Nostalgia in the Time of Cholera

Economic instablity. Quarantines. Scary, incurable diseases. The end of days. Massive destruction of investment capital. Endless war in Asia. Foreign interference in domestic affairs.

I’ve described both the past few weeks, and the 14th century. Admittedly, I’m painting in broad strokes to make the comparisons easier, but I still stand by them. Whenever historians discuss the rise of fascism in Germany and Japan; they usually begin by discussing how fascist groups in both countries started by whitewashing their own past (extolling Wagner and rewriting the concept of Bushido spring to mind)(also, any enterprise that starts by listening to German opera can only end in blood and tears) in a way that made it (the past) more appealing to (then) modern audiences. Then they played upon that faux-nostalgia by saying that they (the fascist parties) could return the countries to that golden time. Stop me when this starts sounding familiar. What both groups conveniently didn’t tell everyone is, the past sucks. Sure, white, able-bodied heteronormative men had it made (provided they came from a good family, went to a decent college, and had the connections required to become a robber-baron)(it was sub-optimal for white, male, able-bodied heteronormative factory workers and coal miners who provided the wealth of the Mosquito Class), but it sucked for everyone else. As everyone in the world should now be aware, it also sucked for those guys when they got a lingering cough they just shouldn’t shake.

I’ve been toying with the concept of a “The past was terrible, and you need to stop romanticizing it” essay for a while, but, now that we’re back in the 1920s with regards to public health and social issues, today seems like a particularly teachable moment for it. Imagine, if you will; a bleak future just a few weeks from now, when Americans have done that uniquely American past-time of ignoring the experts, and continued spreading a disease with a higher mortality rate than the Spanish Flu, bringing our strained hospital system to destruction. You get a relatively minor nick whilst working with a saw in your garage. Except, due to severe medical supply shortages, your ER can’t see you, or provide antibiotics. It gets infected and you lose the limb. That is both 1920 and 2020. Meanwhile, your pension fund evaporates because senators who have more information than you do have cynically manipulated the system to make themselves even richer (that’s already actually happened)(https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/congress/aoc-calls-senate-intel-chair-richard-burr-resign-stock-selloff-n1164401).

I’m particularly adamant about this, “Don’t romanticize the past” stance with Americans, because we are exceptionally good at that. We even have an entire film genre — the Western — based on overlooking what white people did to those pesky minorities who happened to be living on our land before we got here. We are one of the few nations I can immediately think of which knowingly ignores the true discoverers of America (the vikings; Icelandic explorers got here 400–500 years before anyone else)(to be fair, they didn’t successfully steal and colonize an entire continent, so it’s understandable that we overlook their achievements) in favor of slavers (Columbus) and religious extremists (the Puritans)(who were seen as a radical fringe group by most of England, let us not forget)(they weren’t looking for religious freedom — they just wanted the ability to drown a few witches in Jesus’ name without any formal government inquiries getting in the way). Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and was the president. He also owned slaves, and grappled with the moral contradiction inherent in his position — some teachers mention this, but usually fail to tell their students that Jefferson preferred the lifestyle slavery provided to a clean conscience. We rarely bring up the fact that diseases brought to the Americas by Europeans killed most natives long before they saw a white man. Or that the Native Americans themselves weren’t some sort of eco-friendly utopians (it wasn’t settlers with guns that killed off the Woolly Mammoth and camels here)(and the Aztec and Incan Empires were similar to European empires, with some human sacrifice thrown in for zest). Discussing these things with students would require empathy, sensitivity, and, Huitzilopochtli forbid, actually engaging with students. So, most of us graduate with a false sense of what history was like as it happened, which prevents us from recognizing that this week’s news will, someday, be a major motion picture. And it enables our leaders to distort the past in any way they see fit, without anyone saying, “No, the White Walkers did not invade the North and were subsequently defeated by House Stark; that’s Game of Thrones” (if you think I’m joking, let me remind you that I was told in middle school that people in Columbus’s era thought the Earth was flat)(which wasn’t a thing before 2018).

The reason why I’m going after this particular concept today, now, is because we almost-elected someone in 2016 whose slogan was, “Make America Great Again.” Which very selectively played upon a June-and-Ward Cleaver view of America. And now we actually get to see what life was really like in the 50s, before vaccines and modern medicine. It’s not enjoyable, is it? So, next time someone discusses American Exceptionalism or a golden past, cough in their face, steal their pension, and let them experience what the past actually was like. And we need to see what such sentiments actually are — a wish that we could travel back to that time with current knowledge. We do not want to return to the past; we want a DeLorean and the Sports Almanac. Instead of yearning for something that never existed (for every cowboy you see on-screen, you don’t see the farrier who shod his horse, the metalworkers who made the iron in those shoes, etc. — “rugged individualism” is only slightly less realistic than Harry Potter), we should learn from the past, and then take careful, measured steps to ensure we never go back. Or, to put it another way; trying to get to the Star Trek future while appropriating the aesthetic of Happy Days will, inevitably, lead to Road Warrior. And for the love of Quetzalcoatl, get those Spring Break kids off my lawn, they’re spreading germs.

Written by

Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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