Where is the touchstone of memory? A friend's father had a charming quirk by which he discounted all changes to his environs. Thus the new Walmart was only squatting on Mr. Stillman's farm, and the sleek Exxon was just a mask fitted over the old general store with its hand cranked gas pump.
For people of my generation, an implanted memory abides from our first schoolbooks of Dick and Jane, Baby Sally, Spot, and Puff, and their lives on Pleasant Street. Theirs was a worriless world of temperate weather and kindly neighbors. From time to time, as I drive around Southern California, I see such neighborhoods with mature trees, wide streets, and grassy medians. For just a moment or two I can be fooled into thinking my memories are real and that the world of Pleasant Street in the 1950's is worth going back to.
But Pleasant Street is not a touchstone; it's a chimera. Post war America, despite its booming economy, was a place of great suffering. Poverty and discrimination were rampant. Conformity to narrowly defined religious and political beliefs, and social restrictions, were rigorously enforced both informally and by law. Shibboleths abounded regarding patriotism, sexual mores, race, God, and American exceptionalism.
And yet, I think we may be forgiven for hoping that one day we'll live in a demi-paradise of neighborliness and blooming gardens on shaded streets. What is unpardonable, however, is to believe that the past ever held a time when greater wisdom prevailed.
I mention this after reading Ryan Lizza's article about Congresswoman and Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann in this week's New Yorker in which he names people who have profoundly influenced her religious and political thinking, starting with the late Francis Schaeffer, who helped inspire the rise of the religious right, and who denounced the Renaissance as a time when the world ceased to be God-centered and embraced the heresy of humanism. Others include a revisionist historian who sees the Civil War as an attack by the Godless North on the Christian South, and followers of "Dominionism" which is a call for an American theocracy.
I hope that greater exposure of Ms. Bachmann's atavistic thinking will result in her greater renunciation and derision.
The Death of Marat by Jacques-Louis David, 1793. In this neo-classical work, David appropriates the style of religious art (think of Michaelangelo's Pieta) to depict a secular martyr: radical journalist and politician Jean-Paul Marat. The painting was grandly reproduced onstage in Peter Weiss' inspired 1963 play The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade , or Marat/Sade for short, which was embraced by radical chic audiences of the Viet Nam era.