When I was young, my father used to tell me stories about growing up in Birmingham. He rode streetcars around town by himself at a young age. (That was typical for kids then.) And he would tell me stories about his early jobs working as an usher for movie theaters downtown.
The best theaters in town were on Third Avenue North. Today, the Alabama Theatre and the Lyric Theatre — seen in this 1955 photo — are wonderfully restored and regularly used for concerts and movies. I’m pretty sure my father worked at both of them in the late 1940s.
He never told me that the years of his youth in Birmingham were “the good old days,” but he was clearly nostalgic for them. He enjoyed his experience of growing up in a bustling and active city, living around a vibrant downtown.
I hear a lot of people longing for the days of their past in similar ways, but many of them take it much further. They openly long for “the good old days.” They believe that the days gone by were great. They believe the America of their memory was great.
This nostalgia — combined with a fear of constant rapid change — makes some of them eager to to return to the past they imagine. To these people, “Make America Great Again” is an emotional call to a past which they imagine was idyllic.
My understanding of history leads me to believe there has never been a time in the past which was better than today. If you look at the past as “the good old days,” you’re seeing the warm emotional memories of your past through rose-colored glasses.
The past wasn’t so great, on balance. By comparison, the present is fantastic, even though we still have monumental challenges about how to deal with difficult problems.
One of my favorite musical artists of the last decade has been John Paul White. He lives and works in Florence, Ala., and he was half of the Grammy-winning band, the Civil Wars, until their break-up. His second solo album since then is due out next month and the opening track of that album really connected with me when I first heard it Sunday. It’s called “The Good Old Days,” and it’s embedded below.
In the song, White acknowledges the eagerness of many in his native South to embrace a return to something nostalgic in the past, but he points out that the past was a place where individuals weren’t seen as having equal worth — and he argues that we have far to go:
It’s taken oh so long
For the world to start to understand
The true and equal worth
Of every woman and every man
We got so very far to go
So tell me something I don’t know
What’s so good about the good old days?
“It’s really me wondering,” White told American Songwriter magazine last week, “what era of America are people wanting to get back to? I’m having a hard time thinking of one we haven’t progressed from, or shouldn’t progress from. As a father, I see the world through their eyes and I’m wondering what we’re leaving for them, what they’re heading into, and how it can be improved upon — and how it can be improved upon for every single person on this earth and not just a select few. This song is my counter-argument to Making America Great Again.”
When I was at dinner Tuesday night, I sat at a table next to an elderly black woman and her college-age granddaughter. The older lady and I chatted for awhile. She was smart and funny and personable. I enjoyed her company.
In the “good old days,” this sweet lady and I couldn’t have eaten side by side, because the law required we be separated.
If she lived in the Birmingham of my father’s youth, she wouldn’t have been able to sit with white patrons in the movie theaters where my father worked as an usher. She wouldn’t have been able to sit next to him on the public streetcars. When she went home, she would have gone to neighborhoods which were inferior to the ones in which my father and other white people lived, because the law ensured that she was kept away from white neighborhoods.
Those wouldn’t have been “good old days” to her, at least not in many key respects.
Today isn’t perfect and not every change over the years has been positive. But we are more educated than ever before. We live more comfortable lives than ever. Even the poorest among us today are better off than those of a century ago. We have more social mobility than ever before.
This is the best that human life has ever been. We have never had so much choice about what to become or how to live our lives. Only a short-sighted person — and one whose memory is clouded by nostalgia — could believe the world of the past was truly better.
There are a lot of things about today which we can argue about — and even fight about. Those on the progressive left want to force change in directions that seem dangerous to me. Those on the conservative right often want to return to a utopian past which never existed except in their fantasies. We will continue to butt heads as we work out how to get to a better future.
I believe things are going to get ugly in my lifetime, because I think there will be economic and political collapse, followed by a lot of painful societal restructuring. Is that scary? Yes. But it’s no different from what has happened throughout human history. And every time we have gone through upheavals, we have found ways to come out better than we were before.
In another interview last week, John Paul White explained where the idea for “The Good Old Days” came from.
“This song came out of nowhere,” he told The Country Note. “The title of the song was born of a conversation with my wife, Jenny. We were reminiscing about harder times in the past, moments where we struggled to get by. I said derisively, ‘Ah, the good old days.’ And we both thought, why do people say that? The last thing I’d want to do is go back and relive it. These are the good days. The best, I’d like to believe, are yet to come.”
We might argue and fight about what life ought to be, but the most optimistic and truthful thing we can say is that today is the best life has ever been — and that the future will be even better.
Donald Trump became president by appealing to the desires of a lot of frightened people to return to something they see as more stable and more solid. But the “great” past he preaches never really existed. Those of us who hate certain things about modern culture won’t find salvation in returning to a non-existent past.
Our salvation will come only by building an even better future.
Looking to the past is not the way to deal with our problems or our fears. We have to face the change all around us and find ways that we can all live in peace among each other — and part of that starts with letting others live the way they want to live, while we ask nothing of them but to be allowed to live our own lives, too.
The Trump political movement will be a short-lived thing, because it’s a dead end. People will soon discover that there’s no great past to which to return.
Our best days are still ahead. We have to build a better world. One day, maybe current reality will be as great as nostalgia makes the past appear to be.