Destructive Nostalgia

4 Jun

My Saturday column for The Sentinel.

If you’re an American with a TV, you’ve seen the ominous images of oil billowing underground. The power of television makes it seem so close, yet from our living rooms we are powerless.

It’s an informed helplessness. It’s how we felt on September 11, as we watched the towers fall and the ensuing chaos; it’s how we felt after Hurricane Katrina as our televisions and newspapers were filled with images of the dead and dying.

And it’s what we feel now, as the oil continues to flow and as the images of oil-stained wildlife and land are broadcast.

It’s a sense of failure that I think we feel. We have so much information, yet our efforts fail. We are the most powerful nation on Earth, we tell ourselves. Surely, this must at some point this must end. Perhaps by the time you read this, the oil will have been stopped, but even so, why did it take so long?

But the oil spill, as bad as it is, stands as a symbol for what many view as larger failures in our society – even though people disagree about what exactly those failures are.

Some say it represents the failure of the unfettered free market, of corporatism and science. Others say it stands for the failure of government and individual responsibility.

Whatever the spill stands for, this larger sense of failure can sometimes morph into a general view of doom and gloom. I’ve been back in McPherson for three weeks now, and I’ve encountered this view much more here than I do back in Lawrence.

I’ve talked to people and seen politicians who believe America is being destroyed. Some of them seem almost resigned to this. While I don’t doubt their sincerity, I can’t help but feel there’s something destructive about this thinking.

Do we really fear what’s happening in this country that much – or does our fear stem from something more innocent, yet harmful: nostalgia?

I’m only 20 years old, so my experience with the nostalgic feeling is a bit limited, but I know the pull McPherson has in me when I’m in throes of classes and the hustle of college: the desire for a simpler, gentler, more black and white place to live.

But I also know that world doesn’t really exist. Not in Lawrence, and not here. Life can be complex, messy and tough here just as everywhere else.

Working at a newspaper teaches me many things (like how to ask total strangers personal questions) but among the things that it teaches me is the lesson that people and communities have problems. Lots of them.

But when I’ve been away from McPherson for a while I tend to start romanticizing it, while ignoring the imperfections of this community. When I find myself doing this, Lawrence starts to look like a downright awful place. I mean, there was a drive-by shooting near my residence last year and there are three bars within a one block-radius of where I live. It took time to become adjusted.

But when I stop romanticizing, when I look at the hard reality of this place, McPherson, I see that while I may not have to wade through a sea of revelers on Friday night to get to my hall, I drive by rows of nice houses with neat, green lawns all the while knowing that behind those facades are complex people, dealing with their own problems and pains.

In the same way, maybe the future that some of us fear so greatly is in reality more about the fear of new problems and a desire for a world that never really existed at all.

As I wrote earlier, I’m young, but I’ve studied history and I can’t really point to an idyllic past that supposedly is now under attack. The subjugation of African-Americans, the treatment of women as second-class citizens, the Civil War, the threat of Nazism, the depression, the slaughtering of Native Americans, imperialism, the Cold War, Vietnam. When exactly was this time when everything was so much better than it is today?

Society will be strengthened in some places and weakened in others. Wealth will come and go. Social problems will wax and wane.

But as long as we are willing to plunge into the future head-on and wrestle with the problems that present themselves with innovation and creativity rather than seeking to preserve a phantom past, I believe we’ll be fine.

Now is a time for boldness, not fear.

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