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Nostalgie De La Left
By Ed Driscoll · January 28, 2005 04:08 PM · Radical Chic

"Nostalgie de la boue" is a French phrase for "nostalgia for the mud". As this site explains:

"Nostalgie de la boue" means ascribing higher spiritual values to people and cultures considered "lower" than oneself, the romanticization of the faraway primitive which is also the equivalent of the lower class close to home. I have been submerged in such ideas since I was born and am just getting my head out of the waters. My parents romanticized Hungarian folk culture my father photographed and published peasant architecture, my mother wore folk dresses, my uncle and father promoted native handicrafts in the weaving workshops they organized in the 1930's. I went much further in romanticizing the seemingly most unromantic Aztecs, leaping across an ocean, a continent and five centuries in revalidation.


* * *

But in fact it is more global and cuts more deeply than the recent history of the West. As Freud noted in Civilization and its Discontents, the civilized have always longed to be uncivilized and attributed great virtues to them. Tacitus admired the Germanic tribes, Herodotus the barbarian Scythians, Ibn Khaldun the nomadic Beduin, and the Chinese the Mongols. Bruce Chatwin's admiration of nomads in recent popular books is nothing new. Even the sixteenth-century Aztecs considered their primitive and nomadic ancestors to be superior to themselves. The nostalgia for the mud of origins seems to begin as soon as one foot is out of the mud, and history has probably seen many Lady Chatterleys in love with a hard-to-understand blue collar accent. Note that "civilization" is often imagined as feminine, searching for that lost, primitive, masculine lover.

Many of us are dissatisfied or bored with our own civilization, whether by that we mean New York City or the village of Walpi at Hopi. It is not surprising that until Utopias and Marx most peoples put the Golden Age into the past, or into far-away lands where men and women have more integrity despite, or because of, the paucity of their possessions. It may be said for us that massive technological change since the eighteenth century may be responsible for an equally massive ideology of primitivism, but primitivism as an idea is not new, it is only more widespread and institutionalized. The Hollywood movie in which the poor hero strikes it rich, or the homeless man teaches the rich how to live is simply a modern version of the folk tale in which the youngest (i.e. weakest and poorest) son defeats the dragon and marries the princess. Princesses always like these folk heroes.

By now, you've probably read about Colorado professor Ward Churchill, who described the 3000 victims of the terrorist attack on 9/11 as "the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers". And you've seen the photos of Churchill that Glenn Reynolds and Jonah Goldberg have linked to. As Glenn writes:
Isn't he exactly what you imagined? Shoulder-length hair, grimly self-righteous expression, black turtleneck, Abbie Hoffman sunglasses. A man whose look, like his rhetoric, is frozen in the amber of 1969.

The same kind of guys, looking the same way, were saying the same kinds of things when I was younger than my daughter is now. When will Left catch up with the times?

Back in August, I wrote about the flipover that occurred in politics amongst the right and the left: the right have become the party of the working man, the average, everyday person, and the left increasingly, the party of wealthy elites. (See: Kerry, John F.)

There's also been a similar crossover in terms of love of nostalgia. Archie and Edith Bunker, Norman Lear's parody of a aging conservative couple coping with their radical chic son, started off each show by warbling, "Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again". (Now, I don't know many conservatives who want Hoover back; I know at least a couple who'd happily take Calvin Coolidge, though.)

Archie and Edith wanted to live in "the good old days" of World War II and Ike, in a TV show that aired originally in the early 1970s, an era when the left was still routinely reminding people not to trust anyone over 30 (as late as 1979, Bruce Springsteen, on his 30th birthday, quipped to his audience, "well, I guess I'm 30--I can't trust myself now!"), and long before liberals made peace with what Tom Brokaw would eventually dub "The Greatest Generation".

But since 9/11, increasingly, it's been the left who've wanted to live in the past. If every war is Vietnam, then every protest is Selma and Chicago in '68. Even down to adopting the clothes of the '60s and the peace symbol and its accompanying two-fingers hand gesture, which was for almost 30 years was seen as an ossified remnant of the late 1960s.

Jonah Goldberg once wrote that nostalgia is particularly unhealthy for the left:

Nostalgia is common to all ideologies (even among libertarians and their unkempt cousins, the anarchists). But conservative nostalgia is almost always geared at recreating communities of the past. Therefore nostalgia is helpful for the right in that it reminds us what should be conserved. Left-nostalgia, however, is invariably aimed at recreating movements, not communities, of the past. This makes Left-nostalgia particularly pathetic, since all successful progressive movements are forward-looking. Conserving in a progressive movement is like trying to tie your shoelaces while running downhill.
Just this past December, Michael Barone also wrote about nostalgia on the left:
Once upon a time, liberals were the folks who wanted to change society. They thought existing institutions were unjust and that individuals needed protection against the workings of the market. They looked forward to a society that would be different.

To a considerable extent, 20th century liberals achieved many of their goals. Racial segregation was abolished. An economic safety net was constructed. Government issued regulations were set up to protect the environment. Few Americans want to undo these changes. But they may want others.

Looking back on election year 2004, I am struck by how many of the constituencies supporting Democratic candidates oppose, rather than seek, change -- how they are motivated not by ideas about how to change the future, but by something like nostalgia for the past.

As Paul Mirengoff of Power Line notes:
The Democratic party, [Barone] argues, is defined by 1930 era views on social security, 60s views on the state of race relations and the use of military force, and 70s views on feminism. Cosmetically at least, this state of affairs constitutes a reversal of roles from 1996 when the Democrats claimed they couldn't "stop thinking about tomorrow," while Bob Dole promised to be "a bridge to the past."
Actually, using "Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow", while it permanently ruined that song for me, if only out of sheer repetition in 1992, was probably a masterstroke by Bill Clinton, James Carville, et al. It helped to subliminally signal that Bill, Al and Hillary were true "New Democrats" (while reminding the rest of us how painful the Carter years were, both economically--and often sonically as well).

But as Orrin Judd noted yesterday in Tech Central Station, the New Democrats are dead--or least in a long period of hibernation. Instead, they've been replaced with the radical chic of the late '60s and early '70s; both in terms of its then funky chic, now hopelessly retro dress, and its ideas.

This is a crucial period for the left: they've lost two consecutive presidential elections, Congress for a decade, and the Senate for almost as long. They've also acted increasingly shabbily in reaction to 9/11, of which Churchill's (what a paradoxical name for the guy) 3000 "little Eichmanns" quote is merely the latest manifestation. Is there room for a comeback? Only if Hillary runs a brilliant campaign (and even then, she'll probably have to deal with a Republican Congress and Senate, unless she has very, very long coattails).

Or leftwing elites could try tacking closer to the center.

To paraphrase something that David Horowitz wrote in Radical Son, in the 1950s, Bill Buckley was able to create a new conservatism by casting out the John Birchers and their anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories. Now it's the left's turn to try to do much the same.



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