Control Your Past
July 25, 2017
You are not a statistic, you are a human being, that’s first and foremost. Your memories are not a commodity or a brand, they are deeply personal and not something for sale. At least, that’s the ideal. Unfortunately, in our cutthroat and rabidly nihilistic present everything is for sale and nothing is sacred. We’ll plunder your damn brains if it means a stronger bottom line. That is what is happening with the nostalgia-dominated culture. Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers all face an uncertain and existentially terrifying future. That’s not to excuse the casual racism or regressive behavior of some older people, but it is an understandable factor (that is, seeing the future and not understanding it and recoiling at the sight of it). For Millennials, we face some truly daunting prospects: college debt that may take decades to pay off, the possibility of never owning a home or being able to afford raising a family, or even achieving financial independence.
So, what does our bleak, probably cyberpunk future, have to do with nostalgia?
Some anthropologists theorize that nostalgia is an evolutionary survival trait. In trying times our ancestors fondly reminisced about the “good ol’ days” to not fall into a depressing death spiral, since that sort of thing usually resulted in starving to death and not living long enough to have children. We are living in our own trying times, and as a result we retreat to our fond memories usually in the form of an idealized past (be it the 1950s or the 1990s). This isn’t exactly ideal, but it’s understandable. The problem comes when nostalgia becomes a way of life. Trump rose to power on a fevered wave of nostalgia from older, white Americans that believe in some kind of idealized past from their childhood that completely disregards the racism and sexism and government-sanctioned oppression of political thought outside the norm (then again, that may have been a strong selling point, for some people). For Millennials, it’s the decay of culture. Not in some kind of neo-fascist, PJW-esque “postmodernism is the devil” way, but in creating a distinct culture that belongs to us beyond the past. In all fairness, culture exists on a timeline, but the problem isn’t just the loss of authentic culture, it’s more depraved than that.
What we are witnessing is the ultimate form of commodification. Politicians and entertainment magnates are all too ready to take the totems of our childhood and use it as a cheap power grab. Trump took a desperate and aging populace and used it to propel him to power. His vague and outlandish promises secured his regime, and in a way, Ready Player One is no different. The trailer opens showing a hellscape of stacked mobile homes in a dirty, industrial city and the protagonist retreats into a virtual reality orgy of nostalgia. The only thing missing is a healthy dose of an opiate. Trump and RTO are one in the same: things are shitty, but rather than look to the future let’s look to the past because it’s familiar and comforting, hell, let’s just pretend that things can be like they used to be.
That’s not to say we must discard the past entirely. I would love to see a return to Main Street USA and I would love to see the same kind of earnest, heartbreakingly honest culture of years past, but that doesn’t mean you just recycle the aesthetic; you draw from it and make something new that is independent of the past.
We are at a crossroads of dire proportions in human history, where forward thinking and acceptance of reality will be what saves us from extinction, not the quiet of backwards thinking and rejection of reality.
So watch The Iron Giant, and Hey Arnold!, but never forget that there are pressing matters to attend to, and eventually the present and imposing future will demand you take action – or else. And ultimately, take possession of your personal, private past. Those halcyon days are not something that should be bought and sold to the highest bidder. They belong to you, not corporations or politicians, and by giving those people power you lose a little bit of yourself. You allow yourself to become nothing more than a statistic in a larger demographic to be plundered and exploited.
Don’t lose yourself.
Birth of the Empire
July 4, 2017
Outside there is the sound of fireworks, possible gunshots and maybe some overzealous Michigan militiamen who have somehow obtained a small howitzer. On the TV there is an extraordinary display of light and fire over New York City while patriotic tunes are performed by a choir of West Point cadets, a band and a hair metal guitar solo. Between the fireworks there is the obligatory commercial montage. Perhaps I’m too much of a cynic, but when the same happens in other countries we either mock or cringe at the orgy of nationalism. Of course, it’s different because it’s the Fourth of July in the good ol’ U.S. of A.
It would be disingenuous to pretend that America has no redeeming qualities. After all, we gave birth to Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Levi jeans and took up the mantle when the European empires collapsed following WWII. Yes, American ideals like multiculturalism, civil liberties and a safe haven for the weird and oppressed are all good and well, but America also has a dark side. I’m not talking about the obvious black eyes like the genocide against the Native Americans or the crushing oppression of African slaves, I mean the legacy we have created for ourselves thanks to adventures beyond our borders.
Starting with the Monroe Doctrine in the early 19th century, the United States has decided that it will behave like any other empire while hiding behind a mask of righteousness and dedication to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Never mind the brutality at home and abroad, they’re mere hiccups and ugly footnotes in the republic’s glorious history. At least, that’s the attitude the majority of Americans seem to take. Yes, it’s unfortunate but it’s a learning process.
The Filipino Insurgency was a learning process. The Tuskegee Medical Experiments and the eugenics program were accidents. The overturning of sovereign democracies and backing of ruthless dictatorships was in the name of defending the “American Way” from the threat of…communism? Terrorism? Boogie man de jure?
So what does the Fourth of July mean for Central and South America? What about Southeast Asia? How is it celebrated by Native Americans on the reservations, or the African American living in the inner city patrolled by militarized police?
It means another year of business as usual, while people wave their flags and wipe away tears without consideration for what we truly represent.
This opinion is not a popular one, and I’m sure I will be branded as a manic anti-American who is anything from a communist to a terrorist sympathizer, but that’s no matter. Hell, not to lift myself to lofty heights but even the Founding Fathers were considered traitorous in their time. Seems like they were on to something. For a free democracy to not only survive, but thrive, dissent is necessary. Democracy without dissent paves the way for tyranny. It might be uncomfortable to be frank about our bloody history, but how does that discomfort compare to the amount of lives ruined or snuffed out in the name of territory or market expansion? Vigilance and criticism won’t change the past, but it could at least serve as a safeguard against future bullshit.
A little humility and embarrassment is better than continuing a tradition of oppression and inhumanity.
Happy Fourth of July.