What Has Changed – and What Hasn’t?

When historians consider the 20th century as it turned into the 21st, what will they find unique. I’m looking forward to others’ opinions. What are deep and permanent changes? What are minor and transient ones? I’ll throw out my opinion, though it isn’t original; Henry Adams posited it as the last century began.

That century millions were slain by an inhuman, omnipotent, omnipresent state striving to produce a faceless utopia. But this characterized Rousseau and the French Revolution; it, too, smothered history and the individual. We said “never again”, but this opportunistic virus pops up, still, over and over again. Making Hitler its face, we opened ourselves to new Stalins and Maos and Castros and Chavezes. Modern ideologies, old religions – we’ve seen both “perfect” (cleanse) the world through mass murder. Would that it were unique and transient, though maybe these particular virulent forms are.

Practical science produced medicines that made both childhood and old age safer places. Research led to abundant food. Research and engineering protect us. Man can plan and science enlarged to strengthen those plans: compare the deaths in Galveston in 1900 to those from Harvey. Hurricanes remain powerful but man’s ability to learn and construct meant Houston’s medical center was protected by this century.

And the dynamo: energy made cars and planes move, energy warms and cools us, cleans our houses and powers our businesses. It has made us more travelled and less rooted; it produced a world of goods and art and information that our forefathers could not have imagined. Ordinary people labor less and live in more comfort than imaginable to the tip of the upper class a century ago. Having enough to eat and a roof over our heads produces an equality we take for granted. For thousands of years, the only energy was man’s; now, our world mines energy. We worry whether truckers displaced by robots can find work – the idea of servitude let alone slavery is far from modern minds.

But surely the strangest change has been our perception of ourselves and our relation to nature and fate. And stranger still, seeing as inconsequential (or destructive) that traditional first question – boy or girl? I can’t imagine that the truly absurd belief that gender is more concept than biology will stand. But it is symptom: we don’t confront nature.

Will we ever see sex as we did before? The twentieth century decoupled sex from procreation – we believed we had control. A child really seems a choice. And the gifts of our time reinforced each other. With energy, an extra child became a mouth to feed rather than hands in planting and harvesting. Prosperity meant a child was likely to leave the household and the household economy before productive skills were honed and that old age was travelling, as few roofs house three or four generations. All this is not just a change from history but leads to an alienation from it. We just don’t know it as we did when we worked beside our parents in the field or nursed a grandmother in the bedroom upstairs.

So, we entertain ourselves with scandals of Hollywood and Congress. And we see threats – quite real ones – from North Korea, Russia, China, Iran. We worry Congress will be ineffectual in lifting the yoke of a national health care system or of the government owned “monuments”, of cleaning out our tax code and lowering our taxes.

We worry about all of that. But the truth is, if we are attracted to the barren world we seem to be choosing then any weapons aimed at our heartland will be like the corpse on yet another version of Agatha Christie’s Orient Express, overkilled.

31 thoughts on “What Has Changed – and What Hasn’t?”

  1. The 20th century is divided by the presidency of Lyndon Johnson who had as much effect on our civilization as the Civil War.

    He was a sociopath as the Robert Caro biography makes pretty clear. I have no previously read a biography by someone who hated the subject, except perhaps biographies of Stalin and Hitler.

    Johnson was a totally political animal who had no concern for anyone in his life except as they could influence his political career, He was totally corrupt, having been bought by George and Herman Brown of Brown and Root Construction company.

    His relationship with Lady bird and his daughters was no better. He abused his employees in the House and Senate.

    His election to the Senate in 1948 was a case study in corruption.

    His war in Vietnam and his War on Poverty changed the country more than anything had done in 100 years

  2. “I have no previously read a biography by someone who hated the subject”
    I read a biography about Vince Lombardi several years ago and the author clearly hated him. My recollection is it seemed clear the author had severe issues with his father, who had revered Lombardi.

  3. “When historians consider the 20th century as it turned into the 21st, what will they find unique.”
    Well, history is written by those who show up, as Disraeli may have said. So historians will probably say that Europe lost their faith and their civilization collapsed, to be replaced by believers of The True Faith from Africa and elsewhere. What that faith is, is to be determined in the coming century…

  4. Thompson’s bio of Frost is notorious for that – I’ve only read in it, not really read it. But Frost made two mistakes – naming his biographer long before he died (that tends to make a biographer long for an ending – a murder mystery set at U.T. Austin is built on that mixed sense of a critic/biographer who can’t really finish the job until the writer is dead) and to sleep with the same woman the biographer is (who was actually married to a third guy). Few subjects make either of those mistakes but they do tend to color a biographer’s attitude.

  5. Surveys in multiple countries indicate that a significant % of women now view it as sexual harassment for a guy to attempt to flirt with them, especially a guy they don’t already know. So much for 75 years of cute-meet scenes in romantic comedies and other movies….we’re apparently back to the days of needing to be Properly Introduced.

    I suspect this has something to do with cell phones…surveys have also suggested that people have grown up in the smart-phone era are often uncomfortable with direct person-to-person interactions. So the behavior of flirters may be increasingly clumsy and awkward, and they reactions of flirtees may often be misinterpretive and equally clumsy.

  6. Human nature hasn’t changed. However, technology is changing rapidly in ways that seem to have profound effects on human behavior that no one entirely understands or can understand, at least not yet. People adapt but some of the adaptations make things worse. Sexual mores developed over thousands of years of trial and error are swept away by modern networked communications. For many people crude instinct fills the cultural vacuum as genotypes that evolved in response to now-irrelevant challenges of hunter-gatherer life control social interaction on Facebook and over cell networks. And while all of this is happening reckless ideologues and charlatans in academia and mass media are teaching young people fables about human nature and encouraging their worst instincts, rather than inculcating habits of critical thought and reflection to help them to adapt to the rapidly changing technical-social environment.

  7. Dearieme: Ah, but I was predicting what the future historians will say. I believe those historians will be religious believers, and so they will call the loss of faith a cause rather than an effect.

  8. Human nature hasn’t changed, but we seem to think that it has. “A year from now, ten? They’ll swing back to the belief that they can make people… better. And I do not hold to that.” We seem to think that man is perfectible; lib/progs have the plan and government is fit for the job. Doesn’t matter that it has never worked and always ends in woe. Roseau is always followed by Robespierre and his Jacobean’s, every time.

    The first measure of truth is that it aligns with reality. We no longer believe that. We seem to think truth is determined by our feelings. We believe that we can bend reality to our feelings. I tend to think that all of our problems flow from this.

  9. Jonathan…”And while all of this is happening reckless ideologues and charlatans in academia and mass media are teaching young people fables about human nature”

    Someone in an aviation magazine observed that ‘if you do anything with your airplane that is not consistent with the Pilot’s Operating Handbook, then you are a test pilot.”

    For a society, the “Pilot’s Operating Handbook” is comprised of the generally-accepted traditions, expectations, and assumptions, as well as the explicit rules and laws. There is no question that our POH *did* need major revisions…reliable contraception and the mechanization of work necessarily had an effect on the patterns of relationship of the sexes.

    The problem is that so many of our self-chosen POH writers and editors have gone about it so irresponsibly, making unfounded assertions about things they knew little about, and in many cases putting people at risk who had much less safety factor available than these academics, ‘celebrities’, journalists, etc.

    There are plenty of people who are perfectly good pilots who would not make good test pilots and would not want such a role….and this carries forward to the analogy.

  10. Dearieme: “do moslems write much history?”

    No, but they do re-write a considerable lot, after carefully destroying all previous evidence of non-moslem history.

  11. “I believe those historians will be religious believers, and so they will call the loss of faith a cause rather than an effect.”

    Now I would posit the opposite. In the 21st century humans finally got over their self imposed superstitions, and grew up. The internet with pretty much all of human knowledge at anyone’s finger tips, sealed religion’s fate, god became a bit of a joke, and civilization finally began.

  12. All good points – and I will add one – the influence on the microcomputer and society. Go into any public place now and see the people on their smartphones – with the microcomputer the influence of the Internet

  13. “In the 21st century humans finally got over their self imposed superstitions, and grew up.”
    Teehee. Yeah, I read bad 1950s era science fiction too, dude. “Super duper smart humans are finally about to shed their religious chains!!!!” is right up there with “Communism works!!!” on the list of things that 21st century people will laugh hysterically about some silly 20th century people believing.

    Happy Thanksgiving, y’all.

  14. Re. Jonathan’s points: Yes. Unfortunately it is politicians as well as academics that are encouraging the worst in us – greed, tribalism, pride. A few years ago, in one of my vain attempts to come up with a prompt thoughtfully put enough to make my students thoughtful, I suggested essays on the traditional vices/sins. Pride was considered a virtue – they couldn’t seem to think of it as a vice. They weren’t all that vain themselves, but they really didn’t realize it was a danger. Self-respect, on the other hand, has not been respected. Their pride sees constant affronts (and “unfairness”). But then those reading this will be grown ups and have a strong sense of what pride can do, can banish an angel from heaven.

  15. “Teehee. Yeah, I read bad 1950s era science fiction too, dude.”

    I only read good science fiction myself. ;) It’s happening all over the world. Another few years, and only the Muslims will have much of a church. That will die a natural death, as the people there become educated.

    We’ll be just fine without god looking over our shoulder.

  16. Over the decades I read sci fi of various qualities, from classic Asimov thru unknowns in paper periodicals. One of the good sci fi writers, Robert Heinlein, probably would have agreed with at least some people holding PenGun’s preached conclusion while simultaneously maintaining that most people would simply hang on to nonsensical beliefs. Yet all the while Heinlein’s heroes (and heroines) said that, his plots progressively said, “I hope I’m correct.” So to PenGun et al.

  17. ““Teehee. Yeah, I read bad 1950s era science fiction too, dude.”

    I only read good science fiction myself. ;) It’s happening all over the world. Another few years, and only the Muslims will have much of a church. That will die a natural death, as the people there become educated.

    We’ll be just fine without god looking over our shoulder.”

    I’m not a particularly religious person, but… Wow. The root problem with all you not-so-“Brights” is that you think that you’ve somehow found enlightenment, and that all the questions of human spirituality are answered in a test tube, somewhere.

    Unfortunately, that is manifestly not the case, and we can see the results of the “de-religionization” of Western Civilization all around us, as immorality and sterility of mind and body overtake us all. The great secularization of Europe is an experiment that will end badly, as adherents of that non-belief system don’t seem very interested in anything past their own good times, and as the politicians buy them off with goods and services taxed out of them, we’ll see what happens with it all when the birth rates drop past the point of recovery, a point we really don’t have actual evidence of, as of yet.

    Ah, well… It will be interesting, watching the results of it all, should I still be around to witness the denouement. As someone commented, somewhere, the times have that feel of a period just before the history classes start showing the maps with all the big arrows and colored areas on them…

  18. It’s fairly obvious that the main function of religion is not enlightenment. It’s control. A better way has yet to be found, if you want hordes of people, that will be onside and fight and die for you.

    The end of this might scare those invested in this structure, but humanity in general will be better off with something closer to the truth. What that might be, is really up to each person, as they themselves are the best judge of that. I trust the people more than any of these institutions.

    For me, finally understanding the essential unity of all that is, made it obvious that there’s no room for god. It’s ‘all in’ baby. ;)

  19. PenGun obviously does not understand that humans are hard wired for religion.

    The current religion on the left is a combination of multiculturalism and environmentalism.

  20. Actually, Christianity is growing rapidly in both Africa and China.

    Also, the typical American ‘progressive’ is far from the village-atheist type expected by Pen as the future citizen. A high % of these people believe in astrology, magical crystals, a conscious Gaia, etc. Talk to a someone under 40 and they will quite likely describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’….meaning they believe in mystical and numinous forces outside the comprehension of science, but do not want to view these forces within a defined framework. This seems to be especially true of women.

    And regarding Europe, here’s a passage from Claire Berlinski’s book on that continent:

    ”European men and women still confront the same existential questions, the same suffering as everyone who has ever been born. They are suspicious now of the Church and of grand political ideologies, but they nonetheless yearn for the transcendent. And so they worship other things–crops, for example, which certain Europeans, like certain tribal animists, have come to regard with superstitious awe.”

    She sees the current obsession with the purity of food as recalling “the fanatic religious and ritualistic search for purity of the Middle Ages, ethnic purity included.”

  21. “PenGun obviously does not understand”
    Could have just stopped right there, and then kept it saved for anytime in the future you decide the resident troll needs feeding.

  22. Mike I don’t think those words means what you think they do:

    “Religion is the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.”

    Is the standard definition. It is flawed in several respects but so be it.

    The other words are mostly good, but ‘hard wired’, again does not mean what you think it does.

    We understand that humans, like all life evolved from, basically, the rocks. Their particular characteristics are developed over long periods of time, and a crapton of trial and error was performed.

    The wiring in of religion is completely a human trick. Children believe their parents. Now that is wired in. ;)

  23. It seems to me the height of arrogance to think that the great thinkers of the present and past who are strong believers (and whose beliefs led them to create great art and great science) are so much below the modern “brights”. But that aside.

    David Foster is right, of course, and that is another answer.

    I have become more and more curious about a phenomenon that may be just local. I grew up in the Midwest, where churchgoing on Sunday was a regular ritual and Wednesday nights were school activity-free because that was the night churches had their youth meetings. But we weren’t fervent, we weren’t producing missionaries, etc. Then I came to the semi-south of Texas. Not central Bible belt territory, but certainly strong on Baptists. So, I don’t know if my surprise at this generation’s much more active version of Christianity comes from a change of geography or a change of time period – but it is certainly true. Many of my students (and even my daughters) have gone on mission trips. One night a week, 5000 students gather in Reed Arena and without adults carry on Bible study at the big school (with probably plenty of my students there as well). Our area is full of houses rented to students and when a lot of cars are gathered outside in the middle of the week, it is because of religious meetings or once a neighbor was launching a religious musician before a tour (then they came and told us beforehand and promised it would be quiet by 10:30 or so – and it was). Of the people my age, two of the scholars have firmly committed to Catholicism and it has affected their scholarship and creative work for the better. Indeed, the Catholic church on campus has launched a number of priests and nuns. The churches in this community united in prayer vigils outside the Planned Parenthood clinic and the pattern of this ultimately successful cause was copied by others. None of this may mean much, but I’m just not that sure that the young generation is not active. Of my two nieces, one joined the more active Catholic church (she married a Gallagher) and the other became a minister (in the PCUSA) (she married a Goldfarb). Sure the mainline churches may be dying out but they are being replaced by more fervent Evangelical ones. (One of my daughters is a Presbyterian elder; her husband goes to a Presbyterian church that distances itself from mainline ones like the one she chose but is also Presbyterian. The couple in St. Louis are very active in their Lutheran church as are their sons.)

    I am a lurker and went to the religious meetings on campus and to the Women’s Suppers at the invitation of relatives and friends; I certainly find the thinking more active, supportive, and productive – of utility to the community as Franklin valued.

    This is long (and full of anecdotal evidence) but is something that I’ve been wondering about. I don’t know where the stats are going – I keep hearing church attendance is down. But I look around me and this fervor certainly wasn’t part of my adolescence in any meaningful way. So, is it geographical or generational or am I just seeing an odd subset of the younger generation. (I doubt any of this would be an Austinite’s experience.)

  24. In my middle-age lifetime (b. 1960), large segments of the population have forgotten the concept of marriage as it was near-universally understood prior to the decline of disco. Marriage is checks and balances on human mating, “fundamental to our very existence and survival” (Loving v. Virginia). Before civilization could get off the ground people humans had to establish peaceable and predictable right-of-way to resources. Jews and Christians may disagree with nonbelievers where marriage started, but they can agree that at a certain point in history a bunch of civilizations that had nothing to do with Yahweh independently figured out they needed an institutional disincentive to promiscuity, for the sakes of child-rearing environments and for ameliorating the ferocity of the market for mates. Hence marriage, a set of promises the married party makes to each other and to society.

    The whole idea behind the Sexual Revolution was to remove checks and balances from sexuality. Some assailed marriage directly, but the dominant force remained infatuated with the flimsiest airs of marriage and through Hegelian “logic” reimagined marriage as notarized companionship that obligates the State and society to deliver tangible and intangible benefits to the married party who in returns owes nothing more than filling out the paperwork. Will this false concept of marriage survive the century?

    Also, will transgenderism survive the century? The notion that gender is a state of mind independent of chromosomes didn’t build overnight; it had been incubating in academia for some time. But the LGBT activists didn’t come out of the closet about what the T stood for until, if Yahoo News is any indicator, roughly the time of the Windsor decision. Most people thought “transgender” just referred to recipients of what were once called sex-change operations. I have yet to find someone who can answer the question of how one can subject transgenderism to scientific falsification. If gender really were just a social construct, you’d think that we would have found out during the Golden Age of Unsupervised Play, when children were more independent than in any other time in human history.

  25. Ginny:

    In my area the former Cuban-immigrant neighborhood is heavily populated by Central American immigrants who are heavily evangelical. There are many evangelical churches and fewer Roman Catholic ones. As Lex once told me, Protestant missionaries figured out that you can drive from the continental USA to Central America. We are seeing the results. There are also LDS missionaries here. The Mormons and evangelical Protestants are culturally confident in ways that the people running mainline Protestant churches and probably Latin American RC churches are not, and they are not linked to corrupt governments.

    Cultural confidence is huge. Also in my area and probably most of the rest of the country, many of the most dynamic Jewish groups are run by the orthodox Lubavitch organization. The orthodox are still a minority among American Jews but they are confident, younger and have more children than the average Jew. Meanwhile it seems most of the non-orthodox Jewish groups have older populations, few children and spend a great deal of time on guilt-driven left-wing political obsessions.

    It’s a different world than the one we grew up in, but in all of these cases it seems safe to predict that the more confident groups will do well.

  26. “The other words are mostly good, but ‘hard wired’, again does not mean what you think it does.”

    PenGun the neuroscientist is explaining that I don’t know what “hard wired” means.

    Got it, Penny,.

    The Mormons and evangelical Protestants are culturally confident in ways that the people running mainline Protestant churches and probably Latin American RC churches are not, and they are not linked to corrupt governments.

    Episcopal churches and many Catholic churches have become no different that Unitarians where “God” is either not mentioned or is female.

    Those old “Mainline churches” offer nothing to people with real problems.

    It is no accident that some conservative Episcopal congregations have allied themselves with the African diocese. The same is true of Catholic churches.

    We have a new big Mormon temple at the end of our street in Tucson. Just opened last summer. Fortunately, the parking lot opens to another street,

  27. The oral contraceptive pill was the biggest thing that happened in the twentieth century, by far. We turned ourselves into a new species with radically different reproductive behavior. It was a supernova, and we are still living in the cloud of flying debris. It is far to early to day what its impact will be. It will take a long, long time to sort that out.

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