The Limits of Nostalgia


Megan McArdle responds to bouts of childhood nostalgia from Jim Manzi and Paul Krugman:

Maybe it’s because I grew up later than either Manzi or Krugman; maybe it’s because I grew up in Manhattan; or maybe it’s because I’m a woman. Whatever the reason, what I notice about their idyll is how dependent it was on women being home. Home production looks very similar no matter who is doing it; one family may be having meatloaf, and another filet mignon, but the family meals still have the same basic rhythm of Mom in the kitchen for hours until the family comes to dinner. Families only need one car because Mom, who doesn’t herself work, is available to drive Dad to work every morning before she heads to the grocery store. And the kids can play unsupervised because, of course, in this neighborhood–in all neighborhoods–there is a network of constantly watching eyes. Meanwhile, the poor people and minorities are somewhere comfortably distant, allowing young Paul and Jim to experience a world without want. I can tell you where all the inequality and fear and crime was; it was in the neighborhood where I grew up, and the neighborhoods elsewhere in the city that were much poorer and more dangerous.

I don’t mean to sneer; I’m sure it was idyllic. And the income gains of the 1950s and 1960s were real. But the suburbs of the era were not created simply by the rise of the middle class. Their existence, in the way that Manzi and Krugman remember, was also completely dependent on other forms of inequality: of the ability to move away from social problems, which is harder now; of generations of women whose sole destiny was the kitchen. This produced a world in which most homes were, from the point of view of kids, basically the same: all of them contained a mom who spent most of her time cleaning the place or feeding its occupants, and the size and contents were naturally limited to the amount of stuff that Mom was personally willing to care for. It was a great world for kids. But not everyone was so lucky.

My childhood was largely similary to Manzi’s and Krugman’s, so I know what they’re talking about. And I don’t begrudge them their nostalgia at all. It’s not necessary to insert a thousand-word caveat about racism and sexism and suburbanization every time you write affectionately about your childhood.

Still, Megan’s caveat can hardly be repeated too often. It’s buzzkill for sure, but whenever we talk about whether we’d prefer the past to the present if we had lots more money to make up for the lack of flat screen TVs (or whatnot), it’s worth remembering that it’s not just technological differences that made the past the past. It was also social differences, and for an awful lot of people those social differences are far more important. If you’re black or gay or Hispanic or female, all the money in the world wouldn’t make the 50s a great place to live your life.

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