Opinion: The myth of the 'good old days'

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Our nation seems to be seized in a current wave of nostalgia but one lacking the innocent quality of previous decades when we all watched “Happy Days” and ate burgers and fries in stainless steel diners. The present edition contains a hard edge of anger as if our past was, in fact, stolen from us by insidious forces. At its worst, this need to recapture those mythical days of yesteryear is most manifest in Donald Trump’s hard core supporters who yearn for the “good old days” when white men ruled the world. They still do, but only those in the top 1 percent tax bracket.

It’s easy to wax nostalgic for the 1950s when Dad worked a secure job, Mom was stuck at home cooking and cleaning and the kids were all well-behaved. At least, these were the perceived images of White America. In the mainstream media of the time, however, African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians were largely invisible unless they were schlepping luggage onto a train, wrapped in a serape, posing stoically next to a totem pole or enticing you to a trip to the Exotic Orient. Scanning a magazine or a television ad, one never saw a person of color driving a new car, sharing a beer with friends, buying life insurance or going on a vacation. Gay Americans were locked in the closet and, for all practical purposes, didn’t exist.

Some of the advertisements from this era defy belief. An ad for the Santa Fe Railroad promised “Real Indians” who were “educated and courteous” (as opposed to the stereotype of yelping and scalping) to narrate their indigenous cultures to passengers on board train routes across Arizona and New Mexico. Another featured a husband spanking his wife for brewing the incorrect brand of coffee.

Despite this, it is understandable to sigh over the past when faced with the dismal present and fearful of a dystopian future. The old dreams of flying cars and glassed-in cities with no poverty or crime have been replaced by visions of a collapsed ecosystem slowly choking the life out of poor, starving billions, abandoned to an existence of misery while a privileged few live in luxury. Try to watch “Blade Runner 2049” without leaving the theater in a depressed heap.

One truth about the “good old days” is that they really weren’t. When humans retrieve memories, it’s common to remember the good and delete the awful unless the awful was really such. Even so, in our present 24/7, internet-obsessed society, the slower, calmer pace of the past is nearly impossible to recreate. We are stuck with the present and tasked with creating a realistic future.

As a recent arrival, I can’t speak to the Taos of 60 years ago. From what I’ve gleaned, Northern New Mexico was once the breadbasket of the state with a rich agricultural heritage and families were more tight-knit. There was less of an impact from the outside world for good or ill. But things are changing everywhere, not just in Taos. Conversations about retaining a town’s unique character are just as heated and divisive in my former domicile of Greenfield, Massachusetts, as they are here. Friends of mine, who lived for years in Colorado, now have a hard time recognizing the aspects that originally made their home town special. Those who grew up in the suburbs around big cities, remember farms and fields before they were replaced by condos and strip malls. These rapid flows of change are not confined to the United States but happening globally.

As awkward as it might appear at times, therefore, it is a good thing that Taoseños are meeting together in venues such as the “Strong at Heart” to discuss how they evaluate the past and what they desire for the future of our community. While the more traditional members of Taos will continue to live as they have for centuries, outside influences and newcomers will continue to arrive at our door. My wish is that they do more than just retire in comfort but share with us their intelligence, abilities and resources.

With the current absence of coherent leadership in Washington D. C., we are called upon to exercise the values New Mexicans have always excelled at; namely self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Both the old and the new inhabitants of the Taos Valley have much to bring to the table. All should be encouraged to do so. If we can’t take care of ourselves, who will?

– Daniel A. Brown is an artist, writer and former public school teacher living in Arroyo Seco.

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