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Opinion: On the Clock

Poli Psy


Published July 20, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

Depressed?" reads the front of the black T-shirt created by a group of Chicago theory wonks and upstarts called FeelTank. The back declares: "It's political."

Now, I'm not the world's cheeriest gal (I am an atheist Jew from Brooklyn, and for Vermonters unacquainted with my race, I'll mention that we suffer from congenital existential despair). But it's good to be reminded that this feeling I've been having since, oh, around November 3 is not just me. I mean, there are, objectively, more reasons to stay in bed than to get out.

For example, the Supreme Court. The question is not whether the next justice will be a conservative, but what kind of conservative she or he will be. Will she be the sort who upholds the sale of the Grand Canyon to a conglomerate of Exxon and the Trump Corporation? The type who declines to review the 2006 Texas law compelling the arrest of all pregnant teenagers, then shipping them off to Saudi prisons for childbirth and reeducation? Or the kind who does both?

I could pull the covers over my head thinking about the bodies in the Tube and the inevitable political aftermath. Last week, a BBC World News mini-debate asked, "Are there root causes of the London Underground bombings?" A few minutes before, the newscaster had reported that U.S.-trained Iraqi Army special police had locked 10 Sunnis in a van and let them cook to death. Nevertheless, the debater representing the nays argued, more or less, that the nearest thing to a root cause of terrorism is the fact that Satan walks the Earth, and ever shall. Congress' Forces of Good feel the same, which is why they're proposing that the PATRIOT Act last forever, without sunset provisions.

Walking around the Vermont History Expo two weeks ago, it struck me that the worse the future gets, the better the past starts to look.

The Tunbridge Fair Grounds, with its white clapboard buildings, covered bridge and babbling branch of the White River, practically compel nostalgia. The exhibits -- calf weaners, hand-carved toys, hooked rugs -- invite the same cozy feeling, if that is how one is inclined. Things -- what historians call "material culture" and what most small-town historical societies have in plentiful supply -- carry no meanings but what we assign them. So we read resourcefulness in the wooden water pipes from Barnard; thrift and simplicity in the coin-silver spoons in Burlington's booth; self-sufficiency balanced by interdependence in the 18th-century plank-construction house from Bethel, raised by the owner with a few neighbors.

These meanings emerge from a kitbag of facts, imagination and feelings we carry around labeled "History."

If we don't like something today, we can attribute its blessed absence to yesterday; if we like something from yesterday, we decry its absence today. "They weren't overgoverned and overtaxed. Society didn't have such a cluttered mind. People were more at ease," said a woman from Jericho, expressing the general drift. The Woodstock booth, about the Green Mountain Perkins Academy (1848 to 1898) featured a chart comparing a student's day then and now: milking, hauling water, walking to school, versus cell phone, car ride, etc. We infer: how much better life was -- no, people were -- in the old days.

They were also thinner, I always note, examining the photo of the class of 1890, or 1930, and silently approving the lack of McDonald's and riding mowers.

Both the right and the left have their conservatives -- people who look backward to find Utopia. The Right calls its Golden Age family. The Left evokes community. Conservationists of all stripes name their Eden Nature. History offers correctives to all these. For family, contemplate a winter inside that un-insulated panel house with all your siblings. For community, observe the hand-me-down shoes on those (thin) children in the class picture, then move to the photo of the town's (fat) quarry owner. As for benign Nature, listen to the Revolutionary War re-enactor recount the 1776 smallpox epidemic, which virtually wiped out the Continental Army's northern division.

Were people happier or grimmer? More racist, more tolerant? Search for clues in objects, images, letters, law. But in guessing their feelings, avoid one mistake, cautioned librarian Ingrid Bauer at the UVM booth: "People look at history through a contemporary eye. They need to understand that the issues they dealt with, the ways they responded, were really different."

A student of a friend of mine, learning that her teacher founded the organization the class was discussing, exclaimed, "You're . . . you're . . . history!" Uh, right, said my friend, laughing. But in fact the student is history, too. History isn't yesterday, Marx said; we make it today.

So what if you feel awful today and awful about tomorrow? Use it, FeelTank suggests. "We are interested in the potential for 'bad feelings' like hopelessness, apathy, anxiety, fear, numbness, despair and ambivalence to constitute and be constituted as forms of resistance," reads their Manifesto. They also embrace "the risk of reclaiming optimism."

To feel better, we cannot withdraw into nostalgia any more than we can deny the past, which is only the present, plus an instant. FeelTank's slogan is "Rx: Organize." Step one: Get up and brush your teeth.