Good old days

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We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self control.
—Ancient Egyptian tomb inscription[1]

"Good old days" is a term that is often used in when engaging in nostalgia, remembering only the positive aspects of times past while sweeping concomitant negatives under the rug. It has also been called the Golden Age Fallacy.[2]

It is important to note a distinction between this fallacy and legitimate comparisons: not every positive appraisal of the past is wrongheaded, because the world really has changed. It's just that it's also always been complex and uneven, and no period or people have ever had a monopoly on virtue.

Contents

[edit] Origin

Much as one remembers one's own childhood with affection (endless summer days and playing in the winter snow), some people regard their parents' time as idyllic. There are a variety of factors to explain this, mostly relying on the phenomenon of selective memory and the affective heuristic: a father recounting the halcyon days of his youth not only remembers the different circumstances of that time, but also recalls that his hips didn't ache and all possibilities lay before him. Because it is unpleasant to remember the unpleasant, the warm glow of remembered youth tints the past.

Individuals of all political stripes fall prey to the Golden Age Fallacy. Hard green environmentalists and anarcho-primitivists focus on the evils of civilization and the glories of subsistence-level economies, while conservatives - almost by definition - seek to return to the values of the past, which requires glorifying the past.

[edit] Examples

[edit] Bygone eras

Some of the most popular locations for the good old days reside in distant history. The myth of the "noble savage" became particularly popular for many years, arguing that people in undeveloped nations (both in the past and present) actually lived happier lives than those in modern developed nations. As is common, this belief thrives in ignorance: once words like "infant mortality," "citrus fruit," and "toilet paper" enter the conversation, attitudes swiftly change.

Ancient Greece, particularly Athens, is another long-lost paradise. After all, it is widely-known that it was the era of democracy and Socrates. Unfortunately, only wealthy native male property owners could vote, and Socrates was convicted of impiety and "corruption of the youth" and sentenced to death. Also, the Athenian democracy only lasted for two centuries.

While no longer in vogue, it has also been popular to call various parts of the medieval period in Europe the good old days. Rodney Starke's texts, such as The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success [3] and Thomas Wood's How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization[4] promote one particularly stupid flavor of this fallacy: the theocratic paradise, where an insuperable Roman Catholic Church governed our world at its apex. While we may have advanced technologically, this line of thought suggests, in all other ways (most especially family values and the murdering of gays) we have fallen behind. Joining this Christ-centric view is a yearning for the Age of Chivalry, as a time of high honor and bravery. Mark Twain famously blamed Sir Walter Scott's paeans to knighthood in such works as Ivanhoe for the American Civil War:

Then comes Sir Walter Scott with his enchantments, and by his single might checks this wave of progress, and even turns it back; sets the world in love with dreams and phantoms; with decayed and swinish forms of religion; with decayed and degraded systems of government; with the sillinesses and emptinesses, sham grandeurs, sham gauds, and sham chivalries of a brainless and worthless long-vanished society. He did measureless harm; more real and lasting harm, perhaps, than any other individual that ever wrote. Most of the world has now outlived good parts of these harms, though by no means all of them; but in our South they flourish pretty forcefully still.[5]

A third variety is the more muddled wish for a simple rural Arcadia of uncertain provenance, as when folk singer Pete Seeger declared that "I want to turn the clock back to when people lived in small villages and took care of each other."[6] 1918's The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, one of the most infamous books in the "declinist" genre, called 16th and 17th century Europe a golden age - "summer" in his absurdly reductive seasonal model of civilizations.[7]

[edit] America

Many periods of American history have been host to this fallacy. The revolutionary era of the 18th century, a time of gentleman farmers and tricorner hats, has long been venerated as the good old days. For a time, the succeeding century was also host to wistful yearning, despite its apt nickname, the "Gilded Age."

R.J. Rushdoony, Gary North, Larry Pratt, David Barton and other Dominionists promote the New England Puritan theocracy of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries as one such period.

The gang warfare of urban areas in the 1980s and 1990s was unparalleled... unless you knew something about history. New York City gangs existed in the 19th century with the influx of Irish immigrants, and from the turn of the century with the Chinese On Leong Tong[wp] or the Hip Sing Association[wp] under the leadership of Sai Wing Mock[wp], and from the 1930s onwards with the Mafia. But, obviously, they weren't black people, so that is completely different. Obviously.

Of late, it has become peculiarly easy to divine an American's political persuasion based on whether they idolize the 1950s or 1960s. Do you fondly recall Woodstock and Kent State, or Happy Days and misogyny? In the good old days, they tended to hang black people up from trees, not let women vote and criminalize gay people. They may have been good times if you were a straight white dude though.

[edit] East Germany

There is a phenomenon called Ostalgie (a portmanteau of the German words for "east" and "nostalgia") current in Germany. Due partially to the manner in which the reunification of Germany was executed, which resulted in economic depression and large-scale unemployment in the former East Germany, adherents to Ostalgie remember the period of communism there fondly, thus demonstrating why it is necessary for the German government to maintain a Federal Commissioner for the Stasi Archives[wp] keeping the memory of the East German police state alive to counterbalance this.

[edit] The Soviet Union under Stalin

A number of Russians today remember Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union fondly as a period of national glory, conveniently forgetting that Stalin was a dictator and a serious slimeball who deliberately murdered some millions of Soviet citizens and presided over famines that killed millions more. It's also perhaps easier to shrug off the summary arrest, torture, and execution of political dissidents and accused "wreckers" when your apartment is no longer subject to the knock on the door at three in the morning.

[edit] Victorian Britain

The economy was booming, the workers didn't whine about 16-hour six-day work weeks (and neither did their children), and the darkies knew their place. Also, the "Empire"[8] provided a handy source of raw materials from which to create even more wealth. Good times, indeed.

[edit] Philippines

Since the early 2000s, there has been a concerted attempt by supporters of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos to wipe the poo off his name and polish it to brand-new. Examples cited of the good old days under Marcos are the low peso-to-dollar exchange rate, the fact that the Philippines had Asia's second-largest economy next to Japan based on gross domestic product, and low crime rates. Needless to say, most people who post about the good old days of martial law were either born in the 1980s or later, and thus didn't experience the good old days when police could just knock on one's door just for saying bad stuff about Imelda Marcos the Little People's Star and Slave.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  • The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz[9]
  • The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman[10]
  • The Good Old Days - They Were Terrible!, Otto L. Bettmann [11]

[edit] Footnotes

  1. Youth Nowadays, Wikiquote
  2. Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen.
  3. Crappy Book 101
  4. And another one
  5. Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi.
  6. The Old Left, New York Times Magazine.
  7. See the Wikipedia article on The Decline of the West.
  8. Most of the rest of the world
  9. ISBN: 0-465-09097-4
  10. Fareed Zakaria. An Optimist's Lament. New York Times Book Review, Mar. 30 1997.
  11. ISBN: 0-394-70941-1
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