Zeitgeist is the German word for the spirit of the times. There is usually at least one zeitgeist found in every age. It is the overriding attitude that shapes and dominates thinking.
From 1945 to 1991, we called it the Cold War. All world events were seen through the spectacles of a bipolar struggle between the Soviet Union and the West. During this era, America fought two major wars against the Communists, one in Korea and one in Vietnam. We changed education in our schools to “catch up with the Commies.” With this era came the space race and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which nearly brought the world to the brink of thermonuclear war.
Between the 1950s and 1970s, protests against authority and established norms became the dominant spirit of the times. Because of the Cold War, the issues that divided us had been minimized. Eventually the pressure built. Reaction to this suppression could be seen through marches, demonstrations and boycotts, not only of blacks, but also of Chicanos, Native Americans, women and gays. Protests for and against the Vietnam War were common. Many Americans, including me, were terrified at the radical changes that were taking place in the nation.
Since at least 2016, America has held to a different zeitgeist: distraction.
In politics, the nation is divided along color lines. This time the primary issue is not one of race, although race is part of the division, but between attitudes of those in “red” states versus those in “blue” states.
Even within these two major parties are further subdivisions between conservatives and moderates on the Republican side, and moderates and the far-left in the Democratic Party. Neither side is able to come to common agreement about what they believe and stand for. Neither side has found a big vision to unite them. Both are distracted by the desire for revenge and infighting.
These interparty and intraparty divisions have distracted the nation from more important issues like updating the nation’s infrastructure, something that both sides agree is important to the nation for the creation of jobs and for increasing commerce.
Families are often divided and cannot even talk to each other in a civil manner when dealing with politics. Some in the family are ardent Donald Trump supporters while others believe him to be insane and unfit to be our president. Few can find middle ground.
Talk of another potential civil war can be found in the prose of several pundits and the pictures of political cartoonists. These battles over personality and character have diverted us away from areas vital to both sides.
President Trump constantly creates distractions with his derogatory and accusatory tweets. He does this either to divert attention away from his failures, like his immigration policy, and his difficulty in getting Obamacare repealed, or he is, according to his opponents, doing it because he lacks even a scintilla of self-control.
Whatever the reason, his tweets also distract the public from the successes he has had, such as bringing to light how our European allies have not carried their fair share of their own defense, the precipitous drop in illegal immigrants crossing our southern border, his and Senate Republicans success in getting Neil Gorsuch appointed to the Supreme Court, and his cruise missile strikes on Syria for using chemical weapons of mass destruction on their own people.
Smart phones are the distractions of choice for my high school students. These phones are designed to be addictive. I constantly have to remind my students to put their phones away and pay attention during class. The number of deaths and injuries to pedestrians has risen sharply due to the inattention brought about by reading or texting while walking. Our smart phone distractions are killing us.
Walk down a crowded street, or visit a gym, and you will see large numbers of people tuned into music blasting out through their ear buds. If you try to talk with them, they walk by, oblivious and lost in their own inner worlds. As a result of this self-absorption, we find ourselves distracted from forming meaningful relationships.
These distractions in all their manifestations are part of the current zeitgeist. The spirit of the times has infected our nation’s leaders and average citizens alike.
Both represent the inability and/or the unwillingness to see our times from a broader historical perspective. Just like the political chaos that terrified me in the 1960s, we are again in an era where we are frightened and confused by the rapid changes in the world and are finding ways to avoid the pain, hard work and courage it takes to understand ourselves and the signs of the times in which we live.
Distracting ourselves is far easier than facing reality through research, reflection and working to understand each other.