Good History is not Was
"William Faulkner famously stated that “good history is not was.” By this Faulkner meant that history is a tapestry of interconnected events whose meaning and significance cannot be appreciated unless past causes, present manifestation, and future consequences are assessed. Robert S. McElvaine, author of The Great Depression, America 1929-1941, provides us with the kind of tapestry to which Faulkner was alluding as McElvaine analyzes the first momentous collapse that the United States ever experienced. (clip)
One cannot thoroughly appreciate the catastrophic nature of the Great Depression without understanding what preceded it. The decade of the 1920s, not unlike the economic milieu of the 1980s and 90s, was a time of dizzying, unrestrained, and frantic consumption. It was the apotheosis of the “conspicuous consumption” about which Thorsten Veblen wrote in his turn-of-the-century classic The Theory Of The Leisure Class.
Threading his tapestry forward, McElvaine writes that, “Put simply, most Americans late in the twentieth century have adopted the consumption ethic that was rising in the 1920s, but was temporarily reversed during the Great Depression.” McElvaine, of course, wrote this book in the eighties, but certainly the consumption ethic has not abated but rather intensified since then. (clip)
Elevated levels of consumption are almost always attended by an increase in “individualism” and a decline in a sense of community. The Great Depression reversed this trend in America dramatically, and for me, that is perhaps the most riveting feature of McElvaine’s book as he writes, “…the most significant fact about the Depression era may well be that it was the only time in the twentieth century during which there was a major break in the modern trends towards social disintegration and egoism.”
From the perspective of today’s world, whenever I reflect on the 1930s, I never cease to be amazed at the spirit of cooperation that blossomed amid the hardship and impoverishment of the times. Of this McElvaine notes: “The economic collapse that started in 1929 obliged people who had begun to accept the new values of unlimited consumption and extreme individualism to take another look at these beliefs in comparison with the more traditional, community-oriented values that had existed in earlier times.”
America in the 1920s was capitalism on steroids with the ruling elite gorging on corporate profits, most notably profits from the automobile and related industries. Three presidents in a row, Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover had agreed that “the business of America is business”. Yet when the house of cards collapsed in 1929, the working and middle classes, alongside intellectuals who had been criticizing capitalism for some time, awakened to the nightmare that the American dream had become." more
Today, the degree of corporate control in our lives dwarfs the level of the 20s. In the 20s, Main Street was still owned by individuals, as were most of the local banks. In the 20s, the military industrial complex was just a gleam in the single eye of the armaments industry. In the 20s, there were walkable neighborhoods. In the 20s, there were still horses on farms. In fact, in the 20s, the sea change from a world dominated by horses to a world dominated by horsepower was just beginning.
As a child, I remember asking my parents how the Great Depression happened. The general response was to blame Hoover or perhaps the greedy tycoons in New York. Never did my parents suggest that the system itself was the root of the great collapse. And never did anyone suggest that anything good came out of it. Yet, the wisdom and caution that I found in my grandparents was clearly a result of that hard and often desperate time.
Ms Baker finishes her commentary with these words:
"Whenever any individuals, male or female, join to create community in a spirit of cooperation, they are “feminizing”, for the feminine principle is above all, relational—a concept inherent in the traditions of many indigenous peoples. It is this kind of joining that characterized the Great Depression era and to which we must aspire as we build economic, emotional, and spiritual lifeboats for the daunting journey ahead.
There will be no New Deal, no FDR, no parental federal government to kiss everything and make it better. There will only be ourselves and the others with whom we choose to join and prepare."
I choose to believe that in the not so distant future, we will choose to create these new social contracts with our new communication tools.
And we will create an Earthfamily.
And we will adopt a new pantheon of principles.
Good History is not Was
What it is About
Earthfamilyalpha Content III
Earthfamilyalpha Content II
art courtesy of art house graphics