The nostalgia charge

Factions on the Right are often accused of being motivated by nostalgia, by an unintelligent devotion to past arrangements merely for being familiar or associated with happy memories, rather than for their objective value.  Were we not so blinded by sentimentality, we would see that all that is past is irrevocably gone, this acknowledgement being the precondition for serious thought on the modern world.  At the same time, our memories are faulty, our ideas of the past we wish to recreate hopelessly idealized.

I have trouble understanding the accusation.  It seems that its pieces contradict each other.  If we have idealized the past, then we’re not just mindlessly trying to ape some past state of affairs.  By definition, we are guided by ideals of some sort.  One might still try to fault us for historical ignorance, except that we never claimed to be trying to build a historically accurate theme park–that’s the accusation the progressive is making against us.

Conservatives sometimes hurl the nostalgia accusation at each other.  I don’t think it is a fair criticism of any branch of the Right, including those to which I do not belong:  classical liberals, neoconservatives, “mainstream” conservatives, Latin-Mass Catholics.  The first three of the above are motivated by principles (I would say flawed ones), the last by both principles and a living social and sacramental reality.  (Only a Novus Ordo Catholic can be nostalgic for the Latin Mass.)

In his great work The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch devotes a chapter to nostalgia.  He points out that, although it is a favorite charge that progressives hurl at their critics, nostalgia is really just another side of faith in progress, not its opposite.  The nostalgic person looks upon the past as an irretrievably lost time of stasis and childlike innocence.  The modern man looking back wistfully on the past like this is in fact slyly congratulating himself on his present worldly-wise state.  As Lasch put it, nostalgia recalls the past only to bury it alive.  Nostalgia gives us false, unrealistic images of childhood, Native Americans, frontiersmen, small town life, and whatever else it forces into its “lost innocence of childhood” template.

I’m actually more sympathetic than Lasch to the emotion in question, but his description does make it clear that nostalgia is very different from conservatism.

Quite often, conservatives are told that we are nostalgic for the fifties, or rather an idealized fifties.  (Even the most ardent fifties-loving Republican doesn’t want a reprise of the Korean War, as even liberals must recognize.)  The accusation doesn’t hold, for the reasons I’ve given.  The funny thing about it, though, is that nostalgia for the fifties is actually widespread outside the political sphere.  We’ve all been in self-consciously fifties style diners, where they always take pains to have 50’s-early 60’s music, celebrity pictures, etc.  I’ve been told that there was a TV show–called Mad Men, I believe–that was very popular with many people just because they liked watching actors and actresses dressed smartly in 50’s-60’s style.  Then there are those “Oldies” radio stations like my dad likes to listen to.  (Me too, if truth be told.)

Now, we can tell this is nostalgia precisely because people want these things locked in their moment in the past, not as living traditions.  Let’s take oldies music.  Either the musical tradition of fifties-to-seventies rock was carried on in the eighties and nineties, or the latter is a break, the start of something new.  If later rock was the legitimate development of oldies rock, then separating out the older stuff and only listening to it is making the music of one’s childhood an object of nostalgia rather than a living tradition.  Suppose instead that what came after was something different, or maybe it was the same but not as good, a degeneration.  Well then, there’s no reason one couldn’t take up the tradition again.  If it’s better than what it replaced, there is every reason to do so.  In fact, it has been done!  I remember a decade or so ago, there was a movie about a sixties one-hit-wonder band–That Thing You Do, I think it was called; I didn’t see it–and to tell the story, the moviemakers got someone to write a very passable new sixties song, if you know what I mean.  With clothing styles it’s even more clear.  Progressives will give you plenty of plausible reasons why we can’t restore social or economic relations of the past, but there’s obviously no reason we can’t dress like people in the fifties, or people in the twenties, or people from any other decade in the last century–if not earlier.

Once one drops the Progressive dogma that the past is gone forever, it is shocking, exhilarating to realize the magnitude of the American people’s unused cultural freedom.  Inventing a style is admittedly difficult, but once it is invented it is no more difficult to take up a year, a decade, or five decades later.  If we want to start dressing nicely again like the people we see in old movies, there’s no reason we couldn’t all start doing that today.  When we make new music, we can continue the current styles or pick up bits from the thirties or the sixties or the eighties–whatever best fits the musician’s artistic vision.  We are locked in this present only by the lack of will for anything else, and we are are held back from wanting to use the past precisely by nostalgia, which demands that the past remain past and dead.

That’s just cultural ephemera.  As Alexander Dugin emphasizes, when one drops the dogma of Progress, everything is back on table.  It doesn’t matter whether it’s from the Middle Ages, the fifties, or the current year; it’s progressives, not conservatives, who care about that.  What matters is what is right, what is good, what works best.

5 Responses

  1. That Thing You Do was actually released 20 years ago now. But I never saw it either.

    The scene widely regarded to be the best in all the Mad Men series is explicitly about…..nostalgia.

  2. “Now, we can tell this is nostalgia precisely because people want these things locked in their moment in the past, not as living traditions. ”

    Your essay brings this distinction out well. Thanks for it.

  3. […] Bonald answers The nostalgia charge. […]

  4. In the “Harrison Bergeron” movie; American society is deliberately reconfigured to an improved version of 1950’s culture.

  5. […] The accusation is peculiar, for similar reasons as the accusation that American conservatives are nostalgic for the 1950s. Insofar as the Catholic prefers the Middle Ages for its religion, or the monarchist and […]

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