It happened again. While scrolling through social media during morning coffee, I came across another post about how wonderful everything was when we were kids and how horrible everything is now. Some posts include pictures of young children having fun, but others (inexplicably) include images of movie cowboys. People seem to forget that John Wayne was only an actor, the roles he played in movies were fiction. And yet, these posts are everywhere.
The narrative goes something like this: Everyone was honest back then, and our word was our bond; people helped one another; kids did their chores and their homework; parents whipped their kids’ behinds when they did wrong and it was considered discipline, not abuse; we respected our elders and always wanted to learn from them. We worshipped together, and everyone knew that hard work was the key to success. And now all of this has gone away. Our country is in terrible trouble, and we need to return to the good old days.
I’m sorry, but that’s not the way it was. I had a wonderful childhood and was raised by great parents. But when I was a child, I didn’t find the other kids decent, friendly, hardworking and respectful. I never saw a young person give up his seat for an older person on a bus. And I saw many children show a lack of respect for their parents, even though they were spanked.
My neighborhood still had separate bathrooms and drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites. I lived with this. Racial segregation was in restaurants, movie theaters and public schools, and interracial marriage was still illegal. Blacks and Jews still could not stay in most hotels, rent apartments in most cities, or purchase homes that were forbidden to them by restrictive covenants that were not outlawed until 1968. Racism and antisemitism were rampant.
And women of all races and religions suffered as well. They were kept out of leadership positions in business, and their salaries were kept low. Few women were accepted in politics, and all women were relegated to second-class status in their private lives. We can pretend that they liked it that way, but if we are honest, we know they did not.
We lived through the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Our soldiers were human. Some were heroes, and some were not. Race riots and political protests in the cities ended in blood. And our politicians lied to us.
The idealized world of these social media posts simply did not exist. Does this mean I am ashamed to be an American? Of course not. But we shouldn’t have to create an imaginary past to be proud of our country. It only hurts us as a nation to demand that our schools ignore the reality of our history. Our children need to read about slavery and grasp the significance of racism, antisemitism, sexism, and other injustices. We do them no favors by trying to censor books in our schools about our history or by trying to control what teachers discuss in their classrooms. All that will accomplish is closing the minds of our children and driving our best teachers out of the profession.
And it hurts us as a nation when we pledge allegiance to demagogues who promise to bring back a past that never was. Slogans like “make America great again” tap into nostalgia for a time that didn’t actually exist. Every generation believes that its youth is better than the ones that came after. We all remember our grandparents telling us what it was like when they were kids, when they walked to school uphill both ways. Every generation believes there has been a decline since the last.
We shouldn’t ground our political views on the shifting sands of flawed, emotional recollections. And we shouldn’t empower politicians who have so little respect for us that they think we will fall for these stories.
We need to accept the fact that our nation has, in every generation, been flawed and faced social and political challenges. That doesn’t make it a bad country or one of which we should be ashamed. The way to a better future is to study the past, analyze it, and use that understanding to make a better future. By doing this, we can also enhance the quality of our lives here and now. Today, we can live in the good old days.