Nostalgia, America, and the Happiest Place on Earth
As a history teacher, I have to go through the spiel to my students multiple times a year about why learning stuff that happened in the past matters (because the stuff in the past defines the problems of today), why it’s important to know who is telling the story and who is being left out (I try hard to tell the stories of those who have traditionally been left out), and how knowing about this stuff helps them out today (because you’re a part of this world whether you like it or not). But my students never bring up the idea that things were much better “back then.” They are middle schoolers, and so thinking about the lives of others (especially old/dead people) is at times a developmental stretch, but they have never reacted to something we’ve talked about and said, man I wish I lived back then (maybe my curriculum is too depressing?). They can, however, talk about their own lives in this way. They think rosy thoughts of elementary school and how their teachers never gave them homework and they had recess. They miss smaller classes, having only one teacher, and not having so much demanded of them. As they get older, they’ll keep reflecting back, as we all have, on times that seemed easier each time they are faced with a new challenge.
We as a country, as a massive, diverse, and young country, are at a point where we feel like we should have all this stuff figured out. Clearly we don’t. As we become more aware as a nation, and voices who have been left out of the story gain power, tensions and inequalities that have always existed are finally reaching the consciousness of people who have been lucky enough to not be affected. When change happens, there is always a backslide, because change is hard and scary (and not everyone has read Who Moved My Cheese?).
Part of this backslide has been looking back to World War II through the Reagan Era and pulling out the rose-colored memories. Remember when America was the best? Remember when other countries wanted our help? Remember when we all wanted (and got) the house with the picket fence and the 2.5 kids? Remember when we were the leaders is all things, always? (If you’ve watched South Park this season, I’m guessing you too said that in the Member-berry voice) Let’s go back there. Let’s “Make America Great Again,” (internal sigh and tears and rage).
But, for many, as said best in the poem “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes, “America has never been America to me.” These memories aren’t real for every American. They aren’t really real for most Americans. Even Americans who lived during “those times” probably did not look around and think, “this is the best America will ever be, let’s never change.”
For most of our conquering history, we built America on the idea of our Manifest Destiny; that we were chosen, that we live correctly, and it was our duty and right to expand our ideas and religion around the world. We “rescued” Native American and African Americans who did not live or look like us and made them “progress” to our way of life, because clearly, we were right. We saw time and civilization as a single line that climbs upward, and we were in the lead. This is, of course, intensely problematic1 and lead to the conquering, cultural erasing, and genocide of Native Americans and other minorities, but for the sake of argument we will hold this as a foundational American ideal, even if we know, like many of our founding ideals, it’s racist and flawed.
So if our nation was built upon this idea of American Exceptionalism and that we would lead the way forward, when did we switch to a nostalgic cry backwards? The greatness many are thinking back on either wasn’t really real and/or only applied to a very small group of individuals.
◊ ◊ ◊
Think back on the last time you sat around with friends you’ve known forever and started off a conversation with, “Do you remember when…” You probably followed that with a good memory or, if you were with very close friends, probably a small thing to make fun of the other person. Most likely you didn’t go, “Do you remember when your mom died and you were really depressed and none of us knew what to do because we were in third grade?” Unless you’re going to follow that with an apology, it’s not a memory you would normally choose to bring up because it’s a terrible memory. Therefore the stories we tell about these times, that we bring up in conversation, are a carefully curated file of funny or embarrassing things that happened. It does make you miss the old days because now the old days are only these things.
Recently, I traveled to Disneyland, a subset of the Disney industry, which is in itself one of the most fascinating examples of the tension between nostalgia and change I can think of. Standing in the happiest place on earth as an adult, watching a young girl look up at Princess Aurora, I too tried to get back into that place I left long ago. Honestly, I was never really fascinated by Disney Princesses (thank you 90s-girls-can-kick-butt-too attitude and a weird fascination with Greek mythology), but watching this little girl look up into the Aurora’s face and be entirely enchanted made me nostalgic for something I never even experienced.
As a kid, my family and I visited Disney World on several occasions (thank you Mom, Dad, Grandma, and Grandpa) and what I remember most was spending time with my family. My patient father going around and around on the Kali River Rapids (I think this is what they’re called, I had to look it up2 and getting soaked as we all giggled and laughed. Riding the Tower of Terror and the safety bar jamming into my legs as we rocketed down and the seat hitting sharply on the way back up...but laughing as my stomach flew into my throat. Eating dinner in Flo’s Diner and my brother being assigned the job of making sure we didn’t put our elbows on the table and taking this incredibly seriously. Watching the fireworks over Epcot and having 2,000 balloons fall from the ceiling as we celebrated the new millennium. My sister leaping out of the top bunk to rescue my father from the fictitious fire she assumed to 1am alarm that my brother had accidentally set was signaling. (Notice she did not rescue anyone else.) I don’t remember long lines (though we must have stood in some, although Joni Knostman was Queen of the FastPass), or being too hot or tired or cranky. I am sure all of these things happened because you don’t stop being a human even if you are in Disney World. But still, choosing to remember, or only having these good memories stick in my brain, means that it is in my memory indeed a very happy place.
And walking around Disney as an adult, I can say it is still a truly happy place. That economy of nostalgia for adults combined with watching and living through the joy of kids experiencing it for the first time washes over people and makes everything rather magical. Of course I saw overwhelmed and frustrated parents, the occasional tantrum brought on by happy exhaustion, and the usual don’t-hit-your-sibling arguments, but they got washed away the instant those same squabbling sisters turned around and saw Minnie Mouse strolling down Main Street.
◊ ◊ ◊
I think the “great” America people think back on is kind of like Disney World. It’s a magical place full of smiles and happy families. It is its own little bubble free from everyday problems. It’s a real place for some and one they choose to visit in order to get away.
But it isn’t real for many.
The price point alone excludes many families. It isn’t even a place everyone actually wants to go, even if they’re told it’s somewhere they should go. It isn’t a place where people actually lived, but they do have good memories about it and that’s all they need. This is not to say there is anything wrong with Disney, or dreaming, or having high goals and ideals, and it’s not even to say that there aren’t things that we shouldn’t hold on to. I just don’t want the future generations to be sitting in their Wool-like silos underground as the Earth rots away and thinking, remember when we could go outside? (Member?) They’ll be pretty pissed at past generations who chose to treat America like Disney World and ignored the world around them.
So when I teach my students that the past in important, it’s not because I think things were better then, or that we have it all figured out now. History and human existence is a weird mishmash of trying to live and survive and change, and we have never and will never live perfectly. Instead I teach them the past so they know why things are the way they are, and hopefully, give them the tools and desire to make the future better for everyone.