The politics of nostalgia

FullSizeRender-2I have spent more time reading in the past week or so than I have in a while. As I once wrote for Fast Company, making time to read is about supply and demand. You need time available for reading (the supply side) and demand to use those hours for reading. That’s a function of having stuff you want to read. If you have stuff you want to read, you turn time that could be spent on other things into reading time.

It probably says a lot about my personality that what I want to read is not page-turner novels. Instead, I hacked through the 400-plus pages of Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens in 4 days, and am now cruising through Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic.

Levin’s book has gotten much attention in pundit circles. It is a bit tedious at times, reading somewhat like a college history term paper, but I do think he makes an interesting point that much of modern political storytelling is built around intense nostalgia. Those on the left romanticize a time in the 1960s when cultural liberalization was on the rise and yet the economic order was far more stable and protected than it is now. Those on the right romanticize the 1980s, when economic liberalization was ascendant and, at least in the telling, there was a renewed emphasis on traditional values and American might. Both sides talk of returning to this golden age. If only our political enemies could see the light we might undertake a restoration.

This idea of seeking after a lost golden age is probably more the default human mindset, if one believes the narrative in the other Yuval’s book, Sapiens. Throughout history, people have believed that “the great gods, or the one almighty God, or the wise people of the past possessed all-encompassing wisdom, which they revealed to us in scriptures and oral traditions.” Indeed, “Until the Scientific Revolution most human cultures did not believe in progress. They thought the golden age was in the past, and that the world was stagnant, if not deteriorating. Strict adherence to the wisdom of the ages might perhaps bring back the good old times.” There were exceptions, to be sure, and people improved on little things, but the wisest people studied the existing texts. The idea that there were new things to learn, and that these new things might help us in ways our elders could not see, and that the future would therefore be better than the past, is a relatively new idea.

It is, however, a profoundly useful idea in terms of advancing humankind. As Harari points out, a Spanish peasant who fell asleep in 1000 and woke up in 1500 would recognize much of the world. One who fell asleep in 1500 and woke up in 2000 would not.

Anyway, I was thinking of this as I woke up this morning to see the results of the Brexit vote. I wish I could believe that the vote to leave was a result of people wanting to throw off the shackles of bureaucratic “takers” in Brussels and that the UK was about to establish a utopia of free minds and free markets. However, I suspect the vote was driven more by a revolt against free trade and immigration. There is a nostalgia for a golden past when nations were great and took care of their own and did not think of the international order. I suspect this same mindset is driving the revolt in the US that has done what it has done to the Republican party. We shall see in November if the outcome is the same.

In any case, I do hope that the future-focused mindset will ultimately prevail. All was not perfect in any of these golden ages of the past (just a practical thought for my own life — my alma mater would not have admitted me had I been born 30 years earlier). The human ability to solve problems in the future and achieve better things than past humans could have even anticipated, is one of our species’ best attributes. So much of that depends on the free exchange of as much as possible, not hunkering down.

In other news: My post on 7 Ways To Slow Summer Down ran over at Fast Company.

Next week I’ll be writing about “the best interns ever” — if you’ve ever had an amazing intern, what made him or her so great? I think there is much to learn from this about how to make a good impression quickly. As always, feel free to email me at lvanderkam at yahoo dot com.

Also, the American Time Use Survey is supposed to be released later today, so I’ll likely write about that next week.

Photo: Books by the two Yuvals that I have been reading this week. 

15 thoughts on “The politics of nostalgia

  1. I remember being blown away when I learned that JFK and Jackie had son who was born at 34 weeks and who died because the best medical teams in the country didn’t have the tools to save a premature infant. Both my kids were born early– if I lived 50 years ago, they wouldn’t have survived.

    It’s a funny thing to embrace both ancient wisdom and contemporary progress.

    1. @Calee- so true. Looking at infant mortality statistics for any time before the last few decades is pretty sobering. I would not want to live without modern medicine (and in fact, many of us *wouldn’t* be living without modern medicine).

  2. I’m pretty stunned about the Brexit vote. I’m not one for nostalgia for “for a golden past when nations were great and took care of their own and did not think of the international order.” I love your phrasing because it shows the magical thinking.

    I’m skeptical such a thing/place/time existed. I know my life certainly wouldn’t be anymore golden. I wouldn’t have even been allowed to immigrate into the U.S.

    1. @June – it is stunning. And as for the nostalgia for a golden time – I’m always surprised to hear fairly liberal people waxing nostalgic for a previous era. I think if one were to choose a time to be female, or a person of color, or LGBT, now is kind of the best era on offer.

      1. I so agree about your point on being female or a person of colour. For someone like me, who is female, and a child of African immigrants who came to the UK in the seventies, the past was not golden, It was racist and inflexible. Today, I have more options and face less overt racism than my parents did. I don’t want to go back, I want to go forward for my sake and my descendants sake.

  3. I agree Laura. I was saying the same to friends today. I live in the Uk and I am saddened and shocked by the result of the Brexit vote. I feel like it was turned into a vote on patriotism and nostalgia for the past rather than what is really in the economic interests of the country today. It’s now waiting to see the long term effects of today’s decision.Good luck to you all in the US for November. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out

    1. @Nadia – “interesting” is one way to put it. I have been doing my best to tune out the US election right now, just because of how depressing it is. Obviously, many of us misjudged the deep wells of certain sentiments. The problem with let’s-stick-it-to-the-elite identity politics is that it doesn’t respond well to arguments, because people then interpret it as “see, they’re attacking us, let’s double down!”

  4. I also live in the UK, unfortunately in the part of the country where the Leave vote had its biggest majority. I can genuinely say I have never been more depressed about the future of my country than I am currently. And re your point about the nostalgia effect I think it is telling that 73% of 18-24 year olds voted Remain. My 16 year old daughter (who did not have a vote) is devastated as she wants to study foreign languages at university and then work in Europe. For all the wrong reasons I think this is going to feel like a very long summer.

    1. @KatherineB – I know, it is depressing, and what was more depressing was some of the language from older voters choosing Brexit that was basically along the lines of “we don’t care what happens to the young people of this country or that they think of themselves as European.” Ugh. I hope whatever changes happen won’t keep your daughter from pursuing her dreams. We need more people interested in building international bridges.

  5. Laura, I always enjoy reading your blog and I always appreciate reading the comments. It’s great to get UK perspectives from some of your readers–even if it is very troubling. As old as I am, I am not nostalgic for the past!

  6. It’s funny you should be thinking about this — I was too, in the wake of the Brexit vote. Because I’m very rarely nostalgic, in fact anti-nostalgic, and thus have a hard time understanding how nostalgia can be appealing in the face of uncertainty. Part of this is personal — I tend to remember my screwups better than anything else about my past — but part, I think, is growing up in the US South, where nostalgia has usually been both very political and very, very racialized (i.e. the “Lost Cause”). So I have blinders on, when it comes to understanding why someone who grew up in postwar Britain might find the EU threatening and Leave appealing.

    You might like Peter Marris’s Loss and Change, by the way, if you stumble upon it (it’s out of print, I think). It’s a series of studies about the way people react to sudden change and uncertainty.

    1. @Jessica- I will check out that book – often possible to find used books that are out of print. That was the interesting idea in Sapiens, that the natural tendency of people is to be nostalgic for a golden past. It is only in the past few centuries that people have decided that we have the power to shape the present to create a better future by admitting our ignorance and trying to figure out answers through systematic experimentation.

      And yes, the Gone with the Wind mindset is something to behold.

  7. I know this comment comes very late, but I recently came back to the blog and was just reading the post. I was not surprised by Brexit. I’m from the Balkans and remember a certain 1990 vote and what followed. And despite good reasons for dissolution of Yugoslavia, so much of the motives were in the past and nostalgia. So many of political missteps since then have been driven by large percentage of old voters (because population ages in the times of war, it is the young that go to battle or flee), and their nostalgia. I was visiting Europe last summer and the general mood was reminding me of things I’d rather forget. I’m honestly scared of what the next five years will bring us.
    On the other hand, I just finished reading Sapiens (I wasn’t online because I was on a reading binge) and I feel it should be required reading in history classes, it provides an amazing perspective on humanity and how we tend to paint history in the color of our own experience.

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