Andy Schmookler: I can’t escape nostalgia for America I grew up in
There’s much about how the world has changed in my lifetime for which I’m deeply grateful.
Many of the great technological advances, for example, have fed the very domains in which my hunger is greatest.
For someone driven, as I’ve always been, by curiosity – the quest for knowledge and understanding – the internet is like something magic out of a fairy tale. So many of the questions that arise continually can be answered swiftly.
That same technology has enabled me to share my own thoughts with others in a way that would have been impossible even 25 years ago. It has been a godsend.
And for someone whose family and friends are spread across the continent – like me – having a cellphone on which there’s no additional charge for a long distance call enables me to maintain a strong connection with people I care about but can see only occasionally. (And to see my grandkids on Facetime!)
So I am aware that, in important ways, these are “the good old days.”
But I find that these days I cannot escape nostalgia for the America I grew up in. Certain changes in the nation signify such important loss.
I was born a year into Truman’s presidency. Which means that I was born into an America that had been led for 12 transformative years by a president ranked by historians as either the second or third greatest in our history. And that also means that my childhood – into mid-adolescence – was spent in a nation presided over by two other presidents (Truman and Eisenhower) who both rank in the Top 10.
From 1933-1961, we had great leaders.
And how the world saw us then! Among my strongest political memories of my boyhood are the scenes of President Eisenhower being greeted when he visited nations abroad – the enormous cheering crowds along the streets as his motorcade passed, enthusiastic not just for him particularly as a war hero but as the man representing the heroic nation that had done so much to free the world from under the boot of fascist tyrants.
What American patriot would not feel the pain of loss, and a sense of nostalgia, when now – with our current president – fewer than one person in five among the peoples of our closest allies have confidence in American leadership?
With nostalgia, there’s always the danger of romanticizing the past. But I have not forgotten the dark side of that earlier era.
There was, for example, the Senator from Wisconsin – Joseph McCarthy – a demagogue who exploited the anxieties of a nation that had just been through a World War only to enter a cold war against a nuclear-armed adversary, an opportunist who whipped up excessive fears and ruined lives just to seize the spotlight and aggrandize himself.
The Jim Crow regime of segregation continued to subdue a whole race of people into powerlessness, without heed to the Constitution’s post-Civil War guarantee of “equal protection under the law.”
But despite such darkness, there was the clear and justified sense that we were a nation that could address such problems, and become a steadily-better America.
- McCarthy was brought down, by the American sense of decency.
- Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, progress was made in conferring basic civil rights onto all our citizens.
- Social Security was making it possible for older Americans to complete their lives with some dignity.
- The rights of workers – now better protected by law – were enabling millions of blue collar workers to bring their families into the middle class.
- Living standards were rising for all, and more and more Americans were getting better educated.
- Corporations showed some sense of responsibility to the wider society.
- The sense that “we are all Americans” was widespread.
- The United States was the recognized “leader of the free world.”
Problems remained, of course, but the experience of several decades gave reason to assume that we could continue to make progress on whatever we as a nation set our minds to do.
How does that compare with today?
- The workers have much less power vis a vis their employers, and accordingly their earnings are a much smaller part of the economic pie.
- The gap between the richest and the rest is the widest any of us have ever seen, and the political forces in power are working to widen it still further.
- The middle class is being hollowed out.
- Laws with the purpose – and the effect – of taking away people’s right to vote have become widespread among the states.
- The power of Big Money in our politics has grown greatly, and the power of the people correspondingly diminished.
- Higher education has become out of reach for more American families.
- Racists and neo-Nazis are emboldened and wielding more power in our political process.
- The American people are increasingly divided by hostility surrounding partisan political differences.
- Our traditional allies are not looking to the United States for leadership, while the influence of both China and Russia are on the rise.
Nostalgia is doubtless a tendency of older generations, who observe the world of their youth give way to inevitable change. But when the changes are such as these, how can one not be nostalgic?
Andy Schmookler – award-winning author and former candidate for Congress in Virginia’s 6th District – is writing a series titled “A Better Human Story,” which can be found at http://abetterhumanstory.org.