Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Good Old Days--We're Enduring Them Now

By Ben Tripp (copied and pasted from Counterpunch.org)

Nostalgia is a fond yearning for times you didn't really live through, or you wouldn't have a fond yearning for them. Perhaps the most seductive and dangerous myth of our times, besides Chupacabra, is the notion of "the good old days". There never were any good old days, and there never will be. Is this a bad thing? No. It's just a reminder that there is only Now, and there was only ever Now, and Now is all there ever will be. Make the most of it while it's here. Americans have forgotten how to Be Here Now, and it's half the reason we're in so much trouble today. We have divided into camps based upon which decade we wish to be living in: on the right, the 1950's seem to be pretty popular (and the 1850's, south of the Mason-Dixon Line). On the left, the decade between 1964 and 1974 is a favorite. For myself, there's a ten-year period in the early Holocene Epoch that's calling my name.
It's a mugs' game, deciding when things were better compared to now. It all comes down to what period your favorite TV show takes place in. There's a very nice young lady down my block that loves 'Little House on the Prairie'. She's seen every episode twenty times. She also lives in a group home, and her ladder does not reach all the way to the roof, if you follow my meaning. To this young lady, the Reconstruction Period is entirely described by the television show. If she could set the clock back to that time, she'd do it in a heartbeat (as would Michael Landon). And within a week of arriving in 1870, my neighbor would be tossed into a mental hospital, endure a hysterectomy, and thereafter would spend the rest of her life sitting by a window wishing she'd been a fan of 'Happy Days'.
I don't mean to suggest our ideals are formed entirely by television, although they are. What I mean is that society is always recasting its earlier iterations into deliberately nostalgic forms in order to perpetuate itself. Look at the Church and the Garden of Eden. Those were the days! Innovative, forward-looking ideas require change, which is embraced only by children and weirdos. In the conformist 1950's it was all about libertarian cowboys and Indians. Oh, those golden years before modern dentistry! Now that libertines are in control, we gaze yearningly upon those conformist days of the halcyon 1950's. If only we knew then what we know now, it would be now, then. Which of course it was, at the time. The pendulum swings.
One would think (if one bothered to think at all) that nostalgia was the most harmless of vices, like smoking toasted banana skins. But it is this longing for better, simpler times that has us rattling down the Primrose Path to Perdition. There were never better, simpler times. Life has always been messy, and things change faster than we imagine. Pick a time you'd rather live in: quite aside from the fact that things were far worse than you imagine during that time, also remember the period you're thinking of was bracketed by other, more horrible times. Say your nostalgia is for the Roaring Twenties (let's pretend you're one of the few thousand rich people for whom the Twenties were actually roaring). Before the Twenties we have WWI and the influenza pandemic. After the Twenties we have the Great Depression. We're always on the way back from something ghastly, or on our way toward something worse. At the moment we're experiencing the latter condition. This makes nostalgia especially seductive.
Nostalgia is dangerous. Nostalgia is the illusion of better times. People have struggled and fought and died every minute of every day since we first became human, or took a different path and became Republicans. There have been moments of relative peace and security, but explosive change has always been on the way (usually in the form of explosions). Better times have to be created Now. It's a struggle that never ends. We spend our lives striving for free public education, or equal rights for all humans, or better cell phone reception in mountainous areas. For a brief, shining moment, we achieve our goals. Better times are ahead. Then other people struggle to reverse these achievements. Why? Because the way things were before was working for them. They're nostalgic for the good old days. It's the curse of mankind: if we had the chance to do it all over again, we would.
Ben Tripp can be reached at credel@earthlink.net.
His book, 'Square In The Nuts', has been held up at the printers by thugs but will be released as soon as hostage negotiations conclude.