Nostalgia for America's past is great, but we need to ditch the rose colored glasses

Published December 21, 2023

By Rob Schofield

Like a lot of middle-aged-to-older Americans during the holiday season, I’m a person with a healthy nostalgic streak. The people at Meta regularly do a good job of extending my visits to Facebook by peppering the feed with images of old sporting heroes and ballparks, and especially at this time of year, fun photos of mid-20th century families with amusing hair and strange outfits gathered around Christmas trees and family dinner tables.

And through the magic of the internet, it’s possible to relive any number of moments from my television-drenched childhood and youth – especially for a sports nut like me, old ballgames, auto races and tournaments that comprised so much of the fabric of my life before the responsibilities of adulthood intervened.

The other night, with my wife away visiting our daughter, I reached for a dose of nostalgia by finding and starting to watch the recording – commercials and all – of a late-1960s football championship game that I’d vaguely remembered from the haze of my pre-adolescence.

Wow, I thought, was this going to be a blast!

The thrill lasted about five minutes.

What I quickly discovered and then remembered was a hard fact about so much of the early decades of sports on television: it was, in a word, terrible. The cameras were clunky, and the video quality was mostly lousy. The pre-game show – even for a big championship game on a national network — was amazingly lame and uninformative. Even the broadcasters calling the game – who I had remembered rather fondly — were mostly dreadful. Lacking technology, they often couldn’t tell what was happening on the field and regularly fell back on clichés and plain old guesswork.

And after I clicked back over to the 21st century and pondered the matter for a few minutes, I was reminded that the trivial topic of sports TV is far from he only field of endeavor in which nostalgia for the past is, for most of us, a function more of our yearning for lost youth than an accurate recollection of genuine quality.

Oh sure, one mustn’t paint with too broad of a brush. History, both near and distant, is replete with all manner of genius and brilliance when it comes to entertainment – as well, of course, in politics, philosophy, literature and all other forms of human creativity.

But it’s also vitally important – especially in this present era in which a large and frequently virulent movement seeks to overhaul the national social contract based on the premise that our country has fallen and must be “made great again” – to accurately recall that many, many aspects of American life, in addition to televised football games, were decidedly inferior in the last century.

Think about it.

In countless areas of life – in the things we did and could do, the things we could consume, the experiences we could have, the knowledge we had of other nations and peoples — life for most Americans was vastly more limited, even stifling.

A huge proportion of Americans were blindly addicted to tobacco and dying at mindboggling rates from heart disease and cancer (which was almost invariably a death sentence). Most automobiles were seatbelt-free death traps and drunk driving was widely viewed and portrayed as a humorous lark.

Meanwhile, a half-million Americans had been displaced to a pointless and primitive overseas war while a terrifying nuclear arms race raged with a hostile totalitarian dictatorship.

And while it’s true that the modern political far right has taken a deep and deeply worrisome plunge into racism, nativism, sexism, and homophobia, truth be told, those things weren’t even controversial for the majority of white adults in the 1960s.

In 1968:

  • George Wallace won five southern states running as an avowed racist and segregationist.
  • RFK and MLK were assassinated.
  • LGBTQ people risked arrest if they admitted who they were.
  • Married women couldn’t get a credit card in their own name.
  • Huge swaths of North Carolina were poor, insular and blatantly segregated.

Indeed, unless you were a white man of a certain age and status, America was, effectively, an autocracy in that era.

None of this is to say or imply that everything is peaches and cream in 2023. Anyone who opens their eyes can see the enormous and frightening challenges that we face today – some of which, like the climate emergency and related environmental threats, are existential in nature. There’s no denying that the 8 billion people who crowd our planet have made and inherited some enormous messes.

It is to say, however, any real hope we may have for successfully coping with these challenges (and maybe even overcoming them) is to be found in embracing progress – in science, in peacemaking, in extending democracy and human freedom — while looking and moving forward, not backwards.

In short, there were many wonderful things about life in 20th century America, just as there were in previous centuries. But if we remove the rose-colored glasses and look honestly at how things really were then and are now, we ought to realize how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.