Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Romanticizing the Past

One of the things a lot of blogs like this one do is to romanticize the past.  It's really common on some "looking back" blogs, and then accidental in others.  I suppose its both here.

Be that as it may, it's really important, when looking back, to credit what was better, and some, maybe many, things really were, while at the same time being realistic about the past.  A lot of things were pretty dicey, quite frankly, about any one historical era.  And, as part of that, knowing something about the mindset of any one era is important when looking back at it as well.

One thing that stands out enormously between the past and the present is the state of medical care.  We're so used to the type of medical care we now have, the availability of fairly effective medicines, that we can hardly grasp how that was once not the case.  Some types of diseases, like asthma for example, have increased in the modern era, which is worrying, but at the same time many diseases, such as asthma, are treatable now and really weren't once.  Asthma was darned near a death sentence for some up until the second half of the 20th Century.  People didn't understand what caused it, and treatments for it were crude at best.  The book Mornings On Horseback gives one of the best descriptions of the condition of asthma in any era, and gives a fantastic description of how young Theodore Roosevelt, an asthmatic, was treated for the condition as a child. When he went into an asthmatic attack, he was loaded into a buggy and required to smoke a cigar as the buggy went at high speed through the streets of New York.   That sounds absurd now, but that's what they did. 

Medicines have become so common, in fact, that there's debate about whether some treat real conditions or not.  Behavior medicines are something that wouldn't even have been considered necessary up until maybe the 1960s when they really started to come in for the first time.

Serious injury and premature death is still with us, but not like it once was.  According to something I read quite awhile back, in the 19th Century the majority of men in the US, by their 40s, lived with a chronic injury.  I can believe it.  Indeed, at age 50 I have some aches and pains that I know stem back from some old injury, and that most men endured that is pretty believable.  When you look at photos of Americans in their 60s, or even 50s, that are 50 or more years old its almost shocking as they tend to look so old.  In contrast, quite a few, but certainly not all, Americans in that age range today look much younger (although not all do).  Men in their 40s, prior to 1950, generally have a much older appearance than men in their 40s do today.

Premature death in males was so common in the late 19th Century that the number of women who raised a child, for some time, as a single parent is about the same number who do today.  The reasons were different, however.  They had been married and their spouse was killed in some sort of an accident.

This isn't the only example of this, by any means. It's really common to see things like "those were a more peaceful time" or "that was a simpler time".   For a lot of people, these statements weren't true at any one point in the past.  Certainly immigrants living in densely packed crime ridden east coast ghettos weren't living a peaceful life.  Members of the Irish diaspora, pretty much anywhere, faced a pretty rough life.  Big populations of people from European and even the Middle East were on the move in the early part of the 20th Century for a reason.

Wars were pretty darned bad in various early eras as well.  Contrary to what people want to believe, there are fewer and fewer wars on the entire planet every year.  A human being is less likely to fight in a war now that any time in the history of civilization.  Indeed, in certain earlier eras a male was practically guaranteed to fight in a war, and the loosing side's female population was guaranteed to receive the worst possible humiliating treatment.  This sort of thing has resided to an all time low, which doesn't mean that it doesn't still happen.

All this isn't to say that there aren't some thing in the past that are better than now.  There are, and people who like to maintain everything now is prefect are fooling themselves.  Somethings that people take as progress are not, and some things in terms of social norms are actually swinging pendulum type deals which will reverse course and go in another direction, at some point.  For certain occupations, those which are passing into history because of technology, this isn't a good time, if you occupy one of those occupations and like your job.  For others, where this is an era of uncertainty, that's also true.  For some classic occupations, like farmer, this is the roughest time imaginable for people in the Western world, as the dreams and aspirations of somebody not born into it are nearly unrealizable.  

But, all in all, in looking at anyone era, we need to be careful about romanticizing it.


LeAnn28 said...

It is interesting that we like to focus on how things were so different in a particular time period or historical era and how often our comments are, as you said, "it was a simpler time then." But, yet, was it really a simpler time? As you point out, so many of the things we consider to be normal, routine parts of life, are only that way, because of the development over time, including medicine. My students couldn't believe, this week, that someone (Hernan Cortez specifically) would have written a 9 page letter back to the King of Spain, and had a really hard time thinking about a time when communication was not instantaneous.

Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

I've gotten to where I almost have a hard time not imagining communications being instantaneous, even though that's something that's occurred well within my own lifetime.

I'll occasionally get text from my son in high school, during the day, and when I'm traveling I'll text my family from the airport, etc. Quite a change over just a few years.

When I was in college, I used to write home to my father fairly often, and he'd write back to me. We'd call of course, but as long distance was by the minute, we didn't do that often. Two to four page letters were the norm. I still have some of the ones he wrote to me. Now, letter writing of that type is all but dead.

Anonymous said...

"“For some classic occupations, like farmer, this is the roughest time imaginable for people in the Western world, as the dreams and aspirations of somebody not born into it are nearly unrealizable.”

Many times it is useful to make a comparison. What class of farmers are we talking about? Big agricultural corporations? Small corporations? Individual farmers (I have wondered what percent of the agricultural product they produce)? To what period of time do we compare today’s farmers? Farmers who were driven off their land by the Dust Bowl had a difficult time.

I think that statements about so many fields are relative. “Compared to what” has to be stated.

Best wishes,


Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

Indeed, you are correct. Defining the parameters of a discussion is really necessary to its analysis.

Anonymous said...

I’ve just begun looking into some USDA data and it does appear that soon after 2013 began farm income began a downward slide. However, if we compare farm income from 2000 to 2014, income is up 84%. However if we compare 2000 to 2013 farm income is up more than 100% before the big decline.
(Net farm income and net cash income were close and so I interpolated.)
I realize that these data are for all farms and that there are many classes of farms. Do you know if and how USDA classified farms?


Pat, Marcus & Alexis said...

I don’t know how they classify them, but I suspect it’s by producer. The reason I think that is that I have to fill out the agricultural census every year. It’s actually illegal not to do it. Given that, they apparently regard anyone who is an agricultural producer to be one, even if a person’s main income comes from another source. So person who is raising pigs as a hobby is included along with wheat farmers who are farming 20,000 acres, I suspect.

Agricultural income is really tricky. Its pretty well established that the last year that farm income had rough parity with off the farm income, was 1919. But there are also huge producers of one kind or another who make huge incomes, in certain areas, due to the nature of their operations. So big industrial outfits that own tens of thousands of acres and contract for farmers have, by sheer size, a large income. And in the Mid-West there are some grain farmers, etc., who have substantial incomes, while many others do not. What this means is that just like with the law, the income data is extremely skewed giving a false impression. So, we have some large grain producers with huge incomes balanced against produce farmers and others with more modest ones, and with some other producers of one kind or another who barely get by, just as with the law we have the huge majority who are in the bottom half of the Middle Class thrown in with those in certain firms in the upper half, and the ones whom the ABA are fascinated with in the white shoe firms in the East, who make huge incomes.

It’s also very deceptive in that what the figures mask is that at the same time the number of farmers is increasingly dwindling its impossible to become one now, in real terms, so if a person is born into it (depending upon what they produce) they can do well, but it’s not possible to get into it if you aren’t born into it. If you include all the hobby farmers (and the USDA apparently does) it looks different, but it is now the case that a Middle Class American cannot become a farmer, pretty much for the first time in our history. What that tells us is something about land values vs. income.

Jenny Bennett said...

I believe the straightest line of progress lies in technology,including medical technology. There is just no question that we have moved light-years ahead in that realm. The problem lies in the ethical and social questions that connect with that progress. These questions range all over the map, from how to manage health care to privacy problems on the Internet. You linked to this post when I commented on my blog that one advantage in the present as opposed to that wonderful romantic past is advances that have been made (to a limited but real extent) in the situation of women. I picked that example out partly because it combines social and technological progress.