The privilege of nostalgia
Of all the outside events in my childhood—things that weren’t just about me and the insular people in my little preteen world—nothing has failed to fade into obscurity except for the 2000 Elections.
I couldn’t pin down exactly why that is, or sum it up in one coherent sentence. But it was the first time that my little world tilted off its axle, the first time that I figured that there was a world outside of my own personal hell (thanks middle school, for all the angst!), and that it wasn’t any better than anything that came before.
Even at 12, I was precocious and had to have an opinion about everything. I had a good social studies teacher for seventh grade that year. Most of the time, whichever teacher got stuck teaching the poorly taught mish-mash of geographic, civics, and history just read from the text, while scrubbing the world of any of its bullshit and unsavory characteristics. But I remember that teacher. Not her name, of course, but I remember that she had short hair, was quite fat, and inordinately found of Pepsi. She had posters of the Pepsi logo on her wall and drank an entire Big Glup of the sugary crap at least twice a day.
But what I remember most about her is that she was the first teacher that encouraged us to pay attention to politics. Not in the way that we used to, the way that only required rote memorization and only accomplished filled out worksheets, but in the way where we were supposed to think for ourselves.
So I thought for myself for what was probably one of the first times on something bigger than me and bigger than my family. I contemplated Bush, I contemplated Gore. And at 12, totally untutored in the ways of politics and how to fact-check talking heads on the television, I had the overwhelming impression that one of the candidates was incredibly full of shit. Oh, and it wasn’t Gore.
That sort of clarity about politics never really faded as I grew older. What did fade was the black and white mentality. Now, I can’t separate candidates or positions into right and wrong. It typically comes down to something like wrong, horribly wrong, and so absolutely fucking wrong that I can’t believe anyone buys this bullshit. I wish I could say that the world was painted in shades of gray. But it’s not. As time marches on, and the pressures of adulthood creep into my daily routines, the world is just shades of black, speckled with some drab grays—never lightening to anything approaching white.
Today, I was struck by this overwhelming nostalgia for the ’90s. Until November of 2000, I was blissfully unaware of the bullshit of the outside world. The Oklahoma City bombings and O.J.’s farce of a trial (I was 7 when those happened) were blips on the radar. The world was rosy, the future was promising, and one day soon a girl (maybe me?) could be president. My parents got a messy divorce circa ’96, but I figured that was just an indication of my family’s private malfunctions, and nothing to do with the state of the outside world.
2000 changed that. For the first time, I got the sense that the world was full of very corrupt, very stupid people. I watched an election stolen, and I thought, “what the fuck?” They taught me that we lived in a Democracy, that America was the best country in the world. And some douche that knew nothing about shit, who just lost the popular vote, was fraudulently declared the leader of my country over some dude who was pretty awkward, and kind of dorky, but at least knew what’s what, or so I assumed.
I was privileged. Even as my parents fought and my mother bought our clothes at Goodwill, I was insulated from the fuck-ups of the world. There were no bloody Civil Wars, nobody in our family starved or went without birthdays and winter extravaganzas of presents.
The 2000 Elections ushered in a new era of thinking big. For the first time, I saw something that happened that was wrong, and attributed it to large forces that people refused to control. The bullies that tormented me suddenly weren’t so bad after all. I found myself hating their parents, hating the administrators that sat by and watched the brutal abuse visited upon the bookish “weird” girl and did nothing. For the first time, I looked at power and saw cruelty when they alone had the power to make kindness stick.
Now, I know that it was the beginning of a decade of realization: that the strong are offered such opportunity to be callously indifferent, ignorant, and weak while the weak are expected and obligated to be strong, brave, and good when given no incentive or opportunity to do so. This is now what I refer to when I talk about privilege. With power comes the sheltering embrace of ignorance, the ability to push responsibility down the pile until it rains like a foul deluge on those without anyone below them to abuse.
I sit here now, in a crap heap of shattered privileges. The willowy thinness of youth has left, replaced with hormonal imbalances, back problems, and horrid allergies. My refuge of feigned heterosexuality is destroyed beneath the weight of a denial I could not face—without any indication that I ought to do so, that there was any other way that this endless farce of normalcy. My religious heritage has become less of an interesting set of rituals and more of a set of squishy places for the heavy bludgeon of enforced public Christianity to really bruise. My wages don’t meet inflation, don’t meet the cost of living. I face an endless road of insurmountable debt, with the hopeless idea that I could beat the odds and pay it off. What bullshit is that? Pay it off? People who went to college in the ’80s—when it was expensive but not absurdly so—had to pay into their 40s. And this is with a good economy for most of the way, steady jobs, and wages that kept up with the cost of living until recently. What hope have I, with higher debt, lower wages, and an economy in shambles?
Nostalgia is for the privileged, for those who can look back with fondness to their youth. My youth, frankly, was miserable. There are years—somewhere between 8 (the year my parents split) and 14—that I was so unhappy that I only recall bits and pieces. But those fragile memories contain the promise that as long as I could live through the relentless hell of school, there would be a shiny adult life full of hope, if I worked for it, waiting for me.
At 22, I look back with nostalgia because I had hope. Now, I guess I still do. It’s its a flimsy facsimile of hope, because the consequences of facing the hopeless future before me is too psychologically great. There’s bitter refuge in ignorance. My number will eventually come up. Those in worst straights know it better than me—that the future isn’t all that awesome. Maybe they recall with fondness the ’90s, when parents let their children out to play all day and the world was full of the promise of high-tech jobs and high-tech lives. When the counterculture was about raging against the machine and a well-earned anger at authority and less about the crushing demands of relentless consumerism, creating debt to ease the pain of meaningless lives, meaningless values. When people mourned in the streets for their lost heroes—for their Princess Dianas and Kurt Colbanes—instead of overlooking the deadly attempted assassinations of political officials and bombings of medical clinics.
What happened since then? My favorite bands and artists could go up in flames tomorrow and I would not shed a tear. My house could be foreclosed upon, and I would not even blink in surprise. They could ban abortion and I’d shrug my shoulders, knowing it was inevitable.
If this is growing up, fuck it all. Adult responsibilities now only mean adult debts, adult lies you tell yourself to get out of bed in the morning. I’m not depressed. I’m angry. I’m filled with contempt at all the people in authority that had the power to stop this downward spiral, and instead said, “fuck it, I’d rather buy a Hummer.”
Nostalgia is for those with a past to look back on fondly. I could have it worse, but I could have had it a lot better. No matter how many people are worse off mean that those entrusted with the task of being strong for me—a child—should be forgiven for failing in so many different ways.
But what scares the ever-loving crap out me is the concept that in the future, as I see it going, we’re going to have extra awesome new ways of failing those we’re tasked with protecting. The meek shall inherit an Earth devoid of fertile soil, lush forests, equality of opportunity, and Democracy. They will instead inherit insurmountable debt, countries on the brink of dissolution or war, oceans depleted of fish and skies filled with the smog of yesterday.
One day I’ll look back at my nostalgia today with nostalgia, because the way we’re going, it’s going to only get worse. If The Smith’s “How Soon is Now?”—which exclaims, “I’ve already waited too long, and all my hope is gone”—defines our generation, what of the generations of the future? How much worse must it get before we wake up and say to power, fuck you and your tax cuts, your business incentives and your bonus packages. I want a future for me and mine, so sell your fucking yacht, because no greedy ignorant sack of shit like you has the right to plunder the world of its riches, its happiness, its hope, and its future.