If you visit Hagley Park in the West Midlands of England and go to the large 18th century home of the Lyttelton family, it’s a great place to visit. If you reach the 19th century, you drive half a mile to the east and you will see an exotic and impressive sight as soon as you come out of the trees. In front of you is what looks like the ruins of a Gothic castle. There are four corner towers, but only one is still standing, with loopholes and a crossing stair tower. The rest is reduced to one or two floors and the wall that connects them collapses. One begins to wonder what ancient history this place could have told, and one wonders what impressive building once stood here.
The answer is no. The ruin was built in the middle of the 18th century. It was built in this way at the end of the 19th century to give the impression that the beautiful medieval castle had fallen into disrepair for several generations. The reconstruction of ruins was fashionable at the time for the European aristocrats. They used dilapidated castles and monasteries to create an imaginary and romantic past. Hagley Park is a selective and artificial version of history, just like the politics of nostalgia that is so popular today.
In many countries people long for the good old days. When asked whether life in their country today is better or worse than fifty years ago, 31 percent of the British, 41 percent of Americans and 46 percent of the French say it is worse.
Psychologists say that this nostalgia is natural and sometimes even useful: Confirming our identity on the past helps us gain a sense of stability and predictability. For individuals, nostalgia is especially common when we experience rapid changes, for example during puberty, when we retire or when we move to a new country. In the same way, collective nostalgia – nostalgia for the good old days when life was simpler and people behaved better – can be a source of shared strength in difficult times.
The madness of Hagley Park Castle in England dates back to the 18th century. Century built to look like medieval ruins.
But when exactly were the good old days? Podcaster
an episode of the pessimistic archive dedicated to this subject. If you want to make America great again, he thought, you have to wonder when America was great. The most popular answer seems to be the 1950s, which is why Feifer asked historians whether Americans were particularly happy with that decade. Certainly not, they said. In the 1950s, American sociologists were concerned about the unbridled individualism that tore families apart. There are serious racial and class tensions in the country, and everyone lives under the real threat of immediate nuclear destruction.
Indeed, many in the 1950s felt that the good old days should have been found a generation earlier, in the 1920s. But in the 1920s, a pioneer in child psychology…
warned that with the increase in divorce rates, the American family would soon cease to exist. Many people idealized the Victorian era, when families were strong and children respected their elders. But at the end of the 19th century. In the 19th century, Americans were concerned that the abnormal pace of life caused by railroads and telegraphs had led to a new disease, neurasthenia, which could manifest as restlessness, headaches, insomnia, back pain, constipation, impotence, and chronic diarrhea.
Since the invention of writing in ancient Mesopotamia 5,000 years ago, people have been longing at least for the good old days. Archaeologists have discovered Sumerian cuneiform tablets that deplore the fact that family life is no longer what it used to be. One of the panels tells the shivering story of a son who spoke with hatred of his mother, of a younger brother who challenged an older brother who spoke with his father. The other, almost 4000 years old, contains a nostalgic poem: Once upon a time there was a snake, a scorpion……. /The whole world, the nations in unity / [the god] has praised Enlightenment in one language.
Why are people always so homesick for bygone eras that seemed difficult and dangerous for those who lived through them? On the one hand, we know that we have sailed in the past – otherwise we wouldn’t be here – and so, in retrospect, they seem smaller. But we can never be sure that we can solve the problems we have today. Radio didn’t destroy the younger generation, but maybe the smartphone did. We didn’t bomb the planet during the Cold War, but who can say with certainty that we won’t do it this time?
Another reason is that historical nostalgia is often coloured by personal nostalgia. When was the good old days? Is it a coincidence that in your childhood you experienced an incredibly short period of human history? An American study shows that people born in the 1930s and 1940s think the 1950s are America’s best decade, while people born in the 1960s and 1970s prefer the 1980s. In the 80s, the popular television series Happy Days was a nostalgic version of the 50s; today, the popular series Stranger Things is easily associated with the fashion and music of the 80s.
When we distance ourselves from past events, we tend to remember them more positively.
This nostalgia has neurological roots. Researchers have discovered that we encode more memories in adolescence and early adulthood than at any other time in our lives, and when we think about the past, this is the moment we most likely return to. We also tend to remember past events more positively when we distance ourselves from them. When students returning from the summer holidays are asked to make a list of what was good and what was bad, the lists are almost uniformly long. If the exercise is repeated after a few months, the list of good things gets longer and the list of bad things gets shorter. By the end of the year, the good things had completely banished the bad from the students’ minds.
Clearly, some things were actually better in the past. But our instinctive nostalgia for the good old days can easily deceive us, with dangerous consequences. Nostalgia for the past and fear for the future impede experimentation and innovation that stimulate progress and create miracles that the next generation will eventually long for. Like an English inventor.
observed in 1679: When a new invention is made, everyone is against it in the first place… Not one in a hundred [inventors] survive this ordeal.
Petty was right: Vaccinations, anesthesia, steam engines, railways and electricity encountered strong resistance when they were introduced. Many feared that the bicycle would produce a generation of humpers, because the cyclists were bent over all day and sat on the saddle of a bicycle, making the women sterile. Female cyclists were also warned not to develop a cyclist’s face: As they clenched their jaws and concentrated their eyes to balance on their two wheels, their facial features threatened to freeze in an unflattering grimace.
It’s not about showing how stupid previous generations were. Today, we share the same concerns about innovations such as the Internet, video games, genetically modified organisms and stem cell research.
And not all fear of the future is unfounded: New technologies cause accidents, disrupt traditional cultures and customs and destroy old jobs by creating new ones. But the only way to learn how to make the best use of new technologies and reduce risks is by trying to make mistakes. The future will not be a utopia, but neither will the good old days.
-Mr. Norberg, historian of ideas, senior researcher at the Cato Institute. -Mr. Norberg, senior researcher at the Cato Institute. This essay is taken from his new book Discover : A history of human progress, published by Atlantic Books.
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