramatic events of Thermidor and the fall of Robespierre. I enjoyed it all; this book is, as they say, a real page-turner.
In his narrative, Schama focuses on the individuals whose stories comprise the overarching epic of France’s transformation from floundering Monarchy to militant Republic. These are his titular citizens, and theirs is a shared journey through the gates of history, in which their identities shift from that of their prescribed roles in the old regime, to that of free and equal members of a common fraternity, devoted to the fatherland. And woe to those whose devotion was found insufficient, as conflict and violence swept through French society like wildfire.
The brutality of the violence and the fervor of the mobs which challenged the authority of every French government of the period, monarchical and Republican alike, is the most startling aspect of the Revolution. Schama disavows the idea that this was class warfare brought about by the disaffection of France’s poor and underprivileged. Not that there were no disaffections; these were famously written down in the lists of grievances presented to the King at the fateful convening of the Estates-General. But the impetus for change came from all levels of society. Many aristocrats and episcopalians were pushing for reform; for a Constitutional Monarchy in line with the ideals of the Age of Reason and the Rights of Man, inspired by philosphers like Thomas Paine and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They did not anticipate that in a few short years their King would be dead and they would be fleeing the Terror of the radical Republicans.
Schama’s narrative shows a society consumed by a kind of madness for a new political identity and national rebirth. The French Revolution wasn’t a mechanical process of adjustment to modernity, driven by material circumstances. It was a conscious, creative effort of the human spirit. Material circumstances merely limited the scope of the change that Revolution could effect, particularly in economic conditions. And it was the limits of the human psyche itself that prevented the rapid succession of governments from ever establishing political order, without ultimately resorting to totalitarianism and mass murder, in an awful premonition of the horrors to come in a later century.
In this fascinating story of a nation’s struggle to redefine itself, we can detect lessons for our own time. In particular, the saga of the French Revolution warns of the dangers of partisanship, extremism, and the demand for ideological purity – all of which can sweep through a people like a tidal force, and drag them toward an unavoidable fate. It’s a warning we should well heed today.
Now for some additional thoughts on parallels between the French Revolution and our times.
There are two obvious rhymes between our time and that distant time in French history. One is the effects of extreme partisanship – how it creates an unbridgeable gap between the two sides, limiting people’s thinking to conform with their particular partisan view (we call it the “echo chamber” today), and how it completely disempowers political moderates (good luck, Joe Biden). The other effect, related to the first, is how easily misinformation spreads. The rumors that spread through French society, causing massive fear and anxiety, way back in the late 1700s, are no different than the “fake news” of today. As they say, the first casualty of war is truth.
As for the terrifying levels of violence, mentioned in the review, I will say that it is my great hope that we are past that. It was a more violent time back then. Life was cheap. But certainly there are violent, extremist elements in our society today, lurking in the background like the spectre of dangers past. And we are in dangerous times.
We are in a Crisis Era, like the one that France was in during the Revolution. Our society will – indeed, must – transform, just as France’s did, though it will not be the same kind of transformation. We have a mature Republic, not one that is or has just been formed, and though it is straining, it is still intact. Now we are in a great test to see if our institutions can adapt to the challenges of the 21st century – if we can muster our own spirit to face the great difficulties ahead.
With the outbreak of novel coronavirus COVID-19 shocking markets and threatening supply chains, it seems like we might finally have hit the crisis moment that breaks the old order for good. I don’t think any bailouts can help us now.
Of all generations, Generation X is the least well positioned for it. Silents and Boomers are on their way out and will witness the end in their final years. Millennials are still young and have enough time to bounce back. But Gen X will watch their 401Ks evaporate along with any possible opportunity to recover in time for their elder years, which will be spent in poverty.
At least, that aligns with one prediction from Strauss & Howe generations theory, which I can’t help but mull over as I watch the headlines.
Silents of the Week: Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden.
Well, after all that, the Democratic primaries have come down to two members of the Silent Generation. I’m a little disappointed in the Democratic party electorate; I was really hoping they would go with someone younger, given all those choices. I know that sounds ageist, but it’s not that I’m against old white men (I plan to be one some day). I just think the Democratic party needs to represent transformative change; it needs to look to the future. Rallying around a politician from the oldest living generation, who served in a previous administration, is looking to the past. It speaks of an electorate that is afraid. I can understand why people are afraid, but don’t we remember that fear is the killer? That fear itself is the greatest danger?
At least Elizabeth Warren, my personal choice, although she is 70 years old is at least a Boomer. That’s the generation that should be providing us with a champion on the left to fight against the reactionary politics of the Trumpian right. But alas, it is not to be.
I hope one of these two guys is up to the task. I’ll choose Sanders in the primary, and whichever one wins the nomination will get my #NeverTrump vote. And for coming out on top on Super Tuesday, and showing that their generation just won’t quit, I name Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden the Silents of the week.
I’ve finished another book, a relatively quick read, taking me to 2 out of 20 books completed in my 2020 reading challenge. I just might get it done!
The book was Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson, a brief treatise on innovation. I left a short review on Goodreads. but wanted to blog about something interesting I learned during my read.
As part of the history of genius inventors, and of how information is organized and shared among them, Johnson covers the history of the commonplace book. This was a way for private individuals to compile knowledge, particularly popular in the early modern period. It was basically a loosely organized collection of notes. Typically it would be one volume, but it might take a lifetime to fill it, becoming a kind of jumbled encyclopedia with a personal touch.
There were even methods devised for the best way to organize the information, so that it could be found easily, but wasn’t too restrictively compartmentalized. The idea was that a freer arrangement could help reveal connections between different subject matters, allowing new concepts to emerge.
I realized that I have actually been following this practice my whole life. I’ve just been keeping smaller notebooks, to the point that I have piles of them now. Inside there are notes from reading books, as well as ideas for stories and games and world settings, all jumbled together. Sometimes I go back through them to revisit old ideas and ruminate more on them.
So that was a cool thing to get out of this read, the knowledge that I have been following a time-honored practice shared by scholarly types of centuries past. In fact, nowadays, most of us probably do, if only in the form of bookmarked web pages! So much to know about the world, and yet so much that remains undiscovered.