As THE 2002 ELECTION RESULTS came in, I surfed through 100 cable channels with nothing on and hit an infomercial hosted by John Sebastian for a Time-Life eight-CD set of 1950s and '60s folk and folk rock. For the nth time I thought, What hath the Coen Brothers wrought with O Brother Where Art Thou? Who would've guessed a hillbilly cross between Homer and Preston Sturges would make America friendly again to the idea of folk music, catalyze the latest generational revival that follows two earlier upsurges: the New Deal, which sent researchers and artists to delve into and chronicle and represent America's myriad pasts, and the postwar McCarthy era, when the crust of American political and cultural monism hardened while, seething below, countercultural currents were flowing toward the mass reaction of the 1960s and '70s?
Santayana's adage about how those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it crossed my mind. Here in the lengthening shadow of the Reagan era, we seem to move outside history in a kind of projected nostalgia, like Plato's fools in a cave of their own device. History textbooks have been dumbed down and decontextualized along the lines Frances FitzGerald drew at the dawn of Reaganism in America Revised; our mass media have no memory. The timeless imaginary space they help create allows opportunistic replays of the 1950s, Reaganism's favorite era, when the need for a united front against our Great Satans (communism, sex, drugs, Big Government, taxes, Al Qaeda, Iraq) stifles dissent, opposition, and even discussion by branding them anti-American—ploys recurrent in American history, right out of Richard Hofstadter's Paranoid Style in American Politics. Remember how, in 1984, a torrent of pundits mused how Orwell imagined the future wrong? Guess they never imagined a contemporary day spent being ahistorically glared at by CNN and Fox and talk radio.
The bedrock of Reagan's legacy was the invention and spread of a language, from “tax and spend” to “partial-birth abortion,” that successfully banishes opposition to the margins in near-total silence. Which is why one lesson from 1950s America seems pertinent: when opposition