Ed Driscoll

The Paradox of the Nostalgic Progressive

As quoted by Steven Hayward in The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980, political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote that “politics is an activity unsuited to the young,” because:

Everybody’s young days are a dream, a delightful insanity, a sweet solipsism. Nothing in them has a fixed shape, nothing a fixed price; everything is a possibility, and we live happily on credit. There are no obligations to be observed; there are no accounts to be kept. Nothing is specified in advance; everything is what can be made of it. The world is a mirror in which we seek the reflection of our own desires. The allure of violent emotions is irresistible. When we are young we are not disposed to make concessions to the world; we never feel the balance of a thing in our hands—unless it be a cricket bat. … Since life is a dream, we argue (with plausible but erroneous logic) that politics must be an encounter of dreams, in which we hope to impose our own.

Perhaps that’s one explanation why so many liberals, as they get up in years, have both a surprising nostalgia for the past, and a “you kids get off my lawn” crankiness about contemporary society. This, despite that fact that liberalism, or progressivism, or simply the left, has been the dominant political philosophy – at least in Washington, academia and the media – for the last 75 years or so. Here are but a few examples we’ve rounded up of this trend in action. Back in November, a brief profile of a then-new biography of Kurt Vonnegut at NPR was titled, “Kurt Vonnegut Was Not A Happy Man. ‘So It Goes:’”

Vonnegut’s public persona was often at odds with the actual man. “He read the signs of what was happening in the country,” Shields says, “and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about.”

As a former public relations man for General Electric, Vonnegut knew how to construct an image, a public version of himself who readers could believe had written books like Cat’s Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.

“I don’t mean to persuade anybody that Kurt was a cynic,” Shields says. “Just the opposite.” But Vonnegut was more of a reactionary than a radical, someone who showed up for a meeting with the band Jefferson Airplane dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and wingtip shoes. Someone who was deeply scarred by his experiences, and longed for the older, gentler America of his pre-war childhood.

As Kyle Smith noted at the time:

I think when you’re famous people call you “irascible,” but if not, you’re just a jerk. Also in the new biography of him: Vonnegut carefully constructed his hip image, using lessons he learned as a PR man for G.E. (Did Vonnegut and Reagan overlap there at all? Seems like they must have.)

In addition to the professional similarity with the Gipper, the late Vonnegut shared a love of American nostalgia with a much more unlikely source – someone, like Vonnegut, also deeply unhappy with contemporary America:

Back in 2006, when he was writing The Conscience of a Liberal, [Paul] Krugman found himself searching for a way to describe his own political Eden, his vision of America before the Fall. He knew the moment that he wanted to describe: the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared. Wells, looking over a draft, thought his account was too numerical, too cold. She suggested that he describe his own childhood, in the ­middle-class suburb of Merrick, Long Island. And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history …”

Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch ­houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”

In his review of Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, Bruce Bawer noted perceptively that the Woodman, like Krugman is also another New York arch-liberal at odds with contemporary society:

While Allen likes to think of himself as a standard-issue Manhattan liberal, the sensibility of his films (whether he realizes it or not) is largely conservative.  Over and over he makes it clear that he despises pretty much everything that came out of the 1960s, and one after another of his films is an exercise in cultural nostalgia for the pre-Sixties world.   His pictures’ musical scores testify to his obsession with the Great American Songbook.  (Recall, for example, the sequence in Hannah and Her Sisters in which Dianne Wiest takes him to see a punk rock band that he hates, joking that “after they sing, they’re gonna take hostages” – after which, in order to give her a taste of “something nice,” he takes her to the Carlyle to hear Bobby Short perform Cole Porter.)  Just as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days are love letters to the 1930s and 40s – and both very charming ones, at that – Midnight in Paris is a love letter to the 1920s.

Nostalgia for the mid-century past isn’t just rooted to liberals on this side of the Atlantic, of course. “London is no longer an English city, says John Cleese. Is he right?” Ed West (no relation) of the Telegraph asked last year:

Cleese also spoke about the shift in British attitudes away from a “middle-class culture” and the emergence of a “yob culture”.

He said: “There were disadvantages to the old culture, it was a bit stuffy and it was more sexist and more racist. But it was an educated and middle-class culture. Now it’s a yob culture. The values are so strange.”

He added that he preferred living in Bath to London because the capital no longer felt “English”.

“London is no longer an English city which is why I love Bath,” he said. “That’s how they sold it for the Olympics, not as the capital of England but as the cosmopolitan city. I love being down in Bath because it feels like the England that I grew up in.”

More after the page break.

As I wrote back then about Cleese, in a post that wound up with a 150 or so comments:

John Cleese morphed into Theodore Dalrymple so slowly, I hardly even noticed.

But what did he expect? (Cleese of course. Dalrymple saw this coming ages ago.) Besides being, at times, one of the greatest comedy shows ever, Monty Python was a weekly assault on the values of post-war England. And England’s societal bedrock of wisdom and knowledge proved in retrospect,  to be surprisingly fragile.  If you’re throwing traditional values onto a bonfire every seven days, isn’t the inference you’d like to see them changed?

Of course, you shouldn’t be all that surprised if change for its own sake doesn’t go quite as planned. Or that, as West hints at above, the new era turns out to be, in many ways, less tolerant than the old one.

The theme of nostalgia, exhaustion, and a weariness of the modern world was soaked deep into Pinch Sulzberger’s commencement speech to the students of SUNY New Paltz in 2006:

As you already heard, I’m here in large part because I’m a rock climber. I work in New York City but I come to New Paltz to clear my head and batter my body against those beautiful cliffs up there. And this ties in to another bit of reporting I did in preparation for today. I found what may well be one of the shortest commencement speeches every given.

It was 1941. Following what was no doubt an excessive introduction,  – sort of like mine – our speaker walked to the lectern, glared out at the assembled multitude and in his trademark bark intoned: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

And then Winston Churchill sat down.

With a philosophy like that, Sir Winston would have made one hell of a rock climber. Life is relentless. When you think you’ve made the crucial move – what in climbing parlance is called The Crux – it always throws you another one. And another. And another.

These are the vagaries of which I spoke earlier in these remarks.  In my experience, the only way to prepare for them is inside each of you. It is not about the job you have or the money you make. It is about commitment and courage; it’s about caring and fortitude. It’s about supporting those around you and, just as importantly, it’s about letting them support you. In the parlance of the climber, trust that you’re “on belay.”

Engage; get the small decisions right; never give in and please – please – build us a world of which we can be proud. Go make a damn difference.

None of you wants to be standing where I am 30 years from now apologizing to the next generation of bright and shiny college graduates.

Not to mention supporting a president a couple of years later, who found Churchill anathema to his own worldview.

In November of last year, Matthew Continetti of the Weekly Standard explored the growing numbers of “The Reactionary Left:”

The very notion of a backward-looking left is laughable. Since its inception during the French Revolution, the left has been the party of progress, riding the wave of history to that distant shore where man will cast off the chains of society and live a truly authentic, free, and “natural” life. It’s been the conservatives who have looked in the other direction, tapping the lefties on the shoulder and reminding them that faith and tradition are important guides to human action and shouldn’t be cast off lightly. In contemporary America the equation has been reversed: Tea Party populists support drastic measures to revitalize the American government and economy, while left-wing class warriors want nothing more than to maintain the broken structures of the welfare state.

What happened to the American left’s utopianism, its sense of adventure, its fearless derring-do? Today’s liberals say conservatives are radicals who want to overturn the American political tradition (as liberals understand it). What remains of the liberal confidence in progress seems to be restricted to the culture, where Americans continue to perform occasional experiments of living. But even the cultural left seems withered, exhausted, ready to go to that big Oneida community in the sky. So what’s a Rousseau to do? Ruminate on his glory days, and pretend that Occupy Wall Street is something more than it is.

In a recent post here at PJM, Andrew Klavan noted how difficult it is to keep up “The Tyranny of Hip:”

No one wants to be the butt of the cool kids’ jokes like that. No critic who values his relevance wants to point out that Bridesmaids soiling themselves while in wedding regalia is not really funny; or that Katy Perry’s hummable hit tunes peddling alcohol abuse and cheap sex to 12-year-olds are reprehensible; or that Sacha Baron Cohen mocking ordinary people for their non-ironic faith, manners or dedication can be at once hilarious and morally wrong — like laughing at a slapstick accident that leaves someone dead. No one wants to turn into the old man waving his cane from the porch rocking chair shouting at the young folks to stop all their goldarned canoodling and quit parading around with their hoo-has and what-nots hanging out, for the love of Mike.

And yet the nation hungers for just such behavior. Witness the recent YouTube video of a father punishing his spoiled daughter for a snarky Facebook post by plugging her laptop with a .45. The thing went viral to the tune of tens of millions of viewers. Why? Because it was wonderful to see someone finally step up and be Daddy.

Being Daddy, no matter what people say, is not primarily a matter of telling people what not to do, nor is it a matter, in my opinion, of scaring them with the consequences of poor behavior. Family leaders rather model, proclaim and support the way people behave when they treat themselves like people instead of meat puppets: i.e. when they make their flesh serve their dignity, love and joy, which sometimes means delaying and even denying more immediate and strictly physical pleasures.

Only (by which I mean only) this essentially spiritual approach to life supports self-governance and justifies liberty. That, if no other reason, is why it’s the responsibility of American grown-ups to teach it to the young. No one wants to be uncool, but the end result of the Tyranny of Hip is tyranny.

Hipness becomes an even more difficult façade to maintain the older you get, which, if anything has aged Woody, Krugman and Cleese enormously. Vonnegut’s raging BDS in the last years of his life, a de rigueur pose amongst his fellow leftists during the previous decade, only added to his cranky old man appearance.

But beyond that, the reasons for nostalgia are multifaceted. Childhood often seems warm and innocent in retrospect. (See also: The Wonder Years, A Christmas Story, etc.) But for liberals such as the late Vonnegut, who came of age during a period when liberalism was still new and fresh (as it had only then recently been redefined, a huge stolen base from its original laissez-faire meaning), or Cleese, during a period of sweeping social change in 1960s “Swinging London,” these were both periods when “progressive” ideas still seemed fresh and new. They hadn’t yet been fully tried and proven to be disastrous. Today, the results of progressivism’s century of failure are concrete – literally so, in some cases – and omnipresent. But in an era when tearing down the Berlin Wall gets booed, either because it meant the fall of the Soviets, or that a hated political opponent called for it – or both, the idea of changing your ideology because it’s been proven obsolete, or simply readjusting your focus to better match the contemporary era is remarkably rare. Near the beginning of The Age of Reagan Vol. II: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989, Hayward writes:

It was not clear in November 1980 whether Reagan’s election would entail a decisive break with the enervated 1970s, as John F. Kennedy’s election signaled a sharp turn from the staid 1950s. On the surface it was supposed that Reagan was Eisenhower redux, that the political cycle had run full circle: Reagan would try to take us back to the 1950s. It was an easy mistake to make about the nation’s soon-to-be oldest president, who often spoke in nostalgic terms about the good old days of his Hollywood career. The paradox of Reagan was what might be called his old-fashioned futurism. As Lou Cannon put it, “Reagan spoke to the future with the accents of the past;” George Will’s equally serviceable formula was “He does not want to return to the past; he wants to return to the past’s way of facing the future.” Reagan’s variety of future-oriented optimism rooted in historical attachment has become almost unrecognizable in the age of a postmodernism that is openly contemptuous of history and historical experience.

Reagan himself told David Horowitz in 1990, “I had second thoughts before you.” But we remember him because at least among those with a background in both broadcast journalism and Hollywood, such thoughts so rarely occur. Particularly when you’re insulated from reality, you believe your opponents are so evil, you’re prepared to punish any heretics who dare wonder off the reservation.  Perhaps that amount fear is, in and of itself enough to keep the old guard in line, despite their intense nostalgia for a world their ideology’s ideas helped to destroy.