Fasten your seatbelts. Brace for impact. This is only the beginning. The Japanese earthquake struck just over a week ago. In scanning the blogs and tweets for the general mood, I find a shrill apocalyptic consensus rising online. On early March 18, Vinay Gupta (@leashless on Twitter) tweeted: "The air stinks of war if you can feel it, the acrid edge of blood and smoke. You can't have revolutions in the middle east without the risk. And we're all tottering on the edge of a global financial collapse, which the oil price spike / crippled Japan combo may trigger."
Operation Tomodachi photo of a Japanese home floating in the Pacific Ocean. Image Source: Boing Boing.
Caption for the above photo: (March 13, 2011) A Japanese home is seen adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Ships and aircraft from the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group are searching for survivors in the coastal waters near Sendai, Japan. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Dylan McCord/Released).
Are you there, God? It's me, Generation X, a generally well-tempered blog about Gen-X stuff, picked up on a hair-raising post from The Burning Platform, which was entitled, "The Gathering Storm." It applauds Stauss and Howe's dubious cyclical vision of history:
A butterfly flapped its wings in Tunisia creating a hurricane that is swirling across the globe, wreaking havoc with the existing social order and sweeping away old crumbling institutions and dictatorships. The linear thinking politicians, pundits and thought leaders have been knocked for a loop. They didn’t see it coming and they don’t know where it’s leading. An examination and understanding of history would have revealed that we have been here before. We were here in 1773. We were here in 1860. We were here in 1929. We are here again. The Fourth Turning has returned in its predictable cycle, just as Winter always follows Fall.
... Historians William Strauss and Neil Howe documented their generational theory in the 1997 book The Fourth Turning. People who prefer blind ideology and believe human existence is a straight line of progress scorn their work as fantasy and pure prophecy. So called progressives misrepresent the theory as predicting the future because they refuse to accept the fact that large groups of human beings of a similar age and having common experiences react in similar predictable ways. It irritates those with an unwavering belief in human individuality. They prefer to ignore the numerous example of mass hysteria throughout history. ... Strauss & Howe have been able to break Anglo-American history into 80 to 100 year (a long human life) Saeculums going back to 1435. Each Saeculum has four generations at different stages of their lives. A turning is an era with a characteristic social mood, a new twist on how people feel about themselves and their nation. It results from the aging of the generational constellation. A society enters a turning once every twenty years or so, when all living generations begin to enter their next phases of life. Like archetypes and constellations, turnings come four to a saeculum, and always in the same order. In 1997, Strauss & Howe knew when the next Fourth Turning would begin:The next Fourth Turning is due to begin shortly after the new millennium, midway through the Oh-Oh decade. Around the year 2005, a sudden spark will catalyze a Crisis mood. Remnants of the old social order will disintegrate. Political and economic trust will implode. Real hardship will beset the land, with severe distress that could involve questions of class, race, nation and empire. The very survival of the nation will feel at stake. Sometime before the year 2025, America will pass through a great gate in history, commensurate with the American Revolution, Civil War, and twin emergencies of the Great Depression and World War II. ... What will propel these events? As the saeculum turns, each of today’s generations will enter a new phase of life, producing a Crisis constellation of Boomer elders, midlife 13ers, young adult Millennials, and children from the new Silent Generation. As each archetype asserts its new social role, American society will reach its peak of potency. The natural order givers will be elder Prophets, the natural order takers young Heroes. The no-nonsense bosses will be midlife Nomads, the sensitive souls the child Artists. No archetypal constellation can match the gravitational power of this one – nor its power to congeal the natural dynamic of human history into new civic purposes. And none can match its potential power to condense countless arguments, anxieties, cynicisms, and pessimisms into one apocalyptic storm.
Regarding Strauss and Howe, I've spent my share of time in the archives, and studied history with respect. I don't try to force past events into archetypal pigeonholes and slap literary symbols and metaphors on the complexities of past and present realities. And when other people do that, I look at that as a historical phenomenon in and of itself, rather than take their symbols and metaphors at face value. Strauss and Howe are not historians. They're meta-metahistorians. I've talked about generations on this blog a bit as a manifestation of one of the ways we perceive our temporal experience at the turn of the Millennium. But while generational identities are real, the concepts used to define them are not what they appear to be - something for another post.
The tension associated with high stress tragedies, nuclear emergencies and revolutions is fraying our nerves, our resources, our stability. Yet in response to these frightening situations, we are whipping up a perfect storm of bullshit. Desperate commentaries engender the meta-apocalypse that accompanies the actual apocalypse, which isn't really an apocalypse. There's a great line in the noir-remake film, Body Heat:
It's that crisis atmosphere. ... Pretty soon, people think the old rules are not in effect ... because it's emergency time.
Emergency thinking - something partly defined by Naomi Klein as 'Disaster Capitalism' - encourages a Peter Pan-like abrogation of responsibility, even when we are just trying to understand what is happening. What if the world isn't going to end - but the crisis will be here tomorrow - and tomorrow - and tomorrow? Then we would have to deal with it now and later.
If this is just the beginning, we can't hide behind metaphors. If this is just the beginning, we should look for an example to the stoic Japanese people, queueing patiently for limited water and rations and bravely picking through their shattered houses in the radioactive snow. From the Tumblr site, Varia (Hat tip: Michael Steger):
The waves surge higher still
within the palace
Ise the diver
who has long lived there
feels her home-ship
nothing left to cling to;
grief overwhelms her.
Our tears are like
And like the maple leaves
of autumn, when the members
of the household
in their own ways,
fills the air.
We who stayed behind
are like the pampas flowers
in a garden without a keeper.
We huddle together
and beckon to the sky:
the first wild geese of the season
cry out as they fly off,
indifferent to us.
—By Lady Ise (Ise no miyasudokoro), who lived roughly from 875 to 938, and is considered one of Japan’s great poets.
—Translated from the Japanese by Etsuko Terasaki with Irma Brandeis