Saturday, May 9, 2020

Nostalgia and History

Nostalgia has a bad name. Always has. Longing for the imagined past is an exercise in wishful thinking, at best. It is usually a sentimental journey.

In the 17th century it was regarded as a sickness, a form of melancholia suffered by seaman who couldn’t wait to return home. What greater punishment for the ancients than exile, banished from the city-state, the tent, the familiar. Ulysses, he of great turnings, left for a cup of coffee and took twenty years to return. When he finally made his way back to Penelope home wasn’t quite as he remembered, nor was he the same guy.

That’s the problem. The world doesn’t hold still for a minute and we are part of that flux, ever evolving, ripening here, rotting there. The older we get the more past we accumulate. Of course we embellish it, disremember our follies, construct composites from the shards and create a myth of ourselves which might bear only a faint resemblance to the actual. But what fun.  And there may be no witnesses around to fact-check our narrative. That home run I hit in the school yard is still traveling, last seen orbiting in a distant galaxy.

But history is actual. Never quite objective but closer to it. Genocide, slavery, the Holocaust happened whether or not we care to acknowledge it. Those abominations can be viewed from different angles but not erased. If we ignore history or contort those events we become intellectually impoverished.

The potato famine in Ireland in the mid-19th century was a man-made tragedy of stunning proportion. A blight killed the potato but British imperial cruelty wiped out a quarter of the population; one million died and another million emigrated to the U.S. In an unexpected gesture of solidarity with their plight the Choctow Nation of five tribes reached out to assist the Irish. Destitute as they were, having recently endured the Trail of Tears, they raised money equivalent to thousands of dollars in today’s currency. All the more remarkable since it was Andrew Jackson, son of an Irish immigrant, who ordered the forced march which killed half the 21,000 Native Americans.

Now, 173 years later, the Irish have donated two million dollars to the Hopi and Navajo tribes in their fight against the Corona virus. History is all about not forgetting. Grievances are redressed. Good deeds rewarded.

Attorney General Barr‘s shenanigans and the Trump White House are attempting to re-write the treachery of their tenure in office. History shall note his malevolence. Whether he is a high-functioning ignoramus or a genius of deception may be up for debate but his usurpation of the Justice Dept. carries the stench of a monarchy.  

Nostalgia sees through a rosy lens. History is less forgiving. The chronicle of these past three years is a litany of soulless malfeasance and deceit. While posing as a Populist Trump is the darling of the privileged who are now scrambling to concoct a moral justification for the naked greed he has granted them. Let it be noted.  
There are, perhaps, two distinct orders of Truth. The one is personal memory. The story we tell ourselves which cannot be verified but we are sure of it. It is our epic poem, each day another stanza, our journey. 

The other is History, elusive but more or less irrefutable. Certain events did happen. Our stewardship on this planet is being called into question. We are living in one of those historical moments of epochal change, tragic because the man in charge, the scribe has merged the two, fabricating the narrative into an agreed-upon lie.

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