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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-04-14 05:52
Subject: [politics] The myth of the Golden Age
Security: Public
Tags:personal, politics
So much of conservatism and libertarianism thought seems to rely on the myth of the Golden Age. This is the basis of William F. Buckley's famous declaration to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop" — the idea that things were better than they are, and that change is dangerous. It's a fundamentally emotional proposition, that strikes me as driven more by fear than any sense of opportunity or growth.

In this morning's link salad I included a wonderfully idiotic bit of Golden Age myth making, courtesy of The Edge of the American West. Which reminds me of a woman I worked with years ago, back in the mid-1990s.

She was about 30 at the time, divorced, living with her boyfriend who worked shifts in emergency services. She was an art director at the ad agency where I ran IT and production. She lived in a conservative exurb of Austin, attended an Evangelical megachurch on Sundays, and came in every Monday grumbling about how liberals were ruining America, about the Clintons and their crimes, and whatever else her preacher had railed about the day before from the pulpit. Her constant theme was how much better things were in the 1950s when the streets were safe, everybody had jobs, and America was powerful and secure.

I finally got fed up with this and asked her how much she knew about the 1950s. Did she know anything about the African-American experience in those days? What about other non-whites? The unemployed? When I pointed out that in the 1950s she wouldn't have had the job she did because it would have been given to a man who needed to feed his family, and that she wouldn't have been allowed in the door of her church as a divorced woman living in sin with another man, she got upset with me and said that wasn't what she meant.

She wanted the good parts of the myth of the Golden Age without having to acknowledge or accept the prices people paid for them. I'll bet good money this woman today is a Sarah Palin fan and a Tea Party member, because that's the depth of thinking I see from conservative America even now. Not all conservatives everywhere, but from those in political power and those with media voices.

I atill think about her sometimes, because how the heck do I, as a liberal-progressive, even get her to see where her own thinking goes awry? She's like those Christians who demand literal subservience to Biblical truth, except for the inconvenient parts. There's no logic or coherent philosophy, only wishful thinking wrapped in justification.

Some of it is education and worldliness. One reason academia and journalism are so stereotypically liberal is people in those disciplines generally have to look at the world critically and think about the facts on the ground; at least if they're going about it properly. It's difficult to maintain my friend's level of denial and wishful thinking while engaging in intellectual honesty. Contemporary conservatism is a lot more about denial and wishful thinking than it is about intellectual honesty — look at the issues that drive votes: evolution denial; gun fantasies; fears of gays; climate change denial; magical thinking on taxes.

The myth of the Golden Age is as old as history. Children were always more respectful, the language always more well spoken, and times always better in the previous generation. But confusing the myth of the Golden Age with the reality of life is misplaced at best.

How to address that? Surely not through my rantings. But I'm not sure how to be more thoughtful in the right ways.

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The Texas Triffid Ranch - Odd Plants and Oddities
User: txtriffidranch
Date: 2010-04-14 13:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I won't disagree that the myth isn't seductive, but I've rapidly found myself going in just the opposite direction, particularly in the last few years. I find that the denial you describe is most common with that "high school years are the best years of your life" gibberish, where parents of teenagers simply can't believe that their kids want to grow up and get the hell away as soon as they can. That denial comes either from being at the top of the social hierarchy, and they're having real problems accepting at 43 that they peaked at 17, or from willfully blotting out the pain. I have no romantic illusions about childhood, because I remember it all. I talk with people my age who were there in many of the situations I remember, and you'd think they'd given themselves lobotomies to remove the memories. Every day, I look at current joys and think "Man, I love living in the future."

And that ties into the Golden Age delusion in general. L. Sprague deCamp had grand fun pointing out that when people talk about returning to the great Golden Age of Greece, it is always as a rich nobleman, not as a slave in an Athenian silver mine. Twenty years ago, I was working at Texas Instruments, and one of my co-workers was a good ole boy who simply wouldn't shut up about wanting a re-do on the Civil War. At least he was honest when he argued that he couldn't have given a damn about sovereignty: he felt that if the Confederacy had been allowed to continue, he'd now be a rich slave owner with a plantation. When I argued in return that precious few people in the Confederacy could afford slaves in the first place, much less plantations, and that developments in industrialization would have made the old ways completely obsolete within about thirty years after the war, it went right in one ear and out the other. Then again, so did everything else this guy was told, which is ultimately why he was fired in the middle of 1990.

(As a sidenote, that Golden Age denial is also a big motivator with the Kennedy assassination conspiracists. On one point, you have goofballs like Oliver Stone who argue that Kennedy wouldn't have gotten the US involved in Vietnam, even though Presidential memos demonstrate that it was Johnson, not Kennedy, who tried to apply the brakes. The most persistent of the conspiracy nuts, and remember that I live close to Ground Zero for this crowd, are ones who obsessively hunt the perps in the unspoken hope that things will automatically go back to where they were before. The reasoning goes that if Kennedy hadn't been assassinated, then we wouldn't have had the Civil Rights Act, or the protests against the war, and every last sort of subversive media from the Beatles to The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. It's absolutely identical to the birther movement: find the one link that proves the thesis, and magically America will slide back into the time track we were supposed to have. Good luck on that, especially since the assumption is that because it's good for a desperately reactionary minority, everyone else should just buckle up and accept it. There's a very good reason why I curl my lip whenever I hear someone yammering about supporting Sarah Palin so they can "take America back", because they didn't exactly do such a great job when they had it the last time.
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User: etcet
Date: 2010-04-14 14:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good luck on that, especially since the assumption is that because it's good for a desperately reactionary minority, everyone else should just buckle up and accept it.

This has become an interesting, if "oh my god I want to smack the stupid people with an International Harvester" meme of late on the left - the incredibly belated realization that these reactionary yahoos claim to "be the voice of the people" or "real america," as if they were some kind of majority or even a plurality, instead of what they really are, which is the creepy dude standing by the cash bar at the company party, which nobody is really sure whose department they work in... if they even work for the company at all, and aren't some random sleazebucket just mooching and spouting offensive rhetoric while soiling themselves.
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User: etcet
Date: 2010-04-14 13:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is when having a time machine would be bloody fucking useful, so that people could be dragged bodily into the past, either for a clue tour, or left there to make their way for a week, or a month, at which point, they could then return to the present, with all the horrible, awful, progressive changes that have been wrought.

Failing that, I happen to enjoy inflicting with_gusto on people when they're not expecting it. That is some high-quality 50's marketing propaganda snark.
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User: fledgist
Date: 2010-04-14 21:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hear! Hear!
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User: nova1021
Date: 2010-04-14 13:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think you're spot-on. Reminds me of this clip from the daily show: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-january-5-2010/even-better-than-the-real-thing
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Matthew S. Rotundo: Radioactive
User: matthewsrotundo
Date: 2010-04-14 13:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Or, as Billy Joel once put it, "The good old days weren't always good, and tomorrow ain't as bad as it seems."
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User: icedrake
Date: 2010-04-14 13:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm continuously discovering the truth of the nonexistent golden age, but not in political terms.

I've been hunting down favourite foods from my childhood, with varying levels of success. Most of them, I no longer like, and most are certainly not as I remember them. Part of it is due to formulations changing, of course. But the other part is, even if I could go back to that magical time when men were men, children were polite, and snacks tasted as they should... I wouldn't be the same person anymore. The snacks may taste as they should, but the person tasting them is gone.
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Lady Jestocost
User: ladyjestocost
Date: 2010-04-14 13:59 (UTC)
Subject: Oh, My!
Hasn't she ever talked to her mother? Ever?

It doesn't take very long to be convinced that no one would ever want to relive the middle part of the last century.

A-Bomb threat.
"Don't worry dear - it doesn't matter what you take in college - you'll get married anyway and have babies."

That's just the big three.

And the one that gets me as a graphic designer - back to the days of rub-on lettering, waxing, etc.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-04-14 14:02 (UTC)
Subject: Re: Oh, My!
That's kind of my point. She didn't want polio or a-bombs or forced marriage (or rub-on lettering). She wanted the 'good' stuff, and it was all the fault of liberals that it was gone. The fact that she even had a decent job and a good lifestyle as a result of progressive changes in law, policy and society since those 'good old days' was completely lost on her.

We're not talking deep thought, here.
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User: zachariahskylab
Date: 2010-04-14 14:28 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think the myth goes even deeper than that... many creationists believe that the entire Earth was once a golden paradise where Adam and Even live in perfect happiness and innocence. Everything was perfect, even time itself was frozen. And then evil came and changed everything... in fact, in the myth of Eden, evil and change are synonymous concepts.

This myth stands in direct opposition to the that embraced by the theory of evolution and progressive scientific thought. In this theory, human beings were primitive, violent creatures who slowly slowly evolved to form a slightly more civilized culture but even today we can see the crude reminders of our ancestry in our vicious impulses towards rape and murder.

The two views are diametically opposed. I agree that there are huge differences about how Americans view America... but I think it goes even deeper. I think the source of conflict springs from how humans view themselves... and their origins. Either we are in the process of evolving into better and brighter beings, or we are creatures of the fall, corrupt and sinful when we were once perfect and angelic.

One calls out to the future, the other summons the past. But the underlying view of the origins of humanity colors politics not just in America but across the globe.
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User: jimvanpelt
Date: 2010-04-14 14:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Nicely phrased, zachariahskylab.
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User: jackwilliambell
Date: 2010-04-14 14:36 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
It is certainly true that complaining about the younger generation is nothing new. Nor is hankering after 'golden ages'.

In fact, I would go so far as to claim that this kind of thinking goes beyond affectation and into 'human condition'. In other words: you can't talk these people out of it because it is built-in. It is the basis for their world-view, not the outcome.

I've posited for some time that fear of change is a normal human response with the usual bell-curve of how much the population 'has it'. At the far left of this curve you have people who can barely function with change and at the far right you have people who thrive on change. Most people fall into the middle and have enough of the fear that they are open to persuasion; meaning that shrewd or lucky political operators can use this fear like they can any other basic fear. (For example: fear of the other, fear of death, fear for children, etc.)

When you write these essays you are talking to people like me; an audience that tends to embrace change. We love the thrill of nueva-vu the way an adrenaline junkie loves risky behavior.

All of this can probably be explained better using evolutionary behavior terms. But, accepting this as the explanation for how people act means you have to accept (a) that they aren't going to change and (b) that it isn't really their 'fault' any more than is the color of their skin.
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User: johnburridge.blogspot.com
Date: 2010-04-14 14:41 (UTC)
Subject: It's Not Just The Conservatives...
The Myth of a Golden Age is seductive and is helps to define groups.

Cynthia Eller's book, "The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future" examines the power of myth within feminism.


The development of myths doesn't require calculating malice - and
Ronald Hutton, in chapter one of "Witches, Druids and King Arthur" presents several methods by which myths are transmitted.

- John
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User: miketo
Date: 2010-04-14 14:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A conservative believes nothing should be done for the first time. --Thomas Fuller, British clergyman and author, 1608-1661
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User: theturbonerd
Date: 2010-04-14 15:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
"One reason academia and journalism are so stereotypically liberal is people in those disciplines generally have to look at the world critically and think about the facts on the ground; at least if they're going about it properly. It's difficult to maintain my friend's level of denial and wishful thinking while engaging in intellectual honesty. "

Stephen Colbert said it best: "Reality has a well known liberal bias."
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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2010-04-14 15:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
great post
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Mary Kay
User: marykaykare
Date: 2010-04-14 16:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As someone who can remember bits of the 50s, and who has a family much like that lady you're describing, I have to say the outlook for education is not sanguine. (I was born in 1952. The first presidential election I followed was Kennedy/Nixon in 1960.) I am not one of those people despite the best efforts of my family and the whole culture I grew up in. The only explanation I have for the phenomenon is intellectual curiosity. Those of us who have it tend not to end up like that. But I have no idea why some of us have intellectual curiosity and some of us don't. I suspect, though, that it's not a thing that can be acquired or taught. I would love to be wrong about that.

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Lisa Deutsch Harrigan
User: lisa_marli
Date: 2010-04-14 16:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hey, I was one of the girls in 1968 who was told to be a Nurse because women who tested well in Science and Math were never told to be something like a Scientist or Doctor. I was actually curious about architecture another Males Only bastion.
I was the only girl in the Computer Club. ;)
Note - this was luckily Not from my Parents. My mother being one of only four women who passed the Bar the year she fulfilled her dream to be a lawyer.
But not getting the drafting classes I needed in HS or support to go to a Science type college, did affect my ability to go further in Architecture. *sigh*
What Golden Age? And why did I Never Get to Participate?

Edited at 2010-04-14 04:25 pm (UTC)
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User: madrobins
Date: 2010-04-14 16:24 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Watching a movie from the forties or fifties with my kids is always an eye opener. "They're condescending to Katharine Hepburn!, Sarcasm Girl said in horror, watching Adam's Rib. Which led to an interesting discussion of just how welcoming the traditional workplace was when I entered it (I was asked, when my typing test indicated that this was not a likely career for me, and I said I had no interest in improving my typing, "But why? It's a good career for a woman?"). I remember older kids from my NYC school going down south for the summer to work on registering the people we still called "negroes". It was not a paradise, and then as now, the hazy TV renditions of "real life"--Father Knows Best and Ozzie and Harriet and the like, took place that was much more upscale and conservative than the real world.

I find myself occasionally yearning for the attitude of benign neglect my parents had toward me--I grew up very independent--and some other specifics of my childhood. But this canonizing of the past reminds me of the people who never grew past high school, "the best days of their lives." ::shudder::
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The Texas Triffid Ranch - Odd Plants and Oddities
User: txtriffidranch
Date: 2010-04-14 22:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I actually have fun with the people who never grew past high school. One of my old classmates actually still introduces himself by stating "Well, as you know, I used to play high school football," because that's when he peaked. I actually have to thank him, because he's the inspiration for my observation "The Ted Bundys of the world don't scare me. It's the Al Bundys of the world that scare the shit out of me."
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