Looking Back

One of the standard comments one hears when listening at keyholes is that old farts like me pine for a golden age and waste their time on this earth wishing those times would come back. I hasten to disagree. Heartily! As one of those old farts who looks at current events somewhat askance, I can say with no fear of contradiction that there never was a golden age and that I, for one, do not wish that days gone by would return.

At the same time, those of us who level criticism at current events have a legitimate concern that something precious has been lost in our notion that progress is invariably a good thing and restraint is a burden. At times they are not. Take the Victorian age, if you will.

I am perfectly aware that the Victorian age in England, to focus exclusively on that country, was an age of terrible suffering for a great many people. Poverty was rampant, child labor was commonplace, as was the lowly esteem in which women were held. Many were the woes of the period that Virginia Wolff and others in her Bloomsbury Group  were quick to note — as was Charles Dickens. Still, there was something there beneath the surface that was worth preserving and it has been lost. I speak of the restraint of many people and the sense of the obligation that a great many of the wealthy felt toward those who depended upon them for their livelihood. We stress rights without regard to the fact that rights, except in the case of children and the mentally challenged, necessitate responsibilities. In the Victorian age this was not the case: rights took a back seat, for a great many people, to the responsibilities that they felt for their fellow humans and their determination to help realize the “common good.” There was about that age a sense that the future depended on the good behavior and the accordance with duty of those who lived in the present.

In a word, I look back not to pine after a golden age that never was, but to try to see what it is that we have lost and to determine whether it is even possible that some semblance of that sense of what truly mattered can still be salvaged. In the process I take comfort in the fact that the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb spent her life studying the Victorian Age and concluded many of the same things I have concluded while I merely skimmed along the surface of knowledge about an age she knew so well. It’s not so much that she agrees with me, but that I find myself agreeing with her. She must therefore be right. It follows, does it not?

In sum, looking back can be justified only if it helps us to see things more clearly and in the process also enables us to understand ourselves and our age a bit better. There was never a golden age. But there were times when certain things that no longer matter mattered a great deal — and had we not tossed them aside  those things might have made us a better people, not to mention also a happier people, than we are at present.

In any event, those who know nothing of the past, and especially those who think the past somehow “irrelevant,” are not in a position to criticize those who look back in order to see more clearly what lies around them. And they shouldn’t dismiss out of hand those of us who think that much that is going on around us could be so very much better if there remained a semblance of those values that were held dear in the distant past. Progress may or may not be a good thing. But it happens. What matters is that we measure it carefully against what is being lost in the process. I don’t want to live in an age of slavery, child labor, debilitating illnesses that can now be cured with a pill, or an age that fails to allow that women are entitled to the very same things as men. But I don’t like living in an age of chaos and violence that centers around a shriveled-up self and takes no account of others or the responsibilities we all have to our fellow humans. It’s a question of keeping one’s bearings and finding a balance.

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12 thoughts on “Looking Back

  1. Hugh – sounds like you are extolling the benefits of an escape from current events, by pursuing some favorable comparisons 😉 – I get the same feeling of escape by watching Star Trek, Voyager, my go-to good place. Cheers – Susan

    • I have tried to shut off the din from current events — not always successfully. There are other issues that I can deal with intelligently. Current affairs seem to me to be a bit surreal!

  2. Hey Hugh, first let me state that is a clear and concise argument on looking at change through a short historical perspective from 1840 to now. Having said that, and realizing why you choose to point out some of the “virtues” that were part of the Victorian age and  no longer in evidence today, I want to talk about the argument for looking back.

    Quote: “Progress may or may not be a good thing. But it happens. What matters is that we measure it carefully against what is being lost in the process.”

    This hinges on what we consider progress. From what I see, any change boosted by technology today is considered progress. What if it is a regressive change when looked at beyond the strictures of capitalism’s greed and profit motives? Or beyond its entertainment value for the muggles? From a longer and deeper perspective?

    Many decades ago, when I was running for office and promoting a sort of democratic socialism, I had to deal with an inimical, right-winged, conservative press. The paper was called “The Chilliwack Progress” and I would call it, in my speeches, the Chilliwack Regress. I would read their editorials and demonstrate why I called it that. It supported “industry” and “development” and the concept of “broadening the tax base” while opposing controls over urbanization of agricultural lands. On the surface of things, the “Regress” was progressive and we were the ones holding back progress. But as George Monbiot points out so often in his articles, what constitutes “progress” today? Are current technological advances in computer and AI development, real progress?

    I believe that we are losing both, our natural environment, dangerously so, and our humanity, or humaneness. We are trading in our heritage for a mess of pottage.

    All that said, I concur with you that we need to recover some of those values that were, if not always or enough, evident during the Victorian era. It wasn’t a golden age, not by any stretch of imagination, but neither is this one and the future in this one does not bode well.

    • I always use the word “progress” with my tongue firmly in my cheek. It is a word that is bandied about these days but which very few bother to analyze. You have and I thank you.

  3. Well said, Hugh.

    On Sha’Tara’s comments about technology, I think we have to look at it with the same balanced view you looked at the overall picture. Certain aspects of technological advances are very worrisome. But technological advances also have led to innumerable advances in health care and medical science, to consider just one field.

  4. Hugh, the best line from Billy Joel’s “Keeping the Faith” is “the good ol’ days weren’t always good.” I would add history deserves perspective. In Tom Brokaw’s review of the “Greatest Generation,” this was the same period of Jim Crow. So, very few stepped up to say this is wrong.

    What I like about your posts is there are lessons to be learned from history. Yet, too often we don’t. Here is one – no occupying force has ever succeeded in Afghanistan. Here is another – Presidents who spend too much time accusing the media of maltreatment have something to hide. It is that simple.

    Keep on typing Professor. Keith

  5. It all comes back to ‘balance’, Hugh, and I agree. There were some good things in every age and ours is no exception. I think that treating each other with civility is necessary to find balance. I have never thought that we should all agree about everything because I don’t think that any individual or group has a monopoly on truth and wisdom. We arrive at the common good by establishing a balance between differing viewpoints; and how is compromise possible without mutual respect and civility?

    It used to be that societies looked to their senior citizens for advice and for wisdom. The elderly held an esteemed place in those societies. Regardless, we the seniors of today still have the responsibility to teach and to guide. And this is what I see you doing on your blog, Hugh. This is good. Please don’t stop.

  6. Good post! It rather reminds me of being a parent. Your child grows up and now you have a best friend, someone with whom you can talk about anything and everything, and no more diapers or worries about spoons stuck in electrical outlets. And yet … you rather miss those late night snuggles, reading bedtime stories … the fun part. There’s a trade-off, just as there is when a nation or a society grows as a result of ‘progress’.

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