Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Race and Nostalgia

Lots of online chatter this week about what John Boehner meant when he said that Barack Obama was "snuffing out the America that I grew up in." That would be the 1950s and 1960s, since Boehner was born in 1949. Reihan Salam started off the current debate by arguing that there is nothing racist about the sentiment:
For at least some whites, particularly those over the age of 50, there is a sense that the country they grew up in is fading away, and that Americans with ancestors from Mexico or, as in my case, Bangladesh don't share their religious, cultural and economic values. These white voters are looking for champions, for people who are unafraid to fight for the America they remember and love. It's unfair to call this sentiment racist.
Which led Matt Yglesias to ask:
Does [Boehner] feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in? For the much larger labor union share of the workforce? The threat of global nuclear war? It’s difficult for me to evade the conclusion that on an emotional level, conservative nostalgics like Boehner are primarily driven by regret at the loss of social privilege by white men.
I think Boehner's statement was stupid but not inherently racist. First of all, most old people are nostalgic about the era they grew up in. People who grew up in the Depression are nostalgic for old radio and making do. Even ex-slaves, interviewed in old age in the early 1900s, sometimes said that things were better when they were children. So to ask what, exactly, people are nostalgic about is to miss the point of nostalgia.

Second, the world really has been changing at a rapid pace since 1949, and that scares many people. The world of 1949 really is "fading away," so it is hard to fault anyone for believing that it is. Our unease at the rapid pace of real change is heightened by the enormous fearmongering industry, which tells Americans every day about environmental degradation, out-of-control population growth, insidious terrorist plots, violent criminal gangs, poisons in our food and water, and so on.

Third, Boehner grew up in an era of rapid economic growth and US global economic dominance, when men with high school diplomas could get family-supporting factory jobs and women could afford to stay home with their young children. Is it racist to miss that? No, stop, you don't have to tell me about all the things that were wrong with America in the 1950s, from racism to the Red Scare to the great era of ugly architecture. Nostalgia works by blurring out the ugly scenes and tinting the good ones rosy, and since this is a human frailty that almost all of us share, it little behooves us to beat up John Boehner about it.

So I see no reason to assume that Boehner is any more racist or sexist than any other American man. But he is stupid to indulge his nostalgia so flagrantly. Nostalgia is psychologically dangerous because it creates a false contrast between a wonderful past and a miserable present, encouraging us to bemoan our fates instead of counting our blessings. It is also politically dangerous, because it encourages us to oversimplify, to look backward for solutions to novel problems, and to set up some imagined past as the standard by which to judge events of the very real present. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are not doing much to change America, and neither is government spending or debt. By focusing on those ephemera, Boehner and his colleagues are missing the real forces at work in America, from globalization to online entertainment, and sacrificing any chance they might have had of altering our direction.

No comments: