Widening gyre again

Within the lifetime and personal memories of many Americans still living, most everyone knew farmers and soldiers. As late as America’s entry into World War I, over 42% of Americans still lived on farms. Your grandparents knew farmers and soldiers. It’s hard not to know a farmer or have spent time on a farm when 4 out of 10 of your countrymen lived their lives in agriculture.

Similarly, everyone knew soldiers not so long ago. WWI drafted 2.8 million Americans, when America only had 50 million men in total. WWII took 10 million draftees, and there were 3.4 million between Korea and Vietnam. One way of looking at Vietnam, for example, is that the draftees were as many as all boys in the United States who turned 18 in 1970 — a pretty large group of Baby Boomers. And none of these figures include the men who enlisted — surprisingly, perhaps, the total number of Vietnam veterans is over 2,500,000. So for a long time in America it has been true that most Americans knew something of farming and the military in a direct personal way.

No longer. As a statistical matter today, there are almost no new soldiers or farmers in America. Annual military recruits amount to 175,000 or so a year in a country of 300,000,000. And it’s even worse in agriculture. There are lilterally almost no new farmers in America today. At the time of WWII, farming still occupied 18% of the labor force — it’s less than 2% today. Every single year America loses more farmers than it creates. Many (perhaps most?) young Americans probably have not one single friend who becomes a farmer or soldier today.

Mark Steyn asks from time to time why there have been virtually no war songs during the last decade, as opposed to WWII. Part of the reason is Hollywood, of course, but another aspect of the phenomenon is this: all Americans were involved in WWII (see the PBS Soundies program, for example); very few are involved in America’s battles today. In WWII, war songs were about us; today war songs would be about them.

We sometimes hear from voices in the new media that this is the same America that won WWII. Well, this is pretty clearly not the America of WWII. Not even close, as the 5.4 million majority of those under 30 proved last November when they voted. And there is not much memory of that older America to boot. There are justifiable reasons to be very concerned about these collective losses of experience, memory and toughness in our very dangerous world.

The inventions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were disruptive, as we noted nine years ago. But they were disruptive over an extended period of time, since their roll-outs were slow and uneven. But nine years ago there were no iPhones, no twitter, no tumblr, almost no YouTube, and indeed, our first mention of Google was only months old. Furthermore, the roll-out of these technologies has been nearly instant and worldwide. Eight years ago, for example, Facebook was arguably worth a mere billion dollars or so. Fast forward: there are two billion smartphones in use today, for example. We have a country where the young don’t know Shakespeare and haven’t read the Bible, and their lives are almost wholly unconnected with the past. No wonder that things are so messed up.

We see VDH is quoting Yeats today, as we have done occasionally. The poem was written in 1919, just after the world war. Somehow today it feels closer to the start of one.

One Response to “Widening gyre again”

  1. Bosun Says:

    There has, indeed, been an incredible change in The USA. The DUMBING DOWN is perhaps, the most difficult to deal with. And you are correct they don’t know Shakespeare. Shake….who?

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