February 6, 2019

Another world, not my own*

*With apologies to Dominick Dunne.

Odysseus sat on the beach, Anthony Esolen tells us in the opening to his new book, Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, casting his eye upon the sea, as he has done every night for as long as he can remember. It is a beautiful world, Esolen says, a world in which all is well; "only the man is lost; only the man is not well." He has all he needs here, and the beautiful woman who loves him like a pet has promised that he will not age as long as he stays here. And yet, "He suffers the pang of something bitter and sweet, and more bitter than sweet." It is, says Esolen, the pain from the desire to return from whence he came. It is, in the Greek word that we use to describe it, nostalgia, "the ache to turn back home."

How I wish I had read this before I wrote The Electronic Mirror. Not because of the elegance of Esolen's language, though elegant it is, in a way to which I can only aspire. No, it is because of the essential truth contained in those words, a truth I've tried many times to express, here and elsewhere. It helps give us a better understanding of just what that "turn back home" really means, and it has to do with what I feel is the problem today: alienation.

I'm going to refer back to that JFK assassination radio coverage I wrote about last month. Now, I don't mean to put too fine a point on this—it's certainly not my intent to turn this into the JFK channel. At the same time, these long-form recordings provide a brief immersion in the past; not just the big moments, but the little moments that precede them—and, as we'll see, the little moments within the big moments, the ones that I think provide the clearest insight and the most pain.

For example: whenever CBS would break to allow affiliates to make local announcements, the announcers at my hometown station, WCCO-AM in Minneapolis, would read listings of special church services being held in memory of Kennedy; there were so many that it sounded like they were reading lists of school closings in the Midwest during a blizzard. A lot of businesses were closing early that Friday; not so much because of the shock (although that too), but to allow their employees to attend services that might be happening at, say, 5:00 p.m. Would we hear that today?

Outside the WCCO studio, as the station broadcast the news on loudspeakers, passersby were asked for their impressions. First one man, then another, and still another, would say it. I wasn't a Kennedy man, they would say, I didn't vote for him, but I think this is the most terrible thing that's ever happened to this country. Now, remember: these were businessmen being interviewed, old enough for nearly all of them to have remembered Pearl Harbor (it was only 22 years ago, after all), and probably for most of them to have fought either in World War II or Korea. And yet, this is a terrible, terrible thing, the worst thing that could happen. Said about a man they hadn't voted for. Would we hear that today?

In Washington, the Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, and the minority leader, Everett Dirksen, spoke to the media. Dirksen, a Republican, talked about the last time he and the president had spoken, just a few days ago when Kennedy was presiding over the annual pardon of the Thanksgiving turkey, and what a pleasant conversation they had had, talking of pending legislation, of 1964, and other things. Democrat Mansfield, after praising the president's memory, talked of “the cooperation and the support which the distinguished senator from Illinois, Mr. Dirksen, the minority leader of the Senate, gave to the President of the United States, a Democrat, time and time again, when the interests of the nation were at stake; and I know how grateful he was to you for the many contributions you made, and I am just as grateful, and the nation is, too.” Mansfield called it a fond memory; do people have fond memories of those they disagree with today? Dirksen later said of Kennedy, “If at any moment he may have seemed overeager, it was but the reflection of a zealous crusader and missioner who knew where he was going,” Would we hear that today?

Throughout the weekend, on WLW-AM in Cincinnati, at every station break the announcer recited a variation of the same script, WLW and the Crosley Broadcasting Corporation asking listeners to "join with us in prayer for John Kennedy, his family, and President Lyndon Johnson." At ABC radio, Don Gardiner, a newsman given to a very formal style, announced the death of the president and, one suspects for his own benefit as well as that of the audience, says, "Let us pray," followed by a moment of silence. Would we hear that on a network today? Now, it's true that the public tends to turn to religion in times of crisis; 9/11, for example. And not to suggest that such revivals are insincere, but usually church attendance returns to normal after a few weeks. Conversely, during the JFK weekend, one reporter remarks how the churches are full, yes, with people saying prayers and lighting candles; but not as full as they are on Sundays. Would we hear that observation today?

I could go on with this, ad nauseam. You listen to the music being played on the radio prior to the news bulletins, and there's no need for parental advisories. You hear the prices being quoted for groceries, and a family could probably be supported on the father's salary. You hear about families, for that matter, and that seems to be a quaint concept today. It is impossible to look at the past without feeling alienated by the present.

Yep, things have changed during my lifetime. But then, my wife's grandmother was alive when the Wright brothers flew, and again when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. There is anger in the world, and discontent, and searching. Sic semper erat, et sic semper erit,you say; thus has it always been, thus it shall ever be, and I get that. As Esolen points out, there has been no Eden since Eden. But the life that was lived in that world, and the things about which we disagreed, were still based on a common sense of principles, a shared definition of things. We hear it said often that "we don't speak the same language anymore," and I believe this; in his book The Great Delusion, political scientist John Mearsheimer reminds us that “For a society to hold together, there must be substantial overlap in how its members think about the good life, and they must respect each other when, inevitably, serious disagreements arise.” Perhaps God, in His infinite wisdom, is demonstrating something of His divine sense of humor—using the lesson from the Tower of Babel to impart a rebuke to us all.

We all feel this, the unsettledness of the world. Opioids, depression, suicide; you don't have to look far to see it. Anxiety is at an all-time high; social media makes it impossible to escape, makes it too fast to assimilate, makes it too contentious to discuss. We all live in our own little universe, where reality is whatever we choose to make of it. Nostalgia doesn't exacerbate this feeling; it helps explain it. Classic television and radio don't cause us to live in the past; they help us see how things were at any given point in that period without, as someone once said, "the corruption of hindsight." As you turn the pages, you visit a world as it was at the time when it was.

"I do not believe," John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address, "that any of us would exchange places with any other people or any other generation." Indeed; we must accept this, since it's impossible to travel backward in time anyway. But nostalgia does not suggest that we live in the past; instead, what we must do is find out what the past can teach us about the future. As I've said many times, you discover who we are by understanding who we were. When we hear, as we often do, that you can't turn the clock back, that you can't return to how things used to be back then, that's the very time when we do need to return to "back then," as Esolen reminds us in the parable of the Prodigal Son, and find out (or remember) what it means to go home.

This doesn't mean that I'm condemning the present uniformly, nor am I idealizing the past unequivocally. That would be as foolish as trying to pit 2018 against 1968 in terms of which year was worse. There is much about the present that is good, in the same way that there is much about the past that was not. The point is that the world has changed since 1963, and in doing so I believe we've seen a steady erosion of what kept society—the world—together. It had already started before 1963, and it will probably continue beyond today. But it's only that nostalgia that understanding of who we used to be, that can help us truly understand how far we've traveled from home, who we've become today. Alienation? No wonder. It is, as I said, another world, a different world from that into which I was born. And increasingly, it's a world that doesn't feel like my own. TV  


  1. Well, this one certainly hit home.
    I know it's overly simplistic to say that the current conflict seems to be between those who wish to retain the best of our past and our heritage, and those who wish to dispose of all of it and replace it with something they consider preferable. That metamorphosis extends even to the civility you reference in this piece following the JFK assassination. If your political opponent is perceived as evil, they reason, then there is no need to be civil toward him.
    I refuse to dismiss my discontent as a simple preference for "the way it used to be." Institutions are dying. Basic bedrock principles are crumbling. Up is down and left is right.
    Our shared passion for the TV of the past offers a window into that world that has slipped away. I used to think that world was growing more distant every day - now I think it's just about gone.

    1. Couldn't agree more, David. Something I forgot to mention in this - one of the clips contained NBC radio anchor Morgan Beatty talking about something that had happened at a church on the Friday night of JFK's death. A man whispered something to the organist, who started playing. Within the first three bars, everyone had joined in. Beatty had the audio of what had happened. The organist was playing: "The Star-Spangled Banner."

      The story was presented just at the top of the hour. I don't know of Beatty's mic was open because of going to station ID, but I'd swear that I could hear his voice, faintly singing along.

      As more than one person said that weekend, if the assassin's goal was to drive the country apart, he failed miserably, because it brought everyone together. Could anything do that today?

      Well put, David!


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!