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Introduction: Past Imperfect

Some analysts have begun comparing the Clinton Era to that golden age of postwar American prosperity, the sustained boom of the 1950s and 60s.
Charlie Bertsch and John Brady, issue editors

Issue #49, April 2000

America finds itself in the midst of one of the longest economic booms since WWII. We -- or at least a select few of us -- are spending money like drunken sailors and are the envy of the world. Some analysts have begun comparing the Clinton Era to that golden age of postwar American prosperity, the sustained boom of the 1950s and 60s. The difference, as skeptics like Doug Henwood of the Left Business Observer keep pointing out, is that the present boom has been a bust for most of the population. With all the people singing "Happy Days Are Here Again," you'd never know that real wages are only now returning to the level they had reached before the recession of the late 1980s. But enough people are getting rich quick to make workers feel like there must be something wrong with them if they aren't sharing in the bounty. Indeed, it's hard not to believe the hype.

Suddenly, both the present and the future loom very large in the popular consciousness. Following the daily fluctuations of the stock market is a public spectacle par excellence, not to mention the latest rage in leisure pursuits. And trying to predict the future has more legitimacy than ever before, as "futurologists" get paid handsomely to help venture capitalists seek out the next big thing. But where does this obsession with making fast money, now and in the future, leave that other basic unit of time, the past? Does our newfound affluence mean that we can leave the antagonisms of the past behind? Have we finally reached the end of ideology? Has making history become the exclusive domain of the B-grade documentarists who work for the History Channel?


As the contributors to this issue point out, the past remains a powerful influence on the everyday lives of individuals, the popular culture of societies, and the political affairs of states. Sometimes, the past shapes all three areas simultaneously, as Thomas Barfuss points out in his article on the crisis of Swiss civil society. Surveying the various historical myths that have helped hold postwar Swiss society together and his own personal investment in them, Barfuss documents the individual, cultural, and political dislocations that occur when these myths begin to lose their power to guide the decisions of the people and its political elites.

The power of the past to shape the political present is also the theme of John Brady and John Leslie's articles. Brady examines how Berlin's built environment provides insight into both the city's divided past and the present political conflicts which divide the city along old and new lines. John Leslie argues that the continuing failure of European Social Democrats to define themselves and what they stand constrains their ability to offer a real political alternative to the neo-conservative "revolution" which preceded them.

Robert Hamilton and a group of Berkeley graduate students in Political Science, led by Jimmy Clausen, explore how history leaves its mark on culture. Hamilton charts the shifting cultural meanings of Godzilla since the 1950s, focusing on Japanese efforts to reappropriate their beloved icon in the wake of its lamentable Hollywoodization. The Berkeley grad students tackle Woodstock '99, the third incarnation of this mass spectacle, asking whether it will have any cultural significance beyond the momentary distraction its riotous end provided.

Joel Schalit and Robert Shaw focus on the personal dimension to history. Schalit notes how his past experience with Israel's military culture continues to shape his most personal relationships, while Shaw places his brief, childhood meeting with Richard Nixon in context, showing how his visit to a rural Oregon town reflected everything that was wrong with the white, Republican 1950s.

But the past is not is not just a force that shapes our everyday lives, it is also an important field for political action, as the articles by JC Myers and Tomás Sandoval, Jr. and Jason Ferreira are quick to assert. Both argue against turning the past into a set of rigid traditions immune to critique in the present. Instead, they see the challenge as a need to productively appropriate the past in the service of justice, tolerance and equality. It is a gauntlet well worth taking up. All of these articles increase our critical awareness of the past and thus provide us with a valuable political resource: the possibility of progress. Being aware of how social forces have oppressed us in the past and may continue to do so in the future, means we are in a better position to effect lasting historical change. Instead of the status quo's promise of more of the same, we can offer the possibility of a different, better future.

Copyright © 2000 by Charlie Bertsch and John Brady. All rights reserved.