The Cultural Explosion a Century Ago

I am always fascinated by the incredible rate of change in the West that marked both the beginning and the end of the 20th century.

For the beginning, it is easiest to see in the story of England, where the degree and pace of change was most dramatic. A wonderful way to get a sense of the English explosion is to watch the BBC television series Downton Abbey. It is superbly written and cast and would be considered first rate television quite apart from its excellent portrayal of the cultural upheaval from the time of the Titanic until . . . well, I don’t really know but I would guess it would be around the time of the economic crash of 1929.

It is significant that the series begins with the sinking of the Titanic, which was not just a tragic loss of more than a thousand lives but introduced into the West a whole new level of confidence — the ship had been magnificent! — but doubt because the “unsinkable” technological wonder sank on its first voyage.

It also added great fuel to the growing fires of democracy in the Western world. The grand experiment in America, a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as Lincoln put it, was obviously proving successful and whetting the appetite for greater personal opportunities in all the West. Contemplating the awful news of the Titanic’s demise, it did not escape the notice of people that the design of the ship guaranteed that the poor people in Third Class passage had far, far less chance of escape than did those of the First Class.

Soon after, World War I broke out and involved a heretofore unimaginable number of soldiers. Before dragging to its dismal end, the War cost over 38 million military and civilian casualties, including 17 million deaths. Most of those deaths, of course, were among the lowest ranks, the foot soldiers huddled in the muddy trenches. This magnified the lesson of the Titanic: Working class people were bearing far more than a fair share of the load.

Resentment against the upper classes, from which officers were drawn not because of their abilities  but because of their social status, grew stronger. This complemented the obvious fact that after the War there were simply fewer lower class people available to be servants for the wealthy. The spreading use of electricity eased that problem by making it possible for more work to be done by fewer workers.

And another technological development, the perfection of the typewriter, created countless openings for young men and women to enter the world of business rather than service. This is an interesting point because most technological advances reduce the labor force. Some, however, such as the cotton gin and the typewriter, make possible so much more work that they actually increase the work force.

Thus, in barely more than a decade, the very old nobility-centered British society was exploded. The movement toward the new “power of the people” society had begun as far back as the early 13th century and the signing of the Magna Carta, limiting however slightly the powers of the monarch.

A footnote: When I compare the BBC with American television other than PBS, I can only be embarrassed for America. How many thousands of people create the shows that clog our airwaves and how many hundreds of thousands of people waster their time on incredibly trivial “amusement”? And did you know that “amuse” is a transliteration of a Greek word meaning “without inspiration”?


About mthayes42

I am a retired pastor, interested in the Bible, cross-cultural ministries, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the current and past history of western civilization.
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