OUR NATIONAL EX / OH COMELY

They don’t make them how they used to. There’s nothing good on the television. The music teenagers listen to now is terrible. The high street has changed beyond all recognition. We used to have intelligent public discourse in this country. It never snows at Christmas any more. Politicians are unreliable careerists. Where have all the proper movie stars gone. Public transport is a nightmare. Children no longer have any respect for adults. The novel is dead. It rains all the time. It doesn’t rain enough.

The past may or may not be a foreign country, but it is certainly a warmer one. It’s like one of those balmy tropical islands where it always seems to be tee-shirt weather. You never need a jacket in the past. You never have to turn on the central heating. You can always sit outside at a restaurant, day or night. Any struggles you had eventually got dealt with, one way or another, and it was never really all that boring, scary, or difficult. Not like now, of course.

Our faulty memory concerning everything behind us – the tendency to filter out the bad and prosaic and just recall the good – is an entirely natural response to our own ageing. We yearn for how alive we once felt, for how bright the world once seemed. The bus queues, twitter spats and disappointing breakfasts of today can’t possibly compare to some hazy, ill-remembered Arcadia. As we feel nostalgia for a lost midsummer, just out of reach, we project that displeasure onto our environment, but it’s crucial to understand that it isn’t the world that has dimmed, it’s us.

The problem with feeling this way is when those with nefarious ambitions attempt to marshal the sensation for their own aims. Nostalgia is inherently dishonest as an ideological platform, ignoring the reality of both the past and the present. We exist in a country where we’re healthier and live longer, where violent crime and infant mortality have been going down for decades. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t significant challenges facing us this century, but we flatter ourselves to believe that everything has been getting worse. When things are difficult, and they certainly have been lately, we should recognise that a sense of apocalyptic foreboding is not unique to our time.

There’s an obvious appeal to a political candidate who promises to bring back yesterday, but the inescapable truth is that yesterday isn’t coming back, and it wasn’t all that good to begin with, especially if you had the audacity to be born poor, or a woman, or into any sort of minority. When someone talks about taking back their nation, or regaining sovereignty, or making their country great again, they are exploiting a deep, untrustworthy ache, trying to sell us on the idea that if we just accept an oppressive, inhumane agenda then we can go back to a golden age.

Except the golden age never existed. Humanity lives with a permanent sense of decay: you can read the words of people in every stage in our collective history who complain that something has been lost, that life was better just a little while ago, and now it is worse. This is an emotional response instead of an intellectual one, ignoring societal progress in favour of self-indulgent fatalism. We venerate the past because we don’t have to live there, but in our adulation we do a disservice to the present. The past becomes like an ex whose negative qualities you have conveniently forgotten because you’re lonely. And it is never a good idea to get back together with your ex.

Do we want to try to go backwards, back to a place we remember as being better than it actually was, or do we want to forge a path ahead? In A Bright Room Called Day, Tony Kushner’s painfully relevant play on Berlin in the early 1930s, he wrote:

“Pick any era in history, Agnes.

What is really beautiful about that era?

The way the rich lived?

No.

The way the poor lived?

No.

The dreams of the Left

are always beautiful.

The imagining of a better world”

That better world is ahead of us, not behind, and it includes everyone, not just people who happen to share your exact background. We must head in the right direction, together.

Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four. To read the original article click here.

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