Are you ready for the Roaring '20s?

tags: social history, cultural history

Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She co-hosts the history podcasts Past Present and This Day in Esoteric Political History and is co-producer of the new podcast Welcome To Your Fantasy.

There is a section of my closet -- I live in New York City, so by "section" I mean a few hangers bunched together -- packed with tulle and sequins and leather, increasingly over-the-top items that I bought during the pandemic as I dreamt of life after lockdown. The longer lockdown lasted, the more months without family gatherings or travel or nights out, the wilder my closet grew. And I know I'm not alone.

As vaccination rates have soared (even with all the new variants and surges adding some uncertainty to the mix) it's become clear that when the lockdowns finally lift, Americans will be primed for a new Roaring '20s, an exuberance expressed in fashion, art, music -- anywhere we can display the kind of manic joy that comes after a year when the world became very small and quiet.

Our Roaring '20s would arrive a century after the end of the last massive pandemic, which occurred alongside a devastating war. The end of these twin crises unleashed a decade of exuberance and experimentation -- and a decade of growing inequality and deepening conservatism. "The war tore away our spiritual foundations and challenged our faith," Ellen Wells Page wrote, as she explained why she embraced the flapper lifestyle. "We are struggling to regain our equilibrium." As we enter the post-pandemic period, it's worth reflecting on how Americans navigated their reentry in the 1920s, and the ways their newfound vitality fed the era's dramatic cultural and political changes.

But we should also take note of the lessons unlearned in last Roaring '20s. The radical dislocations of the early 20th century did not lead only to progressive expressions of the politics of identity. Many White conservatives were doubling down on their identity, too. The 1920s saw the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in places far from the South (its largest bases were in Indiana and Oregon) and the institution of racist quota laws for immigration.

White fundamentalists passed laws to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools. The United Daughters of the Confederacy went on a monument-building binge, erecting Confederate statues all across the United States. Life may have been fleeting, but they were going to ensure that their vision of history left a lasting mark on the landscape.

All of this took place against the backdrop of economic dislocation and staggering inequality. The depression in the farm industry started a decade before the economic crash in 1929, and while the number of millionaires exploded in the 1920s, the gap between rich and poor widened to historic levels.

Which should all seem familiar. Even before the pandemic, the US had been grappling with retrenched economic inequality fed by the unequal recovery from the Great Recession. The rise of White-power violence during the Obama administration grew darker and deadlier under Trump. It did not take a pandemic to surface those issues, though as the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes demonstrates, the pandemic has metastasized them.

Read entire article at CNN

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