Friday, June 5, 2009

Of An Ominous Financial Crash, An Ordinary National Election, A Trivial Tea Party

One of the great pleasures of finally setting up my library (after more than ten years of rooting in boxes), is the pleasure of re-reading old books that I own, after a long absence. One of the most intellectually delightful and challenging aspects of this rediscovery is reading with fresh eyes, from a different perspective in space and time, as well as experience and knowledge. Thus, ideas come together in new and interesting ways, keeping the mind active, and providing much welcome new understandings that can blunt the worry and concerns of our times.

So it is that a book that I had been thinking about came into my hand once again, out of the depth of a box labeled simply: Books (4/06)--Under-stair closet. Most of the books in these boxes had first been packed in the summer of 2000, when the kids and I moved from our rental house in Rio Rancho, to the first house I had ever owned; the one that I thought I would live in for a long time. Never unpacked for the nearly two years we lived in that house, they were moved again in early summer 2002, when the Engineering Geek and I married, and we moved into a house in the Far Northeast Heights of Albuquerque. Three years ago in April 2006, in the process of moving once again to this house in Sedillo, we unpacked boxes of his-and-hers books that had come to reside under the stairs in the walk-out basement, in order to give away about one third of them and move the rest. They were shuffled and re-packed, and I remember seeing this particular book, but neither of us had the leisure to actually read any of them.

So this book came to my hands again last Tuesday, a book that I had thought about quite a bit over the past half-year because of the events that are overtaking our country. The book is called The Fourth Turning, An American Prophecy: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendevous with Destiny by William Strauss and Neil Howe. I stood there, among the half-emptied boxes, haphazardly piled books awaiting some semblance of order, feeling a sense of familiar excitement, as the book fell open in my hands. It opened to a chapter toward the end of the book, "A Fourth Turning Prophecy", and as I glanced down the page, I read:

"Sometime around the year 2005, perhaps a few years before or after, America
will enter the Fourth Turning . . . A spark will ignite a new mood. Today, the
same spark would flame briefly but then extinguish, its last flicker merely
confirming and deepening the Unraveling-era mind-set. This time, though it
will catalyze a Crisis. In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a
financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party."
(Strauss & Howe, 1997, p. 272).

That last sentence, in particular, jumped out at me, demanded my attention, and sent a chill of recognition through me. "Wow," I thought. "This is an American Prophecy--not in the sense of reading the tea leaves, but in the more traditional sense of those who stand on the tracks and see the train coming from a long way off."

The authors, Strauss and Howe, published their first book together in 1991. It was called Generations: The History of America's Future, 1584 to 2069.In it, they present a history of the United States and a possible vision of the future drawn in broad strokes, told as the story of generations, each four of which has a particular archetypical "personality." From this Strauss and Howe have developed a theory that the lifecycle placement of these generations (childhood, young adulthood, middle-age, elder) influences the mood of all of them, and further, creates a seasonal cycle lasting 80 - 90 years, that they call the saeculum. This consists of an exuberant High "spring", a turbulent, fertile Awakening "summer", an unraveling social fabric "fall", and a Crisis "winter." They detect just such a cycle operating in Anglo-American history since the Reformation. In The Fourth Turning, Strauss and Howe go on to predict the coming of the new crisis, as the Boomers take their place as elders and the Millenial generation enters young adulthood.

I read The Fourth Turning in 1998, as a Strauss and Howe Unraveling Turning was approaching its end. They describe an Unraveling Turning as "a downcast era of strengthening individualism and weakening institutions, when the old civic order (created during the High) idecays and the new values regime (created during the Awakening) implants." (p. 3). When I read the book, I certainly identified with and recognized the Unraveling mood they were describing, and I had been walking through my life at that time with the strong notion that "this can't last." Therefore, I was receptive to the predictions they were making about a coming Crisis period, and I was interested to see how predictive their theory of the saeculum would be. Thus when 9-11 happened, I thought it might be that "spark", but later thought it was more likely an early warning of a still distant but approaching storm.

As the strange and apparently ominous events of the past half-year have been accruing, I have wanted to re-read The Fourth Turning, but all my rooting in the accessible boxes in the garage came up wanting. So I was anxiously on the lookout for the book as I began the task of making my library as planned in the Chem Geek Princess's old room (now the Guest Room/Library). Thus I was amazed when finally, I found the book and read the page that fell open, and that last, pregnant sentence:

" . . . the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, as trivial as a Tea Party."

When they were writing the book in the mid-90's, Strauss and Howe used these events as examples of the catalyzing spark because they were indeed the sparks that catalyzed the Crisis mood during the Fourth Turnings of one each of the last three Saecula: They identified the Boston Tea Party (1773) as the spark for the Revolutionary War Crisis, the election of 1860 as the catalyst for the Civil War Crisis, and the Crash of '29 as the spark that began the Great Depression-WWII Crisis that ended what they call The Great Power Saeculum.

But from the perspective of this past half-year, it seems that we are entering the Millenial Crisis via sparks pulled from all of these past catalysts. Since September of last year we have experienced a financial crash, a regular but divisive national election (the last of three such thus far), and this spring, tax-protest Tea Parties, the names of which were inspired by that of 1773.

The generations are all in place according to the Strauss-Howe paradigm as well: We have the inner-directed Idealist/Prophet generational archetype (Boomers) entering elderhood, full of fervor and moral certainty; the alienated and pragmatic Reactive/Nomad archetype (Gen Xers) entering mid-life; the outer-directed Civic/Hero archetype entering adulthood ready to be achievers; and just in past decade, a new, and likely Adaptive/Artist generation (Homelanders?) is being born. If these last grow up through a successfully resolved Crisis, they will be protected during the great doings, thus becoming risk-adverse and somewhat conformist in general, as a result of their childhood experience.

The human mind loves to find patterns, and it might be that the Strauss-Howe generational paradigm is just that, except that they provide very good historical evidence of the saecular rhythm in modern Anglo-American history. And now, as a Crisis appears to be catalyzing before our very eyes, the predictive power of the paradigm will be tested. In Generations they say:

"Anyone who claims to possess a vision of the future must present it with due
modesty, since no mortal can possibly forsesee how fate may twist and turn.
Readers who encounter this book fifty years from now will no doubt find [the
predictions it contains] odd in much of [the] detail. But it is not in our purpose
to predict specific events; rather our purpose is to explain how the underlying
dynamic of generational changes will determine which sort of events are most
likely." (p. 15).

Still, that one sentence in The Fourth Turning almost jumped off the page at me in light of the events that are catlyzing the coming Crisis. As I re-read this book, my new place in space and time, and in experience as a leading-edge Gen Xer (and I agree with this placement for me, at least), will likely create more of those "big chill" moments.


ChristineMM said...

Wow that is interesting!

Loved the story of the unpacking of the books too...

Anonymous said...

Hello! I just happened to stumble onto your blog, actually my attention was caught by your comment on another blog I was reading because of your name. I know this is a random question and has nothing to do with your post, but how do you pronounce your name? My daughter's name is Elisheva as well. We pronounce it Elly-shaw-va.

Unknown said...

I am so going to have to read that book. That quoted sentence covered it all!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...


My name is Hebrew in origin and I pronounce it as it would be if spelled properly in Hebrew. El-lee-sheh-vah, with the primary accent on the third syllable, and a secondary accent on the second syllable. This is because of the particular vowel for the third syllable, which in combination with that of the last syllable pushes the accent forward.

That vowel point (third syllable) is a segol, which is pronounced like the short "e" in pet.

(I hope this is clear).