I ran into this quote on Andrew Sullivan's blog and was really struck by it. It's an excerpt from an interview with Matt Novak, who posts images of what people used to think the future would look like.

Nostalgia as a symptom of fear is far too broad of an idea, and frankly I regret saying it so matter of factly. There is an important distinction I feel that we should make between personal nostalgia and societal nostalgia. Personal nostalgia is that smell of your first teddy bear or the feeling of your first kiss. Personal nostalgia is a wonderful part of the human experience. But I feel that personal nostalgia is anecdotal and thus dangerous when used as ammunition to describe this desire to return to a "better time." I find that more often than not, the time and place that society is nostalgic for never existed. Romanticizing the past, while perfectly fine when applied individually, can stifle progress.

I'd never distinguished between the personal and societal nostalgia, but I think he's dead on right that "more often than not, the time and place that society is nostalgic for never existed."

I've discovered I'm very sensitive to hearing people express societal nostalgia, and it always makes me want to argue back.

"It's just so dangerous these days, I wouldn't want to let me kids do that." … "The next generation doesn't have a good work ethic." … "Politics used to be about ideas and principles, not grandstanding and demagoguery." … "Things are just too complicated these days" …

All of these comments presuppose a certain moral or societal failing in comparison to how it used to be. It's not that I disagree that there are problems, it's that I don't think they are necessarily any worse than the problems of eras before. Someone living 50 years ago or 100 years ago probably thought some very similar things. And someone living 50 or 100 years in the future will probably have the same thoughts as well.

One of the reasons I like Pleasantville so much is that it took aim at a time and place a lot of people have societal nostalgia for–1950s suburban America–and showed, very directly, that maybe things weren't as great as everyone remembers. It was the first movie I can think of to suggest "maybe we've done a pretty good job." (that was probably a lot easier to think in 1998 than 2010, but I'll put that aside for now).

And, since I'm talking about movies, here's a quote from another movie, Before Sunset.

Jesse, the Ethan Hawke character, says, "Maybe what I'm saying is the world might be evolving the way a person evolves. Right? Like, me for example. Am I getting worse? Am I improving? I don't know. When I was younger, I was healthier, but I was wracked with insecurity. Now I'm older and my problems are deeper, but I'm more equipped to handle them."

I rather like that concept–that our societal problems are growing at the same rate as our ability to handle them. It acknowledges that things are difficult, that it can feel more challenging than it did before, but also acknowledges the progress we've made in order to address them.