The Roaring Twenties!

The Roaring Twenties!

As Santayana wrote, “Those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

It certainly has been consciousness-raising – and not a little frightening – to think about the 1920s in depth, and to recognize how very similar they are to what we are going through, and what we face in the 2020s.

For one basic thing, in both cases, the population of this country (and in fact the world) is just emerging from a major pandemic. The Spanish flu, also known as the 1918 influenza, was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus. It lasted from February 1918 to April 1920, infecting 500 million people – about a third of the world’s population at the time – in four successive waves. The death toll is typically estimated to have been somewhere between 20 million and 50 million, although estimates range from a conservative 17 million to a possible high of 100 million, making it one of the deadliest pandemics in human history. Our current death toll stands at almost four million and we have vaccines, but a warning: those are for this wave and this mutation.

We are barely, by the skin of our teeth, out from under Trump’s grip and his “America First” rhetoric, so reminiscent of Warren Harding’s campaign and presidency. The still-poisonous undercurrent of right-wing rhetoric, threats, and violent acts are all too terrible reminders of the rapid growth of the Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary ultra-right groups in the 20s — that nationalistic, anti-immigrant wave that looked with alarm and then horror at progressive influence from any quarter: from women, from people of color, from lesbian and gay citizens, from immigrants arriving from anywhere but northern Europe. The backlash against women’s enfranchisement, the suffocation of lesbian and gay openness and affirmation, all the reactive erasure to peace movements and education and good government, against evolution – against science itself – still smolders, just offstage in the wings.

The proliferation of mass communications via radio has its parallels with, of course, the Internet – and we already know a great many of the problems that brings with it. We have carried consumerism to the next levels and way beyond, and while mass production of the automobile revolutionized the 1920s, high-speed rail and, more dramatically, the beginning of space travel, stand to revolutionize this next decade. We saw urbanization reaching a tipping-point milestone in the 1920 census, but now urbanization is no longer a prediction: it’s a fact, one that’s likely be accompanied by an electoral shift to the left (but for every action there is a reaction and eventually that may well mean backlash).

The grudge-holding grievance politics clung to by largely but not exclusively older white males has if anything deepened, although none of them can ever specify which values we 2021 “flappers” are supposedly trampling. The concept that resources are not limited apparently confounds such mentalities.

The parallels are startling–and perilous.

So if any of us thought that we could dare now exhale since the pandemic seems largely over and since Trump was trounced in his bid for reelection, we are forced to think again.

This will not, must not, be a decade as innocent as The Roaring 20s were, one as audaciously rock-certain of our own future, one as trusting of our plucky idealistic vision. To repeat those mistakes is to risk, even invite, financial disaster comparable to the Crash and the Great Depression, another or extended period of extreme right-wing triumph, and, most appallingly, another catastrophic war.

Please remember that the period between the wars was not called that at the time. It was called the period “after the Great War,” since World War I, we were assured, had earned the title “the war to end all wars.” Yet that war would be followed by the rise in Europe of the National Socialist Party–and remember that Hitler was elected! -—while Nazism perpetrated the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. This was after the Bauhaus arts movement, after the democratic Weimar Republic, after other liberalizations. The echo? Right-wing governments have been rising in Europe again. But today, given atomic power, we dare not afford for this to be another period “between the wars,” or even countenance a World War III.

The differences are crucial, though, and should also be emphasized.

Dominant among them is the fate of the globe itself–and this adds pressure previously absent. The clock is ticking and the time is short. Climate change has already begun, and is moving faster than expected. This time we better really hustle to get it right, or there is no next time.

A worldwide women’s movement now flexes its muscle, unlike anything we’ve seen before. Half of all humanity is now voiced and refusing to be ever again silenced. In this country alone, in the past two years people of color have been and remain on the move, and are more united than in historical memory. Moreover, the demographic changes in this country are major ones: the United States will no longer be a European-American-majority country within this decade. (That’s both a hopeful and a warning sign – hopeful for obvious reasons, but warning because reactionary forces will undoubtedly, well, react.)

If we are vigilant and stick together; if we are careful and intelligent; if we trust the wonders that scientific knowledge can bestow on us and dare feel the empathy that our deepest politics demand of us–empathy for each other, and for the planet itself–we might just squeak through. The brave people who laid down a lighted path for us in the 1920s–the Harlem Renaissance artists and the union activists, the women who fought for the vote and then fought to expand it, the lesbians and gays driven into hiding who nonetheless left trails and clues–these are the foot prints we walk in.

More importantly, we leave our own footprints–for those in 3021, and beyond.

[This blog will be on hiatus until September.]