My cousin, Michael, and I don’t have occasion to interact very often—weddings and funerals, mostly. I saw him last summer for the first time in several years at a mini family reunion that my sister hosted in honor of my 75th birthday and in honor of Michael’s older brother, Pat, an Oblate missionary priest in Africa, who was home on vacation.
Michael is a really good man. He and sister, Jane, have been, and continue to be, pillars of strength for their immediate and extended families throughout many heartbreaks, losses and tragedies that would have broken people of frailer character.
Michael and I are casual FB friends. His FB posts mostly tend toward nostalgic pictures from websites like the Good Old Days and Do You Remember the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s? My sister Mary posts pictures from these websites, too. They are occasionally funny, but in no way give me any desire to re-live those decades. Or the 50’s either!
As the November election got closer, Michael also began posting things from a website called The Comical Conservative. These posts usually said rude things about Hillary Clinton and demeaning things about President Obama. I checked out the Comical Conservative website itself and I submit that there’s irrefutable empirical evidence that the team responsible for running the website, does not know what an oxymoron is.
At any rate, I discovered that my otherwise exemplary cousin Michael is a conservative—an anti-Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton loathing, pro Donald Trump Conservative. I assume that like many of you with conservative family members, I tried not to take the posts personally.
Until the election!
After the election, one of the Comic Conservative posts said things along the lines of “STOP YOUR WHINING AND PROTESTS AND TANTRUMS! GET OVER IT! YOU HAD YOUR TURN NOW IT’S OURS. (As if we were talking about the outcome of the Super Bowl and not the future of the republic!)
“Michael,” I wrote to my cousin with whom I’ve never exchanged a cross word, “Don’t you understand that many in the nation are in shock and grieving the outcome of this election?
“Suck it up,” he replied and posted the following visual:
I breathed a sigh of relief that my parents didn’t live long enough to have to endure their nephew’s condemnation of their child-rearing skills.
I thought of un-friending Michael, but, upon reflection, realized that my use of the word “grieving” was inappropriate and insensitive.
Life has not been kind to Michael. He is the fourth of thirteen children, nine boys and four girls. He is the fourth oldest; he has buried five brothers, all but one younger than him. He has endured the loss of his only son, killed in a tragic shooting accident in the classroom of the police academy where he had barely begun to train; and he bore witness, through his adolescence and young adulthood, to the suffering of his mother, my beautiful (inside and out), vivacious, funny, irreverent and adored Aunt Jean, who was bedridden with the ravages of multiple sclerosis for so long that I doubt Michael’s younger siblings remember her any other way. (Great progress has been made in treating MS, but that was then; this is now.)
Michael knows and bears grief and loss, likely more than I ever will. If I were he, I imagine I’d wake up every morning grieving.
My message to him about grieving the results of the election probably read like so much pointy-headed liberal bullshit.
I have lost over a hundred friends (some of them best friends), mentors, colleagues and acquaintances to the AIDS epidemic; I keep a memorial card with all of their names on a table in my bedroom and remember them every day. But none of them was my son; none of them was my “blood” brother. None of them was kin! I’ll never experience the loss of a child and, while I will grieve the inevitable loss of my siblings (unless I go first and I’m good with that), we are in our seventh or eighth decades; attrition makes sense.
The connection between Michael’s nostalgic posts, his support of Trump, and his antipathy toward Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama began to make sense of to me.
Maybe the reason Michael so often posts from nostalgic websites is that they represent a happier time, a simpler time, a more manageable and comprehensible time before loss, a time before grief, a time when there was an illusion of well-being, of control, a time before incomprehensible tragedies.
Perhaps, a lot of Trump voters, including Michael, who said they were voting for change were, in fact, voting for un-change—for an imagined return to a simpler time when they could be blissfully unaware of racism, sexism, violence against women, homophobia, immigration and climate change. If they were unaware of these things, they didn’t exist. Their place in the ‘natural’ order of things was unquestioned. The truth is these issues that so trouble conservatives today all existed in the 1950’s (check out the Army McCarthy hearings), but they were kept invisible so as not to penetrate the collective consciousness, such as it was. People who believe that climate change is a hoax reminisce about the duck-and-cover drills at school and the bomb shelters in the backyards of the 50’s.
One of the pictures I found on the Comical Conservative website was this:
This longing for a simpler time, for un-change, is beautifully captured in Pleasantviile one of the best, most underappreciated movies of the last thirty years. In a reverse on The Wizard of Oz, Pleasantville’s, protagonists twin brother and sister, Tobey Maguire (who wants to spend a weekend watching a marathon showing of all of the Pleasantville reruns) and Reese Witherspoon (who has invited her boyfriend over while mother is away on a weekend date) are catapulted by a mysterious TV Repairman, Don Knotts, back into the “idyllic” black and white 1950’s TV show Pleasantviile. In the black and white TV shows of the 1950’s, Dad worked (it was a one-income family) and Mom was a perfectly-coiffed, complete with pearl necklace, homemaker a la Barbara Billingsley in Leave It to Beaver, who always had dinner on the table when Dad got home. Also, it being 1950’s black and white, Pleasantville has no diversity, no people of color, no minorities and no non-conformists of any kind. None of the streets in Pleasantville go anywhere; it is a hermetically sealed environment, frozen in time and immune to change. Maguire quickly realizes that life in Pleasantville is an endless cycle of reruns of episodes he knows by heart and, loving the stress-free predictability of Pleasantville, he is delighted to stay; Witherspoon, on the other hand, has a hot date and is desperate to get out ASAP.
The 50’s and 60’s weren’t really like Pleasantville, but I think a lot of people who lived through those decades remember TV shows like Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best and The Donna Reed Show more clearly and fondly than they remember their own lives. (We don’t get to watch and edit our own lives.)
The great French actress, Simone Signoret, entitled her memoir, Nostalgia Isn’t What It Used to Be. A Jew and a member of the underground resistance during the German occupation of France in WWII, Signoret observes how many French people who were not part of the resistance nostalgically remembered themselves to be.
One of the many pleasures of Pleasantville is to watch the town gradually evolve from black and white into color and, especially, to witness the black-and-white face of the Trump-like authoritarian mayor explode into beet-red technicolor rage. (A further delight is the sound track which includes a gorgeous score by Randy Newman and eclectic classics by Dave Brubeck, Etta James, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, Miles Davis and Fiona Apple.)
A week or so after the election I reposted something that had been sent to me on Facebook, “Like if you would vote for Obama for a third term.” I received over 200 likes and positive comments and then this showed up:
F**k that Muslim n-word!” followed by another post, “Agreed!”
I didn’t recognize their names; neither was a FB friend. I don’t know how they came upon my post.
I was curious enough to check out their FB pages.
Along with a lot of anti-Obama and quasi-pornographic Hillary posts, the first person had posted this:
“Oh to be young again . . . those were the days.”
Let’s pretend, indeed!
The person who agreed with his spiteful post had posted these sweet things:
Nostalgia really isn’t what it used to be.
So we go from Pleasantville to The Matrix (the latter was released a year after the former) and the choice between the red pill (embracing the sometimes painful truth of reality) and the blue pill (the blissful ignorance of illusion).
The late, great, Jesuit spiritual teacher, Anthony de Mello has been quoted as saying that if you had to take all the wisdom from the great spiritual traditions—Judaism, the Tao, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and that of the world’s Indigenous Peoples—and condense that wisdom into two words, those words would be, “Wake Up!”
“200 or more years ago most people on this planet never encountered a new idea or a stranger in an entire lifetime unless you were a member of the aristocracy, or the clergy, or the military. You lived and you died inside a twenty-five mile radius of where you were born and never met a stranger or a new idea. This confrontation with new ideas is really new insofar as the experience of our species is concerned.” -Author Chaim Potok, interviewed by Terry Gross: Fresh Air– NPR July 24, 2002