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.

Dispatch from the Monument Wars

photograph of Ulysses S. Grant Monument in Chicago

The nationwide protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder that roiled the nation this summer provided additional impetus to a process that has been ongoing since 2015: the dismantling of Confederate monuments. The Southern Poverty Law Center recently reported that at least 168 Confederate symbols in public spaces — including statutes, institution names, plaques and markers — were removed or renamed last year. Increasingly, however, other monuments have come under activists’ and community leaders’ crosshairs.

Chicago’s experience is emblematic of this new trend. Over the summer, statues of Christopher Columbus became focal points of demonstrations across the city, leading Mayor Lori Lightfoot to remove the statues in the middle of the night. Lightfoot also formed a committee composed of community leaders, artists, architects, scholars, curators, and city officials to conduct a thorough review of other public works of art to assess if they should be removed or changed, promising an “inclusive and democratic public dialogue” about the future of Chicago’s internationally acclaimed public art collection.

A few weeks ago, the Chicago Monuments Project Advisory Committee released a list of 41 “problematic” artworks slated for review. The list included numerous statues of Abraham Lincoln and Christopher Columbus, as well as statues of Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and William McKinley. In an editorial in the Chicago Sun-Times, the co-chairs of the Committee suggested that the reason for Lincoln and Grant’s inclusion concerned their roles in the forcible removal of Native Americans from their land.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the Committee has not said what will be done with the monuments, the reaction in the local media has been mostly negative, with concerns about the transparency of the Committee’s deliberations — the Committee’s meetings during the first six months of work were kept secret — mingled with general alarm about the inclusion of great men on the list of works scheduled for review and possible removal. (No one seemed to shed a tear for the Italo Balbo Monument, which was gifted to the City of Chicago by fascist dictator Benito Mussolini). It is likely that those process concerns will be at least partly allayed by the Committee’s recent shift to a more public-facing posture, inviting feedback on its website, hosting a number of interactive speaker events, and soliciting proposals from artists for new monument ideas.

Still, an editorial in the Chicago Tribune is fairly representative of the local media response. “Take down Chicago statues of Lincoln? No.” makes two arguments. The first is that the moral standards of those who wish to reassess the commemorative landscape are too demanding: “some critics think every person we memorialize must be perfectly blameless by the standards of modern America.” The editorial sensibly replies that if this is the standard, then there will be no (or at least, very few) monuments. Because this is an obviously (?) undesirable result, those high standards ought to be abandoned. Instead, we should “weigh the good done by those who have been honored against their shortcomings, and in the context of their generation, not ours.” The second argument is that critics of the monuments are guilty of arrogance, believing that they are morally superior to “yesterday’s heroes.” Presumably, however, everyone has feet of clay, particularly by the standards of future generations. To avoid arrogance, then, we should not presume to stand in judgment of our forebears.

The Tribune’s arguments have the flavor of straw men, although it’s impossible to say whether they are right about at least some activists. At the heart of the Tribune’s argument is the assumption that activists are primarily interested in whether the subjects of monumental representations are blameworthy for what they’ve done by the standards of our own time. However, the much more relevant consideration seems to be what effect publicly expressing admiration for these men has on members of marginalized groups, regardless of whether they are to blame for what they did. Philosophers would distinguish these two considerations by calling the blameworthiness consideration backward-looking, concerning the basic desert of the subjects of monuments, while the consideration of effects is forward-looking, concerning the present and future consequences of honoring these individuals.

I have argued elsewhere that honoring individuals who either took part in, or expressed approval of, the oppression of currently marginalized groups can undermine the assurance of members of those groups that their basic moral and constitutional entitlements will be respected in their everyday interactions with others. Imagine for a moment living in a society in which individuals who approved of, or took part in, rights violations against members of the group to which you belong are the subjects of honorific monuments. Surely, this would make you doubt whether your society took your rights seriously. In my view, this is the primary, though not sole, reason why there is a strong prima facie moral case for modifying monuments to such individuals, and it has nothing to do with whether those individuals are blameworthy for what they did. Put another way: the movement to change the commemorative landscape should be about upholding the dignity of those who are currently marginalized, not punishing historical figures for past injustices. We need not stand in smug judgment of these figures in order to be concerned about the effects of honoring them.

If I am right about why we should care about these monuments, then there is good reason to consider how we honor figures like Lincoln and Grant. It’s not just that they were both morally flawed; more importantly given the considerations highlighted above, both of them played well-known roles in the oppression of Native Americans. Those roles should be emphasized in any honorific representation of these men in order to convey a properly balanced admiration tempered by acknowledgement of the injustices to which they contributed. This does not, it should be said, entail removal of the monuments. Various forms of recontextualization are possible and perhaps preferable, including the addition of signage or other monuments and artworks.

Another conservative argument against modifying or removing monuments goes like this. We owe a debt of gratitude to people like Lincoln and Grant for helping to build a more just society. We express that gratitude through honoring them. Thus, we are positively obligated to honor these individuals by creating and maintaining honorific representations of them. The problem with this argument is that even if we concede that we have a gratitude-based obligation to our illustrious forebears, there are many ways we could conceivably discharge that obligation other than creating monuments to them. Furthermore, even if creating monuments were the only way to discharge the obligation, there is no reason why those monuments could not be properly contextualized so as to avoid the damaging effects highlighted above.

It must be conceded, however, that there is an inherent tension between the goals of honoring an individual and providing proper historical context for understanding that individual’s attitudes and actions. The former goal aims at having an emotional impact; the other aims at encouraging a less emotional, reflective attitude. Again, the former goal aims at encouraging admiration and appreciation for an individual; the latter aims at tempering that admiration. Perhaps my preference for a properly balanced appreciation reflects an intellectual cast of mind that does not fully appreciate the role of emotion in civic life.

Nevertheless, for the reasons set out above, I believe that the attitudes of admiration and esteem that monuments encourage us to develop towards their subjects can be dangerous, and should be kept within their proper bounds. I would rather live in a world in which there is less unqualified admiration for Christopher Columbus or even Abraham Lincoln, if that meant that members of marginalized groups had greater assurance that their rights would be respected.

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.

Removing Monuments, Grappling with History

Statue of confederate general Robert E Lee with spray painted writing on plinth

In the wake of nationwide protests against racial discrimination by the police, politicians and activists in a number of American cities have called for the removal of monuments to Confederate leaders from public spaces. The U.S. military even expressed its willingness to rename military bases named after Confederate generals. Some activists took matters into their own hands, toppling statues or defacing them with red-painted slogans and symbols.

Supporters of removal argue that Confederate monuments harm people of color by conveying messages of support for white supremacy. Critics allege that there is a slippery slope from Confederate figures to the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln. They also claim that removing monuments is tantamount to an Orwellian erasure of history, the sort of practice one would expect in totalitarian regimes, not democracies. So, what should we do with the statues? 

Let’s examine the arguments in greater detail. The argument that Confederate monuments harm people of color is based on a claim about what the monuments mean, or what messages they convey. The intentions of their creators are a particularly important source of their meaning, since they determine such basic facts as what and whom they represent, as well as the values they express. Most monuments to the Confederacy were erected either in the wake of Reconstruction or during the Civil Rights movement, when African-Americans in the South were agitating for greater political power and social equality, and they were intended to express opposition to these developments. Even apart from this history, monumental, idealized depictions of leaders of a state dedicated to the perpetuation of racial slavery are reasonably interpreted as endorsements of the values the Confederacy embodied. And when these monuments are sited on public land, as most are, this can be reasonably interpreted as conveying the endorsements of the public and the state.

Why does this matter? As the philosopher Jeremy Waldron points out, public art and architecture are important means by which society and government can provide assurances to members of vulnerable groups that their rights and constitutional entitlements will be respected. Such assurances are an important part of people’s sense of safety and belonging. But when the public art of a society instead conveys endorsements of subordination and discrimination, this robs members of vulnerable groups of these assurances, transforming the public world into a hostile space and encouraging withdrawal into the private sphere. Thus, vulnerable groups that are intimidated by monuments that express approval for their subordination may be less able to advance their political, social, and economic interests. Importantly, none of these baneful consequences turn on anyone’s being merely offended by racist monuments.

What about the claim that tearing down Confederate monuments will inevitably lead to the removal of monuments to the Founders and other beloved figures? There is a kernel of truth to this argument: questioning the appropriateness of honoring Confederates likely will lead to questioning society’s attitudes towards other historical figures. But it is not clear that this should not happen. At the same time, there are morally relevant differences between some historical figures and others. For this reason, reducing the harms caused by monumental depictions of some historical figures need not always require removing them from public space. What government needs to do with respect to those monuments it wishes to keep on public display is (1) forthrightly acknowledge the problematic aspects of a historical figure’s legacy; (2) endeavor to reduce the harms that might be caused by the monument; and (3) provide an adequate justification for not removing the monument from the public space. For example, while Abraham Lincoln’s actions towards Native Americans were reprehensible on the whole, there is a good case for honoring those aspects of his legacy that continue to inspire citizens of all backgrounds. Yet the less honorable episodes of his presidency ought to be acknowledged alongside celebrations of his achievements. 

Some claim that removing monuments constitutes an erasure of history, comparing it to burning books. If “erasing history” simply means “destroying something that existed in the past,” tearing down a monument erases history in precisely the same way as tearing down an old house. But as this example suggests, there are many cases of erasing history that seem morally unobjectionable, and the mere fact that something from the past will cease to exist is not in itself a reason to preserve it. Opponents of taking down the monuments sometimes argue that they teach us important lessons about our shared history. This argument at least offers a reason why it might be desirable to preserve this particular class of objects. The trouble is that the story they tell is often distorted and misleading precisely because they were intended not to educate, but to intimidate one group of citizens and cultivate admiration for the Confederacy in another. Monuments are more like billboards than books. Museums can educate the public more effectively than monuments, and without the negative consequences described above. Indeed, in some cases, monuments have found new homes in museums, where they can be properly contextualized for public consumption. 

 As Americans continue to grapple with their history, it seems likely that monuments to the Confederacy will not be the last lapidary victims of our historical reappraisals. But at least with respect to Confederate monuments, public opinion is coming around to the fact that this is a necessary and justified concomitant of the effort to make our society more equal and more just.