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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