Szuhaj: The Pitfalls of Nostalgia

The past has romance, but remember to embrace new ideas.

by Ben Szuhaj | 1/17/17 2:00am

We have a tendency, in a world saturated by media, to be drawn to that which feels familiar. That is why, to cite anecdotal evidence, we might be more inclined to watch a reboot of a movie franchise that supposedly ended 10, 20, 30 years ago than to choose a new and unknown movie from the thousands of internet options. Familiarity is comforting. It is safe. What’s so bad about that? Intrinsically, there is nothing wrong with sticking to what you know. It is when the familiarity, safety and goodness that accompanies a recollection of the past prevents us from discerning the flaws of the past that we become entrapped in nostalgia.

In the 20th season of “South Park,” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone hit upon this very concept in their nothing-is-sacred style through the use of anamorphic fruit — so-called “’Member Berries.” The nostalgic grape-like beings say things like, “’member Chewbacca?” or “’member Reagan?” before escalating to more controversial recollections of the past: “’member when marriage was between a man and a woman?” Those unfortunate enough to encounter the ’Member Berries often fall under their spell; that is, they became glossy-eyed lovers of the past, stuck in a nostalgia-induced stupor, that is eventually used to explain topics such as Brexit and the election of an orange-faced lunatic — a thinly veiled caricature of President-elect Donald Trump. While the connection is somewhat outrageous, the message carries a startling truth: a full-throttled, unquestioning embrace of nostalgia leaves us liable to overlook the problems of the past.

Taken to the extreme, this can look something like Zwarte Piet, a black Christmas character popular in the Netherlands who helps St. Nicolas deliver his presents on Christmas Eve. Every year in the spirit of the holidays, the Dutch put on black face, paint their lips an unsettling red, don afro wigs and renaissance garb and go out into the streets dressed as Zwarte Piet, ready to spread holiday cheer. Outside of the Netherlands, the reaction to Zwarte Piet is usually one of disgust. Russell Brand has called it “a colonial hangover.” The award-winning filmmaker Roger Ross Williams chronicled the use of Zwarte Piet as a racist caricature in his documentary, “Blackface.” And yet, 91 percent of the Dutch public don’t see anything wrong with Zwarte Piet.

The problem here can be put simply: Zwarte Piet, however racially charged his origins, is remembered warmly. He has become nostalgicized, associated with memories of childhood Christmases. To label him racist, to ask he be changed, is to attack the glasshouse of memory, to throw a stone at the beautiful and fragile recollections of so many Dutch people. The push for change means a fundamental reimagining on the part of the Dutch public, and that cannot be done without an expectation of backlash. People will fight to protect their way of life. They will fight even harder to protect the memory of it.

I think this phenomenon is partly responsible for the polarization of American society. Of course, the internet has a large role to play in this: from the scourge of fake news to the relative anonymity of online forums, the proportion of outlandish claims to those of measured veracity seems to be ever-increasing. But on a more personal level, people simply don’t like to feel bad. They don’t want to feel as though something they enjoy is harmful to others. That is why I, an omnivore, might be inclined to argue with the annoying vegetarian sitting next to me in FoCo. Surely I, the American meat-eater, cannot be held responsible for the morbid practices of agribusiness! I cannot be made to feel as though I have a role in changing the industry, for in that acceptance of agency comes too the acceptance of guilt.

The role of the activist is to draw our attention to problems. Often, those problems may not be immediately apparent in our daily lives. Sometimes, the quality of daily life directly depends on those problems, on those systems of oppression operating in our favor. It is no surprise that we have a tendency to lash out at the activist, for they are the voice critiquing our way of life — or so it feels. We must learn to listen to “the other” without feeling as though we are under attack. Fear is toxic and leaves little room for debate. To write a liberal-leaning person off as being too politically correct is to discredit everything they embody, just as accusing someone of being bigoted because they have conservative viewpoints is to overlook everything they believe. Even if our first impulse is to defend ourselves, we must open up to the possibility that we are wrong. We should strive to be defined by a weariless affinity for truth and the willingness to admit when we are wrong, not by our opinions and beliefs, things that should always be open to alteration by new information.