Article Thumbnail

We Used to Be a Proper Country, According to This Meme

Did you know that a 7-Eleven in 1973 was the height of Western civilization?

People have funny ideas about the past, none so strange as the conceit that at some point, society was more or less perfect, and we should have tried to halt the march of history to keep it that way. This is, of course, the nominal message of the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again,” and a refrain of conservatism more broadly — the reddest politicians tell us that our once thriving nation has been despoiled by whatever they happen to be campaigning against at the moment: immigration, women’s autonomy, racial justice movements, LGBTQ acceptance, “wokeism,” secular families, Obamacare, attempts at gun control, voting rights and so on.

Reactionaries are, indeed, very specific about the “bad” stuff allegedly ruining a former utopia, but when they reach for examples of how life was better back in the day, they struggle. At best, they can go for generic depictions of 1950s white suburbia, with its housewives, milkmen and picket fences. At worst, they’ll post an image of a convenience store in 1973 and claim it represents the halcyon days of legend, a time of almost unfathomable prosperity. 

From day to day, @DarnelSugarfoo here is a pretty conventional Trumpian poster, spreading COVID-19 misinformation, griping about President Biden, retweeting the Babylon Bee and calling everyone he doesn’t like a pedophile. However, he struck a special chord with this tweet by revealing the bankruptcy of imagination it takes to buy into the MAGA mindset. What in this photo of a 7-Eleven is so emblematic of American excellence, let alone indicative of a lost paradise? The orange decor? The white cashiers? The woman customer’s skirt and hairstyle, or the male customer wearing a suit and tie? Could it possibly be… the rack of Dentyne gum?

Without elaboration from @DernelSugarfoo, we can only speculate, though it’s worth noting that in 1973, the U.S. bombed civilians in Cambodia and supported the overthrow of democracy in Chile, the Watergate scandal continued to unfold and we entered a years-long recession sparked by an oil crisis. Bonus fact: Since the Equal Credit Opportunity Act would only become law in 1974, that woman at the register could’ve had a credit card application denied on the grounds that she was unmarried, or, were she married, would’ve needed her husband to cosign for her. 

If you’re saying the contemporary aesthetics of a 7-Eleven override all that to prove the country was functioning at an optimal or “proper” level, it rather cheapens the ideal of properness. The same objection was implicit in the avalanche of memes that turned @DernelSugarfoo’s caption into a copypasta to grieve for other bygone signifiers that had nothing to do with the state of the union. Whatever you remember is better than the present. 

This should be our standard response for any ideologue harking back to their preferred golden era, whether it’s the U.S. right after World War II or Athens in the 6th century B.C., since all they really do is cloak their anti-progressivism with cheap nostalgia. With the 7-Eleven picture making this maximally obvious — we’re invited to admire a sleek corporate interior that just happens to be populated by whites only! — the “return to tradition” goons have hit the bottom of the barrel. Let them time-travel back to any of these years and they’d find a culture just as wracked by the anxieties and grievances they peddle as evidence of our fallen age. Meanwhile, the rest of us can keep joking about the public treasures that have been stolen from us.

Ah, can you believe we ever had it so good? Might fuck around and construct a noxious political identity out of falsely or selectively describing how things used to be. I could probably run for president if I promised to restore any retail conditions that shoppers yearn for. Forget about 1973 vibes, though — we don’t have to go nearly that far to salvage the height of civilization.