Is America’s Past Better Than Anybody Else’s Future?

Millions of Americans believe that America’s past is better than anybody else’s future—including America’s own. That is inherent in an obsessive turning away from progress, from failing to adapt to twenty-first century (or even twentieth century) realities, and a strong longing for the comfortable but mythical past.

The irony is that civilizations with much more history than the U.S.—the youngest of all global powers—have had a much better time moving boldly and successfully into the future. This doesn’t mean that countries East and West have met all or most of the Herculean challenges they may face. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t people there looking back to the “good old days.” But for the most part, these countries have avoided being distracted by the substantial complexities of who and what they were, and focused on balancing that with who and what they can and must become.

The substantial past of some of those countries may actually be the antidote to nostalgia that has allowed those nations to move forward. After so many centuries of arguments between the backward-lookers and the forward-lookers, the very practical argument wins: seeing where you are going is the best way to avoid crashes, falling off cliffs, or just standing still while everyone else advances around you.

Maybe what America needs is a few more centuries of arguments, where the reactionaries and regressives hold sway and drive the nation into a crash or off a cliff. Maybe then America will know what the older heads in the world already know—that evolution moves forward and not back (if you believe in any kind of evolution), that you have to keep your eyes open, that you have to adapt or die. Unfortunately, those of us alive today, standing by helpless, won’t be able to enjoy the fruits of that learning. We may only be here for the hard lessons.