The good old days weren’t always good. But sometimes they were.
Historians are not supposed to be nostalgic. I’ve spent the better part of my career teaching students that nostalgia and history are two very different ways of encountering the past. History is fact-based. Nostalgia is feelings-based. History requires interpreters of the past to lose themselves in the vast expanse of human experience. It requires humility. Nostalgia is inherently selfish. It uses the past to elicit warm and fuzzy feelings in the present.
Historians seek to tell hard truths about the past. Many nostalgic people want to make America great again. In 2013 I published a book about history (the second edition will appear next month). Five years later I published a book about nostalgia (it probably deserves a second edition as we approach the 2024 presidential election).
Early this week, at The Way of Improvement Leads Home blog, I linked to Dustin Guastella’s piece in Jacobin, “Is Nostalgia a Dead End?” Guastella, the director of operations for Teamsters Local 623 in Philadelphia, argues that socialists and labor activists should look back wistfully on the 1950s because it was an era of wage growth for Black and white workers and a period defined by improvements in “economic equality, political comity, social fraternity, and cultural solidarity.” He adds, “the increasing economic equality of this time was what made the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act conceivable political programs.”
It is easy to find historians and other scholars who might disagree with Guastella’s view of the 1950s, but his appeal to nostalgia challenged me to come to grips with my own longings for bygone days. What am I nostalgic about? And to what degree should I embrace nostalgia as a way of making sense, and even critiquing, what often passes as progress in today’s world?
Since this is my first public effort to write positively about nostalgia, I will start out small:
I am nostalgic for the days when I did not have to buy a streaming service to watch an NFL playoff game. I really wanted to see the Kansas Chiefs–Miami Dolphins AFC wildcard game in frigid Arrowhead Stadium on January 13, 2024, but I was too cheap to buy a subscription to Peacock. It appears that streaming games on paid services is the wave of the future. The democratization of NFL broadcasts is falling victim to the greed of the corporate media. Where have you gone, Pat Summerall and Tom Brookshier?
I am nostalgic for the days when kids played outside. I grew up on a small mountain covered with acres of woods and man-made trails. (Who forged these trails in the New Jersey wilderness?) Those were days well spent. We played wiffle ball and tackle football, caught frogs in a nearby pond, rode our bikes around the neighborhood, and explored every nook and cranny of those glorious acres. It was an era when a series of rainy summer days could profoundly alter the life of a ten-year-old boy. My parents moved away from the homestead a few years ago, but before they left they watched the environment where my brothers and I used to roam mutate into a housing development of McMansions. The words of James Taylor come to mind: “I tried to go back, as if I could / All spec house and plywood / Tore up and tore up good / Down on Copperline.”
I am nostalgic for the journal racks in academic libraries. OK—this one is not going to apply to everyone. But one of my favorite activities as a divinity school and graduate student was to spend an hour or so a week browsing the stacks of journals and magazines in the university library. It gave me a sense of the kinds of things people—scholars and writers—were saying about the world. After examining several dozen tables of contents one gets a pretty good sense of the intellectual milieu in an academic field or area of interest. Today those racks are mostly gone. Journal databases and search engines have replaced the serendipity of browsing.
I am nostalgic for a time when national politicians served the common good. I will be the first to tell you that politics has always been a self-interested sphere defined oftentimes by unbridled pursuit of power. But something is different today. Let’s not forget that there was a time when bipartisanship was possible. That world seems long gone. Take for example, the recent Senate immigration bill. It isn’t a perfect bill, but it was an honest attempt by a Democrat (Chris Murphy of Connecticut), a very conservative Republican (James Lankford of Oklahoma), and an Independent (Krysten Sinema of Arizona) to solve the crisis on the Mexican border. As I wrote yesterday, this bill turned out to be a non-starter because Donald Trump, in a blatant attempt to place his own interests over the good of the nation, wants to run for president using the border as a wedge.
I am nostalgic for the pre-September 11, 2002 George W. Bush presidency. Perhaps my nostalgia on this issue is a product of my distaste for today’s Republican Party (in the age of Trump even George W. Bush looks good). But as I study and write about the Bush administration and American evangelicals, I am struck by the former president’s commitment to compassionate conservatism, his efforts to end the AIDS crisis in Africa, and his attempts to use government funds to help faith-based non-profit organizations care for the poor. The war on terror, and the Bush administration’s disastrous handling of the invasion of Iraq, derailed much of this domestic public policy agenda, but one can still wonder what might have been.
Billy Joel taught us that “the good old days weren’t always good.” But sometimes they were.
John Fea is Executive Editor of Current.