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Deconstruction & The Problem of Hindsight

Daddy liked to say that hindsight is always 20/20. There have been more than a few times over the years when I’ve said that to myself. It’s a good maxim to use to help forgive oneself for the host of shoulda coulda wouldas that we accumulate over the course of a lifetime.

But when we use that hindsight in the service of deconstructing the past, particularly in the arena of popular culture, it often seems less like a sincere effort to identify the underpinnings of sexism, racism, homophobia and all the rest and more like the individual standing up and shouting to the world, “Look, Ma, I’m woke!”

During this past Christmas season, we observed the deconstructing of Baby, It’s Cold Outside in light of the #MeToo movement and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer taken up by the anti-bullying crowd. Friends and Seinfeld are no longer innocuous as they’ve been deconstructed to show their racist, sexist and homophobic underbelly. (Who knew?) And I don’t have the time or inclination to catalog lyrics from popular music of the 20th Century that have and can be listed as offenders of 21st Century sensibilities.

Not that some of our new “insights” aren’t downright creepy. A 33-year old Ringo Starr singing “You’re Sixteen,” for example, although I’m inclined to give that one a pass because it was popular when I WAS sixteen. And, Lord knows the movies, aren’t immune. In Broadway Melody of 1938, there’s 16-year old Judy Garland singing “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)” to a 37-year old Clark Gable. And that was just three years before she and Mickey Rooney did “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee” in blackface in Babes on Broadway. Fred Astaire and Joan Crawford also performed “that way” in production numbers during their careers.

But, there’s really not much sport in pointing these things out. Popular culture more frequently reflects, rather than leads, its contemporaneous culture, and often codifies it in so doing. The fact that we can reinterpret everything from Gone with the Wind to I Love Lucy with that in mind demonstrates that we have made some progress, but we might be better served to remember that the real sport, as it were, is in recognizing what is being done in real time.

Unless I miss my guess, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to do just that, what with the 2020 Presidential campaign just starting. With the Democrats fielding a candidate pool that will be the most diverse in history, I suspect it will be difficult for those of us who like to pontificate on such things to do so without tripping on some racist, sexist or ageist language—at least in code.

If someone thinks Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders is too old to be President, we’re likely to hear that “they missed their moment” rather than “they’re older than God.” Conversely, younger potential candidates like Beto O’Rourke or Eric Swalwell might be diminished with “they’re not ready” or “they’re really running for Vice President.” I suspect we’ll get the “I’d love to see a woman president, just not THAT woman” again this time. And those running who are people of color will need to bring passion to their message, while trying to avoid being dismissed as “too angry.”

So while deconstructing the past makes for some lively social media chatter, only using that 20/20 vision on the “there and then” serves no real purpose if our sharpened perceptions aren’t also focused on the “here and now.” And, let’s remember—it won’t be that long before the next generation will be deconstructing us.

Should you live to be as old as Joe or Bernie (or even me, for that matter), you may one day be faced with deconstructing your own self. If that happens, I strongly suggest muttering “hindsight is always 20/20” to yourself while watching I Dream of Jeannie.

 

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