Sunday, November 10, 2013

Only Yesterday, or why the pre-2005-2006 world seems so distant

In 1931 Frederick Lewis Allen published a minor masterpiece called Only Yesterday, where he sketched a history of the 1920s.  Although he wrote about very recent events, the trauma of the Great Depression had ripped open a giant chasm between the grim present and the "roaring" recent past.  This morning, while doing the laundry, I thought about how we were into year five our own depression, and wondered whether it was having a similar effect on our connection to the past.  The more I got to thinking, though, the more I came to realize that 2005-2006 may well have been the starting point of a truly monumental shift in our way of life.  To be honest, the thought came to me while seeing a rerun of Friends on TV this morning (don't judge) from 2004, and everything seemed so long ago and distant.

Just think back to January of 2005.  George W. Bush had just been re-elected president, and his neo-conservative crusade in Iraq seemed to have been validated.  American power probably never looked more unassailable, the United States now a "hyperpower" in the words of Bernard Henry-Levi.  Conservatives followed Bush with unstinting loyalty, championing his every move and looking forward to him announcing privatization plans for Social Security.  At this point, social media was in its infancy.  Facebook was used by a small number of college students, Twitter did not exist for another year.  When the last of the Star Wars prequels came out in May of 2005, there were no outcries or praises on social media, because people were communicating those feelings in other ways.  Cell phones had become ubiquitous, but there would be no iPhones until 2007, and Blackberry devices were owned by a small few.  If you wanted to watch television, you watched it on your television.  Amazon and other online services had put a dent in traditional booksellers, but only a few cranks thought that books themselves might be made obsolete, or that technology may be used to eliminate the traditional college classroom.

These days things have certainly changed.  Smartphones and social media dominate our free time, television has been detached from the idiot box, and educated professionals from professors to lawyers to journalists to photographers are having their livelihoods completely upended by the ruthless ways that the capitalist class has wielded the new technology.  Unpaid internships have mushroomed, and interns are now doing the kind of once-valuable work that merited compensation in the past.  Across the board the tech revolution is being used to destroy the independence of the creative class, who have been demoted to mere "content providers."  The current system has actually found a way to make the horribly exploitative music biz of the past look rosy by comparison.

Politically the changes have been ever more drastic.  The United States has been chastened and the attempt to intervene in Syria foundered on the rocks of domestic protest.  The failures in Iraq, mismanagement of Katrina, and economic collapse of 2008 (among other things) destroyed Bush's luster, and that of establishment conservatives generally.  They lost Congress in 2006, and then the presidency in 2008.  Instead of trying to win the country over, conservatives have appealed to their base, which has meant having enough power in the capital to obstruct their opponents, and to put their most extreme desires into practice in the "red" states.  While Bill O'Reilly annoyed me back in '05, I had no clue that he would be eclipsed by the full-on Father Coughlin-ism of Glenn Beck and his ilk.

Seven years ago Congress was not full of people like Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.  Republican governors did not try to eliminate collective bargaining, and teachers were not scapegoats in such efforts.  We can only compare George W. Bush to Rick Perry, and how they've governed Texas.  Bush was most certainly a right-winger, but he governed with the knowledge that plenty of people in the state did not vote for him, whereas Perry has let his id run wild and free, and knowing that Democrats are marginalized, governs as if anyone who didn't vote for him is an enemy to be crushed.

The Tea Party brand of conservatism does not try to put on a friendly face.  In fact, I think it is spurred in large part by the knowledge, once faint but now more real, that America will cease to be a white majority country in the near future.  The election of Barack Obama has only made that fact the more real.  The corporate conservatives and neo-con schemers of the Bush years were nefarious, but the Tea Party crop is pushing American politics in a dangerously rancorous direction.  We now have one of our major parties run by a gang who will shut down the country and traffic in dangerous rhetoric to get what they want.  It's almost enough to make me hate Shrub less.

The desperation and pain wrought by the current economic crisis isn't making anything any better.  While the economy worked in a highly unequal fashion in the first years of this century, we now have a situation where corporations can make record profits in the midst of such horrible woe.  Any notion that the health of major corporations advances the living standards of their employees and of ordinary Americans in general has been discredited. Such facts have led to a resurgence of Marxist and Marxist inspired thought.  My philosopher friend James noted to me today that naturalistic modes of thought and art, exemplified by the field of cognitive science, have captured the day, and the airy postmodernism so beloved by the intellectual class before 2005 has been discredited by the harsh reality of our contemporary world.

It seems to me that we have been, and will continue to be living through a great transformation.  I do not know where it is heading, but can only hope that the forces of democracy and justice can marshal their forces and fight what appears to be a world where the corporate elites and monied interests are getting even more power, where working and middle class people keep having to accept less, the worst aspects of America's Jacksonian id have been set loose, and where art and thought are being reduced to "content" controlled by said elites.  Perhaps they think their strategy of iPads and circuses will keep the plebs in their places.  Sadly, based on what I've seen in the past few years, they might be right.


Brian I said...

Fascinating piece; it would make a great book. I was surprised, though, not to see a mention of the gay marriage/equality debate and its radical change since the days of Shrub.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, though I don't know if I can call myself a philosopher, as it is not my profession. Brian I is right about gay marriage - I remember when Bush wanted a constitutional ban on same sex marriage, and that was what, 7, 8 years ago? I think the last taboo to go is America's ideological belief in the justice of capitalism. After all the changes in attitude on social matters that we have witnessed, that one is still going strong.