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The More Things Change

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Here are the opening paragraphs of “The Fourth Turning: What the Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous with Destiny” by William Strauss and Neil Howe:

Chapter 1

Winter Comes Again

AMERICA FEELS LIKE IT’S UNRAVELING

Though we live in an era of relative peace and comfort, we have settled into a mood of pessimism about the long-term future, fearful that our superpower nation is somehow rotting from within.

Neither an epic victory over Communism nor an extended upswing of the business cycle can buoy our public spirit. The Cold War and the New Deal struggles are plainly over, but we are in no mood to bask in their successes. The America of today feels worse, in its fundamentals, than the one many of us remember from youth, a society presided over by those of supposedly lesser consciousness. Wherever we look, from L.A. to D.C., from Oklahoma City to Sun City, we see paths to a foreboding future. We yearn for civic character but satisfy ourselves with symbolic gestures and celebrity circuses. We perceive no greatness in our leaders, a new meanness in ourselves. Small wonder that each new election brings a new jolt, its aftermath a new disappointment.

Not long ago, America was more than the sum of its parts. Now, it is less. Around World War II, we were proud as a people but modest as individuals. Fewer than two people in ten said yes when asked, Are you a very important person? Today, more than six in ten say yes. Where we once thought ourselves collectively strong, we now regard ourselves as individually entitled.

Yet even while we exalt our own personal growth, we realize that millions of self-actualized persons don’t add up to an actualized society. Popular trust in virtually every American institution―from businesses and government to churches and newspapers―keeps falling to new lows. Public debt soars, the middle-class shrinks, welfare dependencies deepen, and cultural arguments worsen by the year. We now have the highest incarceration rate and the lowest eligible-voter participation rate of any major democracy. Statistics inform us that many adverse trends (crime, divorce, abortion, scholastic aptitude) may have bottomed out, but we’re not reassured.

I do not like quoting at such length from a book, but this is truly a remarkable one. I first read it when it was published twenty years ago. I still have the copy that I bought at the time. And it has been on my nightstand for the last several weeks as I tried to make time to reread it. That is how much weight I give to the value of the book. Mind you, I did not intend to write about it in this space, I just intended to read it again for myself.

However, something has happened to alter my plans. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) recently aired a program entitled, “Bannon Wars,” explaining the role that Steve Bannon played in supporting Donald Trump in his presidential victory. Apparently, Bannon also put great weight on the value of this book, “The Forth Turning.” This astonished me.

Synchronicity! How could people so radically different, me and Steve Bannon, give the same amount of respect to the same book?! It rattled me. So, I made a point to reread the book immediately.

This is not an easy book to read. It deals with cycles of history that go back centuries. So, the reader has to be familiar with a great deal of historical information. (Of course, I am also familiar with Japanese, Chinese and Korean history that occurred at the same time. One might speculate whether the authors have taken the cycles of history that pertain to those civilizations into consideration while spinning their theories.)

Archetypes are theorized as playing major cultural roles as the cycle of history revolves from the First Turning, a high where a new civic order stamps it imprint on society, to the Second Turning, when there is a spiritual awakening that upturns everything, to the Third Turning, which is an unraveling and society decays, to the Fourth Turning, where a crisis precipitates the complete reordering of society. The authors’ contention is that we are now in the Fourth Turning. (Please remember that this book was published twenty years ago. What has changed during that time?)

One other thing that the reader should know is that the authors theorize that idealized types will play major roles in leading the culture: Nomads, Heroes, Artists and Prophets. They each have their own parts to play.

And the whole pageant plays out over more than 500 years in the book.

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It is impossible to summarize all of the developments that are analyzed in “The Fourth Turning,” but suffice it to say that this is historical scholarship at its most speculative. The authors have their own ideas about history and use them to fold epochs of the past into their own perspectives. Including what is happening today and may transpire in the future.

Another thing that is startling about this book is that the authors say that around the year 2005 there will be a cataclysmic crisis that will tear society apart. One equivalent to the American Revolution, the Civil War, or… the Great Depression. This sounds eerily similar to the Financial Crisis of 2007-8, when millions of people were affected by the collapse of the housing market. At the time, there were many financial experts who worried that a complete disintegration of the economy was possible. The Lehman Brothers brokerage house went bankrupt and disappeared. At the same time, government officials and leaders of the financial community met in frantic sessions to devise ways of preventing the whole system from going up in smoke. According to those familiar with the details, it was touch and go for a while. The whole fiasco seems in keeping with the warnings that the authors of “The Fourth Turning” presented.

However, in the end, the authors did not foresee a Doomsday scenario. Rather, they predicted that during the crisis America would have an opportunity to start anew. That it would be possible to remake society in directions that had not been previously considered.

Is that what happened? I wonder. Critics point out that measures taken to regulate the system so as to avoid a similar financial crisis in the future were inadequate and that there is a very real possibility that it will recur. And the new administration is talking about dismantling the regulations altogether. Has no one there learned the lessons of the past?

Of course, it is human beings who participate in history and instigate the activity, so it is interesting to examine the archetypes that the authors believe play the major roles during these “turnings.” The Prophets come of age in a period of technological development, the Nomads while society is opening up to new ways of thinking, the Hero generation lives through a time when society is falling apart, and the Artists have to deal with a crisis. That is when everything starts all over again.

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In the end, it is supposedly the Nomads who will have to solve the problems society faces today. Perhaps that includes people like Elon Musk. The reader is encouraged to seek out “The Fourth Turning” and evaluate the analysis there independently.

Those who wish to comment on the opinions expressed here may send their thoughts to info@GoWizardry.com. The most interesting responses will be addressed in future postings.

Robert J. Terry

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