Jason Feifer: This is Build for Tomorrow, a podcast about the things from our past that shaped us and what it takes for us to shape the future. I’m Jason Feifer.
It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. So, let me tell you about them both. The year was 2008 and our brains were becoming a fog. We could barely focus anymore, not like we did in the good old days, anyway, but we pulled it together long enough to pick up a copy of The Atlantic magazine, where our problems were finally diagnosed. “Google is making us stupid,” that’s what the cover said.
Inside, the writer tells us that, “What the net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation.”
If only it seemed we could go back, back to another time, back before all this, back to the year was 1923 and our brains were becoming a fog. We could barely focus anymore, not like we did in the good old days, anyway, but we pulled it together long enough to pick up a copy of the New York Times, where our problems were finally diagnosed. “American life is too fast,” that’s what the headline says.
It quotes from the Secretary of State, who explains, “It is the day of the fleeting vision, concentration, thoroughness, the quiet reflection that ripens the judgment are more difficult than ever.”
If only it seemed we could go back, back to another time, back before all this, back to, well, back to when? This is the question I always want to know the answer to, honestly, every time I read stories like and, oh, there are so many of them written today. I always have the same little fantasy. I imagine sitting these writers down and saying, “Okay. You’re telling me that life was better before. So, when exactly are you talking about? I mean, you’re contrasting today with yesterday? What yesterday? A specific year, a decade, era? When was the golden age? What are the good old days?”
Now, I understand the limitations of this question. I mean, if the internet is the thing that killed concentration and contemplation, then, I mean, I suppose we could go back to, what? Dial modem days when this sound was very good for concentration and contemplation? Maybe, except concentration and contemplation had already been declared dead in 1923. So, how could it possibly have been lost and then found, and then lost again?
That is why, I know, asking this question just will not get me anywhere. Also, the question dead ends pretty fast because I suppose I could ask the 2008 writer when the good old days were, but I can’t ask the 1922 writer or anyone before him, but then I got to thinking something else.
I realized, silly as that exercise may be, it is not just a silly thing. It’s not a silly problem because while people can complain all day about their lost concentration and all it will do is harm the concentration of anyone trying to concentrate on something other than this person complaining about their lost concentration, this kind of thought can have far larger consequences.
What we are talking about is not just some cranky nostalgia. What we are talking about is a nostalgia narrative, a story we tell ourselves about how the times before ours were better. This is a powerful, motivating story, an easily believable story. It’s the stuff not just of cranky newspaper writing, but of political and social movements appealing to anyone who feels like a victim of change. Nostalgia narratives can shape our actual narrative in ways that get real real fast.
Alan Levinovitz: People want to believe, for example, that they are part of the greatest nation, that redemption is around the corner, that a perfect nation in which no suffering happens is possible, and they also really, really want to think that there’s an easy solution, that there’s someone to blame, and so on and so forth. Nostalgia narratives offer all of that.
Jason Feifer: That’s Alan Levinovitz, an Associate Professor of Religion at James Madison University, who you’ll be hearing more from in this episode. What he’s saying there that a nostalgia narrative is a simplified version of history with an easy solution and an identifiable enemy, well, that logic travels easily. It is how social ills can be blamed on social media, for example, or how a shifting economy can be blamed on immigrants.
I mean, sure, nostalgia itself can be fun if for some reason what you really wanted in life was a saved by the bell reboot, but that’s just plain old nostalgia. A nostalgia narrative, on the other hand, well, that has brought our consequences. So, I couldn’t help but go back to my silly idea because I felt like there was just something powerful to be had in it.
Could I find anytime, anytime in history that everyone agreed that was the good old days? Well, that would be pretty amazing. If I couldn’t, well, would that be a powerful argument against the nostalgia narratives we carried today? How would this even be possible given that most of the people who are alive on Earth are now the subjects of nostalgia?
Well, that is when I realized the world today is full of historians, historians who know what people of a different time were thinking, historians who I am sure have absolutely nothing better to do than get on the phone with me so that I can ask two ridiculous yet important questions. Number one, did the people of a particular time period think they were living in a golden age? If the answer is now, then here’s question number two. When did they think the good old days were?
So, I just figured I’d repeat that over and over starting today and going backwards and backwards through time until we found some answers. So, that is exactly what we are going to do in this episode.
Now, a quick note before we begin. I originally created this episode in 2016 when this podcast was called Pessimists Archive, but five years later in 2021, I changed the name to Build for Tomorrow to reflect that this podcast is really an optimist’s view of how we can learn from the past and build a better future. I’d always wanted to redo this episode to update the script, to bring in more idea. So, that is what you’re listening to now.
Spoiler alert, this quest is going to take us back, back, and back, and back again until we reach people who talked like this.
Voice Clip (Old English): [foreign language 00:06:26]
Jason Feifer: Then we will keep going, and we will find out once and for all if there ever was a golden age, and when it was, and if it wasn’t, whether it makes sense to look backwards at all, and what we can learn about nostalgia and, ultimately, what will it take to get backwards-looking people more excited about looking forward. It is all coming up after the break.
All right. We’re back. We are about to embark upon a historical quest to see if we can locate the exact timing of the good old days by following when people of different time periods believed the good old days to be. We’re going to start this quest in our own time with our own nostalgia narrative, which in America at least is most powerfully captured in these four words.
Voice Clip (Donald Trump): We will make America great again.
Jason Feifer: “Make America great again,” four words with an internal logic. America was great. It is not great now, and it can only become great by recreating the past. So, okay, that is our starting point. When does the word again in “Make America great again” actually refer to?
Well, back in 2016 before Donald Trump was elected, The Daily Show sent its correspondent to a Trump rally to ask this very question.
Voice Clip (Daily Show): What year was America great?
Speaker 6: When it was founded.
Voice Clip (Daily Show): Except for the slavery stuff.
Speaker 6: Except for the slavery stuff.
Jason Feifer: The Trump supporters in that clip had no consensus. Someone said 1913. One guy said the 1980s, but the most common answer and the one that is widely considered to be the reference point for “Make America great again” is the postwar era of the 1940s and 1950s. So, let’s go there. Let’s rewind and ask, did the people of the 1940s and 1950s think they were living in a golden age.
Doug McAdam: Well, it turns out it depends on who you ask, I suppose.
Jason Feifer: This is Doug McAdam.
Doug McAdam: I’m a Professor of Sociology and Political Science at Stanford University, author of a bunch of books, but a most recently one called Deeply Divided Racial Politics and Social Movements in Postwar America.
Jason Feifer: So, let me set the scene as Doug tells it. America in the postwar era was rattled by, and stop me when this sounds familiar, politics and technology. Politically, America was terrified of the Soviet Union, and technologically, America was terrified of the Soviet Union and the threat of nuclear war, of course, but a lot of people were also fearful of domestic innovations like television, which threatened to turn the American population into mindless zombies.
Doug McAdam: People talk about how mindless the students on college campuses were only tracking towards a conformist, consumer-oriented way of life without soul. So, there was a lot of commentary about the deadening conformity of postwar America.
Jason Feifer: Yes, despite this deafening conformity, some communities were prospering in ways they hadn’t before, but that is not our question here. We are looking for a time when people felt like they were getting it right. Doug said that that was not the prevailing feeling of the time at all.
So, I asked him, “When did the people of the 1940s and 1950s think the golden age was?” He said, “There’s no single answer.” Some might have said the ’30s. Though, obviously, the ’30s featured a few economic problems.
Doug McAdam: Some people probably romanticized the roaring ’20s as a lot of fun.
Jason Feifer: That sounds fun. We like fun. So, picture it. It is 1923, and you’re kicking back on the couch catching up on the periodicals. The cover of the latest edition of Science and Invention magazine features a futuristic flying helicopter car hybrid thing. So cool, but then you open up your copy of the New York Times and look at this headline.
Voice Clip (New York Times): American life is too fast speed called fatal to ideas and real progress.
Jason Feifer: Here we are with that New York Times story from 1923 that I opened the episode with, the day of the fleeting concentration, all that stuff. Let’s just appreciate it a little bit longer, shall we?
Voice Clip (New York Times): Are we moving too fast, too fast for health and too fast for thought? Should we and how can we slow down? Can an age of hustle produce a civilization equal to that of an age of serenity? Can pep produce world ideas?
Jason Feifer: The answer it seems to be was no. To be clear, that was not the only concern about modern life being splashed onto news print at the time. So, what were we worried about in the 1920s? Oh, boy, were we worried. In 1921 in the Montreal Gazette, we were worried about a little of everything.
Speaker 9: The movies, jazz dancing, and the cigarettes as they affect public morals were denounced at today’s session of the International Purity Conference.
Jason Feifer: I mean, I guess they were right to be worried about the cigarette, but got the reason wrong. Anyway, that wasn’t the only threat to morality at the time. In the Princeton University student newspaper in 1925, the moral threat was cars. Here’s from Princeton University’s dean at the time.
Speaker 10: The general effect of the automobile was to make the present generation look likely at the model code and to decrease the value of the home.
Jason Feifer: In the New York Daily News in 1929, we are back to losing our concentration, but now, thanks to radio.
Speaker 11: An adult who unthinkingly allows a radio to run incessantly as a background to every home activity is hindering the sensitive child or even a normal one in developing concentration, discrimination, and fairness of taste.
Jason Feifer: All this silly stuff aside, the 1920 saw the rise of the KKK and a xenophobia that led to the federal government severely limiting immigration. Prohibition meant you can’t get a legal drink the entire decade and states were banning the teaching of evolution. So, not the most fun time after all, but, hey, at least they had flapper dresses.
So, if the 1920s was no golden age, then when can we turn to? Again, there is no simple answer here. So, let’s just say we rewind a few decades to before all this stuff that was making everyone nervous, car, refrigerators, radio, whatever, nothing was invading the home, and whiskey was widely available. How about the late 1800s?
America had just built the transcontinental railroad. The frontier was conquered. Industry was booming, and America was great except there was this disease that everyone seem to have, something truly frightening, and it was called neurasthenia.
David Schuster: Chronic headaches could be a neurasthenia. Insomnia, especially characterized by racing thoughts, that was considered neurasthenia. Chronic diarrhea and indigestion, that was also considered potential neurasthenia.
Jason Feifer: This is David G. Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not done?
David Schuster: Impotence, people blamed that on neurasthenia, as well as for women, amenorrhea and a certain sense of baroness would be blamed on neurasthenia as well. People didn’t use the term stress in the late 19th century. That’s a 20th century term, but they used the term anxious and anxiety. So, when people would worry about problems they had no control over, that could be neurasthenia.
Jason Feifer: Whew! That is a lot. Anyway, this is David-
David Schuster: Chronic back pain, joint paint, that was also considered to be neurasthenia. So, just about any part of life that was unpleasant, whether it be someone being plagued by morbid thoughts, an inability to control their thoughts, an inability to go to sleep or an inability to control their body like get simple erections, those were all considered symptoms of neurasthenia.
Jason Feifer: This is David G. Schuster, author of a book called Neurasthenic Nation. The neurasthenia diagnosis basically went like this. At the turn of the century, people believed that nervous energy kept us physically and mentally vibrant, but as life became faster and busier and noisier with the growth of cities and the expansion of the railroad, there was a pervasive fear that all of our newly busy lives were sapping our nervous energy.
When this happened, we got sick. We had neurasthenia, which is to say neurasthenia was a nostalgia narrative transformed into a disease. So, I asked David, “What was actually happening to people who were suffering from neurasthenia?” Because if someone went to the doctor with chronic headaches and constipation, neurasthenia wasn’t the problem, but something was happening to them. It was a real ailment, right?
David Schuster: So, ultimately, if someone is neurasthenic, it’s not so much a condition in which they blame themselves or neurasthenia, so much as people see neurasthenia as a result of modern life. So, they can talk about it and say, “I am neurasthenic. You’re neurasthenic,” but it absolves them of the personal guilt of doing things that would cause their health to go down.
Jason Feifer: When I heard David say this, something clicked in my brain because I thought, “Whoa! Wait a second.” I remember reading something exactly like this, but written in modern times. It was a 2016 cover story in New York Magazine, which said, “Put down your phone.” That was what was on the cover. Its author was Andrew Sullivan, and he wrote this.
Andrew Sullivan: If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchiole infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. My doctor dispensing one more course of antibiotics finally laid it on the line.
“Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?”
Jason Feifer: The story is really just Andrew recounting his internet-fueled personal breakdown. He was working constantly. His blog was an ever-hungrier beast that needed to be fed, and the nonstop chore destroyed his body and his personal relationships, but the parallels to neurasthenia are just fascinating.
I mean, here you have a man clearly working too hard, whose health was suffering as a result, which is a real thing, but upon finally reaching a breaking point, he absolved himself of guilt by blaming the technology. To get away from the technology, he went to a meditation retreat center, which is actually where a lot of the story takes place. He called it the ultimately detox. That is just deeply ironic because, well, take a guess what the lasting legacy of neurasthenia actually is.
David Schuster: Neurasthenia in the late 19th century happened at the exact same time you have the growth of professional medicine, you have the development of medical schools. It’s not simply professional physicians, the growth of the American pharmaceutical industry. The late 19th century and the early 20th century was the golden age of patent medicines. So, you had a number of drug companies that would put powerful drugs into bottles. Cocaine and alcohol, for instance, would give you energy. Opium and alcohol will deaden pain and help you sleep.
You also had parts of the economy that glommed on to neurasthenia because they offered relief from modern life. You have the rise of the tourist industry in America, the idea being that you get out into wild, you get out into the open air and it restores the body’s vitality.
Jason Feifer: So, here’s what happened. In the late 1800s, tuberculosis was the most lethal disease in America, and for a while, people thought it was inherited, which made it feel noble. As a result, a network of western resorts popped up to pamper people as they died, but then we discovered that tuberculosis wasn’t a noble inheritance. It was actually a bacteria that you can catch, which made the disease seem yucky and not worth pampering.
So, these resorts and the whole marketplace that had developed to serve tuberculosis patients switched their marketing materials. They started catering to the overworked businessmen and society women who were suffering from neurasthenia. That is where America’s leisure economy comes from, and it’s where Andrew Sullivan’s meditation retreat came from, and it’s where there is still a thriving marketplace today, which was captured nicely in this Good Morning America segment called How and Why You Should Go on a Digital Detox Vacation.
Speaker 14: Disconnection upon them, which is a little bit crazy, frankly, if you think about it.
Speaker 15: No cell service and no WiFi is starting to mean no vacancy. With a 300-person waiting list, this converted fire tower in rural Oregon costs $200 a night, more than 400 a night on this island in the Caribbean or 2,000 a night in Alaska to really, really shut it all out.
Jason Feifer: So, okay. The late 1800s was no golden age, and now, we must ask our question again. When did the people of this time think the golden age was? The answer says David Schuster was the time before the civil war.
David Schuster: They were looking squarely at the pre-civil war America, a nation in which the majority of Americans were still working on the land, working in farms, living in rural communities.
Jason Feifer: So, that is where we go next, to a golden era before this great nation tore itself apart where we find many people making a rather familiar complaint.
Harry Watson: The republic that the framers had created back in ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s had decayed, and that somehow we strayed away from the role of the founders and that we want to get back to it.
Jason Feifer: This is Harry Watson, a Professor of History at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Even then, mere decades after the constitution was signed, a large portion of America felt that we had already strayed from what our founding fathers intended.
Harry Watson: One of the people who said that we were declining most loudly was President Andrew Jackson, and he wanted to get back to the good old days by increasing Democratic opportunities for ordinary White men.
Jason Feifer: This is still a foundational argument today, right? I mean, yeah, there’s the part of protecting ordinary White men, but I mean this more generally, too. You can find it in politics, in religion, and basically any system that tells a specific story of its founding. The argument goes like this. One or multiple people created a system, and they had a vision that was clear and pure, and now, today, we have strayed from it except for, of course, me, the person telling you this story, for I know exactly what the founders intended, and that makes my mission as equally clear and pure as theirs.
Whenever I hear this argument, I always wonder the same thing, which is, I mean, fanciful, but what would happen if we could bring James Madison or Jesus or whoever back to life and say, “Do you approve of what this person here is saying?” Because I’m guessing they would say, “Absolutely not. That person is not understanding what I meant.”
Then what would happen? Would our modern profits and politicians say, “Oh, shut up, James Madison and Jesus. I know what you said better than you do.”
Well, here’s the thing. The pre-civil war era is actually a very interesting test case for this weird thought experiment because while people were laying claim at the time to what the founding fathers intended or did not intend-
Harry Watson: Some of the framers are still alive. James Madison, for example, who is virtually the author of the constitution. He’s in very old age, but there are plenty of people around who knew better, and a lot of them said some, but what Jackson believed and what a lot of his followers believed was that ordinary people understood the common good a lot better than guys who’s White, and so you just couldn’t tell people that this was not something the framers had approved of.
Jason Feifer: Wait a second. Let me make sure that I understood correctly. Are you saying that people would say, “We have to get back to what the founding fathers intended”?
Harry Watson: Yes.
Jason Feifer: A founding father who was still alive was like, “Actually, you are not properly representing what it was that I intended,” and the people were like, “It doesn’t matter. We’re getting back to what we think you intended.”
Harry Watson: Yes.
Jason Feifer: There is a shocking amount of insight contained in this moment. First of all, it shows how flexible the concept of truth is. There is what’s true and what feels true, and people seem willing to embrace them equally. Also, this whole thing about the founding fathers just so perfectly illustrates our complicated relationship with our past. As individuals and as cultures, we put a lot of weight into our origins. We tell a story of where we came from as a means of explaining or validating where we want to go.
If our origin story is an inconvenient fit with our goals, we don’t humble ourselves and adjust our goals or challenge our beliefs to fit this origin story that we hold in such high regard. No. We just change the origin story. We treat our origin less like a blueprint and more like the steering wheel of a car. It’s like whoever gains control of it can dictate the direction we travel.
So, okay. Let’s recap. A large faction of people today romanticize the 1950s, and the people of the 1950s romanticized antebellum America, and antebellum America romanticize revolutionary America, and who now were the revolutionaries romanticizing? Well, the British empire sure wasn’t going to get the nomination.
Harry Watson: Jefferson at that time before the revolution started would talk about the ancient Saxon constitution of England as being far superior to anything that existed in his lifetime, and among the fact that we couldn’t seem to be able to get back here. Benjamin Franklin said two more things.
Jason Feifer: Which means it is time to leave America, and with it our modern era as we continue our quest to pinpoint exactly when the good old days were. The suspense is high here, I know. Will we find a golden age inscribed on a parchment somewhere telling tales of abundant meat and meat pies and no anxiety or strife? When will the greatest moment in humanity be revealed to me? There is a lot more history to unwind I promise you coming up after the break.
All right. We’re back. In this episode, we are, of course, searching for exactly when the good old days were starting with the nostalgia narrative that gripped so much of America today and then looking backwards and backwards for an era where everyone who is alive at the time said, “Yes. Now is the best time,” instead of being consumed by nostalgia for another time prior to their own.
Just before the break, we learned that American revolutionaries looked to the Saxon constitution of England as the good old days. So, that means it’s time to leave America and head over to Europe and see what those people thought about their own time. Before we do, I want to step back for a moment to look at the big picture.
First, of course, I need to acknowledge this little experiment of mine. It’s following only one culture’s line of thinking. Different cultures have different stories. For example, if we rewound history but stayed on the American continent, we had, of course, eventually reached a time before European settlers ever arrived when pre-contact native cultures were thriving, and did they carry nostalgia narratives? The answer is complicated.
I asked this of Walter Fleming, a Professor of Western and Tribal History at Montana State University, and he says it’s impossible to generalize because there were just so many different cultures at the time. In general, no. Their cultural narratives were often rooted in a sense of destiny and sometimes in an inevitable cycle of growth and destruction, and so they thought about their place and time very differently than we do. Though, after European settlers arrived and a growing America kept marginalizing and destroying these native cultures in the lands that they relied upon to survive, a new religious movement called the Ghost Dance grew in popularity in the late 1890s, and that very much was a nostalgia narrative.
Louis Warren: The movement had at its center of vision of an Earth renewed.
Jason Feifer: In other words, all is lost and it’s time for the reset button. It is a nostalgia narrative born out of trauma. That audio, by the way, was of Louis Warren, a Professor of Western US History at the University of California Davis that I found in a YouTube documentary. This makes me think. The question of whether a culture has a nostalgia narrative may really be a question of whether that culture needs a nostalgia narrative.
Stories can be a way to process trauma or to make sense of things that don’t fit into our understanding of the world. Is that so bad?
Alan Levinovitz: They offer an easy solution. They offer assurance that paradise is possible because it already happened in the past.
Jason Feifer: That doesn’t sound so bad. That was Alan Levinovitz again, by the way. He is the Associate Professor of Religion at James Madison University, who you heard at the beginning of the episode, and he’s also studied how nostalgia impacts cultures. So, what is wrong with easy solutions? Well-
Alan Levinovitz: They identify clear villains in the causing of suffering and, of course, demagogues who want to gain power quickly, exploit those kinds of narratives instead of having to do the slow hard labor of thinking about complicated situations and trying to address them using expertise, and not making everyone happy and not telling people that you have a simple answer. It makes it easier to rise to power if you believe in that kind of narrative even if it’s an illusion.
Jason Feifer: There is no shortage of historically bad actors to point to. Hitler, Pol Pot, they loved the good old days, but you don’t have to go that extreme. Nostalgia narratives can also just lead us to counterproductive solutions. For example, Alan says-
Alan Levinovitz: There’s a concern about, say, what may or may not be rising rates of autism or ADHD, and that’s a legitimate concern. We need to know how to deal with that. Nostalgia says, “Well, let’s look at the things that we have now that we didn’t have back then.” Fluoride, there’s one, and it’s modern-sounding, and it’s scary, and it’s a chemical, and the nostalgia narrative tells us, “Well, let’s take that out. That must be the culprit.” Of course, it’s entirely possible the fluoride is the culprit for something. There’s oodles of chemicals that have destroyed the world or destroyed the environment with lots of modern things, but that nostalgia narrative predisposes us to judge modernity harshly when what we want to do is judge it objectively.
Jason Feifer: What is the result of that kind of thinking? Well, let’s go small scale and big scale. Here is the smallest, stupidest scale I can think of. In the middle of the pandemic, I remember coming across a popular line of prepackaged salads that made a point of saying really big on the label that they were handmade. I saw this and I thought, “Why would I want someone’s hands all over my salad during a pandemic?”
In fact, why would I want someone’s hands all over my salad before or after a pandemic either? What could possibly be better about a salad that’s someone has touched versus one that’s made by a robot, assuming robots make salads. I have no idea. Also, not to belabor the point, but did you hear about this?
Speaker 19: Two people in California are suing Maker’s Mark. They claimed the company is lying by saying its bourbon is handmade. The say the whiskey is made using automated processes with little to no human involvement.
Jason Feifer: Maker’s Mark, more like Faker’s Mark. That was in 2015, and those two people sued for $5 million because they said they’d paid more for the whiskey because they believed it was actually made by hand, which, okay, is probably just one of a bazillion garbage lawsuits that take advantage of the legal system, but, also, it is not unreasonable to think that someone would pay more for something because it is handmade because, otherwise, why would Maker’s Mark and that salad company be putting the word handmade on their labels in the first place? The market is speaking here.
So, again, it begs the question, why is the word handmade appealing? The answer, as I guess, is because it harkens back to a time before because that’s how they did it in the good old days. That’s why. It’s nostalgia driving irrational decisions. By the way, that lawsuit was thrown out.
If you expand at this outward far beyond what our perfectly fine but questionably marketed salads and whiskeys, you will find a distrust of modern solutions that are driving a very real marketplace for charlatans to sell people a bunch of goop. If you expand way, way, way outward to the big, big, big picture, what you find is this.
Johan Norberg: So, there’s no need to look for novelty, innovation, surprises. Rather, it’s something to be frowned upon.
Jason Feifer: That is Johan Norberg, a Swedish author and historian of ideas, whose latest book is called Open: The Story of Human Progress. He’s saying that if a culture believes all of its answers come from the past, then it no longer has an incentive to innovate. By way of extreme example, he points to ancient China from 1,000 years ago. It was a wildly innovative society far out ahead of Europe on innovations, and war, navigation, science, communication, but then as its culture begin to fracture in part because of outside aggressors, its response was to turn backwards.
Johan Norberg: So, they began to throw out novelty. They abandoned international trade and instead looked at the old books and purged them of all novelty, of all the ideas that came from other places and suddenly became more of a confusion orthodox state, and that led to 500 years of stagnation.
Jason Feifer: That brings us nicely back into our quest through history, the tracking back of the good old days from modern America to wherever it takes us. So, when we last left off, the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were longing for the days of the Anglo-Saxons, 700 years before their own time.
Now, the Anglo-Saxons are what we call the Germanic tribes who lived on the island of Britain from roughly the years 500 to 1066, and was this a golden age as Thomas Jefferson imagined it to be? There is one word to answer this, and here is that one word. Vikings.
Andrew Rabin: So, you’re living in this world in which these brutal pagan invaders are constantly destroying your crops, killing your family, wrecking the religious institutions that define your life. So, there is this strong nostalgia for an age before the vikings came.
Jason Feifer: That is Andrew Rabin, a Professor of English at the University of Louisville, a medieval expert and a frequent guest on this show. Andrew says that when the Anglo-Saxons did have a moment to themselves, when they were not too busy getting slaughtered by vikings, they often crafted a specific kind of poetry.
Andrew Rabin: One of the most popular surviving genres of Anglo-Saxon poetry is the genre of the elegy, the lament for the past. It’s a common feature in these poems to find a passage that we call the Ubi Sunt passage, the where are those who once were with us passage.
Jason Feifer: In other words, it’s like make the 10th century great again poetry, and here’s what it sounded like.
Andrew Rabin: You ready?
Jason Feifer: Yeah. Hit me.
Andrew Rabin: [foreign language 00:38:38]
Jason Feifer: That is really the greatest party trick of all time.
Andrew Rabin: Thank you very much. It’s a beautiful language.
Jason Feifer: That’s from a 10th century poem called The Wanderer. Here’s what it says.
Speaker 22: Where has the horse gone? Where the rider? Where the giver of gold? Where are the seats of the feast? Where are the joys of the hall? Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior! Alas for the splendor of the prince! Alas for Instagram, and how it has made us so vain.
Jason Feifer: Well, I made that last part up. By the way, the vikings, this was their golden age. I emailed Benjamin Hudson, a Professor of History and medieval studies at Penn State to ask if the vikings of the time also left writing expressing nostalgia for days of Yore and he said, “Nope. They seemed to be enjoying themselves pretty well.”
Though, after the classical viking age had passed, there was a lot of nostalgia for it. Apparently, the Norwegian king Magnus III or Magnus Barefoot started putting together a Norse empire explicitly because he longed for the good old days of raping and pillaging.
So, where to next? The Anglo-Saxons were driven by nostalgia, but their nostalgia wasn’t exactly rooted in a particular time. “Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the mailed warrior!” That doesn’t have a calendar date attached to it, and even if it did, most of the Anglo-Saxon’s predecessors have been lost time. We just don’t know that much about them.
So, instead, let’s take a little side step here. A few centuries after the Anglo-Saxons, you had the renaissance in Europe, and you might imagine that the renaissance was a golden age, all that art, all that literature, all that philosophy, super good stuff, right? A total golden age except-
Sarah Ross: The renaissance is also the era of the plague, which hit not only in the mid 14th century as most people know but kept coming back every 20 years throughout the renaissance era to about 1700.
Jason Feifer: I didn’t know that. So, the renaissance was just constant death.
Sarah Ross: Pretty much constant death, yeah, for one reason and another, and grew some more pretty much all the time. There might have been a 10-minute period in which there was peace.
Jason Feifer: This is Sarah Ross, a History Professor at Boston College. Perhaps in part because of these regularly scheduled plagues and wars and death, the people of the renaissance were obsessed with the past.
Sarah Ross: They were absolutely ancient worshipers, and the golden age was an idea in their mind.
Jason Feifer: This manifested in a super interesting way. So, okay. When Sarah says that they were ancient worshipers, she means that they were worshiping the classical Greek and Roman thinkers. This obsession was so powerful that you could literally move up in social class just because you studied them.
Sarah Ross: Supposing you’re a pharmacist, let’s say, if you manage to get one way or another, by hook or by crook, some contact with classical antiquity in your education, and you’re displaying in your shop some even translations of Cicero, you have a higher status person come in to your establishment and they said, “Oh, wait. You’re not just a grunt who works with their hands. You’re interesting. Let’s have a conversation.”
Jason Feifer: The next thing you know, you are going to class your parties, and making class your friends, and marrying up. Anything was possible when you worshiped the ancients. So, here is where it gets really interesting because renaissance writers were so obsessed with the ancients that they actually imagined communicating with them.
Sarah Ross: It’s a really strange sense of these people in the renaissance talking to the past, having maybe heated conversations with the past.
Jason Feifer: Sometimes these conversations went south. The renaissance scholar Petrarch, for example, idolized the ancient Roman writer Cicero. So, Petrarch went digging into monasteries to find Cicero’s old manuscripts in search of more Cicero wisdom. What he found instead were a lot of Cicero’s private letters, which revealed Cicero to be the kind of a political hack. Petrarch did not take this discovery well.
Sarah Ross: I mean, he literally writes letters to Cicero saying, “You jackass!” I’m paraphrasing here. “I idolized you. I thought you were the perfect philosopher and statesman, and now I discovered that you’re just a jerk like everyone else.”
Jason Feifer: This is but one example. The renaissance is full of people writing letters to and arguing with dead scholars. I really like this because weird as it is, it actually feels so healthy. Think back to what happened in colonial America or even America today, where we either totally lionize someone from the past or we totally misrepresent them.
Some people will call themselves an originalist while staking out their own personal claim over old wisdom, but renaissance writers, they try to confront their heroes. They recognize that something isn’t better just because it’s from the past, and then they got upset about it.
So, anyway, all of that is to say, was the renaissance the good old days? No. When did those people think the good old days were? Well, ancient Rome, for one. So, off we go now to ask, did the ancient Romans think that they were living in a golden era? The Roman historian Tacitus can offer us an answer. He told the tale of the Roman empire from its beginning to his time in about 100 BC, and he liked to drop big hot takes.
Alex Dressler: So, he’s constantly saying, “I’m sorry for telling you about yet more murders that the autocratic emperors have committed against their own subjects and more rapes, and more sexual perversion, and more records of excessive dining, eating, and sumptuary practices.
Jason Feifer: That’s Alex Dressler, an Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Wisconsin Madison. He says Tacitus was not alone here. The Romans had a narrative about themselves and it went like this. The more money and power we have, and the more technologies we create like switch systems, the more our nation becomes indulgent and lazy. So, the Romans like to look backwards to a time before all that. Here is Alex paraphrasing Tacitus.
Alex Dressler: Historians of earlier times could talk about war and expansion and great speeches, but you have to write what you’ve got, and this is what I’ve got.
Jason Feifer: It’s an interesting echo of today, actually. We often talk now about how modern life makes us lazy, how Google makes us stupid, and Facebook makes us lonely, and all of that. It turns out, it is an old complaint. So, if the ancient Romans didn’t think they were living in the good old days, when did they think the good old days were? Alex says the answer folds in on itself because Romans were always just obsessed with earlier Romans. So, the good old days were just more ancient Rome.
So, in that case, I am just going to throw a historical Hail Mary here. Let us go back literally as far as we can go, back to the beginning of writing, to the earliest possible records we can find of humans consciously recording themselves and, therefore, the first chance that humans had to record for all of history the ups and downs of their world. Let us go back to Mesopotamia, to the culture that literally invented writing in about 3,500 BCE because if these people thought the good old days came before them, then I guess that’s the ballgame.
So, I called up Eckart Frahm, a Professor of Assyriology at Yale University, and he says that at the beginning of humanities written record, there’s really no talk of the past at all, but-
Eckart Frahm: As they move forward in time, the sentiment that you’re interested in and I knew that there might have been times much better than the times people were living in, that sentiment seems to have become much stronger.
Jason Feifer: There it is. As soon as we started telling our own story, we started looking backwards at it with longing.
Eckart Frahm: We have quite a few texts that make that quite explicit, where we find this idea of the golden age expressed in very clear terms.
Jason Feifer: For example, in the late third century BCE, a Babylonian priest named Berossus wrote a story about the beginning of time when a monster with a body of a fish and a human head and feet popped out of the water and started talking. Here, Eckart reads a bit from the story.
Eckart Frahm: This monster spent its days with men never eating anything but teaching men the skills necessary for writing and for doing mathematics, and for all sorts of knowledge, how to build cities, found temples, and make laws. It taught men how to determine borders and divide land, also how to plant seeds, and then to harvest the fruits and vegetables. In short, it taught men all those things conducive to a settled and civilized life. Since that time, nothing further has been discovered.
Jason Feifer: Nothing further has been discovered? Of course, that is not true. These people developed new types of agriculture and plows. They made huge leaps in science. They devised a numerical system based around the number 60, which is the reason that we today have 60 seconds in a minute and 60 minutes in an hour. They had technology, and that technology made their lives better, but still, the Assyrians of thousands of years ago yearned for the knowledge that came before them.
We have surviving clay tablets from this era in which people have wrote to Assyrian kings requesting that they dig out old magical recipes from ancient libraries to make medicines and cure all sorts of ills, and just like today, this blind belief in the wisdom of our forefathers led to immediate abuse.
Eckart Frahm: Some priests actually used this nostalgia of their kings, this yearning for knowledge about earlier times, they used it in order to advance their own interest of, for example, getting more donations to their temples by forging inscriptions of earlier times.
Jason Feifer: This, the past, is our everlasting weakness. So, let’s recap. Many Americans today think that the good old days was the 1950s. The 1950 romanticized the 1920, who romanticized before the civil war, who romanticized the revolution, who romanticized the Anglo-Saxons, who romanticized some abstract time earlier and while after that, the renaissance romanticized the Romans, who romanticized previous Romans, who romanticized previous Romans, who, anyway, it goes on like that for a while. Eventually, we’re at Mesopotamia, where people are using cuneiform to write golden age narratives on clay tablets and priests are forging old documents for profit, except for the vikings, who were having a rampage and good time, and the Native Americans, who saw the world as driven by destiny. The pattern here is clear.
No matter the time period, no matter the level of suffering or accomplishment, we kept saying that something before us was better than we are as if we gave up on our ability to build a better tomorrow. We are so hard on ourselves. Why? The people I spoke to for this episode had a lot of theories about why. So, here are three of them.
Number one, we use the past as evidence that we can achieve a better future. Even if we’re talking about a golden age that never existed, that fiction is useful because it says that we were great once and we can do it again.
Number two, the past represents our birthright. If we say that our forefathers had something and it was lost, then it means it is ours to regain. It means that we are owed this, and that is a powerful feeling, especially if you come from a culture that was once dominant but no longer is.
Number three, the idea that things were better before is at the very core of our foundational texts. Adam and Eve is a golden age story. Long before that, the Mesopotamians had their wisdom spouting fish-man.
So, what can all of these teach us about today? Today, a time dominated by its own nostalgia narratives, where a golden age was so powerful that it may shape American politics for generations, what do we do with that? Well, I turn now back to Alan Levinovitz. He’s the guy you heard a few times from in this episode talking about the nefariousness of nostalgia narratives. Truth be told, I first connected with him because he was so good at demonizing the nostalgia narrative. He had written a piece for Aeon about how terrible these things could be, but after we talked for a while about the dangers of nostalgia, he admitted something to me. Something changed in him recently.
Alan Levinovitz: I used to think that the way to undermine narratives that distort is to just rub people’s faces in it, just show them, force them to confront their own irrationality, and I’m no longer convinced that that’s a good way to go about it because these narratives, especially the nostalgia narrative, they’re often born of great pain, and when you walk up to someone who is in great pain and rip away from them the key story that is keeping them from dissolving into a puddle of suffering, you’re messing with people.
Jason Feifer: Yeah, fine. It can feel satisfying for a moment. You come in with your logic and slam it against someone else’s narrative, and you can walk away feeling intellectually superior, but Alan makes a good point. Is that constructive? Does that do the job?
Alan Levinovitz: It’s like when Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens tears into the irrationality of religion or Freud or Hume or whoever because people have been doing this for centuries, I think it’s very important when you do that to be cognizant of the fact that you are walking into someone’s home and ripping up their most sacred book. I don’t know that I want to be that person anymore, and I was for a long time.
Jason Feifer: So, then how do you replace someone’s narrative without taking a narrative away?
Alan Levinovitz: You gently and tactfully allow them to take away their own narrative at a pace that won’t cause pain. I mean, I think all revolutionaries are eager, right? I was eager in that Aeon in that piece, right? I’m fantasizing, “Well, I’ll just write an incontrovertibly good essay. I’ll just rip nostalgia instantly away from everyone,” but, of course, that doesn’t happen. Revolutions are violent and bloody and often when they are over, the revolutionaries have nothing to fill the vacuum that they’ve created.
So, we either have to be patient and work slowly at the parts of the narratives that are most pernicious and work gently and tactfully and lovingly with the people who believe them or we have to be damn sure that when we rip that narrative away, we have something awesome to fill its place.
Jason Feifer: Like I mentioned at the beginning, I originally made this episode in 2016 just as the phrase, “Make America great again,” won an election. Four years later, its legacy is obviously a lot more complicated than a simple issue of nostalgia and a romanticizing of the past, and it is hard to meet some of the worst tendencies of that movement with Alan’s tenderness and understanding. I think his point should still be taken to heart. Well, to explain why, here is one more moment from history.
The word nostalgia was coined by a Swiss physician named Johannes Hofer in 1688. He combined the Greek nostos or homecoming with algos or pain to get nostalgia, and he classified it as a disease. The 17th century medical explanation for nostalgia went like this. There are vital spirits in the brain, and when someone is always longing for their past, then the vital spirits are surging in the part of the brain where those images from the past are located, and because of that, the vital spirits can’t make it to the other parts of the brain, the parts that are required to do tasks today.
This was concerning for soldiers out at war. That is where most of the early medical interest was focused, and because the concept had come out of Switzerland, many people started to associate nostalgia with the Swiss, which made everyone fear Swiss soldiers would now be perceived as weak. So, in 1705, another Swiss doctor tried to explain all this away. He said that when Swiss soldiers descended from the mountains, the increase in atmospheric pressure impacted their brains in such a way that it created the nostalgia. So, nostalgia wasn’t just a disease of the brain. It was a condition inflicted by outside forces.
Why do I tell you this now? Well, because consider what those old doctors got right and what they got wrong. Nostalgia is a disease. That is obviously not correct, but nostalgia inhibiting growth and progress, that actually was right. Something to be ashamed of? No. It’s actually quite understandable, but something that is caused in part by outside forces? Yes, though, not an increase in atmospheric pressure by descending of the Swiss alps, but it is often caused by shifts in the things we can’t control.
This is what Alan was saying, that a nostalgia narrative is the story that people tell when they are in pain, and there’s no easy cure for that. Certainly, the cure isn’t to just rip the story away.
Alan used the word revolution, and there has been a real revolution after all. It was a massive shift in industry and technology and jobs, and it did, and continues to make very many people feel left behind. So, just like the many cultures and people we explored in this episode, plenty of people today are thinking to themselves, “Today doesn’t have a lot to offer me,” and you cannot convince them otherwise with logic and argument. You convince them otherwise with opportunity, replacing an old narrative with a compelling and exciting new one that is complete with experiences and a chance to grow, which means that we have our work cut out for us to build those great things and those equitable things, and to also build on-ramps to those things so that people can see gain where they once saw lost.
I suppose the idea is this. There was no golden age, but who cares? What we have all anybody has ever had is now. We are alive now. We can create things now, and will our work culminate in an actual golden age forever looked back upon by future generations who wish for what we were able to create? Who knows? Maybe not. Yet, what else can we do but try?
That’s our episode. Hey, you might be wondering to yourself, “Is there a nostalgia narrative developing in me?” I have an interesting way to think about that. First, if you liked this show formerly called Pessimists Archive and now called Build for Tomorrow, then please join me in spreading optimism. Subscribe and tell a friend about the show and sign up for my newsletter, which is all about how to find opportunity and change. You can get it by going to jasonfeifer.com. That is Jason, J-A-S-O-N, Feifer, F as in Frank, E-I, F as in Frank, E-R dot com. Hey, follow me on social media, on Twitter or Instagram. I am @HeyFeifer. If you DM me, I promise to reply. Links to all this stuff are in the show notes.
This episode was reported and written by me, Jason Feifer, sound editing by Alec Belus. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com. The voice actors you heard in this episode were Gia Mora. You can find her at giamora.com and Brent Rose. You can find him at brentrose.com. This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts, and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea.
If that is you, then get in touch with them. Proposal for projects in law, economics, history, political science, and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org. Again, that is cki.org.
All right. Now, a final word to bring the past and the present together. As I said many times, this episode was originally created into 2016, and in late 2020, a book came out called Open: The Story of Human Progress, and it included a very nice reference to the original version of this episode. Then an excerpt from that book with the very nice reference ran in the Wall Street Journal.
So, when I decided to remake this episode, I thought, “Well, I got to include the author of that book,” and that, of course, was Johan Norberg, who you heard from a little bit earlier. During our conversation, Johan made this really interesting point about how we each personally can develop a nostalgia narrative about our own lives. He says that there’s an easy way to see it, and it’s in kids.
Johan Norberg: Kids coming back from summer holiday and they’re being asked, “So, give me a list of what was good and what was bad,” and they’re comparably, almost similarly long at least, and you ask them again six months later, and then suddenly the good things that they remember from their summer holiday is much longer. When you ask them again 12 months later, it’s basically only good stuff that they remember. So, they don’t remember their summer holiday. They remember their idealized version of a summer holiday.
That’s the same thing with us as individuals as well. Even if you went through war, even if you were to prison, people tend to polish their past and remember if not the good things, at least the important things, and people tell you, “I wouldn’t want it to be without this episode in my life,” because that’s part of what made them into what they are.
Jason Feifer: You know what’s so fascinating about what you just said there, which I hadn’t thought about in quite this way is I often think of nostalgia narratives as a pessimistic thing. Just to say that we are discounting whatever good comes today in favor of yesterday, but the way that you just framed it with the summer camp thing makes me think that what we are actually doing is we’re filtering for good. There’s a kind of optimism to it. We’re always filtering for what the good experience was, and we always want the good experience.
Then the challenge, of course, is that we know the good experience from the past, and we don’t know if they’re good experiences going forward. So, we become stuck and drift towards what we knew instead of what can know, but all the same, I feel like what you’re describing is a tilt towards optimism, misguided as it may be.
Johan Norberg: Yes, in a way, that’s a hopeful conclusion because we’re all constantly building our personal narratives and trying to explain who we are, how we became what we are, and what to do next. Then it’s hopeful that we’re trying to see what happened in our past that was important and turned us into what we hopefully think are fairly decent human beings.
So, it’s not entirely a pessimistic thing. It’s more like a way of creating a decent personal narrative and identity for ourselves, but that’s what it is. It’s a personal narrative. It’s a fairly decent feeling. It can’t be a governing philosophy.
Jason Feifer: So, now, off you go, every day growing more nostalgic for the time you heard this episode. Thanks for listening. I am Jason Feifer, and let’s keep building for tomorrow.