This Week in Even More Unnerving: Darth Bannon’s dodgy history obsession

Linette Lopez in Business Insider is disturbed by TIME magazine’s explication of Steve Bannon’s ideological reliance upon a (highly US/Anglo-centric focussed) book about cycles of history, where every 80-100 years there is a cataclysmic event (a “Fourth Turning”) necessitating a trial by fire resulting in a new order.

According to the book, the last two Fourth Turnings America experienced were The Civil War and Reconstruction, and then The Great Depression and World War II. Before that, it was the Revolutionary War.

All of these periods were marked by periods of dread and decay in which the American people were forced to unite to rebuild a new future, but only after a massive conflict in which many lives were lost. It all starts with a catalyst event, then there’s a period of regeneracy, after that there is a defining climax in which a war for the old order is fought, and then finally there is a resolution in which a new world order is stabilised.

This is where Bannon’s obsession with this book should cause some concern. He believes that, for the new world order to rise, there must be a massive reckoning. That we will soon reach our climax conflict.

Bannon is portrayed as believing that a “global existential war” with radical jihadis (and maybe China as well) is inevitable, and that authoritarian politics in the USA is the only way to prepare the nation for victory.

This conviction is central to the Breitbart mission, he explained in November 2015: ‘Our big belief, one of our central organising principles at the site, is that we’re at war.’

Lopez sees Bannon’s advice to the Trump administration on policies that seem intended to foment chaos as actively trying to accelerate a Fourth Turning, because he is convinced that the 2008 financial crisis was this cycle’s catalyst event, and the national response to that event was not what he expected/wanted.

It is the response, not the initial event, which defines an era according to the theory. (Wikipedia article on Strauss/Howes work)

Bannon, by these accounts, seems intent on forcing the arc of history into the pattern he has convinced himself exists, which leads neatly into Lopez’ summation of some of the criticisms of the Strauss/Howe “theory”:

Ultimately, the danger of writing about the past at the same time one writes about the future, is that it can be hard for an author to separate the two. The steps and missteps of the past seem so easily repeatable that the future seems to march in lock step. But this is not what history has shown us. The catastrophes of every era have always materialised in their own unique ways.

It is here where Strauss and Howe fail in their work, and here where Bannon gets caught in their failure.

There’s quite a lot to read there about how the Great Depression of 1929 and the GFC of 2008 are demonstrably and in multiple ways not nearly so alike as Bannon appears to believe, and Lopez points out many more differences between the Strauss/Howe theory and what we see in the USA now, especially with regard to social unity, which is supposed to be the defining feature of a Regeneracy that allows Crisis Leaders to implement their authoritarian rebuilding of society.

“The Fourth Turning” envisioned by Howe and Strauss requires a return to an agreed upon set of values, but millennials and the GOP (or Bannon for that matter) couldn’t be farther away from one another. For one, millennials are the most diverse group in US history — 43% of them are nonwhite. Most do not share Bannon’s vision for ethnic conflict.

Summarising Lopez’ concluding paragraphs: Bannon is not responding to any clear and present danger of an outside threat, he’s creating new enemies that Americans mostly do not want to have. Bannon is dividing his nation, not uniting it. This is not a natural course of history falling into place – this is uncharted territory.

I need to emphasise here that I believe that the passing of generations affecting the decisions being made today is not a totally flawed hypothesis. The grandparents who told our parents about the way they saw the world descend into war are mostly likely deceased, and their recountings have descended into family myths rather than a direct personal testimony of warning signs. It becomes easier to not take very much notice of their stories, and thus we repeat the errors of their forebears.

But that doesn’t mean that there are solid predictors of historical cycles, or even that cycles are an accurate way to describe certain historical patterns of repetition. There are always competing interests in the corridors of power, and the way they jostle for power is psychologically predictable up to a point, but there are too many possible disruptors to ever be exactly sure what events will precipitate an existential conflict.

In other news, apparently Trump finds Saturday Night Live’s choice to cast Melissa McCarthy in their parody of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer upsetting mostly because of the cross-gender aspect. I second everyone who is calling for them to cast Rosie O’Donnell in their next parody of #PresidentBannon.

Categories: crisis, culture wars, ethics & philosophy, history, media, Politics

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3 replies

  1. One thing I’m noticing with a lot of people’s understanding of history is they’re limited by the fact we’re taught history (in this country at least) in a very compartmentalised way. For example, we’re taught about World War 1, The Russian Revolution, and First Wave Feminism as three completely different events which each happened in their own bubble, and had nothing to do with each other. Whereas if you stop and think about it, they were all happening at the same time, and they were all feeding into one another, and each influencing the outcome of the other. In the same way, US Civil Rights, the Vietnam War, the Counter-culture Revolution, and Second Wave Feminism are all taught as compartmentalised events, each in their separate silo, and none of them touching each other, whereas for the US government at the time, they were all happening at once.

    I’m wondering whether fifty years from now, we’re going to have teachers teaching about the Global Financial Crisis, Brexit, the Trump ascendancy and the rise of Vladimir Putin in Russia as completely un-related events as well (meanwhile, down here at ground level, we know they’re all intertwining and affecting each other in chaotic ways).

    I agree with you at least part of the problem is we have history repeating (or rather, humans repeating the same mistakes in different contexts, because we’re stubborn little monkeys and we don’t like to let go of a solution if we think we’ve found one). Or rather, circumstances look similar enough that historians (who are human, and pattern match just like everyone else) say “oh yeah, this is just like X” when actually, there’s enough differences to make the likeness rather dodgy. As the saying goes: “history doesn’t repeat – historians repeat each other”. “Cycles of history” are like figures in the clouds, or the face of Jesus on a piece of toast – they’re a human interpretation of random happenstance, because humans like to impose a narrative on the world.

  2. Now I have to wonder whether the writers for Ghostbusters (the 2016 one) were channeling this sort of thing with the “Fourth Cataclysm.”

    Otherwise, totally agreeing with megpie71, particularly about humans repeating the same mistakes; it can’t be only because the people who had specific life experience with fascism are dying out now that right-wing “solutions” are even being considered.

    • My gut feeling is that it’s largely to do with a hierarchy that knows its perpetuation relies on discouraging/discrediting any education in critical thinking skills for the young. So the general population is never trained to either recognise our implicit biases or the tools required to work around those biases (the rigorous but fundamentally simple methodology that Carl Sagan called the Baloney Detection Kit). Thus most of the population grows up either regurgitating the received wisdom/prejudices of their elders or rejecting some/most/all without necessarily understanding why (this is where the generational aspect comes into play, but it’s only part of the picture). The lack of training in basic analysis skills regarding received wisdom/prejudices make people easy targets for other ideologies that align with their acceptance/rejection of familial worldviews, and hardly any of it done with any effort at self-reflection or conscious attempt to evaluate why something appeals to us.

      This is a major reason IMO why many people who vow to never repeat their parents’ mistakes (and every parent makes at least a few), end up not just making new ones but often inadvertently perpetuating the same mistakes in different ways, because they don’t have to tools to analyse why their parents made those mistakes, and thus they don’t know what they need to watch out for as possible triggers for the behaviours they want to suppress.

      Higher education doesn’t fix this unless critical thinking is taught first – one simple example that is now very tangential because I went back and rewrote the paragraph above, but I’ll leave it here anyway: I have encountered an alarming number of tertiary-educated adults who believe that advertising/marketing doesn’t work on them because they’re just too well-educated to fall for that guff. It’s simple to find the studies that prove them wrong, but they don’t want to believe it, so they continue to deny it (“I don’t take any notice of billboards, so they don’t work on me” – sorry, but if you are at all aware that a billboard exists in your vicinity, then that billboard is having an effect on you, no matter how much you might roll your eyes at the message on the board). I accept the evidence that I am just as likely to have my buttons pressed by marketing that is targeted to my demographic as anybody else, so I have developed a habit of self-questioning whenever an impulse to change my spending patterns bubbles up. I have to continually remind myself that this is something I need to do, though. Our Baloney Detection Kits require regular polishing and sharpening.

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