Friday, January 20, 2006

The America I Knew

There has been a meme going around for a few years that has annoyed me more and more as time goes by. I call it: "The America I Knew."

Ed Asner is the worst offender:
I feel that George Bush's actions are desecrating the America that I grew up in and believed in. He is making us an imperialist government. He is choosing to replace heads of state and government he doesn't like.”
Anne Levinson chimed in this last holiday season:
If it is not too much to ask, this holiday season I'd like my country back. It's really what I want most. I think about it every day, without fail. I understand it would be easier to get me an iPod, but that joy would be short-lived compared with helping me be proud of my country again...

The America I grew up loving used to stand as a symbol of hope, of equality, of liberty and justice, not only for the rest of the world, but for its own citizens. I love this country, but the America I live in today makes me long for unwavering and principled leaders who will stand up for their citizens the way Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin stood up earlier this year in the House of Commons to support civil-marriage equality for his country's citizens...
What I am annoyed about is that both of these people are being intellectually and historically dishonest about where America is and where it used to be. They are attempting to appropriate a conservative, even reactionary, meme and use it to advance a point of view that is radically unconservative.

Both of these quotes speak of an America of living memory. Let's ask ourselves what was the America like these people are nostaglic for?

By a quick Google of published documents and biographies, Anne Levinson is approximately 47 years old, Mr. Asner is 76 years old. What America was like in Mr. Asner's memory?
  • Between 1919 and 1922, a further 239 blacks were lynched by white mobs and many more were killed by individual acts of violence and unrecorded lynchings.
  • In 1948, the Democratic party was split when the "Dixiecrats" walked out of the Democratic National Convention to protest the party's segregationist plank. None of these Representatives and Senators who bucked the Democratic party ever suffered punishment from their caucuses by expulsion or demotion of seniority or removal from prized committee chairmanships.
Is this the America that Mr. Asner longs for?

What about Ms Levinson's childhood?
  • It wasn't until 1954 in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka 347 US 483 that the Court held that separate facilities were inherently unequal in the area of public schools, effectively overturning Plessy v. Ferguson to outlaw Jim Crow.
  • In 1962, George Wallace was elected governor on a pro-segregation, pro-states' rights platform in a landslide victory. In his inaugural speech he declared "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say: segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever."
Surely this is not what Ms Levinson means by "unwavering and principled leaders."

A few years ago John Stossel ran one of his libertarian pieces on ABC about the culture of blame. In it, he played a couple of television commercials from the late 1950s and early 1960s for various products, laundry soap and canned coffee. I was aghast at their sexist bias and insensitivity. What was worse, I remember seeing the commercials when they first aired, and they were completely unremarkable in the cultural context of their day. Younger people who don't remember this time could fall into the "America I Knew" meme because they have no direct memory of those times. I do. Shame on those, conservative and liberal, who trot that old warhorse out.

America is a wonderful country. My favorite! And I have wonderful nostalgic memories of my boyhood. But I cannot generalize from the specific of my own experiences to say that America was better back then.

Look, if you are a progressive at least espouse a doctrine of progress. It is conservative to look back. It is silly, politically, for progressives to engage in nostalgia.

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