Wall Street Journal (via a ‘sponsored’ post in my Fb feed!): Why We Can’t Stop Longing for the Good Old Days, subtitled, “Neurology and nostalgia help explain why people have always worried that the world is going downhill.”
It’s an excerpt from a book by Johan Norberg called Open: The Story of Human Progress. His first point is something I had never heard of before.
Building ruins from scratch was the height of fashion for European aristocrats at the time, using shattered castles and crumbling abbeys to create an imaginary, romantic past. Hagley Park is a selective, artificial version of history—just like the politics of nostalgia that is so popular today.
People in many countries are longing for the good old days. When asked if life in their country is better or worse today than 50 years ago, 31% of Britons, 41% of Americans and 46% of the French say it’s worse.
Psychologists say that this kind of nostalgia is natural and sometimes even useful: Anchoring our identity in the past helps give us a sense of stability and predictability. For individuals, nostalgia is especially common when we experience rapid transitions like puberty, retirement or moving to a new country. Similarly, collective nostalgia—a longing for the good old days when life was simpler and people behaved better—can also be a source of communal strength in difficult times.
This is of course the narrative of what conservatism is about (cf. Haidt) — a longing to restore a golden age past (which didn’t actually exist).
The article goes on. Many think the 1950s was when America was last great. They didn’t think so in the ‘50s; then they thought it was the 1920s that were great. But no: in the ‘20s it was the Victorian era that was great. And so on.
People have been longing for the good old days at least since the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia, 5,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered Sumerian cuneiform tablets which complain that family life isn’t what it used to be. One tablet frets about “the son who spoke hatefully to his mother, the younger brother who defied his older brother, who talked back to the father.”
This psychological truth is partly about selective memory, a kind of biased thinking related to superstitions: we remember the hits and disregard the misses. We remember the nice things about the past, and forget or disregard and bad things (especially if those bad things affected others). More to the point, this is something that can be learned and understood. The entire MAGA movement is misguided on this ground, not to mention others. Can this be learned and understood? Not by most.
Closely aligned with this idea is the constant fretting by religious leaders that the country is in a “moral decline.” And think that said moral decline is the cause of various disasters and calamities, or any trend these leaders disapprove of. And religious leaders who claim this tend to presume that only *his* version of God, or the savior, whatever, can possibly save America.
It’s superstition, presumption, and arrogance of the highest order. (And a failure of imagination.)
Nonsense, on several grounds.