Somewhere, sometime, humanity nailed it. There was a place and a time where and when humans were a better breed. They were more artistic or more intelligent, braver, stronger and probably more beautiful too. It's all lost, of course, but this place still provides us with something to aspire to, peeking out from behind old oil paintings or stately ruins. It's even easy for some people to imagine they would have been happier in that time.
It's a lie. The past has many lessons, but they're rarely convenient, and unless your name was Hapsburg or some similar royal drivel, you probably wouldn't have been better off anywhere in the past. But a lost ideal is soothing to believe in, and it's endemic across the cultural and political spectrum.
The kicker is that these ideals don't remain abstract visions: People actively try to mold society to fit their bygone utopias. While it's fine and natural to draw inspiration from history, when the complexities and reality of the past are ignored, we inevitably repeat history's mistakes. Here are six cases where idealized places differ hazardously from the hype:
1. Ancient Sparta
Idealized by: Soldiers, Martial Artists, “Virtue” Fetishists
The Image: An egalitarian brotherhood of warrior bad-asses, its members bound by high ideals, the backbone of a society devoted to unyielding law and defending their freedoms. Training together, they honed their battle skills to a peak never matched and single-handedly saved Greece (and therefore Western society) from doom at the Battle of Thermopylae.
At home, Spartans managed a virtuous simplicity, respected their elders and even allowed their women far more freedom than the rest of Greece. Reverence of Sparta has lasted for centuries, so much so that it has its own name (laconophilia).
The Reality: Sparta was a stinking, superstitious slave society that pioneered the police state and did its best to crush freedom (even by the crap standards of the iron age) wherever it emerged. Its government was set up to avoid change at almost all costs, leaving it absolutely unable to adapt to the world around it. It wasn't a strong place, but a phenomenally weak one, driven by fear of its massive slave population, social change and its neighbors.
Sparta did play a role in defeating the Persians and managed to gain dominance over Greece, but its obsession with turning power over to crazy old rich people meant that everyone ended up hating it. Under the brilliant general Epaminondas the Theban, democrats beat the living crap out of the Spartans, crushing them on the battlefield before hemming them in, freeing their slaves and kicking out the fragile basis of their entire culture. Their lack of culture and trade meant that they ended up a tourist attraction for the Romans.
Spartan women had more economic clout not because Sparta was less patriarchal than any of the other Greek states, but because their elite disdained commerce and land management, leaving it to the gender they considered lesser. In their view, they were out doing important work, like killing serfs and terrifying their neighbors.
Even its greatest feat wasn't as Spartan as it's presented: While they played an important role at Thermopylae, thousands of warriors from other Greek city states played a role too and many fought as bravely as any of the Spartans.
Ironically, a major part of more flexible modern military tactics were actually developed to defeat the Spartans. Combined arms, refusing a flank and indirect warfare all had ancient predecessors in the brilliant campaigns that ended their rule. Similarly, Epaminondas' emphasis on agility and adaptability rather than brute force is far closer to today's more eclectic, realistic martial arts than anything to come out of Sparta.
2. Late 19th Century Paris
Idealized by: Artists, Cultural Critics, Political Protest Dilettantes, Fans of Musicals
The Image: A golden age of art, literature and intellectual ferment. Paris's rep still endures today. The “city of light” had culture around every corner, with the original Bohemians, the flaneurs and more artistic genius than you could shake a paintbrush at. Occasionally, the people took to the barricades and overthrew their unjust governments, inspiring a vision of revolution that endures to this day.
The Reality: Paris during this time did produce some amazing culture — and a lot of dreck too. It was one of the biggest cities in Europe in a booming era of rapidly increasing education and travel; inevitably, we only remember the things that lasted. Similar things can be said about any major city (New York, for example) that occupied an important role at the right time. As the decades pass, it's easier to see the quality stuff, even if it was only a small percentage of what was being produced at the time. Give it 50 years, and I guarantee you cultural scolds will be pining for the “sophistication” of 1980s Los Angeles.
The politics of the time also failed to make a huge amount of sense. Uprisings were just as likely to be part of infighting by decadent aristocrats, anti-Semitic purges and the aims of military strongmen as they were the revolutions against the era's many oppressions. Victor Hugo, for example, led revolutionaries in the summer of 1848 and helped crush another rebellion just a few months later.
Also, participation in these battles was more often a matter of mass slaughter than glory. This happened so often during the latter half of the 19th century that much of the city was repeatedly demolished, along with thousands of its inhabitants, so all that great culture often ended up in blood and rubble.
3. Imperial Rome
Idealized by: Conservatives, Pundits of Nations in Military Ascendancy, People Whining About the Decline of a “Once Great” Society
The Image: A glittering city of marble, as a Republic and Empire far ahead of its time, Rome's famed army allowed it to get its way around the world. More austere than the pleasure-loving Greeks who preceded them, Rome dominated an empire that lasted for centuries, bringing stability (by force if necessary) to a chaotic world.
The Romans encouraged this illusion. As Virgil summed it up: “Roman, remember by your strength to rule Earth's peoples — for your arts are to be these: to pacify, to impose the rule of law, to spare the conquered, battle down the proud”
The Reality: Propaganda can have a very long shelf life. Ancient Rome was unstable — phenomenally unstable. It wasn't just unstable for a bit either: The history of the early Republic through to the Goths burning the place down is marked largely by coups, overthrows, assassinations and really crazy people with way too much power. If you're looking for modern equivalents, the politics of Rome are better envisioned as a shockingly enduring tinpot dictatorship than a model for good gov’ment. The Pax Romana was an exception, a period when a usually brutal, unstable military oligarchy lucked into some really good leaders who gave the world a bit of a breather from the usual slaughter-fest.
Roman “virtue” too rarely really counted for much. This is a society whose slaves were so miserable that their uprisings had to be numbered, that crucified entire cities, that had a word for “kill every 10th person” (decimation). Even in their twilight, the Romans were so committed to being terrible assholes that they were making enemies out of people, like the Goths, who originally wanted their help. It's also difficult to find a time in Rome where corruption and betrayal weren't endemic. If they hadn't had a really, really good army that was constantly conquering other places, Rome would've gone down as a barbaric footnote — and when the conquering stopped, it pretty much did.
While the Romans had plenty of achievements, the sheer damage and oppression they inflicted on the world is too rarely acknowledged, and reverence of Imperial Rome through the centuries has replicated its faults over and over again.
4. Victorian London
Idealized by: Steampunks, “NeoVictorians,” Conservatives
The Image: A bustling, stylish, entrepreneurial city in charge of a worldwide empire, breaking technological records while a strong moral and social system provides stability at home. Victorian London's allure still sparks imitators of its style, sense of grandeur and elegant etiquette.
The Reality: Victorian London was wracked by conflict, poor living conditions, political strife, strikes and a rigid class structure. It sat at the heart of an empire that made life hell for people from Dublin to Bombay because the core ethos of Victorian society was deeply rotten. It was stylish for only a very small minority.
All that sleek, “progressive” technology had a cost too: Pollution killed hundreds, possibly thousands of people. Plenty of others died due to unsafe working conditions. Similarly, Victorian “morality” put independent women in asylums and warped the lives of countless other people, even the famous and powerful, like Oscar Wilde.
Eventually, rising standards of living in its former colonies, more rights for women and minorities, and improved living conditions for the average worker all sprang from the giant and well-deserved backlash to the world the Victorians created. Thank god.
5. 1960s San Francisco
Idealized by: Hippies, Techies, Those People who Just Moved in Down the Street and Won't Stop Talking About the Bay Area
The Image: After the chill of the repressive 1950s, San Francisco drew together people looking for peace, love and individualism. Awash in psychedelics, ‘60s San Fran created a time of unprecedented freedom and experimentation. Meanwhile, its streets saw LGBT people start to unite to demand their rights and lay the groundwork for a major civil rights movement. Over in Silicon Valley, garage-tinkering entrepreneurs were laying the groundwork for an industry that would revolutionize the world.
The Reality: San Francisco was also home to a long-running reactionary backlash that killed the country's first openly gay politician, as well as cults that killed hundreds of people and no shortage of corrupt, even shockingly conservative governments. Silicon Valley was, despite its mythological bullshit, heavily government-backed, with some companies even connected to the CIA. It owes its existence more to Cold War paranoia and big government than geniuses laboring in garages.
Plenty of the Bay Area's cultures played (and continue to) a major role in some really beneficial changes, and that's worthy of respect — but the same also created some problems that have hurt a lot of people in that area and the wider culture. San Francisco in the ‘60s played a major role in creating a particularly smug variety of libertarian tech capitalism that's been plenty destructive, political protest based on feeling good rather than winning victories and a self-satisfied NIMBYism that made the area increasingly unaffordable. It's not a coincidence that the area's seeing Google buses get their windows smashed and residents evicted en masse; it's a direct result of the ignored dark side of the 1960s city coming home to roost.
6. “The East”
Idealized by: New Agers, Pseudoscience Fans, People who’re Sure Wisdom is Somewhere Besides Where They Are
The Image: Unlike the turbulent West, “The East” has traditions of amazing wisdom and healing, making it more enlightened than our society. Unchanged for thousands of years, everywhere out East is more in touch with the true nature of the universe.
The Reality: This is some racist garbage. “The East” (and it's sad this even needs to be written) is a huge array of different societies with their own histories and traditions stretching over millennia. Their actual stories include fascinating philosophy, oppressive dogma, creative art and interacting, conflicting beliefs about the role of the individual and society. Instead of a simple place of humble stability, many of these areas had some of the most advanced technology in the world for thousands of years and plenty of social change.
These societies had great achievements, amazing discoveries, catastrophically stupid wars and (rather than inscrutable conformity) billions of people just trying to live their lives with some measure of dignity and hope — like “the West” or, for that matter, every single human society on the face of the planet that has ever existed. While these cultures are genuinely different from each other, they're still composed of human beings, not New Age fantasies.
Among the many reasons this particular idealization is such a shame is that the actual cultures and histories of China, Japan, India, Korea, Mongolia and more have had a major impact on our world and have plenty of insights — none of those insights, however, are magic bullshit that will fix all our ills. The reality of their cultures, with all their contradictory aspects, could really stand to be more widely known, because they form an important part of the human story.
I hold out hope that in a more global era, we'll stop regarding huge parts of the human population — and history itself — as empty monoliths and start looking at the more complicated cultures that they actually had. One can hope.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local paperMountain Xpress and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
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