What is dichotomy, and what was the 1920s dichotomy between modern and traditional ideas in post-WW1 America?

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A dichotomy is a division into two parts, and according to Dictionary.com, divisions can cause tensions or conflict.

After World War I, the United States was a nation in conflict. With the decline of Great Britain as the premier world power, the United States, a wealthy, powerful country, was clearly poised to take on a leadership role in world affairs. The US had been on the winning side of a world war. It had also long had largely open borders which helped connect it to the rest of the world. It welcomed in immigrants freely from all over Europe to man its growing industrial base.

The war, however, created a backlash. Many Americans wanted to retreat back into the United States's nineteenth-century isolationism, a position recommended by George Washington in his Farewell Address as a way for the country to protect itself while it stabilized and grew, but one that was possibly no longer applicable to its new status. The US refused, for example, to join the League of Nations, despite it being a pet project of president Woodrow Wilson. It also established strict immigration quotas that severely restricted immigrants from countries considered undesirable.

Thus, while many wanted the nation to take on the mantle of world leadership, which it obviously could do, many others wanted to reject new ideas about the country as a military and diplomatic leader and pushed for the US to stay out of world affairs.

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A dichotomy is a tension between two concepts that are opposites, or perceived as opposites. Dichotomies are found all over the place; some are true dichotomies---they really are opposites that basically exhaust the options---while others are false dichotomies---they may be mutually compatible, or there are other alternatives not being considered.

An example of a true dichotomy is even versus odd numbers. Every integer is either even or odd, by definition. There are no exceptions and nothing in-between.

An example of a false dichotomy is male versus female. There are a number of intermediate states, as well as many species that have no sexes or more than two sexes.

Shortly after WW1, the US and Europe went through a period of deep disillusionment. Prior to the war, there was a general sense among both intellectuals and the public at large that the world was getting better, that modern ideas and technologies were finally solving the world's problems and bringing us toward something greater, perhaps even a utopian future.

The war destroyed that vision; as the bloodiest single conflict in human history up to that point, it made people feel as though all of this progress was a dangerous illusion, which only served to amplify the inherent violence and treachery of human nature with fancy new technologies like tanks and machine guns.

Thus, there was a profound tension in people's minds---a dichotomy---between wanting to embrace the hope that technology and modernity offered us, and wanting to give it all up and go back to a time that was perceived to be more peaceful and moral.

We are fortunate that humanity ultimately chose to embrace modernity. In fact, even if you include the World Wars, total rates of violence in the world have been declining for centuries. Despite two depressions and many recessions, our standard of living has risen by a factor of 20 in First World countries since this period of disillusionment. We aren't in a utopian future (yet?), but in most ways the world really is getting better over time.

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