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Things were better when things were worse
How nostalgia posting infected our politics
I recently came across a Facebook post that’s archetypal of a certain type of social media sentiment:
Facebook is ground zero for this kind of stuff. It’s boomer-bait, with this particular post clearly being from the UK. Reading through the list, it’s obviously nostalgic for a long-gone time period. It’s insulting and suspicious of other, newer cultures which weren’t prominent back in the day. It’s obsessed with food. In some ways, it’s unremarkable and you’ve probably seen quite a lot of social media posts like it.
Back in my day blogs weren’t delivered right into your inbox by a convenient subscribe button. We went direct to the URL, every time! *harumphs*
But what’s interesting to me is how explicitly anti-progress it is. The implicit tone of the whole list is ‘The past was superior’, but they’re usually talking about the things they didn’t have. Things were better because… we had never heard of pizza or kebabs or sushi. Because we ate ‘anything edible’. Because ‘crisps were plain’. In short, things were better because they were worse.
The virtues of suffering
To some extent this is just normal kvetching about Kids These Days, and how easy they have it. Every generation does this, even as they complain about the last generation doing it. You’ll see millennials post extremely millennial memes about a grandparent’s walk to school uphill both ways stories, while also posting about how great their primitive 90’s kid video game setups were. Simple nostalgia will always exist.
Where this takes a turn is when you start to see to see the claims that advances in technology, culture and society have actually been negative things. This goes beyond ‘Remember this thing we all used to do’ or ‘Remember how much we all liked this particular old gadget’. And this isn’t a claim that things were better because the old thing was objectively superior in terms of choice, quality, capabilities, etc. It’s explicitly a claim that the old thing was worse, that we used to not have nice things, and yet we were all somehow better off for it.
The comments on this one (per usual, from Facebook) are revealing. “Whoop whoop still alive 😎”. “Better without shots or fancy cures”. “I still do it, who needs any more bother”. Reading the comments on these kinds of posts, there’s a pride at having survived a time that was objectively tougher. But more than pride, there are a set of virtues imposed upon the past. We used to work so much harder than kids these days. Men were real men, stronger, disciplined, and more manly. Women were real women, more virtuous and feminine and graceful. “We didn’t have much”, they say, “But by God we were happier because of it.”
Yes, back then we were happier. People were friendlier and more cheerful to neighbors. We worked hard and took pride in ourselves and our communities. These opinions are delivered with rock-solid confidence. And either explicitly or implicitly, there’s a link drawn in these comments between the relative lack of nice things and the ways in which society has changed for the worse. Call it the virtue of suffering. We didn’t have all these nice modern things back in my day, we suffered, and that was good in some ineffable way.
Probably the greatest piece of comedy ever done on this subject is the Four Yorkshiremen by Monty Python. If you’ve never watched this bit before, it’s three minutes that is absolutely worth your time:1
We used to have to get out of the lake at three o'clock in the morning, clean the lake, eat a handful of hot gravel, go to work at the mill every day for twopence a month, come home, and Dad would beat us around the head and neck with a broken bottle, if we were LUCKY!
But you know, we were happy in those days, though we were poor…
As funny as this sketch is, it’s also a broadly correct summarization of the viewpoint of a whole lot of people.
The reactionary politics of nostalgia posting
I’m a fairly political person, but I mostly try to keep things here at Infinite Scroll non-political and focused on social media analysis.2 But you can’t honestly analyze the massive phenomenon that is nostalgia posting and worse-therefore-better-ism without diving headfirst into politics.
Things were worse, therefore better expresses itself in different ways in different countries. There’s a fantastic piece on ‘proper binmen’ that I highly recommend you read about how this plays out in UK discourse. In the UK as with most instances, it’s inextricably linked with political conservatism, nationalism and reaction.
Conservatism itself doesn’t have to be this backwards looking. For all that I think George W. Bush made a bunch of terrible decisions, his politics was forward looking. He argued that tax cuts for wealthy people and regime change in Iraq would make the world a better place - not because it would ‘return us to the old days’, but because it would lead to new advancements in the political and economic sphere. Despite being wrong, he was (for the most part) trying to move forwards, not backwards. But while conservatism doesn’t have to be backwards looking, this backwards looking posting is itself virtually always conservative. And it’s becoming a bigger and more prominent part of the conservative political movement.
You can see how worse-therefore-better infects conservative politics in hundreds of ways, both small and large. You can see it in the rise of Statue Profile Picture accounts on Twitter that relentlessly post about how depraved and weak modern society is, and practically bust a nut looking at old architecture. Sometimes these accounts disguise themselves as just ‘promoting classic works’, but sometimes they say the quiet part out loud:
These accounts barely bother to disguise their nationalist, reactionary politics, because that politics is now in vogue. The most prominent and influential conservative commentators hit these points explicitly. Here’s a video of Tucker Carlson, which I will quote below if you can’t stomach watching several minutes of Tucker speak:
"People who are working for big banks, living in crowded conditions, very often alone, in big soulless cities, having their food delivered by immigrants, and spending their time glued to a screen. What does that sound like to you? It sounds like prison, actually."
"Who are the people who oppose this? Where do they live and how do they live? Well, they are poorer generally on paper. But are their lives worse if you live in a place where you can see the sky? Where you can make your own food? If you can go outside and identify three species of trees or hear birds, or experience silence, the rarest commodity in the modern world. Those are the people who are not with the program.”
Tucker admits that technically, we’ve gotten richer. And even in his rant against modernity, he admits that the modern world has nicer things and better technology. But it’s ‘soulless’. He later calls people who live with these conveniences ‘enslaved’. You won’t have as many nice things, but you’ll have vibes that Tucker thinks are superior.
Brexit in the UK and Trump in American politics are two of the most obvious examples of this at national scale. The campaign for Brexit was woefully short on the practical economics of the situation, but it was vibrant and rich in describing how glorious the return to a pre-EU existence would feel. And this strategy of ignoring reality for nostalgic vibes worked - Take Back Control was such an effective catchphrase it has its own Wikipedia page. And as the UK was leaving the EU, we all know that Trump was promising to Make America Great Again.
Implicit to those phrases is the idea that things were better in the past. I’m not an expert on British politics by any means, but my sense is that in the UK you’ll often see this reflected as nostalgia for the British Empire, for the postwar generation, and in loyalty to the monarchy. In the US, it’s often nostalgia for an imagined 1960’s suburban lifestyle or factory jobs. But the universal features are the same.
There’s a sense that something valuable used to exist, but has been lost due to modern progress. You can’t Take Back Control unless you think that you used to have control. It’s not Make America Great, it’s Make America Great Again. And what’s to blame is usually some combination of bureaucracy, government, liberalism, progressivism, technology, feminism and modernity. The solution is almost always an appeal to nationalism - witness the spite at foreign food in the very first image of this blog post. Kebabs! Curry! Sushi! Muesli!!!!3
This appeal to nationalism assures us things will be better if we can undo progress. Let’s get rid of technology, accept that we might be poorer, they say. Stop making new art, books, and movies and go back to Greek philosophy and architecture. Go back to when police could rough you up without the media getting mad. Bring back corporal punishment for kids, and capital punishment for criminals. Roll back social progress for women and minorities, bring back imperialism. Get back to farming the land and being in touch with nature. We had fewer rights and less money and more sickness back in the day, but those days were better because of it. As the children’s memes tell us, RETVRN.4
The hypocrisy of RETVRN
The shame of all this is that it’s promoted by people who are fundamentally full of shit. Tucker Carlson grew up attending prestigious boarding schools and married an heiress. He lives in mansions surrounded by every possible modern convenience. He’ll tell his credulous audience that being poorer is just a technicality and that farming their own food has immense spiritual benefits from the comfort of his air-conditioned villas. He’s never had to do the backbreaking work. He’s never participated in the lifestyle he advocates, and never will. And this is typical of the folks posting about this kind of stuff.
There’s an important point to remember about our broadly liberal society - it allows for dissent and it allows for exit. Think modernity sucks? Want to live in a 1970’s sized home with 1970’s terrible quality appliances and no air conditioning? Want to live a traditional marriage where the wife has few rights? Want to eat shitty food and reject modern medicine?
You can go do that. Nothing is stopping you.
The Amish exist. Nothing is stopping you from joining them, or creating your own version of the Amish centered around the 1960s. But the thing about the Amish is that they’re actually committed, and they live the life rather than posting about it on social media.5
There are perhaps a tiny, tiny number of better-therefore-worse posters who are actually living their values. But if we’re being honest, the Venn Diagram of ‘living the values’ and ‘posting the values on social media’ is basically two separate circles. If you think technology is harmful, then don’t use it. If you think mechanized agriculture robs you of your spiritual connection to the land, then grow your own. If you think working for a bank in a city is soulless, then be a farmer. Defect from society! That was always allowed.
But nobody really makes this choice. When they’ve personally got skin in the game they choose the nicer, modern solution almost every time. They’re not giving up their smartphone, their big TV. They’re not going back to shitty casseroles five nights a week and they’re not unplugging the AC or the heater when the weather gets too hot or cold.
The truth is this - the world for the most part is getting better over time. Almost nobody would willingly return to live like they did decades in the past. Nostalgia on its own is all well and good, but it’s infecting our politics in ways that are incredibly harmful. It feels incredibly silly to write this down, but good things are good. It’s better when things get better. It’s banal and self-referential and definitionally true, but somehow also a point that needs more emphasis in the modern world. And we should reject any argument that things used to be worse, therefore they were better.
Seriously do watch it
Hilariously, also pasta. Was the 1960s UK still bigoted against Italians? Had nobody brought pasta to the UK yet? I need to know this.
Spelled with a V instead of a U, because that’s how the Romans would have done it
Now I want to see what terminally-online Amish posters would be like. I bet the content would be tremendous