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But when were these so-called good old days? The U.S. is only two hundred and thirty four years old. That's nothing but a long weekend to the Chinese. It shouldn't be that hard to nail down the dates, should it? And yet, no one ever says exactly when they are talking about. Perhaps we can help zero in on it. All we have to figure out when everyone was having a good old day. The day when it was still their country, hope sprang eternal and honor flowed like vanilla malt. Perhaps a process of elimination will help guide us. May as well start at the beginning:
- 1776-1866 - Nope, easy out. No matter how hard we try we can't get "honor" to rhyme with "slavery." Plus there's that whole Trail of Tears thing. Huge faux pas.
- 1866-1920 - Nope again. End of slavery, but cue the rise of the Klan and lynchings. Women had yet to get the vote, or be given much of any control over their own lives. Immigration strife and no Irish needed apply. Not to mention child labor, robber barons and a medical establishment that had only just stumbled onto the concept of germs. Feeling nostalgic yet?
- 1920-1945 - Triple nope. Prohibition and the rise of the mob. Jim Crow. The Great Depression and Nazis. Hiroshima, Nagasaki and Dresden oh my. If this is your vision of the good old days then seek medical help immediately.
- 1945-1960 - One word: Segregation. (We'll come back to this one)
- 1960-1975 - Nope. Vietnam. Social unrest. Kent State, '69 Democratic convention. Assassination City: Kennedy (x2), King, Malcolm X. Stagflation. Nixon went berserk: Pentagon Papers, Watergate, secret bombings, the Plumbers.
- 1975-1990 - Disco, coke and hedonism gives way to New Wave, crack and AIDS... awesome. The Eighties aren't the good old days, period. People looked and dressed like every mirror in the United States had spontaneously shattered - parachute pants? shoulder pads? big hair? It's a wonder any children were conceived in the 80s. Plus it was a mite stressful watching Reagan reenact High Noon with the Soviets. Dan Quayle. Seriously, Dan fucking Quayle. What a shitty decade.
- 1990-9/11/2001 - No, but a surprisingly strong candidate. We'd beat the Soviets and for a brief moment America was the world's only superpower, without serious enemy or peer. The economy boomed. Everyone went about claiming we were in a post, post, post-something world, and Al Gore's invention was streaming ever larger quantities of porn onto our computers. It was so quiet that Monica Lewinski was the biggest news going for a while. Seriously, Monica Lewinski couldn't crack the top 100 right now. In retrospect, it was really just the waiting for the other shoe to drop decade.
- 2001-Present - Otherwise known as the chickens came home to roost decade: terrorism, Iraq, Afghanistan, water-boarding, yellow cake uranium, Blackwater, Enron, the collapse of the world banking system.... oh and climate change. To name but a few.
So why the obsession with the bygone? Perhaps because the tensions, issues and challenges of the past are just that: in the past. We can Ken Burns the shit out of it. The Civil Rights movement can be condensed to Martin Luther King's feel-good "We Have a Dream" speech. We know the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We know that the Red Scare passed. We can choose, if we wish, to overlook the geopolitical reasons that John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen orchestrated coups and assassinations across the globe. We can fly out of the airport named in his honor, and not worry about the morality of upending democracies in the name of democracy (Congo and Guatemala to name but two). Hell, the Soviet Union no longer even exists. Whereas the challenges of 2010: terrorism, environmental issues, the great recession, immigration...well, how do they turn out? Will we be okay? Do we even make it? Kind of makes you nostalgic for a nice, soothing Cold War doesn't it?
Ironically, or perhaps sadly, this strain of dangerous, false nostalgia is nothing new. It is neither a new phenomenon nor is this the first time it's been noted. As the following makes clear, "I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order." Well said. And for the record that was James Baldwin. The year was 1961.