American politics is all too often defined by the past.
“We need to go back to American freedom! That idea that you can do what you please and I can too, without Big Brother getting his nose in there!” (This one is usually offered in response to policies that make it so that people can’t do what they please to other people. The fact that the latter would undoubtedly prefer to not have those things done doesn’t seem to enter into the discussion).
“We need to go back to traditional values!”
The great irony, of course, is that America has always been defined by optimism. There was always a sense that we would lead the world into a future beyond compare and beyond the imagination of the present.
There’s a lot of reasons people are scared and want to go back to an idealized past, which they’ve seen in movies and TV shows so they know it must have existed! (Never mind that the idea of people being dissatisfied with American life and embracing amoral escapes is as old as The Great Gatsby, Rebel Without a Cause, and Philip Marlowe). The fact that people’s wages have been stagnating for so long in a country that values material wealth and forward career progress stings deeply. Surely, the 1950s must have been better! (And they were… if you were white, and male, and straight). People are scared that their children are moving back in and unable to find a job. We face a complicated world where we’re no longer as assured of our safety or the inevitability of our success. We feel that maybe this isn’t a world where hard work is all that matters.
Usually, leftists chime in at this point to destroy the mythology. America slaughtered the Native Americans, so as problematic as our foreign policy is today, at least it’s not genocidal. Our free speech rights really only formed in the 1960s: Prior, laws like the Alien and Sedition Acts truly did regulate controversial speech, and Presidential candidates like Eugene Debs could be jailed for speaking out against a war! We had slavery and Jim Crow. For women, the ability to get divorced from an abusive husband, get a job of their own and have independence and their own dreams of contributing to society, all really only began in the late 1960s or 1970s. For LGBTQ people, the closet was all there was for so long. Native American people could only have the reality of their genocide even acknowledged, let alone mourned, for a few generations back at most.
We also point out that things like drugs and gangs have been a fixture of American life.
And this is all fair. But can’t we see why this is just destroying the one retreat that people have? If the future sucks, then the past sucking means we have no place to run. History will smash us between the cymbals of inevitability and obsolescence. Can’t we see why so many well-meaning people might be willing to listen to the little worm in the apple that says, “The 1950s was great, so what if black people were treated like second-class citizens? They really deserved it anyways”. Can’t we see why so many people would find it easier to listen to a racist, classist, sexist, homophobic narrative?
So what should we say instead?
There is no going back.
And there shouldn’t be.
Our future can be as bright as we can imagine.
Our future can have technologies we can’t even dream of. We can actually have real equality and real empowerment for workers. People can be more tolerant, more open-minded.
Christians can believe a final judgment is coming. Atheists can look forward to a world where religion has to play along with everyone else.
The reason why we can’t want to go back isn’t just because the past was flawed in ways we struggle to recognize. It’s because the past is ruination. It’s gone.
The values of the past, whether they were good or bad, don’t work for the new future we face. Whether we yearn for the anarchists and Marxists and a time when socialist parties existed in America, or the Christian hegemony of the past that hedged against scary things like gay marriage and drugs and gangs, those days are gone, and they should be.
The technological and social changes that we’re facing as a world are not going to be solved by the tools of the past. The threat of a pandemic will require new tools. The threat of global warming will require new innovations. Looking to the past will only allow the future to ambush us without warning.
We keep parroting King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, but with typical American obtuseness, we missed the point entirely, left and right.
He was looking forward to a future. That future has not arrived. If he were alive today, I am sure he would say that his table of brotherhood (and sisterhood) would include North Koreans, Muslims, and Russians. He would remind us that the freedom of every person is bound together, so that as long as there are those abroad who are not free, none of us truly are. He would remind us to not “wallow in the valley of despair”.
The past could never have had liberation for everyone. Only today is it even in theory possible that everyone, straight and gay, male and female, black and white, indigenous and immigrant, First World or Third, can be free.
Psychology and politics are intertwined in ways that remain endlessly ironic. When a patient focuses on the past when things were better, a psychologist must help them move forward through the hurt. As a nation, as a world, we have to move away from a past we remember into a future that we cannot know. It is terrifying. It is walking into oblivion and blackness. It is a species-wide leap of faith.
So, whenever you think of saying, “What happened to freedom in America?” or “What happened to the pioneer spirit?”, remember this: They disappeared. And it’s up to us to make sure they are replaced by something better.
Our species can no longer afford nostalgia.