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20th Century

In three weeks, the decade of the Teens shall end. Then comes the Twenties! Bring on the flappers, hot jazz, and bathtub gin!

Now of course, that’s the 1920s, not the 2020s. But you all knew exactly what I meant when I said that. Those images invoke the identity of “The 20s.”

The 1920s were the first decade to have so strong an identity. The mythologizing started almost immediately after the decade’s close, with such books as Fredrick Lewis Allen’s “Only Yesterday.” It helped that the shift from Gatsbyean partying to Depression sorrow was so abrupt and so cleanly associated with the calendar year.

So the decades continued, each with their own unique tone. The 30s, the 40s,

(The 40s were actually something of two decades: First the War and then “the Crucial Decade,” as Eric Goldman put it, that period of uncertain rebuilding and constant crisis that lasted through the end of the Korean War. The 50s, as we think of them, with rock ‘n roll and sock hops, were really just the second half of the decade)

the 50s, the 60s, the 70s, the 80s–

And then something changed. 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, marked a crux point. In the 90s were settled the current parameters of American life: quiet, constant, social change, an economy centered around tech investment and the stock market, and constant wrestling between the Left and the Right. Not that the decades that made up the last 30 years didn’t have their own distinct identities, but those identities were not as distinct as the seven decades that went before them.

Which is why, as we approach the end of the 2010s,

(There are those who insist that decades, like centuries, start with the “1” year, inasmuch as there was no year 0. The problem with this idea is that the concept of the decade is so recent that it need have no connection that happened two millennia ago. It is worth noting, though, that the “0” year of any decade is often a cusp year, an odd mix of the preceding and incoming decades. The identity is not there yet, but the seeds are.)

we have not seen much nostalgia over the past ten years or anticipation of the next ten. It just doesn’t seem like a big deal. We feel like we are in the midst of a historical flow, not at either end.

If I was going to point out any specific attribute of the 2010s, it would be the dramatic widening of the Overton Window on both Left and Right. Many ideas that were confined to fringes circa 2009 or so are common parlance now.

Which brings us to the prospects for the New 20s. Since that 1990 crux point, it seems that American politics have been in a more-or-less constant state of gridlock. One side takes a temporary lead; the other gets it back in the next election. As the contest becomes closer, it becomes more heated.

Where is this going? Will there be a victory for one side or the other, a true breakthrough of national direction, or will it continue in friction lock?

This is even more of a concern for me than it might be because my children are going to come to adulthood in the next ten years. Where you enter society’s stream contributes a great deal to the arc of your life, to your economic and spiritual fate. When I think of the direction of history we’re living, I think of them.

So now the Twenties are returned, the first decade to repeat since decades became decades. How will the 2020s compare to the 1920s? I suspect they will have very little in common indeed.

Thirty years ago today, the boundary between East and West Germany popped like a soap bubble. Something that had seemed fixed, an unsolvable problem, simply ended. This was one element of the ongoing collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the relatively peaceful end of a major system of world totalitarianism.

I was 16 at the time. It was a wondrous thing for a young person to watch, still the best geopolitical event I’ve ever witnessed. To see people power in action was to get a sense of hope, of the possibility inherent in the human spirit if it can just seize the moment.

It didn’t make everything wonderful forever. In the world as it is, there is no such thing as happily ever after. But it did make things better. If they got bad again, it doesn’t change that. That moment of liberation was real. If it happened once, it can happen again.

As I am constantly harping on about, we live in an Unprecedented Era. There are no models in human history for what we should do with our amazing knowledge and technology. We as a species are making it up as we go along. It’s only natural that sometimes everything looks bleak, as it did in the Thirties and the Seventies, because we don’t know where to go. Horrible things happen along the way. But so far we have managed to find a new path each time. H.G. Wells, on his deathbed, was sure, for very rational reasons, that humanity was doomed. But he was wrong. May he keep being wrong.

We have to cherish the good moments. We have to keep the memory and not let it degrade, to give us hope for the next one, to be sustained from victory through confusion to victory again.

One of the hardest things to express of the beauty of the Unprecedented Era is its ephemerality. Every phase can happen because conditions are Just So, and those conditions will never be that way again. The Seventies, just to use one example, are a combination of economic (the end of the great wave of mid-20th century economic growth), cultural/demographic (the afterglow of the Sixties, the autumn of those who remembered World War II, the maturity-but-still-youngness of the postwar generation), technological (the introduction of personal computers) political (the fading, but not faded, of Mass Man) elements. A certain permutation, made in the instant, year by year, month by month, hour by hour, never to be seen again.

And the same can be said for every decade since the 18th century. They are all birds: you see one for a moment, try to pin a name on it, but it flutters and is gone. You can only reconstruct it from memory, but whatever memory will never equal that empirical instant.

We cannot say “the good guys won World War II,” because the victors of World War II included Stalin’s Soviet Union, a regime that murdered millions of human beings and pioneered new ways of human evil in the same fashion as Nazi Germany.

The best we can say is that the forces of human freedom (or at least, the Enlightenment Package) survived the war to hold up their example against the totalitarian ideological movements spawned by the 20th century.

Which is just another data point to support the theory that World War II was the worst thing that ever happened.