A NOSTALGIA ESSAY: PINING FOR PAST GLORIES AND THE GOOD LIFE

IT'S NOT ABOUT NOSTALGIA.  AT LEAST IT'S NOT FOR ME. 


















Was listening to NPR's "All Things Considered" (or if you’re Newt Gingrich “ONE Thing Considered”) yesterday afternoon just having come back from swimming where the guest was Yuval Levin author of “The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism” whose main thesis is that both conservatives and liberals are engaging in wistful nostalgia, both sides wishing to recreate a time past where each believe America was a better place. 

Here’s one review of this book:

Americans today are frustrated and anxious. Our economy is sluggish, and leaves workers insecure. Income inequality, cultural divisions, and political polarization increasingly pull us apart. Our governing institutions often seem paralyzed. And our politics has failed to rise to these challenges.

No wonder, then, that Americans--and the politicians who represent them--are overwhelmingly nostalgic for a better time. The Left looks back to the middle of the twentieth century, when unions were strong, large public programs promised to solve pressing social problems, and the movements for racial integration and sexual equality were advancing. The Right looks back to the Reagan Era, when deregulation and lower taxes spurred the economy, cultural traditionalism seemed resurgent, and America was confident and optimistic. Each side thinks returning to its golden age could solve America’s problems.


In “The Fractured Republic,” Yuval Levin argues that this politics of nostalgia is failing twenty-first-century Americans. Both parties are blind to how America has changed over the past half century--as the large, consolidated institutions that once dominated our economy, politics, and culture have fragmented and become smaller, more diverse, and personalized. Individualism, dynamism, and liberalization have come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, and social order. This has left us with more choices in every realm of life but less security, stability, and national unity.

Both our strengths and our weaknesses are therefore consequences of these changes. And the dysfunctions of our fragmented national life will need to be answered by the strengths of our decentralized, diverse, dynamic nation.

Levin argues that our dysfunctional fractionalism calls for a modernizing politics that avoids both radical individualism and a centralizing statism and instead revives the middle layers of society—families and communities, schools and churches, charities and associations, local governments and markets. Through them, he says, we can achieve not a single solution to the problems of our age, but multiple and tailored answers fitted to the daunting range of challenges we face and suited to enable an American revival.

On the air, Levin stated that we, America, view our recent past – say from 1950 onwards – through a liberal lens.  And I think he’s right about this.  Baby Boomers have long had a grip on the narrative that is America until very recently when hordes of revolutionary youngsters glommed onto Bernie Sanders and have shaken up our political system.   But all those 60’s and 70’s struggles - The Civil Rights Movement still informs our “racial conversation,” the Viet Nam War still inform the country’s divided view of the War in Iraq and America’s involvement in the Middle East and the Climate Change movement is still seen through the lens of the 1970’s Environmental Movement.  Even politics is still seen through the lens of the a time when Democrats and Republicans actually talked to one another across the aisles in Congress and got things done, when government and governance wasn’t the enemy.

I grant Levin’s “enormous changes between then and now” in the Twenty-First Century are a large part of why it is that we are such a divided society today. He maintains:   

Both parties are blind to how America has changed over the past half century--as the large, consolidated institutions that once dominated our economy, politics, and culture have fragmented and become smaller, more diverse, and personalized. Individualism, dynamism, and liberalization have come at the cost of dwindling solidarity, cohesion, and social order. This has left us with more choices in every realm of life but less security, stability, and national unity.

This statement lies at the very heart of his fundamental thesis.  This “freedom of choice” was a well-worn theme of Ronald Reagan.  But, well, no.  I beg to differ.  Especially his “This has left us with more choices in every realm of life but less security, stability, and national unity.”  Do today’s high school graduates have more choices about whether or not they can attend college?   They have all the choice in the world so long as they have parents who will pay or they have the fortitude to face a debt ridden future.  This wasn’t the case back in the 60’s and 70’s.  Do we have more choice about snagging a good paying union job as opposed to a minimum wage non-union job when in the 60’s and 70’s more than a third of America’s workforce were union members?  That figure is near 10% today.  How about the decline in the number of clinics that provide abortions for women?  The number of U.S. abortion clinics or medical facilities that perform more than 400 abortions annually, peaked in the late 1980’s at 705. By 2011, 553 remained.  Is this more choice for women?  Between 2011 and 2014 state lawmakers enacted 231 laws that restricted abortion services, reducing, not expanding available choices. 

I haven’t read Levin’s book, but his left and right “equally nostalgic meme” is bullshit.  Oh, wait.  Sure, there are lots of things that are gone in America that I am nostalgic for – being able to go to a state university and being able pay your way through to graduation by working as a TA; women being able to enter a Planned Parenthood Clinic without being harassed and screamed at by protestors; when it was unacceptable for public officials to spout racist and bigoted comments but today they get away with it with impunity; when we didn’t have to listen the God-damned phrase “cutting taxes creates jobs” when cutting taxes only means less tax revenue not more jobs. A time when expanding voting rights was the right thing to do and making it harder for people to cast their ballots would have been seen as traitorously un-American.  This is what I’m nostalgic for, not some 1950’s dreamy era so longed for by the right wingers or the turbulent 60’s when African Americans were still being lynched for trying to vote and white college students were being shot dead for protesting the Viet Nam War. 

Sorry Mr. Levin, if us Baby Boomers are nostalgic, it’s for a time when the conservative right wing onslaught against us was still a dream in Karl Rove’s deviously twisted, overheated brain.  But we’re not.  We’re realists.  We can discern fact from fiction, fantasy from real life.  We want to be able to make choices based on studies and data not on campaign slogans or unsupported right wing bullshit.  

And as for the great changes between the then and now, this part is true.  But on balance, I’m not so sure they have offered us “… more choices in every realm of life …” unless he’s referring to the vast explosion of shoe choices and the number of over-the-counter drugs and supplements we can now purchase.  This whole “choice” business is a false flag.  Real choices must be meaningful in order to qualify as a choice.  That I can choose between Theraflu, Relenza, Tamiflu, Coricidin, Alka Seltzer Plus and God knows how many more flu remedies, is not exactly what I would call a meaningful life choice.  Same with the 165 “choices” of breakfast cereals (mostly bad ones) lining the grocery store shelves.  And today most of the clothing and appliances – vast arrays to be sure - I choose to buy, come from one country – China.  As for the lessening of “security, stability, and national unity” I admit we all feel this dissonance to some degree or other, but these are symptoms of the real wars, the culture wars and constant political wars that have been foisted on us – and our being forced to “choose” between two diametrically opposite views of society and the future – by the conservative movement’s efforts to force the rest of us to bow to their demands (privatization, cutting taxes, voter ID’s, religious discrimination bills, bathroom bills, Citizen’s United, etc. ) through the use of any and all sleazy, crooked and dishonest means to win regardless of the cost to the rest of us and our society.


The nostalgia for the 1980’s and 1950's among angry Whites is for a time when Whites were the country’s rulers, when “white was right,” where the legitimacy and authority of White culture and White power were unchallenged as it is being challenged today. 

We “leftists” embrace diversity, we love the fact that African Americans, Latino’s, Asians and all the other ethnicities and cultural flavorings of America in the 21st Century are adding to our national pride and our newly minted American identity just as the Irish and the Italians did after World War II.

We leftists aren’t the ones who called President Obama a secret Muslim, not a real American, un-patriotic, terrorist sympathizer, a divider, a criminal.  That honor goes to our right wingers who still cannot imagine nor fathom that a Black Man has occupied the White House for two terms, a reality that was simply unimaginable back in the 1950’s or even the 80’s, the times they so long to bring back.  

Interestingly, Levin stated in his radio interview that Trump was a danger to America and he wouldn’t vote for him and then almost gratuitously volunteered that he would not vote for Clinton either without giving a single reason why.  Perhaps he believes in the popular fiction that she is untrustworthy, a criminal, a liar as her every Republican challenger. including her rival Donald Trump, claims endlessly.  Perhaps Mr. Levin is unaware that Benghazi, the IRS, the E-mail scandals, Vince Foster murder are largely the results of the efforts of a single right wing organization, Judicial Watch, whose motto “Because No One Is Above The Law” is a fiction of the highest order based on their own record of filings, complaints and lawsuits against Clinton, Obama and other Democrats. 

Levin’s argument that both left and right are nostalgic for a return to an illusionary more peaceful, less divisive, more cooperative society is just plain wrong.   The period between the end of World War II and 1960 was one of the most prosperous, productive times in American history.  If you were White.  It was also the period when Blacks fled the Jim Crow South only to find redlining, predatory home loan sharks, and widespread discrimination in employment, accommodations, education and medical services up here in the North.  It was also the time when Japanese Americans were being resettled from the internment camps where they had been imprisoned during the War.  It was a time when Blacks and Whites were legally barred from marrying in half the country.  It was a time when Blacks and Whites were totally walled off from one another up North, often more divided than down South.

This is the era that Trump’s followers long for.  It is the social arrangement that they would like to resurrect.  It is the political system where Whites were in control and had no obligation nor inclination to account for the well being and welfare of “others” – non-White-Americans – who were, indeed, American citizens but denied that citizenship through both both large and small means at the hands of ruling America’s White population.    

And one need look no further than conservative antipathy for Barak Obama – our first African American President – and the abject hatred, vitriol, slander and vilification at the hands of Republicans, The Freedom Caucus, The Tea Party, White Americans and the current Republican Candidate for President – the original Birther author and the latest slimeball accusing the President of terrorist sympathies included - to understand what White nostalgia for a blonder, bleached, flaxen and golden haired age is all about.

The rest of us have absolutely no desire – nostalgic or otherwise – to return to such an era.  


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