Back to Prindle Institute

The Moral Danger of Conservative Nostalgia

photograph of old movie projector displaying blank image on screen

When the news recently broke that a remake of the 1992 film The Bodyguard (originally starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner) is in the works, the internet quickly jumped to imagine who might play the lead roles (one popular trend is pushing for a Lizzo/Chris Evans team-up). Against the excitement, however, were critics arguing that the original film was artistically unique (the soundtrack, led by Houston, is hailed as an extraordinary achievement) and that it would be a mistake to try and recreate it without the incomparable Houston at the helm. Nevertheless, the project is moving forward with the award-winning playwright Matthew López writing the script.

There’s a kind of nostalgia at work in this story that, I want to argue, is not only aesthetically questionable, but can (at least potentially) pose serious moral dangers for a culture enamored with “the good ol’ days.”

It’s become something of a cliché to whine about the deluge of remakes, adaptations, reboots, sequels, and reenvisionings coming from Hollywood. The last year alone has seen new versions of Space Jam, Coming to America, Mulan, and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure released and sequels to Top Gun, The Matrix, Ghostbusters, and Scream are finishing production (with reboots of everything from Twister to Pirates of the Caribbean to The Passion of the Christ and more in the works). Similarly, television shows like Full House, Who’s the Boss, Gilmore Girls, Saved by the Bell, and The Wonder Years have all recently returned with new episodes. (None of these lists are comprehensive.) When considered alongside the distinct trend of constructing an interwoven narrative across multiple films — most famously demonstrated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe — it could very well seem like “no one in Hollywood now has an original notion in their heads.”

But, importantly, this is not a new phenomenon: as most any historian of film will attest, Hollywood has always been in the business of re-telling pre-existing stories. One of the earliest remakes (a film called L’Arroseur) was released in 1896, making reboots older than the Titanic, sliced bread, and the state of Oklahoma. Remember that many films now considered classics — such as The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Psycho, and Mean Girls — were adaptations of already-published books; others like Scarface, The Maltese Falcon, and Angels in the Outfield were themselves remakes of already-released films. The upcoming He’s All That is, most directly, a remake of the 1999 movie She’s All That, but that was first a re-envisioning of 1964’s My Fair Lady which was itself an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion.

Rachel Fraser has described a “nostalgic culture” as “one bogged down in its own history” — the repeated retelling of familiar stories (and the market-driven incentives that motivate studio execs to continually greenlight such projects) is indeed one way that our present age is one “driven” by nostalgia.

But it is not the dangerous one I have in mind.

In general, ‘nostalgia’ describes an experience of sentimental or mournful longing for one’s past; in the words of philosopher Paula Sweeney, it is an “emotional response to change.” One way a person might so respond is by clinging to their memories, perhaps seeking to recapitulate a particular experience (now with updated special effects, pop culture references, and box office returns). But another is to enshrine the details of one’s memory in a manner that sacralizes the past event such that alterations to its contemporary retelling become offensive (or even heretical). The first kind of nostalgia motivates audiences to want a remake of The Bodyguard; the second kind decrees that no such remake could possibly compare to the original. If the first kind of nostalgia is analogous to addiction, the second might be comparable to idolatry.

While both kinds of nostalgia are focused on the past, only one drives people to try and bring that past (however modulated) into the present; call this form of nostalgia (that stokes the fires of reboots galore) repetitive nostalgia. The other kind of nostalgia promotes precisely the opposite, explicitly prohibiting any contemporary recreations of the past that could potentially alter things for the subjective worst; this kind of conservative nostalgia instead seeks to preserve a crystallized form of what the person remembers in order to protect them from the emotional damage of new changes.

Conservative nostalgia is, I contend, a key factor in the phenomenon of “toxic” fandoms, wherein devoted admirers of some element of pop culture bully other people for the sake of preserving their particular perspective on what they love. Sometimes, this is in response to a perceived attack on the object of their affection, as when one fan tweeted a mild criticism of rapper Nicki Minaj in June 2018 and then faced days of verbal attacks online that escalated to serious privacy violations and the loss of her job. Other times, toxic fandom is triggered alongside other biases, such as racism or sexism: consider the irrational backlash from some circles to Brie Larson’s MCU character or Kelly Marie Tran’s and John Boyega’s Star Wars roles. In each case, conservative nostalgia provokes fans to interpret new (sometimes quite minute) changes as threats, thereby prompting them to act in wildly inappropriate (and sometimes literally life-threatening) ways.

In a different way, something like conservative nostalgia seems to be the foundation of many defenses of preserving the statues built in the early-20th century to honor the failed leaders of the Confederate States of America. Although on one hand, it might seem odd for citizens of a country to want to honor domestic terrorists who formerly attacked that same country, the fact that these monuments have been standing for decades means that, for many people, the visual experience of those statues on roadsides or in town squares is a regular (and perhaps even comforting) element of familiar routines, regardless of who or what the monuments commemorate: to remove them is to make a change that can provoke the sorts of threat responses inherent to experiences of conservative nostalgia.

(To be clear, I do not mean to suggest that conservative nostalgia is the only relevant factor in the debate over Confederate statue removal, but rather that its affective consequences are one important — and perhaps often overlooked — element that should be considered.)

But online bullying and the perpetuation of oppressive propaganda, though seriously morally problematic, still might not count as dangerous (in the standard sense of the term). But when we consider the Capitol Riot of January 2021, we can indeed see extreme ramifications of conservative nostalgia that are easily recognizable as alarmingly unsafe: violent insurrection in an attempt to prevent undesired change. Misled by tangled webs of conspiracy theories and spurred on by multiple prominent figures, the failed insurrectionists sought to protect a false-but-subjectively-comforting narrative for themselves about the outcome of the 2020 election and the continued political career of Donald Trump, even if that meant seriously harming others, destroying historic property, and violating scores of laws. Though the rioters’ nostalgia seems to have been rooted in a mixture of ideologies and beliefs ranging from Christian nationalism to white supremacy to neoliberalism to “home-grown fascism,” one common thread was a fearful resistance to the administrative changes taking place inside the building they were storming — it was a conservative nostalgia that responded to change in an abjectly violent way. (And, concerningly, some politicians and media figures are already starting to reference the Capitol Riot positively, further sedimenting this conservative nostalgia within their own brands to, presumably, further weaponize it for self-serving political and financial support.)

Nevertheless, I don’t think that nostalgia — neither repetitive nor conservative — is necessarily bad: it’s an emotional response to triggers that can motivate further action, but it is those triggers and actions that are directly morally assessable. Still, to overlook the role played by our affective systems is to ignore an important element of human life that can have a massive influence on our thoughts and behavior — and we shouldn’t forget that.

Judgment, Condemnation, and Historical Context

photograph of statue of Thomas Jefferson seatedin profile

Is it right to condemn historical figures for moral beliefs that, while common during their time, are now known to be odious?

Our attitudes toward historical figures matter. Our attitudes bear on the question of what public honors should be bestowed on morally flawed historical figures, and our attitudes toward historical figures will influence our contemporary moral thinking. How I view historical figures may influence my trust in moral and institutional traditions I have received from those thinkers. If I believe our Founding Fathers were good and noble people with certain, though largely isolatable, tragic flaws, I’ll trust our constitutional system more than if I believe our Founding Fathers were mostly moral degenerates skilled at couching their corruption in the propagandistic rhetoric of admirable ideals. This trust need not be self-conscious. If you present multiple people with the exact same policy proposals while varying who you say supports it, you can flip who supports which policy. Just seeing an idea as presented by someone ‘on my side’ or ‘in my team’ or ‘within my in-group’ (to use the language of social psychology), will incline you to find it plausible. The extent to which I’ll instinctively trust the political structure set up by our Founding Fathers will depend, at least in part, on the extent to which I see the Founding Fathers as patriotic exemplars.

So how should we think of historical figures with odious beliefs? There are two lines of argument against judging them the way we would judge contemporaries.

The first line is often expressed by language like “they belonged to a particular time.” The argument suggests that these thinkers were, because of their historical context, blamelessly morally ignorant of things we now know.

If you heard about a doctor who, in their rush to treat patients as quickly as possible, did not bother to sterilize materials between amputations, you would reasonably condemn that person as culpably negligent or heartless. However, we do not make similar moral judgements about doctors in the seventeenth century. Sure, it would have been better had they sterilized their instruments, but these doctors did not have the germ theory of disease, they had no reason to think that boiling their surgical instruments would do anything, and indeed they had every reason to think that the longer they took to perform amputations the further infections could spread.

We do not judge historical figures for terrible surgical practices because we think that at least some forms of non-moral ignorance exculpate. But if non-moral ignorance can exculpate, can’t moral ignorance as well? Just as we, the beneficiaries of the modern medical awakening, cannot fairly judge historical figures for the poor choices they made as a consequence of their worse scientific environment, so, the thought goes, we, the beneficiaries of various moral awakenings, cannot fairly judge historical figures for the poor choices they made as a consequence of their worse moral environment.

There are, however, good reasons to doubt the extrapolation from the non-moral case to the moral case. One contemporary philosopher who argues for an asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance is Elizabeth Harman. Harman, following Nomy Arpaly, thinks you are blameworthy if you betray an inadequate concern for what is morally significant.

This account would explain why non-moral ignorance sometimes excuses. If I mistakenly believe a certain charitable organization does good work, then donating to that actually harmful charity need not display an inadequate concern for the plight of the poor, for example. I might really care as much as I should for justice, but simply be misled about what would best serve others.

This account of blameworthiness would also explain why moral ignorance does not excuse. If I’m morally ignorant that I ought to give to the poor, then that very ignorance displays a lack of concern for the poor, and thus a lack of concern for what really is morally significant. Circumstances where we fail to grasp the character of our acts (say I thought the backpack I grabbed on my way out of class was mine, when really it was your very similar-looking bag) do not communicate moral indifference (I may still be fully concerned to respect your property). In contrast, being aware that I was taking your property but not appreciating that it was wrong, would actually prove my lack of concern.

But not all philosophers agree with drawing this strong asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance. Why, for instance, is it wrong for us to morally condemn vicious people raised as child soldiers? One plausible answer is that child soldiers cannot be blamed for their ignorance of the moral law.

Of course, even if we accept moral ignorance can, in principle, excuse, it remains an open question if it does in the historical cases we’re considering. There is a difference between having had one’s conscience systematically flayed by the brutal brainwashing that goes into creating a child soldier, and simply growing up in a society with a high tolerance for evil.

Consider the view of Elizabeth Anscombe, who thinks there are some examples of moral ignorance that really do excuse. Anscombe describes an executioner who has private knowledge of a condemned man’s innocence, but who cannot use that knowledge to exonerate the man. She asks us to further suppose the executioner knows the man had a fair trial under a rightful legal authority. Anscombe thinks since the greatest moral theologians can’t agree about this case, the simple executioner might really be blameless for choosing wrongly.

But even if there are cases of excusing moral ignorance, Anscombe thinks they are exceedingly rare. They don’t cover the controversial cases of historical figures. Anscombe follows Aristotle and Aquinas in thinking that the main outlines of morality are accessible by the light of natural human reason, and while humans are incredibly self-deceived, that does not get us off the hook given that we should, and can, almost always know the core of what is right or wrong if we don’t give into vicious self-deception. Their actions betrayed ignorance of basic moral truths which Anscombe thinks were clearly accessible to them. Thus, Anscombe ends up thinking that while there is no principled asymmetry between moral and non-moral ignorance, there is a practical asymmetry. The main outlines of science (say germ theory) are not truths available to everyone just in light of common human reason, but the main outlines of morality (say the evil of chattel slavery) are truths available to everyone just in light of common human reason. Thus, it is far more common for non-moral ignorance to excuse; not because non-moral ignorance alone can excuse, but because moral ignorance is rarely blameless.

Perhaps this first line of argument could be salvaged, but for now I will put it aside, because…

there is a second line of argument I want to consider. This is the argument often expressed by the honest voice in the back of my head saying: “but are you really that confident that if you were a white kid growing up in Antebellum South that you would have had the moral clarity to see the right of things?” Sure, maybe I agree with Anscombe and Aquinas that I should  have been able to see the right of things. But am I really so certain I would have?

The force of this thought comes from an extension of the norm against hypocritical blame. We generally think it inappropriate to blame someone for things I expect I might do were I in your situation. Since I’m not particularly exceptional amongst my own moral cohort, I don’t have good reason to think I’d be exceptional if transplanted to a historical cohort, so I should temper my outrage at historical figures.

However, here we tend to draw the wrong lesson. We’re tempted to think something like:  I’m a morally decent person, I’m probably not in a position to judge at least many historical figures as far worse than me, so many of these historical figures must not have been that bad.

That is almost the opposite of the conclusion suggested here.  We have already seen when considering the first line of argument that there are good reasons for thinking historical figures are fully responsible for their bad beliefs. My hypocrisy does not show the other person is not evil, rather it shows I might be evil as well.

Thoughts on hypocrisy should not lead us to think better of historical figures, but rather to think worse, and more humbly, of ourselves. We should recognize that many of the beliefs about which we are self-righteous might be largely chosen, not from principle, but because it helps us gain the glowing approval of those whose opinions we prize. And likewise, we should perhaps recognize that whatever moral clarity we do have is an undeserved grace.

This does require a pessimistic view of humanity. Yet it is a sort of pessimism shared by many of the great moral traditions and thinkers. Plato thought that our material bodies, filled with appetites, continually pull us away from virtue. Aristotle thought that only someone with an exceptionally fortunate and unearned upbringing could ever become good. Stoics doubted there ever were, or even could be, any true sages. Christians taught humans were slaves to original sin absent the intervention of divine grace. Kant famously proclaimed humans were by nature evil.

If we accept this pessimism, what attitude should we take towards historical figures? On the one hand it allows you to acknowledge the utter evil and depravity of historical figures who defended odious practices. But on the other hand, it also discourages the hatred that inclines us to divide the world into the virtuous in-group and the vicious out-group. We should willingly acknowledge the evil of historical figures, but should be skeptical that it gives us any standing to look down on them, as though we have any moral height from which to condescend.

There are three principled attitudes to take towards historical figures. First, following Harman, we could think there is a real asymmetry between our own blameworthiness and theirs because our differing moral values really show differing levels of blameworthiness. Second, we could see them as similar to ourselves — largely good people though victims of largely blameless ignorance. Or third, and this one seems right to me, we could again see them as similar to ourselves, but as also blameworthy in their ignorance of their own depravity, and so conclude that we are actually closer to their wickedness than we realized.

Rising Sun Flag: Symbol of Hate or Cultural Pride?

image of aged Rising Sun flag

Last fall, South Korea asked the International Olympic Committee to ban the Rising Sun flag from Olympic stands in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. South Korea argues that the Rising Sun flag is representative of Imperial Japan, thus representative of the human rights abuses and war crimes that occurred during the World War II era. Japan has pushed back by stating the Rising Sun flag is not a political statement. The reasoning is that, in the Japanese government’s view, the Rising Sun is a cultural symbol of pride and patriotism, and does not merely represent Japan’s Imperial Empire. To understand this issue, consider a similar case regarding the symbolism of flags: in the United States, many states still display the Confederate flag at state houses and on public grounds. Critics of the Confederate flag see it as a symbol of slavery, human rights abuses, and racism, while supporters of the Confederate flag view it as a cultural symbol of the South. In the case of Rising Sun or Confederate flag, it is important to recognize that the disagreement is not about if the flags have connections to human rights abuses (it is quite obvious these flags do have connections to barbaric wrongdoings); instead, the disagreement concerns questions about a flag’s meaning, whose opinion is relevant in determining that meaning, and if whatever original meaning a flag might have can be corrupted by factors later on.

To understand the significance and sentiments surrounding the Confederate flag, it is important to understand the history of it. The Confederacy has explicitly supported slavery in its constitution as it said ,”No bill of attainder, ex post facto law, or law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” There were nearly 4 million slaves in 1860, mostly in the confederate states, and they were subject to brutal conditions such as whipping, burning, hanging, mutilation, and rape. The Ku Klux Klan made use of the flag during cross burnings and lynchings, and many white supremacist groups still use it today.

Supporters of the Confederate flag, however, see it as a symbol of heritage and a recognition of the millions of confederate soldiers who fought in the Civil War. In fact, most confederate soldiers did not own slaves. But critics say the Civil War was mainly caused by slavery, while some claim the cause was states’ rights. No matter the cause of the Civil War, slavery was an extremely common, atrocious infringement of human rights in the Confederate states, and many associate the the flying of the Confederate flag with those abuses.

Like the history and symbolism surrounding the Confederate flag, the Rising Sun flag has negative connections surrounding it. The flag was most notably used during Japan’s Imperial Era, but it has origins of being used by feudal warlords during the 1600s. Many Japanese people do not see its use as a political statement because it is widely used for seasonal festivals, fishermen boats, and naval ships. Although this flag can be seen in everyday cultural events, it has also been used by Japanese nationalist groups. Many in Korea, China, and other parts of East Asia see this as a symbol of Japanese Imperialism. During the Pre-World War 2 and World War 2 era, Korea and, later on, parts of China, suffered under the brutal, barbaric rule of the Japanese Empire. The Japanese military was known for kidnapping Korean, Chinese, and other Asian women and forcing them into sexual slavery, while Korean men were put into forced labor camps. Koreans were not allowed to speak, write, or learn Korean and were forced to use Japanese. In China, Japan massacred and raped hundreds of thousands of civilians which is known as the Nanking Massacre. During this period, the Rising Sun flag was used, so many Koreans, Chinese, and other countries in Asia see this flag as a symbol representing these barbaric actions by Japan. This historical divide is still can be seen today with Japan’s reluctance to apologize for war crimes consistently, South Korea’s recent boycott of Japanese goods, and Japanese nationalist groups holding rallies regularly.

Given the atrocities committed under these two banners, the question remains what message the Rising Sun or Confederate flag might send that would overcome these connections. Supporters of the Confederate or Rising Sun flags claim the original meaning and intention behind the cultural symbol should be taken as the sole meaning. But consider the Nazi Swastika or the Soviet hammer & sickle typically associated with the millions of deaths in concentration camps or gulags. If their logic was consistently applied, then the Nazi Swastika would symbolize peace and the Soviet hammer & sickle would symbolize socioeconomic equality because those were these flags’ original intentions. The fact is that flags are embedded into the community it represents, so it cannot conveniently detach from past wrongs while only associating itself with the good. Take the analogy to a sports team. Teams have wins and losses, but can the team only associate with the wins? Of course not. If a symbol represents the team, then the symbol represents the wins and losses too. The Confederacy participated in the brutal enslavement of humans, so the Confederate flag reflects slavery and southern culture. Imperial Japan sponsored massacres across East Asia, so the Rising Sun flag reflects massacres and Japanese culture. The Rising Sun and Confederate flags represent both the good and the bad.

When cruel wrongdoings are of monumental magnitude as in the case of the Confederacy and Imperial Japan, there is no removing the history of barbaric atrocities to see only original intention. Therefore, when a state or national government openly supports flags with connections to widespread historical wrongdoings, it is an amplification of the historical wrongdoings the flag represents. The flying of the Confederate and Rising Sun Flag fails to acknowledge historical injustices, some injustices in which people who are alive today have lived through.

Where Does the Confederate Battle Flag Belong Today?

Political pressure is mounting for the removal of the Confederate battle flag that flies on the state grounds of South Carolina in the wake of the Charleston Church shooting. In recent years, public debate over the flag that symbolizes racism to some and heritage to others has intensified. The divergent views towards the flag inflamed intense public dialogues about racism, culture and history ever since the mid-1950s. Under this circumstance in 1993, United States Senator from Illinois Carol Moseley-Braun claimed “it is a fundamental mistake to believe that one’s own perception of a flag’s meaning is the only legitimate meaning.”

As Moseley-Braun suggested, people should not impose one’s interpretation of the flag to others, and seeking to understand why people are offended by it and why people preserve it are actions that are necessary to take as educated citizens. In order to fully comprehend the implications that the flag gives to a diverse public, understanding the entire history of this symbol would become necessary as people from different backgrounds from a wide range of generations view the flag from a variety of perspectives.

Unlike common belief, during the Civil War the Confederate battle flag did not explicitly symbolize racism nor slavery. Among the southern white population, less than 5% were slave owners, and thus, the majority of the Confederate soldiers did not own slave property. Racism prevailed both in the Union and the Confederacy as both parties did not give African Americans the right to vote and fundamental human rights. In fact, historian James McPherson argues that the main Confederate “cause” of the Civil War was to preserve their country and the legacy of the Founding Fathers, which derived from southern nationalism. As Lincoln recalled in his Second Inaugural Address in 1865, that slavery was “somehow the cause of the war,” the modern debate arguing that the Civil War about slavery, and therefore, the battle flag represents slavery is a mere simplification of history. The war was centralized on the issue on slavery, but one cannot naively generalize that all Confederate soldiers were committed to slavery and supported going to war for that cause.

The history of the flag does not end with the Civil War, but expands after World War II with the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. To many people’s surprise, the proliferation of the Confederate battle flag happened after 1954, when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional via the Brown v. Board of Education case. Although segregation was illegal, many southern states were reluctant to integrate schools. To show their resistance against integration, the Confederate battle flag came back in the public sphere.

The following year of the Brown case, George Wallace, governor of Alabama, raised the flag as part of his “Segregation Forever” campaign and endorsed it as a symbol of resistance. Not only political figures, but also segregationists brandished the flag to contest integration. It was at this time when the flag entered American popular culture as a symbol of opposition to integration, as Jonathan Daniels, editor of Raleigh News & Observer, lamented in 1965 that the flag had become “just confetti in careless hands.”

So, how should governments, corporations and individual citizens cope with a cultural icon that ignites intense debates? One must acknowledge the difference between public and private display of this flag. Public display of the flag (e.g. on the South Carolina state grounds) should be prohibited with the understanding that this flag symbolizes racism for a wide majority of the public. A governmental institution should not naively display a symbol of racism and show innocence in front of people who are offended by it. One must ask: “what would it be like for a Black citizen living in a state where a symbol of racism waves on the state ground?” Confederate flag images can harass or intimidate citizens and the government must not endorse such figure on its public ground. Moreover, the presence of the flag on the state ground excludes and ignores the population who do not honor it.

On the other hand, it is essential to distinguish between the flag as a memorial and the flag as a symbol of exclusion. The Civil War is undeniably a fundamental part of American history and culture, whose events still fascinate many Americans today. The history of the Confederacy is as valuable as the history of the Union, and no one can erase the four years that the two parties had fought. It is necessary to acknowledge that for many southerners, the Confederacy is part of their family history and the flag is a tool to honor their ancestors. Confederate heritage organizations have the right to privately use this symbol with the understanding that explicit use of the Confederate battle flag may offend others who are uncomfortable with it.

We live in a country where people come from different cultures, nationalities, and family backgrounds, and therefore, it is natural that there is a variety of perspectives on how one considers the Confederate battle flag. Many Confederate descendants look at the flag as a symbol of heritage, but this does not make the flag an honorable icon for everyone. A large number of people view the flag as a symbol of racism, but no one can assume that everyone who raises the flag is a racist. However, a governmental institution must consider the negative implications that this icon gives to the public. Even in private settings, no one can naively use this powerful symbol without considering the message that this flag might give to a wide public. In sum, seeking to understand the diverse meanings of the flag and engaging in honest dialogues would lead us to a better understanding of the proper place of the Confederate battle flag in modern day society.



Edward Pessen, “How Different from Each Other Were the Antebellum North and South?” American Historical Review 85 (1980): 1119-49.

James M. McPherson, For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

John M. Coski, The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s Most Embattled Emblem (Cambridge, MA : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).