Wednesday, October 05, 2005

So, How Good Were the Old Days?

Providence Journal columnist Edward Achorn recently wrote a piece in which he both complemented historians and attempted to remind people that the "good old days" weren't always so.
Among the great unsung heroes of our culture are surely our history teachers: those who make the past compelling and meaningful. Only history makes sense of the present, giving us the perspective we need to live happy and fulfulling lives -- and avoid falling prey to demagogic politicians.

Too many Americans stumble around in the dark with a weak flashlight, capable of illuminating only a narrow circle of their immediate surroundings. History throws open the curtains, and lets the light flood in, so that we may grasp the true dimensions of the room.

These thoughts come to mind whenever I see the politicians or some of the media tearing down America. I know of people who, having watched too much cable TV news in recent weeks, think our country is worse off than it has ever been -- economically, culturally, politically, environmentally, militarily. Some say they are terrified of the future.

That's very human behavior. We tend to believe our experiences are unprecedented -- that no one loved, or suffered, or dreamed, as we do.
He then listed a litany of contemporary problems--hurricanes, poverty, disease, the economy, etc.--that many feel are worse than ever while he contends that history shows the opposite.
I'd urge anyone who imagines American life is harder and more pressure-packed today than ever to pick up a copy of The Good Old Days -- They Were Terrible!, by Otto L. Bettman. The author points out that Americans in the late 19th Century contended with a life expectancy in the 40s; malaria, cholera and polio; the drudgery and acute loneliness of farm life; filthy surgery and bad health care; brutal oppression of minorities and many women; foul and toxic air; maddening traffic; fire-trap tenements; government corruption on a scale that puts today's Louisiana or Rhode Island to shame; rancid food and adulterated milk; garbage- and feces-strewn streets; deadly train and steamboat travel; and deeply corrupt professional baseball (okay, maybe everything hasn't changed).

This does not mean today's America cannot do better, or that other ways of fighting terrorism shouldn't be considered, or that we should ever stop working to help lift up those who are less fortunate than we. (For one thing, what else would columnists write about?)

But, amidst the tragedies and troubles swirling around us in this imperfect world, we should reflect on the fact that -- from the standpoint of living long, rewarding and healthy lives in freedom -- today's Americans are astoundingly fortunate in their choice of when to be born.
It's a useful reminder, and one in which Achorn is not alone in trumpeting. Michael McNeil goes deeper into the historical to make much the same case, though he fixes "liberals" firmly within his sights.
The fact is that the modern industrial age, in combination with the scientific revolution, and organized along the lines of the modern American model of society (which has now been transferred, more or less, to many another country around the world) has created the only instance in history where the bulk of the population of affected areas can enjoy a life of ordinary (what we think of as “common” nowadays), healthy, leisured, literate, decency. [emphasis in original]
McNeil offers up some historical (sourced!) evidence in a piece worth reading. We are all guilty of looking back at the old days romantically, in one manner or another. It would serve us well to heed such reminders as offered by Achorn and McNeil before we harken back with rose-colored glasses to a gloried past when all was right. That does not mean that we should broadly assume that everything before was bad, though. Rather, we should assume that the common baseline, the water level of progress, now rests at a higher mark then it has in the past. There are surges and swells--and even whirpools and water spouts--but the natural level which the water seeks continues to rise over time.


Silas said...

Are you saying that the "Good Old Days", were bad?? I still think that if you compared the good to the bad from then to today. You would still call them the "Good Old Days."

Marc said...

What I'm saying is that it's not a cut and dried thing. Yes, many things about the good old days were good. Such as the sense of community, general sense of morality, etc. But there were many bad things about the good old days that modern science and our own historical self-awareness have improved upon. That's all. If I didn't like the old days, I wouldn't be a historian now, would I! ;)