Please welcome today’s guest writer, Jack Van Allsburg. Class of 2016. Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer.
I’m not much of a patriot. Even the idea of patriotism seems a bit foreign. I’ve spent my formative years in the context of questionable intervention in the Middle East, a deadlocked Congress, the economic crash, and Katrina. I’ve never known a public discourse that didn’t feel vitriolic and polarized. I’ve never known a military effort that I could feel entirely comfortable supporting. I’ve never known a United States I could feel fully proud of.
Earlier this month, I’m sure some friends of mine ironically dressed up on the fourth of July and took pictures with beer, guns, and meat. A smaller number might have done so un-ironically. Because when it comes to people I know who are both 1. my age and 2. genuinely proud of our country, the list grows thin.
Cynicism and disillusionment run deeply in the hearts of millennials. I know they run deeply in mine. The default outlook for my generation has been decidedly skeptical, and the truly sincere soul is a rarity. For me and my peers, belief in institutions like our country is a punchline far more often than a character trait.
Back up a generation or two and the narrative is different. My notion of patriotism is wrapped up in caricatured imagery of gun-toting jingos clad in their Independence Day best. But for my grandparents, coming out of the dark clouds of war into a sunny landscape of booming industry and expanding factories, patriotic pride and hope was a norm. They had weathered the depression, quelled fascism, and come home to a growing economy. They were hopeful—sincerely hopeful—that they could make a better world.
While I’ve always been able to describe that hope, I had never really felt it. While visiting the Gilmore Car Museum last summer, I think I did.
The museum is located down near Plainwell, MI, about an hour south from Grand Rapids. My cousin came up with the idea to go, and much of this post is taken from our conversation on the ride there and back. It’s a long and winding drive, the sort of trip you only make if you’re a genuine car enthusiast, a third grader on a field trip, or a couple of bored twenty-somethings.
In the museum were Fords, Chryslers, Chevrolets, Cadillacs, and far more: lovingly preserved, carefully presented. Most of the exhibits were organized by chronology, meaning decades of innovation and design development were compressed into a span of mere footsteps. And as we walked, we watched the wagon wheels turn to chrome, the carriages turn to cabins, the novelty turn to the everyday. Beautifully designed and cleverly engineered, the cars felt like manifestations of American excellence.
There was something strange in that space. I’ve seen cars every day for as long as I can remember. But seeing them all together, spotless and gleaming in the hot halogen lights, these familiar machines seemed so unshakably unfamiliar. Artifacts of a way of thinking, a way of living, that I had always known but never felt.
Maybe those cars represented a country that never really existed. Maybe that country never will exist. The industry of the 1950s and 60s was exclusive to particular people groups and built on environmentally unsustainable growth.
I believe an effort to recreate this time—to bring America back to a time some saw as “great”—is both ignorant and dangerous. It assumes we should ignore the damage we have done to the Earth. It assumes that time was not plagued by racism, sexism, and bigotry, or that those issues are unimportant. It assumes that all we need to return to this time is to remove whatever scapegoat of the week stands in our way.
The real reasons this time faded are more complicated. Intangible and entrenched, like the globalized market, automation, and outsourced labor. The resulting decline of American industries like the automobile sector was, in many ways, inevitable.
Yet walking among these glimmering cars, relics of a time on the receding cusp of living memory, I felt a sense of deep patriotic hope. Something that had been lost and may never be regained. A hope for what perhaps could never be, but for one short moment in history, seemed possible.
Studied psychology and writing, works at a design firm. Film junkie, amateur photographer. (’16)