The Bad Old Days

Continuing some musings on Progress

People will often talk about the dark ages of thirty or forty years ago before the dawn of Progress. Back in the day, things were awful, terrible. Now they are better thanks to (fill in the blank).

So, you hear young women talk about how evil things were “before women got their rights” (Suffrage? Abortion? I never knew what the phrase referred to, I doubt they know either), or hear about how the days before Johnson’s Great Society when nobody cared about the poor, or before FDR’s New Deal when America was utterly destitute. I’ve even heard Catholic nuns talk about how terrible the Church was before the Second Vatican Council, what with Latin Masses and all.

People who talk this way have no concept of history. They cannot imagine what it was to, say, sit through a Tridentine Mass, or get by on help from local instead of Federally run charities before The Great Society. If you point out to them that, for better or for worse, the Catholic Church is substantially the same after the Council as before, or that poverty rates in the United States are the same after the Great Society as they were before, or that contemporary historians and economists can’t even say for sure what the New Deal was, let alone quantify its effects on people during the Great Depression, they either blink in confusion, or get very, very angry.

I think there are two reasons for this. First, they believe in a mythical thing called Progress, a power that shapes human fortunes, but which simply does not exist (at least, not as they imagine it.) Things do not get better by the simple passage of time, and the arrangements of the past are not necessarily worse (or better) than the arrangements of today. Second, since powerful people like to present themselves as the conduits and mediators of Progress, it is politically convenient for them to exaggerate the evils that preceded them.

For example, as Our Lord and Savior Barack Obama fails miserably, his supporters exaggerate the evils of the previous administration: if the economy is still doing poorly seven years after the recession it is because that recession was the worse than previously imagined. If nations in the Middle East are in a state of collapse it is not because Our Lord and Savior screwed up, but because Bush was so much more evil than even his worst critics could have guessed at the time. Except Bush, as flawed as he was, handed off to Obama a stable Iraq, and a Libya that was allied with the United States and Europe. Those are now failed states.

No President ever admits to a serious failure, and all Presidents inherit positives and negatives from their predecessors, but because Obama campaigned as the Light Bringer who would save America, heal the planet and stop the rising of the Oceans, it is necessary to retroactively heap more condemnation on the past the worse the present gets.

That is the only way to preserve the myth of Progress.






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