“In My Day…” The Wickedness of Today and the Idealised Past.

How many times has anyone heard that sentiment: “It didn’t used to be like that in my day” or, “When I was young people had more respect”, or “Things used to simpler and a lot less complicated..” or to hark to the loony-tunes-religious-right “We’re living in the end times…”.

No really, people actually believe that, something to do with there being lots of natural disasters, or insane crime rates, or religion is being persecuted, or there is a black president or whatever insane rationale they use.

But I digress. That “things are worse today” is probably a sentiment most people have heard, many people have probably even expressed such sentiment themselves.

Is it actually true? Are today’s’ times so much worse than “in the old days”? (Whenever they were.)

I’ve always taken issue with this sentiment, partially because I think it’s just a gross generalisation, but mainly because I think it’s just flat out untrue. So let’s cast a historical perspective on it and see where it goes…

Firstly, there needs to be one thing established: Things change.

This is unavoidable, nothing lasts forever. Not relationships; be it marriages or families or friends, not governments, not personalities, not even countries or religions. Nothing is “too big to fail” in the historical sense, it’s just our view across time is limited by the fact that our existence in time is limited. For us, we can’t imagine a world without our current countries, our civilization without all its cultures and nuances.  I’m sure the Romans felt the same way, the ancient Egyptians as well, I’m sure the medieval Papacy couldn’t conceive of a time when religion would not hold sway over the kingdoms of men or the Chinese of the 18th century believing those barbarians in their sailing ships could possibly be any kind of threat or have anything to offer.

Far from the world staying the same, the historical precedent is the opposite. Things change. It seems like something simple, but wrap your heads around it for a moment: One day, there won’t be an Australia as we know it, A United States, a Christianity or an Islam. I’m willing to put a cash bet down on this, law of averages means at some point in the future, that bet will pay up.

The rub to this is of course, that when you are living in times of change, if indeed you are, you probably won’t know it and if you do, you probably won’t grasp the magnitude, whatever it is, of those changes until much after, maybe in your lifetime, maybe not even then. One of my favourite history podcasters; Dan Carlin said it best when he posed the question about the Roman Empire –  When the Last western emperor was deposed, did anyone actually realise that the world as they knew it was gone and utterly changed? Probably not, people just got on with their days and might have said “in my day….”

Change established we should establish another fact: We do live in extraordinary times. In our lifetimes, humanity has left the planet and walked on the moon, we have robots; 2 in fact; rolling around Mars right now sending happy snaps. We are using nuclear technology in lots of different fields, not to mention weaponry which is powerful beyond anything our ancestors could have imagined. We are creating microscopic machines, computers that can think for us, medicine and science has reached into fields unheard of, we even have credible research into making it possible to stop human beings from aging.

The last fact to have in mind before we look at the golden days of ages past is our access to information. We have a lot of it, if there is a volcano in Iceland; you know about it within hours, if there is another school shooting in an American high school, you can watch it live, as many of us did when we saw that second plane fly into the towers of the World trade centre.  Accidents, robberies, rapes, child abuse, murders, wars, genocides and natural disasters all coming at you, 24/7, 7 days a week, 365 days a year in as near to real time as we can get it.

Pretty bad eh?

Do we live in dark times?  Sure we do. Are these times worse than the past? Hell no.

As you go back in time with your changing global perspective in mind, all of those terrible things mentioned above happened then as they happen now. In fact some things were worse: Today we condemn genocide, in the past, it was common practice, today we can cure diseases that in the past wiped out millions. Today we understand there are differences in people and cultures, religions and ways of thinking, in the past, we burned witches and conducted crusades. Today we understand people have mental illness, in the past we called a priest for an exorcism, cast the demons out or abandon the afflicted.

But terrible things DO happen today and here is where our access to information comes into play: we know about them. When Genghis Khan made a pyramid of up to 70,000 heads from defeated enemies, when he killed every man, woman and child in one particularly recalcitrant city, then diverted a river over it, then salted the fields so that nothing grows there to this day, there were no cameras, no interwebs. When a couple of Roman legions were slaughtered in the forests of Germany, sacrificed alive and others had their heads nailed to trees, no cameras and no interwebs. When 80,000 Roman sailors drowned in a storm off the coast of Italy, no cameras, no interwebs.  When the “black death” wiped out almost a 3rd of the populations in some areas; that’s right, the cameras weren’t rolling, and you couldn’t see it on YouTube. I’m listing major events here not minor events because that’s the point, we don’t know about the minor ones.  But does anyone think that they weren’t going on? We know about these major events because records have survived, but they are so far removed from our own temporal radar that these things never factor into the “in my day….” equation, to say nothing at all of the allowance that all the nasty things that make the news today were also probably going on back in the glorious past but we simply have no records of them.

Another point to consider here as well is that our definition of what is indicative of “the bad times in which we live” has changed. As I said earlier, things change and so do what societies view as acceptable or not. Things we consider criminal now, child labour, domestic violence, rape, paedophilia were not criminal at various times in the past. Conversely, things that were criminal: homosexuality, religious sedition and blasphemy, sodomy and divorce (in most cases) are not usually criminal anymore; “In my day we had kids working in the coal mines” hardly brings back nostalgia for the golden ages of yore.

So next time you’re about to throw out that statement about how you wished you lived in simpler times or are afraid the world is going to hell, stop and give pause and consider the past. If you are still not convinced, turn off your TV and internet and avoid any form of media for a month, the world will seem a much simpler place.

You can amuse yourself with nostalgia for simpler times at the following websites:






~ by benephobia on September 3, 2010.

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