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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.

“Stand Back and Stand By”: The Demands of Loyal Opposition

photograph of miniature US flag with blurred background

An incendiary essay is currently making the rounds. Glenn Ellmers’s “‘Conservatism’ is no Longer Enough” is a call to arms: “The United States has become two nations occupying the same country.” The essay details a kind of foreign occupation:

“most people living in the United States today—certainly more than half—are not Americans in any meaningful sense of the term. […] They do not believe in, live by, or even like the principles, traditions, and ideals that until recently defined America as a nation and as a people. It is not obvious what we should call these citizen-aliens, these non-American Americans; but they are something else.”

Given this dire situation where there is “almost nothing left to conserve,” “counter-revolution” represents “the only road forward.” Those brave enough to grasp this grave truth also possess the clarity of vision to see that “America, as an identity or political movement, might need to carry on without the United States.” For if true patriots fail to find the courage to mobilize and take action, “the victory of progressive tyranny will be assured. See you in the gulag.”

While it may seem irresponsible to grant such obvious propaganda further attention, this piece of writing is worthy of consideration for two reasons. First, it bears the seal of a prominent conservative think tank. Published by The American Mind with direct ties to the Claremont Institute (where Ellmers graduated and serves as fellow), the essay is endorsed by a body with not insignificant conservative cachet. The various fellows and graduates, for instance, have ties to major universities. It would be a mistake to see this as obscure preaching to a small flock; the narrative communicated by the piece is emblematic. This isn’t everyday internet debris; this is an intellectualized version of the hard-right’s position serving as mission statement for the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy whose name Ellmers invokes.

Second, the essay has important implications for the various efforts to overturn the results of the presidential election, the January 6th Capitol riot, as well as voting legislation in Georgia (and elsewhere) attempting to restrict the franchise to “real” Americans. Ellmers’s essay offers a compelling framework by which to understand the motives of those behind these events. Like Michael Anton’s “The Flight 93 Election” (another Claremont fellow whose piece was published by the same body), Ellmers’s essay paints the current political moment as a desperate choice: fight or face extinction, rush the cockpit or die.

Ellmers’s essay has received attention in no small part due to its eerie similarity to Weimar-era German political writings. Echoing the kind of language used by Carl Schmitt – the constitutional scholar and jurist who embraced National Socialism while penning substantial critiques of liberalism – the essay emphasizes the need to declare a state of emergency and purge those who have infiltrated the state and subjected American politics, all in an act of restoration and purification. “What is needed, of course,” Ellmers claims, “is a statesman who understands both the disease afflicting the nation, and the revolutionary medicine required for the cure” — a pronouncement which seems strikingly similar to Schmitt’s explanation of the role of the sovereign to normalize the situation by embracing the responsibility to deliver the miracle of the decision – that is, the extra-legal authority to say whether everyday legal norms should apply.

Likewise, the essay seconds Schmitt’s conviction that the basis of politics rests on distinguishing friends from foes and treating them as such. For any state to continue to be, it must be willing and able to forcibly expel those who might undermine its fundamental homogeneity in order to save itself from corruption from within. Again, following Schmitt, the essay issues a dire warning on the supposed political virtue of tolerance and questions our blind faith in democracy’s ability to assimilate conflicting and antagonistic viewpoints and house them under the same roof.

Lost in all the fascist rhetoric is an important philosophical problem. The challenge is familiar to students of political obligation: how can citizens feel any tie to the law when it isn’t their team who’s making the rules? It is what David Estlund has called the “puzzle of the minority democrat”: how can those in the minority consider themselves self-governing if they are subject to laws they have not explicitly endorsed?

This is no small thing; resolving this tension is the key to the bloodless transition of power. Ensuring citizens can adequately identify with the law and see themselves sufficiently reflected in their government is a necessary component of the exercise of legitimate political authority. We need a compelling answer for how citizens might still see themselves as having had a hand in authoring these constraints even when their private preferences have failed to win the day. Why should those in the minority sacrifice their own sense of what is right simply because they lack numbers on their side on any particular occasion?

Our answers to this puzzle often begin by emphasizing that democratic decision-making is essentially about compromise. Majority rule acknowledges our basic equality by publicly affirming the worth of each citizen’s viewpoint. It privileges no single individual’s claim to knowledge or expertise. It grants each citizen the greatest share of political power possible that remains compatible with people’s basic parity. From there, explanations begin to diverge.

Some accounts emphasize the duty to live by the result of the game in which we’ve been a willing participant. Others highlight the opportunity to impact the decision, voice concerns, and engage in reason-giving. A few maintain faith in the majority’s ability to come to the correct decision.

Regardless of the particulars, each of these accounts makes a virtue of reciprocity; individual freedom must be balanced against the equally legitimate claims to liberty by one’s fellows. Refusing to acknowledge this binding force usurps others’ right to equal discretion in shaping our shared world and thus violates our moral commitment to the fundamental equality of people.

These considerations about how best to accommodate deep, and potentially incompatible, disagreement have important implications for our politics today. For example, the ongoing debate over reforming the filibuster is a conversation about, among other things, the appropriate portion of power those in the minority should wield. Different people articulate different visions of the part the opposition party needs to play. But we seemingly all agree that this role must be more robust than one wherein those in the minority simply bide their time until they can rewrite the law and install their own private political vision. Instead, we must continue to articulate the significant demands the concept of loyal opposition makes on all of us. Responsible statesmanship is not solely the burden of those who wear the crown.

Classics in the Era of Trump

Photograph of a bookshelf of uniform "harvard classic" books; visible titles are Don Quixote and The Aeneid

Classical studies, generally thought of as an elite and isolated corner of academic study, has been surprisingly prominent in headlines over the last few years. Victor Davis Hanson, conservative classical scholar and senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, has a new book coming out in March 2019, in which he draws parallels between ancient and contemporary politics. In The Case For Trump, as he explained in an interview with The New Yorker, he argues that we ought to think of Donald Trump as a tragic hero straight from the pages of Greek drama. The tragic hero, he says, is defined not by their bravery or altruism. Rather, “the natural expression of their personas can only lead to their own destruction or ostracism from an advancing civilization that they seek to protect. And yet they willingly accept the challenge of service.” As Hanson defines them, heroes are those who solve problems at the risk of vilification, which is exactly what he sees Trump as doing.

In all tragedies, Hanson explains further, “the community doesn’t have the skills or doesn’t have the willpower or doesn’t want to stoop to the corrective method to solve the existential problem,” so the community brings in an outsider, someone willing to get their hands dirty. Hanson is coy about what exactly our “existential problem” is, but the ambiguity is dispelled when he launches into an ill-informed and biased polemic against Mexican immigrants. We’re also left to wonder what “community” he’s referring to, as if the country wasn’t deeply fractured across political lines during and after the presidential election. When did all of us collectively agree that Trump was a necessary evil? Ultimately, we’re left to scratch our heads and ask ourselves why we ought to listen to a classical scholar’s opinion on politics and immigration at all.

The specific argument of his book is perhaps less important than the fact that a classical scholar is presenting an argument about modern politics. Classics has a reputation for being a bulwark of conservatism within academia and culture at large, a tool for enforcing power rather than dismantling it. This understanding is becoming less accurate as the discipline expands; writers from Virginia Woolf to Michel Foucault have used classical literature and mythology to challenge the hegemony of Christian belief (especially in relation to gender and sexuality), and scholars from increasingly diverse backgrounds contribute to ongoing research and debate. Emily Wilson’s version of the The Odyssey, the first English translation of the epic poem by a woman, was released only last year, an indication of how the demographic makeup of classical studies is shifting. Still, elements of conservatism persist within the field. The question becomes whether we should tell classical scholars to “stick to writing papers” (or whatever the equivalent here would be of telling football players to only focus on sports) without running the risk of anti-intellectualism. What do we gain and lose by these historical comparisons, and do they enrich or limit our political discussions?

In many cases, this discourse serves to express anxieties over the “fall of Western civilization.” Ancient Rome and Greece are well-established cultural touchstones, the foundation of our political institutions and beliefs. We want to place this tumultuous moment within a kind of historical continuity, which serves to both reify it and hold it at a safe distance.

This was evident in the production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that caused in controversy in June of 2017. The director created unmistakable parallels between Trump and Caesar, even giving Calpurnia, Caesar’s wife, an Eastern-European accent. Gregg Henry, the actor playing Caesar, told The Washington Post that the point of the play is “that when a tyrant comes to power and the way you fight that tyrant, it’s very important how you then try to deal with the problem because if you don’t deal with the problem in a proper way, you can end up losing democracy for like, 2000 years.” It’s debatable whether this production is truly referencing classical antiquity or the English literary canon (are we reaching for Shakespeare as a touchstone here or Roman politics, or something else, that nebulous thing called Art?). Either way, the production lended a historical importance to our present moment that both paid homage to the particulars and lent it a timeless and universal dimension. One could argue that Hanson’s book serves a similar function, albeit with a different agenda. He’s trying to understand the Trump presidency through Greek mythology, to explain Trump as an archetypal figure. He pins him down as a definitive “type” while glossing over certain individual facets of Trump’s character (namely, racism, misogyny, and financial greed).

The intersection between classical studies and modern politics also reflects growing anxieties over populism. When democracy falters, we rush back to the source to understand what is happening and why. David Stuttard, scholar and Fellow of Goodenough College, London, published a book in late 2018 that served just that purpose. In Nemesis: Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens, he writes that Alcibiades, a divisive Athenian statesman associated with the disintegration of Athenian democracy, wanted to “Make Athens Great Again.” Stuttard calls him the “Donald Trump of Ancient Greece” in another article, further driving home the point. While the comparison (an imperfect one, as pointed out by Ryan Shinkel in the LA Review of Books) is hardly the crux of Stuttard’s book, it is certainly another attempt to bring the past into the present, to make sense of 21st century populism by looking backwards. We see surface-level similarities, “strong men” shaping history, populist politics driven by forceful personalities, and the connections practically make themselves.

These are, in a sese, old problems amplified in our era but not altered beyond recognition. As famed classical scholar Mary Beard points out in her book SPQR, anxiety over shifting boundaries and national identity, of what it means to be a citizen in an ever-expanding world, is a question of perennial concern. Some classical scholars have even used global warming to link our world with antiquity; Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire examines the role climate change (albeit climate change beyond the control of the Romans) had in the fall of the Roman Empire, prompting us to consider the impact global warming might have on contemporary politics.

Most of this discourse relies on view of antiquity as a place of primacy, of visceral and material immediacy. Most of us assume that ancient history tells us what universal behavior is, that it gives us a no-frills look at human nature and is therefore useful for navigating our current political climate. This viewpoint assumes, however, that our experience of reality isn’t shaped by historically-specific institutions and social movements. Dr. Richard Cherwitz, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote an article in 2017 called “Why Classical Theories of Rhetoric Matter in the Trump Presidency” in which we see such thinking at work. He asserts, “While we think our discourse today is unique to the times and circumstances in which we live, the reality is that patterns of thinking and talking are inherent in the human condition and therefore may be time invariant.” He zeroes in on the Roman idea stasis, an ancient Roman theory by lawyers to assess guilt in the courtroom, specifically determining guilt from the way someone behaves. He writes,

“Many legal observers and members of the media reasonably ask: If Trump isn’t guilty of wrongdoing and subsequently of covering it up, why would he say and do the things he does?  After all, as the Romans knew, only a guilty person would behave that way. […] [This] indicates why we should remind ourselves and our students that the ways we think and argue are deeply rooted in the human condition and are explained by the rhetoricians who lived thousands of years ago.”

In other words, Cherwitz says, there is such thing as universal behavior, and the human condition (and rhetoric, a practice shaped by centuries of discourse, education, and specifically Western understandings of the public sphere) has remained virtually unaltered since the Roman Republic.

So what do these comparisons mean as a whole, and is it entirely ethical for us to make them? On the one hand, scholars are working to untangle the often inscrutable world of modern politics, to provide some solid ground in a civilization that seems to be losing faith in itself. They are reacting to and attempting to remedy our cultural anxiety, which can hardly be condemned. On the other hand, a troublingly one-dimensional view of the current administration can be gleaned in many of these examples. It is a gross oversimplification of reality to claim that authoritarianism, white supremacy, and discrimination against minorities are rooted in basic “human nature”. This pushes the workings of very specific historical processes and institutions to the background, erasing centuries of structural oppression and sidelining factors like class and gender. In that sense, comparisons with the ancient world can be employed as a tactic to deflect rather than elucidate, to shift the blame for our current political climate to human nature, something that is fundamental and immune to the influence of power.

We see a particularly insidious example of this in Hanson’s New Yorker interview, in which he essentially parrots the president’s famously blasé remarks on the Charlottesville riots. He argues that the Alt-right isn’t “monolithic,” that it’s more or less made up of unknowable people with no discernible common ground. In his view, they become a shifting amorphous crowd with no ideological foundation, and are therefore without personal responsibility.

Classical scholars, not without exceptions, generally speak from a position of privilege and are considered worthy of being listened to. We certainly shouldn’t tell them to stick to academic conferences and keep out of politics, as that places limits on the scope of our political discourse, but we ought to remind ourselves of the prestige enjoyed by classical scholars the next time we criticize an athlete (usually a non-white athlete) for “stepping out of line” and speaking out about oppression.

Classical studies is a deeply fascinating and multifaceted field, and includes scholars from all backgrounds and political opinions. It can be both a hotly-contested battleground and fertile terrain for making sense of the present day. However, we need to scrutinize the claims of classical scholars just as we would the claims of any other public figure, and understand the motivations and assumptions that underpin their ideas.