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My mother and I have an ongoing argument.
“Life was simpler in the ’50s, Jay. It really was,” she says.
I call baloney on that. Just think about what the ’50s offered Western culture: atomic bomb terrors, the HUAC, segregation, women who lived in fear of unwanted pregnancies and could only choose from a few professions, Cold War passive aggression, Europe and Asia in ruins, and people still suffering night sweats from the horrors of the Holocaust and World War Two. Feel free to join in with more of your own.
“No, mom,” I usually say. “They just seemed simpler because you were a kid.”
“No,” she usually says ruefully. “They really were.”
(Right, I think. While your mom slaved to cook dinner nightly for your father or face hell to pay. They were so much better.)
Nostalgia! I love you dearly, mom, but it’s killing us.
I look at this Dadaesque charade that Glenn Beck & Buddies are putting on right now. These are not people who thrive on specificity. Instead, they invoke fuzzy nostalgia. Just a few days after his rally in Washington, Beck was already showing images from it that were doused in soft focus, the way they shoot old ladies like Barbara Walters on television. The engine of his “change” platform runs on fuzziness, because it runs on nostalgia, and nostalgia is always fuzzy. Especially when it’s based on something that never was.
Their platform, as expressed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, is fuzzy, too. They didn’t really propose anything specific. Instead, they referred constantly to an America that they feel is being lost. One that needs to be “restored” with “honor,” which doesn’t mean anything in practical terms, so is fairly unassailable by anyone with facts in hand.
These words, uttered by Beck, are something like a refrain:
“They actually want you to believe that this nation was not built on faith by men of good character. They want you to believe a nation can survive without faith, character and integrity.”
To him, then, there’s something we’re departing from and something more odious we’re approaching. To accept his imagining of our pluralistic society, you have to accept that what we’re departing was good. That’s where nostalgia is necessary. A nostalgia free of slavery, monopolies, inequalities, greed, and other assailable truths.
We Americans are good at nurturing delusions of nostalgia. We treasure Main Street, USA, at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, which presents a version of America that never really was. We build planned communities of curtain-shuffling inhabitants in an attempt to re-animate the Leave It to Beaver world that our Hollywoodized upbringings convinced us we left behind. We keep the shape and look of our currency just so. We invoke the Founding Fathers as if we could divine their will from beneath their graves, though of course the average American couldn’t tell you the first thing about Jefferson or Washington or Dickinson. Not that many of them depended on slavery, defended secularism with an almost animal passion, or even that Adams himself defended the British in the Boston Masscare — the 9/11 of its day.
Nostalgia is mythology. Times were not that great back then — especially if you weren’t white and holding some money, but even if you were. And times are not particularly awful now. May I direct you to the Black Plague?
Why is fact-checking of nostalgia so important?
For one, if your eyes are open, you can dismantle a perception of an event. You realize that the way we choose to see things doesn’t always testify to what really happened. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle lives through the people who recorded history for us, because they were born with the biases of their day, and similarly, we are born not knowing the petty politics of another man’s day. But more importantly, nostalgia can be used to rally people around whatever notion you care to attach it to.
Several times in American history, we have responded to tough economic times by springing toward nostalgia. A return to normality, to prosperity, is possible! Depressions and recessions have often been accompanied by Great Awakenings, or spiritual revivals, in which Americans terrified for their futures could cling to the soothing fancies of their simpler and more secure pasts. Pasts painted rosier than they really were — Main Street fantasies.
Glenn Beck is, believe it or not, a secularized version of the weirder-than-life firebrands that America produced during various Great Awakenings. George Whitefield. Jemima Wilkinson. Lyman Beecher. Billy Sunday. As humans, it seems proven that we need to believe in our purer selves, especially when times get bad. Unfortunately, those with political aspirations can frame the nostalgia in terms of any group that has been perceived to have usurped our purer selves.
“As long as American politics remain a matter of simulacra—of rhetoric and persona—the storytellers will dominate the discussion, doing what myth has always done—supply order in place of chaos and uncertainty. This is our modern tragedy: Recent history offers a parade of evil fabulists, from Hitler to Karl Rove to Kim Jong-Il, all of them bewitching storytellers.”
Of course American politics will remain a matter of rhetoric. They always have. The question of states’ rights might well have been carved into our national seal from the moment of our inception, and since the embrace of that issue has enduringly fired all sorts of issues, from slavery to spot immigration checks to gay marriage, there are many of us who work to harness it, and it pays to convince the rabble that it was ever settled, when it never was.
If you can make people believe that it was they who made us veer from the path (in the last century, the alcohol drinkers were the they), then you’re halfway home to building political power.
Nostaglia, then, is also one of the most powerful weapons in American culture, and knowing the whole truth of history is your shield.
In almost all cases, there was never one path, never one truth. In our fuzzy, Barbara Walters-style soft focus, where our depth of understanding can be summed up in a tweet, we can be tricked into thinking there was. But the good old days were not as simple as we enjoy believing. And because we were never really fully there to experience them, we can’t know that, and we can only embrace nostalgia and mourn what we would like to believe has been lost.