We've been at war a lot for the last few decades -- and I'm not talking about literal shooting wars like Vietnam or Iraq. No, I'm talking about the various wars that we've declared on poverty, cancer, drugs, crime, terrorism -- you name it -- on any number of nouns and tactics. As George Carlin once said of Americans: "We like war! We're a warlike people!"
Indeed. And this year of 2016 might be the year that we declared war on something else -- the future.
You see it in our politics, both right and left. Donald Trump declares that he'll make America great "again" -- we were great once, in the past, you see, but no longer, so he'll bring that great past back if elected president. And yet another person named Clinton aims to occupy the Oval Office, with all the perils and benefits that a President Clinton can offer. Both candidates promise to take the world's greatest superpower into the future by appealing to our feelings about its past.
Our popular culture has been an even bigger dredger-upper of yore: look at the reboots of movies like Ghostbusters and TV shows like Full House. Even new stuff is old: the most popular new pop culture event of the summer was a Netflix series called Stranger Things, a creepy show that takes places in a creepily believable 1983. Nostalgia is all the rage.
More ominously, this strong desire to resurrect that which is gone has taken the form of terrorism, specifically those terrorists who think that if they kill enough people or blow up enough stuff that it will somehow resurrect a 7th Century Caliphate. Less bloodily, but in many ways more consequentially, the United Kingdom decided that it loved its past so much that it voted to shatter the post-World War II European economic consensus and chuck its membership in the European Union, thus becoming a true island nation once again -- the so called "Brexit."
The allure of the past is so great that the world seems ready to muddy its present and compromise its future in pursuit of a time that is well and truly gone -- forever.
Why? Why this overactive drive to revivify previous eons?
Well, the easy answer is that the present sucks. Wars, recessions, gentrification, growing student debt, decreasing worker wages, the spiraling cost of living and the stalling creation of jobs, technology that becomes obsolete the moment you buy it, is making people mushuggina. Things are changing, things are always changing, but more and more things seem to be changing faster and faster -- and for no good reason except that it benefits a wealthy, elitist few. More and more people feel that they have less and less control over their lives, that there are fewer paths to prosperity and security for them and their families, and that the future is a bleak, unsparing, hopeless place. So we want to retreat. We want to go back. We wish to return to a "safe space" where we are in total control, where we already know the ending to the story, where the worries of the present and the threats of the future are nought.
As the great English author Evelyn Waugh famously wrote: "We possess nothing certainly except the past."
Certainly, here in NYC, the past is something that people cherish. In a dynamic world, NYC is probably the most dynamic place in it, so attempts to remember, mourn, and, yes, even recreate its past abound. Just look:
- The Stork Club, the place where Walter Winchell once ruled, making and
unmaking reputations with his powerful newspaper column, is fondly
- Television, specifically local television, which used to set the agenda
for the city in a way it rarely does today, is also being recalled. Back in the day, a TV anchor named Bill Boggs was one of the most important people in town and these days he's reminiscing about it.
- Local businesses, stores that served the community while also making a
profit, are vanishing. This article is about TekServe, the Chelsea Mac
service store, that I used to go to many times back in the day and that was a staple of NYC life, has closed down. This one really hurts because, as the writer of this article notes, this closure is another "downside to the city’s real estate boom. It’s driving away the unique, friendly
places that make living in the city worth the effort ... [a]
rapid deterioration of the city’s street-level fabric."
- Here's one counterfactual: Chumley's is coming back. The old speakeasy that closed in 2007 after an industrial accident is set to re-open soon. I remember going there many years ago and loving it -- but this resurrected saloon just won't be the same, it simply can't be. Times may heal wounds but it doesn't fully obliterate them.
- The Bowery Boys are a couple of guys with a long-running, very
successful podcast about the history of NYC. Now they have a book out,
about "adventures in old New York."
- Even porn is getting in on the act! Yes, pornography is now a nostalgic reference point for NYC. Check out the Rialto Report, a comprehensive website, blog, and archive about the adult scene in NYC back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. For a subject matter that is so naughty, this is an incredible elegant and beautifully presented site that makes art and history out of something lots of people consider simply obscene. And it's history alright -- an incredible history that you won't learn about in school or museums.
Loving the past and trying to remember it should never be the same as hating the future and seeking its destruction. Trump/Clinton, Brexit, terrorists, pointless TV show and movie reboots, etc. etc. do nothing, ultimately, to make us feel better. They don't bring the past back. They can't! They are, to varying degrees, acts of desperation, a metaphorical lashing out at our present (obviously TV/movie reboots are not as awful as Donald Trump nor are either as awful as terrorists but I hope you get the drift). The brilliant comedian Marc Maron recently said on his podcast, specifically about the 2016 election but also, I think, about this larger issue of fearing the future:
"It’s a tragedy that there’s so much desperation ... How do you relieve that desperation, that anger, that hopelessness? ... Here’s why people vote for Trump: ‘Fuck It!’ ‘Fuck It All!’ That’s got to be the rationale ... It's the possible annihilation of all progress with no real plan."
And that's ultimately the problem: people want to "annihilate progress" that they feel has hurt them but, for the most part, people have no idea what to replace it with except with some gauzy nostalgia. The Trump candidacy is a perfect, almost frightening example of this: he promises to "make America great again" and "bring the jobs back" and "restore law and order" -- but how? How will we be great again in way that we aren't now? What jobs are coming back? Law and order -- believe it or not but our country has never been this safe! Again, he plays on our anxieties about the present and our fears about the future by invoking a past that will never return. And here's the rub - that past was never that great to begin with.
Do you want to go back to a world where gays were closeted? Where minorities were openly discriminated against? Where smoking was tolerated everywhere? Where women were raped and the men who did it got away? Where there was no Internet? Where people who were born into poverty stayed there. Do you really truly want to return to that world? Not me.
But at the same time part of me does. Part of me wants to go back and relive those supposedly simpler times. Part of me, a big part of me, fears the future. But the future is coming, it's always coming. The future always wins even as we strive to beat it. So let's get ready for it and work to make it better. Not destroy it -- or think we can replace it with the past.
As the great American author Scott Fitzergerald wrote: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessy into the past."