The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite books is The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, by Stephanie Coontz. The book is a great read, and a debunking of the myths Americans like to tell ourselves: that in the “olden days” we didn’t depend on government largesse (we “always stood on our own two feet”), nice women were chaste (out-of-wedlock pregnancies are somehow a consequence of modern sinfulness), and similar beliefs belied by the evidence.

As Coontz documents, a man’s home has never been his castle, the “male breadwinner marriage” is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today.

Over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton reports that Salman Rushdie has updated Coontz’ insight and applied it to our contemporary political environment.

“I think that what Mr. Trump is doing here that is similar to what’s happening in Britain and even what’s happening in India is in all three place, leaders are inventing a mythology of a false past, a kind of golden age, you know, that if we could only get back to, that everything would be good,” Rushdie told anchor Ari Melber. “You know, make America great again. You want to ask when exactly was that? Was it last week? Was it before slavery was abolished? Was it before the civil rights movement? Was it before women had the vote? When was America great in the way we should get back to?“

The myth of the — the golden age is always a myth,” said Rushdie. “Boris Johnson right now in Britain is trying to sell the idea of a golden age of England that could be restored if only all these inconvenient foreigners would go away. Mr. Modi in India is trying to sell the idea of an ancient golden Hindu age which has been ruined by the presence of Muslims. All three are doing the same thing. They’re inventing history in order to justify the actions of the present, and I think that’s dangerous.”

As Brayton notes, this is the appeal of nostalgia for a past that never existed.

It’s the classic “paradise lost” myth and it’s a powerful emotional motivator for the most ignorant among us. We used to have a garden of Eden, until “they” came along and ruined it, so we just need to get rid of “them” and we can return to our glorious past and Make America Great Again. The weak minded, historically ignorant and most insecure among us find this kind of appeal irresistible. “They” can be almost any group of people, including vaguely defined groups like the “deep state.” It could be Muslims, Latinos, gay people, black people — the barbarians are perpetually at the gate, ready to storm the country and make it their own instead of the rightful owners of society, straight Christians.

I would amend that last sentence to read “straight white Christian men.” but otherwise, I think he is absolutely correct.

I have observed that this manufactured nostalgia is particularly seductive to older white men who have been disappointed in their lives. These are men who have gotten to a certain age without fulfilling whatever ambitions or dreams they may have entertained when they were young. Disappointment often breeds bitterness and a need to blame someone. It’s the fault of those uppity women! It’s because of affirmative action! It’s those immigrants! I’d have been properly appreciated in “the old days.”

It’s a short step to MAGA.


  1. Nostalgia is a word we use
    to color what one borrows
    from half-remembered yesterdays
    and unfulfilled tomorrows

    –J. Allan Lind

  2. To borrow a quote from Stephen King’s novel, “Duma Key”, “When it comes to the past; we stack the deck in our favor.”

    When I became old enough to walk a few blocks from home to visit friends and see inside, to a small degree, their family lives; I never questioned what happened after I went home. It wasn’t until I was grown I realized the darker side of most of them wasn’t talked about, just as I didn’t talk about my own. What happened behind those closed doors wasn’t talked about even with best friends. An example is my best friend from 1953; it wasn’t till 1989 we shared our stories of drunken abusive fathers. There is no “normal family” in existence; only what was “normal” for each of us in those “olden days”. The economic differences were obvious and accepted; as was racism and bigotry. At a very young age I questioned the racism and bigotry but not the economic differences.

    Today this country verges on a caste system and White Nationalism and bigotry has been approved and unleashed on the land by our current “leader” whose family life consists of generations of thievery. Sexual abuses appear to have become acceptable for the top levels of our government officials.

    “As Coontz documents, a man’s home has never been his castle, the “male breadwinner marriage” is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today.”

    What would statistics show of traditional families, child abuse, rapes and sexual assaults within those families from the 1940s up to the 1970s? “The Way We Never Were” has been exposed, as the quote from Stephen King’s book; “When it comes to the past, we stack the deck in our favor.”

  3. This article describes nothing I experienced in my 88 years. Guess I’d have to read Coontz, but I’ve more important things to read. My life wasn’t like Beaver maybe, but it was closer to his family than Roseanne. I was 12 when Coontz was born. What does she know about my Wichita neighborhood? My father didn’t rule like a king. My mother was her own person and challenged me always to succeed. Bigotry didn’t exist in our household. I can’t make assumptions about others. I see the evil that does exist, but I the authors cited exaggerate, in my opinion.

  4. Although I’m not a big fan of “The DaVinci Code” (formulaic and trite), it did have one line worth quoting:

    “History is always written by the winners. When two cultures clash, the loser is obliterated, and the winner writes the history books-books which glorify their own cause and disparage the conquered foe.”

    After WWII, the obvious winner was the U.S. and white male hegemony was the order of the day in the good old U.S. of A.

  5. Perhaps what so many of those old white, Christian, heterosexual men fondly remember of those good old days is really their own privileged childhoods. They were coddled, pampered, free to run and play, responsible to little and promised a world of unlimited opportunity.
    It isn’t the times they want to return to, but their shared childhood experience. In other words, they never grew up.

  6. Salman Rushdie knows for sure what’s happening:

    Trump has been honest from the beginning. “Make America great again” is America before the Civil Rights movement. The only way you can do that is to take the Fascist route. Jim Crow is outdated.

    The real problem isn’t Donald Trump but the lack of honesty demonstrated by
    his opposition. Spike Lee, the director of the award-winning movie “The BlacKKKlansman,” a month or so ago, commented publicly about the media’s failure to even mention the word: Fascist.

    If you mention the word, then you would have to do something. UNBELIEVABLE!

  7. Wayne,

    You’re right to be angry. Coontz is scapegoating the American families of the past. I doubt if your family would have put up with the TREASON, that is happening right before our eyes.

    This isn’t about the past, it’s about the PRESENT: THE LACK OF CIVIC COURAGE.

  8. I once when I was much younger heard an elderly lady interviewed on TV about the goof old days and she said, “these are the good old days when I grew up in the winter I was never warm only the side next to the stove was warm I now am warm all around.”

  9. From Thucydides and his history of the fifth-century BC Peloponnesian war:

    “Men’s indignation it seems, is more excited by legal wrong than by violent wrong, the first looks like being cheated by an equal, the second like being compelled by a superior.”

  10. Whoa, Marv Kramer. Did the word anger appear in my comment? Today’s blog is about the “nostalgia trap” elucidated by a scholar and an observer of present day culture. I affirm there are many fellow citizens who fit the descriptions offered by Coontz and Rushdie and commenters on this blog. I do not think they are in the majority. Trump lost, as in he did not win a majority of the popular vote. Trump does appeal to humandkind’s most base instincts. I think it is simplistic to say our present condition is because some straight, white males feel abused. Is not that cohort outnumbered by straight, white males like me who are not fearful of people of color or gay people or any group of “others.” Outnumbered by straight, white females, straight white children and grandchildren? Outnumbered by all the rest of Americans, who didn’t vote? The point that history wasn’t exactly like “Leave It To Beaver” is well taken. However, tell me that current movies and TV trash are a reasonable reflection of the majority of fellow citizens today.

  11. Several commenters have mentioned that period after WWII and before the Civil Rights movement. It was the Age of Mass Consumerism. The factories which built war toys were building washing machines and TVs. The Middle Class boomed. Prices were down, and the level of wages made the Middle Class thrive.

    Buying houses and big-ticket items weren’t enjoyed by all because minorities didn’t get to join the party. The CIA and the ’60s were disruptive.

    MLK was all about Civil Rights, but he also protested and preached against war and our unfair economic system — a system built on the backs of slaves. Lyndon Johnson gave MLK what he wanted regarding Civil Rights but was pissed about MLK’s rebellion against the USA’s strategy on war and the war economy.

    I believe the MAGA banner applies to the time before globalism in the ’80s and ’90s when the Oligarchs knew they could bring in more profits by reducing labor costs and regulation costs by relocating plants in Mexico and China. Bush/Clinton ushered in a new era for the USA — more specifically, Middle-Class Americans were abandoned (unions), and the period of Neoliberalism from Uncle Milton Friedman was ushered in. The U.S. citizens were told that if the Oligarchs did well, monies would “trickle-down” to all classes. It was a flawed policy.

    All POTUS’s since Reagan followed Neoliberalism’s path of riches for the Oligarchs and austerity for the masses. Not only in this country but the U.K. as well under Thatcher et al.

    The problem is global capitalism doesn’t work as it morphs into Fascism…see the U.K., U.S.A, and India. China remains authoritarian. The merger of the state and industry was complete.

    The expansion wasn’t democratic at all…it was never about lifting families. It was always about maximizing shareholder wealth. It was never about sustainable growth within regulatory bounds. It was about boosting GDP and maximizing shareholder wealth.

    The great French economist, Thomas Picketty, has diagnosed our economic illness, which corrupted our political institutions. He started his book in the U.S.A. but finished it in France because he knew American economists would sabotage it.

    Late-stage capitalism morphs into Fascism (authoritarian) or a form of Socialism (democratic). Globalism with capitalism won’t work because of competition and the desperate need for unsustainable growth. We must rely on centralized planning with efficient use of our planet’s resources. Our global citizens seem to understand this very well. The Oligarchs have been warned repeatedly at Davos.

    The status quo is no longer viable. Political Wall Street hacks like Joe Biden is irrelevant since it will only delay the inevitable and allow the Fascist movement to gain strength. We have passed the time for status quo politics.


    A revolutionary society is a dual society in which the outlines of a new social order are appearing within the confines of the old. At points of confrontation, each negates the other. The negative aspect of the relationship between the young and the old illustrates both the dualism and the negation that are characteristic of today’s revolutionary situation. The trouble with revolutionary negation is that it is at a serious disadvantage in confronting counterrevolutionary negation. The counterrevolution knows what it wants; the revolution [Civil Rights] does not. Revolutionary negation now extends not only to the ESTABLISHMENT but also to the planning for what might supplant it. The danger is that the rebellion may grow and even become quite effective without producing positive supplementary and alternative institutions. Lacking a positive program, it promises to succeed only in bringing the wrath of the ESTABLISHMENT down on it in a wave of repression and reaction [think Donald Trump]. The most alarming prospect facing us is not revolutinary chaos but a new wave of COUNTERREVOLUTIONARY FASCISM.” P. 303

    “The Politics of Revolution” by Harvey Wheeler [Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions] (The Glendessary Press, Berkeley, California,1971)

  13. Todd has it mostly right, but Trump’s “branding” of making America great is all about himself. He ran for office to maximize his brand and clean up as many profits as possible while the spineless Republicans and the somnolent Congress bow and let him get away with destroying everything. His “I don’t need no stinkin’ government” is typical of his “leadership” since he was a boy.

    There’s a reason the big money people love him. He’s allowing them to be even richer. It doesn’t matter to them how many of ours and others’ soldiers have to die in the process. It’s just about getting rich. Trump, like most Republicans are utter frauds and will – as we’ve seen – say and do ANYTHING to get richer too. The lobbying industry is doling out millions of dollars to see that America becomes even greater….at least for the 1%.

    We thinking people saw that when the golden bastard came down the escalator to be worshipped by the sinners and the fools.

  14. Great comment Todd, especially the comment about Corporate Joe Biden.

    Apparently Queen Hillary has decided to carry on the Cold War by accusing Jill Stein and now Tulsi Gabbard of being Russian Assets, without the slightest bit of proof, bring back the days of Joe McCarthy.
    Hillary Clinton has just done an interview with David Plouffe, Barack Obama’s former campaign manager, and wow. She did not hold back.

    Clinton also said she thought Jill Stein, the Green Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, was a Russian asset: “Yeah, she’s a Russian asset – I mean, totally. They know they can’t win without a third-party candidate. So I don’t know who it’s going to be, but I will guarantee you they will have a vigorous third-party challenge in the key states that they most needed.”

    Clinton did offer a suggestion of who the next “Russian asset” might be: Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard.

    Clinton said in an apparent reference to the Hawaii congresswoman: “I’m not making any predictions, but I think they’ve got their eye on someone who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s the favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.”
    Gabbard fired back:
    “Great! Thank you Hillary Clinton,” Gabbard tweeted on Friday afternoon. “You, the queen of warmongers, embodiment of corruption, and personification of the rot that has sickened the Democratic Party for so long, have finally come out from behind the curtain.”

    “From the day I announced my candidacy, there has been a concerted campaign to destroy my reputation. We wondered who was behind it and why. Now we know — it was always you, through your proxies and powerful allies in the corporate media and war machine,” Gabbard added.

  15. Vernon,

    I just glanced at a recent article from Forbes Magazine, summarizing that Donald Trump’s net worth is not in the billions, but very close to being ZERO.

  16. I find it interesting that there are men, mostly white straight men, who would have you believe that their home lives were the norm if there was always an established hierarchy and their gender was at the top, regardless of the dynamics of operating system. The male breadwinner as the sole provider was never the norm except in the new middle class after the second world war. Before that for millennia the women and minorities had worked both inside and outside the house. Who do they think were the cooks, maids, field hands, “help”, laundresses, janitors/esses, nurses, teachers, stable hands, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers? It sure wasn’t middle class family members as there really wasn’t any significant middle class.

  17. What we are born with and into in not of our own choosing but our nature is to adapt to it and adopt it as our own. It’s a little more complex than just our families because we are born into more than just our families, we are born among people who we assume to varying degrees are like we should be, and we are born into circumstances that we assume have always been and will always be. No wonder we spend a lifetime of confusion.

    Herrs TrumPence are victims of their “with and into” also, the difference being that they aren’t so smart and never questioned anything. Now the plot has enveloped all of us into a magnificently dysfunctional arrangement for those who are the backbone of this neighborhood that we call our country.

    Fortunately smart people also preceded us and they always suspected that dysfunction like this threatens all neighborhoods and gave us some rules to follow that stand the best chance of rebuilding what works.

    It’s our turn now to exercise the power that those predecessors willed to us in order to protect what works, the power to hire and fire those who govern. While we have learned that our choices are easily compromised by other neighborhoods we also know that at some collective strength we can restore our choices to preeminence.

    There is lots of plot to unfold between now and November 2020 but no matter what happens (unless there is a forced reboot of civilization by nuclear war) we need to gather together and to collaborate with others like us to restore and exert our democratic influence on the entire world but starting here at home in the US.

    I look forward to working with you all.

  18. Monotonous; the last person we need inserting themselves in this mass of Democratic presidential wannabes is Hillary Clinton. There is enough infighting and name-calling between them as Trump comes up daily, sometimes hourly, with new and more devious way to destroy this country. Her petty Russian accusations against 2 of the members of the Democratic circular firing squad is like giving the order “Fire!” to the firing squad. She appears to me to have lowered herself to Trump’s level for trying to bring her own Russian problems into play in the 2020 presidential election.

    Wayne; the issue of the blog today and none of the comments are “making assumptions” about specific families or groups of people; simply pointing out the misconception of the “Leave It To Beaver”, “Father Knows Best” and “Ozzie And Harriet” view the general pubic in America were led to believe to be “normal family life”. If you grew up in a stable home; that was your “norm”, it wasn’t for millions of others, many of whom believed their homelife was shameful which is why it wasn’t talked about. I understood the basis for the book “The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap” was to uncover a long hidden truth about American life and is a useful tool to many.

  19. Marv,

    I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. Con men and grifters are like that. As we know from seeing the 13,000 (and counting) lies dripping from the sewer Trump calls a mouth, it isn’t surprising either that he conducted the greatest con in history to make himself seem rich. As with most people from his background of grift, graft and corruption, he destroys everything he touches…just as Rick Wilson’s book describes.

  20. First of all – Happy Birthday Sheila!!!

    I think, in my very humble opinion, that Todd has it essentially correct. It’s the “dark side” of the social compact in this country as it has been since the late 19th century if not earlier. Now, most unfortunately it’s on steroids as it has been since the Reagan days and the infusion of Friedman’s ideas along with the “Laffer Curve”. Most unfortunately no one, except those in that magical 1-2%, is laughing. All of it is a somewhat carefully orchestrated sham to appease the masses while they are being robbed blind by those that instigate the shame and those that rise to political power by using it as a springboard via their campaign coffers.We are far, far off the track and headed toward fascism if we don’t act like citizens in this country are supposed to act instead of being mere spectators oblivious to the role the play in determining their own futures and that of this country. The only thing that trickles down from supply-side econ are crumbs, something we should all know by now instead of just accepting it, grousing about it, and doing, essentially nothing else.

    Again, during the last century most of the political and socioeconomic upheavals around the world have started exactly this same way and for us to think that such turmoil could not happen here is extremely wishful thinking. If and when it does it will put what the ignorance of Trump and his minions have done to denigrate this country’s stature and relevance on the world stage even further in that proverbial toilet as Russia and then an overly dominant China succeed us in terms of global primacy. Unfortunately for all of us and our descendants will be alive during this huge seed change in the world order with none of it being for the overall good of mankind.

    I am again reminded of that old Pogo cartoon where the exclamation was, “We have met the enemy and he is us”. Prescient humor regarding our political and socioeconomic suicide.

  21. I remember reading Stephanie’s book many moons ago and at first glance (and off topic) wondered where the heck Evergreen State College (her faculty base) was. I loved the way she exploded one myth after another, an exercise I suspect many writers could have authored in America after Jamestown given that retrospective history is invariably unerring. We now know, for instance, that Hitler was a bad guy, something unknown to the cheering British upon hearing from Chamberlain on his return in 1938 from Munich that there would be “peace in our time.” We also know that Trump is a bad guy, we know that trickle down economics doesn’t work in big economies, that capitalism as currently practiced cannot long endure etc., but these are contemporary observations not yet secured in the recollection dustbin of history to be subsequently recalled as “the good old days.”

    Cinderella and her slippers and Mary Poppins and her umbrella never existed, but Norman Rockwell’s art did. Perhaps pleasant fairy tales and art are worth saving but real world experience in the affairs of men should serve only as examples of what not to do today or of what to emulate in our quest for new mistakes to make or avoid in running our society. Perhaps.

  22. Yeah, the good old days!

    Wayne, I remember walking through my Chicago neighborhood which was loaded with German immigrants, they came after the 2nd world war to work and collect a Social Security check From America when they went back to Germany. They called me the little N—-R! I was pretty young, 1st grade, that’s when I started walking to school. I really didn’t understand what was being said, or what it meant. I was accosted, I was told I was going to be shot out the window, and myriads of other things that I prefer not to mention. I remember when I finally told my father, he went down to this one German gentleman’s house and threw him out the 2nd floor window. I could go down the list, but that would take a lot of effort and it still makes me angry.

    My grandmother lost 5 brothers due to them not being white! I knew all of my grandmother’s brothers that were alive, I never knew any of those that were killed when they were young. I remember talking to one of my great uncles, all of the surviving brothers were in the 2nd world war. When they were marching through Europe, pushing the Germans back, the white soldiers were telling the women in these territories, black soldiers would grow tales and horns at midnight. My uncle said that they would catch these women hanging around to see this magical transformation.

    The good old days! Yes, I think I’ve had my fill of the good old days. My wife’s family used to talk about the great depression, and how they, living on a farm, always had food. They left a metal plate, a goblet, and eating utensils on a table by the back door. People would always come through, they were hungry, they would work for food and a place to rest. During those days, when everybody was in the same boat, either you had food or you didn’t. People who took part in nefarious activities against people of color, who ridiculed them, who lynched them, had no problem asking for something to eat from those same people that they lynched and hated.

    I remember my grandmother who died 20 years ago and my wife’s mother who just passed at 95 years of age, both said, hunger can make you colorblind. But once you’re not hungry anymore, the hatred comes back into focus. So yeah, I’m glad you have leave it to beaver memories, my memories are quite a bit different. I could even go into more detail, but, suffice it to say, it bothers me.

  23. John,

    Thanks for sharing your family background with us.

    The failure to face-up to racism after all that occurred during the 60s will be remembered as America’s great misfortune, as well as the world’s.

  24. Marv, thank you!
    And I agree with you wholeheartedly, this country really is divided into those who know what that feeling of being a second-class citizen or being marginalized feels like and those who never had to worry, or were oblivious about it.

  25. MAGA–even for non-whites and women–means reverting back to whatever former fantasy, not time, which seemed to permit an American to be the child he or she always wanted to be. For millions, that is the American dream.

    MAGA is an emotional thing; it has little to do with thought or reason. America’s failure to grow up is all about what we as children felt the word “Adult” meant.

    For far too many Americans since the 1950s, adulthood was an arbitrary birthday (and/or the first job that permitted us to pay our own way) after which WE COULD BE THE CHILD WE ALWAYS WANTED TO BE .

    As an adult, I shall consume what I want, even if it kills me.

    As an adult, I shall say what I want, even if it reveals me to be stupid or evil or crazy.

    As an adult, I shall drive fast, drink hard, cheat in any way I chose, be selfish, be mean to others, and dress and act out in every other way that was disapproved by my parents, peers, and society before I reached adulthood.

    And then, along comes government, our government, churning out new rules essentially meant to restrain us again in the same way we were restrained in our first childhood by our parents, teachers and community mores.

    MAGA–even for non-whites and women–means reverting back to whatever former fantasy, not time, which seemed to permit an American to be the child he or she always wanted to be. For millions, that is the American dream. And for millions, Trump personifies that dream.

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