Faith, Nostalgia, and Hurricane Capitalism

St. Philip’s Catholic Church in Battle Creek, Michigan. Temples like this serve as empty refuges from the crucified American Dream.

Battle Creek, Michigan used to have factories. It doesn’t have many of them anymore. As The Guardian’s Chris Arnade writes in his profile of Battle Creek’s disenchanted voters, “with the economic backbone broken, with hope in the future dimming, faith has become more central as a source of community, solace and hope.”

American society has reached a very real tipping point. Capitalism’s creative destruction has left millions of people with nothing more than amorphous notions of “faith” to lead them through the penury-stricken Land of the Free. Those just retiring are hoping to scrounge together what little benefits they have left, while those just starting out are facing the bleak reality of a future without any retirement at all. If you were a betting person, however, you’d know that rolling the dice on faith usually means giving away your chips to the House.

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Todd Starnes, Fox News, and Nostalgia’s Twisted History

Tod Starnes, the epitomome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed.

Fleshy Fox News gas geyser Todd Starnes, the epitome of American manhood, thinks the Doobie Brothers never smoked weed. Isn’t that precious.

It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.

For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!

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Of Foliage and Farms: The History of Fall in American Culture

The Fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. Its also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

The fall harvest maintains a deeply symbolic importance in American culture. It also provides an excuse to drink hard cider.

Americans love the fall season. Every year when September rolls around, a cavalcade of autumnal objects invades every facet of the landscape, filling up cities, towns, villages and farmhouses like so many occupying corncob cossacks, and we welcome them with open arms — and wallets. The symbols of the fall harvest include pumpkins, apples, corn stalks, hay stacks, squashes, scarecrows, and deciduous foliage lighting up the countryside like timber sparklers; flashing copper, orange, gold, and yellow flares to the bemusement of camera-armed Sunday drivers.

As a people seemingly born with an innate need to shamelessly commodify absolutely anything, Americans have turned fall into a multi-million dollar industry. Each year, they celebrate fall by spending piles of cash at orchards, farms, harvest festivals, and at businesses situated along the foliage-lined byways. Even the booze industry has reaped the rewards of Americans’ love affair with autumn, as fall-themed hard ciders have experienced a mini-renaissance alongside the already exploding craft beer market.

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Pumpkin Flavored History

Pumpkin

It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the 19th century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

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“American Pickers” and Buying Nostalgia in the U.S.A.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolff of History's American Pickers. Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field if so 'Murica.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe of History’s “American Pickers.” Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field is so ‘Murica.

Despite what I claimed in a piece for Salon about A&E’s smash show “Duck Dynasty,” even without cable, I do, on occasion, catch t.v. shows online. Although it might seem crass and opportunistic to frame an article on American history through reality t.v. (hint: it IS crass and opportunistic), these types of shows offer a window into how history is filtered through popular culture.

One of the most successfull history-themed reality shows of the last few years has been History’s “American Pickers.” The show first premiered back in 2010 and it was an instant success that brought the world of hard-core antique collecting geekitude to a massive audience. As I’ve watched the show, however, it got me to thinking about just why the seemingly innocuous subject of junking – a subject considered so boring that a string of production companies passed on “American Pickers” before it was finally picked up by the History network – is so darn popular. Then, it all became clear: “American Pickers” is popular because it feeds off of the age-old American love for consuming nostalgia.

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The Legend of Small Town U.S.A.

smal ltown usa

“Main Street” is one of those apple pie invoking, corn-cob pipe toking, patriotism stoking, nostalgia choking symbolic themes in American culture that lacks a clear definition but with which most Americans are intimately familiar. I’m not talking about the actual street called “Main” that runs through your particular town or city. Rather, I mean the idea of Main Street U.S.A., also known as Small Town U.S.A., or, in recent political terms, Real America. You know what I’m talking about: its the America defined by a lily-white demographic, at a least a partially agricultural economy, Mom and Pop stores (no Targets allowed!), old guys sitting on porches, lots of churches, and a penchant for traditional values, whatever those might be.

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