It’s an all too common thing for people to wish for what they see as a simpler time in their life. I know I have been prone to do it at various junctures, comparing the seemingly chaotic nature of the present with that of an idealized past, in which the hardest decisions of the day involved choosing clothing, or what to watch on television, if to watch it at all or go outside and enjoy whatever kind of nice day it was. Whether it’s scrutinizing one’s college days versus those of high school, or more generally of adulthood versus adolescence, it seems easy to convince ourselves that there is something uniquely crazy about the present, and serene about the past.
This strain of nostalgia is somewhat similar to the kind explored in the 2011 Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris. In it, the main character is a successful yet unsatisfied Hollywood screenwriter who sees himself rather as a novelist, whose accident of birth placed him in an era he doesn’t feel he fits into. Idolizing literary greats like Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald, he fantasizes often about Paris in the 1920s, and what it would be like to be a part of that infamously dubbed “Lost Generation” of writers, who themselves struggles with modernity, trying to make sense of a world with no clear path forward. Faced with his own personal struggles (an unfulfilling professional as well as personal life), he falls prey to a certain golden age fallacy – an inability to deal with the problems of the present, causing him to seek refuge in a different and what he sees as a more hospitable time – in hopes that ignoring that which is right in front of him will cause it to resolve itself in some beneficial or benign fashion.
While I don’t seek to place the film or Woody Allen’s intentions in it as some sort of modern political critique, these themes of nostalgia versus modernity do manifest themselves in peculiar, and I believe detrimental, ways in contemporary social conservatism. The very notion of conservatism presupposes the assumption that there is something worth conserving, something from the past that is worth holding on to and nurturing. Now, I’m not saying there is nothing, particularly about the American experiment, that is worth preserving. What I become wary about are the various ways in which these reactionist tendencies materialize. Modern conservatives, and this includes Republicans and Democrats, tout, among many things, an idea that is referred to as American exceptionalism, likening us to the famous “city on a hill,” an inherent superiority that illuminates the path upon which all that is good follows. The phrase, as we know it now, was originally coined by John Winthrop, an early governor in the Puritan Massachusetts Bay colony. Seeing the North American colonies as a guide for how England could regain her status as a godly nation, the implicit assumption in this statement is that America is somehow divinely inspired and by default set apart from all else. As a result, conservatives often lambast the current state of America as one that is wholly out of step with its origins; the only origin that could have provided the necessary conditions for the ensuing prosperity, entrepreneurial might, and technological innovation that placed us as human history’s preeminent superpower. The context for this nostalgia is often wrapped up in language that is frighteningly religious, and cultish in its almost worshipping admiration for certain historical figures – be they members of the Founding generation, the “greatest generation” of the World War II era, or presidents like John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan.
The dangers in these ideas lie in their tendencies. The notion that there is something about being an American that makes one inherently suited to do well and prosper is not only hubristic, but nationalistic. And as the history of the 20th century shows without a doubt, nationalism can be used in incredibly destructive ways. A reactionary philosophy that aims for an idealistic vision of a perfect society, it lays the groundwork for everything that I hope we all can agree are the hallmarks of a backward society – prejudice, racism, exclusion, and in many cases, violence. Because the nexus of nationalism is that the coincidence of one’s birth within arbitrary borders makes them distinct and privileged as compared to those who are not born within the imaginary lines, it is, in the words of Nobel Prize winning author Mario Vargas Llosa, “no more compatible with democratic culture than is totalitarianism.” Nationalism is the “culture of the uncultured, the religion of the demagogue,” and a smokescreen that can be used to paint a particular picture, one that often doesn’t do justice to reality.
This is why I cringe every time I hear about a contemporary problem that is the result of the loss of some quintessentially American ideal. We are quick, and right, to discredit the utopian sensibility of Marxism and other leftist ideologies. Why, then, do we believe that there exists in American history the very same kind of utopia which we can build the present upon? Though it is popular for politicians to trot out the tired cliché about how those who do not understand the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it, the statement is just untrue. History does not repeat itself; circumstances change and are molded in the swirling complexity of the present. Whether it’s one side arguing that strengthening unions to mid-20th century levels will resurrect manufacturing and the middle class or another arguing that returning various powers to the states will provide a seemingly simple and morally just solution, while wrapping it in hyper-patriotic language about the very soul of the nation being at stake seems, to me at least, misguided and sets dangerous precedents. This isn’t to say that nothing can be gained from the lessons of history – knowledge, after all, is a cumulative effort, as Isaac Newton famously observed in his quip about standing “on the shoulders of giants.” But acknowledging the wisdom of the past is a far cry from the hyperbolic image of the Founding Fathers turning over in their graves in condemnation.
Things have always been complicated; while there are plenty of turbulent times in any nation’s past, it is impossible to locate the locus de saeculo, the moment in which morality, decency, and good sense began to nearly irreversibly decline – most likely because it doesn’t exist. And constantly looking backward for answers is not only impractical, but further solidifies the idea in many minds that there is something distinct about being born American, suggesting that people act as citizens of the nation-state rather than independent actors who make logical, self-interested, and altruistic choices. It is, in my mind, the worst kind of nostalgia, with tendencies that can bring out the worst in humanity.
Jerrod Laber is an intern at the Institute for Humane Studies and a graduate of Marshall University. Image courtesy of Big Stock Photo.