Selective memory

Nostalgia neglects the painful parts of our past

With every new generation comes a new era of pop nostalgia, and Americans seem to have a special knack for resurrecting the best of every decade while conveniently forgetting about the worst.

Take the 1960s: We took from that decade tie-dyed clothes, hippie/hipster slang ("Groovy, baby! Far out!") and arguably some of the best rock ‘n’ roll music ever made. Forgotten amidst the rose-colored memories of free love are the drugs and alcohol that killed some of our best rock musicians young. Many of us have forgotten the struggles of the civil rights moment, and we forget that racial tensions still exist and that terms like “hate crime” and “affirmative action” are still necessary.

From the 1970s, we took bell bottoms and a new appreciation for polyester. Disco, once reviled, is now freely sampled into our favorite hip-hop and pop tracks. Britney Spears wears ‘70s rock-style muscle shirts while singing with Aerosmith at the Super Bowl, and the British Invasion is again storming our shopping malls. Meanwhile, veterans of that infamous “police action” in Vietnam still beg on our streets and sleep in our parks, their flashbacks of a horrific war now turned into comedy fodder.

Most recently, the high fashion and music industries have renewed a love of the 1980s. New Wave music is spawning not just a retro night at your local nightclub, but whole nightclubs. Pick up any fashion magazine and learn that shoulder pads are back, and preppy pink shirts with skinny belts are the epitome of cool. We’ve forgotten the disdain we once professed for the politics of greed and conspicuous consumerism. We’ve even gone so dangerously far as to believe that AIDS is no longer a disease to be feared, a mindset increasingly being described as “AIDS complacency.”

But no era has survived the tide of popular opinion as well as the 1950s, with its shiny cars, its peppy music and its cheerful Leave It to Beaver veneer. Ironically, out of all the decades mentioned here, the 1950s may have the most skeletons in the closet.

The role models for women in the ‘50s were June Cleaver and Donna Reed, women who embodied the perfect wife and mother. Many women didn’t find domestic life either fun or fulfilling, yet they hid this guilty secret behind lavish family dinners and endless layers of hair spray. For a woman to admit that she wanted something more than a brand new dishwasher—say, a job and/or an education—would be to admit that she was a failure as a woman.

The 1950s signaled the start of the Cold War and a decade of fear led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. This country, founded on political and religious freedom, was now fueled by paranoia, and some eagerly sought to expel, jail and even execute “those pinko commies.” One didn’t even have to be in the Communist Party—to be suspected was enough to destroy your livelihood.

And lest we forget, our happy collective memories of the 1950s are really the memories of a privileged class: white, educated and suburban. For minorities, the ‘50s were a decade of overt racism and a revival of the Ku Klux Klan. Elvis gained his fame and fortune in the ‘50s by co-opting the music of Black America, while black musicians were segregated out of Elvis’ white hotels and restaurants.

As we gear up to celebrate yet another Hot August Nights, the ease with which we forget the pain of the past disturbs me. This week, I will not drown the ‘50s in a vanilla Coke or hide my head under the hood of a ‘57 Chevy. Instead, I will continue living in the present and working toward the future.

I may join you in remembering the past, but I’ll remember the mistakes, too, and hope that we stop repeating them.