Wasting away in Dementiaville
I’ve found a great spot for most of the Republican presidential candidates — active and vanquished — to retire to after Barack Obama wins his second term in November. Dubbed “Dementiaville” in press accounts, it’s a mock-1950s “village” of 23 residences that the Swiss are building in Wiedlisbach to house 150 cognitively impaired old folks.
Dementiaville follows a similar nursing home that was established in the Amsterdam suburbs in 2009, where the residents (or their guardians) “pay €5,000 a month to live in a world of carefully staged illusion,” as the U.K. Independent reports today. The visual and architectural cues at Dementiaville will all be from the comforting 1950s, when the residents still had full possession of their minds. The operation’s caretakers “will dress as gardeners, hairdressers and shop assistants,” the paper continues, to extend the illusion. Dementiaville founder Markus Vögtlin claims that the planned environment at the Amsterdam village makes its patients “feel comfortable. I call it travelling back in time.”
Although the geriatric-care profession is split on the value of stockpiling dementia patients in the equivalent of the old Ozzie and Harriet back lot, it’s easy to discern who is the target of Dementiaville’s marketing: The mentally complete offspring and the spouses of the patients, who naturally feel guilty for delegating care to an institution.
When campaigning, Republican presidential candidates tend to build their own little Dementiavilles, cherry-picking what they consider the best of the 1950s as they call for the return of cheap energy, U.S. industrial and military hegemony, a more business-friendly economy, and respect for authority. The Republican campaign ad imagery and its language of “renewal,” popular since the Age of Reagan, concentrates on tree-lined streets and carefree kids riding their bikes, church socials, pickup baseball games, sunny days, and smiling snowmen. It’s no coincidence that Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney spent some of their teen years in this imagined utopia.
This idealization of the 1950s persists because few who invoke the decade bother to remember it correctly. Yes, it was a wonderful decade for some, but it doesn’t take a McGovernite to point out that Jim Crow, segregation, Little Rock, and the mistreatment of women and homosexuals should strike those years from the utopia registry.
The Republican tunnel vision, such as it is, manifests itself in campaign slogans, too. Mitt Romney’s “Keep America America” palaver sounded enough like “Keep America American” to transmit a racially coded message about a certain somebody who is suspected by some of being a Muslim who wasn’t born here, by others of exhibiting “Kenyan, anti-colonial behaviors,” or by others of being a socialist. Obviously, as the Atlantic reported in December, the Romney campaign should have done a better job of slogan-picking considering the way xenophobes and racists have used it. The Santorum campaign wishes it had better vetted its early campaign slogan, “Fighting to make America America again.” It echoes Romney’s but it also happens to be a line from a pro-union poem by African-American (and gay) poet Langston Hughes. (After the overlap was discovered, the Santorum slogan was retired.)
If the campaign were simply about marketing 1950s nostalgia, Santorum would be leading the polls. More than any other candidate, he yearns for the decade he was barely born into (b. 1958), when the Mass was in Latin, blue laws were the rule and not the exception, and abortion was back-alley or required a plane ride. Alone among the candidates, Santorum would self-deport into the Pleasantville mise-en-scène if the movie’s cinematic magic were real.
Any slots the Republican candidates decline to fill at Dementiaville can be reserved for those Democrats who have their own, separate delusions about the 1950s. Democrats look back fondly to the era, and not just because it marked the peak of union membership. It was also a time when a good Republican (Jacob Javits) was almost indistinguishable from a Democrat. The GOP was so rife with Huntsmen, the real partisan action pitted the South’s Democrats against the rest of the country’s Democrats.
The extraordinary economic growth of the 1950s came after both the Great Depression and the deprivations of World War II, so it’s probably the clang of cash that makes the decade so alluring for everybody. The decade sits in the middle of what some economists call the “Great Compression,” which ran from about 1934 to 1979 and during which economic inequality was historically low. Even hard-nosed Democrats like Paul Krugman swoon over the 1950s, as his critics on the right have noted. Krugman writes in his 2007 book, The Conscience of a Liberal:
[T]he political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional episode in our nation’s history.
Postwar America was, above all, a middle-class society. The great boom in wages that began with World War II had lifted tens of millions of Americans—my parents among them—from urban slums and rural poverty to a life of home ownership and unprecedented comfort. The rich, on the other hand, had lost ground: They were few in number and, relative to the prosperous middle, not all that rich.
And yes, Krugman fondly recalls the long bike rides and quiet streets of those bygone times.
Few candidates have ever been able to conjure a future that’s anywhere as blissful as the past. (The 2008 Obama campaign, with its abstract notions of “change” and its equally vague “Yes, We Can” exhortations is the only one that comes to mind. Oh, yeah, Clinton spoke of a bridge to the 21st century, but that mostly elicited laughter.) But the 1950s aren’t so durable that the psychological karma of those years can be harvested forever. By the time the 2016 campaign arrives, nobody younger than 60 will possess any genuine memories of those days. Perhaps nostalgia transcends actual experience and politicians will trade on that decade forever. But if I were designing Dementiaville (or running a campaign!), I’d go heavy on the Beatles on the intercom and decorate the bedrooms with lava lamps as my signature theme.
Ron Paul seems disconnected from 1950s nostalgia. Or am I wrong? Send your best 1950s memories to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com. My Twitter feed is composed in the future. Sign up for email notifications of new Shafer columns (and other occasional announcements). Subscribe to this RSS feed for new Shafer columns, and subscribe to this hand-built RSS feed for corrections to my column.
PHOTO: A man plays ping pong at a program for people with Alzheimer’s and dementia in Los Angeles REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson