"The truth will set you free. But first it will piss you off."

Gloria Steinem

Friday, October 18, 2013

Is The “Good Old Days” a Myth?

     Given the number of Facebook pages that have “The Good Old Days” in their title, this may prove to be a controversial post.  Here goes.
     Let me begin by correcting a popular misconception:  “Myth” is not a euphemism for “Lie.”  Quite the contrary; EVERY myth has a grain of truth at its core.  Unfortunately, a number of people apply coats of “polish” to that grain, seeking to render it more as they wish it to be.  The result may be striking, quite well known and believed, as a myth, leaving its basic truth hopelessly obscured.  Over history, this process has usually taken time to accomplish.  In today’s world of hyper-communication, myths can emerge fully polished in almost no time at all. 
     I previously identified “Subsidized Housing” as such a myth, whose actual shape and community significance are much misunderstood.  In this post I focus on “The Good Old Days.”  The concept is an excellent example of a myth: a grain (or in this case, much more) of truth distorted by the unconscious workings of the human mind and the conscious manipulation of advertising agencies.  I’m not going to attack this myth; merely try to remove some of its encrustations, and better reveal its true shape. 
     Many professionals (and not just historians) recognize that there is nothing new about the belief that “The Good Old Days” were back when we were young, or at least younger.   This is a repetitive occurrence, a generation concluding that the significant events in local history—at least the bad ones—took place within their lifetime or that of their parents.  The oldest recorded laments about the decline of society and the younger generation follow shortly after the invention of writing, and were no doubt passed along verbally before then.  Many things have changed, but this still remains the same.  How many older people do you know who believe that things are better now than they used to be, regardless of all the evidence?  Even the fact that there are more of them living longer to complain doesn’t even seem to register.  It’s part of the generational aging process, apparently.  When you are young, the world is fresh and new; your experiences register deeply, largely because they are the first.  You age, things change, dreams die and those early experiences begin to take on a rosy glow.  It happens with every generation, and it always has.
     Remember how the TV show “All in the Family” opened?  Archie and Edith Bunker, sitting around the piano singing (off key) “Those Were the Days”?  When were their “Good Old Days”?  When you “didn’t need no welfare state, everybody pulled his weight”?  The 1920s?  The 1930s?  Does anyone still believe that “We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again”?
     Yet “All in the Family” was onto something; your early memories count, and will always take on a rosy glow, even about times like the Depression.  A lady named Mary Early, who I interviewed for my book, expressed it perfectly:  “If we were poor, we didn’t know it, because nobody else had anything more than we did.” Things will never be the quite like they were when we were young.  We are all Citizen Kane, dying with our individual “rosebud” on our lips.  Nostalgia will always sell. 
     Part of nostalgia’s attraction is its core of truth; “progress” is a very relative term.  Joni Mitchell has expressed this from both sides; while she has said that “You don’t know what you got till it’s gone,” she has also reminded us that “something’s lost but something’s gained, in living every day.”  The question is, have we gained more than we have lost?  It’s not an easy question to answer.
     And by the way, who is this “we” of whom I speak?  Are we really all one?  “The Good Old Days” may have been good for you, but were they good for everyone?  Here is the important distinction, the one that we must make if we are to let history—and not nostalgia—be our guide.  Let’s take our constant subject—community—as an example.  The unpleasant truth of history is that when you view an entire community, a pleasing overall appearance is more likely once the details are sufficiently obscured.
     I’ll begin with only the most obvious example.  Does anyone really think that any period up through the 1950s was “The Good Old Days” for African-American residents of our towns?  Old Norristown hands have great memories of the Norris Theatre, that monument to Art Deco excess (yes, I have been inside, and loved it).  But if you were black, you could only sit in the balcony.  In a cruel irony, the attendant who enforced that rule was likely black himself (they were okay as low-level employees).  Of course, the West-Mar theatre did not admit black people at all, so…  African-Americans for good reason lament changes in family and community, but certainly not their place in America’s legal or social fabric in days gone by.
     Or how about the earlier “Good Old Days,” before and after World War I, the greatest period of growth and prosperity in the history of pretty much every local urban community east of the Mississippi?  How “golden” was it for the children, perhaps all of ten years, who were small enough to fit among the whirring spindles, and thus allowed not just to work, but to work long hours?  After all, they lost fingers or arms only occasionally, and during these golden years the government definitely did not believe in regulating “job creators.”  Employing children this young was illegal by local ordinance (the dangerous working conditions weren’t), but in another characteristic of “The Good Old Days,” the inspectors would turn a blind eye.  Such things were understood.  Everybody knew their place, and those who didn’t were pretty much screwed.

     So, celebrate your memories, but don’t fall victim to your own propaganda.  History is always yes and no, good and bad, at the same time, because that’s the way life is.  A fundamental characteristic of our civilization is that we implicitly believe that “The Good Old Days” lie in the future, not the past.  That, not nostalgia, should motivate our lives.  Our children will some day look back on today, tomorrow and the day after as “The Good Old Days.”  Shouldn’t we try to make their memories the best they can be?