Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Nostalgia and The Wonder years cont'd

Does anything about this paragraph from Slate's reconisderation of The Wonder Years strike you as odd?
For a head trip, consider that Kevin Arnold and Sally Draper are exactly the same age: While Kevin is sheltered in a safe suburban bubble with his nuclear family, not kissing Winnie even when they are parked at Make Out Point, Sally has been exposed to a creepy adult world full of home intruders, adulterous fathers with their pants off, avuncular family friends receiving blow jobs. Sally’s already practiced at contending with drunk, gropey boarding-school boys. It’s hard to imagine Kevin as one of those boys.
The words that should get your bullshit detector flashing are "sheltered" and "bubble".

Factually, it's credible. Kevin did live in a safe suburban neighbourhood and Sally has been exposed to a lot of creepy stuff. So much so that the parents of the girl who plays Sally won't let her watch the show. And I have no trouble at all believing that a child of divorced and dysfunctional parents like Sally Draper would have an unenviable childhood. (Families are never dysfunctional but the people in them sure can be.)

But why take it for granted that Kevin is sheltered in a bubble while Sally is exposed to the real 1960s?

What is at work here might be called the modernist fallacy. Modernists insist that we live in a world that is fragmented, disenchanted and frightening. They keep insisting this even though most of us in the west know no such world. The only way to avoid this indisputable evidence against their favourite fantasy is to insist—over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again—that the comfortable and comforting lives that most of us have lived is a sheltered fantasy only possible in a suburban bubble.
... The Wonder Years insists that the suburbs were a shelter, a place where the intensities of the ’60s barely registered, where the death of a beloved math teacher mattered more than the assassination of world leaders, where free love didn’t make Kevin and Winnie any less nervous about kissing.
That's projection. The show doesn't insist that the suburbs were a shelter. It only insists, because it's true, that the suburbs were actually good places to grow up no matter what intellectuals might insist to the contrary that these things either never happened or they were only possible because the people who lived them were members  of a privileged elite.

Interesting, in that regard, that wealthy Sally Draper is credible as a girl exposed to creepy and scary stuff while Kevin Arnold growing up in a very ordinary middle class setting is equally credible as not being exposed to all that stuff. Isn't shelter from scary stuff usually the sort of thing that comes from wealth and power, which Sally's parents have in abundance?

Nostalgia isn't the escape it's often painted as being. It's an act of rebellion against an intellectual elite who want to rob you of your history and culture.


  1. I'm wondering how this (especially the last lines) squares with your often-expressed dismissal of authenticity.

    1. Interesting question. I have to admit that it never occurred to me to think of it from that perspective. First take: authenticity is an inwardly directed standard. It says that an authentic life makes it possible for me to authoritatively judge based on my personal experience. I am not, however, (or at least I don't think so) arguing that Kevin's world is authentic and Sally Draper's is not. The argument I thought I was making is that it's odd to claim, as the Slate article seems to implicitly claim, that Sally's experience is more authentic and Kevin's a sheltered one.

      Okay, but it's not enough to simply tear down someone else's account; I have to come up with a credible rival account and thinking about your question, I see that I haven't. I obviously can't just turn around and say that there is something "authentic" about the nostalgia some of us feel for the suburbs of the 1960s, 1970s or even the 1980s. Rather, I have to claim that nostalgia can be subjected to some sort of credible truth standard. I have been implicitly making a claim that a nostalgic outlook on life can be true in a non-subjective sense and I haven't backed that up. In fact, it didn't even occur to me that that was part of the claim until now.

      Much thinking needed ...

  2. The thing that stood out to me was the valoration of "your history and culture" when in the past you've taken a skeptical view on these things.
    I'm not sure that I was even thinking along the same lines as your self-critique above. Good to be a spur to thought though, I suppose.

    1. I think it is credible to talk about history and culture when it refers to something one has actually lived. I'm skeptical of history and culture when people try to make some sort of mystical connection between the two. That is what is happening, I think, in Obama's Dreams of my Father where he tries to find some sort of mystical connection with his race.

    2. Another example of the mystical connection with history and culture: Years ago the Lemon Girl made friends with a fellow genealogist. This guy suddenly gave up all the work he had done when he discovered that he had been adopted. Because he had no genetic connection with these people anymore, they no longer mattered to him. He seemed to think that the culture and history that had been passed on to him by his adoptive parents had nothing to do with the real him.

    3. This is interesting, well he's at least partially right. The culture and history of his adoptive parents were relevant to him because that's what he was raised with. But he also had another culture and history--that of his biological parents--of which he was unaware. So the task before him is to sort it all out, I guess. Going back to your earlier comment, a sheltered life is not necessarily inauthentic, I don't think "sheltered" is the opposite of inauthentic, authenticity is there --or not--regardless of the setting or circumstances, its something interior. I grew up in the so-called "safe" suburbs, and I guess I was sheltered, but I thank God every day for that, thats how kids are supposed to grow up. It gave me safety going through critical developmental stages, college was soon enough to learn about the seedier aspects of life. I also agree with the last sentence of your original post about nostalgia.