Mitchell’s Musings 6-13-16: It’s not true that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

11 Jun 2016 1:16 PM | Daniel Mitchell (Administrator)

Mitchell’s Musings 6-13-16: It’s not true that nostalgia ain’t what it used to be


Daniel J.B. Mitchell


Nostalgia is pretty much what it used to be. There has been much criticism of the Donald Trump campaign slogan – “Make America Great Again” – essentially on the grounds that it neglects those things in the past that weren’t so good. But the tendency to romanticize the past, and to ignore its nasty bits, is near-universal and has long existed. Think of the continued popularity of Gone with the Wind and its romantic view of the anti-bellum Old South and slavery.


The latest example I have come across in the past-was-great school of thought was an op ed in the Los Angeles Times entitled “You’re reading the Bible wrong.”[1] The theme of the piece is that the Bible is really “humanity’s diary.” Let’s put aside the fact that much of humanity has other religious traditions. The scholarly authors of the op ed argue that the Bible really is an attempt to codify behavior as humanity switched from being hunter gatherers to participants in complex agrarian societies. Evolution didn’t make us good citizens of such complex societies, according to the op ed’s authors. We are really hunter gatherers by nature.


…If many of us today feel a sense of longing for paradise, it is because we live in a world for which we were not really made. Our innate psychology prepares us to live in small groups of mobile hunter-gatherers, virtually without property, where brothers are each other’s best allies, where the need to share everything cuts down on competition and conflict as we struggle to survive against nature, where men and women are nearly equals, and where we do not have to rely on abstract laws to sort out conflicts. The Bible therefore reflects enduring human concerns hailing back to our days as hunter-gatherers: We hate injustice, despotism and excessive wealth and yearn for belonging, for community and for a peaceful life...


It is perhaps unkind to note that the view of the authors’ of the op ed of hunter-gatherer societies is an updated Biblical Garden of Eden in which none of today’s problems – money grubbing, conflict, sexual and wealth inequality – exist. Never mind that in such societies you died at an early age of various diseases, or maybe were eaten by some wild animal, or maybe were killed by some other tribe in the forest primeval.[2] The op ed’s utopian view of human nature back in the day as inherently peaceful is a twenty-first century fantasy version of the old Noble Savage. Britannica.com defines that ideal for those not familiar with it:


Noble savage: In literature, an idealized concept of uncivilized man, who symbolizes the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilization.[3]


You can also find the Noble Savage idea in the Marxist view that the human race in the distant past lived under “primitive communism.” In the long run, according to that view – and with a little push from those cognoscenti who understand the “scientific” laws of history – we will get back to a utopian modern version of our original state of nature. In the meantime, of course, there may have to be some pain and sacrifices. Millions were killed in the name of that idea. Many others died for it.


In short, it isn’t just old white males without college educations who are, or who will be, attracted to slogans such as “Make America Great Again.” Academics and scholars are prone to it, too, if the idea is put in the right terms. There is a broad appeal to a return to a wonderful past across the political spectrum. The more realistic idea of voting for candidates who will - more likely than not and despite their faults - incrementally push things in the direction of improvement is just not so catchy.


So don’t expect Hillary Clinton to have a cakewalk into the White House. And for Gone with the Wind fans longing for the past, here’s some background on cakewalks:


The cakewalk was a pre-Civil War dance originally performed by slaves on plantation grounds. The uniquely American dance was first known as the "prize walk"; the prize was an elaborately decorated cake… Plantation owners served as judges for these contests…[4]


Ah, those Good Old Days.

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[1] http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-van-schaik-michel-how-to-read-the-bible-20160610-snap-story.html  

[2]UCLA Prof. Jared Diamond: “Traditional nomadic tribes often end up abandoning their elderly during their unrelenting travels. The choice for the healthy and young is to do this or carry the old and infirm on their backs — along with children, weapons and necessities — through perilous territory. Also prone to sacrificing their elderly are societies that suffer periodic famines. Citing a dramatic example, Diamond said Paraguay’s Aché Indians assign certain young men the task of killing old people with an ax or spear, or burying them alive. ‘We react with horror at these stories, but upon reflection, what else could they do?” Diamond asked. “The people in these societies are faced with a cruel choice.’” Source: http://newsroom.ucla.edu/stories/jared-diamond-on-aging-150571 [Underline added.]

[3] http://www.britannica.com/art/noble-savage  

[4] http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/12/23/256566647/the-extraordinary-story-of-why-a-cakewalk-wasnt-always-easy  


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