Has reality itself lost its dynamic vitality?

My dear virtual friends, here is something to mess with your head a bit, late on this Monday afternoon, which is so much like so many other Monday afternoons.

It’s a piece that I missed at the time (10 days ago, in the WSJ), checking it out only when I saw a letter to the editor referring to it. It’s by Pulitzer-winner Henry Allen, who says he “used to be Ziggy Zeitgeist, Harry Hip,” a guy sufficiently plugged into the Zeitgeist to write a book about what each decade of the 20th century felt like to life in.

Now, he is adrift:

Now I am disquieted. It’s not that I see things changing for better or worse, for richer or poorer, or even not changing at all. It’s something else: The most important thing in our culture-sphere isn’t change but the fact that reality itself is dwindling, fading like sunstruck wallpaper, turning into a silence of the dinner-party sort that leads to a default discussion of movies.

Is some sort of cultural entropy homogenizing us?

As novelist Douglas Coupland has pointed out, ordinary people in photographs from 1993 are indistinguishable from people in photographs now. Can you name another 20-year period in modern American history when this is true? 1900-20? 1920-40? 1970-90? His analysis: There’s not much geist left in the zeit….

I think he’s onto something, especially with that bit about how people look the way they did 20 years ago. You can look at pictures from the 60s (especially of famous, trendy people, like the Beatles) and pretty much tell what year it was. Every year felt and looked so different from those that preceded. Things slowed down a bit after that, but you could still recognize the decade. Until the last 20 years or so.

There’s more thought-provoking stuff in the piece:

We have individualism but we have no privacy. We are all outsiders with no inside to be outside of.

Or: We’ve lost our sense of possibility. Incomes decline, pensions vanish, love dwindles into hooking up, we’re not having enough babies to replace ourselves.

No arc, no through-line, no destiny. As the British tommies sang in the trenches of World War I, to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne,” “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here.”

I don’t know what’s going on. I doubt that anyone does. Is our democracy turning into a power vacuum? What will fill it?

Will organized religion die? I got talking to a girl from an Episcopal youth group in Missouri. “Episcopalianism is great,” she said. “You don’t have to believe in anything.”

Like most people I used to think the world would go on the way it was going on, with better medicine and the arrival of an occasional iPad or an earthquake. That was when I knew what was going on….

But you should just go read the whole thing

21 thoughts on “Has reality itself lost its dynamic vitality?

  1. bud

    You can pretty much find someone moaning and groaning about the decline of culture at any point in time. The demise of religion, the deterioration of culture, the rise of immorality are all themes of these buzz kill pop sociologists. The better things get in the world the worse the perception aging people have of it. Here’s some good news: Traffic deaths are at the lowest level since the 1940s. I’m not talking about rates but actual numbers killed. The 3 people killed in San Francisco were the first airline deaths since early 2009. Life expectancy continues to rise the world over. Birth rates are below or just above replacement rate everywhere in the world except Africa. That’s great news for the future of humanity. So let’s not get all bummed out by some naysayer that can’t tell the difference between clothes today and those of the early 90s. And why that’s a bad thing is beyond me.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    I pointed out the fashion stasis thing a while back. I think mostly, it is because people have discovered the classic looks that suit them…..which is not to ignore the mullet hems I saw today downtown, for example….

    Dunno about Zeitgeist stuff, though. Pre9/11 and post, and Clinton/Bush/Obama sure seem different to me.

    1. Brad Warthen

      They feel the same to me: Ever since 1993, nothing but pointless, paralyzing hyper partisanship, with one execrable party or the other briefly holding an advantage, to no real purpose…

      1. Doug Ross

        I think you are glossing over the past. There hasn’t been a period of time where there WASN’T hyperpartisanship in my lifetime. Vietnam, Watergate, Carter and Reagan’s presidency were all similar periods of us-versus-them partisanship. The only difference now is that there are more ways to get the message out than before.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          It’s very, very different now, Doug. I like to point to 1993 because of a couple of things. One was the way Republicans weren’t giving Clinton a chance from Day One. Actually, before Day One. In late 1992, between the election and the inauguration, I saw signs on cars that said, “Don’t blame me; I voted Republican.” I had NEVER seen anything like that so early.

          In the past, there had at least been a brief period of, OK, he’s the president, we need to give him his due for now…

          I know what I’m talking about. I was following this stuff professionally, and I saw how the difference went from Democrats and Republicans seeing each other as fellow Americans who disagreed, with a rivalry that was sort of like between USC and Clemson, to a state in which they regarded each other as deadly enemies, or even as members of some other species.

          It didn’t all happen at once, of course. I draw that line at 1993 (or late 1992), but really nasty campaigning started in 1982. There was a lot said about it at the time. Everybody was looking around and wondering what was happening. Negative campaigns like the ones Lee Atwater was running, or like what Robin Beard ran against Jim Sasser in Tennessee, were a real departure from what we’d seen in the past.

          And the causes of this shift are complex as well. One theory of mine is that partisan politics were relatively benign between Dems and Repubs who had served together in WWII, and had a sense of being Americans together, and that overriding other differences. That generation of leaders ran the country from about 1960 to about 1990, and they got a LOT done, because they were able to work together.

          You cite the Reagan administration, and I point to the way Tip O’Neill and Dan Rostenkowski and others worked with him to pass significant legislation.

          There was some of that in the 90s, but only after Clinton was chastised by the 1994 election, and Newt Gingrich and his people got burned by the whole shutting-down-the-government thing, so they worked together on welfare reform and the like.

          Similarly, Bush got some big things done working with Ted Kennedy and others. But it’s been awhile since there’s been any meaningful working together…

          1. Doug Ross

            Do you think the Vietnam War era was one of harmony between the parties? The decision to go into Vietnam tore this country apart.

            And I’m trying to remember when exactly Jimmy Carter was given any sort of chance to be successful. Carter won by 2% and was gone four years later. He was reviled and mocked by the right and the press from day one. Remember Billy Carter and Miss Lillian? The rabbit incident? The sweater?

          2. Thomas Jefferson

            You think it was civil up until 1982?

            When I ran for President against John Adams, the President of Yale University (a John Adams supporter) publicly suggested that if I were to become the President, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.”

            Not to be outdone, a Connecticut newspaper’s warned it’s readers that electing me would create a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”

            Politics was a rough and tumble game ever since President Washington told everyone that he only wanted two terms.

          3. Brad Warthen Post author

            Yes, Tom, we remember the bitter election of 1800. And by the way, I was rooting for Adams in that one. But we all accepted the results (however grudgingly), which was the REAL American Revolution — the peaceful handover of power from one faction to the other, just based on an election.

            If you want to talk all of U.S. history, you’ll see pretty nasty stuff all the way through the 19th century. Party was enormously important to the average voter in those days, and newspapers essentially existed as party organs (and the papers were a big part of the nastiness of 1800). The State was started for the purpose of fighting against the Tillman faction, for instance.

            The period of relative civility that I refer to is what I knew in my lifetime, and it also coincides with a time in which newspapers became carefully nonpartisan. By the time I was starting my career, most metropolitan dailies had pretty much shed their partisan identifications.

            And as I say, the WWII experience provided a unifying factor that softened the edges between the parties. Before that, there had been plenty of edge to partisan politics. My Dad clearly remembers the loud arguments his Dad had with the Democrat from down the street about FDR. But to people my Dad’s age, Roosevelt was simply The President — the only one they had known.

            I’ve always liked the anecdote about Bob Dole (the last of that generation to run for president) running for office for the first time. He went to the clerk’s office to register as a candidate, and was asked which party he was affiliated with. He asked, “Which one won the last election?” He was told the Republicans did. So he registered as a Republican. This was not long after the war (and after his long recuperation from his horrific wounds), an experience that I think caused him to see the shades of difference between the two parties as lacking in significance…

  3. Norm Ivey

    “Will organized religion die? I got talking to a girl from an Episcopal youth group in Missouri. “Episcopalianism is great,” she said. “You don’t have to believe in anything.”

    George Carlin meets John Lennon.

    Or for a darker take, read The Lathe of Heaven.

    It’s not so much a case of cultural entropy as it is cultural empathy. Young people simply don’t find the differences between cultures or lifestyles all that big a deal. People are learning to accept without judgement everyone around them for who they are. The changing of styles by decade was probably a 20th century phenomenon anyway. If we had photos of the masses from different decades of the 18th century could we identify the decades? And if we get out of our first-world ego-centrism, would we be able to see the decade-by-decade changing of styles in other parts of the world? Probably not. Seems that the author may be mourning the passing of an aberration rather than the norm.

    1. Brad Warthen

      Relative affluence is a precondition for a dynamic popular culture. That’s assumed. And maybe that’s the problem. We could feel our economic horizons expanding in past decades. No longer…

      1. Jeff

        Part of it may be that you are expecting “*a* dynamic popular culture” instead of “a multitude of dynamic cultures.” In the past, we had monoculture. Everybody listened to the Beatles, and there were Beatles fans everywhere you looked. It’s easier to reach people now without reaching everybody, so there aren’t any singular dominant themes that can be used to plaster an identity over everyone in a particular year.

        You can see what year hula hoops came out in any Christmas photo, and you can see a year when GI Joe/Transformers/Rainbow Brite were all out, but good luck mentally tagging this year’s multitude. Or maybe we only remember the one thing that was good from fifty years ago, and we don’t know yet what one thing will be worth remembering from today.

    2. Barry

      “People are learning to accept without judgement everyone around them for who they are. ”

      Not really. When you are young, it’s “hip” to have a “live and let live” approach. That often changes with kids, adult relationships, complications that come about by living life.

      People are as judgemental as they ever have been. That hasn’t – and won’t change. What they are judgemental about can change though.

      1. Norm Ivey

        I agree that it’s easier as a young person to live and let live. (I’ve always preferred Langston Hughes’s take on that.) But now we have a generation that not only has been raised by the children of the Boomers, but one which has had access to the entire world for most of their lives, not just to a small corner of it. I see in my own adult children a natural tolerance of a level I have to work to achieve.

        You can see it in some issues of the day. Gay marriage was unthinkable 20 years ago, but within another 20 years it will be legal everywhere. The legalization of marijuana is going to happen sooner or later. These things are going to change, and it’s happening because of young people and young people exerting influence on their families. The differences between us matter less.

        Hyper-partisanship was mentioned in other comments. I think that at least some of that partisanship is driven by an elder generation that is frightened or confused by these changes, and so they fight back by taking positions that seem more and more extreme.

        1. Brad Warthen

          No, not at all, Norm. It’s the younger people who drive the nastier stuff in politics. They’re always on the leading edge of it, from Lee Atwater in the early 80s to the young true-believer political consultants today. The younger they are, the nastier.

          And while you may regard the legalization of cannabis as progress, I do not. I was around in the days when everybody was stoned. I was not impressed….

        2. Barry

          “These things are going to change, ”

          Things have always been changing since the start of time.

          People are always going to be quite judgemental.

          Things change. People are judgemental. What they are judgemental about sometimes changes – but it doesn’t go away.

          You mention pot. I agree- 30 years from now it will be legal to have – and I predict harder drugs will be either legal – or the spin will be “only the most close minded people” are against legalizing hard drugs.

          You also mentioned gay marriage. The ironic thing though – while those things will be more accepted- the same judgemental nature of humans will still be there. If you are against such things you are seen as the hateful person now.

          The judgement and close mindedness is still there- just reversed. That’s why I always laugh when people say people are “more accepting.” No they aren’t – not at all.

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            I agree, Barry. Whatever the issue, people are not one bit more accepting of people who disagree with them. Rather less so, I think. Of course, back in the 70s people were more accepting because a lot of them were too stoned to care…

  4. Doug Ross

    The number of tattoos, piercings, breast implants, etc, seems to have increased rapidly over the past decade. People are making their “fashion” choices permanent.

  5. Brad Warthen Post author

    I’ve written in the past about how enormously exciting I found American pop culture when I returned here in 1965 after two-and-a-half years in South America without television. My words in describing it are probably inadequate. It was so amazingly stimulating, as though all my neurons were on fire. It was like mainlining some drug that is so far unknown to pharmacology, one that fully engages all of your brain.

    If I had returned at that same age in 2013 rather than ’65, I doubt it would have been such a huge rush. It would be like, “Oh, look: The latest iPhone does some minor stuff that the old one didn’t. And now we have 4G. Whoopee.”

    Most of the big movies would be sequels of the big movies when I left. The best things on TV would still be “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” “Firefly” would still be canceled.

    I just can’t imagine what I’d grab hold of and say, “Wow, THIS is different and exciting…”


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