Sunday, November 20, 2011

Best of Times and Worst of Times

A few weeks ago, my brother randomly posted on Facebook "What was the best year of the '90s?" I had two reactions to this posting. First, I was impressed that he managed to put the apostrophe in the right place (almost everybody incorrectly puts it before the "s"). Second, I was struck by how divided the responses were. By this I don't mean that the favored years were evenly parsed (though they actually were), but that the criteria for naming a favored year was split between people who based their response on some kind of personal history ("my kids were born") and people who were looking at broad cultural events, often pop culture ("Actung Baby came out").

Whenever we study or consider history in a broad cultural sense, we are exposed to narratives that seek to reduce and distill the essence of what it meant to be alive at a certain time. But obviously, one's personal history might have little to nothing to do with these cultural narratives. When I learned in school about the Great Depression, I went home and asked my parents how my ancestors coped with such hardship. They didn't really know, but hypothesized that the life of a Wisconsin farmer was always hard, whatever the general state of the economy. When I learned about the 1960s and the turmoil that enveloped the nation, I asked my parents what it was like to grow up during a time of such radical chaos, they responded that at least in small town Wisconsin, they didn't know they were growing up during a time of such radical chaos.

I'm old enough to have now lived through a few cycles of prosperity and difficulty. The general cultural consensus is that the bulk of the 1990s could be classified as the former, while the last five years have been a difficult time to be alive. But I daresay that for the majority of all people who have lived through these times, their relative state of happiness has been more contingent on whatever personal choices they have made rather than the general vicissitudes pertaining to a particular era.

But when we evaluate our personal histories and try to, in hindsight, determine our level of relative happiness, we are probably condemned to overestimate the cultural narratives. After all, that is what we are exposed to in media, perhaps even in textbooks. In effect, culture applies a retroactive peer pressure. If you were alive during the Carter administration, you might find yourself manufacturing a sense of unhappiness about that era, just because nobody talks about that time frame in a positive way.

But I suppose there is no great harm in such a phenomenon. And after all, when we study history we don't have time to go through and study every individual on a case-by-case basis. And when we agree to share history, it makes for easier Facebook conversations.


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