Interpreting History Part I: Count Me Out

29 Jul

alter ego(Image by Bob May used under CC license via)

 

Anytime my partner and I don’t know what to do or say, one of us asks, “What’s in the news?” and we dive into a political discussion.  So it’s no surprise that we’ve become somewhat embarrassingly addicted to Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom.  The news media has been (unsurprisingly) critical of a show founded on the idea of chastising the news media.  Feminists have been (sometimes rightly) critical of its portrayal of women.  The show has almost countless strengths and weaknesses, but I find myself still obsessing over the brilliant, captivating opening scene that kicked off the series.  If you can’t this clip, it basically boils down to a flustered news anchor named Will McAvoy overcome with disgust at the state of the nation and nostalgia for the 1950s and 60s: “America’s not the greatest country in the world anymore,” he sighs.  “We sure used to be.”

We stood up for what was right.  We fought for moral reasons.  We passed laws, we struck down laws for moral reasons.  We waged wars on poverty, not poor people.  We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors.  We put our money where our mouths were, and we never beat our chests…  We cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy.  We reached for the stars, acted like men.  We aspired to intelligence.  We didn’t belittle it.  It didn’t make us feel inferior…  We didn’t scare so easy.     

“Nostalgia” literally means “aching to come home.”  It’s the temporal form of homesickness, time rather than place being the source of pain.  We all do it.  It can be oddly soothing at times to be in awe of another era, especially the one you were born in.  But Will McAvoy should watch Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris for proof that nostalgia is an ultimately futile pastime that every sad sack of every era has hopelessly indulged in.  (If “things were better back in the day,” then how come every generation says this?)  But since McAvoy’s nostalgia is an earnest, political battle cry, heaping laurels on the good old 1950s and 60s when the leaders of the day did their job right, I’m more inclined to have him watch Mad Men.  Or just open up the 1960 children’s illustrated encyclopedia I found at my great aunt’s house, which states, among other things: “The Australian aborigine is similar to the American negro in strength, but less intelligent.”  Didn’t scare so easy, indeed.     

The problem with nostalgia is that it is far more emotional than intellectual and thereby lends itself to inaccuracy all too easily.  America was indeed doing great things sixty years ago.  And reprehensible things.  We hid our disabled and gay citizens away in institutions, asylums and prisons.  We enforced the compulsory sterilization of mentally disabled and Native American women.  We took decades to slowly repeal segregationist laws that the Nazis had used as models.  We maintained laws that looked the other way when husbands and boyfriends abused their partners or children.  In short, we handed out privilege based on gender, sexuality, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental capabilities with far greater frequency and openness than we do today.  Perhaps we were the “greatest country in the world” compared to the others.  (Europe and East Asia were trying to recover from the devastation of World War II, after all, while other nations were trying to recover from the devastation of colonialism.)  But McAvoy’s wistful monologue is much more a comparison of America Then with America Now.  And that is hard to swallow when considering that a reversion to that society would require so many of us to give up the rights we’ve been given since then.   

Am I “another whiny, self-interested feminist” out to bludgeon the straight, cis, WASPy male heroes of history?  Am I “just looking to be offended”?  No, I’m struggling.  Next to literature and foreign languages, history has always been my favorite subject.  And pop history always touches upon this question:

“If you could go back to any period in history, which would it be?” 

From an architectural point of view?  Any time before the 1930s.  From an environmental point of view?  North America before European contact.  From a male fashion point of view?  Any period that flaunted fedoras or capes.  From a realistic point of view?  No other time but the present.  Because if I am to be at all intellectually honest in my answer, there has never been a safer time for me to be myself. 

Last year, I read The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity To Social Liberation by Betty Adelson.  Despite my love of history, I hated almost every minute of it.  Lies my Teacher Told Me by James Loewen had helped me understand how so many black American students feel uninspired by U.S. history and the figures we hold up as heroes because so many of those men would have kept them in shackles.  But it wasn’t until I read The Lives of Dwarfs that I understood how nasty it feels on a gut-level to face the fact that most of history’s greatest figures would more likely than not consider you sub-human. 

With the exception of Ancient Egypt, my own lifetime has been the only period wherein someone with dwarfism could have a fair chance of being raised by their family and encouraged to pursue an education and the career of their choice, as I was.  At any other point in Western history, it would have been more probable that I would have been stuck in an institution, an asylum or the circus (the Modern Era before the 1970s), enslaved by the aristocracy (Rome, Middle Ages, Renaissance) or left for dead (Ancient Greece).  Of course inspiring cases like Billy Barty show that a few courageous/decent parents bucked the trends and proved to be the exception to the rule, but that’s what they were.  Exceptions. 

I am fortunate to have been born when I was and for that reason, nostalgia for any other period in time can never be an intellectually honest exercise for someone like me.  The moment someone says, “Yeah, well, let’s not dwell on odd cases like that.  I’m talking about the average person,” they’re essentially saying, “Your experience is less important than mine.”

Everyone is entitled to have warm, fuzzy feelings about the era in which they grew up.  If any period can put a lump in my throat, it’s the 1970s.  The Sesame Street era.  The boisterous, primary-colored festival flooded with Williams Doll, Jesse’s Dream Skirt, inner city pride à la Ezra Jack Keats, and androgynous big hair all set to funky music can evoke an almost embarrassing sigh from me.  Donning jeans and calling everyone by their first name, that generation seemed set on celebrating diversity and tearing down hierarchies because, as the saying goes, Hitler had finally given xenophobia a bad name.  Could there be a more inspiring zeitgeist than “You and me are free to be to you and me”? 

 

But I’m being selective with my facts for the sake of my feelings. 

Sesame Street and their ilk were indeed a groundbreaking force, but it was hardly the consensus.  Segregation lingered in so many regions, as did those insidious forced sterilization laws.  LGBT children were far more likely to be disowned back then than today—Free To Be You And Me had nothing to say about that—and gay adults could be arrested in 26 states.  The leading feminist of the time was completely screwing up when it came to trans rights.  Although more and more doctors were advocating empowerment for dwarf babies like me, adult dwarfs faced an 85% unemployment rate with the Americans with Disabilities Act still decades away.  And Sesame Street was actually banned in Mississippi on segregationist grounds.  When the ban was lifted, its supporters of course remained in the woodwork.  We have made so much progress since then.  It would be disingenuous for me to ignore that simply for the sake of nostalgia. 

To be fair to Sorkin, it’s a hard habit to kick.  We have always glorified the past to inspire us, no matter how inaccurate.  Much of American patriotism prides itself on our being the world’s oldest democracy, but we were not remotely a democracy until 1920.  Before then, like any other nation that held free elections, we were officially an androcracy, and of course we didn’t guarantee universal suffrage until the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  That my spellcheck doesn’t even recognize the word “androcracy” signifies how little attention we afford our history of inequality.  But we have to if accuracy is going to have anything to do with history.  A brash statement like “We sure used to be [the greatest country in the world],” as a battle cry for self-improvement is asking to be called out on the inanity of this claim. 

Everyone is entitled to appreciate certain facets or moments in history, just as everyone is entitled to look back fondly upon their childhood.  Veracity falters, however, with the claim that not just certain facets but society as a whole was all-around “better.”  This is never true, unless you’re comparing a time of war to the peacetime preceding it (1920s Europe vs. 1940s Europe, Tito’s Yugoslavia vs. the Balkans in the 1990s), and even then the argument is sticky (Iraq during the insurgency vs. Iraq under Saddam Hussein).  In the words of Jessica Robyn Cadwallader, concealing the crimes of the past risks their reiteration.  Whenever we claim that something was socially better at a certain point in history, we must admit that something was also worse.  It always was. 

But such a sober look at the past need not be depressing.  It reminds me how very grateful I am to be alive today.  My nephews are growing up in a society that is more accepting than almost any other that has preceded it.  That is one of helluva battle cry.  Because what could possibly be more inspiring than history’s proof that whatever our missteps, things have slowly, slowly gotten so much better?

 

 

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3 Responses to “Interpreting History Part I: Count Me Out”

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