When we are young, we look forward to holidays with unbridled excitement because they are so full of possibility. But as we age, we turn our attention to the past, to memories of a life already spent. We wax poetic about ancient meals, and conversations with people no longer living. We remember the good times.
But memory, like time itself, is a relative thing.
Memory is a peculiar aspect of human existence. We constantly remember things that didn’t happen, forget the things that really did, add details from other alleged memories, and incorporate things we’ve heard from other people into our own narratives. The only thing possibly more frighteningly unreliable than memory is our perception of what is happening this very moment. If we can’t even process the things happening before our very eyes, why would we possibly put any faith in our understanding of events that supposedly took place in the days, weeks, months or years of our past lives?
As I walk through this wicked worldElvis Costello
Searching for light in the darkness of insanity
I ask myself, “Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred and misery?”
This of course, makes something as nebulous as nostalgia inherently flawed and justifiably dangerous as it is not informed by what really happened, but by what we imagine or hope happened. Nostalgia is longing for a time that never existed and so we find ourselves frustrated with a world that is not longer delivering on a promise that was never made. It’s a miracle we make it through the day, let alone an entire lifetime.
The truth is, our past didn’t happen the way we think it did, if at all. Our histories are manufactured by wishful thinking, clever writing, romantic comedies starring far more attractive people and beer commercials. Our memories are flawed, simply because they are inaccurate. Nostalgia is reliably unreliable and potentially dangerous, especially when it is weaponized to demonize a group in order to seize or hold onto power, because it’s essentially just one more falsehood in a sea of lies.
There is nothing wrong with having a pleasant memory of a simpler time, one when you were a child, before you understood the world to be a dark and dangerous place. But you are not remembering a different, more pleasant time, you are remembering a simpler perception of the world. The world didn’t change nearly as much as your perception of it did. A four year old today has pretty much the same concept of Christmas as you did fifty years ago, even if the gifts they imagine will be different. That toy still won’t fly on its own, and that cereal won’t come with the fruit they put in the picture on the box. At some point, we stop being surprised by evil and simply become resolute in our disappointment of the world and its lack of real magic.
The darkness becomes really vicious when a person who desires power attempts to use your false memories to make you believe that the world was actually a better place when you were younger, not simply that you were unformed, misguided or protected. They tell you that by voting for the right person, or by enacting the right policies, we might return to your perception of the world when you were eight, or sixteen, or twenty-three. You might as well wish to return to a past life, when you were a medieval princess or an amphibious prince.
Americans are champions at romanticizing our own history. We have a past every bit as dark, decrepit and deceitful as any two-bit warlord-controlled developing catastrophe, but because we’ve been on a two-century winning streak of writing the history of the victorious, we have managed to whitewash nearly all of it, or convince everyone that one generation back is ancient history and shouldn’t be focused on.
And each time I feel like this insideElvis Costello
There’s one thing I wanna know
What’s so funny about peace,
love and understanding?
The reality is there is no time you can look back on in America, no era or decade, where we weren’t screwing over someone for power and profit and that includes yesterday, tomorrow, next year and likely several ones after that. We are not the shining city on the hill that we claim to be, and we never were, unless you assume that to anyone lying in the gutter, everyone else looks pretty great. We aren’t great just because we don’t presently happen to be covered in shit, we are just wealthy enough to be able to afford better public relations.
All is not lost. It’s really hard to argue that Americans have lost their way as that assumes we were on the right track at some other point in time. But we do possess a certain charm of optimism that has developed over the years due to our unbroken streak of declaring ourselves the winners. We are not defeatists and we do not to tend to give up easily. We have not fallen in on ourselves and accepted a lessor life in the face of overwhelming odds. We are self-deceived enough to believe that we can be the champions, even if we’re not even in the game. The rest of the world finds this sort of quaint, at times even cute, but also terrifying. We’re like a comical chimpanzee that makes funny faces and laughs at your stupid jokes, but can still rip your arms clean off if annoyed. We are Lennie in Steinbeck’s story, not George. We are the power without the brains.
Because of this child-like innocence, we are still capable of great things, in the same way that all youth is capable of great things because it doesn’t yet know what it can’t do. It’s been our saving grace, that and our absolute willingness to subjugate any people if it fits our world view and furthers our moral narrative that we are the chosen people.
What are the chances we will be driven by peace and love over power and money? Not good. Not if our past is any indication of our future. As Elvis once sang, “So where are the strong and who are the trusted? And where is the harmony, sweet harmony?”
Just makes me wanna cry.