There are two distinct rages standing at the gates of democracy at the beginning of this decade, which I call “The Rancorous ’20s.” It is not my intention to favor one rage over the other, but to identify some sources of our current rages, in the historical context of The Roaring ’20s. I find striking similarities in comparing rage in The Roaring ’20s with rage in The Rancorous ’20s. In The Roaring ’20s:
• Racism was rampant. The decade started with the Tulsa Race Massacre, when whites stormed into Black neighborhoods, killing residents and burning and looting stores and homes. By the mid-1920s, the Ku Klux Klan, fueled by sensationalist conspiracy theories, had more than 2 million members.
• One of the worst global epidemics of influenza occurred in 1918-1919 and did not end until the beginning of the 1920s; more than 500,000 Americans died.
• Science was rejected as it related to evolution, and there was an acceptance of eugenics to support restricted immigration.
• Capitalist authoritarianism was on the rise. The stock market soared.
• In terms of wealth discrepancies, there was a two-tiered society. Gabriel Zucman, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley, has said that “U.S. wealth concentration seems to have returned to levels last seen during the Roaring ’20s.”
• President Warren G. Harding’s administration (1921-1923) was plagued by corruption and scandal. His secretary of the interior, director of the Veterans’ Bureau and alien property custodian were imprisoned for fraud and corruption.
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel “The Great Gatsby” captured the excitement of the 1920s. However, it is ultimately a novel about the darker side of that decade, and a poignant examination of the corruption and immorality standing behind the extravagances and glamour.
One of the best explanations of rage in The Roaring ’20s was written by Lucy Moore in her description of the 1920s boxing career of Jack Dempsey. In her history of The Roaring ’20s, “Anything Goes,” Moore wrote that Dempsey displayed a “furious fighting style and rugged individualism.”
“His rage in the ring,” she added, “seemed to express all the frustration of America’s marginalized underclasses, humiliated by the injustices of the society in which they scrapped for survival. Dempsey seemed to have a constant bottomless well of cold fury somewhere close to his throat. … He represented the desire for rebellion against the demands of an increasingly modern, stratified, bureaucratizing society, the impulse to smash and destroy things that a man cannot control.”
We can look at the two distinct rages at the beginning of this decade in the backlight of The Roaring ’20s. Those who embrace the first distinct rage believe that our culture and heritage are at grave risk. This rage has been fueled in large part by the focused and unfocused anger of our marginalized underclasses, relative to wealth concentration, and the complexity and stratification of society. This rage has been provoked by the proliferation of far-fetched conspiracy theories; fear of immigration; politicization of COVID-19 science; a desire for authoritarianism, even a capitalist authoritarianism, as offering a more understandable and less ambiguous form of government, and outrage on the part of some of our well-off citizens, who want to protect their wealth and who encourage the rage of our less-well-off citizens.
The second distinct rage is exhibited by those citizens who believe that there has been a return, in an evolved and fierce format, of the 1920s’ adulation of greed and materialism, racism, fear of immigrants, promotion of white supremacy, lack of concern for the underprivileged, corruption and rejection of the ideals of morality and decency. These citizens believe that the prior administration ushered in a spiritual pandemic, such that our founding ideals and traditional values are under an unrelenting and soul-shattering attack.
Our democracy is faced with heretofore unimagined existential challenges. These distinct rages are irreconcilable, and those who believe otherwise are engaged in magical thinking. Each of us must make existential choices.
“Good night, America, how are ya?” – “The City of New Orleans,” Arlo Guthrie, 1972.
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