Sunday, November 23, 2014

Opportunities and Costs

I was reading a piece on the economic collapse in Greece, and one of the people they interviewed made a really good point:

There are always opportunities in a crisis, and those opportunities always come at a cost to someone.

I think that the same is true in the United States, and it explains some of the desire of people to return to an earlier time - and the opposition to that idea.

If you're a white, older, male Protestant, it's easy to feel (likely because it's at least partially true) that the opportunities that non-whites or younger people or women or non-Protestants have gained since the 1950s have come at your direct expense. And even though these groups had problems back in the 50s, the male WASP society was most insulated from them, and to a certain degree benefited from them, as those problems were part of the cost of the visible prosperity that middle-class America enjoyed at the time. And then, as now, it was easy to look around you, see how things were, and decide that this how it was for everyone - out of sight, out of mind.

But now it's sixty years later. Most people who remember that time firsthand were children, and it's easy to look back with nostalgia at a time when everything was simple, opportunities were limitless and the big questions in life weren't your problem yet. Because now, things are complicated, opportunities must be fought for and it's become really important that we find the "right" answers to the big questions in life. Life, as always, didn't live up to the promise. And people see a return to a misremembered past as another bite at the apple - or maybe their rightful first bite; the one that was taken from them by people who don't respect that the promises that were made to them need to be fulfilled. And so, out of nostalgia, they want to return to tradition and seek "time-tested values."

And in that vein, I guess you could call racial segregation a "time-tested value." I guess that you could call the enactment of civil rights legislation a bad act on the part of "an over-bearing government." And that's really the point behind calling it "nostalgia." There's this idea that "only the good parts" of the past can be brought back and overlaid over the present to create a time where everyone is happy "again." Or you can simply label everyone who understood that the silver lining of the good old days had a dark cloud to go with it as brainwashed.

The time tested values that many people speak of worked really well for a good chunk of the populace - but the rest of the populace paid for it. As people stopped buying into the idea that others should pay for their prosperity, the culture transformed. In some ways, that was bad. Nothing is perfect, not even progress. But change and totalitarianism are not synonymous. I understand that for many older Americans, there is an honest belief that the apartheid regime that existed in the 1950s is one that the non-white segment of the population should embrace, and they're free to make that case. But I don't think that it has much chance of success, because viewing the advantages that non-whites, women, non-Christians and young people have earned through the lens of the Red Scare in order to hold them up as somehow "un-American" isn't fighting for "Freedom." It's fighting to be free to oppress.

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