Re-imagining the Past

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how we re-imagine the past.  It’s interesting how we look back at things from when we were younger and using today’s frame of reference, either judge them as better or worse than they were.

There’s a couple of very striking examples of this that have come up over the past week.  First, there’s the death of former president George Bush.  The narrative about him has been largely positive…..”a hero”…..”a great president”…..”a true statesman”….”a humanitarian.”

And yet, I remember marching in the streets to protest the Gulf War.  Being appalled by Clarence Thomas becoming a Supreme Court justice, and the treatment of Anita Hill.  The broken promise to not raise taxes.  His vilification of the LGBTQ community.  And I remember a failed campaign for a second term where he repeatedly commented that his wife Barbara should be president since people actually liked her.

We look at all this through the haze of 25 years of nostalgia and using the lens of today’s president and well, it all seems a bit benign.  That leads me to the truly terrifying thought that 25 years from now people will feel that same soft fondness for these times

On the other hand, we have Rudolph.  You remember him right?  Earnest young reindeer with a red nose, best friends with an elf dentist?  Like George Bush, Rudolph has been around for a long time.  Unlike Bush, history is not being kind to the 1964 holiday classic.

Looking at the Rudolph special, people are increasingly becoming aware of how horrible it is.  There’s bullying, including the rudest bully of all – Santa.  There’s abuse. There’s discrimination.  There’s sexism.  There’s being nice to someone just to get something out of them.  There’s ableism. And people are annoyed.

I’m going to say as a side note I’ve been on the anti-Rudolph band wagon for many many years, enough that friends and family cringe when Rudolph come up and complain that I have a “rant” about Rudolph.  And by “rant” I’m sure they mean a cogent, well-reasoned and insightful analysis. It just took everyone else longer to catch up.

But here’s my question:  why does George Bush look better with time, and Rudolph looks worse?  Why is bullying fictional reindeer and elves worse than bullying our LGBTQ neighbors?  Why is the sexism directed towards Rudolph’s mom worse than the sexism directed towards Anita Hill?

Why do some things in the past look better than they are, while some seem so much worse?

I think they’re both manifestations of a theory called “presentism”.  Presentism is when you judge the past by today’s standards. In both cases, we see the situations totally differently with today’s perspective.

We judge Rudolph based on today’s ideas about bullying and behavior and the lessons we want to teach our kids. With Bush a lot of things have faded in the past, then we judge him based on our new norm.  His war-mongering and sexism and homophobia almost look genteel and benign in an error of Twitter rants.  The second Bush president often jokes that the current president makes him look good.  He’s not wrong, for himself or his father.

I just hope, quite fervently, that some of the worst thing we’re seeing today get the Rudolph version of presentism 25 years from now, not the George Bush version.


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