The Roaring Twenties Again

What Will Define the Coming Decade?

When the pestilence abated, all who survived gave themselves over to pleasures: monks, priests, nuns, and lay men and women all enjoyed themselves, and none worried about spending and gambling. And everyone thought himself rich because he had escaped and regained the world, and no one knew how to allow himself to do nothing.”

So wrote Agnolo di Tura, an Italian chronicler from Siena, as he recorded his experience of the plague in 1348. The Black Death had killed one-third of mainland Italy’s population within one year. But when the crisis was over, the survivors cast aside their concerns and plunged into celebration, making up for lost time.

After the great pestilence of the past year each person lived according to his own caprice, and everyone tended to seek pleasure in eating and drinking, hunting, catching birds, and gaming.”

Agnolo di Tura del Grasso, “Plague in Siena: An Italian Chronicle” (1349)

This pattern would repeat itself in other places and times struck down by devastating widespread disease. On the heels of the First World War, the 1918–20 flu pandemic killed an estimated 50–100 million people. The religiosity, self-reflection and austerity of those dark times were replaced in the United States and Europe by “the Roaring Twenties,” known for everything from liberal government spending programs, a flowering of the arts, and the growing popularity of radio and jazz, to flapper fashion, gangsters, illegal bars, and sexual abandon.

Yale sociologist and physician Nicholas Christakis believes a similar reaction awaits us as the world gets beyond the COVID-19 crisis: “If history is a guide, it seems likely that consumption will come back with a vengeance.” Expect “increased expressions of risk-taking, intemperance, or joie de vivre in the post-pandemic period. The great appeal of cities will be apparent once again. People will relentlessly seek opportunities for social mixing on a larger scale in sporting events, concerts, and political rallies.”

There have been indications of this already as citizens have rejected standard measures of controlling virus spread, determined instead to party or rally. The anti-mask, anti-lockdown sentiments of many have resulted in confrontations with police in various countries across the globe and in surges of virus transmission, illness and death.

Freedom has become a rallying cry against the constraints recommended by health authorities and government bodies, begging the age-old question of which takes precedence when the demand for individual freedom intersects with the health and well-being of fellow man.

While the pandemic has highlighted such dilemmas, it has also created opportunities for selfless service. Christakis tells the story of 43 petrochemical plant employees who volunteered to shift-work 24-hour days for a month to produce raw material for N95 masks and other protective equipment. They never left the plant and produced enough polypropylene for half a billion masks. This was their contribution to repay the selfless service of the overstressed, overworked and under-provided medical staff.

It brings to mind what we have covered so often in Vision, because it’s an aspect of what we believe: The answer to so many of our problems lies in how we see others. If the immigrant or homeless, or a particular ethnic group, race, gender or generation is always viewed as the Other, and never treated the same as the Self, no progress will be made. Selfishness will rule, compassion and empathy will be mere words, and justice will never be served.

Not for nothing did the servant of all say, “Treat people the same way you want them to treat you” (Luke 6:31, New American Standard Bible).