Nostalgia is a hell of a drug. It’s the manifestation of an idealized past that never truly existed. I think about nostalgia a lot, whether it’s the Johnny’s pizza or Whataburger I always want to get when I head back to Louisiana or the “carefree” days of riding my bike to the mall to spend money at the arcade. No matter what the nostalgia, it always leaves something out. It leaves out the realities of the past because the nostalgia gets filtered through my own experiences and my own longings for a past that claims to be representative of my peers and others. This is the danger of nostalgia.
Scrolling through Twitter the other day, I came across a tweet that shared some posts from a series of images on 90s nostalgia. The image shows two young boys in front of a television playing Metal Gear Solid on a Playtstion. They are surrounded by various toys and games, ranging from Pokemon cards to a Gameboy and images of Power Rangers. A plate of spaghetti and meatballs rests on the floor, in the foreground. Wokal Distance’s tweet reads, “This is a world worthy fighting for, and the ache of nostalgia we feel for this time is the call home.”
Nostalgia is a desire to return “home,” to a time when we felt safe and which we remember fondly. However, that desire for one’s self-centered definition of “home” eliminates the realities of the nostalgic past and eliminates any individuals that do not look like the person making the call for “home.” Each of the images from the series that appeared on my feed showed white children, and only male children. The only female child appears looking at gift as her brother holds up a Ninetendo 64 triumphantly on a Christmas morning. Wokal Distance’s Tweet for this image reads, “This is not consumerism.”
Screenshots of these tweets appeared within a thread from Black Aziz aNANsi, and that tweet caught my attention. It reads, “Millennials who turn out to be fascists are just a bunch of weirdos who can’t get over that they peaked in seventh grade when they were popular because they were the only kid on the street with a playstation and girls liked them because they looked like a mini version of Eminem.” Nostalgia is a huge part of fascism, as Robert Paxton, Jason Stanley, and other scholars note.
The myths of a non-existent past that nostalgia inculcates within individuals arise out of, as Stanley puts it in How Fascism Works, from the fears and belief that “such a glorious past has been lost by the humiliation brought on by globalism, liberal cosmopolitanism and respect for ‘universal values’ such as equality. These values are supposed to have made the nation weak in the face of real and threatening challenges to the nation’s existence.” Nostalgia serves as a drug to confront these false fears and to construct and solidify grievances.
Mussolini and Hitler used this during their reigns. In 1922, Mussolini said during a speech, “We have created our myth. The myth is a faith, a passion. It is not necessary for it to be a reality. . . . Our myth is the nation, our myth is the greatness of the nation! And to this myth, this greatness, which we want to translate into a total reality, we subordinate everything.” The myth is everything. The myth serves, as Stanley puts it, “to harness the emotion of nostalgia.” That nostalgia, as I mentioned earlier, works to eliminate those deemed inferior or deemed a threat to the rising political party. These include women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals, immigrants, and others who are not white and male.
All of this reminded me of “Floyd the Barber,” a song from Nirvana’s debut album Bleach which pulls on characters from The Andy Griffith Show for its narrative. Musically, the song pulsates for a little over two minutes, with the bass drum serving as the driving force as the guitars and bass chugg along creating a sonic atmosphere of dread until the guitar solo brings out the band’s melodic underpinnings and the influence of 60’s bands such as The Beatles on Kurt Cobain’s songwriting. Lyrically, the song, told from a first person perspective, details the narrator coming into Floyd’s barbershop and being raped by Floyd and then tortured by the other characters of the fictitious Mayberry. Cobain takes the “idyllic” 1950s Mayberry, North Carolina, and points out the absurdity of its presentation on the show, a presentation that presents it as a lily-white small town in the deep South with no issues whatsoever. While Cobain doesn’t point out the lack of racially diversity on the show, he does point out the saccharine depiction of Mayberry as nothing but pleasant.
In Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness, Kristin Radtke drives home that nostalgia is nothing more than an illusion. Over a two page spread which takes the feel of a spiral-bound notebook, Radtke shows an image of a Cold War pamphlet instructing the reader what to do in the case of an atomic blast, an image of the moon landing, an aerial shot of a suburban neighborhood, and the opening shot of The Brady Bunch. Amidst these images, Radtke writes, “By now it’s clear that waves of cultural nostalgia are so often geared toward reclaiming what never existed. What are lifelong city residents longing for when they adopt abstract ideologies about going ‘back to the land’ or ‘off the grid’? What are scholars hoping for when they harken back toward the eras of Wonder Bread and prefabricated homes?”
The answer is simple. They are longing for a past that they see in their own heads, a past that ignores reality and places themselves at the center. They long for a past that will serve as an answer to the fears they experience in the face of change, no matter what that change may be. They long for a past that allows them to be the carefree kid riding his bike around town oblivious to the economic disparities he passes. They long for a past that allows them to be the carefree kid riding his bike around town oblivious to the racial disparities he passes. They long to return to the center, to feel as if they are the only person that matters. It’s a selfish move that centers the self.
There is nothing wrong with recalling our past with delight, remembering the good times we had, the food we loved, the games we played, the things we did. The problem arises when we retreat into nostalgia to escape reality, the realities of the present and the realities of the past that we reconstruct. It serves to placate us, and that placating can be used for nefarious purposes to stoke fears.
This has been a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and I know this is sort of rambling. But, I hope it makes some sense. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.