Nostalgia – History’s Greatest Nemisis

Nostalgia has its rightful place at reunions, on anniversaries and within the pages of dusty photo albums; it has no place in the practice of history.

Not be egregious, but words have meaning. They have precision.

Words also have implication, a more subjective state of meaning, but one that demands the user bring to bear his or her highest criterion of meaning, of precision. Nostalgia, for example, has its own connotation, and yet that word is routinely applied as a standard in the understanding of history.

The Faulty Yardstick

History is carelessly, incorrectly, and often times innocently understood to be the events that happened in the past. That’s not history. History is the present-day interpretation of historical events. It is the perpetual and necessary process of examining the past, identifying the biases of the each generation’s own interpretations and then applying a contemporary explanation. Nostalgia, a concept fraught with bias, is fatal to any truth of understanding when commingled with history.

A View From the Balcony

As this blog’s scope includes contemporary issues viewed with an eye to history, I offer this years’ particularly bizarre presidential campaign as supporting evidence for this post’s theme. My own biases are acknowledged.

Calls to restore our nation, though not unique to this year’s campaign rhetoric, suggest to me a complete contempt for history. This restoration is both vague and insidious. It’s meaning is a familiar invocation, and by familiar I intend the meaning of a common sympathy,  of a demonstrably  segregated time of our past. This nostalgic righteousness is for a time when order served those values to which, apparently many, would like to return. Those values, however, can’t be extracted from among those that had people of color relegated to the balconies of theaters not entirely segregated.

The But of Nostalgia

When any of us interpret the past, we’re obligated by the dictates of historical study to guard against flaws of nostalgia, but also the very human tendency to insert that most self-serving conjunction – but. (You thought a grammatical fax pas?)

Those who value the study of history cannot dodge contradicting the use of conditional nostalgia in support of bigotry, and yet this flawed apology is increasingly unchallenged in common public discourse. When the usual tepid reminder that the “good old days” are marked by shameful societal standards, apologists invariably retort by selectively removing from an indivisible rendition of the past those most damnable institutions.

“Sure, segregation was wrong, but…”

“Sure, women were relegated to subservient status, but…”

To go on is unnecessary, though to continue our tacit acceptance of appeals to a nostalgic return with such indefensible meaning and implication for our future is moral cowardice and nothing less.

Sensible sentiments

Our quadrennial struggle to define our future is inextricably tied to our understanding of American History. That understanding has ample room for the legitimate debate as to which visions, values, philosophies and political methods should prevail, but none of these can be viewed as cogent if drawn from renditions of a past clouded – or deceived by – nostalgia. This is especially true of those  version with sinister foundations, which I find increasingly prevalent in today’s political thought.

Words have meaning. For me, I prefer to be sentimental about those prevailing efforts in our past that rejected in the face of determined, often violent opposition, the most abhorrent stains with which we must accept as our common past. Nostalgia was, in every case, one of the most effective tools used by those who maintained our most evil societal establishments; nostalgia remains just as dangerous today as it’s used by those wishing to guide us back where we cannot allow ourselves to return.


Nostalgia – History’s Greatest Nemisis — 7 Comments

  1. I hate to use a sports analogy, but I always equated history with a batter at the plate in an important baseball game. The count is 3-2 with 2 outs in the 9th inning. As the pitcher releases his pitch, the batter, expecting a fastball is frozen as a curve comes across the plate and the game is over.
    There are 100 opinions afterward as to what happened and why the batter didn’t swing. As time goes on, the at bat becomes legendary.
    “Choke artist”, “Never delivers in a big game”.

    The missing ingredient and the same applies even to many historical events is that you were not in that batters shoes. As Yogi Berra once allegedly said when he was asked if hitting was instinctive or cerebral said, “You can’t hit and think at the same time”.

    Mark, I have not read Kunkel’s book. I did read Brendan Gill’s, “Here at the New Yorker” many moons ago.
    In fact, I got hooked on the New Yorker reading Roger Angell’s pieces over these many years, although at 92, he’s pretty much hung up his baseball literary spikes.
    As the stepson of E.B.White, he surely knew how to write with style.

  2. Great thinking. However most people who want the America of old have absolutely no right to claim tat they are historians! They have very selective memory and only remember things that were good for themselves, not others.

    • One of the greatest barriers to understanding the past is that far too many people don’t understand the difference between history and past events.

      History is the present day interpretation of past events. It must take into account the biases of past interpretations and accept that, at any point in the future, all historical interpretations will receive the same scrutiny and will likely find bias unintended at the time of creation.

      I’d love to offer that all history is revisionist by nature, but the term “revisionist” has been so carelessly applied that a Holocaust denier’s poison is equated with an examination of the role ordinary Germans played in permitting that atrocity to be perpetrated. Of course both involve the re-thinking of an accepted history, but one ignores evidence while the other included new perspective – big difference.

  3. Yes, even almost 100 years after the group began, most of their work and especially their social commentary still applies today. Not to be too political, but doesn’t this one by Dorothy Parker seem on the mark? :

    “If you want to know what God thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to.”

    • Paul, I never heard that quote by Parker; it makes me love her all the more.

      Have you, (and I bet you have), ever read Thomas Kunkel’s delightful biography of Harold Ross, “Genius in Disguise?”

  4. It was the great Franklin P. Adams who once said,

    “The good old days are a result of a faulty memory”.

    • On my bucket list is a visit to the Algonquin Round Table. Thank you Paul for adding a great post script to this piece.