Nostalgia doesn’t look, nostalgia denies

This is a guest post from Sparky, of Spark in Darkness.  Many of you are  familiar with him from Livejournal, as well as from his insightful and often hilarious commentary here. Each Tuesday, Womanist Musings will be featuring a post from Sparky. 

In these hard days, it’s tempting to think back to happier times. After all, things are so hard and awful at the moment – there’s no money, we’re tightening out belts, arseholes are everywhere – time to indulge in some gentle reminiscing. Never far away, the tides of nostalgia have become especially strong lately.

In fact, recently in the UK we have had the Bishop of London lamenting deeply how terribly immoral we are – and wishes to return to the simpler, better days of 60 years ago.

And Sparky does not approve.

I hate Nostalgia. Yes yes I do. Nostalgia is blinkered, it’s more heavily edited than Fox News and about as distorting. And it’s privileged, deeply, unbelievably, privileged.

When I hear the older generation mutter on about the 50s (or, ye gods, the 40s – the 40s? Because the Blitz was so much fun, right?) and even my parents reminisce of the 60s I have to fight the urge to roll my eyes or, at least, snidely say “well for you maybe!” Because for marginalised people? Yeah, the past was not a happy fun time and if you’re remotely historically aware, you should know that unless you’re a wealthy, cis, straight, white, able bodied man, the last thing you’d want is a time machine trip to the past – even if it did include spending time with a sexy sexy Doctor.

We have come a long way. Now, that’s in no way shape or form a suggestion that we’ve arrived at equality or are even remotely close to reaching it – we’re not, not at all. And a lot of people like to point to past progress as some kind of excuse to stop or, worse, to shame people for keeping pushing. The “aren’t you happy yet!?” argument is sadly alive and well. But, acknowledging we have a lot further to go, we have come a long way. In the last 50 years most equality movements have taken considerable strides to an extent that all but the bigoted would look back at the prejudice of the past and cringe at how truly vile it was.

And we should cringe at these past bigotries – but to do that involves LOOKING at them. Nostalgia doesn’t look, nostalgia denies and nostalgia says it doesn’t matter. You may be remembering various good times through the golden, sepia tones of memory, but I’m hearing you talk about how wonderful it was when I would have been imprisoned or castrated. Shockingly, I’m not sharing the love here.

We see it in fiction as well. From Steampunk’s glorification of Victoriana (Imperialism, more homophobia, rigid, misogynist gender roles and a whole passle of racism) to historical fiction’s love of just about any and every era in human history – all gilded and glittering and covered in a heavy lair of whitewash. Because these stories so often cover up the ugliness the marginalised had to live through in those times – how wretched it was to be poor, how women were nothing but property, how POC were considered subhuman, how GBLT people were killed as criminals. In fact, such nostalgic stories often use the prejudice of their eras as an excuse to erase marginalised people entirely or to justify glorifying in the isms that were so openly revelled in in the past.

I know people tend to think this is harmless. People like to dwell on times when they were younger, when they were happier and isn’t it natural that the rose-tinted glasses of memory erase some of the less pleasant aspects?

But it does matter. It matters because to forget how much people have fought to get where we are. We disrespect the people who risked their lives, their freedom, who risked everything to reach where we are now by completely forgetting what they did and what they faced. How can we honour these heroes, these amazing, wonderful people if we pretend what they fought against didn’t even exist?

We also lose a sense of not just how much we achieved but how vitally important it is – especially in the face of the virulent forces of hatred that are always pushing us backwards. It’s easy to dismiss the “don’t say gay” laws if you’ve edited out the legacy of past laws like section 28. It’s easy to rail against “Political Correctness gone mad” when you refuse to acknowledge what the world was actually LIKE before “political correctness”. Something that comedian Stewart Lee (One of the few comedians who is both funny and aware) points out extremely well:

And we need to banish the rosiness of nostalgia because these are the eras the right wing are trying to push us back to – both economically with less worker rights, lower wages, less stability, less security, dismantling the safety nets –  and socially, with marginalised people considered beneath subhuman. This is what they are part of, when they fight against our rights they are a continuation of the forces that did that to us in the past. We cannot afford to forget what it was like and we cannot afford to allow these eras of greater injustice and deprivation don rosy sweet mantle of nostalgia.

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