24 June, 2019

Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of "Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s"

Flappers playing mahjong.
Image source.

Last week's post, "If You Were to Write a History of 21st Century America, What Would It Look Like?," asked what a 21st century version of Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s might look like. Here is how I described the book in that post:
There are many things to love about this book. Allen wrote his history of the 1920's in a jaunty, breezy style. When you pick his book up it is hard to put it down. Allen's tone is fair, his judgements sharp, and prose delectably entertaining. The most notable thing about this history of the 1920s, however, is its publication date: Allen wrote the book in 1930. He saw it published in 1931. 
I often wish Allen had more imitators. Allen's book shines as a social history. The genius of writing such a history directly after the events took place is that the historian can narrate not just what happened in a period, but what it felt like to live through it. Names have not receded into history; the little things of daily existence are still remembered, and often still in use. Judgements of past events have not been too clouded by the downstream effects they had three or four decades down the line. There is an immediacy to Only Yesterday that I have never found in any other work of history (though I have found it in several works of fiction).
While Allen gives due coverage to economic and political affairs (the League of Nations debates, the Teapot Dome scandal, and the crash of '29 each get their own chapter length narrations), the majority of Allen's book is what we would today call "social history." Allen spends about equal time describing the fads for crossword puzzles and mahjong (yes, you read that last one right) as he does the entire administration of Calvin Coolidge.

But one of Allen's other strengths is his willingness to generalize and analyze. He has a rare gift for gathering the thousands strands of thought that made up the momentary milieu to spin it into one dashing paragraph. What is more, he never fears to attempt an explanation for why these things of the soul proceeded as they did. One of his most arresting passages delivers a sense of his style. The topic is the American flapper:
These changes in fashion—the short skirt, the boyish form, the straight, long-waisted dresses, the frank use of paint—were signs of a real change in the American feminine ideal (as well, perhaps, as in men’s idea of what was the feminine ideal). Women were bent on freedom—freedom to work and to play without the trammels that had bound them heretofore to lives of comparative inactivity. 
But what they sought was not the freedom from man and his desires which had put the suffragists on an earlier day into hard straw hats and mannish suits and low-heeled shoes. The woman of the nineteen-twenties wanted to be able to allure man even on the golf links and in the office; the little flapper who shingled her hair and wore a manageable little hat and put on knickerbockers for the weekends would not be parted from her silk stockings and her high-heeled shoes. 
Nor was the post-war feminine ideal one of fruitful maturity or ripened wisdom or practiced grace. On the contrary: the quest of slenderness, the flattening of the breasts, the vogue of short skirts (even when short skirts still suggested the appearance of a little girl), the juvenile effect of the long waist,—all were signs that, consciously or unconsciously, the women of this decade worshiped not merely youth, but unripened youth: they wanted to be—or thought men wanted them to be—men’s casual and light-hearted companions; not broad-hipped mothers of the race, but irresponsible playmates. Youth was their pattern, but not youthful innocence: the adolescent whom they imitated was a hard-boiled adolescent, who thought not in terms of romantic love, but in terms of sex, and who made herself desirable not by that sly art which conceals art, but frankly and openly. In effect, the woman of Post-war Decade said to man, “You are tired and disillusioned, you do not want the cares of a family or the companionship of mature wisdom, you want exciting play, you want the thrills of sex without their fruition, and I will give them to you.” 
And to herself she added, “But I will be free.” [k. location 1490-1530].
But we get ahead of ourselves. The place to start is in 1919, before anyone had heard of the word "flapper" and few women dared to use "paint:"
Mrs. Smith [Allen's stand-in for the average American in 1919] may use powder, but she probably draws the line at paint. Although the use of cosmetics is no longer, in 1919, considered prima facie evidence of a scarlet career, and sophisticated young girls have already begun to apply them with some bravado, most well-brought-up women still frown upon rouge. The beauty-parlor industry is in its infancy; there are a dozen hair-dressing parlors for every beauty parlor, and Mrs. Smith has never heard of such dark arts as that of face-lifting. When she puts on her hat to go shopping she will add a veil pinned neatly together behind her head. In the shops she will perhaps buy a bathing-suit for use in the summer; it will consist of an outer tunic of silk or cretonne over a tight knitted undergarment—worn, of course, with long stockings.... 
If you have forgotten what the general public thought of short hair in those days, listen to the remark of the manager of the Palm Garden in New York when reporters asked him, one night in November, 1918, how he happened to rent his hall for a pro-Bolshevist meeting which had led to a riot. Explaining that a well-dressed woman had come in a fine automobile to make arrangements for the use of the auditorium, he added, “Had we noticed then, as we do now, that she had short hair, we would have refused to rent the hall.”  [k. location 69-75].
The fashion of American men changed less in the 1920s, but the activities of these men certainly had:
Although golf is gaining every day in popularity, it has not yet become an inevitable part of the weekly ritual of the American business man. Mr. Smith very likely still scoffs at “grown men who spend their time knocking a little white ball along the ground”; it is quite certain that he has never heard of plus fours; and if he should happen to play golf he had better not show his knickerbockers in the city streets, or small boys will shout to him, “Hey, get some men’s pants!” 
...[As for sight seeing], the idea of making a hundred-mile trip in two and a half hours—as will constantly be done in the nineteen-thirties by drivers who consider themselves conservative—would seem to Mr. Smith perilous, and with the roads of 1919 to drive on he would be right [k. location 149].
The automobile was intimately connected to one of the most dramatic changes of the era: the transformation of sex. The origins of that story, as Allen acknowledges, preceded the 1920s (cue Allen: "in the more dimly lighted palm-room there may be a juvenile petting party or two going on, but of this Mr. and Mrs. Smith are doubtless oblivious. F. Scott Fitzgerald has yet to confront a horrified republic with the Problem of the Younger Generation." [k. location 202]). But to understand how sexual ethics had changed you first need a good idea of what the sexual "code" of the earlier era had been:
This code, as it currently concerned young people, might have been roughly summarized as follows: Women were the guardians of morality; they were made of finer stuff than men and were expected to act accordingly. Young girls must look forward in innocence (tempered perhaps with a modicum of physiological instruction) to a romantic love match which would lead them to the altar and to living-happily-ever-after; and until the “right man” came along they must allow no male to kiss them. It was expected that some men would succumb to the temptations of sex, but only with a special class of outlawed women; girls of respectable families were supposed to have no such temptations. Boys and girls were permitted large freedom to work and play together, with decreasing and well-nigh nominal chaperonage, but only because the code worked so well on the whole that a sort of honor system was supplanting supervision by their elders; it was taken for granted that if they had been well brought up they would never take advantage of this freedom. And although the attitude toward smoking and drinking by girls differed widely in different strata of society and different parts of the country, majority opinion held that it was morally wrong for them to smoke and could hardly imagine them showing the effects of alcohol. [k. location 1302].
Allen attributes the death of this old "code" to seven things: "the post-war disillusion, the new status of women, the Freudian gospel, the automobile, prohibition, the sex and confession magazines, and the movies[k. location 1302]. For me, the automobile was the most surprising one on the list. Allen's explanation is sensible and succinct:
[The automobile] universally available means of escaping temporarily from the supervision of parents and chaperons, or from the influence of neighborhood opinion.... The closed car, moreover, was in effect a room protected from the weather which could be occupied at any time of the day or night and could be moved at will into a darkened byway or a country lane [k. location 1423].
Notice his emphasis on the closed car. Another innovation of the 1920s:
In 1919 hardly more than 10 per cent of the cars produced in the United States were closed; by 1924 the percentage had jumped to 43, by 1927 it had reached 82.8. [k. location 1421].
Allen's "sex and confession magazines" were serials that mastered the art of "arousing the reader without arousing the censor." They managed this in a rather clever manner, "instructing their authors to provide a moral ending and to utter pious sentiments, concentrated on the description of what they euphemistically called “missteps.” [k. location 1435]. This brought them incredible success:
Bernarr Macfadden’s True-Story, launched as late as 1919, had over 300,000 readers by 1923; 848,000 by 1924; over a million and a half by 1925; and almost two million by 1926—a record of rapid growth probably unparalleled in magazine publishing[k. location 1436].                
Film followed a similar path ("Giving lip-service to the old code, the movies diligently and with consummate vulgarity publicized the new" [k. location 1458]); the roles that financial independence of women and Prohibition (which made it socially acceptable for women to drink) are likewise obvious. More interesting is Allen's reflections on the other two factors he highlights, "general post-war disillusionment" and the "Freudian gospel." Both of these topics extend past Allen's discussion of sex, reoccurring in several chapters of the book. However, Allen does not see the breakdown in old moral categories as a cut-and-dry thing in 1920. He groups 1920-1922 (which includes the post-war negotiations and the first red scare) as being emotionally and culturally more a part of the decade that preceded them. Those early years of the 1920s were a time of anger and righteous indignation. Allen quotes a national columnist to capture the feeling of the times:
America,” wrote Katharine Fullerton Gerould in Harper’s Magazine as late as 1922, “is no longer a free country, in the old sense; and liberty is, increasingly, a mere rhetorical figure.… No thinking citizen, I venture to say, can express in freedom more than a part of his honest convictions. I do not of course refer to convictions that are frankly criminal. I do mean that everywhere, on every hand, free speech is choked off in one direction or another. The only way in which an American citizen who is really interested in all the social and political problems of his country can preserve any freedom of expression, is to choose the mob that is most sympathetic to him, and abide under the shadow of that mob.” [k. location 899].
Doesn't that sort of thing sound familiar? It is not the only thing that resonates with our day—consider Allen's take on the second Ku Klux Klan:
But its white robe and hood, its flaming cross, its secrecy, and the preposterous vocabulary of its ritual could be made the vehicle for all that infantile love of hocus-pocus and mummery, that lust for secret adventure, which survives in the adult whose lot is cast in drab places. Here was a chance to dress up the village bigot and let him be a Knight of the Invisible Empire. The formula was perfect. [k. location 951].
  It was not just the bigot who benefited from the Klan either:              
Furthermore, criminals and gangs of hoodlums quickly learned to take advantage of the Klan’s existence: if they wanted to burn someone’s barn or raid the slums beyond the railroad tracks, they could do it with impunity now: would not the Klan be held responsible? Anyone could chalk the letters K. K. K. on a fence and be sure that the sheriff would move warily. [k. location 997].
Another aspect of 21st century that sounds distressingly familiar were the newspapers:
They discovered—the successful tabloids were daily teaching them—that the public tended to become excited about one thing at a time. Newspaper owners and editors found that whenever a Dayton trial or a Vestris disaster took place, they sold more papers if they gave it all they had—their star reporters, their front-page display, and the bulk of their space. They took full advantage of this discovery: according to Mr. Bent’s compilations, the insignificant Gray-Snyder murder trial got a bigger “play” in the press than the sinking of the Titanic; Lindbergh’s flight, than the Armistice and the overthrow of the German Empire. Syndicate managers and writers, advertisers, press agents, radio broadcasters, all were aware that mention of the leading event of the day, whatever it might be, was the key to public interest. The result was that when something happened which promised to appeal to the popular mind, one had it hurled at one in huge headlines, waded through page after page of syndicated discussion of it, heard about it on the radio, was reminded of it again and again in the outpourings of publicity-seeking orators and preachers, saw pictures of it in the Sunday papers and in the movies, and (unless one was a perverse individualist) enjoyed the sensation of vibrating to the same chord which thrilled a vast populace. [k. location 2690].
And thus one event after another was sucked into the memory hole. One of the few events people did remember were the debates over the League of Nations. Allen portrays Wilson as something of a tragic figure, "the dogmatic prophet of democracy, who could not dream that the sort of institutions in which he had believed all his life were not inevitably the best for all nations everywhere.[k. location 254]. Wilson was an idealist, elected in a time when ideals had power. Thus he became a man imbued with immense power:
Since April, 1917, his will had been irresistible. In the United States open opposition to his leadership had been virtually stifled: it was unpatriotic to differ with the President. His message and speeches had set the tone of popular thought about American war aims and the terms of eventual peace. In Europe his eloquence had proved so effective that statesmen had followed his lead perforce and allowed the Armistice to be made upon his terms. All over the world there were millions upon millions of men and women to whom his words were as those of a Messiah. Now that he envisioned a new world order based upon a League of Nations, it seemed inevitable to him that he himself should go to Paris, exert this vast and beneficent power, and make the vision a reality. The splendid dream took full possession of him. Critics like Senator Lodge and even associates like Secretary Lansing might object that he ought to leave the negotiations to subordinates, or that peace should be made with Germany first, and discussion of the League postponed, in order to bring an unsettled world back to equilibrium without delay; but had he not silenced critics during the war and could he not silence them again?  [k. location 356].
But a prophet is not always a good negotiator:
The very singleness of purpose, the very uncompromising quality of mind that had made him a great prophet, forced him to take upon his own shoulders at Paris an impossible burden of responsible negotiation. It prevented him from properly acquainting his colleagues with what he himself was doing at the sessions of the Council of Ten or the Council of Four, and from getting the full benefit of their suggestions and objections. It prevented him from taking the American correspondents at Paris into his confidence and thus gaining valuable support at home. It made him play a lone hand.  [k. location 396].
His loneliness was not only his only handicap at the negotiating table:
His intelligence was visual rather than oral. As Ray Stannard Baker has well put it, Wilson was “accustomed to getting his information, not from people, but out of books, documents, letters—the written word,” and consequently “underestimated the value of … human contacts.” At written negotiations he was a past master, but in the oral give and take about a small conference table he was at a disadvantage. When Clemenceau and Lloyd George and Orlando got him into the Council of Four behind closed doors, where they could play the game of treaty-making like a four-handed card game, they had already half defeated him.  [k. location 400]
This led to predictable failures—and a dismal personal tragedy:
He must go home and vow that the Conference had been a love-feast, that every vital decision had been based on the Fourteen Points, that Clemenceau and Orlando and Lloyd George and the rest had been animated by an overpowering love for humanity, and that the salvation of the world depended on the complete acceptance of the Treaty as the charter of a new and idyllic world order. That is what he did; and because the things he said about the Treaty were not true, and he must have known—sometimes, at least—that they were not, the story of Woodrow Wilson from this point on is sheer tragedy. He fell into the pit which is digged for every idealist. Having failed to embody his ideal in fact, he distorted the fact. He pictured the world, to himself and to others, not as it was, but as he wished it to be. The optimist became a sentimentalist. The story of the Conference which he told to the American people when he returned home was a very beautiful romance of good men and true laboring without thought of selfish advantage for the welfare of humanity. He said that if the United States did not come to the aid of mankind by indorsing all that had been done at Paris, the heart of the world would be broken. But the only heart which was broken was his own. [k. location 435]
Which brings us back to the disillusionment of the post-war years. America had gone to war to remake the world and left the world unmade. America had broken up the oligarchs, driven out the reds, banned booze, given women the vote, and done nearly everything on the progressive wish list for building a Zion on the American continent... only to discover that life had not changed that much at all. What were all the sacrifices for? What was the point of caring about any of that? Nihilism was the mood of the young:
Politics, they were deciding, was a vulgar mess; the morons always outnumbered the enlightened, the tobacco-spitting district leaders held the morons in a firm grip, and the right to vote was a joke. Welfare work was equally futile: it was stuffy, sentimental, and presumptuous. The bright young college graduate who in 1915 would have risked disinheritance to march in a Socialist parade yawned at Socialism in 1925, called it old stuff, and cared not at all whether the employees of the Steel Corporation were underpaid or overpaid. Fashions had changed: now the young insurgent enraged his father by arguing against monogamy and God. [k. location 3224].
Thus:
In 1915 the word reformer had been generally a complimentary term; in 1925 it has become—among the intellectuals, at least—a term of contempt.  [k. location 3336].
The war played an interesting part in this transformation. Some of its effects were practical and predictable ("two million men had found themselves very close to filth and annihilation and very far from the American moral code and its defenders[k. location 1339]). But the psychological effect of fighting and dying for the sake of European empires in trenches of death led to a certain disgust with the world order.
"The older generation had certainly pretty well ruined this world before passing it on to us,” wrote one of them (John F. Carter in the Atlantic Monthly, September, 1920), expressing accurately the sentiments of innumerable contemporaries. “They give us this thing, knocked to pieces, leaky, red-hot, threatening to blow up; and then they are surprised that we don’t accept it with the same attitude of pretty, decorous enthusiasm with which they received it, way back in the ’eighties.” [k. location 1348]
This was especially true for the class of men and women Allen labels "intellectuals." He defines them thus:
They may be roughly and inclusively defined as the men and women who had heard of James Joyce, Proust, C├ęzanne, Jung, Bertrand Russell, John Dewey, Petronius, Eugene O’Neill, and Eddington; who looked down on the movies but revered Charlie Chaplin as a great artist, could talk about relativity even if they could not understand it, knew a few of the leading [Freudian] complexes by name, collected Early American furniture, had ideas about progressive education, and doubted the divinity of Henry Ford and Calvin Coolidge. [k. location 3237].
Despite their pretensions at hating the past, I was surprised to see how much of it they admired in comparison to the 21st century sort: 
Some of them, in fact, seemed to be persuaded that all periods prior to the coming of modernity had been ridiculous—with the exception of Greek civilization, Italy at the time of Casanova, France at the time of the great courtesans, and eighteenth-century England. [k. location 3337].
On the other hand, this passage reminds me much more of the present set:
They took a particular pleasure in overturning the idols of the majority; hence the vogue among them of the practice for which W. E. Woodward, in a novel published in 1923, invented the word “debunking.” Lytton Strachey’s Queen Victoria, which had been a best seller in the United States in 1922, was followed by a deluge of debunking biographies. Rupert Hughes removed a few coats of whitewash from George Washington and nearly caused a riot when he declared in a speech that “Washington was a great card-player, a distiller of whisky, and a champion curser, and he danced for three hours without stopping with the wife of his principal general.” Other American worthies were portrayed in all their erring humanity, and the notorious rascals of history were rediscovered as picturesque and glamorous fellows; until for a time it was almost taken for granted that a biographer, if he were to be successful, must turn conventional white into black and vice versa. [k. location 3350].
But it was not just events that had made these folks bitter. New ideas in vogue had just as dramatic an effect. What were these ideas? They included:
That we are residents of an insignificant satellite of a very average star obscurely placed in one of who-knows-how-many galaxies scattered through space; that our behavior depends largely upon chromosomes and ductless glands; that the Hottentot obeys impulses similar to those which activate the pastor of the First Baptist Church, and is probably already better adapted to his Hottentot environment than he would be if he followed the Baptist code; that sex is the most important thing in life, that inhibitions are not to be tolerated, that sin is an out-of-date term, that most untoward behavior is the result of complexes acquired at an early age, and that men and women are mere bundles of behavior-patterns, anyhow. [k. location 2812].
This idea that "men and women were merely animals of a rather intricate variety, and that moral codes had no universal validity and were often based on curious superstitions" [k. location 1397],  grounded especially in the theories of Freud, was keystone to the 1920s sexual revolution, the excuse for abandoning inhibition after inhibition that no longer made no sense. In this environment is remarkable that religion managed to hang on at all. It hung on in an empty sort of way:    
Statistically, the churches apparently just about maintained their position in American life. Yet it is difficult to escape the conclusion that they maintained it chiefly by the force of momentum—and to some extent, perhaps, by diligent attention to the things which are Caesar’s: by adopting, here and there, the acceptable gospel according to Bruce Barton; by strenuous membership and money-raising campaigns (such as Bishop Manning’s high-pressure drive in New York for a “house of prayer for all people,” which proved to be a house of prayer under strictly Episcopal auspices); and by the somewhat secular lure of church theatricals, open forums, basket-ball and swimming pools, and muscular good fellowship for the young. Something spiritual had gone out of the churches—a sense of certainty that theirs was the way to salvation. Religion was furiously discussed; there had never been so many books on religious topics in circulation, and the leading divines wrote constantly for the popular magazines; yet all this discussion was itself a sign that for millions of people religion had become a debatable subject instead of being accepted without question among the traditions of the community. [k. location 2781]
This was noticed by the religious themselves:                
The Reverend Charles Stelzle, a shrewd observer of religious conditions, spoke bluntly in an article in the World’s Work: the church, he said, was declining largely because “those who are identified with it do not actually believe in it.” Mr. Stelzle told of asking groups of Protestant ministers what there was in their church programs which would prompt them, if they were outsiders, to say, “That is great; that is worth lining up for,” and of receiving in no case an immediate answer which satisfied even the answerer himself....doctrines in which the bulk of American Protestants had grown up believing (such as the Virgin birth, the resurrection of the body, and the Atonement) that they seemed to many to have no religious cargo left except a nebulous faith, a general benevolence, and a disposition to assure everyone that he was really just as religious as they.... One New England clergyman said that when he thought of God he thought of “a sort of oblong blur.” [k. location 2793]
Allen brings most of this up in relation to the Scopes Trial. But it was also evident in the era's literature:
It was significant that almost every one of the novelists who were ranked most highly by the post-war intellectuals was at outs with the censors, and that the Pulitzer Prize juries had a hard time meeting the requirement that the prize-winning novel should “present the wholesome atmosphere of American life and the highest standard of American manners and manhood,” and finally had to alter the terms of the award, substituting “whole” for “wholesome” and omitting reference to “highest standards.” [k. location 2793]
And its vernacular:
And with a cocktail glass in one’s hand it was easy at least to be frank. “Listen with a detached ear to a modern conversation,” wrote Mary Agnes Hamilton in 1927, “and you will be struck, first, by the restriction of the vocabulary, and second, by the high proportion in that vocabulary of words such as, in the older jargon, ‘no lady could use.’” With the taste for strong liquors went a taste for strong language. To one’s lovely dinner partner, the inevitable antithesis for “grand” and “swell” had become “lousy.” An unexpected “damn” or “hell” uttered on the New York stage was no longer a signal for the sudden sharp laughter of shocked surprise; such words were becoming the commonplace of everyday talk. [k. location 1591]
And thus tragic:
The decade was ill-mannered, it was also unhappy. With the old order of things had gone a set of values which had given richness and meaning to life, and substitute values were not easily found. If morality was dethroned, what was to take its place? Honor, said some of the prophets of the new day: “It doesn’t matter much what you do so long as you’re honest about it.” A brave ideal—yet it did not wholly satisfy; it was too vague, too austere, too difficult to apply. If romantic love was dethroned, what was to take its place? Sex? But as Joseph Wood Krutch explained, “If love has come to be less often a sin, it has also come to be less often a supreme privilege.” And as Walter Lippmann, in A Preface to Morals, added after quoting Mr. Krutch, “If you start with the belief that love is the pleasure of a moment, is it really surprising that it yields only a momentary pleasure?” The end of the pursuit of sex alone was emptiness and futility—the emptiness and futility to which Lady Brett Ashley and her friends in The Sun Also Rises were so tragically doomed.  [k. location 1721]
                 
Yet Allen admits that this sense of disillusionment and unhappiness was felt far more keenly by intellectuals than by the man on the street. The men of main-street only 
felt a queer disappointment after the war, they felt that life was not giving them all they had hoped it would, they knew that some of the values which had once meant much to them were melting away, but they remained cheerful and full of gusto, quite unaware of the change which was taking place beneath the surface of their own minds[k. location 1772].               
This is partially because there was one area of human life where disillusionment had not set in. These were
seven years during which men and women might be disillusioned about politics and religion and love, but believed that at the end of the rainbow there was at least a pot of negotiable legal tender consisting of the profits of American industry and American salesmanship; nearly seven years during which the business man was, as Stuart Chase put it, “the dictator of our destinies,” ousting “the statesman, the priest, the philosopher, as the creator of standards of ethics and behavior” and becoming “the final authority on the conduct of American society.”[k. location 2264].            
Corporations had become an important part of American economic and political life in the 1870s. Now, however, they became an important part of American cultural life:
Business had learned as never before the immense importance to it of the ultimate consumer. Unless he could be persuaded to buy and buy lavishly, the whole stream of six-cylinder cars, super-heterodynes, cigarettes, rouge compacts, and electric ice-boxes would be dammed at its outlet. The salesman and the advertising man held the key to this outlet. As competition increased their methods became more strenuous. No longer was it considered enough to recommend one’s goods in modest and explicit terms and to place them on the counter in the hope that the ultimate consumer would make up his mind to purchase. The advertiser must plan elaborate national campaigns, consult with psychologists, and employ all the eloquence of poets to cajole, exhort, or intimidate the consumer into buying,—to “break down consumer resistance.” 
Not only was each individual concern struggling to get a larger share of the business in its own field, but whole industries shouted against one another in the public’s ear. The embattled candy manufacturers took full-page space in the newspapers to reply to the American Tobacco Company’s slogan of “Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet.” Trade journals were quoted by the Reader’s Digest as reporting the efforts of the furniture manufacturers to make the people “furniture conscious” and of the clothing manufacturers to make them “tuxedo conscious.” The salesman must have the ardor of a zealot, must force his way into people’s houses by hook or by crook, must let nothing stand between him and the consummation of his sale. As executives put it, “You can’t be an order-taker any longer—you’ve got to be a salesman.” [k. location 2398].   
One company had an innovative way to motivate its workers:
according to Jesse Rainsford Sprague, still another company invented—and boasted of—a method of goading its salesmen which for sheer inhumanity probably set a record for the whole era of Coolidge Prosperity. It gave a banquet at which the man with the best score was served with oysters, roast turkey, and a most elaborate ice; the man with the second best score had the same dinner but without the oysters; and so on down to the man with the worst score, before whom was laid a small plate of boiled beans and a couple of crackers. [k. location 2422].   
But the real change came not with day-to-day salesmen, but with advertising:
Here were the sagas of the age, romances and tragedies depicting characters who became more familiar to the populace than those in any novel. The man who distinctly remembered Mr. Addison Sims of Seattle.… The four out of five who, failing to use Forhan’s, succumbed to pyorrhea, each of them with a white mask mercifully concealing his unhappy mouth.… The pathetic figure of the man, once a golf champion, “now only a wistful onlooker” creeping about after the star players, his shattered health due to tooth neglect.… The poor fellow sunk in the corner of a taxicab, whose wife upbraided him with not having said a word all evening (when he might so easily have shone with the aid of the Elbert Hubbard Scrap Book).… The man whose conversation so dazzled the company that the envious dinner-coated bystanders could only breathe in amazement, “I think he’s quoting from Shelley.”… The woman who would undoubtedly do something about B. O. if people only said to her what they really thought.… The man whose friends laughed when the waiter spoke to him in French.… The girl who thought filet mignon was a kind of fish.… The poor couple who faced one another in humiliation after their guests were gone, the wife still holding the door knob and struggling against her tears, the husband biting his nails with shame (When Your Guests Are Gone—Are You Sorry You Ever Invited Them?… Be Free From All Embarrassment! Let the Famous Book of Etiquette Tell You Exactly What to Do, Say, Write, or Wear on Every Occasion).… The girl who merely carried the daisy chain, yet she had athlete’s foot.… These men and women of the advertising pages, suffering or triumphant, became a part of the folklore of the day. [k. location 2456].   
Consumerist ideals reached into every aspect of American life. This included the churches:
The Swedish Immanuel Congregational Church in New York, according to an item in the American Mercury, recognized the superiority of the business to the spiritual appeal by offering to all who contributed one hundred dollars to its building fund “an engraved certificate of investment in preferred capital stock in the Kingdom of God.” And a church billboard in uptown New York struck the same persuasive note: “Come to Church. Christian Worship Increases Your Efficiency. Christian F. Reisner, Pastor.” [k. location 2526].   
Religion was also used to boost up the businessman's art:
So frequent was the use of the Bible to point the lessons of business and of business to point the lessons of the Bible that it was sometimes difficult to determine which was supposed to gain the most from the association. Fred F. French, a New York builder and real-estate man, told his salesmen, “There is no such thing as a reason why not,” and continued: “One evidence of the soundness of this theory may be found in the command laid down in Matthew vii:7 by the Greatest Human-nature Expert that ever lived, ‘Knock and it shall be opened unto you.’” He continued by quoting “the greatest command of them all—‘Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself’”—and then stated that by following such high principles the Fred F. French salesmen had “immeasurably strengthened their own characters and power, so that during this year they will serve our stockholders at a lower commission rate, and yet each one earn more money for himself than in nineteen hundred twenty-five.” In this case Scripture was apparently taken as setting a standard for business to meet—to its own pecuniary profit. Yet in other cases it was not so certain that business was not the standard, and Scripture complimented by being lifted to the business level. [k. location 2551].   
And so began the genre of gospel themed business-lit:       
And witness, finally, the extraordinary message preached by Bruce Barton in The Man Nobody Knows, which so touched the American heart that for two successive years—1925 and 1926—it was the best-selling non-fiction book in the United States. Barton sold Christianity to the public by showing its resemblance to business. Jesus, this book taught, was not only “the most popular dinner guest in Jerusalem” and “an outdoor man,” but a great executive. “He picked up twelve men from the bottom ranks of business and forged them into an organization that conquered the world.… Nowhere is there such a startling example of executive success as the way in which that organization was brought together.” His parables were “the most powerful advertisements of all time.… He would be a national advertiser today.” In fact, Jesus was “the founder of modern business.” Why, you ask? Because he was the author of the ideal of service. [k. location 2563].   
But business could only do so much to build back a bustling world that felt like it was following apart at the seams:
They could not endure a life without values, and the only values they had been trained to understand were being undermined. Everything seemed meaningless and unimportant. Well, at least one could toss off a few drinks and get a kick out of physical passion and forget that the world was crumbling. And so the saxophones wailed and the gin-flask went its rounds and the dancers made their treadmill circuit with half-closed eyes, and the outside world, so merciless and so insane, was shut away for a restless night.… [k. location 1731].  
Eventually it all ended. The bull market busted, the crime wave ended, and politics began to matter again. By 1930 even the Problem of the Young Generation was worn old:
What the fashions suggested was borne out by a variety of other evidence. The revolution in manners and morals had at least reached an armistice. Not that there was any general return to the old conventions which had been overthrown in the nineteen-twenties. The freedom so desperately won by the flappers of the now graying “younger generation” had not been lost, and it was difficult to detect much real change in the uses to which this freedom was put. What had departed was the excited sense that taboos were going to smash, that morals were being made over or annihilated, and that the whole code of behavior was in flux. The wages of sin had become stabilized at a lower level. Gone, too, at least in some degree, was that hysterical preoccupation with sex which had characterized the Post-war Decade. Books about sex and conversation about sex were among the commodities suffering from overproduction. Robert Benchley expressed a widely prevalent opinion when he wrote in his dramatic page in the New Yorker, late in 1930, “I am now definitely ready to announce that Sex, as a theatrical property, is as tiresome as the Old Mortgage, and that I don’t want to hear it mentioned ever again.… I am sick of rebellious youth and I am sick of Victorian parents and I don’t care if all the little girls in all sections of the United States get ruined or want to get ruined or keep from getting ruined. All I ask is: don’t write plays about it and ask me to sit through them.” [k. location 4980]
And with that, the 1920s were over. The 1930s—and Allen's next book—had begun.
                
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If you found this "Passages I Highlighted" post to your liking, you might also find the posts "Vengeance as Justice: Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Eye for an Eye" and "Passages I Highlighted in My Copy of Red Capitalism"and of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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17 June, 2019

If You Were to Write a History of 21st Century America, What Would It Look Like?

One of the best histories I have had the pleasure to read is Frederick Lewis Allen's Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s. There are many things to love about this book. Allen wrote his history of the 1920's in a jaunty, breezy style. When you pick his book up it is hard to put it down. Allen's tone is fair, his judgements sharp, and prose delectably entertaining. The most notable thing about this history of the 1920s, however, is its publication date: Allen wrote the book in 1930. He saw it published in 1931.

I often wish Allen had more imitators. Allen's book shines as a social history. The genius of writing such a history directly after the events took place is that the historian can narrate not just what happened in a period, but what it felt like to live through it. Names have not receded into history; the little things of daily existence are still remembered, and often still in use. Judgements of past events have not been too clouded by the downstream effects they had three or four decades down the line. There is an immediacy to Only Yesterday that I have never found in any other work of history (though I have found it in several works of fiction).

What would such a history of our own era look like? What would it include? Where would it begin? That last question is harder than it sounds. Allen lived in a rare time, one that was recognized as a distinct period in American history the moment it concluded. That period was bookended by WWI on the one side and the Great Depression on the other. Moreover, the decade that passed between 1919 and 1929 was recognized at the time as one that ushered in a series of then-unprecedented social, economic, and technological transformations. Allen did not need to convince anyone that this decade deserved its own history.

Finding the bookends of our era is more difficult. Were I to follow in Allen's footsteps and write a history of what it felt like to live through modern times, I would start the story in 2004. This is partly for personal reasons: it was about that time that I became politically conscious enough to offer real judgements on what those days were like. But there is a broader purpose to choosing that date. 2004 was the high tide of America's unipolar moment. It was a time of economic growth and extreme confidence in the American project. The story of my generation begins at that point--and it is in many ways the story of a country (and a generation) coming to terms with lost power, shattered confidence, and the creeping sense that we can no longer tell a coherent story about our people at all.

The other bookend is even more difficult to find. That moment has not arrived. I suspect, however, that it will arrive soon. Regardless of who wins the 2020 election, my guess is that it will be seen as a transition point, the end of a era. Generational concerns influence this perception as well. This history is a generation's coming of age tale. By the time the 2010s close out, the very last cohort of that generation will have just graduated from college (this is a good point to remind readers that most Americans do not graduate within four years of their first freshman semester at college).

I have typed up a potential outline for what this history might look like below. Savvy readers will pick up a few of the major themes I see as the dominating threads of American social history between the years 2004-2020: social media's first invigorating, then decaying impact on the daily round, traditional media, and our body politic; the splintering of American life into ever-shrinking, often mutually hostile social tribes (and the dynamics that led to this); the creeping isolation of the better-off from the rest of the nation; how cloistered group-think in Washington DC led to one terrible disaster after another; how the forces of globalization, automation, and finance hollowed out the American economy; the lack of public accountability and the loss of trust in American institutions this has caused; the intense emotional investment the American people have placed in their political leaders over the last decade; the growing prestige of data-centric and identity-centered ways of thinking; and the dynamism of an age where every American had the power to share their convictions and creations with the entire world. While I cannot pretend to be positive about most of these trends, life in the early 21st century has had great highs mixed in its its lows, and any history that did not capture these moments would be incomplete.

One of the difficulties with an experiential history of 21st century America ("what it felt like"), is the growing awareness of how different things feel to people who do not share your class, race, religion, region, education, or twitter feed. That may doom this project from the start. It would require an extraordinary writer--the only person who comes to my mind as being able to take this project on is Wesley Yang (though he might be a half-generation too old to sympathize with perspective I lay out below)--but it could be done. Perhaps a partnership of two writers, each from very different backgrounds, would be the ideal for this project.

It would not work if their prose did not shine. Unlike in Allen's day, we have access to reams and reams of data produced by sociologists, economists, political scientists, and business research teams. It would be a shame if these were not included in the book. Yet I suspect the long term success of the history would depend most on its charity. Partisan screeds will be forgotten. Appraisals may sting; judgements may bruise. But if the book is not seen as even-handed, and if it does not make a sincere effort to get inside the souls of its subjects, it amount to nothing more than so much wasted space.

Below is my outline of what a book like this might look like. I have been generous on the page numbers needed for each topic; a good author might be able to write each section in half the space.

Readers are encouraged to leave a comment explaining on how they would do things differently if the book was theirs.

AMERICAN HISTORY BOOK WHOSE TITLE IS NOT YET DECIDED, 2004-2020

Chapter One: The "Average" American Family in 2004 (6 pages)

Chapter Two: Bush Triumphant (33 pages)
--Iraq Erupts Into Civil War (15 pages)
  •   Snapshot of the costs of war, 2003-2013
  •   Mission Accomplished
  •   The Green Zone World View 
  •   Battle of Fallujah
  •   Abu Ghraib
--America at the Mall (8 pages)
  •   Domestic Response to Chaos in Iraq
  •   Dixie Chicks Disowned (compare the comparative furor over this to that faced by the generals, officials, etc. whose misteps led to civil war in Iraq)
  •   Politics as Gossip: Talk Radio Rules the Airwaves
  •   Politics as Comedy: Southpark, the Daily Show, The Colbert Report
--The Election of 2004 (10 pages)
  •   Mr. Kerry Takes the Stage
  •   Refighting the '60s (Swift Boats, Killian Documents, and Boomer Angst)
  •   What's The Matter With Kansas?  
  •   Retrospective: The Cultural Confidence of the Early Aughts
Chapter Three: The World Blogs Made (32 pages)
 --Brave New World of the Citizen Blogger (4 pages)
  •    Blogging basics: RSS Feeds, Blog Rolls, Cross Linking
  •    Big Names Change the Headlines--Two paragraph rundown of Sullivan, Yglesias, Klein etc
  •    The Old Guard gets Anxious
 --Junior Officers Blog to War (14 pages)
  •    Fiasco: Iraq, 2005-2006
  •    Abu Muqawama, Small Wars Journal, and the Search for a Solution
  •    The Nagl vs. Gentile Debates 
 --Peak Oil Meets the Internet Age (7 pages)
  •    Climate Change Policy in the Bush Years (IPCC reports, Inconvenient Truth, etc)
  •    The Climate Science Blogs
  •    Climate Skeptics Find their Platform
  •    Retrospective on the Oil Drum
--New Atheists and the ScienceBlogs Debates (7 pages)
  •    The "New Atheists"
  •    ScienceBlogs divided: PZ Meyers vs. Chris Mooney
  •    Retrospective on the Nagl vs. Gentile Debates (Compare their tone and stakes to the Meyers vs. Mooney affair)
 Chapter Four: A World Gone Viral (15 pages)
  --The Smart Phone Makes Its Debut (4 pages) 
  --How Youtube Was Used (3 pages) 
  --Memes Sweep the World (5 pages) 
  --The Novelty of Virality (3 pages)
Chapter Five: Crash (42 pages)
--Bush Administration Failures, 2005-2008 (4 pages)
  •   Spotlight Hurricane Katrina
  •   Iraq and the 2006 Elections
--Bubble (8 pages)
  •   Subprime Prices
  •   A House Built out of CODs
--Bust (10 pages)
  •   Stock market tumbles
  •   Global Reverberations
  •   Who Hurt the Most?
--Social Impact of the Great Recession (15 pages)
  •   Recession Songs ("Just Dance," "Dynamite," etc.)
  •   So Starts the Gig Economy
  •   Long Term Impacts on the Millennials' Worldview
--Bail Outs (5 pages)
  •   First Round of the Great Bailouts
  •   GM Gets Its Own Bail Out
  •   Obama Admin Refuses to Prosecute
Chapter Six: Hope and Change (13 pages)
--Who was Barrack Obama (7 pages)
  •   The Keynote Speech
  •   The Personal Costs of Political Success: Obama's Early Years
  •   Shadows on the Wall
--The 2008 Campaign (6 pages)
  •   Iraq at the Center, Hillary at the Margins
  •   Technology Does Its Thing
  •   Hope and Change
Chapter Seven: Hope's Growing Pains (23 pages)
--Broken Campaign Promises (2 pages)
--The Obama Economic Program (7 pages)
  •   Stimulus
  •   Health Care
--Insurgency Redux (7 pages)
  •   Iraq Withdrawal
  •   Surge in Afghanistan 
--Mood of the Politicos in the Early Obama Years (7 pages)
  •   Tea Party Rising
  •  The Social World of Washington DC (the lobbyist/regulator/think tank/ complex)
    •   Days of Faith (for the left)
    Chapter Six: Growing Up in the New Millennium (31 pages)
    --Where Millennials Were Different (8 pages)
    •   Racial and demographic composition
    •   The Moral World of the Millennial Teen (section on Moral Therapeutic Deism)
    •   A Side Note on Gay Marriage
    •   Leaving the subculture cliques (except for emos) behind 
    --Time Series Data on American High Schoolers, 2004-2012 (2 pages) 
    --Social Media (5 pages)
    •   What Myspace Was
    •   Why Facebook Won
    •   Social Media, Then vs. Now
    --A New Sort of Family Life (6 pages)
    •   The AP Kid
    •   Helicopter Moms and the Harvard Run 
    --The Other Sort of Family Life (10 pages)
    •   Growing up in single mother homes
    •   Boys Fall Behind
    •   Video Games: Halo through World of Warcraft
    •   Video Games: The Day Gaming Replaced Working
    Chapter Seven: Coming Apart (25 pages)
    --Snapshot of the American Family, 2012-2020 (6 pages)
    •    The 1%
    •    The Vanity of Occupy Wall Street
    •    Where the Recession Never Ended, Where it Ended First
    •    Class Mobility and Income Stagnation
    •    College and Marriage -- the Great American Sorting Machines
    •    Six Jobs in Five Cities
    --The upper 19% (8 pages)
    •   Entertainment for the "Mass Intelligent"
    •   Other sorts of sorting
    •   Reds, blues, and greys among the creative classes
    --The lower 80% (6 pages)
    •   Pop culture contrasts with the top (GoT vs. Naked and Afraid)
    •   The sort of jobs you get in the service working class
    •   Church and community life at the top and with the nots
    •   Health and Wealth
    --The Slow Collapse of the White Working Class (8 pages)
    •   Perceptions and Mis-perceptions
    •   Anatomy of a Drug epidemic
    •   The Millions on Disability
    •   Backlash
    Chapter Eight: Fracturing Narratives (20 pages)
    --Twittering Nation (5 pages)
    • Arab Spring Intro / Allure of New Tech
    • Collapse of the Blogosphere; How (and Why) Twitter-driven Conversation is Different
    • Buzzfeed, Upworthy, and the New Science of Going Viral
    --Legacy Media Falls Apart (6 pages)
    •   Stats on newspaper readership, advertising revenue, and resources cut
    •   What it takes to survive -- story of Vox
    •   The improbable rise of Mr. Fisher (and the embarrassment of Mr. Thayer)
    •   "20-somethings who know nothing"
    --Election Narratives (11 pages)
    •   Romney's "49 %," "Binders Full of Women"
    •   Spin Games
    •   Obama Wins 
    •   Liberal Victory Narratives Vindicated? 
    Chapter Nine: Lords of Tech (18 pages)
    --San Fransisco in 2004 vs. 2014 (2 pages)
    • Housing prices, other remarkable stats on silicon valley
    --The Ambitious Mr. Altman (6 pages)
    •  Sam Altman and the new American wonderworld
    •  Marc Andreeson
    •  How VC financing in Silicon Valley actually works
    --Software Eats the World (6 pages)
    •  Jobs/Thiel/Bezos/Musk/
    •  Reality of most Silicon Valley business plans (B2B vs. B2C eating)
    •  Automation and its impact
    --Broader Cultural Impact (4 pages)
    •   Do you have data for that?
    •   Nerdy as the New Sexy
    Chapter Ten: The Great Awokening (16 Pages)
     --Black Lives Matter (6 pages)
    • The Murder of Trayvon Martin
    • An economic and demographic picture of Black America, 2004-2014
    •  Ferguson
    •  Black Lives Matter
     --The Left Swings Intersectional (6 pages)
    • Data
    • Intellectual Foundations
    • Academia-Tumblr-Activists-Journalists Networks All Mashed Together
     --Coates' Critique of the American Project (4 pages)
    • Ta Nehisi Coates: Zeitgeist of the Age
    • Coates Turns His Back on the American Dream
    Chapter Eleven: A New Sort of Culture War (22 pages)
    --The Internet's Underbelly (4 pages)
    • What was an Internet Troll?
    • Trolling as a Vocation (4Chan, etc.)
     --Gamergate (10 pages)
    • Narrative I
    • Narrative II
    • Dynamics of a Twitter Age Culture War Dispute
     --The University Campus (4 pages)
    • Intersectional Activism on Campus
    • Other University Problems here
    • Not as Bad as Folks Want it to Be, but Bad Enough
    --Various other examples (4 pages)
    Chapter Eleven: Team Obama Falters Forward (18 pages)
      --Gridlock (5 pages)
    • Intro: Sandy Hook
    • Mid-terms deliver victory to the GOP
    • The new costs of getting things done
      --Obama Meets the Culture Wars (2 pages)
    • Preacher of a faith his coalition no longer believes in
    • Obama assesses the intersectionalists
    •  Man out of his element
     --Legacy (11 pages)
    • Legacy: Obama as Commander in Chief and Head of State, 2008-2016 (ISIS, Iran, Climate Accord) 
    • Legacy: Obama as Policymaker (Executive Orders)
    • Legacy: Obama as Party Leader (Collapse of the Democrats in 2016)
    • Legacy: Obama as Symbol 
    Chapter Twelve: Election of 2016 (16 pages)
    --Sanders vs. Clinton (4 pages)
    • Sanders, an Old Choice for the Young
    •  Coronation of Hillary Clinton
    --Trump's Rise (7 pages)
    • The Running Joke
    • Trumpism 
    • How to Dominate a Crowded Primary
    • Never-Trump
    Trump vs. Hillary (5 pages)
    • One Outrage After Another
    • "Flight 93 Election"
    • What People Expected
    •  What They Got
    Chapter Thirteen: Days of Rage (12 pages)
     --Liberal Incomprehension (2 pages)
    • Waves of rage
    • Protests, pussyhats
    • Vox still playing the same old game
     --Excuses Pile Up (8 pages)
    • Was it all Because of the Russians?
    • Was it all Because of the Racists?
    • Was it all Because We Were Too Woke?
     --Failure to Take Responsibility (2 pages)
    • The terrible candidate
    • Her terrible team
    • Terrible party organization across the entire country
    • The terrible media complex that held it all up
    •  Once again, no one held responsible
    Chapter Fourteen: Chaos Machine (14 pages)
      --Trump's Early Days (5 pages)
    • Surprised as Anyone Else
    • Trump's Inaugural Sets the Scene
    • Story of the Muslim Ban
      --The Trump Official Merry Go Round (5 pages)
    • Stats on # of cabinet officials
    • Stories of some individuals who took and left the stage
    • Partly Intentional on Part of the President
    • Partly Result of Poor Preparation on the Transition Team
    • Difficulty of Coherent Policy Making
      --Things Stabilize by mid-2018 (4 pages)
    • Accomplishments up to that point
    • Failures
    Chapter Fifteen: Romance and Sex in the 2010s (31 pages)

    --Intro: #MeToo and the Cavanaugh Hearing (6 pages)

    --Dating Apps Change Everything (4 pages)
    • Statistics
    • How Tinder, Bumble, etc. works
    • What it is like to use Tinder as a woman/man
    --Hook Up Angst (8 pages)
    • Myths of hook up culture
    • New norms, new expectations
    • "Cat woman" and consent
    --Generation Porn (8 pages)
    •    Statistics
    •    Effect on behaviors and views
    •    Harsh reality of a world flooded with sexual media but less and less people actually are having it
    --Sex Recession, Marriage Depression (5 pages)
    • Sex recession - perceptions and mis-perceptions
    • Marriage rates, divorce rates
    • Retrospective: Happiness and Meaning in the Age of Angst

    Chapter Sixteen: Intellectual and Cultural Life in the Age of Angst (? pages)
    --Streaming Straight to You  (8 pages)
    • Why Netflix Mattered
    • A Blockbuster Age (super hero movies, decline of films into nothing but franchises)
    • Prestige TV 
    • Why Was the "Golden Age" of TV So Dark?
    --New Mediums, New Messages (? pages)
    • Youtube Channels, Patreon Accounts
    • Podcasting, Focus in on Podcasting Bros
    • The Changing Meaning of Being a Man
    • ?
    --Conservatives Adrift (? pages)
    • Difficulty Defining Trumpism
    • New Atheists Move to the Right
    • IDW
    • ?
    --Reigning Intellectual Styles (? pages)
    •   Basically just see my twitter thread
     Chapter Seventeen: America and China, 2004-202? (30~ pages)

      --Trump's Most Lasting Legacy? (1 page)
    • Intro: Pence Speech
      --America and China, 2000-2016 (6 pages)
    • The World Is Flat, The Pentagon's New Road Map, and Other Grand Delusions
    • US politicians get rich
    • 2008 Olympics
      --China breaks American hopes (12 pages)
    • Hints of the coming crisis: renditions, murders, thefts, and deaths
    • The hard regime of Xi Jinping
    • Obama has his chance--2012 Scarborough Shoal
    • Obama makes a deal--2016 (+assumptions of his team)
      --America Responds at Last (6 pages)
    • Trump Starts a Trade War
    • Hard bargaining (Huawei, ZTE)
    • Trade War Becomes a Cold War
      --Public Apathy, Elite Engagement (? pages)
    • Bipartisan support
    • Foreign Perceptions
    • ?
    • ?
     Chapter Eighteen: Tech's Reckoning  (? pages)
    --Automation Eats Everything (6 pages)
    •  American Economy, 2014-202[?]: The Numbers Look Good...
    •  ...But They Came With a Cost (Hollowing Out of US Economy)
    •  Automation of the American Labor Force 
    --Social Media Turns on Itself (? pages)
    • Bots, Trolls, and Foreign Operatives
    • Just Ban Everybody
    • ?
    --Washington Turns Against Tech (? pages)

     Chapter Nineteen: The Trials of Donald Trump, 2018-202?  (? pages)

    Chapter Twenty: Coda


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    If you found this post on recent American history to your liking, you might also find the posts "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream," "Pining for Democracy" and "Honor, Dignity, and Victhimhood: A Journey Through Three Centuries of American Political Culture" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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    05 June, 2019

    It Is Not Like That Black Mirror Episode

    Last month the U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Intelligence held a public hearing on Chinese influence activities and the risks of a global Chinese-led technological regime. I found the prepared statements by Samantha Hoffman and by Peter Mattis to be particularly valuable, and both are good resources for understanding why this issue is important. One of the themes that unites both of their testimonies is the preemptive nature of the Party's internal threat model. Party leaders do not want to manage risks; they want to preemptively eliminate risks before they bloom into a crisis. A great deal of the Party's behavior, both inside its borders and outside them, start to make sense when you understand it through this lens.

    I invite you to read their statements in full. In this post I want to focus on the actual hearing itself. The discussion was wide ranging, but there were two moments in particular that are worth plucking and presenting here for future reference. Both have to do with the broader issues raised by the social credit system, Chinese "smart cities," and the expansion of Chinese digital infrastructure. To quote:

    REP. TURNER:
    And pause for a moment. Let me ask you about that. So I participated in the House Government Oversight's hearings with respect to the OPM breach where it is alleged Chinese hackers came in and stole over 4 million individuals' pieces of data, clearly an attempt to expand its reach into the United States. And perhaps, Dr. Hoffman and Mr. Mattis, you could talk about that effect on the authoritarian regime's reach into the United States. 
     MR. MATTIS:
    So the important piece of this is that -- and it goes to Dr. Hoffman's point -- that this doesn't change party policy. It amplifies their capacity to execute it. And if you look at China's intelligence collection going back decades, you see a focused effort on retired officials, and talking with retired officials. Because they don't have the same security briefings, they don't have the same background checks, they can speak much more freely. And a lot of the questions that get put to them are essentially building a roadmap. 
     And OPM is not unique. You have the effort to go after Anthem, which handles a lot of Federal employees' health data. The attack on United. In Taiwan, there have been a lot of focused attacks on district databases, and these are databases that everyone has to register in. For example, my daughter, who was born in Taiwan, had to be registered in them so that she could get her immunizations. And because there are certain parts of Taipei and other cities where there are government-owned apartment buildings and others, you know which databases are going to have a lot of government employees for the Ministry of National Defense, the National Security Bureau, many others. And so instead of just interviewing officials or going on exchanges, they are able to break into the databases and get all of that on their own. And when you put those pieces together and you bring them along with the delegations and the other forms of contact, you can actually get a pretty good idea of how to shape U.S. policy and how the different social relationships in the U.S. function when it comes to the making of China policy.
     MS. HOFFMAN: 
     And I suspect that eventually -- part of what something like the social credit system is supposed to do is it is really about integrating data, and you assign individuals a code where records are made. It is not the Black Mirror episode where people have numbers that are going up and down based on a social interaction happening in real time. It is more that part of the system is this unified social credit code. And you have those for companies. So the airlines case last year, for instance, each airline would, according to Chinese law, by January 1 last year have to have updated their business registration to have a unified social credit code attached to it. And the same with entities, other organizations and people will have unified social credit codes. And then there is a central government database and also provincial databases where you can use those codes to look up a person or entity's record.  
    I strongly suspect, based on some various things that I have been reading, that that could extend overseas, particularly to overseas Chinese, certainly overseas Chinese who plan to return to China. The MPS is reportedly, according to a government document that I came across, developing codes for those individuals, the ones that are returning to China, as well as overseas Chinese federations based in China which also have overseas branches. So then the question is, in the long term how will this information, which right now is probably incredibly dense and difficult to go through, eventually be organized to become more useful? I think right now that is hard to see, but I think we need to have the imagination to think what could be possible in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years from now (emphasis added).[1]
    I think this is a useful way to understand many of the digital initiatives that the Party is pursuing. Many forecasts for where the social credit system is heading focus on the automation of control. Perhaps, as Hoffman suggests here, they are more about making an ever larger part of private activity legible to the government. That does not diminish the potential of these systems--if you've read anything by James Scott, you know that simply making behavior legible has a powerful effect on the way decisions are made and societies are shaped. [2] But it does put us on firmer footing to understand why the Party has been enthusiastic about implementing these systems since the early 2000s, long before the technology existed to do so.

    The limits of this system will be defined less by technology than with politics. To quote a different exchange:

    REP. HECK:
     Dr. Hoffman, you said something earlier that I thought was very provocative -- I hope I wrote this down correctly -- regarding social credit: Over the long term, I don't know how successful it will be. Gosh, you have to say another couple of words about what doubt you are casting over the efficacy of this approach long term. 
    MS. HOFFMAN:
    The doubt is more that social credit is a technology-enhanced form of what the Chinese Communist Party has been doing for decades. Sometimes you will read that social credit is an electronic version of an individual record system or an electronic version of an individual black listing -- or a black listing system. And those are elements of social credit, but what social credit really is is the automation of what the Chinese Communist Party -- and sorry for using the term that they use -- it is called social management. And social management is something that the party has always been engaged in, but the problem with that is really the contestation for power within the party. You know, we often talk about power as if it is the Chinese Communist Party's power over society, and we miss the dimension that you are also talking about the contestation for power within the party. And I think that is the number one -- 
    REP. HECK:
    I have no idea what you just said.
    MS. HOFFMAN:    
    Okay. Sorry. 
    REP. HECK:
    The question is, you cast doubt as to whether or not it will succeed.
    MS. HOFFMAN: 
    Yeah. 
    REP. HECK:
    Why may it not succeed? 
    MS. HOFFMAN:
     It is the problem that you always have to overcome the fact that there are going to be officials who are trying to stake their claim for power. 
    REP. HECK:
     Internal power struggle within? 
     MS. HOFFMAN:
     Internal within the CCP. And that is always recurring. Every generation has a major political crisis. And even if you look back, now we are heading to the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen, and you look back at those documents and you see that it took two weeks, just over two weeks to implement martial law. Deng Xiaoping had to go around to each individual military region to demand that the military step up. Falun Gong in 1999 involved using early electronic resources to organize a protest in front of the government headquarters in Beijing. So you always have this happening. The leadership transition now, there was an alleged coup attempt -- or in 2013 -- alleged coup attempt. So you have that happening. 
    And what social credit relies on, and the reason that I say that this power dynamic is important, is it relies on the integration of resources, government agencies cooperating, and not only government agencies, but also the various levels of government cooperating to some extent. Incrementally, the party has been trying to improve data sharing and information sharing for many years and decades, and that is a long-term process and it is not ending. So social credit isn't going to be constructed by 2020. There is an objective to meet certain points by 2020. Now, if social credit -- 
    REP. HECK:
     What factors, if any, are limiting the velocity of dissemination? 
    MS. HOFFMAN:
     Sorry? 
    REP. HECK:
     They say they want to get this done by 2020. You just seemed to imply that they are not going to get it done by 2020. What is limiting them? 
    MS. HOFFMAN:
    Yes. 
     So 2020 isn't the goal. There is a document, 2014 to 2020 construction of the social credit system, and that is more like a 5-year plan where within this period of time we have these objectives, that we are going to work on meeting these particular standards. But the way the party describes it itself, social credit, is that it is an unending process. Social credit is never going to be complete. That all being said -- 
    REP. HECK:
     Well, put another way, what is limiting them from having smart cities in all major cities sooner rather than later? 
    MS. HOFFMAN:
     The technology has to catch up with the ideas. That is one thing. But then the other thing that I want to say is, even if these systems aren't completely effective, it doesn't mean that they aren't going to achieve some incremental results.
    The more people feel like they are being judged or the more they feel like every part of their life is connected to the system. So if you have all of your records being put into one place and you know that the consequences could be more far-reaching, it is not that that is a new concept, but technology increases. It will eventually increase the effectiveness of that. And then it is also the idea that it can be effective. So then you are changing how you behave. But I don't think that ultimately the CCP will be able to completely normalize people according to their version of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable, and that is what the goal is. 
    REP. HECK:
     Thank you.[3]

    Representative Heck narrows in on power struggles and coups, and the question of internal power struggles occupies a great deal of the committee's focus in the questions that follow. My version of the problem Hoffman describes is more prosaic. It is not hard to imagine old-fashioned bureaucratic competition over who gets to steward what data not altogether different from the sort of bureaucratic stove-piping and infighting seen in the U.S. intelligence community (especially before 9-11). To get a sense for why this is a plausible outcome, readers will want to go back to my earlier writing on the Belt and Road Initiative, which had degraded into a wild, uncoordinated feeding frenzy as a mass of SOEs, local governments, and various bureaucracies tried to divert funding to their pet projects by branding everything they did as part of the Initiative.[4] Many agencies and enterprises adopted projects that worked at cross purposes with each other. Given the profits that will come from the digital surveillance market, it is easy to imagine a similar fiasco in the realm of 'social management.'

    The difference between the Belt and Road and social management, however, is that social management directly touches on the core interests of the Party. They survive or they die based off of what they do here. The Party leadership has a strong motivation to get this right. That might lead to more effective centralization and integration than we see in the economic sphere.

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    If you found this post on China's security politics useful, you might also find the posts "Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy," "Reflections on China's Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II and "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road" of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar's Stage, you can join the Scholar's Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
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    [1] U.S. House of Representatives,Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "Digital Authoritarianism: Surveillance, Influence, and Political Control," hearing transcript (uploaded 17 May 2019).


    [2] This theme runs through all of Scott's work, but it is expressed most forcibly in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed (New haven: Yale University Press, 1998). More concise explications of  his concepts can be found here and here.

    [3] Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, "Digital Authoritarianism,"

    [4] Tanner Greer, "The Utterly Dysfunctional Belt and Road," Scholar's Stage (8 May 2019); "One Belt, One Road, One Big Mistake," Foreign Policy (6 December 2018).