One cultural movement that I yesterday neglected to include in my list of about ten cultural movements that have arisen over the past 70 years was the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
All these cultural movements arose in response to, or as a reaction to, something that had happened in the past. In an obvious sense the reaction to an event will always be subsequent to it. But the odd feature of many of these social movements is that they arise long after their triggering events. In fact many of these reactions seem to become amplified with the passage of time.
One example of this has been the various women’s movements of the past century. It’s probably true to say that pretty much all women have been oppressed in one degree or other for the entirety of human history. So why is it that it has only been after women have become emancipated in the Western world over the past century that various women’s movements – e.g. Suffragettes – have emerged, and become progressively angrier and noisier with the passage of time. Why has it all come bubbling up now?
The same question might be asked of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Why is it that, 100 years after the emancipation of slaves in the USA, that a new movement pursuing the rights of black people should emerge? And why is it, another 60 years on, that an even angrier and noisier movement has now emerged in the form of Black Lives Matter?
Another example might be found in a social movement that I didn’t include in my list yesterday: Socialism. Here’s another social movement that seems to have only gathered strength long after the triggering event had taken place. And the triggering event for this would seem to have been the industrial revolution that began in the 1700s and that brought factories filled with low-paid workers, many of them children, toiling for long hours in dangerous conditions. When people like Karl Marx were writing about them, the industrial revolution had been under way for over a century, and the condition of the workers was already being alleviated by legislation. Yet for the next century and more socialism, in one form or other, was one of the most powerful (perhaps even the most powerful) social movements in the world.
And what about the environmental movement that is currently one of the most powerful social movements in the world? This movement might also be said to have its origins in response to the the industrial revolution, but this time not so much to the social conditions of its workers, but instead to the smoke and waste and pollution that all those factories generated. Nobody seemed to have been much bothered about it at the time, and it has only been when the factory chimney smoke has been cleaned up, and steam engines replaced with diesel engines (and then electric engines) that more and more people can’t bear the sight of any smoke whatsoever, not only from factory chimneys and steam engines, but also from household fires and now even cigarettes and pipes (and even e-cigarettes). Once again, the reaction to something – in this case, smoke – has been gathering momentum some one hundred or two hundred years after the causal event. And it only seems to get stronger with the passage of time.
Socialism and environmentalism are social movements that began during the industrial revolution, and have been gathering momentum ever since. And in the case of environmentalism it seems to require less and less smoke to trigger panic. And the smoke has furthermore become something almost entirely abstract and invisible: carbon dioxide.
Perhaps this happens because events of one sort or other live on in human memory, and become amplified and exaggerated. The blues music of the American south was taken and amplified on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, and fed back to its source. And this music gradually got louder and loud: it became deafeningly loud. The pop music subculture I mentioned yesterday was itself an electronic feedback loop – the same process that many of its musicians used in their own music.
And maybe all these other social movements are also feedback loops, gradually amplifying themselves. The triggering events that set them humming may have been quite small, but in memory they were gradually amplified. The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 was a shocking event at the time, but a century later, amplified and revisited in countless films and documentaries, it has become far more shocking. So also the assassination of John F Kennedy in 1963: if anything it only gets more and more shocking every year, driven by an identical feedback process. My grandfather, who was briefly a soldier in WW1, used to have a couple of largely, lavishly illustrated books on The Great War which portrayed it pretty much as a jolly game in which lots of battles were fought and ships sunk. But one hundred years later, once again after countless books and documentaries and films, WW1 now looks far worse than it did a century ago. The past seems to become more nightmarishly awful the more distant it is removed.
Last weekend in the USA, mobs began tearing down statues of Robert E Lee, over a century and a half after that general had fought in the American Civil War. Why should anyone want to tear down something as innocuous as a statue, 150+ years after the events it commemorates? Isn’t it that those events – the Civil War and the abolition of slavery – now wax larger in collective memory than they ever did at that time, no doubt once again as a result of countless books, documentaries, and movies? Charles Krauthammer (some sort of conservative, I believe) speaking earlier this week (my added emphases):
“…there was something unique about the history of slavery and racism in this country, that we had to cure this original sin. It was not cured by the Civil War as Lincoln had hoped, because it was followed by 100 years of state-sponsored oppression. It began to be cured with Civil Rights, equality of rights, and this generation the last 50 or so years has done a splendid job in redeeming itself.”
What was unique about slavery and racism in the USA? Was it any different from slavery in any other era in human history, for example slavery in ancient Greece and Rome? Why was it an original sin that required the current generation of Americans to redeem itself? There’s nothing original to America about slavery. And how can the current generation of Americans possibly redeem themselves of a crime of which they are not personally guilty. At what point in the past does something have to be before it becomes forgotten past history? 100 years? 200 years? 500 years?
Unfortunately, people like Charles Krauthammer are really simply adding more noise to a feedback loop, amplifying it with terms like “unique”, “original sin”, “state-sponsored oppression”, and “redemption”. What’s needed are voices that play down the past, rather than play it up.
He speaks 5:00 minutes into the video below: