One of the more challenging aspects of progress is assigning value to a past that is fraught with troublesome and unacceptable values and behaviors. But it is no simple matter, as I see it, to move forward by rejecting the past wholesale. Pico Iyer makes a go of this problematic situation.
For some more context:
I had a lovely day with my youngest daughter—she’s in her early 20s still and is teaching school. I couldn’t be prouder as the papa. And, as we are want to do, we watched a handful of old movies, ones that she really loves, loves so dearly that she can recite all of the dialogue, the kind that make us both cry, and most are movies with caricatures, stereotypes, sexism, and anachronism that offend contemporary sensibilities. These movies could not, should not be made today. We must be our future selves, not imprisoned by the present even if we are rightly troubled by our past.
We make no excuses, notice them but don’t need to point every instance—that are plain to the meanest wit and fail every test of presentism. Would I give up Breakfast at Tiffanys for these offensive portrayals, especially the deeply objectionable way the Japanese landlord is played by Mickey Rooney? What of Inspector Clouseau and all of that sexism and cultural offense? Is it still okay to laugh or to cry, when so much is wrong? To what standard do we hold the past in our present?
Pico Iyer doesn’t spend any energy here discussing the frightening and utterly disgraceful revivals of racism and sexism that are important features of white grievance culture’s claims we have all become too “politically correct.” But this is undoubtedly a feature of the culture wars that will decide 2020 elections as older whites invest in backlash against culture’s progress. I have no desire for the “good old days” and no room for this kind of backwardness. We don’t and won’t make movies like this anymore—at least I hope not.
Like Iyer I don’t lament what we are losing but what we would lose if we dismissed or rejected them for their unacceptable anachronisms. I would further agree that we don’t have to if we take to heart what was and was is and who we want to be. Somehow can we make room for these pasts? Can we accept Lincoln and his evolution given the world of 1860? Can we live with our grandparents’ values that make us deeply embarrassed and troubled? Mine do.
I would disagree with Iyer on several counts—because while our ancestors sometimes wanted to be the best they could be, they weren’t and their views and attitudes cannot be condoned—and we _are_ the wiser for it. There’s no room in my heart for the sickening nostalgia that is at the center of repugnant Republican bigotry. There aren’t good people on both sides. It’s not okay to bring this forward even if it is past.
But still, I want to cry all the way through Breakfast at Tiffanys. I still want to make room for the failures of the past and live with some of what was that can no longer be, must no longer be.