Cultural Moments, Cultural Amnesia

Before going on to discuss the present cultural moment, the Age of Trump, let us get straight the definition of the concept of cultural moment... Cultural moments respond to and incorporate the social structural and political forces which explain how society is changing, but they can also serve to propel underlying forces onward or act contrary to social structure.

A cultural moment is the period of duration of a uniform set of preoccupations, emotions and meanings within a community. It consists of the things that people regularly allude to in their thoughts and their talk regardless of what is happening in their personal or work lives. These topics, feelings and images seem to the people of the community to be inevitable references and so not require people to explain why they are so preoccupied. A war, such as World War II, is a public event which defined a cultural moment that lasted from Pearl Harbor to past V-J Day. There may be overlapping events which are fads of the period, that associated with the moment. For World War II, that included swing music and Bond Drives and rationing. There also can be remainders of previous moments that conflict with the prevailing cultural moment but appear to be as such because they are allusions to alternative moments of public consciousness. Labor conflict, a theme from the Thirties, could not hold its own as a legitimate context of experience during the World War II culture, as John L. Lewis found out when public support for strikes disappeared in the context of war production patriotism.

Particular events within a cultural moment can serve as just additional data about the moment, as is the case with hula hoops and big money quiz shows and so serve as no more than emblems of their moment, even if one can also make a case that some of those emblems, like “Ozzie and Harriet”, are symbols of the period in that an appreciation of them deepens an understanding of the moment. But sometimes particular moments not only symbolize or highlight a moment but help it come into existence. Churchill’s Fulton, Missouri speech about an Iron Curtain descending upon Eastern Europe is quite properly used to define the start of the Cold War, though one might say the true beginnings of the Cold War resulted from George Marshall deciding he was not going to be able to negotiate anything of substance with Mao, Marshall the last holdout against turning the Soviet Bloc and its allies into adversaries rather than uneasy allies. So Churchill unleashed not only a political confrontation but also the beginning of the age of atomic confrontation, an age that answered only to the logic of deterrence, of mutually assured destruction, and which lasted until the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled the end of the Soviet Union.

Cultural moments respond to and incorporate the social structural and political forces which explain how society is changing, but they can also serve to propel underlying forces onward or act contrary to social structure. The Industrial Revolution was a structural event rather than a cultural moment, but it is one that is emblemized in the novels of Charles Dickens as the conflict between the various social classes arising in Victorian England, the political debate moved ahead by Benjamin Disraeli’s portrait of the two nations that inhabited Great Britain. Sometimes social commentary makes a difference, as was the case with the Progressive Era Muckrakers, or the influence of Michael Harrington and various reports on poverty on the War on Poverty, an essential part of the Democratic Sixties, but sometimes, as in the past decade, political commentary has not risen very far in enlightening the theatre of public opinion, perhaps because those who voted for Trump don’t read books, and also because the writing of social commentary is mostly left to journalists rather than academics, like John Galbraith and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who so enlightened the Fifties about what was going on in the American economy and in American politics.

So we arrive at the Age of Trump, another cultural moment that takes its name from the Colossus who heads the nation, Franklin Delano Roosevelt having given his image to two cultural moments as Dr. Cure the Depression and Dr. Win the War. Roosevelt’s glory did not long outlive the Second World War not so much because of his estimable successor but because the subsequent cultural moment was that of the Cold War, as that was accompanied by McCarthyism, Korea and, as I suggested in a recent post, Existentialism. Trump is everywhere, his image always in our minds, because he is always saying something outrageous even if he actually gets very little done. I have begun many a conversation by saying “We won’t discuss Trump because that is too painful” only to fall back into discussing his latest tweets. Trump is like an addiction; he pushes healthy thoughts out of your head so that you can decry his egotism. Nothing else seems to be happening. “Game of Thrones” and “Hamilton” belonged to the Age of Obama. Yes, it has only been seven months since Trump took office, but it seems forever. And everything gets tinged by Trump. Immigration policy is not about whether DACA persons are benefits or drags on the American economy (the second of which they are not) but on how Trump dumps his promises so as to appease his base. North Korea is not about whether deterrence is enough to keep their nuclear force at bay but whether Trump’s top military people will let him carry out some hare-brained scheme that he concocts.

One of the most clear cut characteristics of a cultural moment is that it creates instant amnesia about the moment that has gone before, leaving that to be rediscovered by historians. That happened when McCarthyism had amnesia about our wartime alliance with Stalin and so saw all Thirties Red sympathizers as traitors. Everything had changed (although, of course, that meant the culture had changed, the social structure moving to its own rhythms and trends). The same is happening now. Hillary, who provided some ballast against Trumpism while he ranted his way through the primaries, is now a spent force who will re-emerge briefly next week with the publication of her book and then we will go through another autopsy of her campaign. But that is already a blast from the past. We have to deal with what is, which is a President many of us are ashamed of, which is not usually the case.

Another characteristic of a cultural moment is that it begins and ends in an instant in that a preoccupation is not that before it becomes one, only a sense of something impending. The Vietnam War began with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution even though to experts and others the challenge of Vietnam had been around ever since the French were involved in their war to control Indochina. And the Vietnam War was over when the American helicopters took off from Saigon just as the city was about to be occupied. There were some cleanup operations, most notably the Magsaysay Incident, a gunboat encounter managed by Henry Kissinger so that the United States showed that it was still in South-east Asia. That is very different from what happens during structural changes, such as the Industrial Revolution. Those can be gradual until they reach a takeoff point or submit in some way to becoming a dominant socials structure. It is not surprising, then, that cultural moments are identified as starting and ending with a Presidency because, after all, someone is not President one day and is President the next. Trump was just a character and then he became President, with all the powers attendant to that, which is of very much concern to his critics. Trump is no longer just a symbol but the real thing, and he will be with us for four or eight years or until the Russia Investigation catches up with him.