Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be

I’ve seen the following quote a few times on Facebook, accompanying a photo of the grizzled Mr. Abbey himself. I tried to find the book or article where he said it first, but couldn’t; please forgive me for that omission.

If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers, and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor rule. That was the American Dream.”
—Edward Abbey

Ah yes, the ol’ Jeffersonian ideal. A notion as old as America itself. I don’t dispute that it sounds wonderful. It’s just a fantasy, though, as much as the notion of riding tamed yet fierce dragons.

Even in Jefferson’s day, there were a whole lot of citizens of this nascent republic who were not farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers, and artists. They worked for people like Jefferson, either by contract or by slavery. They didn’t all own their own land and make their proud independent way. Who were the rich of this era? People like … Jefferson. I’m sure they thought themselves fundamentally different from bankers in New York and Boston, but there are many ways to become rich.

It was a simpler time in the early days. It’s understandable to long for a simpler day. It’s also futile. The three hundred thirty million of us could not all be self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, et al. if we all wanted to be. There’s no room for that. That’s not how America evolved. We have cities. We have large corporations. We make complicated things that could not have been imagined even a hundred years ago, much less at our founding. We have farming methods incredibly more efficient than they had at the turn of the 19th century, therefore far fewer people need to be farmers. We should go back to that?

I know people could quibble with every notion underlying that last paragraph. The point I’m making is, to undo all of the progress of the last two hundred thirty-odd years is impossible and undesired. Improvements can be made, certainly, but in the direction of more progress, not retreat. To long for an ideal from a bygone day does not serve us as we are dragged into the future by time itself.

This is the conversation I wish America would have with itself, not what we are forced to discuss as the 2016 presidential election draws nearer. Maybe then we could finally move past the social, economic, and political issues that should have been put to rest long ago but which keep coming up every couple of decades.


About songdogmi

I'm a longhaired almost-hippie stuck in the inner suburbs of a major rust-belt metropolis who's thoughtful, creative, and kind of geeky. In exchange for a paycheck I run around in a cubicle maze most days. When I escape, I play music, hang out in coffee houses, dink around on the computer, take naps, and think I should be off in the woods somewhere. Every once in a while I get in my car and drive far, far away, though I've always come back so far.
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