Nostalgia’s Rotten Political Fruit

June 20, 2012

Dictionary.com defines nostalgia as “a wistful desire to return in thought or in fact to a former time in one’s life, to one’s home or homeland, or to one’s family and friends; a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time.” Perhaps “a driving force in the political conversation” and “an erroneous reconstruction of the past resulting in a lack of progress for the future” should be added to that definition.

We all engage in nostalgia from time to time, which in and of itself is not a bad thing. Looking through old photos, telling family stories, celebrating good things from the past that shouldn’t be allowed to slip away, or recovering old memories unexpectantly when the right song comes on are all (or can be) great blessings in life. The danger of nostalgia comes when one allows oneself to live in the past and forgo the present or when one idealizes the past so much so that they forget the bad of it. This is especially dangerous when it manifests itself politically and people or parties work to reassert a past that was not really  as good for everyone as they remember it to have been and thus halts positive progress to a more viable and just future. But we’ll return to that in a moment.

Two pop-culture items exemplify the good and bad of nostalgia, they are what caused me to mull the ideas for this post. One is the classic sitcom The Wonder Years. Earlier this year Netflix added it in its entirety to the instant streaming queue and I began re-watching it an episode or two at a time. For someone in their late twenties like myself, the show is an odd multi-layered nostalgia machine. Here’s a show that was made in the 1980s depicting the protagonist’s nostalgic recollections about growing up in the 1960s. It aired on Nick-at-Nite and the like throughout the nineties and many people I know grew up seeing it there. So it’s a show that places nostalgia at the center of it’s structure and through the narrator’s “recollections” utilizes it as the active vehicle which outlines each episode and the series as a whole; furthermore, it deals with universal themes of adolescence that almost anyone can relate to, which alone is enough to induce viewer nostalgia. But in mythologising the sixties and early seventies, being a product of the eighties, and being something I remember fondly from my own childhood and pre-teen years in the nineties, it’s like an ultimate nostalgia onion. Now, certainly The Wonder Years falls victim to many of the nostalgia traps in that youth and the years in which a person’s youth took place look brighter and better than they perhaps were for everyone else, but the show does a fairly good job of at at least mentioning the struggles, problems, and tragedies of both youth and the sixties. It’s thematic organization can often result in trite platitudes and cliches, but for a sitcom in which a bit of cheese is to be expected, the show does a solid job of showcasing nostaligia in it’s more positive aspects. The other item, as a work in itself, is terrific; Stephen King’s 11/22/63 from last year is perhaps one of his five best novels to date, which is impressive for someone in their fifth decade of publishing. In it he tells the story of a man who finds a gateway back in time, one that always leads him to the same alleyway in the same town on the same day in America in the late 1950s (no matter how long he stayed in the past during his last trip in). Urged by the friend who discovered the phenomenon, he decides to set up life in that world, to wait and plan to prevent the JFK assassination. The protagonist at first revels in the positive of the past, but what first makes him jump back and really begin to see the very bad aspects of the past is when he stops at a gas station to use the restroom. Handed the key by the station attendant, he passes a “colored only” sign pointing to a trail that winds through a field. He takes a look to see where the trail turns out and sees a plank over a creek and another sign there, “For Colored Use Only.” Now of course someone from our day would be aware that such things would be present, but actually seeing them would be a clear reminder of the bad. He notes in the journal he keeps of his time in the past something akin to, “For those who think the past is all ice-cream sodas, cheap prices, and clean air just think about that plank over the creek.” The narrator in 11/22/63 finds much to love about life in the past but much to hate as well, which is the point that nostalgia too often obscures–no time was all good or all bad, not the 1950s and not today.

It’s all too often heard and it manifests itself politically through votes and misplaced activism. A friend of mine mentioned a chain e-mail he kept finding in his work computer inbox, about the “1950s were the decade that made me,” about how great those times were and that the actors were really stars, the music was real, the food was good, the air was clean, the world was safer for children to play in, with all the other usual suspects present (usually with such emails or ads, the suggestion that our current president is at least part of the problem that is moving us away from such things is inevitable). At my own workplace I heard a senior employee remark when introduced to new safety regulations that our workplace, “like the federal government,” was getting out of control with rules and that she felt sorry for her grandchildren to have been born in this day and not in hers. Now, these type of sentiments are always present in certain people as they get older; every generation stereotypically hates the pop-culture and trends of the next (or are supposed to I suppose). So sure, the argument that music, film, and actors of today are inferior to their predecessors misses the glaring point that there has always been good and bad music, good and bad films, and that of that what is not subjective is an inconsequential preference in the big picture anyway. The allegation that the world was safer in the past is simply preposterous; the world has always been dangerous, but there have always been pockets of relative safety and the odds of a child being abducted in the US today are no greater than in 1950–it’s just that today, 24 hour news coverage lets everyone else hear about it. In one of the many books detailing the modern “culture of fear,” someone once pointed out that in the ancient past when a traveller on foot walked the road between villages and was robbed, killed, and pulled off into the bushes, his acquaintances just never heard from him again–there was no news coverage to report on it and there were no police officers to launch an investigation. Now, those who yearn for the past have a point about the air and food being cleaner, but strangely they rarely connect the dots to the deregulation that has caused that to be so. Only by pro-active progress, sane regulation, and a move away from some of the practices that began back then to a way we now know is more sustainable can we reclaim the positive aspects they point out in those particular instances. Paradoxically, we must move forward to reclaim something lost.

That is where the problem with nostalgia really emerges; in the mind-sets that see the past as better and the present as terrible. Coming out of that, the political move to become reactionary, forgoing progress, and regressing in the hopes of reclaiming the past is damning. Were it contained to only some of an older generation misremembering the past it wouldn’t be too dangerous, but current political movements have tapped into that same zeitgeist, advocating and working to “reclaim” a past they never lived in at all, that in fact, never really existed. We have to be truthful when dealing with the past. Sure there may have been times in which certain groups were more prosperous and comfortable; if you were white, male, and middle-class the 1950s were pretty solid. If you were black, female, gay, poor, or an immigrant things often weren’t so idyllic. Reactionary Politics ignores the truth that for most of history, minorities and the disadvantaged have suffered disproportionately. Reactionary politics refuses to concede that tremendous advances have been made in the realm of equality–in gender equality, religious equality, and racial equality. Reactionary politics refuses to admit that despite progress in those areas there is still a long way to go in terms of real, lasting, full equality for many people and that to do so further progress (which reactionary politics always inhibit) is necessary. Reactionary politics fails to admit that of those good qualities that truly have been lost, sometimes the only way to reclaim them is, paradoxically, to move forward in new ways. Reactionary politics are the rotten fruit of a misguided and corrupt nostalgia.

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One Response to “Nostalgia’s Rotten Political Fruit”

  1. […] written before of the problem with nosalgia. The problem often today is that far too many assume there was a better, often going just shy of […]

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