People have been going on forever about returning to the good old days, the days of their youth, and the days when America was great long before Donald Trump ever got hold of the idea. Longing for the days of yore is baked into our society, to the point where the very idea that something is old, to many people, gives it weight. So we trust in ancient remedies, recall days of chivalry and valor, and yearn for good old Nuclear Family America.
Unless we studied History. Those of us who studied History know that yearning for the good old days dooms you to an infinite wait at the lost luggage counter for imaginary bags.
Somehow, though, knowledge of the reality doesn’t sink in. People still honestly wish they lived in the good old days, when men were real men, who smelled like crap, got drunk all the time, shot each other, and generally banded together inconsistently against Native Americans. They had plenty of guns and no scruples, so they won anyway. But some people never played Oregon Trail, never read any books, and only watched Westerns growing up, and now they yearn for the days of covered wagons heading out across the plains with no dysentery to worry anyone.
The latest version is the good old days of the United States of America, the greatest nation on Earth. Now there is a whole group of people who want to return to days when men had good jobs, solid pensions, fulfilling work, and dinner on the table when they came home. Certainly no immigrants or Muslims to worry about.
Never mind that today’s white working class Americans are yesterday’s immigrants. Never mind that the good jobs were back-breaking, that company towns kept people hard in debt, and that the history we read is not the history of the middle or the bottom—only the history of the top. Those who yearn for the past wonder why anyone wouldn’t want that, but only because they don’t know what the past was like for people who aren’t them.
The people who want old America are not the people who cleaned house all day, made dinner, were seen and not heard, and went to bed knowing their husbands had a legal right to their bodies.
The people who want old America are not the people who lived in the closet, hiding their identities and sacrificing their own happiness until they died, to avoid the beatings and prejudice and murder that prevented it from ever being a choice.
The people who want old America are not the people who lived with the knowledge that they could be grabbed up and killed at any time for the crime of talking to a white woman, or using the wrong water fountain, or daring to aspire to something more than poverty.
The people who do long for the past do so with a desire for simpler times. But of course it is abundantly clear that the past was never simpler. Only our faulty memories make it so. We erase the experience of others so easily in the present; it is infinitely easier to do so in the past. We smooth out the nuance and detail and blood and sweat and pain to create a nice story. But that’s all it is.
True return to greatness isn’t a return, because greatness was never reality. I think telling stories about the past does have a purpose, but that purpose isn’t nostalgia. The purpose of telling stories about the past, for me, is to keep hold of the baggage. If we don’t lose it along the way, the nuance of the truth has value. Not to make us wish for the past—to inspire us to create the future.
Image Credit: John Perivolaris