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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Progress: Is it better than it used to be?

    Albert Camus said that the only question worth asking is whether or not life is worth living. Personally, I’ve always thought that one was pretty obvious. The question I’d like answered is “”Are things getting better or not?””

    As it happens, most people have a decidedly conflicted answer to this question. We’re all brought up, of course, to believe in progress – that is, the notion that things are always better now than they used to be.

    High school history textbooks, with titles like “”Triumph of the American Nation,”” imbue students with this vaguely uplifting notion. Serious-minded folks who read The Wall Street Journal every morning measure the country’s health with a quick glance at the Dow Jones, then fold the paper and head to work with their minds at rest, confident that today’s businessmen are a sober, sensible crop.

    American culture isn’t grounded on the concept of progress so much as it’s impaled on it. … People replace their cell phones with slightly smaller cell phones every six months.

    Back in the 1970s, liberal and conservative politicians alike seized on the issue of environmentalism because it seemed like a safe, boring issue everyone could agree on. Clean air, clean water – who doesn’t like that? Today it’s regarded as a radical issue beloved mainly of extremist liberals. Why? Because it suggests that progress is sometimes a bad thing.

    American culture isn’t grounded on the concept of progress so much as it’s impaled on it. Perfectly good ad campaigns are replaced because they seem old-hat. People replace their cell phones with slightly smaller cell phones every six months. Dull-looking office buildings are knocked down and replaced with other dull-looking office buildings. Progress never sleeps.

    To be sure, some things do get better over time. Art, for instance. Movies may not be better than they were in 1941, but movies in 1941 were better than they were in 1899. Mary Shelley’s “”Frankenstein,”” a great work, paved the way for Edgar Winter Group’s “”Frankenstein,”” an even greater work.

    Advertisements have certainly gotten better. Have you ever seen an old Coca-Cola ad? There’s one in the restaurant down the street from my house. It says – brace yourself – “”Drink Coca-Cola.”” Wonder how much they paid the guy who came up with that one.

    On the other hand, despite their deeply ingrained belief in progress, most people also regard the past with much more affection than they do the present. It’s not just that we complain about a lot of stuff. We prefer the stuff we used to complain about to the stuff we complain about now. There’s a reason people talk about “”the good old days”” without irony.

    In his book “”Leaving the Left,”” former liberal Keith Thompson spends a chapter deploring the arrogance of children. Kids used to be manageable, he complains. Polite, well-behaved, “”speak only when spoken to,”” that kind of thing. Wouldn’t dream of getting out of line. Those were the days.

    Then, he sighs, Elvis Presley went on the formerly respectable “”Ed Sullivan Show”” and swiveled his pelvis, and it was all downhill from there.

    I’ve long observed that whenever you remark of anything that it isn’t as good as it used to be, everyone will invariably agree with you. Movies aren’t as good as they used to be. Furniture isn’t made to last anymore. Your favorite show’s getting tired. Coca-Cola doesn’t taste as good as it did when they used real sugar instead of malted battery acid.

    It might be said that people are just agreeing with you to be polite. (A fine idea. If we all followed it, there wouldn’t be any more wars.) But I think our longing for the past runs deeper than that. We yearn for a time when things weren’t so complicated.

    Of course, the only reason the past seems uncomplicated is because it’s gone. When we yearn for the present to be less complicated, aren’t we really just wishing it’s over and done with? Is our longing for simpler times really a death wish?

    “”The past isn’t dead,”” William Faulkner said. “”It isn’t even past.”” Oh, for the good old days, when writers said things that were worth quoting.

    I doubt we’ll ever fully reconcile our dream of an idyllic past with our equally unrealistic notion of the present as an ideal place. But if we ever do, I’m sure we’ll wish we were back in the good old days.

    Justyn Dillingham is copy chief for the Arizona Daily Wildcat and is a junior majoring in political science and history. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu

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