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nostalgia: a sentimental or wistful yearning for happiness felt in a former place, time, or situation; recalling past, irrecoverable moments with pleasure and sadness; longing for the good old days; homesickness; loss.
Who’s immune from pangs of nostalgia, per the modern definition as wistful recollections of positive, meaningful peak moments? Recall the emotional turning point in the movie Ratatouille when skeptic Anton Ego experiences ecstacy when (re)tasting his mother’s long-ago home-cooking, inspiring the resonant title. Call it wondrous nostalgia. Or a darker example from perhaps the Beatles’ biggest hit, Yesterday, where “all my troubles seemed so far away,” yearning for “a place to hide away/Oh, I believe in yesterday.”
The nostalgia that makes newly-fledged youngsters feel homesickness also motivates memory-packed oldsters to relive the good old times, however much pleasure comes with sadness. Even for the unsentimental, modern research identifies healthy payoffs: nostalgia buoys up self-esteem, recalls absent loved ones and family joys while offsetting loneliness. On the other hand, sleazy, pathological PR nostalgia is grist for campaign mills, namely theMAGA propaganda fantasy that Trump alone redeems national greatness by crushing mockers of some lost, white, rightwing golden age. This first whopping lie presages the Big Lie(s) to come – nothing less than the worship of the monumentally inept.
Nostalgia, early on linked to pathology, now fits the 2023 Wash Post headline, “Feeling nostalgia is good for our present and future well-being,” citing findings that nostalgia is “not only universal, but also associated with better mental well-being.” The pleasure of recalling prior triumphs or positive memories reinforces our sense of self. Think how important is emotional continuity with life-turning markers: first school days, first crush or sex, graduations, marriages, birth of children, memorable concerts and/or life-shifting movies.
Especially when the stressful present intrudes, what beats reminding ourselves when we were loved or cherished – with a seemingly wide-open life soaring with meaning and direction? Here’s an accessible, time-transcending coping mechanism that looks for support in the past as a bridge to future achievements. The tyranny of time is answered by the equilibrium granted by nostalgia that integrates past, present and future. Memory blurs pain and failures yet recalls great, if risky triumphs, and more or less alone, beyond any trigger from art, cell phones or Facebook.
The darker side of nostalgia
The less good news is that weaponized nostalgia turns this positive relief upside down, distorting wistfulness into the confirmation that the present sucks, full of grievance, racial enmity, fear of change, and lost clout. Instead of comforting recall, MAGA turns the present into a neck-wringing nightmare, the future a looming disaster (except perhaps for true believers uplifted by Armageddon) – all by falsely glorifying a non-existent golden age. The past is a complex mixed bag, and not knowing history distorts how many life-affirming advances give the present a clear edge. Just consider medical progress, whether vaccines, drugs, and surgical advances, let alone great cancer and heart attack breakthroughs, among other blessings of modernity, like travel, mobility, technology and access to education. Who wants to return to stationary phones and no internet, cable TV, or instant payments, etc.?
Research describes a direct correlation between high anxiety with increased nostalgia: if the (mystifying) present stinks, would-be “victims” of outside forces promote delusions of bygone, feel-good times. The greater the anxiety, the more prone to perverse nostalgia, nothing less than “inverse compensation” that allows unhappy people to blame everyone but themselves for their own choices. Certainly, literalist Biblical mythology that presents the Garden of Eden as a real, unclothed, low-entertainment paradise invokes unhealthy yearnings – the kind that allow demagogues to promise “redemption” (or greatness in secular terms) if we only welcome authoritarian, cult takeovers.
But such perversions aside, let’s not underplay the enduring tradeoffs of nostalgia. Per Antony Fantano, “in music [and much more, I say], trends are always rising and fading in popularity, but nostalgia never dies.” Look across current popular culture, swamped with movie sequels that revere familiar characters (scenes and times); or enduring TV shows that harken back to a wonderful (highly-filtered) past; and reverence for all those “oldies but goodies” concerts replayed on public TV).
Grief, loss, and yearning are central to our most famous stories, facilitating insights about struggle, death and homecoming – perhaps even who we are and how we fit into the world. The alternative, to deny or grossly distort the past (the ultimate wickedness of lying), removes the best evidence to explain where we are – and how much results from choice or chance. If nothing else, nostalgia helps us define the beginning, middle and end of any (life) story and thus what drives meaning.
First considered a pathology
Until modern researchers unearthed the positive, healthy aspects of nostalgia, the term invoked an obsession with the past, linked to depression and unresolved conflicts. Today we’d associate that not only with MAGA mayhem but with PTSD, the problematic intrusion of negative memories. Surprisingly, the Greek root meaning captures the combination of “homecoming” (nostos) with “pain” (algos), truer to the perversion of nostalgia than what research depicts as positive, compensatory rebalancing of energies. We all seek equilibrium but only wiser folks who take responsibility for their lives have reliable blueprints on how to get there.
Which all explains the duration and force of the original Reagan catchphrase, Make America Great Again. Stolen by Trump, the rampaging con man, MAGA pumps up an extremist, authoritarian cult, exactly like notorious 20th C fascists pledging to retrieve lost glories with racist, tribal, and nationalistic manias. Trump understands the dark side of nostalgia, tying into his obsessions about America as failure culture, deserving magic fixes that wreck traditional freedoms, legal authority, and legitimacy. The Trump Wall is the perfect symbol of an empty scatter-gun with almost no linkage to immigration solutions, nor pressures from migration, oppression and inequality. That way lies floods of name-calling, rightwing nonsense, and demagoguery. MAGA in a nutshell.
For the non-pathological
Healthy people and cultures under stress, aware of the complexity of history and accepting responsibility for life decisions, accept both positive and painful recollections because they inform what drives advances: consensual reality. Reliving the positive past (along with racism, slavery, oppression of women, manifest destiny) is how the sane support a balance between life’s blessings and hardships, securing a platform by which activism can make realistic plans and find ways to reduce inequality and increase opportunity with humane reforms.
For those willfully blind to history, or their own psychological make-up, looking for facile answers and everyone else to blame, regressive nostalgia ends with feeling victimized by what they can’t understand or accept. Thus the current Nicky Haley “debate” about whether America is (and has been) a racist country, evidence of the know-nothing denial that stops forward movement. That fakery aligns with the lost golden age fiction where the past was so much better than the present.
It’s important to understand the positives that research attributes to nostalgia so we better understand the massive negatives that accrue when a cult is suckered by a grifter’s “alternative” reality. Even more critical is knowing when the perversion of the present (and the past) sets up no return to paradise but an inestimable shipwreck that leaves all worse off.
Today, alas, confirms the truth of Pete Hamill’s quip, “The most powerful force in American politics is not anger, it’s nostalgia.” And the rational response from that true, ex-presidential campaign maverick, George McGovern, “You don’t run for the presidency out of nostalgia.” Let us hope there are enough centrist voters who understand the all-important ocean between nostalgic chicanery and realistic governance.