The Greatness of the Past
There are several emails circulating that remember how much better things were. They shows kids playing outdoors without cell phones. They show dads and sons fishing, or teenagers dancing in a soda-shop, all clean, neat and protected. They show kids riding to school on bikes without helmets and playing on equipment that would “drive safety-lawyers crazy.”
The thing is, if you look at those emails, all the people in them are white.
Sociologists started looking at the commodification of nostalgia in 1979, with Fred Davis’s piece Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia. In it, Davis noted that nostalgia was nothing new, but creation of group nostalgia, mostly through advertising, was. With nationwide media shared in common, regional memories became less powerful than national ones, and the national memories were being created by the advertisers of that same media.
Advertisers created a memory of a simpler past, where things made sense. An image of Eden that we, as consumers, could buy into simply by buying their products.
It’s an easy pitch to make, most things make sense in hindsight. To make that pitch, however, much of history needs to be omitted. Salespeople are not hired to tell the whole truth, they are sell a product. Frequently, they do so with allusion to a simpler past, which only works if the storybook past actually appears simpler.
So, we got a version of the past without strife. We see middle-class kids playing, and the the kids with the luxury of being middle class in the 50’s are white.
The result of this advertising is that we now have a collective nostalgia that merged with collective amnesia. We look to a simpler time that we understand (in retrospect) by looking at, and idolizing, the lives of middle-classed children. Lost in that picture is the grown up world of Mutually Assured Destruction, school de-segregation, or class and social unrest.
The ultimate nostalgia trip is the idea of the fall from Eden. The tale predates modern media, but has similar common elements. Art from thought Abrahamic history depicts Adam and Eve being cast out of paradise, never to return. The sin for which they were cast out was none other than that of understanding Good and evil. Before they knew that, things were simpler and more idealistic. A paradise to be sure, but a paradise ultimately made possible by ignorance. Most of the religious artwork that depicts the scene shows Adam and Eve looking back, longing for what they lost. Like us, the garden seems ideal, but with our experience in the garden predating our understanding of good and evil, how could we know?
When we talk about making America great “again,” we are panting our own picture, with us gazing back at paradise and longing for ignorance. We dream, not of President Eisenhower putting a Christmas message into space on the back of a modified ICBM, but of a little girl picking a daisy in a field. When I look back, I can’t help but hear the count-down voice-over, and shudder at how complicated life really was.
I much prefer to look forward to the greatness ahead.