Many voted for Britain to leave the EU pining for the “good old days”, but those who see through such a nostalgic lens ought know it isn’t what it used to be.
Glued to BBC World on the night of the Brexit looking for some understanding, I became fascinated with a pub discussion, live from Manchester. Asked to explain his voting behaviour, a forty-something man in a red Leave t-shirt told the interviewer he had wanted Britain to exit the EU because his aim was for the country to “go back to where it once was;” a “great nation” where “things were the way they are supposed to be”. My ears pricked up, because I remembered hearing this argument before. That time it had come from a woman, a little older than the man in the t-shirt, who had told another interviewer, in the American state of Virginia, that she had voted for Donald Trump because he promised to “make America great again”.
“He’s going to get us back to where we ought to be”, she said, “where we were before”. Then I remembered an article in The Atlantic, titled What ISIS Really Wants. Just to make sure I looked it up and there it was again, that hankering for a past when everything was supposedly good. ISIS’ ambition, one of its spokesmen said, was to “restore the Islamic caliphate” and reinstitute sharia law. Back to the 7th century, when things were done right. Don’t get me wrong: I am not comparing Trump and Leave voters to ISIS supporters. But I do find it intriguing that the arguments are the same. In all three cases, people are motivated by nostalgia, the sentimental longing for the past.
Ah, the good old days! When it was always summer, we played outside with our friends until sundown and the world was a simpler place. Until fairly recently, nostalgia, this overvaluation of the past, was a psychiatric condition. The first one to give it a name was a Swiss doctor called Johannes Hofer in 1688. He used it to describe Swiss mercenaries who got so homesick after a few months fighting in other people’s countries that they fell ill and sometimes even died. For almost the next 300 years nostalgia was considered a medical issue. In 1733, for instance, there was an outbreak of nostalgia in the Russian army en route to Germany. The general at the time threatened to bury sufferers alive and that seemed to solve the problem. Later still, during the American Civil War, doctors used public shaming, but also leeches and purging the stomach to try and get rid of what was then seen as a psycho-pathological disorder. Even in the First and Second World Wars nostalgia was still a recognised illness, with described epidemics and would-be cures.
Everywhere else it was worse, and 15 years beforehand there had been yet another war. Good old days? Compared to now? You have to be joking. Something to be nostalgic for? You need your head read!
Then the social sciences got hold of it and turned it into a new field of academic study. Its headquarters is the University of Southampton in the UK, where a Nostalgia Group has developed a Nostalgia Scale and does lots of research. The tide has turned for nostalgia. It is now a good thing, maybe even a future cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. This is how the argument goes:
We tend to feel nostalgic when there are negative things going on around us. Going back in the past and polishing that up a bit makes us feel better. We are less depressed, less lonely and apparently, according to research, it can also make us feel physically warmer in a cold room. Also, because we usually engage in nostalgia with others (“Do you remember when…”), it connects us to those others, which in turn gives us belonging and the feeling that we are part of a group. This is good for our self-esteem, it gives our mood a boost and it increases our belief in the meaning of life and our place in it.
The problem is that nostalgia, especially when it is a collective indulgence, strengthens our tribal instincts. That is what seems to be going on around the world at the moment. Harking back to some mythical good old days binds us together against them, whoever they might be. Nostalgia acts as a nationalistic, chauvinistic tool, because, as one of the Southampton researchers had to acknowledge: “Anything that increases the bonds within the group also has the power to increase the negativity towards other groups”. That is the danger with nostalgia. It gives the collective a shared identity and functions as a unifying force against others. And because it is an emotion, it is incredibly strong and immune to rationality.
Because what are we really nostalgic for? From the stats, we can see that most of the people who voted for Trump or the Brexit are older and working-class. So let’s see what life for the working class looked like in those good old days. Allow me some looking back here, not nostalgically but clear-eyed, into my own childhood. Fifty years ago, when I was five, this is what the working class in a fairly enlightened country like Holland had to put up with:
Families were usually large, with between five and seven children. They lived in small rental houses, most of them still without a bathroom or heating. I know this is going to sound like the Monty Python sketch about the four Yorkshiremen, but my mother used to warm our beds in winter by heating a brick in the open fire by way of hot water bottle. Most fathers worked long hours, doing something physical, and therefore had short lives. Globalisation had not given us pasta, garlic and kiwis yet, so food was boring, stodgy and for most working class families limited. Hygiene and health were usually not great and life expectancy was around 15 years lower than it is now. Education meant highschool until the age of sixteen if you were lucky, after which you went to work in a shop or on a building site. Men were the undisputed masters, at home and outside of it. Domestic violence was still called conjugal rights, working women were sacked when they got married and children were there to be seen, not heard. But working class men only had some say inside the house. Outside, the working class as a whole was at the bottom of the pile. It had no voice to speak of – or with – and had to go cap in hand to both the bosses and the government, who had to be addressed with “Sir”.
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What I am describing here is the middle of the 1960s in a rich country. Almost everywhere else it was worse, and 15 years beforehand there had been yet another war (now prevented by something new called the European Economic Community). So all in all, Holland was lucky. But good old days? Compared to now? You have to be joking. Something to be nostalgic for? You need your head read!
What I also find intriguing with this global nostalgia wave is who suffers from it. It used to be that nostalgia was something particularly prevalent in migrants. Because they had left, they were often homesick. As that was painful, nostalgia sometimes helped. It was also fairly simple, because this nostalgia had a location. As a Dutch migrant, I can feel homesick for Holland, the place. I can tell myself that my feelings of dislocation will be over once I get there, although I know that this is probably not true. Nevertheless, migrants have it easy, because they are only geographically displaced. The people who are nostalgic now seem historically displaced: caught in the same country they were born in, but in the wrong time. Evicted from the good old days and trapped in the horrible now, looking at an even more alarming future that can only be changed by getting rid of whatever or whoever it is that has thrown them out of the paradise of the past. Which is how we also arrive at the caliphate, that shimmering plane of the 7th century where women knew their place, infidels were crucified and limbs hacked off for minor infringements.
Personally, I find nostalgia a sign of a lack of courage. An indulgence too, like fries with gravy or a McDonald’s triple-cheeseburger. A once in a year brain freeze, quickly atoned for with going for a run and eating lettuce. A few years ago, Australian writer – and twice Miles Franklin winner – Alex Miller, had a different solution to the apparent discomfort sweeping the globe. He called it “extraterritoriality”, where all of us are gutsy enough to stand on our own two feet, beyond history, place and circumstance, bound together by a common humanity. That isn’t easy, but it is much better than wallowing in the myths of a past that never existed and blaming other people for interfering with it. Bring back nostalgia as a psychiatric disorder, I say.
Anyone for leeches?