The Politics of Nostalgia

“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but to be young was very Heaven.”

– William Wordsworth on the French revolution before he changed his mind.

For a long time I lived among educated middle class English who had a passion, verging on sickness,  for Panhellenism, a nostalgic look back to classical Greece (without the slaves and bad drainage) as a “second home”.  This longing for a mythical, happier Greece swept Victorian England (and Germany)  when people were shaken up by convulsive social change.  New railroads, new women, new politics.  Too much too soon in what Thomas Hardy called a “precipice of time”.

Nobody laughed when the poet Shelley announced, “We are all Greeks now.”

Today we live on the edge of just such a precipice.

Nostalgia cuts both ways.  Longing for an idealized past can help us map out a dangerous but possible future.

It can also handicap our desire for change by miring us in a fantastical historically distorted “good old days”.  I’m terribly guilty of this because in my ceaseless search for “ancestors” I sometimes idealize the worst parts of the Great Depression, even the war years, their violence and poverty and racism, as well as the good stuff like the three-cent stamp and mass strikes and factory-occupy movements that grew the  New Deal-era labor movement and thus our middle class.

Other people’s nostalgia takes different forms, like an inspiring look back to the Vietnam antiwar protests or feminist marches or blaming Russia or the Electoral College for a mismanaged liberal campaign.   Or, more historically, enshrining the Abolitionist movement as peaceful Quakers rather than armed militants.

Since I’m impossibly drawn to the past, to my own antiquity, for comfort as well as instruction, a question is how to use our own experiences, including our parents and their parents – and their dreams –   to turn back the death wave coming out of Mar-a-Lago.

In his campaign Donald Trump and his trolls successfully exploited nostalgia as a political tool by painting a fake picture of a 1950s Rinso-all-white America without all these irksome African Americans, border crossing Latinos and defiant women – without What Makes America Really Great.  His Oz had a mighty appeal for voters who were hungry for something they weren’t quite sure what  except to trust a compulsive liar’s promise that whatever is wrong “I can fix it.”

Our side never learned to use nostalgia as effectively and emotionally as he did and does.

Democrats and liberals are often accused of being poor at “the vision thing”.  Probably true,  since we tend to believe poll numbers more than our creative memories.

More articles by:

Clancy Sigal is a screenwriter and novelist. His latest book is Black Sunset

March 21, 2018
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