One of the aspects of holidays, besides displaying family dysfunctions, is looking back on years of holidays. From early childhood onward we have memories of celebrating with those still with us and those who are gone…sharing food, exchanging gifts, bringing in the new year. And, as is so often the case, the nostalgia (or other less pleasant thoughts) includes thinking about how simpler life was then. It’s the same phenomenon that occurs when looking back to earlier times as a result of photos and films from long ago or imagining quieter, less complicated ways of living in the past. If only any of it were true.
Perhaps the pace of life was slower relative to here and now, but simplicity is an illusion, the result of looking backward without appreciating, understanding and feeling for what the experience would have actually been like. In so many ways, life is easier and more convenient now…and safer. Regarding the past, the details may be different, but day-to-day realities, emotions and uncertain future would still exist. At any given place and time, that’s what we know, along with what has changed over preceding decades and centuries. But the glow of simplicity and its imagined qualities is largely an illusion.
For whatever psychological reason(s), some individuals are more likely to become fixated on how things used to be (real or imagined) and how change has made things worse. I wonder about this because I find it difficult to comprehend what causes some to focus on turning back the calendar and returning to an earlier time that is simply never going to be replicated…for so many seemingly obvious reasons. The illusions of how much better life used to be in terms of quality, values and tradition both distort the reality of the past while preventing acceptance of the present.
The oft-quoted advice that those who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat it is simply wrong. History consists of endless numbers of unique combinations of factors that are never replicated again in exactly or even close to the same way. Picking and choosing what one wants from the past is a pointless exercise because these were what they were as a result of all the other things being ignored. As a pragmatist with two degrees in history, I feel confident in saying that no amount of anxiety, fear and anger about the present will bring back the past.
Cultural change is much like the stock market. The market may fluctuate up and down daily, but over time it continues to rise in overall value. Cultural change may oscillate between conservative and liberal, but over decades it changes in one direction that overall is more “liberal” (or, conversely, less “conservative”). Those who want to “take their country back” are both delusional regarding what that means and doomed in their quest. They may be able to cause much disturbance and dysfunction, but their goals are consigned to overall failure.
This is hardly an American exceptionalism thing. Every nation has a minority of citizens who exist at the far right and want to pull and push their country back to an earlier time for a variety of real or imagined reasons. It doesn’t matter which because while they may create chaos, this minority is engaged in a cause that cannot reverse the overall drift of cultural shifts. The levels of passion, commitment and anger will not matter in the long run. But they will never give up because psychologically they can’t.
I very recently watched a previous Republican primary candidate for president insist that marriage is only between a man and woman and only for the purposes of having children. He completely believes this, has every right to his opinion and is highly unlikely to change his views, but it doesn’t matter. The family of 21st century America will exist in many variations, and his version will simply be another option. Eventually, for most people — but not those like him — this will no longer even be an issue. A new past in the making.