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The Peculiar Marriage of Ahistoricism and Nostalgia for the Past

When the loud and unabashed chant “Make America Great Again” became the rallying cry for the Trump campaign in 2016, many Americans were quick to buy into it (and even quicker to buy the merchandise). As simplistic and unassumingly ambiguous as the slogan may be, it’s little wonder why it caught on with such freight train-like momentum.

Catchphrases such as these tend to have a significant appeal. Our nostalgic sides are pure suckers for the sweet remembrances of yesteryear, the good ol’ days, the simpler times – back when the American Dream was alive and well inside us all. The mere thought drips with the saccharine coated sentiment of the golden days, and from it, emerges a wistful, sepia-filtered image of all that America used to be, back when America truly was great.

But the saying prompts the question: When, exactly, was this again?

The term is, after all, incredibly vague in that it suggests that America was great at one point, but it doesn’t exactly specify when that was or why. Perhaps it was sometime in the mid-20th century, back when kids obeyed their parents, when people actually talked to each other and friendly neighbors went door-to-door sharing homemade chocolate chip cookies, or when people didn’t get divorced just for fun. You know, back when women were too vapid to make coffee. Who doesn’t love vintage?

As it turns out, according to a 2017 PewResearch poll, 41% of Americans say that life is worse today than in was 50 years ago, while 37% say that life is better. Although fairly split on the issue, the proportion of Americans drawn to the past is rather phenomenal. And while memories of classic apple pie and refreshing apricot martinis melt away disturbing contemporary images like entitled, iPhone-addicted adolescents and avocado toast, when we honestly reflect upon our nation’s golden years gone by, many historical facts of 50 years ago were anything but warm and fuzzy. After all, at the time, the United States was entrenched in the bitter Cold War, life expectancies were dismal to say the least, while massive and violent anti-Vietnam War protests and race riots were erupting all across the country. Suffice to say, 50 years ago certainly wasn’t a simpler time.

But as it turns out, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if few people remembered this, or, if they do, they’ve chosen to ignore it. In fact, Americans seem to be rapidly succumbing to a nasty bought of national ahistoricism. According to The Oxford Dictionary, ahistoricism can be defined as follows:

A tendency to be unconcerned with history or historical events, a lack of regard for history; specifically a system of thought or analysis which fails to view persons, texts, cultural phenomena, etc., within their historical context.

More insidiously, though, is that what is known as ahistoricism can also pertain to the view that history is irrelevant when it comes to contemporary decision-making: our past is cut off from the present. We don’t build upon history, we essentially bracket it off. Take certain branches of intellectualism, for instance, such as analytic philosophy, which frequently falls under fire for its tendency toward ahistorocity. Even certain religious groups, such as some evangelical Christians, are often quick to advance the view that many of their moral beliefs are divinely instituted, qualifying them as timeless and absolute, regardless of – and often at odds with – the broader historical culture.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that this lack of concern for history doesn’t always sprout purely from perceptions of its non-necessity or irrelevance, but often from our nation’s unfortunate cavernous lack of historical knowledge. Take, for instance, the US Education Department’s National Assessment of Educational Progress quadrennial survey, The Nation’s Report Card: U.S. History 2010, which had some bleak and telling results:

“According to data reported in the survey, 20 percent of fourth grade students, seventeen percent of eighth graders, and twelve percent of high school seniors performed well enough to be rated “proficient.” […] when you invert those positive figures: eighty percent of fourth graders, eighty-three percent of eighth graders and eighty-eight percent of high school seniors flunked the minimum proficiency rating. And within the senior cohort, a mere two percent correctly answered a question about the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education.” (NAS)

(Another 2000 survey by the American Council for Trustees, Losing America’s Memory: Historical Illiteracy in the 21st Century showed similar results in regard to university students).

And yet, despite the blatant lack of historical knowledge possessed by the average American, there remains a peculiar sentimentality for the past. Who wouldn’t love to go back to the economic flourishing and extravagant dancing of the Roaring 20’s, or the old-fashioned family structure and sheer elegance of the Golden 50’s? Feelings of national nostalgia seem to be growing, and this might not be a good thing. After all, as many of us have come to learn, “Nostalgia is a dirty liar that insists things were better than they seemed.”

But perhaps a more accurate term to use than just nostalgia would be the psychological phenomenon known as Rosy Retrospection, best summarized simply as “the tendency to remember and recollect events more favorably than when they occurred.” As it turns out, this is an incredibly common cognitive bias, especially considering that research shows that we tend to remember the distant past more abstractly than the present, leaving room for deceptive levels of romanticism to be projected so strongly into the past that it ceases to remain historically factual at all. It seems as though America’s national mind is falling victim.

In the meantime, as fog collects in the American memory and dust settles on history books like snow, something peculiar has begun to emerge. Americans, it seems, have a tender longing for, and desire to revert to, a past that simply does not exist. We want to make America great again; we want to go back to something but aren’t quite sure what. We can remember some of the good things, or our perceptions of them, but many of the negative events are, in painfully accurate terms, “lost to history.” In other words, ahistoricism has locked eyes with nostalgia and leaned in for a bittersweet and deceptive kiss.

Perhaps ahistoricism and failing to recollect the past accurately leads to a nostalgia for it, or maybe rose-colored hindsight clouds the way we view history in the first place. Regardless, the union of these two phenomena is a rocky one, and it leads to some rather dismal consequences. When we fail to take note of historical fixes and fluxes, not only do we become regressive, longing for a forgotten past that wasn’t as it seems, but we fail to fully learn from our mistakes. As a result, we may casually undermine social movements, and arbitrate an eviscerated version of tradition as the only plausible authority on pertinent societal issues. We risk history repeating itself, a saying which was once meant to be taken to be a serious ominous warning.

When fragmented and diluted or flat-out faulty historical recollection is paired with rose-colored retrospective glasses, not only are severe past errors eagerly forgotten and therefore lack proper critique, but as a result, we risk falling victim to the same snares. Not only does the combination of ahistoricism and nostalgia (1) birth atrocity apologists, it (2) brings forth declarations of “it wasn’t so bad” (when it was), (3) while we even romanticize experiences of severe pain, or (4), flat-out deny historical facts altogether.

The above four things have happened, for instance, when David Duke decided that Hitler should predominantly be remembered as a powerful yet misunderstood leader (1), or when another KKK member told reporters that Auschwitz wasn’t that bad because “these death camps […] gave the so-called people that were being killed cigarettes, there was coffee, there was a movie theater, a library, even a swimming pool in Auschwitz” (2). He then progressed to claiming that Auschwitz was “more like a summer camp,” (3) (when asked for his source, the Klan member replied “It’s all history”). And finally, a disturbingly widespread conspiracy theory promotes the idea that the Holocaust was a giant hoax and never took place (4). As a result of these things, not only do the true horrors of the Holocaust get neutralized, but this cooling off effect on atrocity leaves the present day door far more open to repeat horrors of a similar nature, especially if some people, much like David Duke, have a twisted or ill-informed nostalgia for the past. If we fail to recognize the severity or even the reality of historical horror shows, what is to stop us from implementing similar dangerous and slippery ideologies and regiments?

Certainly, these are extreme examples, but neutralizations and ill-informed defenses of blood-soaked inhumanities such as these are far more prevalent than one might imagine. Everyday people often fall into the same traps, though typically in reference to less shockingly monstrous historical signifiers. Again, the Golden 50’s, a romanticized time period many would do anything to go back to, even though, quite frankly, those years weren’t all that golden, especially if you happened to be an African-American and lacked basic human rights, a Mexican immigrant who would have faced deadly and illegal mass deportation tactics, or a woman (unless you happen to relish zero economic independence, a lack of education, and uncontested obedience to your husband. Oh, and the coffee. Women were really bad at making coffee back then).

Suffice to say, the idea that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” certainly rings a bell here. But in this case, as the victorious chant “Make America Great Again” suggests, it’s not so much that we’re condemned to repeat history, it’s that we want to.

This is further exemplified if we take quick look at how social issues are often treated when America falls prey to national historical amnesia. When it comes to contemporary human rights movements, complaints leveled by critics often revolve around the just yearning for the days when a respective cause was “actually worthwhile,” or when we did things “the right way.” These people don’t claim to hate the movement, per se, they just believe it’s gone irredeemably downhill and have no respect for the thing in its current form.

Consider the following common critique of the Black Lives Matter movement: Why can’t BLM just stop provoking violence and protest racial inequality peacefully like people did during civil rights? Except, the problem is, the civil rights movement did incite violence, as “Protesters […] were attacked by police dogs, their clothing was tattered by high-pressure fire hoses, and their lives were taken by police officers’ bullets.” In fact, A group of 8 clergymen wrote a public statement urging African-Americans to denounce Martin Luther King Jr’s leadership as it was causing “racial friction and unrest,” reminding King that “hatred and violence have no sanction in our religious and political traditions” (hence King’s famous response, “Letter From a Birmingham Jail“).

This isn’t to say that I condone violence, but I am suggesting that many charges leveled against BLM are both enormously misconstrued as well as historically faulty. As is the case with the above example, we tend to hold contemporary social movements to standards so unrealistic that they never existed, relentlessly harboring baseless critiques based on a phantom history of righteousness or faux-perfection. Rather than offering reasoned criticism, a movement’s true history and social progress, as well as it’s contemporary context, is left unaccounted for.

Another classic example is that of feminism, over which many love to remind us that it used to be a worthwhile movement, but has digressed into nothing more than petty man-hating and inevitable female hysteria. In reality, not only are these lackluster commentaries creating a straw man (or woman) of feminism, but truth be told, the movement was never all that popular when it started out either. Numerous polls at the time of the suffrage campaign demonstrated that the majority of women were actually against gaining the vote, and an anti-suffrage movement even published the Anti-Suffrage Review, “which denounced the behavior of the suffragettes for their unfemininity, violence, sexual deviance, hysteria, unnaturalness and threat to other women.” Things really haven’t changed much, have they? Not to mention, many suffragettes were actually incredibly racist, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton took great issue with the fact that civil rights movements were seemingly taking off faster than women’s rights. In other words, feminism, though not perfect, has definitely come a long way.

While constructive criticism heaped at movements like feminism and BLM can certainly be warranted and valuable, it must be fair and accurate, not based on a faulty knowledge of the movements’ history and progress. Not only have past waves of feminism and BLM’s counterpart the civil rights movement accomplished a great deal despite their previous flaws (and perceived flaws), but the movements continue to do so in their contemporary form. Movements can always improve, but valiant causes should not be undermined through the use of an illusory standard based on a history so phantom-like that it never existed. Again, we must have knowledge of history, and all of its continuities and changes, in order to progress and accurately assess that progress.

Finally, a further concern that emerges from the combination of ahistorocity and nostalgia is that we may defer to a faulty and cheap version of tradition as the ultimate authority in all things, and in doing so actively heap water on the fires of positive social, political, and economic change. The idea that a thing should be performed a certain way only because “it always has been” or once again, because it’s “the right way” is a deceiving if not effective way to gut historical intentions and halt progress.

Tradition can be a wonderful thing, but to forget why a tradition exists is to essentially strip it of its meaning and make it static and fixed in time as an inflexible ironclast rule. Tradition is meant to be built upon; it should be seen as constructive rather than constrictive. But if we combine an affinity for familiarity with a lack of historical knowledge, we risk subverting worthwhile innovations and new ideas by simple virtue of their novelty. By acknowledging where and why a tradition emerged, we can effectively evaluate the negative and positive principles underlying it, and actively adopt beneficial ground rules to present goals and contemporary context.

For example, the notion of “traditional family values” typically conveys archetypical black and white mental pictures of the ideal 1950-60’s nuclear (white) family: A respectable and sharply dressed breadwinning father reads the Sunday news before church as his adoring wife serves (probably gross) coffee from a pot, while their four mild-mannered children sweetly play together outside on the emerald lawn.

The sentiment seems nice, and it is true that the structure of the nuclear family has rapidly changed since the 50’s and 60’s, but the concept veils some insidious truths. Divorce rates were lower, but abuse rates certainly weren’t. The traditional family is one which idealizes female subordination to their husbands, perpetuates the notion that “housewife” is the only viable option for a woman, and the trope of the male as sole breadwinner is as outdated as it is frequently unrealistic in today’s economy. Not to mention the fact that children still disobeyed their parents, people still engaged in premarital sex, and marriage was often anything but smooth sailing.

This isn’t to say that traditional family values are all bad, but we need to take a cold, hard look at what works and what doesn’t, and in order to do this, we need to subject tradition to accurate historical and logical analysis and stop pretending things were better than they were. For example, some principles we can take from the notion of traditional family values include sentiments such as familial stability and commitment, which can, in fact, be sought after and achieved under even the most historically untraditional models. But the other underlying principles of traditional family values, including the subordination of women and an utter adherence to an exclusively heterosexual structure are not ideal values that contemporary society should strive to live by.

All in all, when we give into the combination of ahistoricism and nostalgia, we risk going backward, undermining experiences of pain, and delegitimizing movements and ideas using pseudo-history and its romanticization. Deceiving ourselves into thinking the past was better than it was, we long wistfully for historical fairy tales instead of recognizing the future as open, subject to change rather than static. We remember the great things, forget the bad things, and make the good things better than they were. We fail to learn from our mistakes and risk their repetition. When we strive to go backwards, we lose all hope of progression.

There is value in having an affinity for the past, and many truly wonderful things have happened along history and much progress has been achieved. These things deserve to be appreciated and often times, preserved. But that’s exactly the point – we must look history in the eyes and see it for what it is, including the good things and all of the unseemly parts. We can never truly erase the atrocities that took place even within the last century or two, like the sheer racist brutality of African-American slavery or Jim Crow laws, or the fact that domestic abuse used to be considered a private family affair. There was a time when women and racial minorities were denied education access and the right to vote, while gay and black people were routinely subjected to lynching. Child labor was legal, Mexican immigrants were brutally and wrongfully deported on massive scales, and Japanese internment camps mark yet another miserable bloody stain on the pages of American history. America was never “great” by many standards. Often times, it wasn’t even good.

If we want to fix the problem, we must begin by learning history, and we must never fail to learn from it. Our job is to build on history without becoming ensnared in it, to utilize history in the name of progress, not let it hold us back. In the end, we can certainly appreciate the white picket-fences and vintage Pepsi-Cola of days gone by for what they’re worth, but it seems that a lot of people would be far better off moving forward rather than going back. Besides, I hear the coffee is better these days.

And I have a sneaking feeling, that maybe, just maybe, your granny’s infamous old-fashioned apple pie wasn’t quite as good as you remember it.

  1. A funny and friendly reminder that we probably should not go back in time: Make America Great Again – Up & Down Theatre
  2. SERIOUSLY, what’s with the whole “women are too stupid to even make a cup of coffee” trope? Here’s another video about guys being jerks about their wive’s coffee. Honestly, just google “sexist coffee ad” and the abundance of results will not disappoint you.
  3. Here’s this to get you started on some history lessons: 25 Moments That Changed America



This article was originally published by Joanna Sills on Sensical Politics has received written permission from Sills for republication on this site. 



Joanna Sills

Joanna is a senior sociology and philosophy double major at George Fox University and hopes to eventually pursue law school. Her passions include art, politics, caffeine, personality tests, and irony. Writing meticulously-cited novels in the form of Facebook comments became exhausting so she decided to write articles instead. You can reach her on Twitter @JoannaSills


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