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The Object of Nostalgia Matters…


Yglesias on Reihan Salam’s claim that white conservatives aren’t racist, but rather simply nostalgic about an American that has largely ended:

On its face it’s difficult to make sense of that. John Boehner was born in 1949. Does he 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. In Boehner’s defense, I often hear white male progressives express nostalgia for the lost America of the 1950s and 1960s and think to myself “a black person or a woman wouldn’t put it like that.” But progressive nostalgics do at least have the high-tax, union-dominated economy and egalitarian income distribution as the things they like. But from a non-bigoted conservative point of view, what is there really to miss about the America John Boehner grew up it? The tax rates were high, but at least they didn’t let Jews into the country club?

There’s an obvious parallel with invocations of the “heritage” defense for displays of the Confederate flag.  The American “South” as a cultural-geographic concept precedes the Revolution, and contains an immensity of cultural signifiers, many of them worth valorizing.  Invocations of Southern “heritage”, however, almost invariably concentrate on five years of violent treason in defense of slavery.  This isn’t accidental; the appeal of Confederate imagery cannot be separated from the 150 yearish effort to roll back the most obvious consequences of Southern secession.

The objects of nostalgia are political, often glaringly so.  If Salam had bothered paying attention, he would have noticed more than a little nostalgia for 50s and 60s American on the left.  The objects of this nostalgia, however, are the things that Yglesias mentions; a relatively egalitarian distribution of wealth, a strong labor movement, and so forth.  Nostalgia for these things makes complete sense given the political preferences of left-wing Americans.  Nostalgia for a time in which white men held a complete monopoly of cultural, political, and financial power in America is… well, it says something rather different about the political preferences of conservatives.

To put it on a more personal level, I recall my late uncle (of whom I was, and am, very fond) once telling me a story about North Carolina in the early 1960s.  The blacks in line at a counter, he said, would step aside when a white man entered the store.  Not like that anymore, he said with some regret, using the term “respect.”  There’s no doubt that my uncle’s sentiment reflected nostalgia in some sense, but this hardly made it either admirable or worth apologizing for.


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