Are we still Americans?


madmenNostalgia is a type of blood poisoning, tetanus of the soul brought on by the slightest prick of a rusty nail.

But nostalgia is the only place we can find America today. Those of us born in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and beyond have no true grasp of the American dream beyond what we see on TV Land. What’s interesting isn’t that we have lost something that once made us precious – because we didn’t have it to begin with – but that the nostalgia we yearn for is belief in the future.


The imaginary America we see in black and white from those 1940s and ’50s images is a young world brimming with optimism and confidence, but tempered with a moral interest in the future. The whole business of civilization was still new to us (it appears), and we were fascinated by where it might bring us. Looking back at this time from the future, we default to the ironic, and laugh at the idea that science was a tool that could tame the stars and make washing dishes as easy as tying your shoes.


And yet that is exactly what science has done. Schooled in post-modern neo-primitivism, we assume we’ve made no significant advances in our way of life, when nothing could be further from the truth. We laugh at the naïveté of the man in the gray flannel suit who believes life is getting better, even as his life is getting worse, mostly because we have given up on the future.


The pursuit of what Peak Oil guru Michael Rupert calls “the infinite growth paradigm” has led us to exhaustion, we say. Our world is used up. Our children are burned out husks, surviving in digital worlds while their real worlds decay into rubble. The future is the past, and not just the past of the mid-century, but the far distant past of the 18th century or worse… Deep Fred Flintstone past.


But that too is, of course, a sort of nostalgia brought on by our present disgust with the ways things are: the corruption, environmental degradation, cheap global bullying. It does not in good faith answer the challenge in front of us, which is not overcoming energy depletion, but fundamentally changing how we look at the world.


Returning to the title of this post – are we still Americans – we need to ask if we can once again believe in a future. The hocus pocus of apocalyptic theories does not answer the fundamental problem in front of us, which is: can we once more assume the wholly American attitude of optimism that allowed us for better or for worse to achieve more in one century than all of the world had in recorded history? Do we even want to?


We once believed we were blessed and that our children would be doubly blessed and theirs even more blessed. But for many years – through at least three generations – we’ve felt more fucked every year; the future seems bleaker and bleaker, even as the items of our desires became shinier and more accessible than ever. It can’t be that we’ve finally arrived at the present those mid-century Americans were aiming at, and found it used up and wasted, can it?


I think instead that this fixation on the self and this moment has led us to forget the promise held out to future generations. And that has made us into animals of a very low order. Do any of us seriously think the American dream was real estate on the prairies? Are we so stupid that we believe the shallowness we project onto the world, back into the past, is real?


No. We just want to believe the past was like the present so we can maintain our unhappy belief that Americans have always been the dispirited hobgoblins that we are. When we hear Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaim that he has been to the mountain top, has seen the promised land, and while it is still worth fighting for, he knows he will not get there, we think we are in the presence of a deity or a saint.


But maybe that was just the American spirit, and maybe what we have assassinated each and every time we have chosen ourselves over every generation that will come is not simply a dream, but the noble character of this country.


I wonder if this thing we imagine so vividly, this American character, can survive us. Maybe it will rise up like a forgotten virus in a future generation as they face no greater threats than we face now, but with a different prerogative on what it means to live on this continent.


Want another opinion? Roger Ebert is one of my favorite reviewers and a personal hero.

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