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The Autumn of the Nostalgiacrats

Marc Haefele

As the 104th Congress winds down, we are seeing the sudden end of something that was quite recently new: America's first nostalgiocracy.

Admittedly, as I write, Bob Dole has been reminding us how much better we used to be. But I'll bet this Presidential election turns less on memories of past glory than expectations of future prosperity. And even if the whole Congress returns to office as the 105th, many of its members have already traduced the past-pointing principles on which they were elected-fiscal prudence, a balanced budget, an empty pork barrel. In a now-notorious memo, Newt Gingrich himself early this year spun his own movement out of his party's backward-looking posture by declaring certain costly federal projects good for America. Concerned with his own party's future, the speaker recanted his faith in the ideal of diminished government. And, facing tight races all over the country, the Congressional majority has been using government machinery it once condemned to seek re-election-even to the point of voting for harbor dredging, unneeded VA hospitals, the minimum-wage boost. Contract with America has been replaced by contact with reality.

How soon they forget. The Republican nostalgiocracy spread its wings on the winds of the popular discontent that followed government's prolonged inability to cope with what we might call "Man on the Moon" problems: "If this nation can put a man on the moon, it can certainly eliminate the poverty that afflicts under 10 percent of our population." As Robert Samuelson describes in The Good Life and Its Discontents, for 50 years, the American popular consciousness felt entitled to a government that could solve its dilemmas. When certain problems resisted solution, faith in that government ebbed. "Our attitudes are shaped more by unattained ambitions than actual achievements," Samuelson writes. "We seem to have lapsed into a selective view of the American condition and into tortuous self-criticism."

Into this defile of national despond rode the Republican Revolutionaries with a new agenda. Instead of promising us a debugged future, the Republican majority promised us a return to a sanitized past, in which historical events and attitudes were transformed into more useful commodities called "examples" and "virtues." This Spirit of '94 presented the past through a nostalgic filter that excised awkward facts of previous eras and reconfigured the rest toward a brighter tomorrow. The Republicans then rode the promise to power.

How distant it now seems, that short season just after the Republican right edged the Democrats out of the House and Senate, when Newt Gingrich's white-thatched bulk regularly filled the covers of our news weeklies and put the president in the shade. When the Contract with America was said to be the most important Republican document since The Conscience of a Conservative. (As of September, the hardcover "Contract'' was being remaindered at $5.95 at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA). And when Gingrich vowed that after this Congress's first year (in January of AD 1996), America would be a "different country" and the '60s "a fading force." His bi-polar prediction exposed his agenda's schizophrenia, but it was also an easy call: Everything changes somewhat in 12 months, and annus mirabilis 1968 would undeniably be a year further off.

We certainly can't say the movement did no damage: A vengeful welfare bill just got our president's signature simply because it was a little less spiteful than the first proposal. Yet in Fall 1996, Pink Floyd and the Beatles are still the top two groups on Los Angeles' local all-time-top-rockers charts, while hardly anyone remembers the words to the Contract with America-let alone how to dance to it.

Nor is it easy to recall just what the "Revolution's" aftermath was supposed to be. More memorable today is the Republicans' new, improved, and easier American past, in which the 18th century founding fathers became a Disneyoid cadre of homogeneous piety and ambition, and the 19th century an era notably lacking social and economic disruptions. The worthy poor were set on the road to solvency by either their rectitudinous country neighbors or their neighbors' pious urban surrogates. And that was the way things went until the correct path of individualism was undermined by such big-government bullies as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

To bolster its paraphrase of history, the nostalgiocracy created its own canon, starting with William Bennett's public-domain chap-book, The Book of Virtues. The Gingrich syllabus in turn became a tool for, in historian Alan Bullock's phrase, "the invention of tradition." Thus, in his introduction to one of the most successful books on the list, Marvin Olasky's Tragedy of American Compassion, Charles Murray, best known as surviving author of The Bell Curve, tells us, "[T]he problems of America's social policy are not defined by economics or equality, but by the needs of the human spirit." Such needs as these, he adds, are not met "by egalitarian systems, let alone socialism."

By maintaining that in a society adequately permeated by religious fervor, social and economic inequities could disappear, Murray completes a record nostalgic broad jump that lands him square in the 13th century. Olasky, less of a medievalist, confines the role of the human spirit to the 19th century task of helping one's fellow man.

I must admit that something deep inside me finds this notion very appealing. This is not just because I live in Los Angeles, where the evidence of social decline and growing economic disparity is widely ignored, and where cuts in social-service budgets are plotted asymptotically against the rising need for those services. It is also because, like a great coach, Olasky never tires of assuring me that I am capable of making a personal, one-on-one improvement in someone else's life. Like most of us, I have long doubted this, and it is good to be told otherwise.

But Olasky's account is so completely removed from the overall history of post-Civil War America, and so grounded in anecdotal accounts of Victorian charities as to be anti-statistical. He's at his best in his telling critique of the Great Society's failure to motivate people out of poverty via unearned stipends. Olasky's proposed remedies to impending 21st century difficulties, however, are based on those volunteer charitable solutions whose limited viability, as he carefully avoids acknowledging, ended with the 19th century. Can we as a nation really get anywhere aboard the stranded deckhouse of that stately Victorian vessel whose hull we scrapped to fight World War One? Olasky thinks so. He asks us to take responsibility for-to feel compassion for, literally, to feel with-our erring and downtrodden neighbors, and show the world that we are good enough, patient enough, mature enough, to make them better. I not only want to be that way, I want people to think I'm like that, and thanks for offering me the chance, Marvin. But even after one's lit one's own candle, it's still looking pretty dark out there in the new, reduced world of federal welfare reform. And looking around me in my community, I see that actually, there are myriad virtuous volunteers working for the agencies that dispense tax-supported largesse.

Like the professional caregivers Olasky attacks, I grew up with faith in the power of government to solve all problems. It is now obvious to most of us that government is not very good at eradicating some things, particularly people problems based on traits whose elimination would involve changing human behavior (though this failure may not, on a larger moral landscape, really be such a bad thing). Yet it is still clearly pretty good at eradicating others-hunger, river pollution, smallpox.

This distinction was apparently not part of the intellectual equipment brought to office by the new Republican majority. After (presumably) reading their Olasky, the soldiers of the Fighting 104th gave lip service to the "points of light" concept, then did their best to destroy the welfare system altogether. They had neither intention nor plan to rebuild two centuries of the ethical basis for social outreach as they determined to annihilate what had succeeded it. Nostalgia in practice provided the impetus to destroy a faulty remedy to a great need without replacing the remedy.

At the focus of the Gingrich nostalgia system lies what the speaker terms "the Great Society counterculture model," a propaganda construct that unites for the first time the major antagonists of a generation past. The "model,'' says Gingrich, remained in 1994 a malignancy desperately in need of uprooting.

It's here that the nostalgic rehistorification process gets really "weird" and "strange," to use two favorite Gingrich words. Lacking a factual basis, it wants an alternate past, a history of "als ob," as Jorge Luis Borges calls it in his fable, "Tlon Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," wherein a marvelous encyclopedia of an imaginary Earth transforms our planet into its own world. To have really succeeded, the official syllabus created by the agents of the Contract With America/Republican Revolution would have had to do the same thing-transform our real history into its own world. It would not only have had to rebuild the distant past, but to remake the Vietnam War as a virtuous conflict, to reorder things so that the Grateful Dead, Tom Hayden, and Abby Hoffman really took over the minds of men like Stewart Alsop, Scotty Reston, and the memberships of New York's Century Association and Boston's Myopia Hunt Club, thus changing the East Coast elite into the stooges of Haight Ashbury. This ultimate reification of nostalgiocracy was beyond even the abilities of Gingrich, that feckless backwoods historian who'd also taken upon himself the additional weighty tasks of "renewing American civilization" and restoring "the bourgeois system which has dominated the country for 200 years."

Now our national Atlas has shrugged. Someday perhaps, real historians, who specialize in telling us why what didn't happen didn't happen, will chronicle how in 1996, the dawn of a new age flared out like last year's fad.

A recent Los Angeles Times offered special tours of Eastern Europe for those "nostalgic for the Cold War." Long after they cease to threaten us, we indulge ourselves (on costly CDs) with the bottom-feeding pop Top 40 hits we disdained for cool jazz in the 1950's or punk in the 1970's. In the end, nostalgia is often only the indulgence of fading memory, the long afterimage of a distant perception.

But if nostalgia for most of us means retroactive sentimentality, there are places where it might be positive. For instance, in the 89 nations worldwide-nearly half the membership of the United Nations-where standards of living, according to a recent UN report, have sunk below 1970 levels. In Venezuela, Ghana, Haiti, or Liberia, nations where prosperity peaked in 1960, a yearning for when things were better, a past without starvation, even before one was born, may be the only way to remember that life can be better.

For the rest of us, nostalgia's fleeting gratification is pretty empty. I shuddered when I read about the Cold War nostalgia tour. And yet I can think of one thing to be nostalgic for then. Something you might call the level of commitment by people who risked freedom by defiance. One of these, the poet Andrei Andreyevich Voznesensky, in 1978 invented "Nostalgia for the Present": a kind of in-living and savoring of the now. Give it a shot, Newt.

Originally published in the October/ November 1996 issue of Boston Review

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