“Society is built, instead, upon the countless habits and rituals of its members, both living and dead. Since collective identity emerges imperceptibly from these everyday experiences, our understanding of ourselves is always rather nebulous and imprecise — like one of those optical illusions that, when one focuses too hard, dissolves back into the page. As each generation passes, we forget something essential — if intangible—about ourselves. With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.”
— Kit Wilson, “Sentimental Nihilism and Popular Culture”
Perhaps it’s because I’m reading A Canticle for Leibowitz or because my grandfather is slowly dying from Alzheimer’s or because the world is changing so quickly that I feel powerless and totally other in my own skin, but whatever the reason, this article by Kit Wilson struck somewhere deep within me and sent everything to rattling and swaying. But that was a good thing because—in some strange roundabout way—it helped me to replait a few loose thoughts.
The Value of History
I highly recommend reading the piece in its entirety, but for the purposes of this blog, I’ll give you the précis. Focusing on the arts, Wilson argues that a shared history is essential to culture, that tradition has a greater purpose than we know. When we hurl those things out the window in favor of the new, when we embrace only what is deemed relevant and “burn the great oaks of Western culture to the ground,” it is we who end of sitting on and sifting through the ashes. And without a robust understanding of tradition and shared history, “Every last inherited standard — every last comfort — must be torn from us once and for all.”
The nihilism that plagues us will be our undoing, according to Wilson. To combat it, we must embrace history and “engage with one another as members of a common group.” And the best way to do so is through pop culture, which has “stayed the course of the 20th century much more successfully than [its] ‘higher’ cousins.”
“Popular culture crystallised archetypically Western tropes that, if nurtured, may still blossom again,” Wilson says. “So ingrained in the public’s mind are the perfect cadence and the love story that not even the Enlightenment’s cynical ticks can burrow deep enough to suck them out. Today, like the lounge suit, their ubiquity conceals a quintessentially Western inheritance. But it cannot look after us alone. It is but one part of an urgently needed review of who we are and where we’re going. And to face the future with any confidence, we must begin with the memory of where we once came from.” (Emphasis mine)
The artistic past we tried so hard to erase is still there, hidden in plain sight. The familiar strain in the mundane. And I heartily agree with his call to redeem the past. There is absolutely no shame in remembering where you came from, in asserting that your culture’s past (tangled and flawed as it might be) is valuable and worth preserving.
I think about literature, my own beloved discipline, and I am grateful for the professors who taught me Shakespeare as well as those who exposed me to Lorraine Hansberry. Incorporating Mariama Ba into my life doesn’t mean George Orwell needs to go the way of the Dodo. Making room for Ishmael Reed doesn’t make it impossible for me to keep on loving T.S. Eliot. (And if you want another interesting read from an unexpected place, check out what Monica Lewinksky—yes that Monica Lewinsky—has to say about him.)
In Life As Well As Art
The brutal murder of nine people in Charleston, South Carolina last week has had us all doing a lot of soul searching, and a great dialogue has opened up regarding race and the many meanings of the Confederate flag. It is most definitely not all things to all people.
Days after the shooting, many called for the flag to be taken down, calling it an unseemly relic from a painful era in our nation’s history that has no place before a government building. I have lived in three states during my 37 years on this planet, and all three of them seceded from the union. So yes, I am a Southerner. However, I have always had a rather ambivalent relationship with the flag. I always thought there were better symbols for the beautiful place I call home—sweet tea, bar-b-que, graceful front porches, fried okra, fireflies, green fields full of grazing horses, and magnolia trees for starters. It is those things and dozens more like them that come to my mind when I think of the South, and I know I’m not the only one.
That’s why, as a white southerner born and raised, I am all for retiring the stars and bars. For too long, it’s been an obstruction to race relations, an unnecessary distraction that somehow keeps us from the business of getting to know and love one another as human beings. It’s proper place is not flying before any state capital, but resting in a museum where it can be displayed in a way that allows it retain whatever respect it is due.
But there are some who aren’t satisfied with the quiet and peaceful removal of the flag and objects like it. Instead, they want it abolished, destroyed, and otherwise scrubbed from the pages of history. Some are also calling for the removal of monuments to Confederate generals and soldiers, and one writer has even gone so far to say that Gone With the Wind and shows like The Dukes of Hazzard should be removed from store shelves and cast aside. Even Apple joined the fracas when it stopped selling all gaming apps that had anything to do with the Civil War.
As one who believes kindness is paramount, I agree that there is value in sensitivity and in caring for the needs of others. However, doing so shouldn’t mean we rip the past up by the roots and toss it on the compost heap. That is a Pyrrhic victory in every sense of the word.
The Holistic View
To dispose of every reminder of an unpleasant era is to remove a piece of a culture’s bedrock, to mar its matrix so to speak. It also casts aside those things in the past that were good and worthy of praise. And most dangerous of all, eradicating the past robs us of the ability to learn from our mistakes and avoid repeating them in the future.
As Wilson said, “With the final breath of every dying person, some small spirit of the age escapes irretrievably into the air.” The generation who marched for Civil Rights won’t be with us forever, and when they are gone, how will children grasp the greatness of that movement as well as why it was necessary? Without preserving the past, what came of it, and what caused it, our understanding of ourselves is incomplete. Our history will become a book with chapters ripped out.
Preserving things like the Confederate flag and safekeeping them for future generations is the only way our culture can live beyond us, and that’s why we must not do away with unpleasantness in the name of political correctness. To do so is only to deny ourselves permanence.
Tow Mater, an unrecognized sage of the modern era, got it half right when he said, “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m going. Just need to know where I’ve been.” I mention him partially in jest, but the statement—like many of the things that Pixar creates—points to a greater truth. We need to know where we came from, but we must also be sure to keep our eyes on the road ahead if our culture is to get to its final destination in one piece.
No nation is perfect, but the United State of America is ours. It is up to us to both preserve and better it by maintaining a holistic view of history. That’s why we must doggedly maintain both a rear view and a forward gaze, and may God help us if we relinquish either.