Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Roaring Twenties and a New America

Whenever someone lists The Great Gatsby as their one and only favorite book on Facebook you know they haven't read a book since middle school. It's no wonder. Between The Thorn Birds and Jane Eyre, it's the most entertaining book most of us have ever been forced to read.

I've been obsessed with The Gilded Age and the Roaring Twenties since I was a kid. My grandparents' home is a living gallery of portraits and photographs of another time and place, an era when the children of the Industrial Revolution danced and drank with unfettered regard, erecting shrines to their own narcissism, and ushering in a new era of art and architecture that remains to be rivaled.

A temporary experiment in excess, the Roaring Twenties had a threshold. No capitalistic walkabout can continue without end, a reality we are once again faced with today. Any man can fly without wings, but the higher you fly, the farther you fall. Our American culture will never experience the decadence of the Roaring Twenties because we will forever know that it culminates in a Great Depression.

That knowledge will never change our fascination with the blind ambition of an era responsible for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, jazz, modern architecture, and fostered an enlightened culture that questioned the convention of their ancestors, fueling the fire of a blazing trail towards true freedom for all Americans.

The Roaring Twenties were nothing if not reckless, but that carefree abandonment of our antiquated social structure questioned more than Prohibition. The children of the era trotted the globe in search of stimulation, experimenting with everything from religion to sexuality, bringing home not just art but cultural ideals and a renewed sense of tolerance.

Blaming the era's carelessness on the Great Depression is too easy and two dimensional. Very few cultures can survive on static values, and a capitalistic democracy needs to evolve to thrive. The fire started when America was founded, and these eras of extreme wealth fan the flames of great change.

Politics muck up the importance of these eras. Conservatives laud the laissez faire capitalistic approach that creates these wealthy bubbles, while liberals criticize these brief periods of excess that ironically fuel many of their own causes.

Without a bunch of bored rich kids burning through their trust funds, would our nation's decision makers be asking "why not?" on topics like marriage equality and universal healthcare? Probably not, at least not so soon. 

Like the flappers of the Roaring Twenties, our own hipsters and scenesters are quickly deconstructing the social structure of our ancestors, one which was firmly established after the Great Depression. And in a clear case of history repeating itself we spent the better part of our early 21st Century making a mess of things, and in the aftermath, like the 1950's and 1960's, are streamlining the mess, mainstreaming our new ideals, and creating a freer more accessible America.

And with that, Baz Luhrmann's, The Great Gatsby...

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