Editor’s Note: This article was prompted by an editorial I read about how modern-day ideologues are willing to drive over a cliff, rather than compromise.
Throughout the debt limit fiasco, pundits covering the 112th Congress waxed nostalgic about “the good old days,” when statesmen put country ahead of ideology. It’s part of the nostalgia infecting us aging baby boomers.
Wistful conservatives adopted the name “Tea Party” to evoke a time when patriots threw a big corporation’s product into Boston Harbor to protest a tax on ordinary citizens. Sadly, today’s Tea Partiers would throw poor Americans into Boston Harbor to protect that same corporation’s tax loopholes.
Baby boomers of all political stripes get sentimental about the good old days when the “greatest generation” outlasted the Depression, defeated the Nazis, then built a prosperous America during the ’50s. And they found time to spawn us boomers — the somewhat less-than-greatest generation.
As part of that latter generation, I’m nostalgic for my childhood, when I could roam all day without a phone in my pocket or a GPS chip implanted in my neck. Nowadays, parents buy their kids mobile phones, because they need to know where they are at all times. Obviously, the good old days — before America became too dangerous for “free-range children” — are long gone.
This would be depressing, but for one small fact — it’s simply not true. According to government crime statistics, we live in one of the safest periods of the past hundred years. During the 1930s, the per capita murder rate was 9.7 per 100,000, compared with 6.9 in 1998. FBI statistics for 2010 show violent crimes (murder, rape and aggravated assault) to be at their lowest levels in 40 years, and the overall violent crime rate has declined to one-third of what it was just 17 years ago.
In 2010, crime in recession-decimated Detroit fell 2.4%, while Phoenix’s 16.6% decrease belies the perception that illegal immigration is fueling an out-of-control crime wave. So, compared with today, just how good were those good old days when the greatest generation was growing up?
For much of the 20th century, the lynching of blacks was so commonplace it was barely news, especially in the South. The chances of a white man being convicted for murdering a black man in places like Mississippi or Alabama were virtually nil, while you could bet the farm that a black man accused of a violent crime against a white man would be convicted, if he wasn’t lynched first.
After supporting slavery during the Civil War, America’s Southern Baptists (one of the nation’s largest denominations) opposed equality throughout the civil rights era. They’ve now repudiated their past positions and apologized for their sins. This would have been unthinkable during World War II, when black GIs couldn’t even eat in the same room as white soldiers, and miscegenation was illegal in much of the country.
Nowadays, civil unions are becoming routine, whereas, during the heyday of the greatest generation, homosexuality was a crime in much of the country. Although homophobic bigots like Michele Bachmann can still be icons of the Christian Right — for whom the 12th century was the good old days — such attitudes are now viewed by a substantial percentage of the electorate as a liability.
Many would argue that women have yet to achieve equality, but it’s clearly close on the horizon. Sexism, racism and homophobia are unlikely to ever completely disappear, but, in many respects, these are the good old days
Still, it’s human nature to look back nostalgically at simpler times. Anyone who watches TV or listens to talk radio or rap music realizes our society is becoming increasingly coarse and vulgar; however, much of it amounts to more noise than substance.
I’m sure that, mired in the chaos of the Dark Ages, people spoke fondly of the order and civilization of the fallen Roman Empire. However, that period was one of history’s most brutal and depraved — a time of genocide and civil wars, when supposedly disciplined Roman legions routinely sacked major cities (including their own) and indiscriminately raped and murdered innocent civilians.
Roman prosperity rested on an economy in which slaves often outnumbered citizens. Public entertainment included people being torn to pieces by wild animals and gladiatorial combat, in which the slaughter was unimaginable. A reading of historians such as Tacitus or Suetonius shows that most of Rome’s rulers were sadistic, degenerate monsters, even the so-called “good emperors.”
The greatest Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, epitomized his time. Dining at the home of a wealthy citizen, he asked why the eel he’d been served was so tasty. His host took Caesar to his basement, where several slaves were tossed alive into the eel tanks to show how the fish were fed. Caesar later expressed disdain, not for the act’s barbaric cruelty or immorality, but because the rich man had flaunted such conspicuous consumption.
Politicians have evolved considerably since then, but we still compare them unfavorably with legislators from our recent past. With its 18% approval rating, our current Congress makes past lawmakers like Tip O’Neill and Bob Dole look like Madison and Jefferson. But human nature being what it is, someday political pundits will probably be calling 2011 “the good old days.”
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