It’s been noted that people tend to fall into one of two categories: those who divide everything into two categories and those who don’t.
In that spirit I propose that orthodox political thought always reflects one of two fallacies: that everything used to be better or that everything will be better in the future.
People who believe the former become annoyingly cranky conservatives while those who fall for the latter fantasy are transformed into annoyingly naive liberals. Each tendency reflects a deep-seated myth in the human psyche: that we’ve been cast out of Eden, or, by contrast, that we’re traveling inexorably toward a better tomorrow.
The most successful politicians are often those who are either sufficiently cynical or sufficiently confused to assert both things at once with apparently equal conviction. Thus Ronald Reagan could speak of remembering a time “when we didn’t have a race problem in this country,” while asserting simultaneously that it was “morning in America.”
Since at present most political and economic debate in this country is taking place between elites who look back on either 1965 or 1895 as America’s golden age, it’s worth remembering that the myth of the golden age is at least as old as history itself. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans seem to have been almost unanimously of the view that they had degenerated from the virtuous ways of their ancestors.
Closer to home, some of the clearest instances of this universal tendency come from the world of sports, where it’s invariably the case that today’s athletes, like today’s youth in general, are mere shadows of the paragons of yesteryear.
One of my favorite examples is from Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon,” in which he reviews bullfighting magazines covering roughly a century’s worth of fights. He discovers that, in no matter what year the magazine was published, it’s observed that the bulls of 20 years earlier were gigantic, fearless creatures who met their match in the peerless bullfighting artists of that era, so unlike today’s small cowardly bulls fought by fraudulent performers paid vast sums to bamboozle the gullible public.
Another favorite example is from baseball writer Bill James, who dug up this quote from the 1916 Spalding Base Ball Guide (the speaker is Bill Joyce, a third baseman and manager from the 1890s): “Baseball today is not what it should be. The players do not try to learn all the fine points of the game as in the days of old, but simply try to get by. When I was playing ball there was not a move made on the field that did not cause every one of the opposing team to mention something about it. That same move could never be pulled again without everyone on our bench knowing just what was going to happen.
“I feel sure that the same conditions do not prevail today. The boys go out, take a slam at the ball, pray that they’ll get a hit and let it go at that. They are not fighting as in the days of old. In my days, the players went into the clubhouse after a losing game with murder in their hearts. The man who was responsible for having lost a game was told in a man’s way by a lot of men what a rotten ball player he really was. It makes me weep to think of the men of the old days who played the game and the boys of today. It’s positively a shame, and they are getting big money for it, too.”
I’m pretty sure Bill Joyce voted for Warren Harding.
(Paul C. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)