MAGA: On Nostalgia and Its Discontents

In 2008, this country endured the greatest economic slide since the Great Depression. By 2016, we had recovered our losses and then surpassed our previous heights. Still, something was not quite right. Many Americans felt that America was no longer great. They wanted to “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” Now this has gone from a campaign slogan to a rally cry to an identity marking hashtag. There is, of course, a lot to say about this, but I want to focus on the phenomenon of nostalgia that suggests that our best future is found in going backward.

Memory is always filtered. What we remember tells us more about who we are now or, perhaps, who we wish we were, than who we were in our remembered past. We each have a personal mythology about how we came to be who we are. As a nation, as a society, we have the same thing. We tell ourselves a story to explain who we are. When we feel that our current reality does not match that story, we want to go back, to re-enact that story. We want to seal that story as the core of our identity, so that we might live into it more fully.

The Israelites were in exile in Babylon for nearly fifty years, long enough for new generations to be born and older generations to pass away. Imagine growing up in Babylon, having never seen your homeland, hearing stories of past glory. The prophets of exile pointed their hope toward a return and restoration. In 538 BCE, that prophesy was fulfilled when Cyrus the Great, King of Persia, conquered the Babylonians and instituted a policy of repatriation. They returned to Jerusalem to find it utterly destroyed, including the once glorious temple. Within two years, with a grant from Cyrus, they began to rebuild.

The desire to rebuild was driven by some magical thinking, a belief in the power of cultic practice to determine a nation’s prosperity. But there is also the magical thinking of nostalgia. Ultimately, they harkened back to the time of David and Solomon, a time of legend. But more recently, they identified their greatness with two times of reform. First, the reign of Hezekiah, a time of great economic expansion due to a shift from a barter economy to a mercantile economy. Second, the reign of Josiah, who instituted religious reforms to root out syncretism and idolatry, to centralize cultic practice in the Jerusalem temple. Both periods were very brief respites from the threat of their neighbors and the fickle desert climate. They had somehow forgotten that Hezekiah’s time was also a time of great suffering as wealth inequality increased. They ignored that Josiah’s success was the result of the internal collapse of their neighbors and that their well-being degraded considerably as soon as Egypt regrouped enough to murder Josiah and install a puppet ruler. Rebuilding past glory means being very selective about what that glory entailed.

If we want to “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN,” it behooves us to ask when it was great and what made it so. The Daily Show did just that. The answers ranged wildly. One person said 1913 and specifically cited the ratification of the 17th Amendment as the downfall of America. That amendment, you may recall – I didn’t – shifted the election of Senators from state legislatures to the people. It was also before women could vote. One person said just after World War II, a time of great economic prosperity. Based on their actions since the election, they certainly aren’t excited about the economic policies of the postwar era. It was also a time when segregation was legal. One person said the 1980s; I share this affection, though it has more to do with synth-pop than Ronald Reagan. Although, as many have pointed out, Reagan would not be welcome in the Republican Party today, either. And finally, some wanted to go all the way back to the beginning: the founding in 1776, a time when only property-owning white men could vote.

Maybe I’m a Debbie Downer, always looking at the downside. After all, each of these people acknowledged that there were bad things in the past, too. They just see the bad stuff – slavery, segregation, women being prohibited from voting – as incidental and paling in comparison to all the good stuff – presumably, well, I don’t know; it occurs to me that no one really said. Perhaps we can find some clues in this American Spectator article about the Civil War.

The author waxes nostalgiac about the wedding of Confederate Captain John Lea at which Union Captain George Custer was the best man. His concern is that we are worse off today because such a wedding will not be possible in our next Civil War, an event that is presumed to be inevitable. The author identifies two things that made us greater during the Civil War than we are now. First, he claims, we shared a common culture, an “Anglo-American heritage.” Thus, even though we were killing one another, it was okay because we were all praying to the same God and respected the rule of law. And, I guess, we were all white. Anyone who mattered, anyway. Second, we didn’t take things so seriously. Custer and Lea were friends in spite of being on opposite sides of a war. Custer even took the time to flirt with the Southern belles at the wedding!

Obviously, I find this kind of nostalgia repulsive. I would argue that America’s greatness is directly proportional to the degree of seriousness with which we view the brutal violence of war and slavery. It seems obvious to me that slavery is an abomination, though this is a common tack for the “heritage not hate” crowd, to treat the enslavement of other human beings as something incidental, hardly worth mentioning. But one would think that the death of 620,000 people in war would register some seriousness. The fact that officers on opposing sides of the war were galavanting about while 620,000 people were dying as a result of their orders is not a story of civility, but of the utmost barbarity. But then, that’s precisely the kind of class analysis from which nostalgia protects us. This kind of historical revisionism is easy pickings, so let’s turn this lens into a mirror.

As we were talking in church on Sunday, Courtney asked, “Why do we have to go back? I don’t want to.” I suggested then that we can hold onto our values and look backward to see what can be brought forward, to live out those values better. But now I wonder how much that project is possible. For example, I might point to the economic prosperity of the postwar era and argue for more taxes on the wealthy. However, not only is our global economic environment different now, but I also have to wonder how much that prosperity relied on the exploitation of the cheap labor of people of color. I would guess that any story we might tell about who we are and how we got to be who we are, can be problematized in a similar way.

Haggai and Zechariah both encountered waning enthusiasm for the project of nostalgia. Once the temple foundation was laid, the people were unimpressed. Haggai doubled down, predicting an apocalyptic restoration triggered by rebuilding the temple. Building the temple would end the drought and Israel would once again dominate the region. Zechariah’s response was slightly different. He turned, as many prophets before him had done, to justice. God has brought peace and asks, not for a temple, but for justice.

It is unclear to me if we have ever been great. However, I do think we can be greater. The first thing God asks for, in Zechariah’s imagination, is for people to “speak the truth to one another.” This is probably a general call for honesty and honest dealings, but I wonder if that needs to be our first guide for looking back. If we can see the world as it has been, as clearly as we can, and speak honestly to one another about our experiences of it, perhaps we can make America greater than it has been, not to recreate a bygone era, but to see clearly where we have succeeded and where we have failed, for all people, to live up to the promise of our nation and our faith.

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