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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  • Sfcharcee

    Great article.  Even as a white woman of privilege the “good old days” of even two or three decades reflect a time when I would have had far few professional and educational options, far less say over my body, far fewer legal rights, heck, I couldn’t have gotten a credit card without my husband’s permission!

  • Very compelling perspective. Thanks for bringing it out.

    Ecclesiastes 7:10 – Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?”
       For it is not wise to ask such questions.

  • Anonymous

    When you look to a satirist for the sole example of how a group of people thinks, its not surprising that you end up going down a rabbit hole of mischaracterization. I’ve yet to meet anyone who thinks we should go back to “the good old days” of polygamy, rape of slaves, killing gay people, stoning, arranged marriages, etc. I think Christian Piatt gets this, but then why bring these things up in the first place?

    No one actually thinks everything about the past is positive. Yet there’s nothing wrong with yearning for a time when certain things prevalent in today’s society weren’t as they are (see Wendell Berry). Piatt sets up a false choice (with some poor exegesis of a few Bible verses) of either looking completely at the future without longing for what’s been lost along the way or pining for a lost age when certain segments of society were treated pretty horribly. We all need to be cognizant of how romanticizing the past can gloss over real injustice or hurts, but that’s not a reason to reject trying to conserve those bits of the past worth conserving.

    I get the impression that when conservatives yearn for “family values” of the past they’re wishing for an age with lower divorce rates, fewer children born in to broken homes and to unwed mothers, lower abortion rates…a time when our children weren’t assaulted by sexuality, weren’t told by our “educators” that teenage sex is okay (just be safe about it!), etc. I assume these are things that Piatt would long for as well, right?

    Perhaps Paitt’s case would be helped if he actually quoted some of the people he’s criticizing so we could get an idea of what they’re expressing nostalgia for rather than relying on Colbert’s satirical portrayal. I also think it would be helped if he didn’t try to make a left vs. right, political issue out of this as they are plenty of people on the left who romanticize certain aspects of the past as well.

    • Revdiroth

      I think your critque is cogent, Sam, and I look forward to a future post where the points you raise are addressed.  However, I think the main point:  the only way ahead is together — is still true.  And would be even stronger if he used some of the points you mention. 

      I do think that the point that the African-american woman was making is a sound one. 

  • Christian, you are as much a part of my MDiv curriculum as the classes I attend, and the homework I may or may not be working on.  Thanks for bringing this to my attention.  Thanks for being a white, straight, Christian, male who sees his privileged and uses his platform to talk about it. You know, I doubt that men who enjoy staying home with their kids, who find a sense of relief in more flexible gender roles, who don’t fit the 9-5 with a briefcase or a wrench in hand to be the family’s breadwinner also appreciate the progresses our country has made and don’t wish to go back to some Ozzie and Harriet days of yore.  The Weathorford, TX High School Kangaroos – Kangaroos are apparently incapable of walking/hopping backwards – they only move forwards.

  • Matthew Harris-Gloyer

    Great stuff, Christian.  Thanks for bringing your words.

    I agree with Mr. Sam Hamilton below that many conservatives yearn for the goodnesses of ages past while also lamenting the crimes against humanity that existed as well.  We always do better when we are clear, concise and precise about what, exactly, we are nostalgic for.  My difficulty with persons of persuasion and the average conservative who speaks of the nostalgia is that there is often a deafening silence about the crimes of the same nostalgic time period.  That is what is infuriating to me and what I think infuriates many others who lived through or are aware of the inequalities, the bigotry and the criminality and the evil that exists in the world.  When conservatives refuse to talk about evil in the past, they trivialize and de-legitimize the goodness that they would like to purport.  People need to hear that their leaders, neighbors, co-workers and friends understand or at least are aware of the struggles of the past and present.  Furthermore, when some people of any stripe make universalizing statements about the ‘good old days’ as if they were great for everybody they appear to be a fool or in denial or ignorant.  For, as Ms. Harris-Perry and Mr. Piatt reminds us (as many others have done throughout time), there have been few times in American History that have been good times for people who are non-white or poor or not-hetero or female and, and, and. So, until conservatives take up the banner of speaking a fuller truth of America’s past consistently and persistently and seeking to own up to America’s faults, I will continue to look to a satirist to draw the focus.  For, the impression is that conservatives (and white folks of any political stripe) don’t know a hoot or give a damn about people not like them.  That’s the issue.  We do not want to repeat the atrocities of the past and sometimes the impression is that conservatives and many white folks do not know about those atrocities.  That is unacceptable.

    • Anonymous

      Good addendum to my post.  I agree that conservatives need to both be more specific about what they are nostalgic for and acknowledge that there are many aspects of our past that no one wants to resurrect or repeat.

  • Kelly Damian

    Hi Christian,
    I’m new to your blog.  I found out about you through the AKA Literary website.  You really struck a chord with this posting.  I am a teacher and I find that some people love waxing nostalgic about the good old days when you could beat children in school.  The suggestion is that in the 1950s the students respected the teachers and the parents supported every move they made.  Call me crazy, but I have no desire to teach with a paddle on the wall, and I certainly don’t want to return to the 1950s!  If so, my girls would not be allowed to play sports, I would not have access to birth control, and many of my students would be sent to segregated schools.  Give me the messy, chaotic, complicated and overwhelming world of 2012. 

    • Christian Piatt

      amen! and welcome!

  • DK

    you villainize whole swaths of people by tarring them with an absurd caricature, and then speak of “moving forward together”?  I am not particularly impressed. 

  • silly. we call these sorts of arguments reductio ad ridiculum for obvious reasons. when conservatives say things like “i’d like to return to america’s first principles”, they don’t mean taking a time machine and negating all the good things they’ve done, like passing the 14th amendment, for example. how many democrats voted for the 14th amendment? zero. 

    no, what conservatives usually mean when they say those things, is they’d like to return to pre-socialist america with all that encompasses. we believe in legislative equal rights, but we’re absolutely against the leftist idea that government should continue to fail at legislating equal outcomes. equal rights ≠ equal outcomes. we’re pragmatic, not pie-in-the-sky utopian. 

  • Berman Alexander647

    Great article! As an Asian American in an interracial relationship I cannot think of a single time in history where I would be allowed to live my life as I do.  Waxing nostalgic about the past, especially the “good ole days” doesn’t make much sense when you think about the inequities and hypocrisies that existed back then. Not that we aren’t hypocritical in our own way, but I think that our society has come a long way from those “good ole days.” If Rick Santorum becomes the nominee I cannot see myself voting for him if only because he stands for everything that invalidates my status as an American, who also happens to be interracial, in an interracial relationship, well educated, hard working, and non-religious.