by Bernie Quigley
As we known as war babies descend into geriatrics and begin to resolve our short visit here like one long wave running across the beach into a returning tide, it is easy to remember when the Creation started. It started with television – John Cameron Swayze “hop-scotching around the world,” Howdy Doody and Princess Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring – then went on to Elvis, the American Vishnu who turned the tide of the Mississippi and changed the course of human events, much as Katrina is doing today. The benchmarks are few and far between – the day the President was shot, the war in Vietnam, the Reagan ascendancy, the Clinton scandal, 9/11.
Curiously, when I first heard of the tragic events of 9/11 – four years ago today – I had a sudden visual picture of myself in the clothes I wore when I was a junior in high school – the year Kennedy was assassinated. All things rose to the sky then: Sputnik, UFOs, Apollo missions hatched from the interior of the VAB [Vehicle Assembly Building] which Norman Mailer, who dubbed himself Aquarius for the telling of the story, called “ . . . the antechamber of a new Creation.” The era was capped off by the jaunty walk on the moon and Sky Lab.
Pop culture ascended to the heavens as well as the American epic and myth met the world at large and even the Universe. The man on horseback – Randolph Scott, high in the saddle on the dusty Plain - yielded the reins to the Man is the Sky and Women Too – Luke Skywalker and Qui-Gon Ginn, Scotty, Bones and Ahura, and she who loaned her ovaries to an Alien so as to give birth to the new age in Outer Space, Lt. Ripley. Now it all comes back to earth and to Middle Earth, with Hobbits, Elves and Dwarfs, riddles of the Knights Templar in best-selling pop thrillers, a 14th century Pope and even a war on Islam. UFOs brought fright and visions of impotence and conquest from space. Now the fright culture – The Cave, Van Helsin, Reign of Fire - brings terrifying critters from the earth and from times at the edge of Medievalism. Both Star Trek and Star Wars were cancelled this year. In 2005 we seem to be returning from whence we came and receding into historic time as rapidly as we escaped earth’s gravity to touch the sky.
There is a theory about this. It says that all history and all social systems fail in the 60th year. Roman historians called it the saeculum theory and used it and so did Taoist monks. We who were born in year one know when the 60th year is as we are now 59.
In the last few years this theory has resurfaced with the publication of a book called The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny by historians William Strauss and Neil Howe. It has had some influence on Washington and Tom Brokaw and Al Gore are both said to have considered their retirements based on its premises. The book is based on a fascinating study of "generationality." The idea is that all “post-war periods” last four generations and each generation holds sway for 20 years. And the generations act as countervailing forces; if the first generation honors a warrior who put the world back together, like Dwight Eisenhower, the next will find Bob Dylan and a peace movement. The third generation will attempt to restore the ideals of the first, but at the end of the third generation the system breaks down.
Sometime around the year 2005, say Strauss and Howe, America will enter the Fourth Turning – the shift between third and fourth generations which brings the failure of the old and the beginning of the new. "The nation will be more affluent, enjoy better health, possess more technology, encompass a larger and more diverse population, and command more powerful weapons - but the same could be said about every other Unraveling era society compared to its predecessor. They were not exempt from the saeculum; nor will we be."
The authors make five crisis projections: the first, beset by fiscal crisis, a state lays claim to its residents' federal tax monies. Declaring this an act of secession, the president obtains a federal injunction. The second is a terrorist attack; the third an impasse over a federal budget that reaches a stalemate; the fourth, The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announce the spread of a new communicable virus; the fifth; growing anarchy throughout the former Soviet republics prompts Russia to conduct training exercises around its borders. They point out that it is highly unlikely that any one of these scenarios will actually happen. But what is likely, they say, is that the catalyst will unfold according to a basic Crisis dynamic that underlies all of these scenarios: "An initial spark will trigger a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies." First published in 1997, the authors show remarkable prescience. 9/11 was just around the corner and it can be said in hindsight that the tragedy was indeed met with a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies.
When management fails and fails again it resorts to the disastrous path: resort to the core constituency and the original intentions which caused the failure of response in the first place. We see that this week, even in the wake of Katrina; as all eyes are on the Mississippi, the President’s Men are gazing out to sea. As the Bush administration sinks to historic lows, the President hires his old Texas PR person, Karen Hughes. The Pentagon, taking public relations cues from its arch rival of the good ole days, the Soviet Union, is staging its own public march in Washington, D.C. in an attempt to link 9/11 to its mischief in Iraq (featuring country singer Clint Black, whose lyrics to Iraq and Roll go somewhat like, “ . . . but we can’t ignore the Devil/ he’ll keep coming back for more . . .”).
There is a natural stasis to bureaucracy that brings management to fight failure with failure and it is perhaps most hidebound at the Pentagon. Thus this week, the Pentagon has drafted a revised doctrine for the use of nuclear weapons that envisions commanders requesting presidential approval to pre-empt an attack. The “pre-emptive” posture, which alienated most all of the world from our legitimate attempts to fight terrorism after 9/11 is sure to frighten them off this time. This idea was first presented publicly by “man of faith” journalist of the Christian Right, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas, who called for the use of nuclear weapons against the Taliban in a nationally syndicated column shortly after 9/11.
These people are right out there where the buses don't run. Maybe it is time for them to get their heads out of the prayer books and Jane’s Military Vehicles and Logistics and turn to the One True Faith of the great American condition, football. Authors Strauss and Howe make the brilliant observation that in a free democracy like our own the coal-miner’s canary is advertising and banking. It is there that the culture changes and there that the turnings are observed and channeled. Five years ago nationally-televised football was all Clint Black and I’m gonna pull your teeth out and trucks pulling trees out of the earth
with guys who sounded like they had throat cancer singing that their truck was like a rock and so was Jesus. It was all big burly men huddled in public prayer circles first off thanking God for making them Big. And everything was Big – beer, trucks red-necks – all started at Large, then moved to Extra large and then Supersize. And it was all smash mouth after the prayer circle with guys with tattoos of barbwire on their arms and the Brute and the Rough Beast and the Crimson Tide and the Pittsburg Steelers pounding one another to smithereens.
Somebody turn on the television. These guys need a management retreat. They need to spend at least three days away from family and work in a tedious and painful management exercise consisting of sitting in front of a television. The football season opened this week with The Rolling Stones, followed by Green Day. Now from Blue America it is Tom Brady who brings to football what Baryshnikov brought to ballet. And gee it was great to win the Super Bowl, he said in suit and tie. He got to meet the Pope and he hopes some day to meet Bono! But there is no prayer circle with civic-minded and Boston-based Patriots (although Brady points up to God in the heavens as well) – no threats to virtually the rest of the world as America “goes it alone” as there was three years ago – only reasoned and balanced Yankee sobriety and consistency of management come to dominate Texan gut-lust and life force, personified in full by a quarterback with the athleticism of Seabiscuit, an almost celestial arm and eyes as quiet as a sadhu between the bars of this facemask as 1,000 pounds of meat tear him to pieces in three directions.
From beginning to end, the season has changed and a sea change has set in. 9/11 was a wake up call but we didn’t wake up. Perhaps Katrina is the last call. Out on the Plains there is a well known myth. It is something Chief Tecumseh said at the end of the Indian wars. When the Mississippi reverses its course and flows upward, the tide will turn for the White Man as well, he predicted. Elvis maybe, or Katrina. Farmers in the South had seen storms coming from a new direction for a decade. Washington was the last to know.
Bernie Quigley is a prize-winning magazine writer and has worked more than 30 years as a book and magazine editor, political commentator and book, movie, music and art reviewer. His essays and opinions on politics and world affairs have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Philadelphia Daily News and other newspapers and magazines.