Saturday Night Live syndrome is the tendency to remember the past as much better than it is, and to talk of things in terms of decline and decay, sometimes at apocalyptic levels. Another important feature of Saturday Night Live syndrome is that whatever decline is being mentioned is taken as being a piece of common knowledge that everyone knows. The name "Saturday Night Live Syndrome" comes from the popular television show Saturday Night Live, which has been, according to many people, in a state of perpetual decline since its first season. The good people at tvtropes, usually ones to come up with creative yet succinct names for things, refer to this phenomena by the much more prosaic name of "Nostalgia Filter", although they do present Saturday Night Live as an example.

The things that Saturday Night Live Syndrome can be applied to are manifold, and despite the name, the hallmark of Saturday Night Live Syndrome is not in the entertainment field, as such. It is applied to issues of politics, society and morals as often as it is applied to anything else. Also, Saturday Night Live Syndrome is usually applied to intangibles: perhaps because they are easier to make blanket statements about. For example, someone exhibiting Saturday Night Live Syndrome will not claim that ball players were previously more skilled or better, but will instead claim that they played in a more sportsman-like manner, or were inspired more by love of the game than for money.

Usually when confronted with someone exhibiting Saturday Night Live Syndrome, I have the same reaction as when I am presented with someone exhibiting cultural foiling: I roll my eyes and silently or publicly wish for Morgan Freeman to bring me some cotton candy. As stated above, people exhibiting Saturday Night Live Syndrome rarely operationalize their statements, thus making them somewhat hard to refute. There statements also tend to go into somewhat apocalyptic territory. Its hard to argue about whether the sky is falling, and/or whether it will in 2012. As an example, I will take two statements and explain why they are often undercut by Saturday Night Live Syndrome. For purposes of fairness, I will describe two political positions that I consider to often be contaminated with this syndrome.

  • Recently there has been much talk about the supposed "socialism" of Barack Obama's policies. Leaving aside whether these positions are normatively correct and of utilitarian value, they seem to be based on the premise that government taxation or spending is a great aberration from the norm. But based on at least one measure (and there are many measures), the top marginal tax rate, the American tax system is still much less socialistic than it was for a long time. From 1935 to 1985, the top US marginal tax rate was between 60 and 95 percent, as opposed to the 36% it is today. President Eisenhower is not often thought of as a radical socialist, and yet during his administration, the tax rate was as high as 90%.
  • During the Bush administration, there was much grumbling about the religious nature of some of his programs, the decaying of church and state, and the possibility of "theocracy". (At the same time, there was of course some grumbling about secularization from the other side). Not that these concerns are unfounded, but what I found curious was that some people took the presence of religion in American politics as some type of apocalyptic assault on American tradition. From my cursory knowledge of American history, this seems to be a ridiculous viewpoint. During the Bush administration, people were still free to buy condoms, read Ulysses and play baseball on Sundays: things that would have been prohibited for some, if not all, of American history. (Amongst many other examples, of course).

Notice that I am not saying that people who are arguing for lower taxes and more separation of church and state (as examples) are all ridiculous. Many people making these points have valid arguments. However, when people phrase their arguments in terms of apocalyptic scenarios, and describe history as a steady decline from an idealized state to its current corruption, they simply undercut their arguments.

Every year, when I read public discourse, I see more and more examples of this "Saturday Night Live Syndrome", and know that our ability to run a free republic with a healthy interchange of ideas is more and more threatened.

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