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An American ‘Mark Twain moment’

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Samuel Clemons claimed the nom de plume Mark Twain after the riverboat navigators’ cry to signal the shift from dangerous waters into safe ones — as well as the reverse, from safe waters to dangerous ones. “Mark” was the starting point; “twain” was where the two forces met.  

Clemons chose the name because it reflected his authorial code. After all, he gave us “Huckleberry Finn” (dangerous) and “Tom Sawyer” (safe). Through his prose, Clemens fomented turbulent times, yet through the same pen was a calming force amidst them. His words were a burning hot poker one moment and a salve to the soul the next.   

But Clemens also took the name because the rawness of America portended tumult. His enduring metaphor of America was the river. The country, like the waterway, had hazardous and benign waters. If Clemens were alive today, he would surely call, loudly and roundly, “MARK TWAIN.”   

It’s hard to describe America’s past four years as anything but dangerous waters. It is incidental who, or what, one supported, just as it’s undeniable that the fabric of the society has been worn thin, if not torn badly.  

It’s also fair to say that America is moving into safer waters. Not better, necessarily, but safer. A place where one knows where one stands, and where traditions and allegiances are honored.  Where officials communicate linearly and without vicissitudes.   

It is through this ebb and flow — the divergence of danger and safety — that convergence comes.  

This idea can be found in no less a source than William Strauss and Neil Howe’s 1997 book, “The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy.” This book was cited, especially by Steve  Bannon, former White House chief strategist, as the explanation of the “Trump Revolution.”  

Strauss and Howe describe four “turnings.”  

The first is the High, which is characterized by strong institutions and public collectivism. The needs of the many take precedent. The High turning is accompanied by central leaders who fit the archetype of the Prophet, inasmuch as they appeal to general ideas of human welfare, dignity and worth.  

The second turning is the Awakening, when self-expression and consciousness become the order of the day. This is the process of distinguishing the self from the multitude. The Nomad archetype is suited to the period. Passionate yet precise, the Nomad sews seeds of alienation and attacks the institutional order.    

Unravelling is the third turning. The institutions that were erected for stability’s sake were eroded by the Awakening, and that alienation has turned into discontent. That’s when the Hero archetype emerges. Heroes have traded their innocence for energetic confidence that plots the new, usually unmapped, way.  

And the fourth turning is the Crisis. Social mores have disintegrated, and the disgruntlement of the Unravelling has morphed into literal or figurative warfare. The archetypal Artist presides over a Crisis. Artists are enormously charismatic and unconventional people who can bend their will into prisms of individual identity and social destiny. They muster enormous forces to them.  

Then the cycle repeats — about every 80 years or so, according to Strauss and Howe. The last crisis was World War II, just about 80 years ago.    

It is by no stretch of the imagination that the past four years have represented a Crisis in the American identity. And there’s no denying that President Trump was — and is — an Artist. He took what he saw and reconfigured it. The stable and widely accepted elemental chart was redrafted by his hand. He summoned the will of more than 70 million Americans. Many became more than voters; they became devotees.  

And now we have President Biden. By no standard known is Biden an electrifying figure. He will return to long-held norms of executional competency. Although he’ll certainly advance some novel agendas, there will be no flash or splash. He becomes the arbiter of the High turning, and his Kennedy-like rhetoric is clearly the stuff of the Prophet.  

Strauss and Howe tapped into something important in “The Fourth Turning.” They identified the interplay of forces that align the time with the collective psyche and a fitting archetype.  Although the book’s conclusions have been widely criticized, its chronology of turnings and figures over the past several hundred years are uncannily and intuitively appealing. The Fourth Turning is dangerous, whereas the First Turning is safe. 

This fundamental principle also is found in evolutionary science, particularly in the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Punctuated equilibrium holds that for short periods species develop at a dizzying pace with uncanny and near inexplicable morphological mutations. Once those mutations are in sync with environmental demands, the species stabilizes for, in some cases, hundreds of millions of years. Variation becomes adaptation. Transformation becomes modification. Insurrection becomes renovation. Revolution becomes evolution. 

And danger becomes safe. 

Samuel Clemens was born the day that Haley’s Comet streaked through the nighttime sky.  Seventy-four years later, he passed on the very night that Haley’s Comet streaked through the sky again. It’s ironic that he arrived and departed the world during a rare cosmic event that had been a portent of danger among humans for thousands of years, because he gave so much of his life to making the nation feel safe. He was fond of saying: “I don’t like to commit myself about heaven and hell — you see, I have friends in both places.” 

Clemens understood that just like hell and heaven, danger and safety are conjoined twins. One cannot be without the other. One cannot become without the other. Their tensions and tendrils are the way of things. They are the way things have to be, because progress is a process of divergence and convergence.  

As America moves from one turn to another, from punctuated to equilibrium, let us remember the river. Oh the mighty waters! May the chant of “mark twain” never cease. 

James R. Bailey is a professor of leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business. Follow him on Twitter @ProfJamesBailey.

Tags American politics Donald Trump Joe Biden Mark Twain political divisions Samuel Clemens

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