Sometimes We Need The Past To Provide Us With Alternatives To The Present

“It seems like all the world is fighting

They’re even talking of a war

Let all the Russians and the Chinese and the Spanish do the fighting

The sun is shining

We’re going driving”

Such are the words of The Kinks song that is going through my head as my wife and I make a weekend getaway. Even soldiers are granted leave, so I feel it is permissible to step away from what feels like the weight of the world from time to time. To escape, and find diversion in the simple pleasures of life and the joy of discovery travel always brings.

But the prospects of discovering something new seem dashed as we enter Columbus, Wisconsin, and are greeted with the same Walgreens and Walmarts to be found in Any County, USA. It is not war this time but the corporate conformity that is taking over the world that has me feeling overwhelmed. Again, the lyrics of a Kinks song come to me, one of many options from a band that saw the warning signs over a half-century ago:

“It’s time to make some money

It’s time to get rich quick

It’s the wonderful world of capitalism

I’ve got to make a profit

I’ve got to satisfy my greed

It’s my faith and my religion

Demolition. Demolition. Demolition

And we’ll buy up the towns

And we’ll knock ’em all down

Build a brand new world of our own”

It seems that that brand new world has been built for us, despite the warnings The Kinks gave us. But not entirely, not yet. The world still holds surprises for us, and even in the most assimilated towns there are the oddballs and the small business owners pointing to alternative possible realities. Columbus, Wisconsin has these things in spades.

It turns out that Columbus was chosen for filming parts of the movie Public Enemies because, as small as the town is, it maintains a downtown section that is little changed from the era in which John Dillinger was running from the authorities. We stop for a coffee and a bite at a local café and the waitress is more than willing to share her story about how, when Johnny Depp was in town, it was her job to bring him his morning coffee. It turns out he insisted on goat milk, which had to be brought into town from elsewhere. Other than this slight eccentricity, she described him as a quite decent and normal human being.

The downtown is indeed quite a throwback to another age, pleasingly so. More than that, though, it is filled with antique stores of astonishing variety. There is one that is a joy to walk through but stocked with the sort of items we could never afford to buy. And then there is one housed within an abandoned factory from the days when the stuff it now sold as antiques was actually made in the U.S. We walk quite randomly through room after room of Americana, looking at items that sometimes bring back memories of my youth, sometimes bring me into contact with a past I never knew. I’m not convinced we ever made it to the end. Like The Louvre, it wasn’t possible to do it justice in one day.

Here at last I find some escape from the ever-present present. In ages past, it was possible to discover new cultures by traveling, but now I fear my upcoming travels to Korea and Vietnam will merely show me how easy it is to get a Big Mac anywhere in the world. I fear how far the uniformity has spread.

Travelling onward, we at last reach our destination: Madison, Wisconsin. It’s been long since I’ve been here and I view it now with older, perhaps more cynical eyes. Where once I viewed it as Left of Left, now I see the term Left as having varying shades of meaning. This hits home with me as we wander through an indie bookshop and I bide my time as my wife shops. This is not merely an independent bookshop but one that is decidedly on the left end of the political spectrum. And yet the names that I most associate with leftist literature are mostly absent. There is a copy or two of books by Noam Chomsky but nothing from anyone I would consider to be a current leftist. More troublingly, I scan the bookshelves and I do not see a single book on or by Martin Luther King Jr. How can a leftist bookstore not have any books concerning MLK? Or more accurately, how can one imagine themselves to be a leftist bookstore without having a healthy dose of MLK books in stock? Tahinisi Coates, by the way, is well-stocked.

It is at an antique/thrift shop that I happen to come across a book of the speeches of MLK, a major find. I think I paid $12. I would have gladly paid treble the price at the indie bookstore if they had had it. The copy I find has the slight smell of age and improper storage, but to a bibliophile such as myself, that is not a concern. What does concern me, however, is that it has the stamp of a local high school on it. Apparently, the school no longer felt it was an important part of their library. Day by day, old books, old classic books, old books that should not be forgotten, are tossed in bins to be sold for change in order to make way for YA books and biographies of people who couldn’t tell you who MLK was beyond what the television will tell you, which is next to nothing.

The past is where we need to travel if we wish to discover a culture different than our own. Our country is an example of a bifurcated homogeneity. The world at large, though I am by no means a world traveler, seems more assimilated into the U.S. corporate model than I could have possibly imagined in my youth. Architecture, antique stores, and library sales are where you should go if you want to begin to imagine a world different than the one we now live in. If you have the urge to travel, to discover worlds different from the one you are familiar with, avoid the beaten paths. There are still things to discover. Or rediscover.

Our past is a flawed past, for sure. There is much to pass judgement on, but if we wish to keep an open mind we must judge it not merely for its flaws but for its attributes, as well. That is the way we would judge any foreign culture if we wish to believe we are not insular, bigoted, or intolerant. And if we ever stop asking ourselves whether we might be insular, bigoted or intolerant, it surely means we are.

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