Better than we were

Everybody knows nostalgia is a liar. Nothing was ever exactly as good as you remember, but then again, that’s never been how memory works. We remember the things that inform who we are, which is not the person that we were. That person no longer exists.

Nostalgia was never the problem anyway. That sunny afternoon spent chasing falling leaves around the schoolyard is a warmth creeping through my body, and that warmth will always be there, although it shifts in meaning from social acceptance to freedom to a momentary respite from responsibilities and back again to social acceptance. Those changes occur at a remove from the memory, emphasising the emotion, not the events (although perhaps the memory of the events changes too-who can say?)

No, the thing with nostalgia is not that it lies, but that we long for it even knowing how fabricated it is. We know we’re selectively choosing parts of our past to create a mythical “better time”-that’s the appeal. It’s a do-over with all of the good stuff and none of the mistakes.

And that’s understandable, to an extent. Who hasn’t lain awake at night turning some embarrassing encounter over and over in their head, imagining that we would have been less tongue-tied, less frightened, less angry, less cruel, or less greedy. Regret is the cousin of nostalgia. No one really wants to turn back the clock, we only want to have more of what we think made us happy and less of what we think didn’t.

But there’s the real problem-the connection between what works and how we get there. We remember the good and forget the bad and completely ignore the connection between the two.

Could we go back to the “racially harmonious” 1950s, but with a modern, educated, nominally anti-racist population? Only if you believe that that racial harmony occurred magically, organically. Instead, if you acknowledge that the perception of racial harmony existed because most people affected by racism at the time were actively prevented from sharing their experiences with the people who were benefiting from their silence, you start to understand that the past you wanted never existed. Not only did it never exist, it never could exist. There was never a time when 2 plus 2 didn’t equal 4, but there was a time when you didn’t know basic mathematics.

And it’s that earlier ignorance, the scales still upon our eyes, that forms our memories of what came before. We are not nostalgic, we long for the ignorance of a child who, in all but the most traumatic childhood was protected from so many things by their age: not violence or cruelty, perhaps, but the mundane drudgery and anxiety of adulthood. Those things do not exist to someone remembering their youth. But they were always there, hidden away. And now that we’re old enough to see the wires, to understand the connections and the costs, instead we want to make them go away by clapping our hands and believing that our parents or our grandparents had this stuff all figured out, that they never made compromises in the name of expediency.

Fixing things is hard. Before you can even start, you need to take the time to understand how they broke. The nostalgia for the past that leads to a politics of smallness and inwardness is duct tape over a fracture, fixing nothing, obscuring something critical. It’s the politics of a child desperate for daddy to switch on the bedroom light and chase the monsters away. There are no solutions in ignorance, but there are always shortcuts to compliance and “Just shut up and do what I tell you to” and magical rituals that do nothing at all.

The project of democracy is never-ending. It isn’t possible to even define it as having an end, as each person adds something new and different to its direction, if they are allowed to. But as a society we need to always be asking whether our collective tendencies are leading us towards something that is receding from us because it never really existed in the first place.

We could be better. But we can’t get there from here without understanding where we went wrong.

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