In an excellent comment on yesterday's item on democracy (scroll down), reader FeloniousPunk writes:
I think that one of America's hidden virtues is its youth as a nation. America is not burdened by history in the way that, say, the Arabs are. There is really no golden past to harken back to that forms the bedrock of cultural and national identity; if anything the idea that progress is not only possible but inevitable and that the greatness of the nation lies in the future rather than the past, that is the bedrock of the identity. Without this burden of the past, the society is relatively unencumbered to change and adapt and to work for a future. By contrast, for so many societies the desired future lies somewhere in the golden past, so real change and progress is not possible.
I fully agree with this. This syndrome of Golden Agism has always been pervasive. It is rare to find fundamentally optimistic societies, as it so much easier to succumb to cynicism and seek redemption in the recreation of a mythical past. Some people take it very literally
Some time ago on GeekPress I found a link to a speech given by science fiction author David Brin at the Libertarian Party national convention in July. It's fairly long, but well worth reading even if you are, like me, not a capital-L libertarian. One the things he mentions in his case for a "cheerful libertarianism" is the difference between the Look-Back View and the Look-Forward View. The former is what I call Golden Agism here, the belief that once upon a time things were better. Look-Forward is the conviction that the best is yet to come, if we make it happen.
More importantly he also takes to task the curmudgeonly, the ranters, the spewers and generally angry. How easy it is to believe that you are one of the few enlightened souls to see the full awful truth about your favorite issue! Although I am generally sympathetic to the libertarian conclusion, reading the frothing comments by self-styled followers of the philosophy turns me off. Seeing the world (or America, as it may be) as moving irrevocably towards to a totalitarian police state, a bunker mentality sets in. It's the enlightened few railing against the blindness of the masses who are being led like lambs to the slaughter. All sense of proportion is lost. Lileks addressed the tendency to extremist characterizations in his piece on Wellstone's death:
But if youíre going to accuse someone of being kith and kin to tyrants and murderers, you have to realize that intentions do count, as Iíll explain. And if youíre going to call Wellstone a tyrant and group him with the A-list collectivists, insist that his vision of government was a gun to your head, then you have no gas left in the tank when it comes time to run over the guys who really meet those descriptions. We can have fun with the guy when heís alive, but death changes the tenor of the debate. Put the broad brush back in the muck bucket.
But moving back to Golden Agism, although America as a society has stuck to the Look-Forward View for most of its history, the temptation to think in terms of smaller Golden Ages is still there. (Does that make them Silver Ages?) Just look at the various political camps. The anti-war left is desperately yearning for its heyday of the Vietnam era. The 1960's are the Golden Age for a generation of lefties. On the right there is a similar hankering for an even earlier era. The glorification of the 1950's as the Golden Age of family values, motherhood and apple pie is palpable in the commentary of the "social and moral decline" conservatives. Libertarians pine for the Golden Age of the Founding Fathers, when the Constitution was pure and unspoilt by political reality. All three groups will complain bitterly that things are going to hell. Only American socialists thankfully have no Golden Age in America's past to look back to. Instead they celebrate the contemporaneous past of Cuba's communist dictatiorship, where hell already exists.
In thirty or forty years' time, we'll have different political groups talking dreamily about the wonderful 1980's, 1990's or those heady days of the new millennium, while speaking bitterly of the decline in their pet indicators of National Health since these glorious times.
I wonder whether this is something that the young are more prone to. The first adult impressions of the world have a tendency form the baseline for all comparisons. When things change, youthful bitterness will cast it in the light of "things are going to hell." Even the cancelation of a favorite TV show will lead to complaints that TV is no longer what it used to be and will now be in terminal decline forevermore. Perhaps I have been exposed to too many whiny kids in their late teens and early twenties. As I am edging towards tumbling into pre-early physical middle age myself, I am hoping that with age comes the ability to see things more clearly. Then again, why do people always talk about bitter old men?
I need my own personal Golden Age. There's a business opportunity here. Design a fake coat of arms, a fake genealogy and a fake Golden Age to go with them. I could be rich...
Posted by qsi at October 29, 2002 10:00 PM
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