I am not proposing a return to the Stone Age. My intent is not reactionary, nor even conservative, but simply subversive. It seems that the utopian imagination is trapped, like capitalism and industrialism and the human population, in a one-way future consisting only of growth (85).
In the same essay, Le Guin mentions that some people actually think of North Texas as a kind of utopia (specifically, Arlington—p. 88; it’s a story told by Prof. Kenneth Roemer, who teaches at UT Arlington), and it’s clearly the case that many American citizens think of the United States itself in utopian terms: the best of all possible worlds, if not still, then in the past. This has got me to thinking about the kind of historical blindness that seems to spring up when things aren’t going well, as they haven’t been in recent years, and ties in with Susan Jacoby's article in the Sunday Dallas Morning News on the rise of anti-intellectualism in the US (“An incredibly incurious America”). It’s also related to an anonymously authored e-mail that’s been circulating (I’ve been sent copies by two people).
I hadn’t really noticed it before, but folks who live in north Texas suburbs actually seem to be pretty happy about doing so. After all, they’ve got nice big houses, clean streets, and shopping close by. Fast food is plentiful, uniform, and predictable, so there aren’t any surprises. Chances are no one’s going to run across anything unique, but hey—that’s why the suburbs are attractive: nothing to upset the equilibrium. Things may be getting a teensy bit unsettling with the spate of foreclosures and rising gas prices, but area ‘burbs aren’t nearly as affected as in the rest of the country, and, well, one can always downsize the Hummer to a standard SUV if gas gets to be uncomfortably expensive. So the notion of Arlington (or Frisco, or the west side of McKinney) as utopia doesn’t seem that far-fetched, if one envisions comfort and placidity as the ideal.
But many older folks (my generation and my parents’) seem to be looking back on an unlikely utopia: the years surrounding World War II, when (as the e-mail puts it), “they had just come out of a vicious depression. The country was steeled by the hardship of that depression but they still believed fervently in this country. They knew that the people had elected their leaders so it was the people’s duty to back those leaders.” Furthermore, “Often there were more casualties in one day in WWI than we have had in the entire Iraq war. But that did not matter. The people stuck with the President because it was their patriotic duty. Americans put aside their differences in WWII and worked together to win that war.”
Today, however, we’re “a cross between Sodom and Gomorra and the land of Oz” and are “subjected to a constant bombardment of pornography, perversion, and pornography” and “have legions of crack heads, dope pushers, and armed gangs roaming our streets.” (One does wonder where the author of this piece actually lives—since it’s clearly not around here!) Then was good; now is bad. As a reminder to those who bought into this message wholesale, I offer this list from Al Devito’s blog, Vineyard News: What a Difference 60 Years Makes.
Now, I’ll admit to giving my students the occasional speech in which I wax nostalgic about my rather rich education, imposed in part by the stern Dominican nuns who must have learned a thing or two from the Inquisition. But I also know that current problems in education are in large measure our own fault—the fault of my generation, for buying into “progress” for its own sake, and for embracing without question the technologies that we blame today for everything from short attention spans to sexual license. The kids, to be sure, whined endlessly, begging for the newest electronic gizmo, but most of us went along with it, upgrading from Atari to Commodore 64 to Xbox to whatever. They learned from this that whining is a winning strategy.
But nostalgia for the war years seems equally misplaced, as does the unquestioning acceptance of “patriotic duty” (the people of Germany, after all, felt it their patriotic duty to follow their elected chancellor and to ignore what the SS was doing to guarantee German sovereignty). Having lived in Japan shortly after that same war ended, I clearly remember weekly air raid drills that scared the bejeezis out of me, and duck-and-cover practice sessions that haunted my dreams for decades. During that same war, we also deprived thousands of American citizens of their rights, simply because of their ethnic origins, and transported them to “relocation” camps like the one outside of my home town—Manzanar—while also depending on many of them to help fight the war for us. We were not perfect then, any more than we are perfect today.
I see no reason to disagree with Susan Jacoby’s fundamental premise that Americans are becoming increasingly ignorant of history and decreasingly curious about anything that will help remedy that ignorance. But we could start by looking back honestly at what has happened, and using the knowledge we gain to help us build paths toward a more viable future. In her essay, Le Guin quotes Howard A. Norman (from his book on Cree folk tales) describing a kind of porcupine philosophy: “He goes backward, looks forward” in order to back safely into a rock crevice. She goes on to interpret this in terms of thinking about what lies ahead for us:
In order to speculate safely on an inhabitable future, perhaps we would do well to find a rock crevice and go backward. In order to find our roots, perhaps we should look for them where roots are usually found . . . With all our self-consciousness, we have very little sense of where we live, where we are right here right now. If we did, we wouldn’t muck it up the way we do (84-85).
We might, in other words, learn to get along—learn to be—by being conscious of where we are and where we’ve been. Ignorance of history is a dangerous indulgence, and lack of curiosity is even more deadly. The human imagination requires both in order to thrive. We owe our kids the inspiration to learn from the past without holding it up as some glorious utopian moment, and we sure as hell have no place moaning helplessly about the present, when our generation helped to create it. Nevertheless, when we vote for a nebulous idea like “change,” we also need to understand exactly what we mean; the only way we can do that is to fully understand what we’re changing from.
Quoted material: Ursula K. Le Guin, “A Non-Euclidian View of California as a Cold Place to Be” in Dancing At the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989. The link is to the 1997 edition from Grove Books.