The good ol’ days were illusory. So why does everybody today wish a return of the ‘good ol’ days’? Because they were illusory. Sure, some things were nicer then than they are now. Families sat down together at the dinner table for their evening meal and actually talked to each other, rather than eating in front of the television or while trolling the internet on their computers. Children could safely walk down the block to the store or ice cream place without parents having to worry about them being abducted. And kids played tag, baseball, and other physically and emotionally healthy activities rather than PlayStation or Xbox. So some things that changed were, perhaps, not necessarily for the better. But ‘better’ is a relative term. Better than what? The ‘50s were ‘better’ than the ‘40s when half the decade was spent engaged in World War II. The post-war 1950s brought prosperity to America. More people were able to buy homes, cars, washing machines, refrigerators and televisions. But ….
The ‘50s and ‘60s saw the Cold War, the Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, bomb shelters and drills where kids crouched under their desks at school. Think the McCarthy witch hunts. Think Jim Crow laws, race riots, forced segregation and disenfranchisement for a large portion of the nation. Women were still mostly confined to housewifery or low-level, thankless jobs. Sure, more people owned cars than ever before, but those cars broke down frequently, were not air-conditioned, and had no safety features such as seat belts, air bags or headrests. And remember manual chokes and trying to figure just how far to pull the knob to let just the right amount of fuel in? Television was a new novelty, black-and-white only, and you had to turn the set on a good 15 minutes before you wanted to watch it, as the tubes had to warm up. Oh, and there were only 2-3 channels and they went off-air after playing the national anthem at midnight. Remember how you had to actually get out of your chair and walk over to the television and turn a knob to change channels?
Life expectancy at birth was 68 years, vs. 79 today, and tuberculosis, syphilis, whooping cough, and measles still killed many, many more than today. One reason for poorer health was lower-quality housing: About a third of houses still lacked decent indoor plumbing (compared with fewer than 2 percent today), and air conditioning was a rare luxury. And what about technology? Most of us have a love/hate relationship with our electronic devices, but think back to the days before personal computers, cell phones, e-readers and tablets. Need to know who invented the helicopter? Today, you can answer that question in under 15 seconds with a few clicks (Paul Cornu invented the helicopter, by the way), but 50 years ago, you physically went to the library and spent a few hours thumbing through the card catalogs. Writing a blog post? Um, no, not in the ‘50s you weren’t. But if you wanted to have your opinion heard, you could write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. You got out the 40-pound typewriter, erased every mistake by hand (and you had to catch the mistakes yourself – no spell or grammar check!). Then you folded the letter, put it in an envelope, mailed it, and in a few days it would probably arrive at its destination.
The ‘populist’ movement that is sweeping not only the United States, but much of Europe also, is based, in part, on a desire to return to the ‘good ol’ days’, say the 1950s. Nostalgia runs rampant. But nostalgia for what? Recently one person said to me that she would like to return to a time when ‘integrity mattered’. The discussion was about politics and politicians, specifically the two current candidates running for the office of president of the U.S. My response is that I am not sure that integrity mattered any more 50 years ago than it does today, at least in politics, and socially I would say that it matters more today than it did back then.
If we believe that integrity mattered to politicians 50-60 years ago, why do we believe that? We believe that because it was much easier for politicians to pull the wool over our eyes back then. There was no internet, no instantaneous exchange of information traveling at the speed of light from an airport in Washington, D.C. to a newsroom in New York City to our computers in less than a minute. Bill Clinton’s chance meeting with Loretta Lynch in the airport would almost certainly have never been noticed by the media and certainly never been known by the public. So, were we happier being kept in the dark on most of what actually went on behind the scenes in Washington? Apparently many of the older generation longing for a return to the good old days think so. Another thing is that the media did not always think it was important, did not always believe the public had a ‘need to know’, or a ‘right to know’, every single aspect of a politician’s life. John F. Kennedy was by far more promiscuous than Bill Clinton, yet Clinton is demonized for his affairs, while Kennedy’s were barely even known until well after his death. The press knew, but they did not believe the public had either a need or a right to know that JFK brought women into the White House on a daily basis for his own pleasure.
Life moves forward, never backward. Each moment is fleeting and will never return. No, we cannot return to the ‘good old days’, but they are an illusion anyway. What we mean when we say we want to return to those days is that we want to return to some things, those that we remember fondly, but not other things. The expression, I believe, is “you can’t have your cake and eat it too.” We can only try to make today the best that it can be and plan tomorrow to be even better. We learn from the mistakes we made in the past and will learn from those we make today. We apply those lessons to the future, and we make a better day tomorrow. We must accept and acknowledge that with progress, with improvement, come problems. We fix those problems as best we can, and move on – forward, not backward.