Wednesday, September 1, 2010

thoughts on nostalgia

After the occurrence of Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, a friend of mine asked me a few passing questions on the subject of political nostalgia, both commenting on how vague it was and questioning whether it pined for a time that may never have existed in the first place. Below is my response:


recognizing the importance on the topic of nostalgia, I spent about 4 hours the other day just trying to put together some semblance of thoughts on the matter and I utterly failed. thus the wait. I came back to it now and for some reason could put together my mini-thesis on the subject, but I'm interested to hear if this is what you're already thinking on the matter, or if you disagree in any way.

Nostalgia as I understand it represents a kind of homesickness in terms of time, and it does not really serve as a respectable political feeling except among those people who share the feeling. For the people that don't feel it, it is only too easy that it should come off as foolish. Like any other emotional response, I think there is something reasonable about this reaction to the present political moment, but it is obviously a dangerous game to take seriously the nostalgia of the Tea-party when it is being led by a radical like Beck. The people may not really be as bad as that, but because there is no official party agenda, we don't know what policies or changes can actually be expected from this rag-tag bunch of political newbies.

But more to your interests, arguably, the homesickness suggests that something in reality has changed - if nothing more than that we feel more uncomfortable or unhappier now than in the past. The effects of the financial crisis is only the most obvious example that much has changed for America recently. But like you mentioned, there is also a sense in which nostalgia can occur without any basis in real change. One of the most common examples of it would be the idea that those long lost comfortable feelings never existed in the first place, or at least that they've been idealized to such an extent that we convince ourselves that we have really gone astray. It would not be the first time that people willingly deceive themselves for certain political ends. Furthermore, part of nostalgia may involve fomenting discontent, where there need not be any - you get people believing they are worse off now than the past.

That explanation of nostalgia does present a real danger for politics, but i worry that it makes the people who feel nostalgia out to be either really dumb or really sinister, like some great conspiracy against logic and reason which has aimed at construing history to their own ends. I've become more pessimistic about human nature, but still I'm more interested in exploring other possible explanations than the basest possible interpretations. One other interpretation might be that it is us that has changed, and not the situation itself - like when we attempt our return only to realize that it no longer feels like home.

Nostalgia is also so vague as to be really unproductive - in fact, it has a tendency to produce simplistic responses to complex questions. And maybe that simplicity makes it even more desirable in an age when American politics exists on a massive scale, must consider multiple international factors, and at a moment when the influence of America is waning and even we are feeling lost without the polarization of distinct national powers. We're not quite sure of the way forward, so there is a strong desire to go back; unfortunately, politics is more like a flowing river than a path that we get to wander at our own pace - and you can never step into the same river twice. The best example of this I can think of is the sense in which the continued growth of the American economy since WWII was supported by the expansion of business into the realm of financial speculation and supported by the expansion of credit markets to more and more consumers. The real problem with nostalgia in this instance comes from the idea that going back to a simpler time of "fiscal responsibility" is simply not possible without wrecking the foundation for economic growth. In this solution especially, the way back is not a viable way forward.

That doesn't mean nostalgie is not sometimes a legitimate political emotion. Like anger or hope, it is subject to dangers of being turned to poorly conceived or meaningless ends. We just have to figure out how to turn it to the most effective ends.

There - take that! haha...i'll never get the thesis done at this rate...


p.s. grooveshark exists in the US. yessss....

9/1/2010, 12:53 a.m.