The Roaring Twenties is looked at today as a time of excess ranging from the flourishing of the arts to the collapse of the economy. We are mirroring those times, but ours is better called the Raging Twenties.
Throughout the Roaring Twenties artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Aaron Copeland, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas created works that continue to inspire to this day. In 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald published “The Beautiful and the Damned”, creating a style of romance and fast living that defined the post-war generation. James Joyce published “Ulysses”, challenging the very structure of writing as well as providing fodder for countless graduate students to write their theses and dissertations.
Hipsters listened to jazz in speakeasies and over a new invention called the radio. On February 12, 1924, concert goers first heard Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin, forever merging jazz with classical music and creating a staring role for clarinet players and solo pianists.
Presidential Competence and Corruption
Warren G. Harding was President at the beginning of the decade. President Harding was no stranger to scandal. During his tenure, one of his cabinet members, Albert B. Fall (Secretary of the Interior), took bribes from oil companies to grant exclusive leases in the oil fields of Wyoming. Subsequent investigations by the Senate led to conviction of Fall and various others in Harding’s government in what became known as the Teapot Dome Affair. Harding’s successor, Calvin Coolidge did little to improve opinions of American voters, who genuinely and with good reason, did not trust politicians.
The United States began the Roaring Twenties by implementing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution which provided “ . . . the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.” That was in January, 1920. Six months later, the 19th Amendment was passed, giving women the right to vote. It was ratified on August 19, 1920, much to the delight of female American voters, and much to the dismay of many male citizens.
Congress would repeal the 18th Amendment with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1932. Not much else was accomplished by that deliberative body in the 1920s.
Labor unrest and strikes by workers in different industries in the early years of the decade led to confrontation and violence across America. There was steady decline in union membership throughout the 1920s. Workers were earning more money and the over-all economy was booming. Every-day Americans were able to put money aside and many began to invest in the Stock Market.
Stocks had historically been exclusively traded by wealthy merchants. As the 1920s unfolded, every-day Americans began to invest in the market. According to authors writing for the Federal Reserve, “Ordinary men and women invested growing sums in stocks and bonds. A new industry of brokerage houses, investment trusts, and margin accounts enabled ordinary people to purchase corporate equities with borrowed funds. Purchasers put down a fraction of the price, typically 10 percent, and borrowed the rest. The stocks that they bought served as collateral for the loan. Borrowed money poured into equity markets, and stock prices soared.”
On October 28, 1929, the boom went bust. The Dow fell 13 percent and just one week later, it had fallen another 12 percent. Losing one quarter of its worth in just one week meant that many people who had been trading based on loans and expected returns were bankrupted. They could not meet the stock calls and the house of cards came tumbling down. The economy would not recover for nearly 30 years.
In two days of terror in the spring of 1921, (May 31 and June 1) mobs of enraged white people destroyed what was known as Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The mobs murdered black residents and destroyed property with little or no response from law enforcement or local government.
At the end of those horrifying 48 hours, it is estimated that between 100 and 300 Blacks were killed. Property losses were estimated at $1.5 million including the complete destruction of 191 businesses, schools, churches, and the community’s only hospital. The lasting effect of the pervasive racism of the times is that the event itself was buried, and has only recently been exhumed and fully investigated by historians.
The Ku Klux Klan emerged from relative obscurity and turned into a widely popular fraternal organization. Membership ballooned during the 1920s with estimates of as many as 8 million total. Politically, Klansman systematically set about to occupy elected offices and bring their message of fundamentalism, patriotism, and white supremacy.
According to American Experience, “In the 1920s, the Klan moved in many states to dominate local and state politics. The Klan devised a strategy called the “decade,” in which every member of the Klan was responsible for recruiting ten people to vote for Klan candidates in elections. In 1924 the Klan succeeded in engineering the elections of officials from coast to coast, including the mayors of Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon. In some states, such as Colorado and Indiana, they placed enough Klansmen in positions of power to effectively control the state government. Known as the “Invisible Empire,” the KKK’s presence was felt across the country.”
Why the History Lesson?
It is not difficult for me to draw comparisons between what happened a century ago with what we are experiencing today across all strata of American life. It is as if we have completed a complete circuit of a spiral, and are now at a similar point on the curve, with the gap of time separating our experience with that of our grandparents. We need to pay attention.
Before Covid impacted live performance, theater-goers were enjoying new musicals and revivals on Broadway. Audiences today have access to more music, art, interactive creative opportunities, and the written word than ever before. We have an opportunity now to expand our support of the arts and ensure that access and exposure to new ideas, however uncomfortable, is not censored. We need to act.
Presidential corruption, bribery, and political upheaval is not new to American politics. There is a clear, historical record of what the consequences are of not addressing corruption at its source and not holding elected officials accountable. We also have models of leadership and courage that can be used as examples of what the best of us looks like. We have the opportunity to choose how to respond. We need to act.
We know Congress is capable of great change and huge folly. The consequences of the passage of the 19th Amendment today are reflected in the leadership at all levels of government where women are making decisions, creating policy, and furthering the ideals of a democratic society. The consequences of attempts to force behavioral change through legislation of moral codes failed miserably, and resulted in the erosion of cultural values. The repeal of Prohibition demonstrates, however, that poor government decisions can be rectified. We need to pay attention to this by addressing and undoing the legislative back-sliding that is taking place. We need to act.
The writing is on the Wall. Crypto currency, bitcoin, and robo-investing all promise to make us billionaires without any effort or worry. The last time something like this happened, America had to dig itself out of a depression that lasted over a decade. We really only got out of it by entering a war, ramping up manufacturing, and creating an economy that depends on the continued growth of one industry: military-industrial complex. We need to abstain, detox from our addiction to “more”, and learn to pace ourselves while we come to terms with uncomfortable realities. We need to act.
The resurgence of nationalism and targeting of “other” based on race, nationality, political party, or any number of conspiracy theories seems to be episodic. Our current episode is increasing in intensity and frequency of expressions of hate and violence. The consequences of expressing these feelings and behaviors include loss of life and liberty. It is never clear whether common ground will be found, if a truce can be negotiated, or if that truce can be sustained.
In some ways we have made progress from the segregated social structure of the 1920s, and in others we are no further ahead. This appears to be something that needs constant effort to break down the barriers, find ways to reconcile, and create a safe and trusting path toward building community that meets the needs of all who live within that community. We need to listen.
What is the Role of the Elder?
Age alone does not guarantee wisdom or high ideals. There are too many examples of corrupt and selfish older officials, some of whom were elected and some who seized power. I hold out hope for those of us who have never sought power or fame, and who are willing to share our experiences with the idea that we might help others avoid making the same mistakes we did. I see potential in our sharing strategies that helped us get through the hard times that we had no hand in creating, but have had to find ways to live with and put behind us.
That is where the true legacy lies. We need to act.