I’m going to start by making two lists. 1: Things that were better in the past than they are in the present. And 2: Things I’m passionately and proudly conservative about. I’m doing this against the old adage[1] that everyone gets more conservative as they get older.

Things That Were Better In The Past

  • To get the obvious ones out of the way: air travel, MTV, public funding of schools, being middle class, union membership, the social safety net in general, access to fetal abortion procedures
  • Food ones: Coke before high fructose corn syrup; Honeycomb cereal, which used to made from oats and now, of course, it’s mostly corn; and McDonald’s pies, which used to be fried (like their French fries) in beef tallow, but after the fat/cholesterol scare of the early 90s the fries are fried in vegetable oil (arguably not better for you) and the pies are now um … baked.
  • Terrestrial radio
  • The rate of people having sex in their teen years
  • Ziploc Food Packaging: Have you noticed that food packaging now places its ziploc opening not at the top of the bag, making it perfect for pouring, but the front of it? Like this? [JPG] And they no longer go all the way across, so now whatever you try to pour out inevitably gets partially caught by the top of the bag, and good luck emptying it when you’re done.

Things I’m Passionately Conservative About

  • Chex-Mix recipes: leave your onion powders and bagel chips in the pantry
  • Cocktail recipes: no fun ‘martinis’ please
  • Neighborhood development / new construction: I’m no NIMBY, but I am anxious about the Castro Theater
  • News media: we should all perma-subscribe to home delivery of local print newspapers written and edited by well paid journalists
  • The ‘FA’ in the MFA degree: that is, I’ve only by demand, and reluctantly, brought more and more practical / professional matters into my artsy-fartsy teaching
  • Slang and idioms: always happy to say ‘that’s awesome’ over ‘that slaps’ or whatever, and don’t get me started on the phrase ‘hits different‘.

*

It’s hard to see the news every day and not feel that things are getting worse. I want to remain honest and vigilant about what’s happening in this country to the rights of people, and to democracy in general, but I also acknowledge that Things were better before is one of the seeds of fascism. The trick is figuring out (a) whether that’s true (or whether it’s being used to justify hate / genocide toward the disenfranchised), and (b) what steps to take to make things better in the future.

That seems to be the urgent drive: if things are getting worse, how do we stop the worse from getting even worse? Here’s Lauren Berlant:

[T]he present moment increasingly imposes itself on consciousness as a moment in extended crisis, with one happening piling on another. The genre of crisis is itself a heightening interpretive genre, rhetorically turning an ongoing condition into an intensified situation in which extensive threats to survival are said to dominate the reproduction of life.

Key phrase = ‘ongoing condition’. The nonlinear movements of progress and decline are part of our permanent history. For Berlant, the crisis of the moment is a matter of perspective, and the narratives we choose to interpret our moment in history. To see this in example, let me tell you a quick story from college.

On any random night in the apartment I shared with friends, my pal Mark asked me and Casey one of those What ifs: If you could have grown up during any decade in the 20th century, which would you choose? I don’t recall what Casey said, but having recently watched The Ice Storm I likely said the 1970s, enchanted by a country fully disillusioned by the corruption of a GOP president.

Mark said the 1950s. His reasons are lost to memory, but we had a nice friendly bickering about it. Everything was so white bread and awful! (Had I recently watched Pleasantville?) I didn’t see it at the time, but in looking back on this memory, I accept that the 1950s could have been a perfectly blissful decade—for a certain demographic.

The 1950s were a nightmare for queers. It was a time when abortions were illegal and women, when allowed into the workplace, were treated mostly as furniture. Jim Crow laws were solidly on the books. Straight white men probably had a lovely time.

When I think about things that were better before, I try to ask (a) if it was better for everyone, all demographics, and (b) if its being better required the exclusion of one or more of those demographics. Airline travel used to be luxurious, yes, but also way too expensive for most people. College used to be cheaper, and while much of the criminal costs of college have come from a bloat of overpaid administrators, those positions have also been created by demand. The demographics of college campuses have become far more diverse than they were in the 70s and 80s, especially now that the U.S. has decided every ‘good’ job requires a college degree, which has created a need for psychological services, disability services, career placement centers, study skills training, campus life coordinators, and any other number of associate vice provosts trained in these things faculty—who used to run colleges—aren’t.

If colleges mostly served prep school graduates and other already-well-off students, they’d be smaller and cheaper. It can’t be what we want to conserve.

*

Somewhere recently, I came across the feed of something called ‘The Cultural Tutor’, which had some viral tweets about the death of detail and color in contemporary design:

The examples provided make a convincing case that ‘we’ have given up, or lost something that used to make our world better, or at least more interesting to look at. The nostalgist in me was quickly won over by the argument, if The Cultural Tutor had an argument (they didn’t exactly have a cause, or a narrative on what has happened over time). Then I got to this part:

Consider some reframings:

‘Default minimalist desig[n] strips all identity away from things.’ >>> ‘Default minimalist design maximizes the identities that can engage with it.’

‘Somebody might not like a detail (read: character) so there can be no details.’ >>> ‘Somebody’s use of an object might be impaired by a detail (read: aestheticism) so details should come under scrutiny for utility.’

To be fair, not all of the examples in the thread involve civic spaces or public utilities (and to be sure, it’s hard to see how ornament on a bollard threatens ADA accessibility needs), but I was struck by this comment to the thread:

There’s a not very good story by Vonnegut titled ‘Harrison Bergeron’[2], which presents a dystopia where every form of excellence in humans beyond the norm is forcedly hindered by the state. So like folks who are fast runners get, like, weights on their ankles or something. I forget the specifics, but even as a teenager I recall realizing this was some Ayn Rand–style alarmist bullshit.

It’s a partisanly conservative complaint that any work we might do to make this world more accessible to others, or to generally benefit more of us, will lead only to the death of innovation and crushed human spirits or whatever. Or, as Colleen has it above, nothing will be unique or exceptional if we try to give everyone equal treatment.

How to not be a conservative? Avoid seeing the less equal as a necessary sacrifice to your understanding of greatness.[3]

*

But how to not be a piner for the past, is what I mostly wanted to write about here. Another college story, set in the same apartment: A group of us was trying to figure out what to do on a weeknight, and someone suggested we go see a movie. Me, the film major, was up for it, and in trying to figure out what we might go see, I asked the group, ‘Is there anything new and good?’—something recently released that was getting good reviews, I meant.

Somebody—let’s call him Andy, because maybe that was his name, but he was a friend of a friend—repeated what I said with a laugh. Then at some point over the next week I saw an email he’d sent around, and he’d changed the quote in his signature: ‘Is there anything new and good? –Dave Madden’

In middle age now, I’m if anything being pushed farther left by the growing injustices of my time, but I’m trying to avoid becoming that guy I became when quoted out of context. In my 20s, I loved the new specifically for its sake of being new. I was also far less comfortable in my skin and had far less of an understanding of who I was separate from others, so as much as I felt like a nonconformist I happily adopted the forms of nonconformity my friends were taking on. Because that was what community meant.

Now I’m older man who readily dismisses Taylor Swift and trap music and TikTok. And when I do that, I feel at a remove from ‘most people’, given the wild popularity of the above. Hating on the new, pining after the past, puts me in a form of isolation—it’s the negative inflection of the feeling of being self-aware, or -satisfied, or -sufficient.[4]

The difference, it seems, is community. How not to become a conservative as you get older seems vitally to involve staying part of as diverse a community as possible. It’s less about conforming to the Swifties you might find among you, it’s about having people in your life whose differing tastes you respect and allow.

Translate that to the political stage and we might stop pining for this long past of dunking on each other.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Which maybe only applied to the Boomer generation.
  2. Which I first learned of by watching the movie of the same name starring 100%-in-his-prime Sean Astin.
  3. Which reminds me of a better sci-fi story from Ursula K. Le Guin, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’, which posits that all prosperity and wealth requires someone else’s suffering.
  4. A colleague recently told me that I’m a Leo rising.