Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Those Who Ignore History

(The picture above was taken in 1956 by Gordon Parks [via].)

Ah, the good old days.  Recently I saw a spate of nostalgia memes posted by friends on Facebook, many of whom are old enough to know better.  I thought about posting this article, which I wrote for my column in the student newspaper in May 2001.  I titled it "Forward Into the Past!", but the editors had to come up with their own, "Don't Change the Past."  At any rate, here it is: 
Netlore is fascinating.  You know, those strange or funny messages passed along from person to person, warning of nonexistent computer viruses or tugging your heat with tales of dying children whose last wish to receive a million postcards?  Or containing a bogus quatrain by the seer Nostradamus, foretelling the ascension of the "village idiot" to leadership "in the home of greatest power" in the year 2000?  That's netlore.
The other day my sister-in-law passed a bit of nostalgic netlore along to me.  It was one of those heartwarming lists of things we ought to remember from the good old days, like "hide and seek at dusk," "eating Kool-Aid powder," "being tired from playing ... remember that?"  (Hey, I still get tired from playing.)

But then an agenda began to emerge.  Remember, urged the writer, "When nearly everyone's mom was at home when the kids got there." "When they threatened to keep kids back a grade if they failed ... and did!"  "'Race issue' meant arguing about who ran the fastest."  "The worst thin you could catch from the opposite sex was cooties."  "Basically, we were in fear for our lives but it wasn't because of drive-by shootings, drugs, gangs, etc."

There was some strange wobbling going on.  Sometimes "when" referred simply to childhood; sometimes it referred to the good old days, the Fifties as depicted on television, when schools were tough and moms stayed at home and there were no drive-by shootings.

The trouble is, those good old days were imaginary.  Only a person who grew up in an all-white community, and suffers from selective amnesia to boot, could suppose that "race" wasn't an issue in the 1950s, including for children.  Being a child didn't (and doesn't) insulate or protect non-white children from the humiliations, large and small, that a racist society was (and is) all too ready to visit on them.

It requires equal memory control to believe that gangs and street violence weren't big stories and fears in the Fifties.  Even outsides the cities where the dangers were immediate, and had been since the 1800s, people feared that Marlon Brando would roar into town with his motorcycle gang and do unspeakable things.  Syphilis and gonorrhea were less threatening than they were before the invention of antibiotics, but "the worst thing you could catch from the opposite sex" was a baby; even a young child might wonder why Big Sister had to go away for six months to recover from a mysterious and secret "fever," and be treated as a pariah on her return.

The anonymous author of this piece remembers "Walking to school, no matter what the weather"; I remember school buses -- not everyone lived in Anytown, USA back then.  "War was a card game" -- but we had air raid drills at school, hiding under our desks for protection against the nuclear fallout that might arrive any day.  (For children so unlucky as not to live in the US, war could be much more than a card game.)

I know: I'm a humorless old prune who needs to take a chill pill.  When I expressed some of these reservations to a friend, she chided me not to be such a pessimist.  But, I told her, I'm not the pessimist here.  I'm not the one who thinks that American society was a soft-focus utopia in the 1950s that has rapidly gone downhill ever since.  Yes, we have bad problems now -- but we had bad problems then.  I don't believe that any good is done by falsifying the past.  It encourages kids who are growing up now to believe that they were born too late for happiness or the excitement of discovery.

I've often talked to college students who believed that, having missed the Sixties with its radical politics and counterculture, they had nothing but yuppiedom to look forward to.  I've had to remind them that there was activism in the 80s (the Nuclear Freeze movement, the movement for solidarity with people in the police states of Central America, to name just two), the 90s (antiwar movements, the movements against US sanction in Iraq), and now.  There's a vast counterculture that dwarfs its Sixties ancestor, with alternative media that didn't exist when I was young.

Really, the Fifties were a dreary time, for adults too: a time of deadening conformity (but also rising Civil Rights activism, the Beat movement and early rock'n'roll), fear of nuclear war, fear of "juvenile delinquency" (gangs and drugs, that is).  Children had hula hoops and Silly Putty, but we could smell the fear in the air.  And even today children have their joys, and a new world to explore.  We need to make it safer for them, not dwell uselessly on a past that never was.
I was limited to 700 words in my columns, so I couldn't mention everything I'd have liked.  Polio, for example.  There was a boy in my first-grade class who had a brace on one leg, probably from polio.  I happened to grow up when the Salk vaccine became available, and my parents made sure my brothers and I got our shots.  Already in my day polio wasn't the threat it had been even a decade earlier, but my parents worried about it and us for our sakes.

Today an article went up at The Atlantic about the change in personnel policy at IBM in January 1951, just a few days after I was born: women employees no longer had to be fired when they got married.  The article blames this policy on the postwar situation, where jobs were reserved for returning World War II veterans, but the general practice was older than that.

I'm taking a harder line on netlore these days, as the web and especially Facebook have made possible a flood of garbage.  Some of it's benign, some isn't.  Much of the worst is spread by liberals and leftists, though maybe I just feel that way because I expect better of people who are ostensibly on the same side as I am.

P.S.  I meant to include this in the post, but by the time I had everything else in place, it slipped my mind:

As I reread my 2001 column, I realize I'm a lot less positive about the present than I was even then.  After eight years of George W. Bush and four of Barack Obama in the White House, a dozen years of unjust war, and an economic depression followed by an inadequate recovery, and increasing global warming, the future of the US and the world looks bleak -- even worse than it did in 2001.  But that, come to think of it, wasn't what I was saying in the piece.  Things had been getting worse for decades even when I wrote it; even a cynic like me was surprised by how much worse they still could get.  But we've also had activism and resistance, and anyone who thinks that if they missed the Sixties there's nothing left to do, is seriously (and probably) willfully mistaken.