Bill Clinton and a Dirty Beach: Nostalgia and Denial
I haven’t actually been back to the United States, my home country, in over a year. But I don’t think it matters how long you stay away – what’s happening in your place of origin continues to matter to you.
Especially during an election year.
Of course I also happen to be from a country that has so much power and such a big military, and uses such a high percentage of the world’s available resources that each election matters not only to the 315 million or so people that live there, but tangentially to the rest of the world. So I’m paying close attention because it matters to me on a personal level, but of course on so many other levels as well.
It’s strange to be so far away from the US during an election cycle, and not be surrounded at all times by talking heads. To not feel like the world revolves around our political machinations and functions by virtue of them. To not to be inundated everyday with speeches, ads, gaffes, news coverage on gaffes, apologies or explanations of gaffes, news analyses of explanations of gaffes, use of gaffes by opponent in stump speeches, news analyses of opponent’s use of gaffes, rebuttal of incorrect use of gaffe by other opponent, news analyses of this, at which point no one is sure who actually said what or in what context and who it was that “gaffed” and what the whole point of any of it is anyway. Rinse and repeat.
Gripping stuff! Ok, I guess it’s actually nice not to be inside the fishbowl that encloses the maelstrom of American political shit-flinging, distorting everything beyond it. But I do miss being able to get a sense of how normal people are really feeling and thinking.
To make up for not being right there in the thick of it, I’ve been reading and watching a significant amount about said political shit-flinging from here. So it was with a cold and analytical eye that I started watching Bill Clinton’s speech two weeks ago during the Democratic National Convention; I was curious to see how he would champion Obama given that he was not always Obama’s biggest fan – I thought that at the least it would be interesting politicking.
And then there was Bill on stage speaking. And a strange thing happened to me. Watching him I felt this warm, fuzzy affection for the man and then for a moment, just a moment my vision blurred a little, as tears filled my eyes. And I felt desperately nostalgic…homesick for childhood, for the United States of the 1990’s.
This bizarre physical and emotional response to Bill Clinton took me totally by surprise. Sentimentality is such a strange and almost uncomfortable sensation in these cynical times, especially if it’s directed towards politicians of all things. But it was also peculiar because from what I recall, I was quite skeptical of Clinton when he was in office, skeptical in that way teenagers often are about so many things – organized religion, teachers, parents, government. He was only the third president of my lifetime, and really only the second I was truly aware of in that role. By the time he had finished his 2nd term, he had been president nearly half my time alive, and he didn’t seem specifically good or bad, he just seemed like a fact of life. I recall thinking he was competent and intelligent, not quite trust-worthy, a sweet-talker and wonderfully easy to ridicule thanks to Monica Lewinsky and Saturday Night Live.
But the criticisms teenagers are often willing to profusely articulate I think in some ways often betrays their actual confidence in a fundamental unshakability to their world…like it is safe to be so critical because at that age you usually don’t yet have anything at stake– you are not yet struggling to be a real adult, taking responsibility and trying to make something of your life. You haven’t actually imagined the ramifications of the alternatives to that you decry. You can blithely throw rocks at the structure so long as you’re sure it won’t come crashing down around you.
So I think this sentimental moment of practically tearful nostalgia that struck me out of nowhere while watching Clinton speak wasn’t just about the man, but about everything related to the time he was in office, and to being a teenager, back when everything seemed a whole lot more straightforward, and yes, despite the Lewinsky-driven attempted impeachment, less dirty. Seeing him speak felt like a kind of time warp, where I could go back for a moment to an era of relative simplicity and safety, and pretend that everything was still ok.
I’m trying to decide – were things actually different in the 90’s or is it just that I was quite young then? That I was too immature to complicate the issues by reading between the lines, fact checking, and inserting perspective via knowledge of history and geo-politics? Do things seem more complex now because I am more capable of seeing their complexity, because I myself am more complex? Or were the 90’s actually the way I remember them to be, a more innocent time, less weighted with frightening visions of myriad possible global catastrophes?
Growing up in the 90’s was a pre-climate change, pre-melting arctic, pre-recession, pre-Iraq and Afghanistan war, pre-China as world power, pre-9/11 world, and we were too young to feel the weight of the wars, crises and economic meltdowns that came before. We grew up in an unusual calm amid more regular turbulence.
It’s not that my life in the 90’s was idyllic. Far from it. I became a teenager in the mid-90’s, and teenage years are by nature rife with their own brand of horrors and trauma. On top of that my family was all kinds of crazy, and our life was brimming with bizarre drama as well as periods of financial insecurity. And yet, the instability seemed internal to my family, not nationally let alone globally pandemic. My family was unhinged, but that seemed the anomaly in our overly normal, predictable neighborhood, in a sane and benignly stable country, in a world that seemed too big to fail.
But of course to a child everything SEEMS stable until you see it break. For example at the age of six I was convinced my parents would be married for ever and ever, until the following year of course, when they got divorced and I learned a little bit about life and human relationships. Without realizing it, I also deep down assumed the stability of the 90’s was the status quo, and took it completely for granted, until I grew up and learned better.
Of course lots of dramatic and challenging things happened in the world while I grew up – but it all seemed impossibly far away from California and Alaska. Apart from some family trips beyond our borders, the closest the outside world came to me as a child was during the Gulf War, when a little girl from Kuwait joined my class at school. I remember being fascinated one month when she wasn’t allowed to eat or drink until sunset and she had to skip Physical Education class and stay out of the sun– this was my first contact with a practicing Muslim. She had an amazing Macaw as a pet that I liked to visit at her house. It all seemed very exotic. That was the extent to which foreign affairs touched my life at the time.
What a strange way it was to grow up, with this subconscious false expectation of stability and prosperity in the world. The 90’s were of course very different for children growing up say in the Balkans or Rwanda, Algeria or Romania – anything but a safe, simple and happy time. But in the US we have lived in a relative bubble for much of our history due both to our distance from much of the world as well as a certain amount of willful ignorance. This is what happens when you live in a country that is almost never attacked and has the biggest military in the world…you feel sheltered in a way that is unnatural. You grow up expecting to feel safe in a world that is anything but safe for the majority of the people living in it. It is a rude awakening to have to learn the meaning of fear and insecurity as an adult. And many of the obscenely wealthy in our nation (Mitt Romney is a fine example) never learn this at all.
Now as adults many of us are more acutely aware of threats to ourselves and to our world via the flailing economy, climate change, pollution, globalization, corporations on steroids, dwindling resources, droughts and earthquakes and tsunamis, nuclear weapons, nuclear meltdowns, terrorism, and so much else. It isn’t easy to learn how to cope with all that is frightening and devastating and tragic about being alive…all the things that could hurt or destroy us. So when we look back on our childhood many people are nostalgic for a time when life seemed simpler and safer, not because the world was any less cruel, but I suppose because they implicitly felt someone was taking care of them and protecting them. For some reason, for a moment there, Bill Clinton made me feel that way – like someone was there, taking care of things, making things make sense again, making Romney and all the GOP rigmarole nothing but a bad, illogical dream. But then the illusion melted…and I was brought back to a place and a time where it feels so often like nothing makes sense, and that truly horrible things could happen and that the future might be very grim – in a world where we have taken everything for granted for far too long.
Last weekend we went to the coast for a last taste of summer sun and sea. When we arrived the beach was full of nearly naked French people with deep leathery tans
Late in the afternoon we decided to take a stroll. We were warned that if we walked south the beach became nudist, but naked bathers weren’t going to deter us so we headed that way, walking past a little plastic barrier that I supposed was meant to indicate the end of the bathing suit zone. We saw two or three fat bare-butted old people soaking up sun, looking not unlike sea lions, and beyond that there were no people at all. Just the two of us, the sea birds, the waves and the wind. It was tremendously non-traumatic.
But it became traumatic as we continued to walk and walk across what should have been an amazingly beautiful coastline along the western edge of France, but was instead a beach littered as far as the eye could see with plastic. Plastic stuck in the brush and bushes, plastic buried in the sand, plastic broken to pieces, plastics in patterns of the tide, plastic everywhere, stretching on and on and on. Plastic reds, whites, greens, blues and yellows dotted the beach, making the coastline seem like a confetti-strewn, trashed post-party mess. This was not litter left by irresponsible beach goers but garbage washed up regularly by the tides, some of it fresh and new, some worn down by the salt and the pounding waves, releasing toxic particles into the water with every crash.
It was a shock to realize that what appears to be beautiful pristine beach was merely a small section of coastline that was routinely cleaned for appearance’s sake. Because most people don’t rove far along the beach, the clean part they see is how they imagine the whole coastline must look. The citizens are kept happy and comfortable in their leisure activities, this ‘natural’ setting tidied for their better enjoyment, and the truth of what pigs we are as a species, and the very clear evidence of the constant and tremendous damage we are doing is conveniently hidden away, past where most people bother to venture.
We walked back to the public beach and I felt queasy from my confrontation with reality. We passed back into the miraculously clean beach region and it looked so different from when we left – instead of looking like a normal, natural beach and sea landscape, we realized it was just an illusion. The REAL coastline was covered in our refuse, and all those happy, salty, sweaty, smiling people wouldn’t ever notice. Here nature is made convenient for their optimum pleasure. They will drive up to the beach in their climate-control vehicles, clamber down onto the little square of clean created for their enjoyment conveniently located close to the restaurants and the parking lot. They will get a tan, play games, and enjoy some fresh air, before crawling back into their cars, which will carry them back to their houses or apartments, back into the urban areas where garbage is gathered and made to vanish so we never think about it again.
I think most people have that craving from time to time to feel cozy and safe and taken care of by some benign greater power – be it parents, god or government. But – the problem is that that very tendency seems to color our capacity as adults to deal with reality and the very significant problems we have made for ourselves. So many people don’t want to face what’s really happening – they want to be distracted and entertained and numbed and sedated. They like easy targets, as much as they like easy answers. Soundbites that pretend to explain it all. Beaches that seem clean, even if they aren’t. Blinders on, fingers in our ears, we greedily swallow the happiness pills that are handed to us, pleasantly swathed in our own cozy state of denial. It’s easier I guess to obsess over the possible outcomes of favorite TV shows or celebrity marriages, than the frightening specter of the real problems coming to a head on the planet.
The way we lived in the US in the Clinton years seemed lovely at the time – but as we should know by now it was not sustainable. The developed world in general is not sustainable as it is now. Are we grown up enough step away from our daily concerns for moment and take a good, honest look at the world we are creating, and ask ourselves if the way we are living is worth the tremendous cost that will come? Are we willing to ask ourselves if there are sacrifices we could make to live more sustainably?
I don’t know. And I worry because the US is a country accustomed to taking things on credit, with the idea of paying in some undefined future. It’s only later we understand credit does not mean free money, but paying a lot more than something is worth later on. We are still children in this way, still assuming our way of life as it has been is how it ought to be. It is only when we have seen it break completely that we will stop taking it for granted and realize, perhaps too late, that that’s what we’ve been doing all this time.
Out to Sea – The Plastic Garbage Project has been on display in the Museum of Design Zurich / Switzerland.
Every 15 seconds this amount of plastic garbage gets released into the sea:
This is the amount of plastic garbage an average Swiss person throws away in 100 days:
Please see more about this exhibit and project:
- Zurich Museum of Design Exhibition: Out to Sea
- Plastic Pollution Coalition
- One World One Ocean