The great American exodus
'The quality of a civilisation is judged by its cities; for decades, ours were rendered uninhabitable'
Since the disastrous summer of 2020, the United States has undergone a surge in murders seen nowhere else in the world. During that unhappy time, homicides in the country increased by 30%, leading to thousands of extra deaths in cities already plagued by violence.
The cause, despite some noble attempts by journalists to blame lockdown, was the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed. During that strange summer the world’s greatest power was laid low by demonstrations, violence, and even the creation of a bizarre Münster rebellion-style state in Seattle.
What was odd to many of those watching under house arrest, while huge crowds gathered with the support of medical experts, was that these destructive protests were carried out with the blessing of almost every institution in the United States, save the President and the police. Perhaps more significantly, they came with a great deal of support from white Americans, especially the well-educated and wealthy – and this despite the BLM movement having far less of a legitimate gripe than the far less popular activists of the 1960s. This change of mood in part can be explained by how the country now remembers its recent history.
One of the few upsides to that miserable year was reading Helen Andrews’ Boomers, published at the very start of 2021 and charting the generation who lived through the sixties in their youth, and who still control the country’s economy and politics.
Andrews’ book, like Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians of which it is a conscious echo, recalls a generation through a series of biographies. Each of the six portraits says something about that exceptionally lucky cohort, and each is condemned in their own way for the changes they brought to American society
As Andrews writes, it’s about how ‘Steve Jobs tried to liberate everyone’s inner rebel but unleashed our stultifying digital world of social media and the gig economy. How Aaron Sorkin played pied piper to a generation of idealistic wonks. How Camille Paglia corrupted academia while trying to save it. How Jeffrey Sachs, Al Sharpton, and Sonya Sotomayor wanted to empower the oppressed but ended up empowering new oppressors.’
Her conclusion is that ‘In all the fields touched by the six boomers profiled here – technology, entertainment, economics, academia, politics, law – what they passed on to their children was worse than what they inherited.’
But it is the Sharpton chapter which explains so much about the strange events of 2020, through that great repressed episode of the past few decades, the huge explosion in crime which hit America in the 1960s – and the exodus of the urban population in the world’s richest and most powerful country.
America’s cities have historically been more dangerous than their British equivalents, but in the mid-20th century most were still relatively safe, even with the problems of poverty and organised crime.
My father went to New York as a child refugee in Christmas 1940, and recalled a city that was by London’s dreary standards incredibly glamorous, and also child-friendly. A friend of his who was similarly sent over as a boy remembered getting in a taxi and the driver saying – in a broad Nu Yoik accent – something to the effect of ‘Don’t worry, Uncle Sam’s gonna look after you now.’ This was the period when J.D. Salinger was growing up, recalling in The Catcher in the Rye an adolescence wandering freely around the big city. A few years later such freedom would seem inconceivable, as New York’s homicide rate increased almost tenfold between 1940 and 1990.
Yet the history of this period often underplays this disaster. Mark Kurlansky’s 1968 is typical in describing the late 1960s rhetoric of ‘law and order’ as one of ‘two thinly veiled appeals to racism’. The phrase ‘moral panic’ became popular in the 1970s, while the overall narrative was of a ‘backlash’ by ordinary Americans against righteous progress.
This narrative has been repeated in countless books and articles down the years, despite the fact that crime in urban America really did explode during that period, in a way quite unprecedented in any peacetime society. Chicago’s murder rate quadrupled between 1950 and the early 1970s and is still disastrously high, while cities like Detroit crumbled as violence emptied their law-abiding population; decades later, some of it was being turned over to farmland.