In the recent Woody Allen surprise hit Midnight in Paris, now out on DVD, Owen Wilson plays Gil Pender, a Hollywood scriptwriter working on his first novel to get out of the Hollywood grind. Gil says he was born too late, wishing he were part of the Cultural Revolution led by writers and artists in Paris during the 1920s. He is accused of "Golden Age Thinking," which his arrogant arch nemesis Paul, masterfully played by Michael Sheen, defines as "the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one's living in." Paul continues to explain "it is a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present" and that "nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present."
Throughout most of history, each generation has relied on the past to provide guidance for the present and insight into the future. During the past decade, however, the past is not as revered as it has traditionally been. Developments in personal technology have changed the way we think and learn. Our children are over-programmed, racing from baseball and soccer practices to piano lessons and karate classes. Even as we walk down the street, we no longer observe and absorb our surroundings choosing instead to look down at mobile devices and send hastily thought-out text messages to personal friends and business associates.
Slowly but surely, our ability as a society to make decisions and process information has changed to the point where we no longer look to the past as the textbook of life it used to be.
One could also argue that this disregard for the value of the past extends beyond individuals and includes governments and corporations as well. All one has to do is pick up any newspaper to see that federal, state and local governments in the U.S. and elsewhere are making the same mistakes time and time again. And during the last decade, Corporate America, which has a much higher degree of latitude when it comes to making decisions than government agencies, has shown complete disregard for lessons from the past. The same poor decisions, resulting in massive layoffs, bankruptcies and rampant corruption, continually plague our financial markets and economic wellbeing.
In the area of entertainment, what would have been deemed obscene and unacceptable in the past has become today's norm. I was watching a Comedy Central roast on cable television -- accessible to anyone of any age -- and listened to a 3-minute stand-up routine about Betty White's vagina, with Betty White humbly laughing along. Imagery of sex and violence is everywhere one looks. Our children watch television shows and movies where atrocities such as rape are part of the storyline. They listen to rap songs that aggrandize shooting police officers. What has become acceptable in today's mass media would have been unheard of 50 years ago. And, funny thing, we had a lot less incidents of violent crime 50 years ago.
Probably the most noticeable changes have occurred in how we treat each other as human beings, and the respect we have for ourselves. Words like "please" and "thank you" have disappeared in the abyss of self-entitlement that has been growing exponentially with each new generation. The way we dress, which many sociologists would concede is a reflection on how we view ourselves, has severely degraded. In the 1940s, gentlemen would wear a suit, tie and hat to go to the movies. Today, walk into any Broadway theater and you will see unshaven men wearing shorts and flip-flops. I recently saw a photograph of people boarding an airplane in the 1950s, and everyone was dressed-up as if they were going to the ballet. I have been on flights where passengers were wearing pajamas and slippers -- and, much to may dismay, removed their slippers after the flight took off.
The point here, if there is one to be made, is that those of us who stare longingly into the past as a time when life was better are not, as is suggested in Midnight in Paris, unable to cope with the present. We can cope with the present, however, as Owen Wilson's character Gil Pender comes to realize at the end of the film, we find the present unsatisfactory because, in many ways, life has become unsatisfactory. Somewhere along the way we have lost something. The ability to tell right from wrong has become a large grey area. When I was a child, I was given a marble that had the Golden Rule inscribed on it: "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." Today's Golden Rule? Whomever has the gold makes the rules.
What Gil Pender eventually learns is that one can live in the present while still upholding a standard higher than what is required. We can choose to read Hemingway instead of a tabloid article about Angelina Jolie's cellulite. We can dress up when we go out to dinner, even though there is no dress code. We can watch a performance of "West Side Story" on DVD with our kids instead of a three-hour "Toddlers & Tiaras" marathon.
Golden Age thinking is not flawed; it is hopeful. It is striving for something better. It's ironic with everything we have in today's world, we are less happy as a society than we were in the past.
So as 2012 starts, let's not be so quick to dismiss the past but instead take the good and use it to propel ourselves into the future with intelligence, confidence and morality.