Not long ago I read “One Summer: America 1927” by Bill Bryson; quite a long book, it is 600 pages of facts and stories of the boom time before the stock market crash and Great Depression. A time of relative peace and incredible wealth. What’s surprising is how many historically significant events are sandwiched between January and December. It got me thinking. And one question kept coming up…
How good were the good old days?
The past’s hold on nostalgic romanticism is strong (writing about past events). Tickle that bone, and depending on your age, specific memories come to mind; homemade apple pies cooling by an open window; selling lemonade outside on a clear day; cheap fuel; safe streets and a strong sense of community.
For me, it’s watching the Fonz and Richie Cunningham on TV, listening to the Top 40 (and pressing the record button at exactly the right time on my cassette recorder to skip over Casey Kasem), and long days on my bike roaming the streets for something better to do. In summer it is warm sand, and trying to catch girls and waves (girls, for me, were like trying to catch seagulls. Not even hot chips would entice them.) With the safety of memory, life certainly feels better looking backward (excluding said girl issue). But what about a wider and deeper perspective? Can the recent past have been so much better than what life offers today?
…before the internet, before Apple, before…everything we take for granted?
You hear politicians and commentators spruik about the “good old days” as a colloquialism for an unspecified time in the past when life was somehow better. That we should reach back and seize whatever it is that will make our society better. But that’s lazy. Let’s put a stake in the ground and give the good old days a specific year.
What if we go back 50 years to 1966?
Surely life was better in the era of free love, tie-dye T-shirts and the birth of Rock ‘n Roll? However, a quick search of events in 1966 gave me pause to reconsider. There is much to pick through. Some good, some sobering, and some horrific.
It was the Cold War, and the USSR, French, China and the US were busy testing nuclear weapons. Today I only know of one country, North Korea that is actively conducting nuclear weapons tests.
It was the year of the Black Power movement, and of the 1st black governor of the Federal Reserve. Rioting was common and widespread – Chicago, Omaha, Illinois and Los Angeles. US Federal funding was denied to 12 schools in the South because they violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
Think gun violence is a recent phenomenon? Charles Whitman killed 16 and wounded 31 at the University of Texas (just four years later, at Kent State, Ohio, Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed protestors, killing four). And of mass murders: 8 nurses were murdered in Chicago by Richard speck. In New York City 400 died from respiratory failure due to a severe smog.
What of the fight for gender equality? You might be surprised that in 1966, a 23-year-old Roberta Gibb with hoodie pulled down tight over her face became the first woman to officially finish the Boston marathon. She hid her sex for fear of being arrested–for running a marathon.
Of things financial: the Dow Jones hit the then record high of 995.
Entertainment: Batman and Star Trek debuts on TV. David Bowie releases his first single. Time publishes the God is Dead front cover. The Beach Boys release the album Pet Songs, and the Beatles Rubber Soul album reaches no.1.
There were more plane crashes I dare count. Many world military coups. The US troop deployment in Vietnam is over 200,000. Yet despite all this, the period of relative world peace following WWII exceeded that following WWI.
In 1966 US real wages were higher than they are now, and the gap between the lowest income and highest income households was much narrower than it currently is.
Fifty spins around the sun and we’re back where we started.
Also published on Medium.