I don’t recall where I first heard it, but there is an idea that all nostalgia is basically racism. As someone who indulges in various forms of what may be called nostalgia, I took this personally and had to ask myself some serious questions. I dress in neo-Victorian/Steampunk style with several groups of friends. I read a lot of “classics” – set in the 18th and 19th century. I am endlessly fascinated with ancient Rome and love to read about Roman religion and daily life. I listen mostly to classical music and opera, much of which was written over 100 years ago. And yes, I love “period dramas” in film and television with gorgeous costumes and sets from another era.
So yes, I was a bit touchy when many of my interests were all called racist.
A recent poll sparked some particularly topical versions of this question about nostalgia. This piece in the Washington Post by Janell Ross hit some of the themes that I am talking about. Another piece by Kali Holloway of Alternet hit many of the same themes.
The nostalgia part is a poll question asking if American culture had changed for the better or for the worse since the 1950’s. Around half of Americans, and 57% of white Americans believe that American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950’s.
Taken on its own, the ways in which American culture has changed are myriad, and some of these are definitely not for the better. I don’t personally think of the 1950’s as an ideal time by any means, but I can think of a number of ways in which our culture is worse.
Since the 1980’s, news sources no longer have a legal obligation to tell the truth, which has caused a proliferation of opinion sold as news and downright lies in the mass media. Our food culture is dependent on fast food, packaged food, and junk food – packed with sugar and sodium and lacking in many healthy nutrients. Americans cook very little and are not well informed about nutrition. Compared to the 1950’s, the last few decades have shown increasing violence in much of America. It has varied – spiking in the 1980’s, declining somewhat in the 1990’s, and increasing again in recent years.
And this doesn’t even touch on cultural things like taste in music, film or television, where some people’s preferences may run toward those popular in the 1950’s. That is largely personal taste, though.
But there has been obvious and huge improvements in American culture – racial and ethnic discrimination and segregation that was the rule of the land in the 1950’s changed, through the Civil Rights movement, the legal changes of the 1960’s and the gradual, but significant moves of African Americans, Asian Americans and Latin Americans into greater visibility and power in our cultural life. I am not saying that there is true equality – certainly there isn’t – but as an example, African American visibility in politics, media, sports, and many other areas has increased dramatically for the better. There is greater gender equality in employment and in many areas of culture. There has been a dramatic improvement in the legal status and cultural attitudes around LGBTQ people.
So, how the question is answered really depends on what aspects of culture are foremost in the minds of the person answering the question.
Janell Ross links this question to another question on the poll and uses this link to indict white American’s nostalgia. The other question whether discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against other blacks and other minorities. Around 60% of white Americans said yes.
I wholeheartedly disagree with this one. There is no widespread discrimination against white Americans. I think that the American middle and working classes have seen a disintegration of opportunity overall in the past couple decades. Well paid manufacturing jobs are very difficult to come by due to a combination of products being manufactured in other countries and the erosion of the power of labor unions. Median household income has slid downward in the last decade, even as the politicians and media are touting the economic recovery. The stock markets are high and unemployment is down, but the quality and pay of jobs is lower. The recovery has been for the rich and not for the middle or working class. So the pie, so to speak, has been shrinking, and yes the proportion of opportunities for African Americans and other minority groups have improved. But this doesn’t add up to discrimination against whites. It means white Americans are getting a more equitable share of a shrinking set of opportunities.
I have seen this nostalgic link that Janell Ross is making. Even in the mid-1990’s, when I was newly graduated from college and it seemed like 90% of my friends were working at temp jobs with no benefits and no security, I had older people tell me “there was a time when a bright young man like you could write his own ticket, but not anymore.” Implied was that I was a young WHITE man, and that I had to compete with women and people of different racial and ethnic minorities. But I do not long for a time when things would be given to me simply because of my race and sex. That is just discrimination.
So yes, I agree that there’s a kind of racist nostalgia that happens among white Americans. I also see that certain troubling populist politicians are using themes like “make America great again!” play into this and have a racist undercurrent. When Donald Trump is talking about making America great, he’s also calling for a registry of Muslims and calling Mexican immigrants rapists. He is not appealing to some ideal of American pluralism. He’s appealing playing on white American fears of those different from them and linking it to the real experience of loss of economic opportunity.
But I don’t think that nostalgia necessarily comes with that baggage. Janell Ross states something that points to where nostalgia and racism can split and don’t necessarily mean the same thing. She states:
Yes, nearly 60 percent of white Americans believe that life in America before the advent of the cassette tape, the ATM, IVF, the hand-held calculator and the bar code was better than it is today. Apparently life was very good for these Americans, when segregated public facilities were a legal requirement in the South and Southeast and a social norm in many other places. Most people of color could not obtain credit or a loan from most “mainstream” banks.
And here we have a link being made between the technology or fashions of an era and its moral failings. This is a common habit, and it’s completely nonsensical. Somehow cassette tapes and bar codes furthered the cause of racial equality? Of course not. Are poodle skirts and cars with tail fins necessarily linked to segregated drinking fountains? The question is absurd.
John Michael Greer, one of my favorite bloggers addressed this sort of question recently in a couple blog posts here and here where he brings up how inflamed people become when someone chooses to opt out of some currently popular technology.
Then there are the people whose response to the technology of an older time is to yammer endlessly about whatever bad things happened in those days, even when the bad things in question had nothing to do with the technology and vice versa. People like the couple I discussed in last week’s post, who prefer Victorian furnishings and clothing to their modern equivalents, get this sort of bizarre non sequitur all the time, but variants of it turned up in my inbox last week as well. Here again, there’s some heavy-duty illogic involved. If a technology that was invented and used in the 1850s, say, is permanently tarred with the various social evils of that era, and ought to be rejected because those evils happened, wouldn’t that also mean that the internet is just as indelibly tarred with the social evils of the modern era, and ought to be discarded because bad things are happening in the world today?
John Michael Greer advocates specifically for all of us to step back from our dependence on every new and energy intensive gadget and to learn skills and habits that will help us in a coming period of energy scarcity. I agree with this thinking and I am trying to move my life in this direction (which I am finding a challenge in many ways).
But I also am a fan of taking inspirations from the past and recognizing in a clear-eyed way that we don’t need to adopt the social attitudes and blind spots of prior eras along with their technology or styles. I wrote about that with regard to Steampunk a couple years ago and I firmly believe it today. If we want to learn to bake like our great grandmother or retell grandpa’s stories, that doesn’t mean that we need to agree with the social attitudes of their day. Racism, sexism, anti-LGBTQ attitudes, intolerance of those who have different languages or religions – these are all things that don’t deserve our nostalgia and we can leave them in the past.