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Feb 10 2011

A dream of a time that never was

There’s a lot of rhetoric in conservative circles about the need to “take the country back”. It’s become a favoured battlecry for that depressingly lackwitted abdicator of responsibility, Sarah Palin. For some reason, this line resonates in the minds of her followers. Those of us who were paying attention in history class are therefore moved to ask “back to what?” My mind personally goes back about 50 years to a time when my parents wouldn’t have been allowed to marry in many parts of the country, and where my dad wasn’t allowed to vote. I have no particular nostalgia for the 1950s or 1960s (as I point out every time Mad Men is discussed).

Our entire history as a civilization is a series of circumstances where people worked their asses off to make things suck just a little bit less. The 1900s saw us struggling to deal with the backlash of the industrial revolution, the 1910s saw the world thrown into the chaos of war, 1920s saw an attempt to recover from the war and the ramifications of women’s voting rights, the 1930s saw us in the grips of major economic collapse, the 1940s saw yet another war, the 1950s were marked by horrible racial segregation and conflict, as were the 1960s. The 1970s we struggled with a paranoid overreaching state grappling with its own citizens, and more economic uncertainty and human rights issues marked the 1980s. The 1990s saw us coming to grips with technology that far outpaced our public knowledge and comfort. The past decade was defined by global war, food shortage, political instability, and even more overreach by a paranoid state.

Which of these decades does Sarah Palin want us to “go back” to? Or does she want us back in the 1800s where there was no middle class, and living to 50 was considered miraculous?

Of course Sarah Palin has no idea what she’s talking about (shock! gasp!), preferring to rely on soundbyte-length policy that is completely free of any kind of scrutiny. Of course she’s merely a self-perpetuating symptom of the larger problem, like having an eating disorder that causes you to binge – she is a feed-forward mechanism that drags an already-flawed view of the world even deeper into crazy-land. It is interesting to note, however, that this kind of false nostalgia for an idyllic era that has never existed is beginning to crop up elsewhere:

Recent years have seen renewed interest in works by Norman Rockwell, the famed 20th Century American artist behind some of the most nostalgic images of small-town America… His iconic works featured a cast of kindly – and almost entirely white – policemen and soldiers, baseball players, quirky neighbours in the state of Vermont, awkward young couples, Christmas homecomings and other images of an America that seems to have receded into the past – if it ever existed at all.

I remember back in grade 6 art class when we were made to study some of the elements of Norman Rockwell’s portraits of the United States. This was well before I had any insight into racism, when my definition was more or less what everyone else thought of – police dogs and fire hoses. As a result, I took away from the images exactly what the teachers expected us to take away – cartoonish depictions of a simpler time.

Despite my history as a musician, there is very little about me that can be described as “artistic”. I have visited art museums a handful of times in my life (always at the request of someone else), and have struggled to understand why some paintings are considered “great” while others get sold for $75 at coffee shops or on the streets by homeless guys. I do, however, have a great deal of appreciation for the medium of visual art as a means of expressing new ideas, as I’ve mentioned before. In fact, that article, in which I discussed my experience with Kerry James Marshall, specifically references the surreal fantasy world that Norman Rockwell is supposedly capturing.

The fact is that there’s no truth in these Rockwell paintings. If anything can be derived from them, it’s that when those images were created there existed a fantasy of a kind of world where such things would be considered normal. Pretending that those are a depiction of reality is like using today’s pornography as an anthropological study of the relationship between bored housewives and pizza deliverymen.

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  1. 1
    Beauzeaux

    I recommend “The Way We Never Were” by Stephanie Coontz.
    She thoroughly blows away all the faux-nostalgia for the “old days.” I too have no fond longings for the fifties — I was there at the time.

    She’s an academic but she writes beautifully. It’s a great book and a sovereign remedy for good-old-days-itis.

  2. 2
    Katherine

    I’ve always wondered if Normal Rockwell’s paintings weren’t sneakily satirical in some manner. Especially since the wikipedia article describes him as “not very religious” and says “He spent… 10 years painting for Look magazine, where his work depicted his interests in civil rights, poverty and space exploration.”

    I’ve also always loved this painting of his:

    http://jenniferjohnston.org/images/freedom-of-worship-final.jpg

    At first you’re all alike, “goddamit, it’s just a bunch of freaking religious people.”

    BUT LOOK CLOSER.

    http://www.moonsenshi.net/homeworketc/worship.jpg

    There’s a guy in there in the thinker pose. At a time when people were 10 years away from adding “Under God” to the pledge, Normal Rockwell was including the nonreligious in his paintings.

    Or so I like to think, anyway.

  3. 3
    grassrute

    “The past decade was defined by global war, food shortage, political instability, and even more overreach by a paranoid state.”

    Just the past decade??? You can go much further back than that. The food shortage, political instability… has been going on since, and is the result of ‘the fall into sin.’ This rejecting of God resulted in a number of curses, check this one out:

    Genesis 3
    “Cursed is the ground because of you;
    through painful toil you will eat food from it
    all the days of your life.
    18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
    and you will eat the plants of the field.
    19 By the sweat of your brow
    you will eat your food
    until you return to the ground,
    since from it you were taken;
    for dust you are
    and to dust you will return.”

    How one views the old days (the time that was) will depend largely on ones perspective. When I get old and tell my children about the “gold old days,” they may respond with “what was so good about them, 100,000 babies were slaughtered annually on the alter of abortion.” (I’m sure they’ll have many more examples than just abortion) Similarly, those presently refering to “the good old days,” remember the good things e.g. -freedom to make their own decisions vs the nanny state we live in today
    -the prevalence of common sense vs suing someone for falling in a parking lot or spilling coffee on oneself
    -men willing to fight for what’s right vs cowards refusing to fight and even suggesting weapons are unnecessary
    -people taking responsibility vs people demanding their rights
    -people sorting out their differences vs opportunists filing human rights complaints
    -the unanimously held belief that women and children were to be placed on the lifeboats first in the event the ship sank vs the every man for himself and “equality” we have today
    -protecting your children and maintaining their purity vs encouraging promiscuity
    -the value of a handshake to seal a deal vs looking for loopholes
    -keeping your vows and being faithful as opposed to today’s easy divorce and common law marriage
    -hard working citizens who were thankful for what they received vs lazy welfare citizens who are gov’t dependant and always complaining
    -honesty, integrity and morality vs dishonesty, corruption and immorality
    At 34 years of age I haven’t experienced the “the time that was” I can, however, understand why an elderly person (or anyone else) will look at the pathetic, self-centered whiners we are today and long for “the good old days.”

  4. 4
    Crommunist

    You’ve been gone for a while. I see you’ve gotten more insane.

    You really need to take a history lesson. Those things you’re talking about are a) mostly fictional, and b) built on the broken backs of millions of people. It’s a cute bit of revisionist history though.

  5. 5
    Ien in the Kootenays

    “I have no particular nostalgia for the 1950s or 1960s (as I point out every time Mad Men is discussed).”

    Definitely no nostalgia for the stifling Fifties, but for the sixties yes, though my sixties were lived elsewhere. In Amsterdam we enjoyed the political aliveness of the time (we were protesting Vietnam in 1965) but didn’t have the bitterness and the assassinations. What we had instead was the Provo movement, with their free white bicycles, and gatherings around a little statue downtown where the most revolutionary act was the free distribution of raisins, to protest capitalism. As a feminist I love Mad Men for pointing out what it was like, not that long ago.

    You wrote: Our entire history as a civilization is a series of circumstances where people worked their asses off to make things suck just a little bit less”

    Well said, and look what happens when we stop struggling. It doesn’t take long for gains we thought were forever to be taken away, ever so insidiously.

  1. 6
    links for 2011-02-14 « Embololalia

    [...] A dream of a time that never was << The Crommunist Manifesto Our entire history is a series of circumstances where people worked their asses off to make things suck just a little bit less. The 1900s saw us struggling to deal with the backlash of the industrial revolution, the 1910s saw the world thrown into the chaos of war, 1920s saw an attempt to recover from the war and the ramifications of women’s voting rights, the 1930s saw us in the grips of major economic collapse, the 1940s saw yet another war, the 1950s were marked by horrible racial segregation and conflict, as were the 1960s. The 1970s we struggled with a paranoid overreaching state grappling with its own citizens, and more economic uncertainty and human rights issues marked the 1980s. The 1990s saw us coming to grips with technology that far outpaced our public knowledge and comfort. The past decade was defined by global war, food shortage, political instability, and even more overreach by a paranoid state. Which of these decades does Sarah Palin want us to “go back” to? (tags: usa history conservatism) [...]

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