Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Good Old Days Can Die in a Fire

Holy shit are we White!!!  Free Puppies!!!
It begins with a wistful and nostalgic nod to a "simpler time." A time that was somehow more honest and wholesome than today. Somewhere in the middle the talk turns to taking back the country, which leads inevitably to the big finish wherein the nation's honor needs to be restored. Next thing you know you're an extra in Birth of a Nation, making pointed hats out of your 400 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets. Welcome to the myopic, pernicious lie known as "the good old days." It's easy, it's lazy and it's incredibly predictable. How predictable, you ask? Well here's a fun test you can do at home. Next time you hear someone open a fresh can of the good old days, there are two certainties - 1) they won't ever specify the date, and 2) the can opener in question will invariably be white. In fact, we'll pay five bucks for any confirmed sighting of an eighty year old black man pining for 1947.

But when were these so-called good old days? The U.S. is only two hundred and thirty four years old. That's nothing but a long weekend to the Chinese. It shouldn't be that hard to nail down the dates, should it? And yet, no one ever says exactly when they are talking about. Perhaps we can help zero in on it. All we have to figure out when everyone was having a good old day. The day when it was still their country, hope sprang eternal and honor flowed like vanilla malt. Perhaps a process of elimination will help guide us. May as well start at the beginning:
  • 1776-1866 - Nope, easy out. No matter how hard we try we can't get "honor" to rhyme with "slavery." Plus there's that whole Trail of Tears thing. Huge faux pas.
  • 1866-1920 - Nope again. End of slavery, but cue the rise of the Klan and lynchings. Women had yet to get the vote, or be given much of any control over their own lives. Immigration strife and no Irish needed apply. Not to mention child labor, robber barons and a medical establishment that had only just stumbled onto the concept of germs. Feeling nostalgic yet?
  • 1920-1945 - Triple nope. Prohibition and the rise of the mob. Jim Crow. The Great Depression and Nazis. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden oh my. If this is your vision of the good old days then seek medical help immediately.
  • 1945-1960 - One word: Segregation. (We'll come back to this one)
  • 1960-1975 - Nope. Vietnam. Social unrest. Kent State, '69 Democratic convention. Assassination City: Kennedy (x2), King, Malcolm X. Stagflation. Nixon went berserk: Pentagon Papers, Watergate, secret bombings, the Plumbers.
  • 1975-1990 - Disco, coke and hedonism gives way to New Wave, crack and AIDS... awesome. The Eighties aren't the good old days, period. People looked and dressed like every mirror in the United States had spontaneously shattered - parachute pants? shoulder pads? big hair? It's a wonder any children were conceived in the 80s. Plus it was a mite stressful watching Reagan reenact High Noon with the Soviets. Dan Quayle. Seriously, Dan fucking Quayle. What a shitty decade.
  • 1990-9/11/2001 - No, but a surprisingly strong candidate. We'd beat the Soviets and for a brief moment America was the world's only superpower, without serious enemy or peer. The economy boomed. Everyone went about claiming we were in a post, post, post-something world, and Al Gore's invention was streaming ever larger quantities of porn onto our computers. It was so quiet that Monica Lewinski was the biggest news going for a while. Seriously, Monica Lewinski couldn't crack the top 100 right now. In retrospect, it was really just the waiting for the other shoe to drop decade.
  • 2001-Present - Otherwise known as the chickens came home to roost decade: terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, water-boarding, yellow cake uranium, Blackwater, Enron, the collapse of the world banking system.... oh and climate change. To name but a few.
The truth is that every decade is rife with tensions, fears and threats. We are a culture constantly evolving; we are too young a nation to do otherwise. The anxiety of change is the birthright of every American. But we have the sinking suspicion that whenever people start reminiscing about the "good old days," invariably they're referring to some sepia tinted version of the 1950s when white people roamed the earth like packs of repressed, entitled velociraptors. They can't specify the date because to do so would require them to admit that the good old days is a whites only club. So instead they allude vaguely to it, watch Mad Men for the nostalgia and try to figure out how to make "take our country back" not sound obviously racist. What they also don't want to admit is that the 50s were a decade like any other: messy, conflicted and difficult to comprehend. A decade that Emmett Till might have a hard time recognizing as anyone's good old days.

So why the obsession with the bygone? Perhaps because the tensions, issues and challenges of the past are just that: in the past. We can Ken Burns the shit out of it. The Civil Rights movement can be condensed to Martin Luther King's feel-good "We Have a Dream" speech. We know the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We know that the Red Scare passed. We can choose, if we wish, to overlook the geopolitical reasons that John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen orchestrated coups and assassinations across the globe. We can fly out of the airport named in his honor, and not worry about the morality of upending democracies in the name of democracy (Congo and Guatemala to name but two). Hell, the Soviet Union no longer even exists. Whereas the challenges of 2010: terrorism, environmental issues, the great recession, immigration...well, how do they turn out? Will we be okay? Do we even make it? Kind of makes you nostalgic for a nice, soothing Cold War doesn't it?

Ironically, or perhaps sadly, this strain of dangerous, false nostalgia is nothing new. It is neither a new phenomenon nor is this the first time it's been noted. As the following makes clear, "I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order." Well said. And for the record that was James Baldwin. The year was 1961.

No comments:

Post a Comment