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The problem with idealizing the past

| Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nostalgia (n): a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past

We are living in a present that seems to be obsessed with the past. Recent critically acclaimed films “Midnight in Paris” and “La La Land” are both centered on characters who yearn for eras long gone, time periods well before they were even born. There are several TV shows currently running that incorporate time travel into the past, and book series like “Outlander” by Diana Gabaldon, romanticize even farther back in history, around the 1700s. Fashion seems to be a rotating wheel of reintegrating past fashions into the modern scene. Even politicians have taken note of this trend — the very nature of the slogan “Make America Great Again” implies that there was a time, within memory, when America was outshining other nations; it was the pining for a reoccurrence of these “golden years” that contributed to the election of Donald Trump.

I am admittedly very guilty of dreaming wistfully of the past, sometimes even wondering if my life would not have been more exciting, fulfilled, etc., had I been born to a different era. History is our greatest resource — thousands of years of wisdom, successes, failures, great men and evil men from which to draw inspiration and knowledge from. However, if we do more than simply study the past for its practical information, if we actually romanticize past eras, there is a danger of glossing over the faults of those eras, and by doing such, failing to recognize how we have improved — and failed to improve — in the decades that have passed.

Nostalgia is a luxury that is not afforded to all people. It’s easy for me to think highly of the 1950s — who wouldn’t want to go to sock-hops, wear poodle skirts and sip milkshakes at the local soda shop? For many, however, the idea of being transported back to the 50s would be equivalent to a nightmare. African Americans were in the middle of a fight for their basic civil rights, and were not protected against blatant discrimination. African Americans do not have the privilege of looking back at the past quite as fondly as white people can, and for some, it is even a period they would prefer to block out all together given today’s situation of racial tension and police brutality. In dreaming of flapper dresses, Fitzgerald and speakeasies, one may forget that women were only granted the right to vote in the 1920s, and would have to fight constantly to be seen as equals to men — a goal that is arguably still being chased today. To idealize these time periods is to forget the problems of the past, problems that countless individuals fought and even died to amend.

Donald Trump’s campaign slogan idealized the past in a dangerous way that focused on conjuring unrealistic and occasionally blatantly false images of a shining past, free of fault. The notion that America was somehow “great” in some unspecified time in the past sets an unwelcome precedent that we have not moved in a positive direction over the years, and would do well to harken back to the “good ole days” with less tolerance, lacking civil rights and few opportunities for advancement. That’s not to say there are not lessons to draw upon from the past, and programs that may have worked well back then could be used as a source of inspiration for modern policy. The issue arises when a glorifying lens is used to blind people to how far our nation has come in terms of social, economic, and political opportunity.

“Midnight in Paris” is one of my all-time favorite films. I love the vintage music, colorful clothing, and romanticism of a time well before modern technology, where booze flowed heavily and the arts thrived like none other. At the end of the movie, however, even Owen Wilson notices that almost everyone believes that the “Golden Age” happened well before his or her own present time, and in doing so, fails to acknowledge the benefits of the modern age and look to a future even greater than today.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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  • Punta Venyage

    So is everything always getting better by necessity? Is it possible that there is an element of cyclicality (where good -> bad -> good -> bad) over time in certain aspects?

    It seems you have an issue with the suggestion that in some ways America was greater in the past… do you think this belief is completely false? If so, why?

    • disqus_PBnOP0sXke

      Lower life expectancy, no vaccines, racial segregation, sodomy laws, pollution in big cities due to lack of regulations… Thank god we don’t live in those days any more.