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The past just isn't what it used to be

Evening Post & Mail
On the Technicolor treatment of the past, safe drinking water, and sneaky attempts to get us to reject the Enlightenment

Almost without exception, life is simpler for children than it is for adults. Children don’t have to worry about mortgage payments, occupational licensing, or paying their taxes. The very few exceptions tend to prove the rule that they are free from anything approaching life-and-death concerns – and when they are, it is often because they have been swept up in the currents of problems which adults have created.
■ When this generally low level of angst is combined with the natural tendency to forget pain and remember good times, there are very few routes straight to adults’ hearts than nostalgia. Fairy tales, period pieces, and oldies radio all tend to exploit the longing for what in retrospect almost invariably seem like simpler and better times in the past.
■ But it would be a gross over-simplification to imagine that human civilization was objectively better-off in those purportedly “simpler” times. There’s no doubt that the modern world is vastly more complex than any time can reflect upon in history. But anyone who has lived through the first decades of the 21st Century has witnessed what is most likely the most gobsmacking period of progress in human history.
■ Smashing progress has been made against evils like child mortality, unbelievable numbers of people have been moved out of abject poverty and into the global middle class, and communications have put people in touch with one another in ways that were completely unimaginable even half a century ago.
■ But those facts don’t stop some people from offering a revisionist view of what they view as “traditional” history. Some of them sneak into conversations by waxing poetic about seemingly innocuous aspects of the past, like sharing pictures of past artistic triumphs and and giving them brighter colors. There is a grain of truth to is: We shouldn’t imagine that the world of the past consisted entirely of black, white, and gray.
■ Beneath the surface, though, when people show off the distant past in a flattering light, they are too often only a short step from advocating for a revival of “traditional” ways that are incompatible with the world our species has made. Astonishingly, there are those who, today, in the 21st Century, try to argue that the Enlightenment was a mistake. Sometimes they say so directly and literally. Sometimes they merely lead others to believe it as a “natural” conclusion.
■ The major peril lurking beneath the social-media posts shared by accounts with officious names like “Cultural Tutor” and “Historical Images” isn’t that they are often staged or misrepresented, though that is often the case, but that they are all too often deliberately intended to sow discontent with modernity.
■ What starts with an innocuous observation – for instance, that people used brightly colored paints in the distant past on objects and architecture that are mostly faded today – can swiftly turn into ludicrous complaints like one that “the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and Modernism have made the Middle Ages almost incomprehensible to us”.
■ This is portrayed as though there were some mysterious lost Middle Ages wisdom we could and ought to recapture, if only we were to reject “the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and Modernism”. Life wasn’t fundamentally better in the Middle Ages; people died of plagues, smallpox, and ordinary infections. They drank contaminated water (a problem humanity barely understood at all until the 1850s. They submitted to the will of unelected elites. They enjoyed neither household refrigeration nor air travel.
■ It isn’t wrong to look at pictures of colorful, ornate architecture from the past. Indeed, even emphatically forward-thinking people can enjoy them. But critical thinkers need to ask, “What is the message someone is trying to send?” and “What part of the story does the picture omit?”
■ No sensible person would reject the civil-rights advancements of the last 50 years, much less those of the last 500. But those advancements don’t show up in gauzy social-media posts about “beautiful” old buildings. Many of the victories of the Enlightenment (and the modern thinking descended from it) have more to do with how people live than what we build. And they are far more important.
■ Simplistic posts that uncritically valorize the distant past and cast aspersions on modernity are much worse than brief indulgences in classic television sitcoms or the popular music of one’s youth. A depiction of classic art restored to its colorful origins doesn’t tell the story of the staggering costs of building things like Gothic cathedrals.
■ Because human culture evolves, we have to trust that there may be some embedded wisdom in the decisions about what our forebears passed down – and what they did not. The process isn’t perfect, but it tends to organically capture the wisdom of a great deal of trial and error along the way.
■ We should certainly look to the past from time to time to see if good ideas got left on the cutting-room floor. But we shouldn’t let anyone fool us into the false belief that some utopian past can and should be recovered, especially not by rejecting the stepping stones that brought about the world of today. As we find good things along the way, we ought to conserve them for our children and grandchildren. And as others are found no longer useful, we serve our descendants well by casting them off.
Ornate, yes. But is it better?
Ornate, yes. But is it better?
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Brian Gongol
Brian Gongol @briangongol

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