Monday, July 13, 2009

Cultural Winter

In the early 1980s two scholars suggested that global nuclear war might asphyxiate photosynthesis in a vast cloud of soot and smoke persisting long enough to produce what they called “nuclear winter.” Now here I would suggest that analogous, strange, “unnatural” seasons do sometimes actually set it, caused by human action—and that the latter half of the twentieth century was such a lull, a freezing, a species of “cultural winter” caused by war.

My thesis is that a great cultural process has been underway since the eighteenth century, the peak of the Enlightenment, namely a slide toward barbarism; Oswald Spengler called it the “The Decline of the West.” The twin convulsions of global war were part of this process; the fact that we call them world wars is testimony to the reach of our civilization; their unsurpassed violence, culminating in the twin flowers of atomic fire over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, proof of our mastery over nature. But the very violence of that conflict brought exhaustion and sharpened the emerging polarization between the decaying West and one of its chief heresies, Marxism. As World War II ended, it left the U.S. mesmerized by the threat of the U.S.S.R, and the other way around, while the Yellow Peril (a.k.a. China) was also heading the wrong way. The resulting paralysis brought a kind of madness at the upper layers of our culture—but, fortunately (that famed silver lining), it produced a kind of cultural quiet at the level where ordinary people lived.

The madness included children practicing to die under their desks with little arms folded over their heads. Quite a few people were frightened enough to build atomic shelters in backyards. McCarthyism was another ugly symptom, Joe hounding communists with steely eyes. The concerned and the sophisticated read books like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. At RAND Corporation Herman Kahn was thinking the unthinkable. Early signs of what today is a mad polarization began appearing as some members of the Silent Majority pasted little U.S. flags on cars to say that they loved Nixon. Places all over began to sprout astounding masses of nuclear bombs and missiles, but where they were nobody knew. Top Secret. The domino theory justified two wars, Korea, Vietnam. But all this while Capital was held in check. Government mattered because the reds were out to get us. Madness indeed. George Orwell, writing his novel, 1984, did not realize, I don’t think, that he was writing the script for a Reality Show called the Cold War.

Now for the silver lining—what I call cultural winter—namely the temporary suspension of our rush to decadence. It lasted for a period of roughly 50 years, from the end of World War II to 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. In this period government felt obliged to look out for the people, fearing—consciously or unconsciously—that the public might embrace the communist heresy unless it had a modest level of well-being. Capital, therefore, was held in check. Communism kept us honest, cautious. It was a bi-polar world, and as a consequence life at the working level remained relatively peaceful despite spontaneous signs, twitching, and stirrings of decadence. But it was held in check.

Brigitte and I were lucky to have lived the core of our lives in this hiatus, with reasonable conditions in which to raise a family. In this time America was strangely innocent. The ordinary people remained friendly, polite, and modestly prosperous. The tension and madness above us could be felt but did not infect the folk. Talk radio? No. The top hits dominated the airwaves in the cities; out in the country country music reigned: “Drop-kick me, Jesus, through the goalposts of life.” Bible programs. Polarization? Largely absent. TV shows? Happily mediocre and careful not to offend. Drugs? Yes, but distant. Little houses mushroomed everywhere and you could afford them with FHA loans. Libraries were good, not too crowded. In private you could have high culture, and Public TV did not solicit funds.

In retrospect only, to be sure, I liked the cultural winter. Curiously, when decadence began to move again—the dread of commies fading—the change was signaled by troubles in the Balkans. This whole interlude had begun there, in Sarajevo, kicking off the bloodiest conflict known until that time. Now it ended with the Balkans breaking into pieces, like the frozen surface of a river, vast blocks rubbing and scraping at each other. Cultural winter was over, and from now on the chaos already underway before I was born could resume its march into the future.
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The scholars who coined the phrase “nuclear winter” were John Birks at the Max Plank Institute and Paul Crutzen at the University of Colorado writing in a paper published in Ambio in 1982.

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