Monday, November 1, 2010

The Good Old Days

I often here people saying how “things were so much better in the past” and how they wish they could “turn back the clock and go back to the good old days”.

So let’s do just that; let’s turn back the clock virtually and revisit some of the goings-on in the ‘good old days’, and see if they were as good as some of us believe they were.

In the ‘good old days’...

...devastating diseases killed thousands of children and adults each year because vaccinations to prevent people from becoming infected with them didn’t exist.

...most cases of child abuse and incest went unpunished because they were rarely reported. These were things that the family did not ‘discuss’, and certainly never exposed to strangers. In addition, hitting children was regarded as an essential disciplinary action that would ‘drive the devil out of them’. wasn’t unheard of for a man to routinely beat his wife to keep her in line. If you were a woman slapped around in the ‘good old days’, you learned to live with it. Society did not begin to pay significant attention to domestic violence until the 1970s.

...addictions like alcoholism were kept behind closed doors. All these things, unpleasant as they may be, were ‘private family business’ that you didn’t share with the neighbours.

...there was corporal punishment in schools that was administered either across the buttocks or on the hands with a rattan cane, a leather strap or a wooden paddle. This type of school punishment wasn’t outlawed in Canada until 2004.

...there was community-sanctioned lynching. People traveled great distances and gathered in mobs to watch victims (mostly African American males who were typically accused of little more than ‘insulting a white man’, seeking ‘out of place’ employment or making ‘boastful remarks’) get hanged. Many times, victims of this vigilante justice (murder) were tortured and mutilated before death. Most, but not all, lynchings did not cease until the 1960s.

...there were zealous communist witch hunts in various U.S. institutions during the 1950s. People were publicly accused of political disloyalty, subversion or treason with insufficient regard to evidence. A few hundred people were imprisoned, and ten or twelve thousand lost their jobs. was perfectly acceptable to bar women and ‘people of colour’ from many professions.

...paying women or ‘people of colour’ less than a white man was paid - in any type of job - was common practice.

...racism was an everyday reality. Segregation, which was very often enforceable by law, existed everywhere: schools, buses, public restrooms, stores, drinking fountains, etc. Even your personal life wasn’t yours to live as you please; interracial marriages were banned in the U.S. until the Supreme Court ruled in 1967 that it was unconstitutional to prohibit these unions. And although Canada did not have formal laws that legalized segregation of and discrimination against African Americans the way the United States did after the Civil War (Jim Crow laws), it did allow communities across the country to practice de facto racial discrimination in virtually all public places.

...people just looked the other way when gays were ridiculed or beaten by ‘normal’ men. It wasn’t unusual to hear about an individual being abused verbally or physically by classmates, coworkers and even family members just for being gay. Up until 1973, the American Psychiatric Association defined homosexuality as a clinical mental disorder.

...employees were often exposed to dangerous working conditions because there were no laws that forced employers to provide them with an environment free of recognized hazards. Injured employees expected little or no compensation, and tort law provided little recourse for survivors of employees who’d lost their lives at work.

...wives were still thought of as personal property, and in many marriages were treated as nothing more than housekeepers, baby factories and servants to their husbands.

...individuals with mental disorders were regarded as defective and incurable, many of them locked away in institutions (referred to as insane or lunatic asylums in earlier periods), some of them for the remainder of their lives. Lobotomies, which are viewed as barbaric in modern times and have since been replaced by psychotropic drugs, were performed in the hundreds from the 1930s to the 1950s.

...many countries enacted laws for the compulsory sterilization of the “mentally ill” and “mentally retarded”, or what many referred to as the “feeble-minded”. Forced sterilization, which is now viewed as a crime against humanity, was carried out as late as the 1950s in Japan.

These are just a few things that were occurring in the past, all within the last century. The good old days don’t seem all that good anymore, do they? Not unless you were a white, adult male that worked in a safe environment. But if you were a woman married to an aggressive man, or a homosexual that had been targeted for harassment, or an African American, life wasn’t peaches and cream. And if you were a homosexual African American living in the south that had been accused of a crime against a white man, well, you were pretty much screwed.

Now, would you really want to go back in time to all this?

And yes, you can argue that a list just as long, if not longer, can be created for all the wonderful things that existed, and were being enjoyed, 50, 100 and 200 years ago. And that there are just as many, if not more, bad things we’re dealing with in the present. But that’s the point of all this; that every era has its good and bad. That every era feels as if we’re taking two steps back for every step we take forward. But would you really want to turn back the clock and give up the freedoms we’ve gained and the medical advancements that have been accomplished?

I sure wouldn’t.

Take occasional detours down nostalgia lane, which is always positive and selective, but don’t make it your destination. Instead, strive to make the future a better place by building upon the good things you’ve learned from the past.

Leave the rest behind.


  1. Indeed. Most "things were better in the old days" thinking seems to boil down to "I didn't know how bad things were in the old days, because it didn't affect me and/or I was too young to understand it." Which is why people tend to idealize life when they were kids: they were ignorant about most of the bad stuff that was happening, therefore it was bliss.

    And it's a natural human tendency for memories to get fuzzy with time, which if you're deeply dissatisfied about the present means that you'll fill in the gaps in your memories with whatever makes the past look better.

    There's no cure for nostalgia like reading some history, but history is taught so poorly in U.S. schools that I swear it has to be a government plot to keep people ignorant about it. (Economics, political science, and literature too. Really anything that might teach people about the past.) Maybe in Canada it's different.

  2. No, we get the same vague education here. If you don't take some time to educate yourself on politics, economics and history, you'll be that dumb person on TV unable to answer basic questions.

    Good and bad in all times - totally true. Heck in my lifetime alone we went from landlines and libraries to google, cell phones and so on. Email was not even around when I was a kid. I do wish we could time travel though, to see what life was really like.

    When I visit really old cities and walk around buildings hundreds of years old, the proportions always strike me as odd, everything generally seems much smaller. I know our houses are the largest they've ever been, but I can't imagine how families piled into tiny houses before.

  3. This is not an easy post to read but an important one. Sure takes the sentimental romanticism out of the 'good old days" l admire your efforts here. We still have a long way to go . . . to grow into a more humane and compassionate society. . . the world society. We still do horrid things but on a larger scale. Nothing new in our time. I like your ending. Right on the mark!

  4. Mr. S, the teaching of history (and other subjects) is no different here. You have to learn a few things on your own, like Tatiana says, or you'll be quite ignorant. And when it comes to history, it can be quite 'selective'; it all depends on who is teaching it.

    Tatiana, I'd love to travel back in time as a visitor only; I'd never want to stay there. I like where we are today and, although we have our problems, would prefer to continue to move forward. There will always be problems; we just have to continue to work on making this world a better place.

    Carol, I don't think we'll ever be entirely humane and compassionate. There will always be bad people doing bad things. But despite that, we must always move forward, always strive to make this a better world for future generations.