By Alan Jay Levinovitz
‘Make the world great again!’ thunder the prophets, religious and secular alike, who know our need for mythic comfort in the face of unjust reality. And so, with a paradoxical mix of pride and self-loathing, humanity tells the same story again and again, about the fallen present and a potential return to paradise past – to Hesiod’s idyllic golden age, Confucius’s beloved Zhou dynasty, the Hindu Satya Yuga, the Garden of Eden, grandpa’s garden, grandma’s kitchen – when we were authentic and pure, God’s children, noble savages, hunter-gatherers, off-the-grid, on the farm, keeping promises, respecting elders, healthy and happy – back to the good old days.
Longing for the past is generally referred to as nostalgia – a gentle, tender feeling that might make these stories seem like nothing more than harmless sentimentality. But it is crucial to distinguish between wistful memories of grandma’s kitchen and belief in a prior state of cultural perfection. The latter form of nostalgia currently serves as the ideological foundation for political movements like Greece’s Golden Dawn, which calls for a return to Hellenic glory via radical right wing nationalism, and ISIS, which waxes rhapsodic about a distorted Islamic golden age. This alone should serve to make us warier of nostalgia’s dark side, which, I fear, is badly underestimated, and wreaks havoc not only in politics but also medicine and anthropology. Far from being harmless, ‘the good old days’ is a virulent falsehood that infects those whose intellectual defences have been weakened by fear and insecurity. It is easily weaponised by power-hungry propagandists who seek to replace nuanced discourse with patriotic platitudes, and diverse ideologies with homogenous tribal nationalism: Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler, the Ku Klux Klan. In its endless incarnations this myth has shackled people’s thoughts and actions to the promise of a fiction, facilitating evil on all scales, from everyday racism to the greatest human rights catastrophes of the 20th century. Faced as we are with yet another global epidemic of golden age rhetoric, the time has come to inoculate ourselves against the good old days once and for all.
Believers in this fairy tale insist that back then – whenever then was – everyone felt content with their existence. Acknowledging that the real-life protagonists of golden age myths themselves pined for an earlier golden age would spoil the story, or at least ironise it. But they did: the ancient Chinese, the ancient Greeks, the ancient Egyptians, Americans when America was great, even the pre-agricultural innocents that populate the romantic fantasies of Montaigne, Rousseau, and their modern Luddite inheritors. ‘In the days when diseases were still unknown and human beings were unacquainted with suffering,’ begins a myth of the South American Bororo people, recounted by anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss in The Raw and the Cooked (1964). It was wonderful back then, the myth goes on, until a teenage boy violated custom and refused to live in the men’s hut, whereupon his grandmother farted repeatedly on his face while he slept, setting off a tragic chain of events that released diseases into the world. If only kids had followed the old rules, no suffering! (Maybe if we follow them today?) Indigenous peoples from every continent tell similar stories, of a time when pain was unknown and the acquisition of food required no labour. Given the cross-cultural and trans-historical pervasiveness of the golden age archetype, it’s a good bet that the first story ever told was a legend about immortal cavemen who cooked bigger woolly mammoths over warmer fires.