the past in pop culture

Tag: Nostalgia

We’ll Always Have Paris

Official logo of the French Republic, used exc...

Official logo of the French Republic, used exclusively by its government and prefectures. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s time to wave the red, white and blue. Bastille Day is here and France is honoring the start of its revolution back in 1789. France remembers its founding values on this day: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. Although they don’t always like to admit it, the United States and France go way back and it’s no coincidence that they share the colors of revolutionary republicanism on their national emblems.

Americans prefer to think of themselves as having a historical monopoly on the values of liberty, equality and brotherhood of man. But we’re happy to concede to France a monopoly on the values of romance and style. We’re a lot like the Owen Wilson character in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris who would rather spend time in the Paris of the writers and the artists of the lost generation living on in perpetuity, a 1920s without end. Paris is the romantic capital of our dreams. When the actual France intrudes on this pleasant reverie, we get a little testy. This might account for the recent flurry of features on the supposed malaise of modern France.

Liberté? Hey, France is spying on its citizens’ telecommunications, too. And things aren’t getting any better for the Roma people in France under Socialist president Francois Hollande. They still face forcible expulsion and unchecked harassment. As for other immigrants, let’s not even get started on the ongoing head scarf controversy.

Égalité? Didn’t you read the news about the plight of French youth who face record high levels of unemployment and bleak future prospects? Some say the best advice to give les jeunes is to get out while they can. Others express doubt about the real usefulness of the bac, the famously meritocratic exit exam all French high school students must pass if they hope to proceed to university studies or a decent job. Yet it lumbers on, deeply entrenched by a massive administrative structure, reminding one that France is the country that invented bureaucracy.

Fraternité? Does the word sororité even exist? Well, yes, it does but nobody really uses it and the internet will redirect you to the American English word sorority if you even try. We care a lot about how French women look and the fact that, supposedly, they don’t get fat or dress like slobs. France’s national symbol is of course the lovely Marianne whose representation has been modeled on a series of famous French actresses from Catherine Deneuve to Laetitia Casta. Disagreements over casting for the figure usually revolve around the appropriate bust size for the partially bared revolutionary lady.

Civil liberties, immigration policy, high stakes testing, women’s rights? In case any of the foregoing sounds familiar, it may be because the real issue is that France and the U.S. have more in common than they’d care to admit. You can’t even count on fine food any more. In another body blow to American romanticizing of French reality, it turns out that more and more French restaurants are serving frozen ratatouille microwaved to order.

So wake up Owen Wilson. You’re living in the past. Since this is a holiday, though, let’s try and look on the bright side. Its economy is showing a few glimmers of recovery. With two female candidates in the running, in 2014 Paris will have a woman as mayor for the first time in its history. The French intervention in Mali has been judged a modest success and African troops who served there will lead the way in today’s Bastille Day parade. Its under-20 soccer team—as diverse in its makeup as all French national teams since the 1990s—just won the World Cup, its film culture remains vibrant, and, frankly, despite the contretemps about the microwaving, its food still rocks. As Americans well know, living up to the ideals of a republic has never been easy. You must remember this.

Back in the USSR

Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Banders...

Edward Snowden stencil by Eclair Acuda Bandersnatch (Photo credit: Steve Rhodes)

Edward Snowden was just six when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and with it, more than three long decades of a Cold War. But he’s managed to revive the good old fashioned game of Kremlinology. Unnamed sources trade in rumors of lights going off or on the upper floors of embassies, the police cordon off a plane carrying no one special, and politicians split hairs over double speak. Any wonder that ever since Snowden George Orwell’s 1984 is selling like hotcakes on Amazon?

Vast shadowy networks of surveillance, espionage and double crosses—whether or not what Snowden uncovered merits the word Orwellian, his story sure reads like a novel, although maybe John le Carré should get the nod on that one. His most famous character, British spy Alec Leamas, could have told Snowden a thing or two about “the expediency of temporary alliances.” And as The Spy who Came in from the Cold, Leamas might have posed the rhetorical question, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs?”

As much as Cold War nostalgia lurks in the shadows of the Snowden story, back in the day no one took comfort in what now look like the ideological certainties and clearly drawn lines of the US:USSR faceoff. Sure, songs like 99 Luftballoons and Russians (in which Sting hoped the Russians loved their children, too) still sound sweet but the existential fear that the world might end via mutually assured destruction was anything but. Those songs were hits right around the time Snowden was born. Back then Ronald Reagan was in full swing and a guy by the name of Mikhail Gorbachev was just about to become General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev introduced a little policy known as glasnost, defined in English as “openness.” At the time it meant that the Soviets would allow open discussion of political issues, freer dissemination of information, and more government transparency. This new openness ultimately helped bring down the Soviet Union although it’s debatable how much this reduced corruption and repression in Russia. Now, the word has been re-purposed. It’s currently used as the name of a computer diagnostic about the effects of an ISP on traffic flow (a “glasnost test”). It also survives as Glasnost: The Game in which the goal of each player is to disarm as many countries as possible. The most disarmament wins.

Can openness save the world or is the glasnost of Snowden and Assange just another game of mirrors? In short, are we back in the USSR? Paul McCartney first wrote that song in 1968 for the Beatles’ White Album but he remained persona non grata in the Soviet Union all the way until the end. He finally got to sing it in Moscow’s Red Square in 2003. The crowd loved it. This week, it sounds remarkably fresh.

Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC
Didn’t get to bed last night
On the way the paper bag was on my knee
Man, I had a dreadful flight
I’m back in the USSR
You don’t know how lucky you are, boy
Back in the USSR, yeah
Been away so long I hardly knew the place
Gee, it’s good to be back home
Leave it till tomorrow to unpack my case
Honey disconnect the phone

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