The Lost World

Article excerpt

Byline: Michael Tomasky

Patty Andrews and the end of collective identity.

When i read a week ago that Patty Andrews had died, the most shocking thing about it, of course, was that until the day before, she had still been alive. The last surviving Andrews sister was born in 1918 and had been famous during World War II. She and her sisters form one of the indelible images of that age--the trio, in their WAC outfits, saluting, marching toward the camera, smiling that smile of unbleached optimism, singing "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," reminding Americans to buy their war bonds.

I got to wondering: what percentage of the people reading or hearing about her passing had the vaguest idea who she was? And of that select group, how many actually knew anything about the Andrews Sisters beyond the fact of their existence--knew anything about the America they inhabited and helped create?

When someone from that era dies, I always start thinking about our collective national identity, and I start wondering whether this "we" writers like me are always invoking can ever really be a we again. I'm afraid I don't think so. Think about it: the experiences this country shared back in Patty Andrews's day--depression and war, mainly--brought the country together and gave us resolve to build a more equitable society, which, however imperfectly, we did. We don't really have those experiences anymore. September 11, one could say; but far from galvanizing us, the aftermath just saw us turn more fiercely against each other.

Our toxic political culture is one culprit here (specifically, in the case of 9/11, the Bush administration's decision to use the event to political advantage). But it's only one. Technology is another. Now, I'm not anti-technology. I own the usual run of devices and gizmos, and I've crossed that crucial portal where I actually now prefer reading my newspapers online. …