Monday, November 22, 2010

Gilded Age 2: The Light at the End of this Tunnel?

     Recently, historian David M. Kennedy had an interesting Op Ed piece in the New York Times called “Throwing the Bums Out for 140 Years.”  He reminds us that the political volatility of today is much less than what occurred in the 30 years following the Civil War.  I think his essay helps my analysis in a few ways:

     First, he makes the obvious comparison between today and to that period.  I see it as 19th century Dionysian Romanticism compared to 21st century Dionysian Romanticism.

     Second, American culture tends to be more volatile during Dionysian eras than during Apollonian ones [1].  

     Third, the Gilded Age and the American High were both Cultural Highs that had economic success stories.  The Gilded Age had the longest era of continuous federal surplus in the nation’s history--28 years.  The American High had the Great Moderation, an expansion of the middle class.

     Today, we are in a secular crisis.  We have political gridlock, the economy is dangerously fragile, and anxiety is pervasive.  But, after the crisis comes the cultural high.  So there will be some rebuilding to do, and, we can anticipate that some kind of economic success story is ahead of us.  It is nice to know that there is a light at the end of this tunnel even though it is many years away.

     Kennedy goes on to tell us that “What’s instructive to us now is the similarity between the Gilded Age’s combination of extraordinary social and economic dynamism and abject political paralysis.”

     Here is where I depart from our esteemed professor. In the twenty years prior to the Civil War there was great social and economic dynamism and abject political paralysis, too. I think that phrase defines much of the nineteenth century. 

     In the last many years, I think that many of us bought into the idea of a new Gilded Age.  The name connotes wealth, excess, opulence, and success.  And, I really do hope that this is in all of our futures, certainly, a little bit of it in my future.  Also, let’s not forget to peek behind the curtain now and then to ensure that poverty and sanitation doesn’t get forgotten.

1.  Don’t extend this observation to other cultures.  It’s obviously tempting to say that Dionysian cultures are more “emotional” or volatile than Apollonian ones.  But, the rational/emotional opposition is an Apollonian product.  It’s one of the more foolish ideas held by Modernists; one that has no scientific basis, remembering Damasio’s work.  The Germans, stereotypically Apollonian, are viewed as more rational and orderly than the Italians, stereotypically Dionysian.  But, hasn’t it been the Germans who have been rioting lately?

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