Anachronisms

I am a sucker for anachronism. It probably started back in the days when I was a middle-school kid who was convinced I should have been born in the 18th century, so that I could defend Bonnie Prince Charlie to the death. Or something like that. (It’s a long story.) But now I appreciate music from 30 or 40 years ago, and political sentiments from about the same era. I relish anything that seems at odds with 2009, with the Internet, with jaded cynicism, with the Princeton Organization Kid. And that’s why I’m writing about the band that was at Terrace last night.

Terrace is an eating club, and incidentally the only one in which I will voluntarily set foot. It is also known for its regular high-quality live music, and because I am lame and because most of the bands I like are dead (see previous paragraph), it’s basically the only place I usually see live music. Last night, though, the band was something else. It was playing punk music, which I suppose is not a particularly unusual thing for a band to do; however, it was also from London (which is less usual—at least, in Princeton, and not in London), and its singer/frontman looked to be in his fifties and not quite aware of it. He was wearing ripped jeans, a be-safety-pinned black t-shirt, and glitter-festooned sneakers that would have been quite chic in the early ’80s. Most of the time, he sort of yell-chanted songs; sometimes he played the drums; sometimes he made pronouncements about the evils of religion and George W. Bush (a few people in the audience yelled “He’s gone, man!” but the frontman appeared unaware of the past six months’ events); at one point he walked through the crowd on the dancefloor holding a pair of drumsticks in front of him like a cross—trying to cast out demons, perhaps? It was unclear. He would frequently preface a song by saying “I wrote this in 1978.” He jumped up and down with an energy and agility that 50-something-year-old men aren’t supposed to have. I’m pretty sure he had more in his system than the two beer bottles standing by the amps. But he was fantastic! He was so infectiously energetic! He made me want to jump up and down and yell “Down with Thatcher!” And that was the best bit. I feel like, as someone born in 1990, I really missed my opportunity to be furious at an evil neoconservative government. I do like punk music, in general, and I find it sad and disappointing that I missed the historical era when it would have been relevant.

The other kids at Terrace though the guy was entertaining, but I don’t think they really got him. They turned to their friends, half-laughing. “What’s he doing?” they asked when he exorcised the crowd with drumsticks. One drunk-seeming kid went up to him and criticized him for declaring that “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” without attributing the quotation. “Only at Princeton,” I thought. But I really felt sorry for him. People are angry at the government and the establishment now in such different ways than they were in the ’80s, and particularly at Princeton. I think people in the audience liked him because he was outlandish, or because they were drunk—not because they really sympathized with his message. Even I felt uncomfortable to hear him criticize religion—at Princeton, that’s not the sort of controversial ground you tread on.

I was thinking about this in terms of reading I was doing for class about the role of the media in both the first Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq. It was deeply weird to read a historical account of the invasion of Iraq, because I conceive of it as a current event. Six years isn’t so long ago. I remember the day we had a debate in my 8th-grade history class about whether it was right to invade Iraq. I remember how I was the only kid saying that we didn’t know whether Saddam Hussein really did have weapons of mass destruction. I remember how there were other kids in the class who thought that, but that they wouldn’t speak up, and I had to take on all the Bush supporters by myself. To my mind, we still know so little about the events and decisions surrounding the wars we’re now engaged in—not to mention the fact that we’re still engaged in them. How can we historicize them?

Maybe this is how my high-school history teacher, a Vietnam vet, felt when we learned about Vietnam in class. Maybe this is how my mom feels, when anyone talks about the DNCs and election night results of the ’70s and ’80s that she remembers watching on TV. And maybe this gets back to what the leader of the band at Terrace last night was doing, when he assumed what seemed to me to be such an anachronistic pose. If I may put words into his mouth for a moment, as far as he is concerned, the threat of Thatcherism isn’t over. Bush II was a convenient vehicle for that ire as well. But he’s a bit lost at present for a figurehead upon whom he can thrust his dissatisfaction with the establishment. His feelings are no less real. But he’s now forced to frame them historically, not in terms of current events. That’s got to be disorienting.

Maybe my temptation is to view anachronism as quaint, sort of like one of those living history museums, just for 20th-century social alienation instead of colonial America. But on a more intellectual level, I think there’s something to be said for not relegating, say, anti-Thatcher sentiment to history entirely. As I think we learned from the Bush presidency, the same political issues, the same sentiments, the same ideological battles come up again. And again. And again. We need to be keeping feelings of outrage on the forefront of our minds, because if we don’t, there’s a very real chance that we won’t notice when the next deeply objectionable thing happens. I know that I want to study and teach history in part so that we can learn from our mistakes—but while doing that, we still need to be aware that history isn’t a done deal. Everything that’s going to happen in the next week’s news cycle is eventually going to be history. What will we remember when it comes to make decisions based on its lessons?

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