The Way We Never Were

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is Stephanie Coontz’ The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. In it, Coontz debunks several of the persistent myths that continue to distort contemporary politics. (I think my favorite chapter is the one titled “We always stood on our own two feet,” in which she details several early important government programs that “small government conservatives” conveniently ignore.)

I thought about “The Way We Never Were” when I read a recent column by Jennifer Rubin, addressing the notion that today’s divisions are deeper than they’ve been–that the times we occupy are worse than those of the past. She titled her essay, “Get real and read some history. The past was worse.”

Nostalgia is a powerful political tool. Wielding nostalgia for a bygone era — one that is invariably mischaracterized — is a favorite weapon for fascist movements (Make America Great Again), harking back to a time before their nation was “polluted” by malign forces. In the United States, such nostalgia none-too-subtlety appeals to white Christian nationalism. Even in a more benign form (e.g., “Politics didn’t used to be so mean,” “Remember the days of bipartisanship?”) plays on faulty memories. If you really go back to study U.S. history, you would find two things: The past was worse, and conflict has always been the norm.

Economically, Americans were a lot poorer, even as late as 1960, when there were roughly 400 vehicles per 1,000 Americans, about half of today’s car ownership rate.

Tom Nichols has written extensively on the politics of false memory. “Times are always bad. Nothing gets better. And the past 50 years have not been a temporary economic purgatory but a permanent hell, if only the elites would be brave enough to peer through the gloom and see it all for what it is,” he wrote. “This obsession with decline is one of the myths surrounding postindustrial democracy that will not die.”

Given all the hand-wringing about crime and crime rates, for example, it is bracing to look at the actual data: It turns out that crime was considerably higher in the 1970s. Not only crime rates, but “poverty, child mortality, deaths from virtually any major disease, workplace injuries, high school dropout rates, etc., were all much worse in the 1950s. Also, kids got polio, Jim Crow was in full swing, gays had to be in the closet and no one had cellphones, home computers or microwave ovens. Very few people had air conditioning or could afford to fly.”

Troubling as the gap between the rich and the rest is and remains, income inequality has been on the decline since 2007. Rubin traces America’s history since the 1930s and The Great Depression–through World War, McCarthyism, the Cold War, the riots of the 1960s, the political assassinations, the Vietnam War….

You get the point. Though those who rail against modernity, urbanity, pluralism, tolerance and personal freedom in service of an authoritarian perch would like to turn back the clock, a perusal of history suggests now is the best time to be alive.

And what about the myth of America’s former bipartisanship? She reminds us that– “from the get-go”– politics in America was vicious. Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, et al all assumed the worst of one another:

Jefferson, watching the government amass power and assume state debt, concluded that Hamilton’s Federalists were royalists and corrupt financiers who had been plotting ‘to betray the people’ since independence.” In turn, “Federalists, conversely, thought Republicans ideologically deranged to the point of near-treason. Blind infatuation with a hostile (and anarchic) France, faith in state sovereignty, Luddite opinions on public debt — all of these seemed like symptoms of a deeper mania among Jefferson’s followers.”

The founding era was followed by slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and racial segregation.

You can flip through the history of presidential insults, devastating feuds and congressional violence. None of this suggests we ever enjoyed a sustained halcyon period of unity. To be certain, we had brief interludes when World War II united the country and when the ideological gaps between the parties were not as vast. However, we “got things done” mostly when one party (in modern times, usually Republicans) got wiped out in elections, leaving Democrats to construct the New Deal and the Great Society. Republicans vilified Democrats every step of the way (even testing out a coup against Franklin D. Roosevelt).

What we have not had before is a president who rejected democracy, attempted to retain power by force and wound up indicted on 91 criminal counts. So yes, four-times-indicted Donald Trump was worse than every president who preceded him.

As both Coontz and Rubin remind us: Nostalgia– especially nostalgia for a time that never was–is the stuff of snake-oil salesmen.

That said, we need to protect that progress–and democracy–this November.


The Way We Never Were

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.


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.


The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite social science books is a 1993 “golden oldie”– The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz.  Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

The book was a methodical survey of the stories we tell ourselves about the American past, accompanied by copious data debunking them.

Think women were “purer” at the turn of the last century? How do you explain the substantial percentage who were already “with child” when they married? Did our brave and entrepreneurial forebears always “stand on their own two feet”? Coontz enumerates the numerous government programs–frontier mythology to the contrary– that they relied on. Etc.

Nostalgia may not be accurate, but it’s powerful. There’s no denying the attraction of a past viewed through rose-colored glasses. It always amuses me to hear my contemporaries longingly reciting the virtues of the 1950s; even when I was growing up at the time, I realized that life was really good if you were a middle-class white Christian male. Otherwise, not so much.

What made me think of Coontz’ book and my own formative years was a recent blog post by Michael Leppert, in which he made several astute observations about the politics of nostalgia.

“A sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time” seems to be a dominant part of the politics in charge today. The definition of “nostalgia” perfectly captures at least half of every debate in America right now…

Leppert traced that “sentimental yearning” to our current political scene.

The tedious breakdown of what happened in Alabama this week fascinates political nerds like me, but probably numbs the brains of most. We know, for example, that 30 percent of those voting were African-Americans which is three points higher than their share of the population there. We also know that they almost entirely voted for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones. Or did they vote against his bigoted Republican opponent? Either way, it tells a tale.

The tale is this: they voted for the future. They triumphed over people who voted for the past.

Leppert argues that this contest between tomorrow and yesterday will define the politics of 2018, and he notes that, in retrospect, the same thing probably could be said of the 2016 election.

“Make America Great Again” was a powerful sales pitch for a swath of folks who felt increasingly ignored. The mantra itself is asking for support for the way things used to be, as if that is possible. More importantly, it expresses a pessimism about our collective future that is hard to comprehend….

The past won in 2016 in many ways. So much of what we have seen in Washington this year comes from that perspective.  Throwback health and environmental policy early in the year was followed by an uncreative and backward looking tax bill.  All of it has been based on a sad view of tomorrow that couldn’t be more un-American.

I predict those who run on a platform of the future will sweep in 2018. Because forward is the only direction civilization ever truly goes.

As we get ready to “ring out” 2017–a year I’ll be happy to leave–I devoutly, passionately hope that Mike Leppert is right, that the future will win out over nostalgia for the way we never were.

My grandmother had a saying: “from your mouth to God’s ears…”