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The July/August issue of Vanity Fair contains a profile of the quintessential Mid-Century Modern home – The Stahl House – the family that continues to occupy it, and its inextricable link to that post-war time. It is an essay supplemented with rich photographs of seemingly model figures in a model home. The picturesqueness implores the reader to place himself in that time and place – one free from the urgent madness and chaos of the present time. It is the same as our wonted habit of using nostalgia as the miracle salve for the complex world we occupy today. But it’s a mistake to conflate sentimental longings with concrete solutions for present problems. For conservatives, we often revert to the William F. Buckley, Jr. battle cry against the tyranny of progressivism to “Stand athwart history, yelling STOP”. Or waxing nostalgic for stern, Reaganesque rhetoric of the type that bound a nation together in a successful effort to defeat Communism. Just as we can’t place ourselves in the idealized pictures of the Stahl House, we cannot place ourselves in a foregone time to overcome our current crises.
It traps the mind in a perpetual state of adolescent immaturity to ape the slogans of the past. It is a dangerous path that leads to a political and cultural atrophy leaving conservatives unprepared to fight the evolving war of progressive policies that already has a head-start in schools, government, and private institutions. The undercurrent of discontent that catapulted President Trump to office in 2016 was widely seen as a complete surprise to the political machine that had been riding on the coattails of a Cold-War mentality for decades. Zombie Reaganism became the moniker of a Republican Party disjointed from the realities of the middle and working class Americans who felt betrayed by decision makers whose decision involved exclusive disregard for their base’s interests and problems. At the same time, conservatives gave away their naming-rights to an increasingly radical left. Allowing past stigmas as such as anti-woman, anti-immigrant, anti-science, bigot, prude, “put them back in chains” to perpetuate without forceful pushback alienated potential supporters who felt a party wallowing in its own milquetoast mentality would never stand up for the traditional values that were being unfairly threatened.
Even now, after what could be termed a Trump-Revolution there is a stubbornness of a certain order within the conservative movement that won’t acknowledge the failings of disengaging from the culture wars that led to such an outcome. It doesn’t mean there needs to be total recalibration of principles, nor that the path forward means closing our eyes to a changing media, socioeconomic, and demographic environment and plow blindly through the political desert hoping we find the oasis of the 1980s is our salvation. It doesn’t exist. But we can use those lessons that we often look at fondly as a golden era of conservatism and apply them to the challenges we face today. The opportunity is ripe for a conservative movement to make strides with the American people just as the progressive left is caught in the tar-pit of its own revisionist nostalgia.
Conservatives dip into a nostalgic view of the past in an attempt to frame America as a Rockwellian ideal. It’s not what the left likes to label as a “whitewashing” of history, or willful ignorance of our past sins and national struggles, or stifling legitimate grievances by identity groups to maintain “The Patriarchy”. Rather, it harkens back to an America that seemed closer to a national cohesiveness than the present tumultuous and divisive time. Americans had a self-awareness that allowed for the inherent meritocratic opportunity simply by their choice to be American.
Conservatives can legitimately look to the past as a model from which to build on principles that created the greatest nation in the world – conserving an enduring and objective moral order, adhering to custom and continuity of knowledge, prudence in enacting change, upholding property rights, individual liberty, and the freedom of thought that comes with a limited government and centuries of trial and sacrifice that came out of the past to better serve and sustain a prosperous, liberty-centric future. But we should be wary of becoming so mired in sentimentality for what we imagined that ideal to have been that we become paralyzed, stunting any progress to carry those principles forward in a dynamic, hyper-political ecosystem.
While conservatives would be sensible to harness the tools of the past to fight current battles, the progressive left is regressing to a historical bait-and-switch, romanticizing a time when they envisioned disruption, disorder, and civil upheaval as a noble cause and themselves the virtuous warriors of self-sacrifice. The underground counterculture of the 1960s gave way to the radicals of the late 1960s and 1970s and ushered in a new era of Great Society government monopoly on social justice, racial divisions, and economic disparities. The Make Love, Not War peaceniks whose visions of communal utopias reached their Timothy Leary-zenith by way of Wavy Gravy and his Hog Farm turned violent through groups like the Weather Underground, New Liberation Front, and the Symbionese Liberation Army, groups that were the models for today’s Antifa militants. Today we see these same geriatric activists who live in an idealized, glamorized past as heroes of their own revisionist story. People like Delores Huerta who co-founded with Cesar Chavez the National Farmworkers Association (later to become the United Farm Workers) in the 1960s, who now laud the Texas State Democrats as cut of the same cloth of activist to enact “real change” and be the hero voices of the oppressed minorities in a racially damaged America.
The left beats the protest drum, insisting American icons like Martin Luther King, Jr., would never externalize as plausible his own famous words that children “will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.” Or denying the inherent value of the unborn when they insist on the abortion euphemism as “healthcare” or “women’s rights”. They think they’re carrying on a legacy of “Fighting the Man” when, sometime in the midst of President Carter’s sweater changes, they became the man. Anti-FBI and anti-war marches gave way to yuppie endeavors to perpetuate war for profit and use the government to silence nonconformists and dissenters seeking individual liberty, forcing the hand of social media companies to do their censorship bidding. The shouts of “Hell No, We Won’t Go” and oil-barrel bra-burners now think sacrifice is washing their bras in the porcelain sinks of Washington, D.C. hotels and chartering private planes to escape
responsibility prosecution. They treat Cuba’s decades of oppression as the utopia of their dreams, but there is no line forming for milk-jug boat-trips to the collapsing island. It’s a crazy, mixed-up world, and no amount of “turn on, tune in, drop out” will erase the left’s legacy of upending traditional norms and glorifying violence in exchange for canonization in the halls of radicalism.
Nostalgia is a wistful practice in sentimentality, a bittersweet remembrance of how we wish to remember our past. It is taking a tour through the Stahl House, seeing in our minds’ eye a past as unspoiled as the view from the cantilevered balcony. But conservatives can’t fight the wars of the past with antiquated weapons, hoping the future is based on previous experiences. That is simply speculating for the sake of unpreparedness in a world that changes exponentially with each political cycle. We can use the lessons of the past – how we succeeded and how we utilized the tools at hand – to defeat a foe that insists on its own ignobility through a romanticized activism that is as much a solid foundation for reality as The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Nostalgia, W. Somerset Maugham said
Is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life.