The quip “nostalgia isn’t what it used to be” is attributed to Peter De Vries, a twentieth-century novelist, but it has been used in so many contexts it has taken on folk status. It’s one of those phrases that strikes me as funny, but hard to explain beyond its cleverness. And since I am a firm believer that the best way to kill a joke is to dissect it, I will choose life.
But the opposite of De Vries’s irony seems to be afoot these days. An entire cohort of American citizens seems to believe that America used to be great and isn’t any more. I have to admit that a slogan like “make America great again” is brilliant – those four words convey everything you need to know about how some people feel. But like the nostalgia witticism, it is hard to explain beyond its cleverness. Unlike the other gibe, this slogan is no joke and no amount of dissection seems to be able to kill it.
As you are about to discover, I am not allowing the failure of others to deter me.
Listen, I grew up in the fifties. I remember where I was when JFK was shot. I rode my Schwinn all over creation without a helmet. My father bought a house and provided for his family by running a small business and my mother stayed home and took care of the house. I attended a well-funded public school system where the biggest controversy seemed to be whether we were allowed to wear boots in school instead of shoes. Television, like the rest of society, was black and white. Chicago had three major daily newspapers and scores of others, and the record store had booths where you could sit and preview everything from classical music to rock and roll to comedy albums. I owned every Smothers Brothers record ever recorded.
For me, America was great back then. My crises had to do with dandruff and acne and whether the Cubs were ever going to break .500. (Today, they are over .700, so I got that going for me.)
I was happy most of the time and carefree most of the rest of the time. Would I like to go back to those times? Not on your life. Being fifty years younger would mean being fifty years stupider, and what I learned from America (and not only America) during those fifty years is, for me, what makes America great.
Maybe the most important thing I learned was what that icon of my youth (who was not American), Ringo Starr, sang after his bout with being carefree ended: it don’t come easy. The indulgences heaped on me were the result of hard work, dumb luck and privilege by a lot of people around me. The fantasy held tight by people my age and whiter than me is that our lives used to be a smorgasbord of opportunities without cost, open to anyone. We needed only to show up to the trough overloaded with meat and fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks and garlic.
If you recognize that phrase it is because you saw it in the Book of Numbers (11:4-6). The former slaves, not a year out of servitude, wax nostalgic for the easy life they had in Egypt. At least in the sequence in the preceding chapters, the worst trouble they had was the sameness of the manna. They had just finished dedicating the Tabernacle with riches and enthusiasm. And instead of being nameless and faceless possessions, they were free and responsible human beings. If they remembered the good life in Egypt, it was someone else’s life they were remembering.
And that’s what this nonsense about going back to the future is all about. The people who are remembering an America that used to be great are imagining someone else’s life. They are remembering an America where a person in a wheelchair couldn’t visit a museum. They are remembering an America where a person of color had to go ‘round back to buy the same sandwich a white woman would be served on a gleaming porcelain plate. They are remembering an America where a boy attracted to other boys had two options: living a lie or suicide. They are remembering an America where a loveless marriage, an unwanted pregnancy, a lack of health insurance or an address across the tracks was a life sentence.
That was my America fifty years ago. It was great for me – able-bodied, white, straight, middle-class and educated, with an allowance of a buck or two a week and someone to provide for my every need. Any eligible voter who yearns for those days wants to be someone who was too young to vote back then. America is great because we weren’t satisfied with an elite definition of happiness that excluded more than half the population. Reaching this moment in history is the story of our greatness. There is no “again” because, except for the few and fantasizing, we have never been greater.
In the narrative in Numbers, the complaining Israelites are granted their wish. The sameness of the manna is replaced with a sudden abundance of meat. Indulged to assuage their whining, they find out that sudden abundance is a recipe for bankruptcy, just like the pie-in-the-sky promises of hucksters. Buyer’s remorse begins “while the meat was still between their teeth.”
You can’t go back. Especially since the past never was what it used to be.