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October 20, 2007

The Pleasures of the Cusp

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This item by the incomparable Mark Steyn is linked by Instapundit and probably others. Relevant section:

As John [O'Sullivan] put it, societies in the early stages of decline can be very agreeable - and often more agreeable than societries [sic] trying to cope with prosperity and rapid growth.

... Precisely because the first stages of decline are so agreeable, it's very hard to accept it as such. Part of the problem in Europe is that, when chaps like yours truly shriek "Run for your lives! The powder keg's about to go up!", etc, the bon vivant enjoying his Dubonnet at the sidewalk cafe thinks: Are you crazy? Life's never been better. Civilized decline can be so charming you don't notice it's about to accelerate into uncivilized decline.

Interesting concept. But difficult or impossible to quantify, leaving us to fall back on anecdote and conjecture. Complicating things is that no society of any size is homogeneous economically. For instance, late-Victorian and Edwardian England as well as France in the Belle Époque era could be cited as examples of agreeable life at the cusp and beyond. Yet other observers might immediately jump in and cite heartbreaking tales of impoverished peasants and exploited factory workers from the same times.

Then there is the fact that, given a clear disaster or collapse, the period immediately before it must have been better, for some people, at least: we're talking comparisons, right?

Enough quibbling. Let's have some fun. Assume O'Sullivan/Steyn are correct. What twilight good-times can we identify?

In addition to the ones mentioned above, I can pile on some other obvious cases: The Roaring Twenties, Vienna in that same Belle Époque and Rome in the first decades after it became Imperial.

And on a smaller scale, what about cities other than Vienna? A while ago I wrote about the point when I thought New York City tipped into the death spiral of the 70s and 80s. But our shiny new search engine doesn't think 2Blowards ever used the words "New York," so I can't link to that post.

Anyhow, for my non-childhood lifetime, I say New York City noticeably hit the skids around 1965. So the ten or 20 years before that might count as a golden twilight. Ditto that for San Francisco -- same dates, but 'Frisco (I know locals hate that name, but so what?) is still on the skids. Go to Market Street near the theatre district some evening and you'll get the picture.

Which makes me wonder about Seattle. Living here is about as pleasant as can be (aside from last week's windstorm and power outage, and possibly the occasional earthquake and volcano eruption). The town votes Democrat overwhelmingly and the mayor and city council scare this particular warmongering Neanderthal with their (unintended? ... or not?) drive to turn the place into yet another NYC or SFO.

Enough of me. What do you think? Please comment.



posted by Donald at October 20, 2007


Rome in the first decades after it became Imperial.

The first decades? Well, things seem to have been pretty good under Augustus, yes. But they were pretty good under most of the other Julio-Claudians too. The tyranny of Nero and the year of the Four Emperors afford an unfortunate break to the general peace and prosperity. But then we have the Flavians for a few more decades of peace and prosperity, and then we have the Five Good Emperors.

Really, I think it's the first few centuries after Augustus becomes Emperor that are peaceful and prosperous beyond anything else the western world sees for a good thousand years or so. Not until the disorders of the third century do we really get catastrophic disturbances, like those that attended the last century of the Republic.

The real Roman "cusp" moment, I think, comes in the late 4th or early 5th century, when the provinces are ravaged by Huns, Germans, Goths, and other assorted savages. Honorius -- Emperor in the West -- maintains a luxurious court at Ravenna, and quips that it matters little if one province or another should fall, since they have so many. When Britannia comes under attack, Honorius waives it off and tells them to deal with it on their own.

That all comes to an end in 410, when Rome is sacked for the first time in eight centuries. They realise their peril then.

Posted by: taeyoung on October 21, 2007 4:54 AM

"But our shiny new search engine doesn't think 2Blowards ever used the words "New York," so I can't link to that post."

Try using Google: "new york"

You'll probably want to add a few other keywords, since the search above produces 1000+ hits.

Posted by: Intellectual Pariah on October 21, 2007 5:12 AM

Two comments:

1) I would agree that New York between 1945 and 1965 was probably at its zenith -- particularly 1945 to 1955, as New York began losing "it," at least to a certain degree, already in the late 1950s.

It seems, judging from history books, in the 00s and 10s New York was great, but nevertheless somewhat provincial. The Roaring 20's in New York were fantastic, but a lot of the great things about New York hadn't matured to their fullest flowering yet or hadn't happened at all yet. And then the Great Depression and World War II cast a gigantic pall over all the wonderful things that were still happening in New York nevertheless. But I believe it was in 1950s that New York City finally truly lived up to its billing of being the "Wonder City." (Of course I may be very biased here as this was my childhood New York. But still, other more objective sources seem to back up this impression.)

2) If I understand the "cusp of decine" theory correctly, however, I have a slightly alternate idea. (Maybe its the same idea in different words? I haven't had a chance to read the original article.)

It seems to me that saying a preciptious decline of something is often preceded by its golden age is looking at things through the wrong end of the telescope, so to speak. Rather it seems to me that when things finally get to reach their zenith, a change that has been silently gestating and lurking elsewhere finally blooms into its own zenith and overtakes it -- making the first thing go into a preciptious decline.

Some examples:

The great trans-atlantic ocean liners -- As a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s I was fascinated by ocean liners so this was maybe the first example of the phenomenon that I was aware of.

The competition to be the biggest, fastest and most luxiurious seemed to start at the turn of the 19th-20th century with a competion between mainly the shipping companies of Germany and Great Britain. Ocean liners kept improving in leaps and bounds during the 00's 10s, and 20s and 30s. And up until the advent of the jet passenger plane (in 1958?) or so great transatlantic ocean liners were still the way to go across the Atlantic and their business was booming. The greatest of the true ocean liners (except for the ill-fated Normandie) were in their heyday and great new liners were being built or on the drawing boards. (The Queens were built in the 1930s and 1940s, as was the tragic Normandie. But the United States (1950?), the France (1961), the Michaelangelo (1968?), the Raffaelo (1968?) were all bulit or planned within a few years of the advent of the jet plane.)

Movie Palaces: Movie palaces grew during the early 1920s(?) and reached their zenith in the late 1920s-- and almost immediately were on the cusp of decline. Most were built with mixed stage and movies in mind, and the Depression made this somewhat problematic -- although movie palaces still did well in the 1930s and and 1940. But then TV, more or less spelled their extinction by the mid 1950s. (The Roxy was built in the late 1920s? and was demolished in the mid- or late 1950s.)

Radio: Radio was a baby during the 1920s and was pretty much extinct (as a prime-time entertainment medium) by the late 1940s.

Big Bands: Beginning gestation in the 1920s, full flowering in the late 1930s(?), precipitous decline in the late 1940s.

Broadway Theater: (In some ways this both fits the mold and doesn't. Broadway theater ceased being a mass medium popular entertainment in the late 1920s. But it's prestige seemed to grow and grow until it seemed to reach its zenith in the late 1950s and very early 1960s. And then the bubble seemed to burst. (But the fabulous invalid keeps coming back from the dead again and again -- as have most of the other phenomenon previously mentioned. They just change a bit and get get reinvented as cruise ships, multiplexes, tallk radio, etc. (Big bands seem to be the exception.)

Vinyl, cassettes, CDs: You get the picture.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 21, 2007 7:26 AM

P.S. --

Benjamin originally wrote regarding the Broadway theater:

But the fabulous invalid keeps coming back from the dead again and again -- as have most of the other phenomenon previously mentioned. They just change a bit and get get reinvented as cruise ships, multiplexes, tallk radio, etc. (Big bands seem to be the exception.)

Benjamin now writes:

Although New York no longer has the pre-eminent it once had, I think it too has changed a bit and reinvented itself and in some ways may be experiencing a brand new zenith. For instance, all the new construction that is going on in Manhattan right now is just unbelievalbe (and recalls the enormous building boom of the early 1960s). Also unbelievable are all the once stagnant or declining areas that are now, perhaps, better than they ever were.

2) I'm surprised to read what you said about San Francisco (i.e., having a similar trajectory as NY -- zenith in the 1945 -1965 era and then a precipitous decline).

It seems to me (admittedly someone who has never even been to San Francisco) that San Francisco has always been a spectacularly lovely city, but nevertheless it was a city that stagnated somewhat in the 1940s(?) and 1950s; then it experinced something of a boom in the 1960s and 1970s; then experienced something of a relative decline when compared to booming L.A. in the 1980s; but then in the 1990s finally reached its true zenith during the dot com era.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 21, 2007 7:50 AM

Finally reading Mark Steyn's original post, I see that his thoughts about a "golden twilight" before a "fall" are very different from what I thought they were -- and the seem more "creepy" to me than "golden." To me, his idea of a "golden twilight" seems like being delighted to find plenty of deck chairs on the promenade deck of an ocean liner, but don't realize that the ship is sinking and everyone else has already boarded the life boats!

In real life, it was like going to Tower Records during its final years. Yes there were smaller crowds and thus more space (but also fewer sales staff and fewer specials) -- and I found it more creepy than golden. I happened to enjoy the crowds and the enegy that it had during its "real" golden age, and not only did I miss these but there also seemed to be a pall of dread hanging over the place -- you kind of knew that they weren't going to be able to keep going like this indefinately.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 21, 2007 8:45 AM

Twenty years ago we were struck when friends in their late 60s announced that they very much wanted to leave the Los Angeles conurbation and asked us in all seriousness to advise them on the comparative merits of England, Scotland, Australia and NZ. Had they seen the decadent days of LA or were they anticipating them?

Posted by: dearieme on October 21, 2007 9:24 AM

It seems obivous to me that a Golden Age would have to be accompanied by a subsequent decline. How else can a Golden Age end? By getting better?

Posted by: includedmiddle on October 21, 2007 9:53 AM

Exactly. Civilizations have a beginning and an end, thus a rise and fall. If a civilization falls and then rises even higher, it gets counted as part of the rise.

Imagine a mountain. Any mountain works for this, which is the point. It has plenty of little peaks and valleys, but there is some highest point on the mountain, a peak. (In the case of a plateau, the argument still applies.)

You start on the ground and start climbing the mountain. At some point, you reach the peak. Moving past this point, you obviously have to start descending, and can begin reminiscing about the high point of your climb.

Steyn's thesis is a more interesting one: societies in the early process of decline are fun, because you have all the fruits of prior generations' labor but none of the actual competition that accompanies a growing society. (In his example, the competition for Pavarotti tickets.)

Posted by: SFG on October 21, 2007 12:31 PM

I agree with Benjamin Hemric's 2nd post. If NYC is in decline it's sure a peculiar decline.
I recently came into the city, parked on 11th Ave at 28th Street and then walked south and east through Chelsea, then south to 14th Street, west to the MeatMarket district, east back into the Village, down 7th Ave to Houston and then east on Houston to the Angelika movie house.
Everywhere, new construction, commercial, residential, new upscale and not so upscale restaurants and shops. Incredible vitality wherever I looked.
Maybe the apple can be wormy and shiny at the same time?

Posted by: ricpic on October 21, 2007 7:51 PM

Berlin (and maybe all of Germany) in the 1920's - early 1930's.

Posted by: Ned on October 22, 2007 1:53 AM

How is it possible to tell whether a city/country/culture/etc. is "on the cusp" until many years afterward?

Posted by: Peter on October 22, 2007 5:30 AM

I've got one for you guys.


Beirut was THE Place to visit in the 50's and 60's. They called it the "Paris of the Middle-east". It was truly a hot place to visit and, perhaps, to live. The beaches and the exquisite night-life. The coffee-shops and hooka parlors. Sipping turkish coffee along the shores of the mediteranian sea.

Then the first tremors shook in the early 70's. One of the travel glossies, I think "Travel and Leisure", did an article on Beirut. The article noted the initial tremors and made the comment that it was probably the last travel article that would ever br written about Beirut for at least a generation or two.

The tremors grew stronger in '73 and '74 and the place descended into the hell of civil war in 1975.

Posted by: Kurt9 on October 22, 2007 5:43 AM

New York hasn't been the same since the Dodgers and Giants left. That makes 1957 the tipping point.

Posted by: rvman on October 22, 2007 6:43 AM

"includedmiddle" wrote:

It seems obivous to me that a Golden Age would have to be accompanied by a subsequent decline. How else can a Golden Age end? By getting better?

Benjamin writes:

It seems to me that a golden age can also just evolve into 1) a new, long standing status quo ("plateau"), or 2) into stagnation and a slow decline -- instead of into a steep, precipitous decline, like the sudden extinction of the dinosaurs, which seemed to be the topic here. And sometimes even these slow declines or plateaus then lead into even a subsequent golden age or golden ages.

Of course there is, nevertheless, the problem of defining what is considered steep or precipitous and what is considered just gradual. Some people might consider 5-10 years a precipitous decline for an era, while others might see it as just gradual end to the era.

I guess the reason ocean liners, movie palaces, radio, big bands and Broadway seem to me to have had preciptious declines is because they all seemed to have just finally gotten "there" (their glorious zenith) -- and in some cases they just seemed to be hitting their stride again (after making it through the Depression and World War II, etc.) -- when the floor seemed to fall out from beneath them. Also, in the case of movie palaces, radio and big bands, they all seem to have had somewhat short golden ages. (Same with long playing records, cassettes and CDs.)

Broadcast TV, in contrast, started out with a "golden age" in the 1950s and still was going strong (and without having to make it through a Depression and a World War) in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s(?). And even though Broadcast TV is losing its stature, its decline seems (at least so far) to be gradual and not precipitous.

While railroad travel seems to be another example of a golden age followed by precipitous decline, airline travel seems, like broadcast TV, to have had at least one early golden age (the early jet years; maybe even the flying boat era?) and then a long (some decades golden, some not so golden) lifespan.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on October 22, 2007 9:22 AM

New York may be hitting a bump in the road:

From the NYT:

Now that the biggest firms on Wall Street, widely regarded as the economic engines of New York City, have begun to sputter, economists and city officials are beginning to fear that the city’s run of steady growth will stall...After a few lucrative years and a surge in hiring, investment banks and financial firms that underwrite and trade bonds backed by mortgage debt are now feeling repercussions as homeowners around the country default on risky mortgages in record numbers. Several investment banks, including Morgan Stanley and JPMorgan Chase, have already eliminated a total of more than 1,000 jobs this year, and analysts who track the industry are expecting more cuts. All told, financial services firms based in New York have announced job cuts of 42,404 this year, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a job-placement consulting firm in Chicago. More than half came in one reorganization at Citigroup, whose employees are scattered around the world, but most of the others have been in and around New York. Those cutbacks are especially threatening to the local economy because pay on Wall Street is so high that the industry accounts for one of every five dollars of income in the region."

Jeez, NY is starting to sound like Detroit or something. Isn't that just always the way?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on October 23, 2007 1:31 AM

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