Good old days
| We control what|
you think with
|Said and done|
|Jargon, buzzwords, slogans|
| Fiction over fact|
|How it didn't happen|
“”Our parents rave about the good old times / It's so far away / The old Kaiserzeit.
|—We want to have our old Kaiser Wilhelm back! (song)|
"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.
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.
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.
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. Prehistoric times, even, are touted as an era when primitive humans were better off; witness the so-called Paleo diet.
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, most Athenians were slaves, 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 and Thomas Woods' How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization 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.
Scott's idyllic "Merry England" was, however, even more specific as he subscribed to the "Anglo-Saxon paradise" version of English history. In this perspective, all ills are traced to the Norman conquest in 1066 and William the Conqueror, before which, apparently, all good English men were apparently free, if not exactly equal (though even this is somewhat fudged). According to this rosy-colored version of Anglo-Saxon England, all proper freemen had their say in the thing which in this narrative is some kind of proto-Westminster parliament(s).[notes 1]
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." 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.
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."
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 or the Hip Sing Association under the leadership of Sai Wing Mock, 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.
Also, while economically the US peaked from the end of World War II to the early ‘70s, this was because everywhere but the US and Soviet Union had their infrastructure bombed to smithereens, not because of conservative culture ruined by teh leebrals. And the economy hasn’t been destroyed since then, just shifted to the service sector (which is why free higher education has suddenly become such a politicized issue, as agriculture and manufacturing doesn’t require much education, while service work does). Despite this, many say they could somehow reverse the economy back to the “golden age”, even though this has just left us completely unprepared for the new service economy.
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 keeping the memory of the East German police state alive to counterbalance this.
It should be noted that in many ways Ostalgie is the result of shameless marketing. Many products available in East Germany that are meant to commemorate the German Democratic Republic were old brands that died during reunification and that were resurrected by West Germans to make it easier to brand and market their products to the region. Some companies even attempted to commercialize the heraldry of the German Democratic Republic. Ironically, part of their success lies in the fact that West Germans improved the quality of these products. Back in the days of the GDR, many of these brands were notable for being of inferior quality to their Western equivalents and were often avoided for that reason.
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 administered 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. And that's not including the super fun Gulag!
The economy was booming, the workers didn't whine about 16-hour, 6-day work weeks (and neither did their children), and the darkies, Jews, and common folk (like poor people, how dare they not be born into nobility!) knew their place. Also, the "Empire"[notes 2] provided a handy source of raw materials from which to create even more wealth. Good times, indeed.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a concerted attempt by supporters of deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos to wipe the shit 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 the police could knock on one's door just for saying bad stuff about Imelda Marcos, the Little People's Star and Slave.
Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man (1991):
The sun was near the horizon. The shortest-lived creatures on the Disc were mayflies, which barely make it through twenty-four hours. Two of the oldest zigzagged aimlessly over the waters of a trout stream, discussing history with some younger members of the evening hatching.
"You don't get the kind of sun now that you used to get," one of them said.
"You're right there. We had proper sun in the good old hours. It were all yellow. None of this red stuff.
"It were higher too."
"It was. You're right."
"And nymphs and larvae showed you a bit of respect."
"They did. They did," said the other mayfly vehemently.
"I reckon, if mayflies these hours behaved a bit better, we’d still be having proper sun."
The younger mayflies listened politely.
"I remember," said one of the oldest mayflies, "when all this was fields, as far as you could see."
The younger mayflies looked around.
"It’s still fields," one of them ventured, after a polite interval.
"I remember when it was better fields," said the old mayfly sharply.
"Yeah," said his colleague. "And there was a cow."
"That’s right! You’re right! I remember that cow! Stood right over there for, oh, forty, fifty minutes. It was brown, as I recall."
"You don’t get cows like that these hours." …
"What were we doing before we were talking about the sun?"
"Zigzagging aimlessly over the water," said one of the young flies. This was a fair bet in any case.
"No, before that."
"Er … you were telling us about the Great Trout."
"Ah. Yes. Right. The Trout. Well, you see, if you’ve been a good mayfly, zigzagging up and down properly—"
"—taking heed of your elders and betters—"
"—then eventually the Great Trout—"
"Yes?" said one of the younger mayflies.
There was no reply.
"The Great Trout what?" said another mayfly, nervously.
They looked down at a series of expanding concentric rings on the water.
"The holy sign!" said a mayfly. "I remember being told about that! A Great Circle in the water! Thus shall be the sign of the Great Trout!"
- The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap, Stephanie Coontz
- The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman
- The Good Old Days — They Were Terrible!, Otto L. Bettmann 
- "Wir wollen unseren alten Kaiser Wilhelm wiederhaben" uploaded by Grossdeutsches Reich on May 29, 2015
- Midnight in Paris. Woody Allen.
- Crappy Book 101
- And another one
- Twain, Mark. Life on the Mississippi.
- The Old Left, New York Times Magazine.
- See the Wikipedia article on The Decline of the West.
- Testimony Gathered by Ashley's Mines Commission (1842) The Victorian Web.
- ISBN: 0-465-09097-4
- Fareed Zakaria. An Optimist's Lament. New York Times Book Review, Mar. 30 1997.
- ISBN: 0-394-70941-1