One of my favorite books is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz. I don’t usually re-read books, but I have twice made an exception for this one, and I still dip into it now and then. Coontz is a faculty member at Evergreen State College, where she teaches history and family studies and directs research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.
In The Way We Never Were, Coontz uses history to deconstruct many of the myths we Americans tell ourselves. She takes on the belief, for example, that “we always stood on our own two feet” by enumerating the multiple ways in which government programs have long provided structures enabling individual effort. Addressing the fond belief that teenagers didn’t have sex outside of marriage before our degenerate times, she provides statistics on the number of “shotgun” marriages at the turn of the former century. And so forth. As an introduction to the book notes,
Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary, 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.
The basic focus of the book was displayed in the subtitle: “American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”
Today, nostalgia for the way we never were has become a primary dividing line between people who live in the real world (and who are, these days, disproportionately Democrats) and angry defenders of a society that never existed (these days, disproportionately Republicans.) That is especially the case with Southerners’ defense of the Lost Cause.
As a recent article from the Atlantic put it,
For so many Americans, “history isn’t the story of what happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as a eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”
In “The War on Nostalgia,” published online today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s June issue, staff writer Clint Smith writes about the myth of the Lost Cause, which attempts to recast the Confederacy “as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people.” Traveling around the country, Smith visits sites that are grappling—or refusing to grapple—with America’s history of slavery, and considers what it would take for all Americans to reckon with the past.
I grew up in small-town America in the 1950s, and have subsequently been astonished by efforts to portray those years as somehow “golden.” Granted, if you were a Protestant White Male, things were pretty good–if you were female, or Black, or Catholic, or (as I was, one of very few Jews in a very small town), not so much. In college, when I went (briefly) to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill still had separate restrooms and drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites, and I still remember the large billboard announcing to anyone who could read the planned construction of a “restricted” subdivision (i.e., no Jews or Blacks would be permitted to buy there.)
We can see the power of nostalgia in the current, intense resistance to efforts to teach accurate history. Educators and historians are only now coming to terms with the way American history has been white-washed (or perhaps I should spell that White-washed). I took a number of history classes, but I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until two years ago. If the Trail of Tears was taught in any of those classes, I missed it.
Nostalgia can be a comforting way to remember many things: my babies’ first words, a stranger’s kindness at a particularly difficult time, a classroom epiphany, a love affair… There is nothing wrong with a nostalgia based upon actual events, even when we recall those events somewhat selectively– with their “rough edges” removed, so to speak.
But nostalgia for a mythological American past–for the “way we never were”–is pernicious; it’s a refusal to learn from experience, and a way to defend what is frequently indefensible.
It’s an indulgence we can’t afford.