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Truth is a Casualty in the Age of Performative Politics

Truth is a Casualty in the Age of Performative Politics

If you watched President Biden’s State of the Union speech last week, and were aware of the Republican response by Senator Katie Britt, you probably know that the latter’s speech has been mocked for its insincere and performative nature. In fact, Britt’s rebuttal was so performative that even as she was giving it, the Internet was anticipating that SNL would parody it in their next cold open sketch, coming just a couple of days later. And indeed they did, though to be fair they also parodied the President.

I do agree that Senator Britt’s speech was performative, as well as inaccurate in its statements but this whole affair reminded me of some important points about the state of politics today:

  • Politicians are performatve because they are not arguing in good faith; they are rallying their side in a partisan conflict. Is Biden really going to enact policies for the long laundry list of liberal/left/blue zone causes he touted in his speech? How could he in this era of dysfunctional government? He is simply assuring his base that he represents their values.
  • The partisan conflict is rooted in the Culture Wars that emerged out of the last Awakening, as evidenced by the conservative/right/red zone trappings of Britt’s speech: Christian family values, nativism, domesicated femininity – all the backlash against the Consciousness Revolution. She is simply assuring her MAGA base that she and the rest of the opposition against President Biden represent MAGA values; she doesn’t need to use facts to do that, just feelings.

The simple truth is politicians in each partisan faction are going to use whatever rhetoric works to reinforce the group feeling within their camp. There’s not much point in worrying about the nuance of what they say, or for that matter its accuracy or whatever hypocrisies are embedded in the rhetoric. We are past the point of anyone convincing anyone through reason. We are in a raw struggle for power, so pick a faction and stick with it. If you can’t or won’t pick a faction, you might want to keep your head down for awhile.

Entering 2024

Entering 2024

I heard a Lewis Black bit on the Daily Show where he said that 2023 was the first year since the pandemic that felt almost normal. In our world, what with the return of live theater, it does feel that way, though you still see some people in audiences wearing face masks, since the pandemic isn’t really over. The COVID-19 pandemic will possibly continue for the rest of our lives, as the AIDS pandemic has, and COVID has killed almost as many people as AIDS has cumulatively, in 10% of the time.

As for a return to normalcy, well, maybe, except I still worry about what will happen in this country on the political front. I do have a hope that our relatively high levels of prosperity will save us from a complete breakdown, though I have forebodings of a consitutional crisis to come. The first month of 2024 could be very eventful.

I’ve listed below the current ages of the living generations in the United States, as 2023 comes to an end. We are almost, but not quite, to the point where each archetype fills an age bracket. When that happens, we will be close to the end of the Crisis Era.

  • Greatest: 99+
  • Silent: 81-98
  • Boomer: 63-80
  • GenX: 42-62
  • Millennial: 19-41
  • Homeland: 0-18

Which means this era isn’t over yet, pandemic or no pandemic, normal or not normal. And people sense that, which is where memes like the one on the right are coming from.

So just be aware, and pay attention as these oh-so-interesting times unfold.

With all that said, I hope you and your family have a safe, prosperous, and happy New Year.

Strategy Review: The Next American Nation

Strategy Review: The Next American Nation

Michael Lind published his amazing work, The Next American Nation, in 1995. It’s a book about how different versions of the American republic have emerged periodically, following revolutions every hundred years or so. Seeing as it came out just before one of my favorite books about such cycles, The Fourth Turning by William Strauss and Neil Howe, it’s kind of strange that I never read it until now. It is the most egregious example of a book that came out in the Third Turning that I am finally getting around to reading in the Fourth Turning (there have been many others). I should have been comparing Lind’s revolutions to the Strauss & Howe cycle decades ago! But no matter, I finally read it, and in this review I will discuss what I found.

Lind describes three historical versions of the American republic: the one after the founding of the United States, a second one after the U.S. Civil War, and a third one following the Civil Rights era. He also speculates on a possible fourth republic in the future (which could be now, since he wrote this over twenty-five years ago). It’s interesting that two of Lind’s revolutions coincide with Fourth Turnings from Strauss & Howe, but the third one does not, and also that Lind does not identify the New Deal as the founding of a new version of the American republic. I have seen the same pattern in another theorist’s version of waves or cycles of political change, and I’ll get to that point later in this post.

To Lind, it’s important to consider that the United States of America is a nation, and that it has (or should have) a national identity. It does not make sense to think of the United States as a federation of separate national groups (as implied by the “nine nations of America” idea), nor should it be considered a collection of people united by an ideal such as democracy, or individual rights, or free market capitalism. The United States is a nation, like any other, and it’s not even exceptional. It is not, for example, the only settler society consisting of people who are mostly descendants of immigrants from the past few hundred years. It is not the only nation with a diversity of ethnic groups and religions. It is a distinct and unique nation, to be sure, but so are all others.

As a nation, each version of the American Republic has four identifying characteristics: a national community, a common ethic, an elite class, and a national political creed. Lind’s book is very orderly, and he explains what he means and describes these characteristics clearly for each version of the Republic. I will do my best to summarize what he wrote.

The First American Republic, the one founded in 1789, Lind calls the Anglo-American Republic. The national community of that Republic was people of Anglo-Saxon heritage, and the common ethic was Protestant Christianity. So you can see he is straight up accepting that, in its founding, the United States was an exclusive nation for a particular ethnic community – those we would later call WASPs, the original privileged Americans. The First Republic was dominated by an elite class of Southern planters, and its political creed was the decentralized republicanism of Thomas Jefferson.

Massive immigration of non-Anglo Saxons (Germans and Irish primarily) throughout the nineteenth century undermined this order. After the Civil War came the Second American Republic, which Lind calls the Euro-American Republic. He states that the Civil War could be understood as a war between the Anglo-American South and the Euro-American North. The Second Republic’s national community was white people of European descent, and its common ethic was “Judeo-Christianity,” in that it was for the most part inclusive of Protestants, Catholics and Jews. In fact, it is from this “triple establishment” of religions that we get jokes that start with “a pastor, a priest, and a rabbi…”

The Second Republic’s elite was the Northeastern business and professional class, what might be called the new bastion of WASPness, or those who could claim descendance from the Mayflower. It’s political creed was a more democratically inclusive form of federalism, still decentralized but with more universal suffrage, and undeniably white supremacist. It was during the Second Republic that the frontier closed, and we got the “melting pot” concept – that America was forming a distinct culture out of the cultural elements of its many different immigrants. It was during this time that the concept of “whiteness” expanded to include all Europeans, not just Northern Europeans. Still, the Northeastern WASP elites dominated, and it is from them that we get what might be considered the quintessential elements of American culture: baseball, football, and how we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas.

As already noted, Lind does not consider the Depression, New Deal, and Second World War era to be revolutionary or to have founded a new version of the American Republic. Instead, he identifies the next revolution as the Civil Rights movement of the mid-twentieth century, and declares that the Third American Republic, which he calls the Multicultural American Republic, was founded around 1972 with the end of the Civil Rights era and the establishment of affirmative action and racial preferences. The Multicutural American Republic doesn’t really have a national community, being something of an amalgam of different racial nations, and it lacks legitimacy in the public eye.

The Third Republic’s common ethic is one of ethnic authenticity – being true to whatever your particular race-based subculture is. Its political creed is multicultural democracy, reinforced by racial gerrymandering. Its elite is a white overclass, which maintains what might now be called the “neoliberal order” (though Lind doesn’t use that term), and allows a small number of non-whites into their class through affirmative action, which Lind calls a “racial spoils system.” This is a compromise made so that the white overclass can remain the elites without risking the unrest of another Civil Rights movement.

Clearly Lind recognizes the long shadow of white supremacy and white privilege in American history. But he could hardly be called “woke” (to use the current parlance); in fact he is generally considered to be a conservative. According to his Wikipedia page, in his works he upholds “American democratic nationalism,” which is basically the form of his ideal Fourth Republic. It’s a Republic that guarantees individual civil rights more universally, backed up by a vigorous yet limited central government – a vision closer to that of Alexander Hamilton than that of Thomas Jefferson, which perhaps explains the popularity of the musical.

In the Fourth American Republic (still to come), the national community is both a cultural melting pot and a racial melting pot, united by American English and an identifiable American culture. Its common ethic is what Lind calls “civic familism,” which is kind of a belief in the importance of family as the foundation of a stable society. Family life is private, and can be religious or not, and patriarchal or not; it can be whatever works for the particular family (think “modern family”), so long as it provides a stable base from which the family members can then engage publicly as responsible citizens. At least that was how I interpreted his argument.

The Fourth American Republic’s political creed is a national democracy where civil rights are uniform, and the law is absolutely color blind. This harkens back to the original civil rights vision of Martin Luther King, Jr., with his famous quote about judging people by their inner, not their outer qualities. This is what the revolutionary civil rights era was trying to bring about, before the compromise of affirmative action twisted its meaning and gave us the unsustainable racial preferences system of today. Or rather, the unsustainable system of the time when Lind wrote this book. Recently, affirmative action is under attack by the Supreme Court, which Lind might consider a step towards the Fourth Republic that he envisioned. But I haven’t seen anywhere that Lind agrees with this assessment.

Lind provides a long list of radical reforms that would be needed to bring about his revolutionary Fourth Republic, all meant to bust up the oligarchy and create a level playing field on which the racially-blind working class can thrive. These reforms include immigration restrictions, tariffs, progressive taxation, college tuition subsidies and caps, and an end not only to affirmative action in college admissions but also to legacy preferences. He warns that without these reforms, we could end up as a “Brazilianized” society with permanent racial castes, or succumb to a nativist backlash and a demagogue who attempts to restore the good-old white supremacy of the Second Republic.

Looking at the state of affairs today, in 2023, I imagine that Lind would recognize some things coming to pass that he wrote about in 1995. The rise of MAGA indeed seems like a nativist backlash with tinges of white supremacy (make America like the 1950s again). Its enemy in the civil conflict, wokeism, is like an entrenchment of the racial preferences regime of the “Third Republic.” So we are facing both of these possible negative outcomes that Lind warned about, and not much chance of achieving the reforms he advocated.

Michael Lind has written several more books since The Next American Nation, and frequently has opinion pieces published online. I haven’t read any of his other books, but from what I’ve seen of his online presence, he continues to beat the drum against oligarchy, and promote what he thinks are the best options for the working class. For example, in this piece he argues that we need to ditch neoliberalism and wokeism as tools of the elites, and need a coalition of pro-worker factions from both political parties to work together. He does not believe that we can achieve the Fourth Revolution by having one party or the other dominate in government; that will simply entrench the status quo, since those parties are captured by the elites.

As already discussed, it is notable that Lind considers the Civil Rights movement to be the Third Revolution that founds the Third Republic, rather than the New Deal, as identified in Strauss and Howe generational theory. I think this is because Lind is focused on understanding a nation as a cultural entity, supported by an instutitional framework, perhaps, but not defined by it. Strauss and Howe, in contrast, define their Crisis eras as periods of institutional transformation, or as they put it, changes to the external order. Roughly halfway between each Crisis, they identify another transformative era that they call an Awakening, in which what changes are social values – in other words, the internal order.

According to Strauss and Howe, the changes that Lind calls the Third Revolution were really changes to the internal order during the last Awakening. The “Multicultural Republic” that resulted is still the New Deal Republic, but with its institutions questioned and weakening, under assault from the new multicultural values. The reason this Third Republic (as Lind calls it) lacks legitimacy is that we haven’t yet fully passed through the Crisis era, from which a new institutional framework will emerge that incorporates (to a yet unknown extent) these new values. Once all the political dust settles from the Culture Wars battles now being fought in courts and legislatures, we’ll see how “woke” we end up becoming. When the political conflicts are finally settled, the new “Fourth Republic” will be accepted as legitimate, perhaps grudgingly by many, but legitimate nonetheless – at least in the sense that no one has the energy left to fight against it.

The other theorist who similarly identifies a new order emerging from a period later than the New Deal is Philip Bobbitt, with his theory of the market state as a new consitutional order coming out of the end of the Cold War. I tried to summarize his theory in a blog post some time back. I’ve actually posted quite a lot about the market state, and eventually come to the conclusion, in my own words: “that while Bobbitt is correct in his broader theory of periodic changes in the constitutional order, with the “market state” he has really just identified the priorities of the market-driven social era of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.” Bobbitt, like Lind, intuited a profound social change occurring in his time, and fit it into his theory in a way that made sense to him.

I think that Lind and Bobbitt both miss the New Deal era as a revolutionary period because of the focus of their respective theoretical frameworks. Lind is focused on national culture, while Bobbitt is focused on military strategy. To them, the New Deal may have seemed like a bureaucratic adjustment to the republic or constitutional order that came out of the Civil War, not an epochal event in itself. To Strauss and Howe, it was indeed epochal, part of the previous Fourth Turning, as defined by their generational framework.

It’s clear that Lind realized profound changes happened to American culture coming out of the 1960s and 1970s, a commonplace observation in social history. He labeled it the founding of a new Republic, whereas Strauss and Howe would have called it the beginning of the end of the Republic that came out of the New Deal era, with the real founding of a new Republic happening a couple of generations later, in the aftermath of the Fourth Turning that they predicted (and which we are now in). From a high enough view, I suppose, the difference is immaterial. The world is constantly in flux, and you can draw your lines wherever you want to try to make sense of it.

What’s important is that these different theorists identified a common pattern in the way social change plays out. Societies tend to go from an ordered state to a disordered one, as one would naturally expect, given entropy. At some point, after the order has broken down far enough, an impetus to restore order kicks in, and society is reordered, but in a new way. Because Lind identified the same pattern that Strauss and Howe did, his American Republics closely match the saecular orders of generational theory’s turnings, even though they don’t match exactly.

In The Next American Nation, Michael Lind lays out a hopeful vision of how the United States could remake itself along the lines of true racial equality and respect for individual civil rights, living up to an expansive interpretation of the ideals expressed at its founding. To get there requires a raft of sweeping structural changes to our social order, which seem impossible to achieve, after a quarter century of partisan politics and government gridlock, with cultural conflict and imploding civic trust making any semblance of order seem like a far away fantasy. What history tells us is that the conflict of this Fourth Turning cannot last forever; at some point its fuel will be expended, and like any fire it will burn out. Only then will we see order emerge from the ashes, but whether it resembles Lind’s Fourth Republic or not, we cannot know.

The Fourth Turning is Here

The Fourth Turning is Here

The sequel to The Fourth Turning, Neil Howe’s book The Fourth Turning is Here, was published last month. I was promoting it on social media, but for whatever reason didn’t think to note this milestone on my blog, though I have mentioned in several posts that Aileen and I worked with Neil on the end notes and bibliography. We also did some research for him early on, mostly on pandemics, though I’m not sure if any of of that got included in the book.

I’m very grateful for this opportunity, which is certainly the highlight of my career as an amateur advocate of generations theory. Neil hired me after I submitted a resume to his company lifecourse, when he advertised on Twitter for a research assitant. In my short, quickly cobbled together resume, I included references to this blog and other generations projects I worked on in the past. For a while I got no response, then out of the blue he contacted me and recruited me for the research. Towards the end of the process, he really needed help with the end notes, on which I put in many hours over the course of the early months of this year. They are thorough and, I hope, in excellent shape.

Neil sent us signed copies, but I probably won’t read mine for awhile, or review it, since I read the book in digital form several times over. Let me just say that it’s a brilliant work, and stands alone, so you don’t have to necessarily read any of the books that Neil wrote with William Strauss to get something from it. It fills in the theory from the original Fourth Turning book, and has a lot of great insights into what is going on today. It has predictions that are both ominous and hopeful.

If you decide to read it, I hope you enjoy it, and if you find any issues with the end notes, let me know!

Me shamelessly posting about my signed copy on social media

Stuck in the Big Tech Era

Stuck in the Big Tech Era

The rapid-fire success of Threads as a Twitter substitute is more evidence that in the realm of digital media, this Crisis Era belongs to a limited number of Big Tech players.

After “the Twitter troubles” began, numerous upstart sites attempted to dethrone the platform, taking over its particular social media niche. You may have heard of some of them: mastodon, tribel, bluesky, truth social. None were able to reach the size of the established platforms. Then along comes Threads from Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta company and bam! – instant giant new platform.

The logic is simple. It’s a lot of work for users to lift and shift their social media presence from one platform to another. For example, it took me years to build my tiny Twitter following. Having to start over from scratch on another platform that might fail is not an enticing proposition.

But since Threads is linked to Facebook and Instagram, it lets users start with whatever base of followers they have on those other sites. It comes with the established reputation of those other big platforms. You know Facebook isn’t going anywhere any time soon. So jumping to Threads makes a lot more sense, if it’s really necessary to escape a sinking Twitter.

In previous posts, I’ve reviewed a couple of authors who wrote about waves or cycles in technology, where new disruptive technologies shake up existing monopolies, only to eventually congeal into their own monopolies. It happened with radio and television, which for a good while were dominated in the United States by the “Big Three” networks. It’s happened again with the Internet.

After the cultural disruption that came with the 60s and 70s, the media world became much more fragmented, especially with the rise of the Internet. But once Internet usage became a commonplace, consumers started flocking to major brands, drawn to the convenience and reliability which they provide. Thus, only a small number of platforms for social media and video streaming have been able to thrive. Many of those platforms are consolidated under one corporate conglomerate, such as Google+YouTube or Facebook+Instagram. So, we now live in the era of “Big Tech.”

Criticism of Big Tech and concern for the dangers of allowing them their consolidated power abounds, and that criticism is warranted. Big established corporations are motivated to stifle competition. They have the ability to manipulate public perception to favor their interests (did you know that Western Union helped decide the 1876 Presidential election?). They can operate freely outside of the processes of democratic government, but with as much or more power as government has, unless democratic government can be brought to bear to restrain them. But that is so very, very hard to do. It’s so much easier to just check the terms of agreement box and join up with everyone else.

Face it, Big Tech is here to stay, for at least a generation. So maybe it’s best to ride the current monopoly wave, and like and share with the rest of your network, knowing that some disruptive new technology will come along – eventually – in the future.

Still May the Dark Brandon Come

Still May the Dark Brandon Come

“Who is this gray patriarch?” asked the young men of their sires.

“Who is this venerable brother?” asked the old men among themselves.

-Nathaniel Hawthorne, “The Gray Champion,” 1835

Who, I ask, is this Dark Brandon?

I know you know of him. He arose from the meme wars on social media like some dark avenger, deflecting attacks from the MAGA armies. They tried to stop him, to undermine him with mockery. “Let’s go Brandon,” they cried, meaning it as an insult, but he just turned it around on them.

Wearing his cool sunglasses, he is unflappable. When he removes them, he reveals laser eyes, like some superpowered X man. Somehow, even though we live in such contentious times, he is able to get shit done.

Dark Brandon is this fascinating Internet construct, an alt-persona of the sitting President, Joe Biden. Biden has been in the U.S. government for decades, as a Senator for over thirty years, and then as President Obama’s VP for eight more, before being elected President in 2020. Over the course of his long career, he has never really stood out, just sort of always been there, part of the background, but also an important player in much negotiation and passing of legislation. This fits the archetype of his generation, the Silent Generation (Biden was born in 1942, and is the oldest President in U.S. history).

But how did he become Dark Brandon, a much more impressive and ominous figure than career Joe Biden?

In the U.S. domestic partisan conflict, fought primarily through memes in media and by gaming the political system, each side needs solidarity and consensus to prevail. I’ve blogged about this before, describing the polarization between a conservative red zone and a liberal blue zone. To maintain solidarity, each side needs to rally around their leaders, to support them no matter the circumstances. That is why it is so hard today to take a leader down by pointing out their moral failings; no one cares any more in the raw struggle for power.

The red zone has done very well mobilizing around their main leader, The Former Guy. This red zone leader is so fearsome that blue zoners like me can’t even say his name, as though he were a corrupt wizard from a fantasy universe. The blue zone needs someone to mobilize around like that, but in 2020 they chose the safe path of electing the Vice President from their last administration, who is kind of a holdover from the old neoliberal regime and a representative of the status quo. He was a strange choice for an inspiring leader.

Granted, as an old school neoliberal politician, Biden is effective. He is willing to negotiate with anyone in good faith, and while he does participate in the partisan conflict (warning against MAGA Republicans, for example) he doesn’t seem to take it personally. He doesn’t seek the limelight, and why would he? He’s been in the room where it happens throughout his whole long career. In a way, he’s fulfilling the archetypal role of his generation, tempering the passions of the younger generations and working out compromises between them, even if the end result is to delay an inevitable reckoning by continuing the endless mortgaging of the future (I refer to the debt ceiling crisis, of course).

But, as I already mentioned, the blue zone needs an awe inspiring leader, to sustain their morale in the ongoing sociopolitical conflict. And so they’ve crafted one out of the materials at hand. They’ve taken Joe Biden and memed him into a larger than life superhero they call Dark Brandon, a truly impressive guy you can really get behind.

In their theory of generational cycles, William Strauss and Neil Howe invoked the idea of the “Gray Champion,” based on a character from a nineteenth-century story by Nathaniel Hawthorne. This archetypal figure is a mysterious old man who appears when a society is in crisis, to rally the people and restore their sense of national pride and purpose.

According to generational theory, the Gray Champion is of the Prophet archetype. The examples from history that are usually used are Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today the Prophet archetype is embodied in the elder Baby Boomer generation. Thus, Trump actually fits the bill, and if you think about it, in his own ham-handed way he is indeed trying to restore national purpose, or at least “greatness.” Here’s Neil Howe considering the matter back in 2017:

So what about Joe Biden? He was born just a bit too early to be a Baby Boomer, being instead a member of the Silent Generation. Wrong archetype. That explains his cool demeanor and his skill at negotiation. He’s so good at negotiating, in fact, that he outsmarted the House GOP in the budget process, or at least that’s what the blue zoners claim. But negotiating is not what the Gray Champion does. The Gray Champion rallies the people behind a cause, and you fight for that cause, come hell or high water. There is no negotiating involved.

So could Biden possibly be America’s Gray Champion, like Lincoln or FDR? There are some causes that Biden has championed, notable the defense of Ukraine, to which purpose he can be credited with rallying NATO, after the alliance was called into question by the previous administration. And he stands up for the values of the blue zone faction in the Culture Wars, arguably rallying his people to uphold the establishment of a diverse, inclusive version of the American nation (in contrast to what MAGA represents).

If in his demeanor or his personality Biden doesn’t quite fit the archetype of the Gray Champion, could he possibly grow into the role? There is a danger here of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Some theory predicts that a persona will arise, so we go looking for it. We see it where we want it to be.

But consider that the Dark Brandon meme arose on its own. Almost certainly, it did not originate with people who were familiar with generational theory and trying to revive a particular generational archetype. Rather, the meme came about naturally because of a deep-seated need by a political faction to have a leader who is strong and resolute. One they can have faith in and follow confidently into a dark and foreboding future.

In other words, today’s living generations are primed for the return of the archetypal Gray Champion. When you need one, you need one, even if you have to invent one in the form of Dark Brandon.

His hour is one of darkness, and adversity, and peril. But should domestic tyranny oppress us, or the invader’s step pollute our soil, still may the Dark Brandon come…

-Nathaniel Hawthorne, perhaps

Hawthorne quotes are from his short story “The Gray Champion,” which can be found here:

Some Gave All

Some Gave All

This Memorial Day, I’d like to take a moment to honor the many, many Americans who have lost their lives to mass shootings over the years.

Does it make sense to think of the victims of domestic mass shootings as casualties of war? Well, it might, depending on how you define “war.” Let me make an argument.

In the aftermath of the United States invasion of Iraq in 2003, there was a proctacted period of low-level violence perpetrated by enemies of the U.S. regime who were trying to thwart its efforts to maintain order. I mean “low-level” in contrast to the “shock and awe” that had just come before, when U.S. forces admitted themselves into the country. The long insurgency that followed the invasion was the “mission not accomplished” phase of the Iraq War, and became known as “post-conflict stabilization” in the prominent strategic theories of the time, which imagined the U.S. toppling evil dictatorships and spreading democracy around the globe. Those were the heady “sole superpower” days when neoconservatives dominated U.S. foreign policy.

This gist of these theories was that governments which controlled powerful militaries needed to become adept at fighting much more poorly equipped enemies who used “asymmetric warfare,” which used to simply be called guerilla warfare. Great Power war was out, because of U.S. hegemony and/or strategic nuclear weapons, but now there were these new “small wars” where the battlefield wasn’t strictly defined and encompassed civilian spaces. “Superempowered individuals” exploited open networks to wreak havoc on civilians and undermine the authority of governments, as happened in the U.S. in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and then happened over and over again in Baghdad, outside of the “green zone” where the occupying forces maintained their headquarters.

In those days there was this sense that such violence and instability were only a problem “over there,” which we lucky First World Americans witnessed from a distance, except in rare moments such as 9/11. Somehow, terrorist attacks on our nation were the result of malcontents who hated our freedom, which is why we were obligated to go deal with them on their territory. This poem by Alicia Ostriker expresses the sentiment brilliantly.

The Window, at the Moment of Flame

And all this while I have been playing with toys
A toy power station a toy automobile a house of blocks

And all this while far off in other lands
Thousands and thousands, millions and millions—

You know—you see the pictures
Women carrying their bony infants

Men sobbing over graves
Buildings sculpted by explosion

Earth wasted bare and rotten—
And all this while I have been shopping, I have

Been let us say free
And do they hate me for it

Do they hate me

-Alicia Ostriker

We gave up on all that, and now it seems that our own government is suffering from stability issues right here at home. The partisan divide is so deep that many Americans fear there could be another civil war. We almost didn’t have a successful transition of power in the last Presdiential election.

After January 6, I wrote a blog post suggesting that the United States now faced the thorny problems of small wars and post-conflict stabilization on the domestic front. National guardsmen holding down the Capitol building just looked so much like there was a green zone in Washington, D.C. itself.

What does this have to do with mass shootings? Mass shooters have many motivations, sometimes completely inscrutable, sometimes plainly laid out in manifestos or evident from their background and social media posts. Undeniably, one motivation is hatred and anger stirred up by interactions in online networks and by the spreading of divisive messages and misinformation.

Mass shooters, even teenaged ones, also have ready access to powerful firearms, despite majority support for stricter gun control. This is because we do not have a functional democracy, in which the majority viewpoint can prevail in law.

This takes me to another strategic theory, the concept of a “hybrid war,” which combines conventional military means with cyberwarfare and with social network attacks spreading “fake news,” inciting “stochastic terrorism,” and interfering with democratic elections. This is a kind of warfare favored by Russia; in fact, Putin’s infamous Wagner Group of mercenaries is headed by the same guy who ran the Internet Research Agency that interfered with the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. It’s not really a stretch to say that the U.S. has been in a hybrid war with Russia (with Ukraine as a proxy) since the late 2010s.

In this “informational market state” in which we live (pardon me for dredging up more theories), security threats come primarily from individuals exploiting open networks. Clearly, young men who are radicalized on the Internet and can easily acquire an AR-15 at the corner gun shop are just such individuals. So long as government remains paralyzed and individual rights are triumphant, the threat of mass shootings will remain.

To whatever extent these factors are tied up in a global market state conflict pitting alternate ideological camps against one another, you could say we are in a state of war. Call it World War III, the hybrid version. Call it Cold Civil War II. It hardly matters. Perhaps it makes more sense simply to consider that, through our choices, we have made our society into an active war zone. And so the victims of mass shootings are casualties of war.

So let us pause on this Memorial Day and reflect on the lives of the many Americans who have been gunned down going about their daily business, as our government flounders, unable to gain any traction on control over access to deadly weapons, even as firearms have now become the leading cause of death for children. Let us remember their sacrifice, and the sacrifice of the many more schoolchildren, shoppers, concertgoers, church and synagogue attendees, and other ordinary men, women and children, going about their ordinary business, who will give their lives in the years to come. They are paying the price of freedom.

I conclude this post with a thougthful poem by the late Muriel Rukeyser.

Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)

I lived in the first century of world wars.
Most mornings I would be more or less insane,
The newspapers would arrive with their careless stories,
The news would pour out of various devices
Interrupted by attempts to sell products to the unseen.
I would call my friends on other devices;
They would be more or less mad for similar reasons.
Slowly I would get to pen and paper,
Make my poems for others unseen and unborn.
In the day I would be reminded of those men and women,
Brave, setting up signals across vast distances,
Considering a nameless way of living, of almost unimagined values.
As the lights darkened, as the lights of night brightened,
We would try to imagine them, try to find each other,
To construct peace, to make love, to reconcile
Waking with sleeping, ourselves with each other,
Ourselves with ourselves. We would try by any means
To reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves,
To let go the means, to wake.

I lived in the first century of these wars.

-Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)
My 2022 Retrospective

My 2022 Retrospective

In world events, the two big stories of 2022 were clearly the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the confluence of the Jan 6th committee hearings and midterm election results, which I will call the slow death of MAGA. I thought it was impressive that the Biden administration was able to rally the West in support of Ukraine, and also dodge the expected “red wave” repudiation of the executive term. Is this inching towards a “blue wave” consolidation, and a revitalization of the Western alliance, after the setbacks of the previous administration? Or is it just pulling the partisan tension ever tauter, in anticipation of a reckoning still to come? Either way, I would like to take this opportunity to extend a middle finger to all of the MAGAts in the Putin/TFG camp, and heartily wish them more failure and humiliation in the new year.

In my own life, the best new thing to happen to me was being hired to work on the end notes for the sequel to The Fourth Turning. I’ve been a fan of Strauss & Howe generations theory for 25 years now, nearly half of my life, and it’s an honor to be included in Neil Howe’s process of writing the much anticipated sequel to their 1997 book (Bill Strauss passed away in 2007, sadly). It has been a lot of hard work, and I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute and to prove myself (I’m pretty good at methodical information organization).

I say this is the best new thing to happen to me, because there is much to be grateful for in 2022 that is a continuation of past trends. I really am one of the luckiest people in the world. I get to work from home in a time of plague, and while the Covid-19 pandemic is about to reach its three year anniversary, my extended family and network has for the most part mercifully been spared the worst outcomes from the disease (though enough of us have caught it, Lordy). Our family is financially stable, even while our national economy is not. And though I have Boomer parents and Millennial children, I am not really “Sandwich Generation” in the sense of being responsible for caring for family both above and below me on the age ladder. My parents, thankfully, have retirement savings.

I’m also very lucky and grateful to be with my partner, Aileen, after almost ten years since we reunited at our 30th year high school reunion in 2013. We started off visiting each other frequently from our respective homes 400 miles apart, and ended up living together under one roof. Being in lockdown together tested our relationship – could we stand continuous contact for months on end? Turns out we could. Pandemic lockdown and moving in together have only strengthened our partnership, and I look forward to many decades together to come.

My big hope for 2023 is more opportunity for creative work, for myself and everyone else in the household. I know, it might seem crazy to wish for work. Didn’t I just enjoy a week off from that? But we Gen Xers are in our peak earning years, so it’s very good for us to keep that going at this point in our lives. I for one will be hitting the ground running next week, rereading Neil’s book while also swamped with work at my computer job. Aileen has had her contract at West Chester University extended, which is great because it means she will get one full year there to put on her resume. As for the young Millennials in our family, I hope for more opportunity to learn and grow, and figure out where they want to go in life. We will, of course, be there to support them.

To my readers, I say thank you for checking out my blog, and I invite you to keep visiting as I continue to chronicle these challenging times. We don’t know exactly what the future holds, but we can be sure there is significant change coming. I hope you have a foundation in your life like mine, because that will so helpful for getting through this crisis era. All the generations will need one another for a safe and prosperous New Year.

The Walking Dead Finale and How This Show Captured the Zeitgeist

The Walking Dead Finale and How This Show Captured the Zeitgeist

Tonight the series finale of The Walking Dead will be broadcast on AMC. I have been a fan of this show since it began way back in 2010, which seems like a lifetime ago. When it premiered, I was living in North Carolina, and watched it with my roommate at the time. I found it to be a compelling, immersive horror story. It gave me the creeps and made me want to lock up the house and peek out the windows to check for zombies. But I still looked forward to new episodes every Sunday; as Bob Calvert sings, we like to be frightened.

Over the years, my roommate moved out, and so I watched the show alone. Then I became a cord-cutter (that is, I cancelled my cable subscription), so I had to wait for seasons to come to Netflix before I could catch up on episodes. I also started reading the comics, and I loved to compare and contrast the comics with the TV series. For example, of the four characters depicted in the series finale promo shot above, one is never in the comic, and one dies early on. Of the other two, one wanders off and is never heard from again, and only the last one actually remains relevant to the story all the way to the end.

It’s understandable that the writers of the TV show would want to deviate from the comic series storyline, to keep fans guessing. The writers also didn’t have much choice, for two basic reasons. One is that the actors playing the children aged faster than the story timeline; there’s no way their characters could have a story arc to match the one in the comics, over a 5 or 10 year period IRL. The other reason is that sometimes the stars just wanted to leave the show.

The main character, Rick Grimes, had to be written out of the TV show because the actor playing him wanted to spend more time with his family. In my opinion, this was a grave blow to the series, since the comic’s basic story is how Rick Grimes manages to build a community out of a ravaged post-apocalyptic society. The comic series has a kind of triumphal ending, after dragging the reader through all sorts of harrowing hell. Can the TV series accomplish something similar? I guess we’ll find out soon enough. But I think the TV show kind of got lost at times, because all it could do was recycle plot lines with new sets of characters, as actors came and went. It just didn’t achieve a strong overarching story arc, as the comic does.

Another interesting difference between the comic and the TV show is that the comic is actually much more violent, and also has foul language and sexual content that is absent from the TV version. This, of course, is because the TV show is on basic cable; AMC content is not TV-MA rated, as far as I know. As I recall, the TV show is as edgy as it is at all only because it comes on late at night. The comic also, as a rule, has more interesting zombies, since it’s easier to draw animated corpses in various states of decay, than it is to construct them with prosthetics or paint them with CGI. The TV show has hordes of fully clothed, barely decayed zombies – that is, extras wearing face makeup – whereas the zombie hordes in the comic have bones poking out and guts hanging out every which way.

The difference in the intensity of the violence on the TV show became very significant about halfway through the show’s run. This was around the peak of the show’s popularity, at the end of season 6 and beginning of season 7. At this point, I was watching new episodes at a movie theater in North Carolina. Yep, this theater showed them as they premiered, and free of charge. The theater was next to a college campus, and would be packed full of young people. I would usually go by myself (though I did convince a friend to join me a few times), and would have a couple of beers while I watched. It was a lot of fun.

Season 6 ended with a cliff hanger, and there was all this buzz and excitement when season 7 started. But in the first episode of season 7, a beloved character was brutally murdered. I still remember the shockwave through the audience when it happened. The next Sunday, the crowd was maybe half the size. That moment practically killed the show; it’s popularity plummeted after that. But the irony is that in this instance, the TV show was being completely faithful to the comic book. The same exact murder happens in the comic, and because of that I wasn’t surprised by it at all. And as for the brutality of it, well, the comic had always been that violent; it was like the TV show was catching up. But this was too much, I think, for most fans, and the TV series never recovered it’s viewership levels after that.

When I moved to Pennsylvania, I finished reading the comic books, and continued watching the TV show with Aileen. At this point, in order to stay current, we purchased the seasons on Amazon prime (yeesh), and then eventually got an AMC+ subscription. Tonight, we’ll be able to watch the last episode, on our streaming smart TV. I’m very curious to see how its ending compares to the one in the comic series.

While I do think the comic books are better, because they have a more coherent story and actually have a point, I have enjoyed the show, and its creators and producers deserve kudos for their achievement. 12 years (11 if you consider the pandemic break) is an amazing run for a television series. It’s been quite a journey for the characters who survived this long, and for the audience that has stuck with the show to the end.

Aileen and I have discussed why this show is popular. She says it’s because it reminds people that no matter how bad their lives get, it’s nothing like what the characters in The Walking Dead have to go through. And she agrees with me that the series captures the mood of the Fourth Turning. As I’ve blogged before, it’s like the reckoning that Gen X has been waiting their whole lives for, finally coming to pass. It parallels the state of our world today, with everything falling apart, and group pitted against group. I just hope that in the show, and in real life, the good guys win.

Strategy Review: The Accidental Superpower

Strategy Review: The Accidental Superpower

There’s a certain genre of popular nonfiction which I really enjoy, one where scholarly intellectuals develop a grand strategic theory to explain the state of the world. I have reviewed a number of them over the years on this blog, and inevitably I tie them in to my favorite grand theory of all, the generations theory of William Strauss and Neil Howe. I mean, logically, if different scholars find different patterns in social, political and military history, then those patterns can be compared and related to one another. These different thinkers might be looking at the same patterns from different perspectives.

The latest work in this genre that I’ve picked up is The Accidental Superpower by Peter Zeihan, who is a geopolitical analyst who emphasizes the importance of geography and demography in determining the fate of nations. The Accidental Superpower was published in 2014, and already has multiple follow up books which I might also read, though I thought that this one alone provided many great insights into the power dynamics of the world today.

Zeihan starts with a quick survey of the rise of human civilization with important technological turning points, leading up the emergence of the United States as a global power. As Zeihan sees it, the United States is fated to superpowerdom (that’s the “accident” of it) by geographic advantages: two oceans protecting its flanks, with many excellent harbors on the coasts, and a massive navigable river system in a fertile heartland. These are the features which make it such a wealthy nation. It’s not its culture or its system of government which make it wealthy; it’s the wealth which makes its culture and government even possible. It’s because of the vast supply of capital that comes with low transport and security costs that the U.S. can have a free-wheeling capitalist society. At least that is how I understood the argument.

Another consequence of these advantages is that the United States, at the conclusion of World War II and the start of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union, was able to craft a unique postwar order via the Bretton Woods free trade agreements. What this amounts to is a pact between the U.S. and its Cold War allies: we will protect you from the Reds, and you will participate in our free trade regime, which includes access to our markets. The U.S. was able to do this because it had the only big navy left on the oceans (so it could protect the trade routes), and because it has so many economic advantages that it can easily prosper in a non-protectionist, open global market.

At least that’s how it used to be. Now that the Soviet Union is no longer a threat, there is less of a pressing need for the U.S. to maintain the Pax Americana. The U.S. public is wearying of the costs of this maintenance, including the economic costs to the domestic labor market (read: loss of manufacturing jobs and lack of wage growth because the labor market has gone global). This is the familiar story of the recent long era of economic growth and relative world peace, accompanied by growing popular discontentment at fading economic prospects, culminating, so far, in an era of grievance-ridden political strife.

Zeihan avoids discussing domestic U.S. politics. In fact, he spends most of his book analyzing the state of affairs in other countries around the world, and concluding that none of them will fare as well in the near future as the United States will. The era of globalization sustained by Bretton Woods will wind down (is winding down), and a more chaotic era (which Zeihan calls “the coming disorder”) will result. In this disordered world the U.S. will remain preeminent, thanks to its geographic advantage.

Zeihan does discuss generations, but only in the demographic sense, not in the Strauss and Howe sense which explains changes in social mood and social priorities. For Zeihan, the importance of generations is in how they participate in the economy at different phases of life: young adults drive consumer spending, mid-lifers are the capital holders who provide a tax base, and children and the elderly are both burdens. For a healthy economy, you really don’t want an “inverted age pyramid,” where the elderly population is larger than the population of young and mid-life adults trying to sustain them. Luckily for the United States, it has the advantage there as well, with higher fertility rates and more immigration than other developed nations have.

For Zeihan, globalization came about because of the security needs of the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet threat. With that threat gone, globalization will come to an end. He was writing this before Trump’s challenge to NATO, before Brexit and before the pandemic, all events which have held up this prediction. Using demographics, Zeihan predicts that with Boomers retiring and Gen Xers replacing them as the tax base, capital will become dear and financial markets will suffer: another prediction held up by current events.

Again, Zeihan focuses on geopolitics and demography. He doesn’t get much into culture or domestic U.S. politics. What generations theory (in the Strauss & Howe sense) could add to his thinking is the idea that after the Great Financial Crisis in 2007-08, there was a shift in the social mood. Americans were past a tipping point and no longer receptive to an open and interconnected world. The free trade regime of Bretton Woods, set up by older generations as an expression of American power and prestige, was now seen by new generations as corrosive to American cultural integrity and economic security. The long boom of economic growth and rising asset valuations of the ’90s and ’00s was now seen as the product of excessive risk-taking. In this new era, spooked financial markets avoid risk, and we depend on central banking monetary policy and government stimulus to sustain economic growth, tools which at this point have exhausted their potential.

Generational theory draws on cultural and attitudinal explanations for shifts in social behavior, and these ideas dovetail well with Zeihan’s more strictly material viewpoint. Generational theory even offers an explanation for the end of the Bretton Woods regime and the coming disorder: it’s the inevitable decay of an institutional framework that accompanies the progression of generations. It’s the long arc of the generational cycle, and though the previous order is now crumbling, out of the disorder some new regime will emerge.

Before concluding this review, I would like to connect some of Zeihan’s thinking to other strategists I have reviewed on this blog. One of them is legal scholar Philip Bobbitt, whose idea of the “market-state” has been covered here multiple times. Bobbitt claims that a new constitutional order is emerging to replace the nation state, one in which markets have more power than governments. Now, it seems quite possible that this idea of a new order only makes sense in world of globalized free trade, which we now have reason to believe is coming to an end.

So maybe the nation state will have a chance to make a comeback. Or, as I speculated in one post, a new constitutional order will emerge which is like the nation state, but adapted to the new strategic environment. This certainly makes sense in a scenario of global disorder following U.S. withdrawal from its role as the free world’s security guarantor. All the nations scramble to get their footing and find a way that works. But then there’s the question of the coalition supporting Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion, led by the United States. It suggests that the U.S. is maintaining its security role, even as global trade is being severely disrupted. But that might not last; President Biden, who represents the old generation and the old order, could soon be replaced by a MAGA leader. The balls are all up in the air.

One final note on the market-state: Bobbitt defined different flavors of this constitutional order. To wit: an individualistic “entrepreneurial” kind, which the United States has; a “managerial” kind with more state control, which is typical of European countries; and a “mercantile” version with protected domestic markets, which is what Japan has. I bring this up because Zeihan’s descriptions of the geographical foundations of nations’ economies goes a long way to explain why there are different flavors of the market state. The capital rich U.S. can afford a more entrepreneurial mode of life, whereas nations without all the geographic and resource advantages that the U.S. has need more regulation and government control. Zeihan’s geography-based model of national fortune is very powerful, and probably the best thing I got out of reading his book.

The other strategist I was reminded of when I read The Accidental Superpower is Thomas P. M. Barnett, who wrote The Pentagon’s New Map about a decade earlier. Barnett is a military strategist who developed a geopolitical theory that divided the world into a “Functioning Core” of stable states and a “Non-Integrated Gap” of failed states. He looked at the history of post-Cold War American military interventions (going back to Panama in 1989, technically on the cusp of the Cold War), and concluded that the U.S. faced a new post-Cold War mission of integrating the Gap states into the Core. He tried to map out a blueprint for how the U.S. could succeed at this mission, sort of a new phase of Pax Americana and maintenance of the global free trade regime. He critiqued how President Bush was handling it with the Iraq War, noting that the key was bringing in a strong alliance network for long-term post-conflict stabilization; unilateral regime-toppling was not enough.

In the mid-2000s, with 9/11 still fresh in memory, there was this kind of heady excitement about the projection of American power in the upper echelons of government and the military. It made Barnett’s kind of expansive strategic thinking possible – I recall in his book that he described himself as a “cockeyed optimist.” There really was a hope of bringing democracy and capitalism online in far-flung places and crafting a world where globalization worked for everyone. Now that the U.S.’s Middle Eastern military adventures are seen as a Vietnam-like failure, Barnett’s star has faded, though I have heard he is working on a new book.

One thing that Barnett and Zeihan have in common is that they are both Gen Xers, though about ten years apart in age. Barnett is early wave, and seems to have inherited a little bit of Boomer idealism. Peter Zeihan, on the other hand, is very much the pragmatist. He comes across to me as a hard-headed, just the facts, tell it like it is practical thinker, and his vision of the future is more pessimistic than Barnett’s. There won’t be a next wave of globalization, simply because it is not a strategic imperative for the one power on Earth that might bring it about.

As I mentioned, Zeihan has followed up The Accidental Superpower with a few other books. He also has a web site, “Zeihan on Geopolitics,” and is very active on Twitter, where these days he is focused on the war in Ukraine. He is a smart and knowledgeable guy whose insights are worth checking out.