Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

A Random Thought

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but bear with me: What's wrong with America today? Well, plenty, but plenty's right as well, and yet there's a sense of something a bit out of control--the stridency of the right and the flaccidity of the left leaving the whole engine of government and culture heading out into the future like the proverbial runaway train. (No, I'm not deliberately citing Tom Petty--the analogy predated that song, thank you.) I'm listening to A Confederacy of Dunces in my car as I make my long commutes, and it strikes me, listening to a book of that era (late 60s), that maybe what we've lost is a memory. Officer Mancuso arrives at the Widow Reilly's house, and sees a weathered but still legible WWII poster about "Loose lips sinking ships" and it struck me as I heard that--that that was the collective memory of the people of that time. Not just of that war, but living through it--sacrificing and struggling and living with the fear of an uncertain outcome against a terrible enemy--and coming out the other side realizing that they'd just won perhaps the most important war since the Greeks pushed the Persians back on the plains of Plataea. And there was the memory of that in what they did with the rest of their lives--the sense that that achievement, that victory defined America. Sure, we devolved quickly into Communist witch-hunts and race riots and Kennedy's assassination--but through it all, I think that the men and women--that much-hyped 'Greatest Generation'--were able to look upon each other and the world with a sense of the fundamental justness and decency of their character because they had, in ways large and small, participated in that triumph.

But the sign on the Widow Reilly's door is fading, and what memory replaces it? Well, Vietnam, perhaps--certainly, it was a collective experience that brought with it little but shame--and I include--indeed, I foreground the treatment of the veterans of that war--receiving them with embarassment and slight, regarding them as 'losers'--our nation showed an ugly side in its treatment of those men. And the stupidity of the war from a political standpoint--the futility of it--that replaced, I think, the memory of WWII. We became the Bully Nation--the Cowardly Nation--the nation who acted out of self-interest, not justice.

But such cynicism has a relatively short shelf-life. It's self-abusive, and most people would rather be self-forgiving. No, I don't think it's the memory of Vietnam that has us careening along unseen tracks--I think it's the fact that we have no collective memory. No event replaced the fading Vietnam, and now, unable to be defined viscerally by our past, we don't know who we are. "America" is up for grabs, it seems--but as much as the Far Right tries to snatch it for itself, it's a Sisyphean task--without any history--any memory--to anchor their claims, they'll lose whatever ground they gain as fast as we can change the channel. (Witness the dismal failure of their attempt to sell "The War on Christmas" as the issue of the day.) We've lost our past. And without it--how can we know where we're headed?

Chaos ensues...


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