Nostalgia and pragmatism

We have to balance a nostalgic desire to hold on to the past with the realities of the future

Screenshot 2022-08-10 at 16.22.00

The documentary Moundsville (released 2020) concerns the loss of industrial jobs in a small town in the American state of West Virginia. The documentary opens with individuals speaking about how life was in the town’s better years. A handful of residents identify these “better years” as the 1950s. 

The responses are as predictable as they are tragic. In those days, it was easy to find good work at a factory, and children routinely ate dinner at each other’s homes. There was a sense of community and belonging that doesn’t exist in the same way today. 

In a follow-up interview on the AMDG Jesuit podcast, the film’s co-director, John W. Miller, spoke about this overriding sense of nostalgia shared by many of the town’s citizens. He recalls the inhabitants’ memories of an era when residents could erect a Christmas tree atop the native American burial mound that gives the town its name, a practice that ended about forty years ago to show respect to Native American heritage.  

Miller perceives the town to be grieving its past glory days, and goes on to legitimise this grief. He admits that life in the 1950s did have its share of evils (namely, racism and sexism) and that “nationalist nostalgia isn’t going to save us”. Yet he also recognises that “there was a community with human value and love that has been destroyed” as a result of the change in economic cycles. 

These comments are especially striking at a time when political leaders are actively seeking to heal divisions and help disparate groups move toward a common purpose. In order to do this, they must recognise that a large cohort of citizens from towns, cities and rural areas across the Western world are possessed by a strong sense that life was better in a different time. 

Nostalgic citizens may be right in the sense that, decades ago, there was plentiful and secure employment in industrial centres. Data shows that the US alone has lost about 7.5 million manufacturing jobs since 1980.

At the micro level, population data shows that people have voted with their feet. Census data for Moundsville shows that the population has fallen from just over 15,000 in 1960, to about 8,000 today. 

But with yesterday’s prosperity came costs such as pollution. Miller highlights the citizens’ recollection of the loss of a polluting factory: “We miss the stinky air, we miss the chemicals. That was the smell of jobs.”

In addition to economic nostalgia there is, without a doubt, an ethnic nostalgia among some voters in the West for a time when there was less immigration and more ethnic homogeneity in a population. 

The question is, then, how political leaders can speak to people who are nostalgic not only for economic security, but also for cultural homogeneity – for example, how to speak to Europeans worried about immigration from majority-Muslim countries, undoubtedly an issue in the minds of some voters in the upcoming French presidential election.  

Via email, Miller replied that “the right answer is to improve the quality of  dialogue to where nobody feels shut out for expressing their sadness about whatever it is of value that’s been lost. Far too many views these days are decried as illegitimate because they don’t fit the elite consensus.

“We need better media literacy and historical understanding,” he continued. “It’s important to listen to people with xenophobic
fears, and also to assert that Muslims are not, in fact, invading. I don’t see why we can’t do both at the same time.” 

While nostalgia for an economic or even a cultural past can hopefully be addressed peacefully, a foreign policy based on nostalgia
can be dangerous, as we are seeing today. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been widely described as an attempt to recreate Russia as it existed in an earlier time. This drive has resulted in thousands of deaths, the displacement of millions and the most intense fears of a nuclear holocaust that I have known in my lifetime. 

If nostalgia for a lost past translates literally into invasion, war and murder, then it must be condemned. But nostalgia needn’t be noxious or rooted in a desire to exclude the benefits of well-being from a certain type of person, or to exterminate a country. 

Nostalgia, longing for a past, can be beneficial if we are open to the fact that, in some respects, some parts of the past might have been better than the current day. 

A well-known scholar from the left put her finger on this in a book published two years ago. In The Deficit Myth, Stephanie Kelton writes that “what people really long for are the days when a single breadwinner could support a family, buy a home, put two cars in the garage, send the kids to college, take the family on vacation once a year, and retire with a decent pension.” 

She adds that while these thoughts translate into a desire to bring back manufacturing jobs and make America “great again”, “it’s really about replacing the lost sense of job security and what a middle-income job was once able to provide.” 

“What are people actually nostalgic for?” Miller asks. “It’s the security of a stable paycheque. So now we have something important, and relevant to today, to talk about.” 

It’s worth remembering that the steps of what we think of as progress still come at a cost. What we very broadly call “globalisation” has yielded great benefits, particularly in poorer parts of the world that have seen industrialisation. However, technological advances have also, arguably, led to the decline of communities. 

A society in which both parents have to work outside of the home is not conducive to a society in which children routinely play at each other’s houses and eat at each other’s homes. There is no village to raise a child if all of the adults are at the office, although increasing flexibility with regards to working from home following the pandemic could help this. Only time will tell. If we want to recreate that world of the past, that sense of community, then perhaps we need to think about how to create a society in which children can be raised on one income, rather than requiring two. Yet can this be done without appearing to discourage women from working? This may be easier said than done. 

If we truly want to recreate that sense of community that some say has been lost in recent decades, we may need to look more critically than we currently do at some measures that we might typically think of as  having been positive. 

For example, an article from 2010 suggests that the rate of pub closures in the United Kingdom accelerated after Britain implemented a ban on smoking in pubs. “The smoking ban is probably the main reason for the recent decimation of pubs and may be primarily responsible for three in four closures,” wrote the Institute of Economic Affairs think tank in 2010. A more recent article from 2017 points out that pubs have closed for a number of reasons, including higher beer taxes, economic hardship and people drinking less alcohol. What’s striking to me is that a spokesman from the British Beer and Pub Association points out that pubs that have shifted to becoming more like restaurants are doing well. 

“But some pubs – the traditional street-corner boozer – simply haven’t had the space to do that. They are the ones that have
suffered,” the BBC quoted BBPA spokesman Neil Williams as saying. 

Smoking indoors is harmful to non-smokers and should be, at a minimum, restricted. But did we really want to move forward in a way in which only those who can afford both a meal and a drink can go out?

The Economist even ran an article in 2020 on a study that demonstrated that strict laws on child safety seats in America are causing couples to have fewer children. 

We shouldn’t be afraid of recognising the trade-offs that come with change. There is always some cost to progress. And these questions about trade-offs, or balancing a nostalgic desire to hold on to the past against the realities of the future, will continue to vex us. 

As we transition out of fossil fuels, jobs in mining, jobs in the automotive sector and others will be lost. Electric cars require less labour than traditional vehicles. 

For example, in one industry estimate, the shift to electric vehicles could result in the net loss of 275,000 jobs in the auto industry. Some specialists say this could be offset by subsidies to promote domestic investment, though there’s a risk that these could violate global trade norms. 

While we don’t want to go back to an era in which factories belched endless amounts of smoke into the air, we should think about how technological and social change upends communities and their gathering spaces. Factory towns not only had factories, they also had communities, sports teams and churches that helped give meaning to the lives of their residents. 

For example, in a recent New Yorker article by Alec MacGallis about the end of coal mining in Germany, the author talks about how people in the mining community still “snap to attention” when the band plays the “coal-miner anthem” known as ‘Steigerlied’. 

Hardcore fans may recall a scene in the first season of the television show Mad Men in which the series’ lead, advertising exec Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm) pitches a campaign for a home movie projector.

He makes the case that nostalgia creates an even deeper bond between consumer and product than the “itch” of newness. Nostalgia, he says, is “a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. In Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound”. Nostalgia “takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” 

In truth, no matter how much it aches, we cannot go there again. We cannot go back in time. 

As Miller told me, people are grieving the loss of “tight communities revolving around a few big employers – anchored around clubs, union halls, churches and other gathering places – that helped make societies stable and prosperous for 50 years.” 

While those days aren’t coming back, he says, “it’s important and healthy to grieve that loss, but at the same time affirm that culture evolves and needs to evolve. That requires facing up to the fact that we’re never going backward, something most politicians are unwilling to say.”

We may not be going backward, but we need to be able to hold on to what was and still is good about the past. The challenge that we face globally, as we change our economies to face the challenges of the future, is how to preserve  our  communities, our rituals and our connection with those who have come before us. It is a challenge our policymakers must prove worthy of, and one they must take seriously. 

10th May 2022