When I praise the Ireland that my elderly neighbours remember, or the America my grandfather knew, or any other time and place for that matter, I get some strange reactions; quite often people grow angry and defensive, and change the subject to something terrible from the same era. If I mention the self-sufficiency of traditional Ireland to someone, they often retort that people had very little money, which is true. If I talk about Americans being happier in the 1950s, and suggest we look at bringing back the values and habits that made them happier, someone usually sneers, ‘Sure, why don’t you bring back polio while you’re at it.’
The magic of these responses is that they can be applied to any time and place, as there’s always something terrible happening somewhere. I suppose the logic goes that if a society in generations past saw injustices or tragedies, they have nothing to teach us, as their advantages and disadvantages came as a package deal. Since no human society has ever been perfect, this provides a good excuse never to have to learn hard lessons from anyone.
Of course, sensible people learn from their ancestors without passing down their shortcomings. Strict Constitutionalists hold to the 18th-century ideals of the Founding Fathers, but don’t think they have to treat people with leeches in keeping with 18th-century medicine. Evangelists who admire the fire of the second-century Christians never think that they should try to bring back leprosy or barbarian hordes.
It is true that polio -- just to run with that example -- devastated thousands of lives a year; surely certain families affected by the disease saw a decrease in their happiness, and everyone’s lives improved when the vaccine was found. Still, more Americans said they were happier then than say they are happy now, and those numbers remain true whether polio existed or not. They had no umbilical connection; if we brought back the things that made that era great, we wouldn’t be bringing back polio.
What’s more, no one ever applies the same logic to our own era. To keep going with the disease example, we have eliminated polio and other plagues, but new ones like AIDS have appeared to take their place, and AIDS kills more people than polio did. Yet if you point out the good things about life today – say, that we can easily call the other side of the world – no one sarcastically quips that you must be a fan of AIDS. Nor does AIDS dominate our lives, except for the fraction-of-a-percent of the population who have contracted it, and the same was true of polio a century ago. Nor does the existence of those problems make all the world’s blessings disappear.
I’m not sure why modern Americans get so defensive when I praise anything from any other era, other than that they think their own culture is entitled to first prize in every category, even ones they don’t ordinarily care about. I know many people who seethe when I suggest that our generation is not the most literate, for example, yet it would never occur to them to open a book themselves. When I point out that Americans today don’t know much about science anymore, people look outraged, even though they carry very little knowledge and a lot of misinformation.
Even if people today don’t believe their country tops the world in every category, they tend to believe their generation to be the smartest, healthiest and best at everything, and that anything before them falls short. Certainly that’s the message we get from seeing Hollywood movies or television shows – which, let’s be honest, is where most people get their images of the past.
A typical Oscar-bait film shows a bygone era – 1950s America, Edwardian England, the 19th century frontier – as a time of ignorance and hatred, until a brave visionary stood for something vaguely like what Hollywood believes today. No wonder most people think they have nothing to learn from their forebears.
Photo: local kids riding through town. Most go with cars, which travel faster; on the other hand, cars don't have good horse sense or a personality, can't live on grass, and don't make more of themselves.