“Nostalgia,” Svetlana Boym once wrote “is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress.”
In an article for The Guardian, Dan Hancox analyzes British Facebook groups that are awash in the “baby boomer nostalgia industrial complex”, sharing memes about a supposedly simpler life in the past, exemplified by the “proper binmen” who used to pick up the garbage.
Who still eats beans on toast? Who remembers turning an old sheet into a ghost costume? Who remembers sleepovers? Men opening doors for women? Slow dancing to Nat King Cole. Beech-nut chewing gum. Worzel Gummidge. Sweets by the ounce. Icicles hanging from the window frame (“Before central heating!”). Miss World (“All natural. Not a bit of botox in sight”). The power cuts of 1972-4 (“we coped, we were strong”). Scrubbing and polishing your front steps (“That’s when people had pride in where they lived”). Outdoor toilets. Cigarette machines. Flares. Playing in bombsites. Jumping in puddles. Roland Rat.
What fascinates Hancox is that these posts romanticize a time that was demonstrably tougher than today:
In fact, the memory lane memes and comment threads make clear that in terms of physical comfort, convenience, domestic labour, work, consumer goods and leisure choice, things used to be worse. But that is not the endpoint of the philosophy. If (they) had a motto (…) it would be: things were worse, therefore they were better.
All generations inevitably fall into nostalgia, and I wouldn’t call myself immune from it. Time not only clouds the memory, having gone through hardships together is also what binds people together, as these Facebook groups prove.
That’s why “worse and therefore better” is just an alluring reflex, but a dangerous one as well: It opens the door for the notion that progress is flawed, that previous times were somehow “purer”: More effort was required, everything was harder, individualism was limited, etc.
In an age of fakes, authenticity is everything, so no wonder being “proper” is so highly valued. Everything that has happened since the heyday of proper binmen, the memes imply, has degraded not just the authenticity of binmen, but the authenticity of each of our lives — and the authenticity of Britain itself. Progress is not all it’s cracked up to be.
This is the notion so often exploited by the culture wars, when conservatives propose a kind of regressive progress. Their way forward is, invariably, to go back to the past. All shortcomings of the before-times are conveniently overlooked.1
Shared nostalgia not just unites, it can also create the impression that a widely-shared experience (not matter how unpleasant) is somehow the “authentic” one, the one worth conserving, while all alternative experiences are somehow less valid.2
In What Is Populism, Jan-Werner Müller notes that populists of all colors construct “in-groups” they represent claim the “real” populace, implying that anyone not part of that group shouldn’t just have a say but also can’t possibly represent the “true will” of the people. Nostalgia for the shared experience can easily be used to discredit the political beliefs of a person who hasn’t had that experience: Look no further than the post-war times, when men would commonly be asked if they had served in the army.
Paradoxes like “things were worse, therefore they were better” are so important to recognize because the way our societies act is often paradoxical. It’s the quirks and irrationalities that explain things like populism or the culture wars much better than any rational reasons ever could. “It is up to us to take responsibility of our nostalgia,” Svetlana Boym had warned, “and not let others ‘prefabricate’ it for us”.
We can see this in various culture war battle grounds like “Work-life balance” (Positing that previous generations didn’t struggle working long hours), or even in free gender expression (Positing it didn’t exist, though it was likely just subjugated).↩︎
It’s exactly what Germany’s neo-fascist party “Alternative for Germany” is doing with the slogan “Germany, but normal”: Claiming that everything outside of their program doesn’t constitute normalcy.↩︎