GOP Nostalgia is a Symptom of Privilege

GOP Nostalgia is a Symptom of Privilege January 23, 2012

There’s an awful lot of talk in the political forum lately about restoring America to some nostalgic state of yesteryear, when supposedly everything was better. If we could only get back there, everything would be all right again.

I guess that depends on who you ask, doesn’t it?

Author Melissa Harris-Perry recently appeared on “The Colbert Report” to speak about her new book, “Sister Citizen,” which examines a number of stereotypes of African-American women. As he often does, Colbert teed up a common conservative talking point about “going back to he good old days.” Perry’s response kept ringing in my head for days afterward.

She said that there is no time in American History you would want to go back to as a black girl.

The point is simple but compelling. Those in the position of privilege to write history are the ones whose story is most prominently told. So when we talk about going back to some better time, it’s with the lens of that same privilege that we’re looking back.

The fact is that, unless you’re a white, Christian, straight male, there’s little to look back to and say “yeah, I was better off back then.”

One way this longing for the reclamation of privilege is expressed is in espousing what many of the GOP candidates call a restoration of “traditional family values.” I’m never sure what they mean by this, though.

Newt Gingrich has been married and divorced multiple times, and reportedly asked one ex-wife to consent to an open marriage so he could keep the mistress he already had on the side.

Those traditional values?

Mitt Romney’s great-grandfather fled to Mexico where he helped form a polygamist compound where Mormon men could keep multiple wives.

Those traditional values?

My wife, Amy, shared a story in a recent sermon about a young man named Nathan Hoskins who realized at a young age that he was gay. When his mother found out, she loaded her gun, took him out to the woods, stood him against a tree and put the gun to his head.

“This is the tree where I’d blow my son’s head off if I ever found out he was gay,” she said.

Those traditional values?

Or how about the pre-civil-war tradition of masters impregnating their black female slaves?

Or what about back in Biblical times when men could have their women stoned to death for misbehaving? They could also keep concubines, and they had to marry their brother’s wife (or wives) if their sibling died. Oh, and women were married off by their families often as soon as they reached puberty, whether they wanted to be with the man or not.

So are these the traditions we want to return to?

No. What underlies this sort of nostalgic talk is privilege. The longing is to go back to a time or place when their particular way of viewing the world was considered “normal,’ and all others were not. There is some selective memory at work even in these cases, however, since most who call for the return to ways of the past would readily call for exceptions in the case of blatant racism and (for some at least) sexism.

To call for a return to the good old days is, in some ways, a marginalization of those for whom history has meant progress. For the majority of Americans today, turning back the clock means losing ground, acceding power or opportunity and returning to a time of greater imbalance and division.

Cultural pluralism isn’t easy. But if you ask those who were historically dis-empowered, the “good old days” weren’t exactly a cake walk either. It’s worth remembering, when we wax nostalgic, that there are at least as many people who suffered because of the unearned privilege some of us enjoyed.

And if you look to scripture for examples, we’re generally called forward, rather than backward, anyway.

“See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)

“Sing to God a new song.” (Psalm 33:3)

“He put a new song in my mouth.” (Psalm 40:3)

…but Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

Enough looking back. The only way ahead is together. Get used to it.

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