Those of us out here who grew up in the fifties in Pittsburgh seldom think of going back – we all left for a reason. The world was elsewhere. One of the actors out here, who grew up in Pittsburg, Jeff Goldblum, made an odd movie about going back – it’s unwatchable. It’s sort of a documentary but maybe it’s an indulgent self-parody or cultural commentary – Goldblum puts his Hollywood life on hold to star alongside his new girlfriend in a Pittsburgh regional theater production of The Music Man. It’s a disaster. He finds out the world is still elsewhere. It’s not there.
It happens – David O. Selznick is from Pittsburgh. There’s none of Pittsburgh in that famous movie he produced, Gone with the Wind. And Stephen Foster is from Pittsburgh – you know, My Old Kentucky Home and Beautiful Dreamer, and no songs about Pittsburgh. You drop your Pittsburgh roots – F. Murray Abraham did, as did Christina Aguilera. No one mentions it – not Barbara Feldon, the original Agent 99, or Frank Gorshin, or Charles Grodin, or Holly Hunter (but she only went to cellege there). Shirley Jones and Charles Bronson didn’t make anything of being from Pittsburgh, and Gene Kelly and Oscar Levant certainly didn’t either.
The list of such people is odd. You could form a jazz band – George Benson, Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Kenny Clarke, Billy Eckstine, Roy Eldridge, Stanley Turrentine, Earl Hines and Ahmad Jamal – and Billy Strayhorn could do the arrangements. Or if you like fake jazz there’s Henry Mancini, and Perry Como could sing the vocals. Those are all people who left.
There was always a bigger world. Martha Graham danced her way out of town, to fame. Gertrude Stein liked to say that America was her country and Paris was her home town, but like many of us she was born in Allegheny General Hospital on the North Side – they call it the North Shore now, hoping for the best. Andy Warhol got out of town fast enough too. These are three people who redefined big chunks of modern culture. And if you like to think of the fate of the world and our place in nature, well, Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard were Pittsburgh kids once. They got over it – they left the rusting city on the river, a city that peaked about 1944 or so, far behind. That nasty little comedian-commentator on Fox News, Dennis Miller – tiny hands, big mouth and a permanent supercilious sneer – may not have gotten over it. He’s obviously overcompensating. CNN’s Jeanne Moos isn’t.
Satchel Page once said don’t look back – someone may be gaining on you. And that may be the issue at hand, the usefulness of looking back.
Think about it. As a general rule, one should avoid high school reunions. You’re all old, fat and seedy now – some more than others of course – and no one is what they expected to be. No dreams came true. And whoever shows up as the stunning success – rich, elegant and cosmopolitan – will generate enough resentment to chill a large warehouse to forty degrees below zero, Celsius. But why would they come back for a high school reunion anyway? They have nothing to prove to anyone, or more likely, it doesn’t even occur to them that one might even want to do such a thing. What’s the point? They’re not looking back. They never did. They left.
And that leaves the locals, who never left. There’s a lot of looking back there. Pittsburgh may have peaked in 1944 or so, and many of them may have peaked in those last few months of high school in 1965. Of course Pittsburgh had its renaissance – the city is transformed now, two-thirds smaller and a clean and tidy tech-medical hub – but few people can radically transform themselves. They trade Facebook notes on the grandkids and stories of old times, like that fall football game long ago when their life changed, one way or the other. That helps.
Marx had it wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the masses. Nostalgia is the opiate of the masses. Nostalgia provides a comfort more immediate and personal – with no need for talking snakes or burning bushes and that sort of thing. Nostalgia can be objectively and empirically verified. There is the yearbook, after all. You might even have that old letter-sweater.
This of course establishes a cultural dialectic – there are those who look back, and pretend that’s where reality is, and those who inhabit the present and look forward, and pretend that’s where reality is. And it’s more than whether you remember May 1965 at North Hills High School. These days there is the gulf between those who say they want their country back – the Tea Party crowd – and those who have no idea what the hell those people are talking about.
It’s a wide chasm, really. Some of us see Tea Party Nostalgia – now there’s a website begging to be launched and a marketing opportunity – and wonder just what is going on. That’s not reality. Others see what Obama has pulled off – the giant stimulus package, major healthcare reform that no one had been able to get done for sixty or seventy years, setting things up so everyone has some sort of healthcare coverage, and the first major financial regulatory reform since the early thirties – and also wonder just what is going on. That’s a severe rupture of reality – and he’s black and put a Latina woman on the Supreme Court and doesn’t seem to think government is the problem, not the solution. The government can do useful things and do actual good for people? What’s up with that? It’s like someone walked into the high school reunion and said, you know, this is stupid stuff – who cares? And of course the resentment of that is chilling – far below forty degrees below zero. And of course the Tea Party crowd at its core is old – they are the high school Class of 1965 or thereabouts. They just aren’t on Facebook talking about that Friday night in autumn long ago when Carol whoever was crowned homecoming queen. They’re talking about how good times were back then – economically and socially and in any way you can think of. And they want that country back. They want no part of the cosmopolitan Obama – Hawaii to Jakarta to Harvard Law School and all the rest. They may not be birthers – saying he was born elsewhere being absurd in the face of it – but they do resent being reminded of the big world out there. They never left Pittsburgh.
The curious thing about this is that if you head down the Ohio from Pittsburgh – humming the Henry Mancini tune Moon River, which Mancini said was about the Ohio River at Aliquippa, where he grew up – the next major city you encounter is Cincinnati, another once bustling city that peaked long ago and is filled with older folks who never left. And House Minority Leader John Boehner is from Cincinnati – he’s lived there his entire life. He graduated from Cincinnati’s Moeller High School in 1968, and then did a bold thing and enlisted in the Navy. Of course that was one way to serve your country and not get your ass shot off in some rice paddy in Vietnam, but he did join up. And you know what the Navy recruiting hook was back in those days – Join the Navy, See the World.
Boehner lasted all of eight weeks in the Navy – discharged for medical reasons. He never did see the world. He stayed put, and earned his degree in business from Xavier University in Cincinnati in 1977 – none of this heading off to Harvard or Yale or even Ohio State up in Columbus – none of that. He didn’t even leave the county. He then accepted a position with a small sales business in packaging and plastics – he obviously didn’t get the joke in that scene in The Graduate – and he eventually became president of the firm.
And of course he hates Obama – or at least hates each and every thing Obama has done or is thinking about doing – and is a bit of a hero to the Tea Party crowd. They know he’s on their side. And of course his age is right too – he fits the demographic. And he stayed home.
So of course, a few weeks ago, you got this:
(CNN) – House Minority Leader John Boehner is stepping up criticism of his Democratic colleagues, telling the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that “they’re snuffing out the America that I grew up in.”
Boehner’s comments are the latest indication the Ohio Republican is aggressively setting his sights on the November elections as it appears increasingly possible his party could take control of the House.
Yep, the man from Cincinnati spoke to the folks in Pittsburgh. Gertrude Stein and Martha Graham and Andy Warhol weren’t there after all. All those kind of folks had left long ago – he was speaking to those in both cities who had never left. They know what reality is, or what it once was, or what should be but was being threatened with irrelevance now. That would be the America Boehner grew up in. Everyone knows that country can be objectively and empirically verified. There are the yearbooks. Things were good back then.
That generated a bit of comment. In the Guardian (UK) – and yes, that’s the island country across the Atlantic from the war movies (it wasn’t a set on a soundstage) – Mike Tomasky wonders just how good things were:
Boehner was born in November 1949. Let’s take a look at the America he grew up in.
In the America John Boehner grew up in, the top marginal tax rate on wealthy earners was 90%. It had gone up there during the war, and five, 10, 15 years after armistice, no sizable group, Democrat or Republican, felt any strong urge to lower it.
Boehner wants THAT back? And Boehner, like all good free-market Republicans, hates unions, so Tomasky zings him with this:
And in the America John Boehner grew up in, private-sector union membership was around or above 30%. Today’s figure is 7%. The right to form a union was broadly accepted. Outside of a few small turbulent pockets, there was no such thing as today’s union-busting law firms hired by management to go into workplaces and intimidate workers.
And as for all this talk about getting back to the good old days by privatizing then phasing out Social Security, Tomasky zings him by quoting Eisenhower:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.
And as for the successive Republican filibusters to block any emergency extensions of unemployment benefits in the current crisis, no matter how many millions were suddenly without the means to buy food or shelter, and the whole idea this is no time to spend any money on anything, Tomasky offers this:
In the America John Boehner grew up in, when little Johnny was just starting school in fact, the federal government undertook the largest public works project in the country’s history, the interstate highway system. It cost $100 billion dollars, a little more. The feds picked up 90% of the tab, and it was paid largely through dedicated taxes.
And, by the way, fifties Republicans would have nothing to do with Boehner:
In the America John Boehner grew up in, the Republican Party was a moderate-to-conservative party. The modern conservative movement was just coming to life – in Bill Buckley’s offices in Manhattan, on the campus of Notre Dame University, in Orange County, California. But many establishment Republicans considered these people a bunch of dangerous kooks.
But if Boehner really wants to go back Tomasky says fine, let’s start negotiations. That particular country actually can be objectively and empirically verified. Those high school yearbooks can be deceptive.
Matthew Yglesias is of the same mind:
The America that John Boehner grew up in – the America of the 1950s and early 1960s – was in many respects a much more statist and left-wing America. Certainly it was an America with dramatically higher top marginal income tax rates, much less income inequality, and much higher levels of unionization, especially in the private sector. Tomasky might have added along these lines that it was a much more regulated America. Prices for all kinds of goods and services were set by government commissions. A bank in Maryland couldn’t open a branch in Virginia or Delaware.
Yep, if you look at the facts, the fifties really was left-wing, or at least by today’s reasoning. Boehner would hate it. But then it was also not that way at all:
But of course in many other respects the America of John Boehner’s youth was a much more right-wing country. Gays and lesbians were stuffed deep into the closet, and there was no suggestion that they should be allowed to serve openly in the military or in any other role. African-Americans were subjected to pervasive discrimination in housing and employment, and in the southern states they couldn’t vote or exercise any basic rights – all this backed by the state, and also by collusion between state authorities and ad hoc terrorist groups. It was a whiter country with dramatically fewer residents of Asian or Latin American descent. It was a more religiously observant country, and it was a country in which Jews were far from fully accepted into American life.
So it’s a mixed bag. But Boehner doesn’t see any of it. He must be thumbing through the 1968 Moeller High School yearbook, or pandering for votes. Either way Yglesias wants no part of it:
There are a few areas of policy in which I think we’ve moved backwards since the mid-sixties, but I wouldn’t want to return to an America with almost no immigrants or to an America with a single monopoly provider of telecom services. I’m glad airlines can set their own ticket prices and I’m glad black people can sit in the front of the bus. What is it that Boehner misses?
That’s good question. But Boehner was never very good on specifics. Boehner just knows things should be as they were in Cincinnati in 1968 – or that there are a lot of folks, who vote, who feel that way. He wants those votes. We can work out the details later. He knows most Americans are still stuck in the spring of the senior year in high school, in their home town. He’s after the anti-cosmopolitan vote. The Tea Party crowd calls these the Real Americans.
And Yglesias doesn’t think much of that:
The United States was founded fairly explicitly on a set of liberal ideals – pragmatic egalitarian cosmopolitan individualism is the American creed and the progressive movement is largely about trying to make those ideals a reality. John Boehner’s view that human freedom somehow reached a peak in the 1950s and that therefore a reactionary politics is going to be liberatory is absurd.
But in terms of being a cool, cosmopolitan dude, Yglesias is serious:
I think cosmopolitanism is integral to the liberal worldview and that the best strands of thinking in the progressive coalition in contemporary America reflect that cosmopolitanism. But I should clarify that by “cosmopolitan” I mean on the level of values not on the level of lifestyles.
A cosmopolitan politics is about taking seriously the idea that the welfare of Chinese people is as objectively important as the welfare of Americans. Cosmopolitan lifestyle is more than knowing where to find authentic Sichuan-style cooking. There’s a contingent empirical relationship between the two in that people with cosmopolitan lifestyles are personally comfortable with the “different” and thus perhaps more likely to understand the moral issues correctly, but it’s perfectly possible to enjoy travel and also be a nationalist troglodyte in your political views or to be a fairly parochial American who also (perhaps inspired by the strong cosmopolitan strand in Christianity) donates to international charities.
It’s complicated – but you don’t stay home in Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, nor stay home in 1968 or so. Those cities and that time were not what you’d like to remember, and what you think you remember was not what was going on anyway.
But Yglesias goes further, arguing that the American political tradition is a cosmopolitan one, and it’s right there in the founding documents:
We start by positing a set of universalistic principles and assert that the purpose of founding our state is to instantiate those principles in practice. Thus whatever nationalistic claims we make are supposed to follow from our success at implementing a cosmopolitan value system. In practice, of course, this often isn’t how it works at all – we have plenty of ugly nationalism in our history and more than our fair share of racism – but that is the formal structure of our basic rhetoric about ourselves.
But if that is so – and it seems to be so – then all bets are off. Don’t look back. Somebody may be gaining on you.