I don’t know what life was like in 1920, but I have a feeling a large and very stubborn percentage of the population was still clinging to something that was already dead even if they didn’t know it yet. Maybe they still favored horse-drawn carriages over automobiles, or cursed the rise of radio, or decided flying machines were a passing fancy that would never weave their way into the mainstream of domestic and international travel.
Maybe they thought women voting would be the ruin of the country, or that black and brown people just weren’t ready for the responsibility of full personhood, and might not ever be.
The one thing we all know for certain now, with the advantage of a century’s worth of hindsight, is that the folks who thought those thoughts were wrong on just about everything.
A lot of people living today are just as wrong about just as much, but they don’t know it yet. It takes a couple of decades for any century to decide what it’s going to be, to break away from the previous century and form an identity of its own. This usually happens when the people born in or near the new century start moving their way into adulthood and finding their own voices.
That moment is now upon us, and I get this feeling that the social upheaval we’re going through now is just a prelude to a much bigger and more powerful movement to come. If you don’t believe that – or choose not to believe it – let your thoughts wander back a century.
The 1920s, fresh off a World War and global pandemic, brought about rapid and lasting changes in culture, communication, consumerism, politics and technology, at least in the United States and certain other countries. The world became a fast-moving place that seemed to have little regard for the traditions and customs that came before.
The following three paragraphs from the Digital History website help shed light on what was taking place back then:
“The 1920s was a decade of profound social changes. The most obvious signs of change were the rise of a consumer-oriented economy and of mass entertainment, which helped to bring about a revolution in morals and manners. Sexual mores, gender roles, hair style and dress all changed profoundly during the 1920s. Many Americans regarded these changes as liberation from the country’s Victorian past. But for others, morals seemed to be decaying, and the United States seemed to be changing in undesirable ways. The result was a thinly veiled cultural civil war.
“Some of the most vicious racial violence in American history took place between 1917 and 1923. The hostility stemmed partly from the dramatic shifts in the demography of race. Black workers who had been historically confined to the South had begun to move north and to compete with whites for factory jobs. These black workers often found jobs as strikebreakers, the only way many could get hired. In addition, animosity flared as black veterans returned from World War I insisting on the civil rights that they had fought for in Europe. In Chicago, Illinois, Longview, Texas, Omaha, Nebraska, Rosewood, Florida, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Washington, D.C., white mobs burned and killed in black neighborhoods.
“The movement for black pride found its cultural expression in the Harlem Renaissance, the first self-conscious literary and artistic movement in African American history… During the 1920s, Harlem became the capital of black America, attracting black intellectuals and artists from across the country and the Caribbean. Soon, the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom. The poet Countee Cullen eloquently expressed black artists’ long-suppressed desire to have their voices heard: ‘Yet do I marvel at a curious thing: To make a poet black, and bid him sing!’”
This was all new ground for many people during the 1920s – and a lot of them weren’t happy about it. Gender roles were not supposed to be fluid. Non-white minorities were not supposed to be outspoken, proud and defiant. Entertainment and information were not supposed to be disseminated and consumed on new forms of media, or challenge the established order.
It’s hardly a surprise that fascism/nationalism and socialism/globalism both rose to power during the 1920s and 1930s, with one side rallying against the forces of change and the other side embracing them (or at least co-opting them).
That’s what’s happening now, I think. The 21st Century is finally deciding what it’s going to be, and a lot of people aren’t happy about it. I have no idea how things will play out politically. Will we see a rise in nationalism (if not outright fascism)? Actually, yes. We’re seeing it already in places as disparate as the Philippines, Brazil, Hungary – and America. Will we see a concurrent rise in socialism, or at least a 21st Century version of it? Probably, but then socialism never really went away. I suspect some offshoot of it will gain even more traction in the years ahead.
If you want to see how the 21st Century is putting its distinct stamp on the world, look no further than the protests that followed (and continue to follow) the brutal death of George Floyd at the hands of a white cop. I’m old enough to remember plenty of racial unrest in the U.S. and elsewhere, ranging from the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 to the riots that engulfed Miami in 1980, Brixton a year later, Los Angeles in 1992, Paris in 2005, Ferguson in 2014 and my hometown of Charlotte in 2016.
In almost all of those cases, the protests that took place were drawn along clear racial lines. You mainly had black or brown people uprising against the white power structure. The George Floyd protests are different. You see as many if not more whites along the front lines as people of color. I questioned the motives of some of these white protesters in a separate blog – mainly because of reports that outside forces, including far-right groups, might have shown up with something other than racial justice in mind – but there’s no denying that a broader spectrum of people are engaged in the current uprising than in years and decades past.
It’s not just happening in big U.S. cities, either. It’s happening in small towns, in the suburbs, in rural areas, along the side of the road, in windows and on stoops, in murals painted on walls and roads, in cities and villages worldwide. This is the 21st Century speaking, led by a younger generation with no ties to the 20th Century, and they have no patience for or interest in the old ways of doing things. The amazing thing is that many older people seem equally fed up, and they’re joining the cause. So are establishment figures ranging from corporations and Republican senators to sports leagues.
Progressives are clearly winning this battle, and it only took decades of questionable police tactics against black men and women for that to happen.
The coronavirus response also seems uniquely 21st Century. I’m not sure there has ever been a moment in history when the entire world went into lockdown over a health issue, with anything near the speed and depth of what we’ve seen over the last three months. I don’t think it could or would have happened in a world without the internet and social media, where news travels fast to all corners of the globe, and much of the world’s population is connected to the same drumbeat of what’s right and wrong.
We’re undergoing massive changes in many of the same arenas that got shook up a century ago. Entertainment and information are a couple of examples. Just as film, radio and phonographs revolutionized the consumption of entertainment in the 1920s, so too have modern-day platforms like Netflix, YouTube and TikTok.
Most people today get their news from social media, even though much of that news is still produced by traditional media outlets. Expect social media to become even more dominant in coming years as newspapers finally die off for good and TV news broadcasts turn into what late-night cable used to be.
Meanwhile, the content itself will continue to move away from age-old journalistic principles of objectivity and separateness, and toward 21st Century principles of advocacy and engagement. As someone who spent decades as a news reporter and editor, I can’t say I like everything about the new media. But I know it’s the present and the future, and whatever I hold dear is the long, dead past. In a decade you’re more likely to get your news from a citizen activist carrying around a cell phone camera than a journalism grad grinding away at some poor, underfunded website.
I don’t spend a lot of time wondering about my place in all this, but I sometimes do. I know that I’m a relic in many respects, and I’m not always happy about that, but I’m not really unhappy about it, either. It just is what it is, and I’m doing my best to adapt and swim forward.
I don’t have what you might call a natural affinity for call-out culture and online shaming. The digital world can be a pretty unforgiving place, filled with self-righteousness, and it’s easy to get dragged down into the muck.
I sometimes think social media has turned some folks into personal brands rather than the people they are, or used to be, and I’m not sure I really have a handle on the rules, and I get the feeling I’ve offended and/or disappointed certain people I like. I wonder whether some relationships have been irreparably damaged, and I don’t even know why. Was it something I wrote? The way I wrote it? Something I didn’t write? Did I use the wrong emoji? Should I have used an exclamation point? Every other day I fantasize about shutting down all of my social media accounts and going back to good, old-fashioned email to communicate. But so far I just can’t pull the trigger.
On the bright side, you can make connections with people from your long-ago past that turn into positive experiences, and meet others who turn out to be kindred spirits. So there’s plenty of good to be had as well.
I’m still uneasy about the idea of safe spaces, but then I’ve never really needed one. I believe most cops are probably good people, but then I’ve never been abused by one. I believe racism exists everywhere, in all of us, but I’m probably confusing racism with something other than the real problem, which is anti-blackness.
I just don’t get influencers, but WTF do I know?
I love hard bop jazz and detest TikTok, but then….screw it, I’m probably right about that.
What I know for certain is that the tide has already turned, and it ain’t turning back. Many of the things I question now aren’t really even up for debate anywhere except inside my own head and the heads of people like me.
The 21st Century is finally upon us, and thank God for that. Because if there’s anything more terrifying than the future, it’s the past.