I’m not very old. But I’ve been around long enough to have experienced some shit. At thirty-six, I’ve been an adult for half my life—if you accept our society’s arbitrary age at which we supposedly reach adulthood—and I’ve watched the world around me evolve. By “the world around me,” I mean the place I live, the people in it, and my relationships to both. I describe it as “evolving” because those relationships are in a constant state of flux. Sometimes I feel nostalgic for a world that used to exist but has disappeared. I find myself reminiscing about the “good ol’ days.”
My friends and I had a lot of freedom “back then” before the “good ol’ days” evolved into something… else. Our parents let us get on our bikes and explore the city from trails in the mountains all the way to where the creek met the lake. We broke branches from trees to mess with rattlesnakes in the mountains and hunted crawfish that darted amongst rocks in the murky waters of the creek. We forgave each other for insults more lost to memory than the fights we had to resolve them. We made a comfortable world for ourselves—one that felt safe.
But nostalgia is a harsh mistress. My friends and I were raised by parents whose patriarchal heteronormative perspectives on life informed our own. It’s easy to get lost in the worldviews of the people who raise you. It’s harder to adopt worldviews to which you have no exposure. Indeed, Marx was probably right when he observed, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Most of us were so prejudiced during my “good ol’ days” that some of our friends hid their sexuality because they correctly assumed that, if they came out to us, we would ostracize them. The “good ol’ days” were based on a morality of rejection, not of acceptance or even tolerance. We had to grow up and experience more of the world before (some of us, at least) could see the flaws in patriarchal heteronormativity and develop our own worldviews.
Now me and the people I grew up with are raising kids of our own. We probably aren’t aware of the prejudices we’re passing along; that’s for the next generation to decide. But when my older son’s friend came out as bisexual to his family and friends recently, everyone kind of shrugged their shoulders and said, “OK, cool.” That wouldn’t have happened in the “good ol’ days.” My son’s friend would’ve either stayed in the closet or risked ostracism or worse by coming out. I’m happy we don’t live in that world anymore. I’m happy we’ve evolved. I’m not so sure the “good ol’ days” were as good as I remember.
This is why I find it so problematic when people appeal to the “good ol’ days” in political conversations. Following in the steps of Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, we historians usually ask if people aren’t guilty of “inventing tradition” when they insist that we should return to a past they consider better than the present. When I personally feel nostalgic for some aspects of my own past, I take a step back and adopt a critical perspective, and I see how darkness crept around every corner of the “good ol’ days.” I’d have to ignore that darkness and invent tradition to justify any return to my past. In the end, trying to “make America great again” might prove a truly foolish endeavor. I’d rather look at how young people are shaping our present to respond to the problems of their times. We helped create those problems, after all. We may as well support their efforts to solve them.