Originally published 22 July 2016. When we look back at the past, all too often it’s through rose-colored glasses.
But who doesn’t like to indulge in nostalgia? I sure do. I especially enjoy photographing classic cars and reminiscing about times when they still roamed America’s roads. One of my favorites is the 1966 Ford, like this convertible I found at the Mecum auction in May. My dad owned one when I was small, a two-door hardtop. I spent many happy hours in its spacious back seat.
Check out that styling! This long, low car looks so purposeful, so strong. Aren’t those tail lights just the bomb? It’s so much better looking than the tall, blobby cars they make today. And they made these cars out of heavy steel. You could sit five people on the hood of this car! Man, didn’t things just make sense back then? Today’s cars are bodied in steel so thin that if you sink your bottom onto a hood, you will dent it.
But those wistful memories can’t mask the truth: you’re safer in any modern car than in this one. And it’s not just that this old Ford lacks airbags and has only lap belts. Fords of this vintage were famous for sloppy handling, making it hard to quickly steer to avoid a crash. And the brakes are drums all around, subject to fast fading during a hard stop. Oh, and see that steering wheel? It’s mounted to a rigid steering column. In a head-on crash, it becomes a missile that smashes into your face. In modern cars, that column collapses on impact. Also, in modern cars a safety cage frames the entire interior to resist crushing in a crash. That thin exterior sheet metal, along with everything else outside that safety cage, is designed to absorb impact and keep you alive and intact. If you had a serious accident in a ’66 Ford, the car would crush in, and you would absorb the impact. The safety advantages of modern cars are well documented; check out this head-on crash between a 1959 and a 2009 car to see it in action.
When we look back on the past, we often fall prey to nostalgic preferences and the fading affect bias. In other words, we tend to remember the past’s good parts and forget the bad. It’s human nature to forget that in a crash, an old car like a 1966 Ford would cheerfully maim or kill you, and that far fewer people die in crashes per mile traveled today than 50 years ago.
But this forgetting tends to make us think whatever bad things are happening now have sunk society to new lows. We live in a time of great national economic uncertainty, racial unrest, and global terrorism. The specter of authoritarianism and fascism has risen in this year’s Presidential election. We have a right to be worried, angry, and even afraid. But think back to any time in the past and consider national and world events then. Racial tension has always been with us and has led to violence at various times in our history. Terrorism has been going on for years, but until the last 15 years or so it was largely a problem only in the rest of the world. Our government, a magnet for narcissists, has always contained people who have committed crimes and immoral acts. And at various times in our collective memory, we’ve been at war, or in economic recession or depression.
Life is like riding a roller coaster. While you’re on it, it’s scary. You don’t know what is coming: tall loops, long drops, hard turns. Yet when it’s over, we look in a new light at the parts that scared us. Retroactively, we find them to be exhilarating — or, at least for those of us who don’t enjoy roller coasters, safely completed. What was unknown is now known and our minds reframe the experience accordingly.
We look upon past times like roller coasters we’ve ridden: reframed based on what we know now, viewed through nostalgic preferences and fading effect bias.
We face very real perils and need to address them squarely. But perils have always existed. Now is not necessarily worse than any time in history.