Entering the New Decade: rethinking the roaring twenties


The twenties – with their snappy jazz, endless cocktail parties and delicate headdresses – sound like, just as Gil Pender in Midnight in Paris thought, a decade to be lived in. And if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll see that perhaps such nostalgia for the past is unjustified, because our memory of the time is incomplete. The 1920s was less of a decade of exciting nightlife and more a period of change and confusion, a decade of new opportunities met with conservative reaction. In some ways, the new opportunities that came to be then – for new voices and new definitions of each of us in the world – remain a challenge that we face now, at the start of our decade to be remembered.

Our memory of the Twenties is incomplete

A hundred years ago, the world was at a moment of optimism. The Great War – then the only one – has ended after four gruelling years. The US, which was less worn down, having entered the war late, saw its position in the midst of this renewed world as one of an international leader, a beacon of hope for those who desired to speak for themselves, to be their own people. It was a moment of hopefulness, for reconstruction as well as creation of new identities through international cooperation. In this fervour, the “bright young people” who had luckily avoided the burden of war began a culture of enjoyment, of night after night of social buzz and lively jazz.

This image is no doubt incomplete. It applied to certain people – aristocrats, those who could afford big parties and fancy suits. And even then, this was true only of the first half of these ten years. By the mid-20s, the economy was slowing down and unemployment was on the rise again. What was worse was that European economic recovery was reliant on loans from America, who by end of the decade came to terms with its disillusionment in the Wall Street crash of 1929, propelling the Western world into the Great Depression of the 1930s. In some ways, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was nothing but a bubble.

In some ways, the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was nothing but a bubble.

And so the importance of this decade lays not in its parties but in the norms it changed and the conversations it started. As part of the war effort, a lot of women were drawn out of the private sphere, put in charge of financing their families and helping other families. Albeit being a mere extension of their household duties, these new responsibilities gave women an opportunity to be more involved in society at large. By the 1920s, many western nations had given women the vote for the first time.

Meanwhile, beyond this flurry of prosperity of the western world, there were other flickers of hope for human rights. The end of the war and President Woodrow Wilson’s ardent campaign for self-determination had sparked a wave of independence revolutionaries throughout the colonies of the French and British empires. Imperial powers also faced threats in China from the students’ May Fourth Movement, protesting the unjust decisions of the Treaty of Versailles in particular, but also against the ancien regimes both of China then and of the world now. It was a point in time where many found a chance to have a voice and to establish a new national identity of which their say is a crucial part. It wasn’t a moment of isolation either – these were ideas that travelled across oceans and borders, ideas that were not American, Chinese or Indian but ideas of the world.

Beyond this flurry of prosperity of the Western world, there were other flickers of hope for human rights

Unfortunately, such aspirations were quickly squashed by conservative oppositions who justified their continued militant and unrepresentative control with arguments of the inefficiency and disorder that would occur should they be removed. Unable to fathom these new ideas – many of which were indeed rather hazy and still undefined – existing power-holders opted for conserving rather than opening up to new discourses. The majority of the world in the 1920s fell back into violent oppression and poverty.

Today, in 2020, a whole century after this chaotic period, we find ourselves in our own moment of hope. The 2010s are ending not with bloodshed in a prolonged war between the nations but with trade disagreements and crumbling cooperation. Prosperity isn’t the drive to our roars – rather we are increasingly disenchanted by the prospects of it. Colonialism is now largely a thing of the past – although its repercussions on many lives are still apparent. In many ways, it seems the situation is nothing like it was a hundred years ago. But that spark of self-determination, of an upheaval against institutions that loom over our lives and yet refuse to listen to us, of a movement beyond borders to make our voices heard – that is not too different from the one underlying current that truly mattered in the 1920s.

The 2010s ended not with bloodshed in a prolonged war between the nations but with trade disagreements and crumbling cooperation

In 2019, in the face of heightened conflict between bureaucracy, elitism and democracy, equality, many across the world – from Hong Kong to France, from Iraq to Chile – have decided to fight. While the direct causes of these protests are different – the underlying message to them remains the same. They are not being listened to. They are not being represented. And so they are fighting so that their voice can carry as much weight as any other person in society. In the same year, many people – mainly youths – participated in the Climate Strike for the same reason – so that their concerns about their future do not fall by the wayside. The hope that we should make a difference, that we should decide how our lives will turn out is one that knows no border and, sadly, one that had continued to be a hope and not a reality for at least the last hundred years.

The roar of our twenties, then, will not be of wild, extravagant, short-lived parties. It should be the perseverance to claim our voices, so that problems that truly need addressing, such as climate change, global mobility and immigration, and data rights, will be put on top of the agenda. Because somehow, in the midst of politics and tax battles we have forgotten that cities like Jakarta are sinking, that parts of Australia are ablaze, that many people are treated like mere statistics, their experiences and hardship forgotten. Our apathy to human smuggling – to how so many from developing countries, who had not been equipped with a good education, are fooled into thinking that being illegally transported into countries like the UK was worth paying for – is saddening. Somehow, we only took notice when they ended up dead – frozen or suffocated – in the back of truck, the tragedy of their whole lives boiled down to their final moments. Somehow, we are content with compartmentalizing global problems that requires concerted effort to combat. Somehow, the narrow views of populism, of isolationist nationalism – of building walls and turning backs, continue to overshadow urgent, crucial matters.

The narrow views of populism, of isolationist nationalism – of building walls and turning backs, continue to overshadow urgent, crucial matters

These issues of international cooperation, of championing human rights and protection regardless of race or nationality are stronger now than before, and this time, we cannot be stifled by the conservative thinking that held us back a century ago.

Image: Salem State Archives via Flickr and Creative Commons. The photograph depicts the 1919 Armistice Day parade in Salem, Massachusetts.

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