Nostalgia Means Nothing If We Refuse To Learn From The Past
While nostalgia can be comforting on an individual level, large-scale nostalgia is where the wheels come off
Nostalgia is the common sensation defined as “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past.” We all experience it, on occasion — when a particular song comes on the radio, or we spot an old movie while channel surfing. Stumbling across a dish that Grandma used to make, or hearing Grandpa’s catchphrase can evoke a wave of memories that leave us feeling warm and fuzzy inside because, naturally, this unconscious game of historical, cultural association tends to be played through a rose-tinted lens.
The United Kingdom spends a lot of time and energy on nostalgic endeavour in a way that is tied to national identity. World War II is a particular focal point — not just through the entirely appropriate official days of remembrance, but also through local and regional festivals, such as 1940s weekends and events. This specific period of time is invoked often, as an example of strength through unity; of surviving hardship and violence, and of helping our neighbours defeat tyranny. That rose-tinted lens highlights the British role in bringing an end to Nazi atrocities, and in creating a different future for itself and Europe — often leaving the efforts and sacrifices of the rest of The Commonwealth and, indeed, the rest of the world, unacknowledged.
While some of the younger generation are bemused by the British nostalgia for the mid-1940s, it is actually not difficult to understand when seen in historical and social context. The end of World War II and the years that immediately followed were a significant turning point for the country. In addition to marking the end of one of the darkest eras of history, it became a period of great renewal; a time of hope, rebuilding, and of major social reform. The National Health Service was created, and the nation saw the rapid expansion of public housing. That’s why so many people like to immerse themselves in the nostalgia of it — not just to remember the victory, but to remember the new sense of possibility and national improvement.
But, this is where the nostalgia rings hollow, for it means absolutely nothing if we refuse to learn from those very times we love to celebrate. The United Kingdom of today is weighed down by modern Conservatism; by a decade of political policy designed to increase social division, rather than promote unified progress. How many of those celebrating the 75th Victory in Europe Day on the 8th May 2020 — decorating their homes and gardens, and getting nostalgic for the heady days of 1945 — also celebrated the result of the 2016 Brexit Referendum, for example, having voted in support of a corrupt political campaign that specifically demonised Europe, using Nazi-lite imagery, and blaming it for every problem the United Kingdom currently has?
How many of those participating in 1940s celebrations over the past ten years also voted for governments that have continually defunded the same public services that were created and boosted in those revered post-war years?
This hypocrisy peaks with the current Tory government itself — Prime Minister Boris Johnson writing, on Victory in Europe Day, 2020, that “the spirit of the greatest generation of Britons who ever lived must be deployed against Coronavirus,” with the “same spirit of national endeavour.” This, despite the fact that he was an architect of Brexit, leads a government that has systematically decimated the National Health Service, and responded so slowly to the threat of Coronavirus that countless of that “greatest generation” have now needlessly died terrible, lonely deaths.
Though it does manifest in a very specific way, the United Kingdom is certainly not unique in its regard for nostalgia. We need only look to the ‘Make America Great Again’ movement to see further examples of how such sentiment can, when tied to national identity, be hijacked by a right-wing agenda. In these large-scale instances, we see the dark side of nostalgia — the side far beyond Grandma’s cooking and Grandpa’s favourite turn of phrase. These instances reveal “a sentimental longing or wistful affection” for the bigotry of times past that is not always bound by national borders, or even national identity — but identity plays its part, nonetheless.
In popular culture, we have seen this play out several times in the past few years. Take, for example, the 2016 film Ghostbusters, starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones as the titular team of proton pack slingers. Despite being an objectively good film — and certainly worthy of the Ghostbusters label — the film was attacked in sustained fashion, before its release, as soon as its all-women main cast was announced. While the cause of this negative social media campaign was clearly a misogynist agenda, many of those men responsible used nostalgia as an excuse. These individuals regularly cited their absolute adoration of the original films as justification for their ‘defence’ of the brand against what they viewed as unnecessary changes — because, in their view, Ghostbusters can only be Ghostbusters when they are men.
This stance about changes to the brand is obviously nonsensical, since the production of a new Ghostbusters film does not blink the originals out of existence — but it highlights the darker side of nostalgia, and the reason it is often weaponised by bigots. The original Ghostbusters film was released in 1984, featuring comedy that was very much of its time — which is to say that it is a deeply sexist film that reflects the misogyny that was rampant in western society in that era. The four male leads make regular sexist jokes, and there is even a scene that heavily suggests one of the men is receiving oral pleasure from an attractive woman apparition — this in a film with only two named women characters in total.
The second Ghostbusters film, released in 1989, does not fare any better.
So, when men unite around their shared, nostalgic love of the original Ghostbusters, and claim that women should continue to be excluded from its story, 32 years later, it is difficult to avoid the connection. These men love the nostalgia this film evokes because it reflects their own attitudes, which are as frozen in time as those celluloid images. Those particular ‘fans’ of the original Ghostbusters have a “sentimental longing or wistful affection” for that time, in 1984, when they were children or teens, and the world was simple, and they could laugh at misogynist jokes without being called out for their bigotry and hatefulness. They could enjoy their regressive, oppressive thoughts without fear of consequence or repercussion. They could live their privilege and entitlement, without any concern for others.
More recently, Ready Player One has traded almost exclusively on pop culture nostalgia. While the 2018 film adaptation featured notable changes from Ernest Cline’s 2011 source novel, both used derivative story beats and narrative to deliver a tale packed with ‘easter eggs’ and a host of ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ pop culture references from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Again, the problem with this gimmick is that the pop culture of each of those decades was steeped in misogyny and racism. Now, it is possible to consume pop culture from these eras while acknowledging its problems, but that is not what Ready Player One does. This film, and the book upon which it is based, celebrates the pop culture of those eras while telling yet another story about white male exceptionalism, in which women sacrifice their own efforts and dreams to help mediocre white men fight over capitalist power, and the opportunity for world domination.
In this way, Ready Player One is perfectly emblematic of the refusal of today’s society to actually learn from the same past we celebrate. In a political sense, Brexit and the Make America Great Again movement embody the same. Despite our insistence that we love these moments of our history, our collective lack of introspection and accountability means that we limit ourselves to repeat the same mistakes and injustices — thus rendering large-scale nostalgia utterly meaningless outside the toxic agendas of those that seek power.