9/11 - A Fourth Turning Perspective
The four turnings comprise a quaternal social cycle of growth, maturation, entropy, and death (and rebirth). In a spring like High, a society fortifies and builds and converges in an era of promise. In a summer like Awakening, it dreams and plays and exults in an era of euphoria. In an autumnal Unraveling, it harvests and consumes and diverges in an era of anxiety. In a hibernal Crisis, it focuses and struggles and sacrifices in an era of survival. When the saeculum is in motion, therefore, no long human lifetime can go by without a society confronting its deepest spiritual and worldly needs. - The Fourth Turning
Nine years after the attack on the World Trade Center the mood of the country has transformed dramatically. I watched the horror on a TV in a conference room at work with my colleagues. I remember being in a daze for a few days after the attack. When it became unambiguous that Osama bin Laden masterminded the attacks and was being protected by the Taliban in Afghanistan, I wanted justice. The entire world rallied around the US. There was worldwide support for the United States’ right to attack Afghanistan and kill the perpetrators.
In the days immediately following the attacks, there were many memorials and vigils around the world. In addition, pictures were placed all over Ground Zero. A witness described being unable to “get away from faces of innocent victims who were killed. Their pictures are everywhere, on phone booths, street lights, walls of subway stations. Everything reminded me of a huge funeral, people quiet and sad, but also very nice. Before, New York gave me a cold feeling; now people were reaching out to help each other.”
There was a feeling of unity in the country for a brief shining moment. If the year had been 2007, rather than 2001, that unity may have been sustained. Anyone who had read Strauss & Howe’s 1997 book The Fourth Turning was likely trying to figure out if the 9/11 attacks were the trigger for the Fourth Turning. But it was too soon. As Strauss & Howe relate in the book, a turning can be sudden or subtle:
“The gateway to a new turning can be obvious and dramatic (like the 1929 Stock Crash) or subtle and gradual (like 1984’s Morning in America). It usually occurs two to five years after a new generation of children starts being born. The tight link between turning gateways and generational boundaries enables each archetype to fill an entire phase-of-life just as the mood of an old turning grows stale and feels ripe for replacement with something new.”
The Unraveling, which had begun in 1984, had not run its course by September 11, 2001. Turnings generally last for 20 to 25 years. In 2001, we were only 17 years into the Unraveling. The mood of the country had not developed to the point where a consensus could be built to address a national Crisis. We had been attacked, but our very existence as a nation had not been threatened. The 9/11 attacks heightened the feeling of anxiety in the country and put us on the path towards a great Crisis. Strauss & Howe explained the phases of an Unraveling in the book:
“An UNRAVELING begins as a society-wide embrace of the liberating cultural forces set loose by the Awakening. People have had their fill of spiritual rebirth, moral protest, and lifestyle experimentation. Content with what they have become individually, they vigorously assert an ethos of pragmatism, self-reliance, laissez faire, and national (or sectional or ethnic) chauvinism.
While personal satisfaction is high, public trust ebbs amid a fragmenting culture, harsh debates over values, and weakening civic habits. The sense of guilt (which rewards principle and individuality) reaches its zenith. As moral debates brew, the big public arguments are over ends, not means. Decisive public action becomes very difficult, as community problems are deferred. Wars are fought with moral fervor but without consensus or follow-through.
Eventually, cynical alienation hardens into a brooding pessimism. During a High, obliging individuals serve a purposeful society, and even bad people get harnessed to socially constructive tasks; during an Unraveling, an obliging society serves purposeful individuals, and even good people find it hard to connect with their community. The approaching specter of public disaster ultimately elicits a mix of paralysis and apathy that would have been unthinkable half a saeculum earlier. People can now feel, but collectively can no longer do.” - The Fourth Turning
The Clinton years were divisive and cynical. You knew the country was adrift, but no one could harness the power of the realm to take on the impending challenges. The nation divided into Blue states and Red States. The Moral Majority raged against the Godlessness of the country. The 2000 Presidential election was an example of a country deeply divided, fragmented and unable to agree on anything. The election was essentially a draw, and a partisan Supreme Court picked the winner. It seemed like the country was divided as never before. But, a student of history would have recognized the same issues, dilemmas and foul mood in the 1760s, 1850s and 1920s. Strauss and Howe documented the prior Unravelings in US history:
“The mood of the current Culture Wars era seems new to nearly every living American but is not new to history. Around World War I, America steeped in reform and fundamentalism amidst a floodtide of crime, alcohol, immigration, political corruption, and circus trials. The 1850s likewise simmered with moral righteousness, shortening tempers, and multiplying “mavericks.” It was a decade, says historian David Donald, in which “the authority of all government in America was at a low point.” Entering the 1760s, the colonies felt rejuvenated in spirit but reeled from violence, mobs, insurrections, and paranoia over the corruption of official authority.” - The Fourth Turning
The country went to war with a moral fervor, which quickly dissipated. There was no follow through, as bin Laden was allowed to escape. The appearance of unity in the country was wiped away with the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses. Americans became more cynical after 9/11. Instead of addressing the visible financial catastrophe set in motion by political promises made decades ago, Americans deluded themselves with visions of faux wealth created by the Federal Reserve inflating the largest bubble in history. President Bush did not demand shared sacrifice after 9/11. He instructed the American people to defeat the terrorists by leasing a Mercedes SUV; buying a 6,000 sq ft McMansion with 10 rooms, granite countertops, Jacuzzis, and a home theater, financed with 0% down; and taking your ultimate dream vacation in the Caribbean paid for with one of your 10 credit cards.
While Americans binged on credit and ignored the disastrous future that awaited them with the approaching Fourth Turning, a brooding pessimism began to blanket the country. A national paralysis overtook the populace regarding vital issues. The popping of the housing bubble from 2006 through 2008 revealed massive fraud on the part of Wall Street bankers; corrupt politicians, bought off by corporations, in Washington DC; inept bungling regulators; millions of morons wanting to be led astray; and a Federal Reserve that provided the cheap credit to fuel the mass delusion. The complete meltdown of the financial system in September 2008 will be viewed as the catalyst for the current Fourth Turning. The transition from Unraveling to Crisis has transpired.
“A CRISIS arises in response to sudden threats that previously would have been ignored or deferred, but which are now perceived as dire. Great worldly perils boil off the clutter and complexity of life, leaving behind one simple imperative: The society must prevail. This requires a solid public consensus, aggressive institutions, and personal sacrifice.” - The Fourth Turning
The current Crisis is deepening day by day. The ninth anniversary of 9/11 is revealing the dramatic mood change of the country. In the days following 9/11 there was little anger against the religion of Islam. President Bush went to a mosque and declared that Islam was a religion of peace. He said forcefully that anyone who attacked Arab or Muslim Americans in some kind of twisted attempt at revenge for 9/11 would be met with the full force of American law. Most right minded Americans agreed with President Bush. After 9 years of waging wars against Muslims, in which victory is unachievable, Americans are weary, agitated and ready to lash out.
Contrast the reaction of Americans after 9/11 with the recent issue of converting a Burlington Coat factory store into a Muslim community center two blocks from Ground Zero. The mainstream media has been full of vitriol and anger regarding an issue that would have gotten no press in 2002. There have been protests, counter-protests, accusations and lies spread across the airwaves. The anti-Muslim feeling in the country is palpable. A nut-job pastor with a flock of 50 people threatens to burn the Koran and sets off a firestorm across the globe. The reaction to this inconsequential knucklehead would have been non-existent in 2002. The mood of the country has clearly changed. The anger building against the ruling elite on Wall Street and in Washington DC is real. Average Americans feel betrayed by politicians, bankers and corporate America. The Tea party movement is a reflection of that anger. The country certainly hasn’t reached a consensus about which direction the country needs to move, but we are still in the early stages of the Fourth Turning. A threat to our very existence will reveal itself in the near future and generate the consensus necessary to meet the threat.
What is beyond a doubt is that the country is facing extreme peril as it tries to maneuver its way through an economic Depression, a looming peak oil crisis, unresolved long-term fiscal obligations, and antagonism from countries throughout the world. The cycles of history do not reveal the exact nature of the Crisis ahead, but previous Crisis periods give us a flavor of what to expect. Based on our previous Crises periods and knowing which national issues have been ignored for decades, the likely threats to confront the nation over the next decade include:
- Continued reduction in the national wealth of Americans as home prices drop another 20% and the stock market loses another 30% of its value.
- A National Debt approaching $20 trillion within the next 5 years, potentially resulting in massive interest expense payments and/or a collapse of the USD.
- When the Central Bank experiment in fiat currency fails within the next 5 years, a hyperinflationary depression is likely.
- The demographic headwinds of a rapidly aging population combined with the gutting of industrial America by corporate chieftains insures that the American economy will be stuck in low gear. The result will be a steady decline in the American standard of living.
- The diminishing supply of cheap, easily accessible oil will fundamentally change American society. The entire suburban sprawl existence of America, with 260 million automobiles and food trucked from 1,500 miles to grocery stores will disappear practically overnight.
- The wrenching changes which will be required to localize, combined with the loss of wealth, will likely lead to social chaos, possible revolt, and the use of U.S. military forces against citizens of the United States. Geographic fragmentation of the country is a distinct possibility.
- The desperate need for oil will provoke wars for precious resources. The Middle East is likely to turn into a battlefield. The combatants are unknown at this point, but China and Russia are likely to be involved. With the proliferation of nuclear weapons, an escalation could lead to a catastrophic worldwide conflagration.
Fourth Turnings always sweep away the old order and replace it with a new order. There is no guarantee that the new order will be better. It could be far worse. As we honor those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 we need to brace ourselves for the storm ahead. The clouds are gathering and the time of great sacrifice is approaching. There are no guarantees from God that the United States will always prevail. We have gone far off course this time. I trust we can rise to the challenge.
“History offers no guarantees. Obviously, things could go horribly wrong – the possibilities ranging from a nuclear exchange to incurable plagues, from terrorist anarchy to high-tech dictatorship. We should not assume that Providence will always exempt our nation from the irreversible tragedies that have overtaken so many others: not just temporary hardship, but debasement and total ruin. Losing in the next Fourth Turning could mean something incomparably worse. It could mean a lasting defeat from which our national innocence – perhaps even our nation – might never recover.” - The Fourth Turning
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