What About Nostalgia for a View of the Past?

What About Nostalgia for a View of the Past? August 6, 2020

Nostalgia has been on the ropes lately. The reason is apparently a new reckoning with systemic comprehensive injustice. I’m not sure who started it, but here’s a brief rundown.

Here’s not Johnny but John Fea:

In times of great social and cultural change, the nostalgic person will turn to a real or an imagined past as an island of safety amid the raging storms of progress. In other words, to quote Boym again, “progress didn’t cure nostalgia but exacerbated it.” Sometimes evangelicals will seek refuge from change in a Christian past that never existed in the first place. At other times they will try to travel back to a Christian past that did exist–but, like the present, was compromised by sin.

Then there’s one on the politics of nostalgia and its distortion of past and present:

For the politics of nostalgia doesn’t capitalise on people’s memories of particular past events they might have experienced. Instead, it makes use of propaganda about the way things were, in order to provide people with the right episodic materials to conjure up imaginations of possible scenarios that most likely never happened. These very same propagandistic strategies help to convince people that their current situation is worse than it actually is, so that when the simulated content – which, when attended, brings about positive emotions – is juxtaposed to negatively valenced thoughts about their present status, a motivation to eliminate this emotional mismatch ensues, and with it an inclination to political action. The politics of nostalgia has less to do with memories about a rosy past, and more with propaganda and misinformation. This suggests, paradoxically, that the best way to counteract it might be to improve our knowledge of the past. Nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, for better or for worse. Improving the accuracy of our memory for the past could indeed be the best strategy to curb the uncharitable deceptions of the politics of nostalgia.

Finally, the spiritual danger of nostalgia. When the Israelites constructed idols of golden calves, they were nostalgic for Egypt:

Our comfortable, settled American life has given way to a season of wilderness. Wilderness spaces unsettle us to our core by confronting us with how contingent our lives are. The manna God provides in such spaces does not taste like what we’re used to. But it nourishes us in ways that the rich fare of our previous settled life could not. As our current crises carry on, we will be sorely tempted to recreate an idealized, selectively remembered past rather than attend to the needs and concerns of the present. But God’s people must discipline themselves to focus on the here and now. For that is where the work of the Spirit unfolds, making all things new.

The thing is, in 2004 when the literary critic Clive James reviewed Philip Roth’s Plot Against America, he was not engaging in nostalgia:

As a man of reason, [Roth] must have figured out early that it has always been even worse for blacks: any photograph of Duke Ellington taken late in his life shows what being cast as a representative can do to the face of a genius. Ellington was too polite to say that an invitation to the White House was no full consolation for all the hotels that wouldn’t have let him past the front desk. There was never a hotel that Roth couldn’t get into, but he can be excused for inventing an alternative and worse American past in which his father would be told that the room he had been given was unavailable after all. It’s an understandable bad dream. But it hasn’t led to a good book, and couldn’t have. The United States will never be free of racial prejudice for the same reason that it will never enshrine racial prejudice in anything like the Nuremberg Laws: it’s a free country. Being that, it is bound to be full of things we don’t like, but the federally sanctioned destruction of a racial minority isn’t among them, and hasn’t been since Wounded Knee. As Roth must have realized long before he finished writing it, the insuperable problem with The Plot Against America is that America is against the plot.

Notice. Laws changed to abolish segregated public facilities. The United States did not implement laws against Jewish Americans that led to genocide. America did treat Native Americans inhumanely and unjustly but stopped and has attempted to remedy those injustices. Also notice. Freedom is a desirable political circumstance (though you may not be aware of that during government attempts to eradicate the coronavirus).

Aside from the debatable aspects of those assertions, even more important is that James could write those sentences without fear of cancellation. In 2004, even the progressive editors and staff at the Atlantic believed in progress and that the United States had developed to a point to put behind some of its worst episodes. They also believed that political liberty was valuable. I suspect they would have chuckled at the 1619 Project.

So what is it called when you thought about America’s past in generally positive ways and did so for most of your professional career and then switch on a dime overnight? Is that conversion? Is it denial? Is it even honest?

If I’m nostalgic, I get misty about a shared understanding of American history that was neither all saints all the time nor all villains always engaged in villainy.

But this is not nostalgia. What James described was historical science.

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