Romancing the past

I think most people tend to have a romantic view of the past, I know I do. I like to imagine having to go to the market each day. I like thinking about no one having cars so everything would be closer together, there would be more quite and more people walking around.
I think no category of people romanticizes the past more than conservatives. That is almost the definition of being conservative. In wanting to conserve the past and follow traditions it is implied that the best is better than today.
I've written several times about how strongly I disagree with the notion that we are less moral or ethical today than we were in the past (slavery, racism and sexism alone make me feel this way), but I think another area where conservatives tend to romanticize the past is in terms of freedom. There seems to be a sense that we are less free than we have ever been. I myself once held this view. It seemed that in the past people were much more free to do as they pleased without government interference. However, the more I learn about history, even recent history, I've come to feel the opposite.
I've recently begun making a list of crazy things from the past that I encounter. So far the list is short, but here it is:

~In the United States, during the First World War a person could be imprisoned for expressing disapproval of the war.

~While not officially sanctioned by the Government, tacit approval was given by not interfering or punishing those responsible: During the WWI, some people were dragged by horses down streets for not supporting the war, or being an Anarchist or Socialist.

~ During the early 1900's those who refused vaccines had police break down their doors and physically restrain them while vaccines were administered.

~During the Second World War, the tax rate for the highest income bracket was 90%.

(Plus all the things most educated folks are familiar with, like eugenics and women not being allowed to initiate a divorce etc.)

As crazy as some of these things may be, they aren't even from the ancient past, but the past 100 yrs, here in the USA.
Despite how short my list is, I think it illustrates a lot about that time period. If only one of these things happened today it would create outrage across the country. The fact that these things happened and were apparently not a big deal indicates that these type of events weren't uncommon in that era.

It seems that a lot of people, especially Americans tend to view all of the past as being just like the 'Wild West', with few laws and people. But in reality, most everyone has lived in close proximity to others and been restricted by laws and punishments since human beings first evolved. Humans are incredibly dependent on each other for survival and certain anti-social behavior has always been detrimental to the group's survival, requiring means to limit individual freedoms for the common good.

P.s. If anyone has anything else to add to my list, I'd be happy to hear it.


Vincent said...

I am a conservative precisely because I consider the past (aspects of it) to be a guide to improving the present. But I am not an American conservative, and have difficulty understanding the attitudes and the Lib-Con divide which excite so many in the US.

I think severe laws are often a symptom of the state’s powerlessness to have its way, or to catch those whom it wants to punish. It tries to scare them instead.

Having a conservative attitude doesn’t mean approving all the things that government did in the past, though.

Your first point interests me. The car symbolises modern America more than anything else. Not having one, or the use of one, symbolises disempowerment. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see this changing, as America has laid out its cities in such a way as to exacerbate this dependence.

I think the craziest thing about the past (for your list) is the Declaration of Independence. America would be a better place if it were still British!

Oh, and one of the things that shocks me most about the US, if I have not misunderstood it, is the pressure to be patriotic. But I am sure Americans for their part would be shocked about lots of British things.

Have you visited us? I welcome you on behalf of Her Majesty to come and take a look (and in some ways view the better parts of your country’s own past!)

Chris Almond said...

I would be curious to hear you explain more what you mean by "I am a conservative precisely because I consider the past (aspects of it) to be a guide to improving the present."
From my perspective I see the past as a place where racism, sexism, homophobia and other, generally unenlightened thinking was common and accepted. But I'm assuming your referring to other elements of the past which may guide us in the present and I'm curious what those are.

The pressure towards patriotism here in the US is definitely something I find baffling and counter-productive. By and large it is a product of the right, but they have made such a big issue of it that even people on the left must, at least, pretend to have a strong sense of patriotism to be elected or widely respected by the broader public, but I think most of us lefties feel the same as you do about patriotism.

Vincent said...

I’m very glad that you questioned me on this point, because in trying to respond to you, and finding myself baffled, I discovered that I misspoke, quite radically, and that I now want to recant that whole sentence that you quoted, particularly the words ‘conservative’, ‘past’ and ‘improve’.

First of all, I don’t want to align myself as a conservative, because it puts me in the position of defending something, and pretending to debate ‘rationally’. Both are terrible traps. I find it easy to understand conservatives because of my own attitude towards the past.

But to talk of the past, and compare it with the present, is nonsense. (I'm accusing myself, not you.) The present is a peculiar moment in our history. The past is a myriad peculiar moments, most of which we can only understand with the aid of historians.

Nevertheless, I use the past as a guide to seeing how peculiar the present is, using mainly my knowledge of both within my own lifetime. I can remember how different things were in the Forties, Fifties, Sixties ...

My worst bit of misspeaking was to talk about ‘improving the present’. Emotionally, temperamentally, I’m sceptical about the possibility of improving the present; feeling that the best we can attempt is to stop it worsening so fast.

I’m more certain of not being a leftie. Yes, from your perspective you “see the past as a place where racism, sexism, homophobia and other, generally unenlightened thinking was common and accepted.” For my part I see that there used to be more tolerance of human nature in all its aspects including what are now labelled racism, sexism, homophobia and unenlightened thinking). I see being a leftie as trying to force a change in attitudes, not merely control undesirable behaviour.

More than anything, I don’t want to debate! There is too much of that. I just want tolerance.

Vincent said...

To put it crisply, if you were to say that my conservatism is the arrogance of the old challenging the arrogance of the young, I would agree with you! But if you didn’t say that, I would say nothing, and keep my dignity.

Vincent (influenced by Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground and good English ale(.