Thursday, July 02, 2009
The Good Old Days?
I was flipping through the radio stations the other day and heard this song by the Judds on the country station. I remembered it from my high school days when I used to listen to country music all the time. Back then I really liked the lyrics and agreed with their message:
Grandpa, tell me 'bout the good old days
Sometimes it feels like this worlds gone crazy
Grandpa, take me back to yesterday
When the line between right and wrong
Didn't seem so hazy

Did lovers really fall in love to stay
And stand beside each other, come what may
Was a promise really something people kept
Not just something they would say
Did families really bow their heads to pray
Did daddies really never go away
Woah oh, grandpa, tell me 'bout the good old days

Grandpa, everything is changing fast
We call it progress, but I just don't know
And grandpa, Let's wander back into the past
And paint me the picture of long ago
This time, however, the song just got me thinking about all the misleading assumptions it was making. Don't get me wrong - while I generally think it's a good thing when families stay together and when they practice their faith together, there are still a number of problems with this song:

1) The "good old days" weren't actually that good. The idea that people in the past were less sinful than they are now is simply false, as anyone familiar with history or literature or social science (or Christian doctrine?) can attest. Nonetheless, this remains a common belief, and one that seems to occur in greater frequency the older one gets. This however, I believe, is an illusion created by the fact that, before the era of the 24-news cycle, our sins were more hidden and less public. But they were still there. Families still broke up. Husbands were abusive. Spouses cheated on each other. People were hateful and violent towards each other. There were murderers and rapists and pedophiles and drug abusers and all of that back in the "good old days" too, you just didn't hear about them everyday, all day on the news like we do now.

2) Even the things that actually were "better" back in the "good old days" often had a dark side to them. For instance, maybe there was less divorce, but that also meant that there were a lot more people (especially women) stuck in abusive relationships. And back in the "good old days" these women typically had no other choice since they were financially dependent on their husbands and literally could not survive on their own.

Likewise, perhaps there was a greater sense of religious unity back in the "good old days" (though in fact the long history of religious tensions in America say otherwise), but this also meant that minority groups (e.g. Jews, atheists, Catholics, Mormons, etc.) often faced serious persecution and discrimination. Those aren't the kind of "good old days" I want to return to.

Not to mention all the other evils of the past that actually have gotten a lot better in recent years. The Judds are skeptical about whether our society is actually progressing, but I wonder if they would really want to go back to the days of Jim Crow laws, of patriarchy and unequal rights for women, or when people were shunned by their communities, churches, and families for getting divorced or having a baby out of wedlock, or when it was a crime to be gay (okay, I guess there are still a lot of Christians would would like to reinstate that last one)? Yes, many things in our society have gotten worse, but a whole lot of things have gotten better too. And some of the improvements probably necessarily come at the expense of other good things - for instance, we can't show more love and grace towards divorcees or unwed mothers without also thereby making it "easier" (i.e. less stigmatizing, less traumatic) for people to get divorced or get pregnant out of wedlock.

At any rate, before we blindly accept the assumptions of a song like this, or the next time we're inclined to rant about the immorality of "kids these days", maybe we should think a little more carefully and ask ourselves whether our assumptions are really accurate. IMHO, the "good old days" weren't necessarily that good, and these days aren't necessarily quite as bad as a lot of people make them out to be either.
posted by Mike Clawson at 2:15 PM | Permalink |


At 7/02/2009 04:01:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Yes indeed! I'm reminded of Cotton Mather's (and other Puritans') (mis)definition of "liberty" as "freedom from sin." The 'good old days' is often just a thin veil over an authoritarian nightmare; conversely, the price of freedom (besides eternal vigilance) is realizing that other people may make decisions we disapprove of.

And, as I overheard a couple of days back, "July 4, 1776 was Independence Day, unless you were black or female."


At 7/02/2009 09:24:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Thanks for mentioning that Miko. I didn't quite bring out that authoritarian vs. freedom angle, but I had meant to. You're exactly right. The "good old days" are often perceived as a time when everyone still shared a common set of beliefs or values, but what this really means is that those who thought differently were repressed and persecuted (whether through authoritarian governmental policies or simple social pressure). That's not a time I want to go back to.


At 7/06/2009 09:01:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

There's a lot of truth in what you say Mike, and I want to affirm that. Sin isn't a recent thing; there's nothing new under the sun, our ancestors were just as sinful as we are, and we tend to whitewash the past.

At the same time, there ARE changes in the culture. Maybe we aren't more sinful in the aggregate, but there are changes and not all of them are good - though you point out some good ones like more freedom for more people.

One example that comes quickly to mind because of my profession is the need for written contracts for just about everything. I used to represent contractors and subcontractors in the construction industry. Virtually all of the older individuals remembered a day when a written contract was unheard of for all except the largest jobs. They'd quote a price (that they would pay someone for materials or work, or that they were to be paid for the work or materials they supplied), the work was done and the payment made. If unforseen circumstances arose that changed the price they were discussed and people agreed on a reasonable solution. Things were done "on a word and a handshake" and everyone had a sense that "a person's word was his or her bond" - and in most communities you wouldn't last long in business if people knew you didn't keep your word.

Now, if they try to do business that way they get taken advantage of right and left, both by their materials suppliers and by the customers who they are building for. So everything has to be spelled out in detail, every last contingency addressed in the contract, everyone is looking for a loophole, nobody trusts anyone, everyone is less happy and satisfied, and only the lawyers prosper.

That's anecdotal and I know *some* of that has gone on in every generation, but I think it's increase represents a real cultural shift. And it isn't generally for the better. And it's just one of many. Even if there were other, bad, things about the "old days." And even if some of the shifts ARE for the better.


At 7/06/2009 09:57:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Of course Karl. My point wasn't that these days are universally better than the past, just that it's always been a mixed bag, and I wouldn't necessarily trade today's problems for yesterday's.


At 7/06/2009 10:33:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

Yes, between naive nostalgia for the past and equally naive bashing of the past, lies a healthy balance.

"Because they were so sinful (racist, sexist, opressive) they have nothing to say to me and those who think of them fondly are fools" misses the mark just as much as does longing for an unqualified return to the good old days - and is just as prevalent and damaging an attitude, albeit among a different subset of the population. Our elders and ancestors have a lot to teach us even if they got many things wrong too. Democracy of the dead and all that.

In my experience many people who inartfully express a longing for the good old days, really are wanting a return to the things that the past DID (usually) do better than we (usually) do them now - not wishing for a return to the bad parts. Just like many of the people whose voices are mostly heard decrying how bad the old days were, aren't really saying that the old days were worse than present times in every single respect. Sure, there's probably some naivete' in many on both sides. Listening charitably to each other gets us a long ways in relationship though, I think.


At 7/06/2009 10:40:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I agree, though quite honestly, I know an awful lot of people who aren't just neglecting the bad parts of the past, they are completely ignorant of them, or even willfully denying them.


At 7/06/2009 11:02:00 AM, Anonymous Karl

I know there are such people, many of them even. I'd say a couple things about that.

First, there aren't many who are unaware that slavery existed, or segregation, or that women were denied the right to vote. And few if any would advocate a return to those injustices. So I'd push back that most of even the naive ones have an awareness of some of the most egregious errors of the past and aren't wishing for a return to those. But yeah, there are those who don't get that the shiny happy 50's family and a virtually sin-free society are myths that were rarely if ever realized in reality, at least not behind closed doors.

I'd add (not that two wrongs make a right but to balance the discussion), that in my experience there is a different but quite vocal and fairly numerous subset of the population that seems to err in the opposite direction. Having had the "good old days" myth burst for them in college or elsewhere, they are so bitter toward the past or put off by its sins, that they seem to be completely ignorant or wilfully in denial of the things that the past DID do better than the present, on average. Or they can't speak of those things without in the same breath pointing out all the evils that existed at the same time. Judging the people of the past by present knowledge and standards, they miss a lot of nuance and things worthy of praise because all they can see are the sins. Kind of like people who can see no good in the present day because of the particular sins common to this age, place and time. We do need a third way.


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