The Contradictions of Nostalgia

Of everything Netflix has produced or acquired there are two products that really stand out: Stranger Things and Glow. Yet these shows couldn’t be more different. One is about Children (mostly boys) fighting Lovecraftian horrors in a small Midwestern town. The other is about adults (mostly young women) putting on a TV show about wrestling in Los Angeles. The only thing they have in common is 80s pop culture nostalgia.

The appeal of 80s nostalgia is a concept fraught with contradictions. In his seminal Fractured Republic Yuval Levin has forcefully (and I believe correctly) argued that the 80s is a nostalgic era for conservatives from a public policy perspective. The reasons for this are so obvious that I hardly feel the need to enumerate them. But there’s Reagan for starters. Contemporary conservatives venerate him with near religious fervor. And overall the 80s were a decade of free markets and governmental rollback.

The great irony here is that while Levin’s thesis is perfectly applicable to policy wonks and their groupies, the salt of the earth American conservatives simply do not have the same feelings about that era. They may love Reagan but the freedom generated by the 80s led to voluptuous excesses within the decade itself but more importantly the 90s. I don’t have solid proof this this but I think most non “wonkish” conservatives see the 80’s libertinism as climaxing in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

The 80s and 90s were decades of sexual decadence by virtually anyone’s standards, Caligula being a major exception. Conservatives could ignore the sexual revolution for the most part as it actually happened but by the late 80s and 90s there was simply no way to escape the groping fingers of Masters and Johnson. Sex was in everything. From the novels, to the films and TV. And finally thanks to President Clinton the White House.

But what’s truly strange is that the sexual freedom of this era didn’t lead to political enlightenment. The machine of liberty produced public acceptance of numerous taboos and ultimately undermined the fundamental unit of society that many progressives have seen as a barrier to freedom: marriage. And simultaneously the Soviet Union was defeated. All of this happened essentially because of the principles of free society. It was anti stat-ism that created the flowering of decadence. Yet the fallout has ultimately seen a rise of socialism in this country not libertarianism. One would think that institutes like Cato would be the darlings of progressive America.

The bulk of this bizarre phenomenon is cogently navigated by Patrick Deneen in Why Liberalism Failed. But explanations, no matter how persuasive, cannot reduce the felt irony.

Of course the 1950s & 60s present the exact opposite problem. Lets call these the Wonder Years (more on that obvious reference later). Yuval Levin has identified (again rightly) the 60s as the primary source of leftist public policy nostalgia. LBJ’s Great society reforms being chief. But really it goes all the way back to the War. This entire era was dominated by statist growth. Between the New Deal and Reagan there are arguably no truly conservative presidential regimes.

The progressive era in America supposedly came to a close long before the great depression yet it is the middle chunk of the 20th century that looks the most unabashedly “progressive” by contemporary standards. But it is also this era that the un wonkish conservative often looks to as a golden age. This is exemplified by the show The Wonder Years which premiered the same year as Roseanne (1988). These two shows perfectly embody the ironies of the twin cultural nostalgias. The Wonder Years was looking back to a conservative past that was fundamentally statist. Meanwhile Roseanne represented the flowering of leftist values trickled down to the salt of the earth. But not only that, the show was unabashedly ungrateful towards the conservative policies that had made the show’s values possible.

Does this mean that humans (or maybe Americans) are simply fundamentally irrational or ironical? Yes and no. Reality is not fundamentally rational in the sense that we often mean. Reality cannot be contained by our theories and ideas. It is bigger and wilder than the boxes we create for it to live in within our minds. Yet at the same time the world we live in is comprehendible. Time and time again we have found answers to our questions. The world can be made sense of, but not in anything approaching exhaustion. We are of course finite. Answers that exhaust reality would exhaust us as well since we are a part of this massive thing we seek to understand.

This is why shows like Stranger Things and Glow can bridge (or more realistically transcend) partisan divides. Glow does attempt to be woke but its limited by the historical period of its setting. The concept of woke is entirely dependent upon our time and place, which means that it is constantly changing and will continue to change. And the so called woke standards of the 80s seem remarkably tame when compared to their contemporaries.

So there’s a sense in which this nostalgia is universal just because it hearkens back to a different time than this. This seems very obvious when stated this way but it is odd that a time period barely a generation away can conjure these feelings up so effortlessly. Tales from the 80s have almost become like fairy tales. As the Academy award winning lyrics penned by Willy Deville for an actual fairy tale film made in 1987 say:

“Now this did happen once upon a time

When things were not so complex.”

That seems to be all it takes for us to become nostalgic. All the sins of the past become forgiven because they have been forgotten and we’re left with a delicious illusion. Because it seems today that all we’re presented with are sins of the present. We are surrounded by a world of technological marvels, the poorest people in our society have lives closer to the middle class of ages past. Yet the constant shrieking illiberal ism of our day is like a turd in the punch bowl.

But the truth is that neither the past nor the present will ever be able to actually satisfy us. Nostalgia is a drug. And sometimes we need drugs. I take some every single morning just so I can function. The cripple needs his crutch. And our society’s crutch will continually be Nostalgia because every year that goes by we gradually replace part of our humanity with inhumanity. Our increasing reliance upon escapism betrays who and what we really are: divine creatures meant for more than this.

Educator, podcaster, & writer

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