May 7, 2010

Historical cases of wild times making longer-lasting culture

An idea I've been pursuing a lot here lately is that during times when the world seems like it's going to blow itself up, people stop dwelling on petty crap and focus more on the big questions like love and death, good and evil, coming together to fight a common threat, the exuberance and pardonable recklessness of wild and crazy kids, man's reach exceeding his grasp, and other timeless and universal themes. That's why Ghostbusters and the first Star Wars trilogy will forever outlast The Daily Show and "frat pack" movies in popularity.

I've been using the homicide rate as the proxy for when times are getting wilder or tamer and then looked at how the cultural changes reflect changes in how dangerous the world is. But having established this rough pattern, we could test the idea in some completely different time period. And just to show that I'm not just shoe-horning the cultural zeitgeist into a "wild" category when I know ahead of time that the homicide rate was rising or steadily high, let's make the prediction in the other direction.

We have pretty good homicide rate data for several European countries that goes back to 1200 or maybe a little later, depending on the country. In general the rate has been steadily falling since sometime around 1400 or 1500 or 1600, again depending on the country. But there are three major reversals of this downward trend -- one is the recent crime wave lasting from roughly the 1960s through the '80s. Try to guess the other two. They occur at about the same time in England, Germany and Switzerland, and Scandinavia sometime from about 1500 until the third reversal around 1960. Each reversal lasts about 40 to 50 years before returning to the downward trend.

Again, the prediction is that the culture produced will not focus on backbiting among squabbling elite tribes because they will be more obsessed with more important matters, and they will be more sincere and emotional than mocking and detached. For these reasons, they are probably periods of culture that are much more likely than others to be passed down -- at least to, say, high school students in a literature class, in contrast to grad students in English lit who have to plow through everything. You might encounter an item or two from falling-crime periods, but these two periods when the crime rate shot up for over a generation will be much better represented in a standard curriculum.

I'll post the answer on Monday. You can answer with dates or with the names of a period or movement.

As an aside, it seems like the 14th C. saw an increase in the homicide rate, but the data don't go back very far before this, so it's not really an easy call to say that it was increasing rather than merely not falling. Still, it at least looks that way for England, and probably for the rest of Europe, given how hellish we know that century was across the continent. And sure enough that's when we get Chaucer, Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio. In a typical lit class, hardly anything is covered before 1300 or during the 1400s, at least compared to the jam-packed 14th C. And when life appeared so cheap and brief, was it any wonder that they dwelt so much in the late middle ages on teenage beauty? Since the boringization of the culture in 1991 we've hardly seen any adolescent heart-throbs in the spotlight, aside from Alicia Silverstone in the early-mid '90s. So that might be another clue to look for in predicting when the homicide temporarily reversed its downward trend.


  1. Crime goes up when other business measurements are going up. More crime in a boom, less in a slump. So the wild times mean more crime and better art thing? It will be buried under the 'we can afford to pay for extra quality' thing.

    The desperate mother stealing bread for her kids? Not a big part of crime. Successful alphas living large? That's big.

  2. Crime and the business cycle are unrelated.

  3. "Ghostbusters and the first Star Wars trilogy"

    Those movies are good* and all but you are way overrating them because you first saw them when you were a young kid.

    * except for "return of the jedi"

  4. No, I rate them higher than I used to as a young kid because I get more of the humor now, and I can appreciate what players Han Solo and Peter Venkman are around women.

    As a prepubescent kid, the music I listened to the most was Michael Jackson's Bad album, MC Hammer, Kris Kross, and Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. I still like M.J. and Queen but now realize what terrible music MC Hammer and Kris Kross are.

    It's not nostalgia, just better perception.

  5. I'm guessing the 30 Years War and Napoleonic Wars.

  6. Unrelated but I've heard before that the period we call the Englightenment was not the period of great ideas and advances but the period following the time of great ideas and advances and what we call the Enlightenment was actually when the trends began by the true intellectual and artistic geniuses a generation or two began to spread into the common culture;
    so the true enlightenment began in what we today call the Dark Ages.

    Care to comment.

    On that note, it seems to me that the modern times of great cultural, artistic and intellectual advances are actually just the period when it spreads to mainstream thinking and by this time the true visionaries are gone and nothing is left but for these advances to be misunderstood and destroyed by the SWPL status seeking types of any period.

    - Breeze


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