It’s a fairly well-established trope in American politics that conservatives are overly obsessed with the past. Anyone whose ever spent time experiencing the ear-invading ceti-eel that is conservative talk-radio, or viewing the idiot-box propaganda that is Fox News knows that conservatives love to reference a past that was invariably better than the allegedly freedom-crushing nightmare of the Obama era.
For those to the right of the political spectrum, the space-time continuum is defined by two — and only two — eras: before and after the authoritarian reign of Barack Obama. And, of course, the era before Obama’s conquest was much better (and whiter). That’s because conservatives imagine the past to be a simpler, morally superior time, and they want to return to that time pronto!
The problem with yearning for a more wholesome (and by extension, less liberal) time is that such a time never actually existed. The idea of a simpler American past over which right-wingers salivate like golden retrievers anticipating a bag of Beggin’ Strips is, in fact, a past constructed from nostalgia.
In his classic article “Nostalgia and the American,” the historian Arthur Dudden defined nostalgia as “a preference for things as they are believed to have been.”* Conservatives use nostalgia to rally their followers (usually, but not exclusively, grey-haired, government-hating medicare beneficiaries) into supporting Republican political candidates who promise to destroy liberalism and bring America back to a mythical time when the federal government was non-existent and most people lived in a version of Andy Griffith’s Mayberry, went to church every day, and didn’t have to deal with teh gayz.
Case in point: Todd Starnes — a pasty cross between Lou Dobbs and Lewis from Revenge of the Nerds who regularly serves as Fox News’ resident front-line correspondent for the non-existent “culture wars” — has written a new book that uses nostalgia to condemn all-things liberal. Brilliantly titled God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (conservatives don’t do irony), Starnes’ book is a standard collection of right-wing boilerplate describing the so-called assault on Christian values by the ever-expanding army of liberal heathens who are apparently intent on dragging the U.S. into a hellish orgy of critical thinking and secularism.
In most respects, Starnes’ screed differs little from the stack of conservative polemics published by the (now-threatened) right-wing book industry on a yearly basis that warn of America’s impending slide into moral anarchy. But Starnes’ book is notable thanks to its unbelievable reliance on hackneyed nostalgic clichés to describe a completely fictitious American past in which conservatism reigned supreme and that Barack Obama took away.
Andrew Kirell over at Mediaite first alerted me to the truly Shaksperian verbiage contained within Starnes’ mighty tome, and he dares people to actually get through the first six pages without bursting into uncontrollable (and possibly dangerous) fits of laughter. Take these paragraphs from Starnes’ Introduction,* in which the Fox News poet layeth down the corn-pone characteristics that defined his humble youth in small-town America:
I grew up in a much simpler time — when blackberry was a pie and dirty dancing meant somebody forgot to clean out the barn for the square dance. It was a time when father still knew best — when the girls were girls and the men were men. I grew up in a time when a rainbow was a sign of God’s promise, not gay rights.
When I grew up, spam was something you ate and a hard drive was the twelve-hour trip to grandma’s house without any bathroom breaks. It was a time when a virus was cleared up with a bowl of chicken soup, not the Geek Squad from Best Buy. It was a time when Doobie was a brother and hip-hop was something a bunny rabbit did.
In a truly stunning feat of deception laced with stupidity, Starnes uses nostalgia to create a fictitious American past that is completely untethered from any actual time and space. Just look at the disparate pop-culture references he manages to cram into those two paragraphs: Square-dancing hasn’t been en vogue since at least the late-1970s; the film Dirty Dancing (which Starnes references to comment on the decline of American sexual values) came out in 1987; Best Buy’s Geek Squad was founded in 1994, and modern computers have been around in some form or another since the 1970s. This alleged “time” when Starnes “grew up” is an imaginary past that he created using nostalgia to stitch together disparate time-periods and pop-culture references into a mythical American historical cloth.
And then there’s the sheer obtuseness displayed in some of Starnes’ references to pop-culture, which he uses to contrast a simpler past with a more complicated present. Seriously, is there anything simple about what goes into making a can of Spam?! And what about the reference to a “Doobie” being merely a “brother?” If Starnes thinks that the name of seventies band the Doobie Brothers wasn’t a verbal nod to smoking weed — then he’s really, really dumb. Starnes commits the cardinal sin of all nostalgia mongers: he believes that because the past happened before, then it must have been simpler than what happened after. Of course, as historians have long pointed out, the past was never, ever “simple.”
So why do Starnes and other conservatives insist on viewing the past through nostalgia-colored lenses? Well, they do so because nostalgia simplifies the past and purports to offer solutions to problems in the present. In his book, Starnes invokes what scholar Andrew Murphy calls “Golden Age politics” by reappropriating the past in order to present a “solution to present difficulties.” Murphy writes that “nostalgic and Golden Age politics depend on the…claim that some aspect of the past offers the best way forward in addressing the inadequacies and corruptions of the present.”* In God Less America, Starnes is doing just that by claiming that the (fictional) America of his youth was simpler and, by extension, better than, the overly complex and morally depraved present that is the Obama era.
I’ve written about nostalgia before, particularly in reference to the reality show American Pickers and in terms of how nostalgia shapes the enduring myth of small-town U.S.A., and I’ve noted that nostalgia in-and-of-itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in some circumstances, it CAN be a bad thing, especially when conservatives use it reshape the past in an effort to disingenuously comment on the present.
Writing in the 1960s, Arthur Dudden recognized how nostalgia, which he characterized as a type of “cultural homesickness,” could be manipulated to serve devious ends. “Nostalgia implies a certain dissatisfaction with present circumstances, and very likely also a dissatisfaction with the apparent direction of trends leading into the future,” Dudden wrote — and I’ll be damned if he didn’t describe the essence of modern conservatism as promoted by Todd Starnes.*
But by invoking a mythical past to fix what they see as a “broken” present, conservatives like Starnes fail to see how their own beliefs and policies have shaped a contemporary world that seems so much more complex and amoral than the “simple” past they claim to remember. Consider conservatives’ sanctification of free market capitalism. As Erica Grieder notes, “capitalism encourages mobility and disruption. It therefore represents a particular challenge to the traditional structures, like family or civil society, that used to represent a person’s personal safety net.” Grieder recognizes how the inherent dynamism of capitalism pays no heed to traditional structures like family, church, and small-town communities that conservatives want to preserve.
All of the complexities of modern society — which Starnes sees embodied in things like the Blackberry device, the film industry, popular music, the internet age, and urbanization — are the direct result of the relentless free-market dynamism that conservatives promote. Market forces drive the onslaught of technology by creating products that people want to buy, and if, in the process, these same market forces decimate small towns by shipping jobs to Third World countries, or make employment so scarce that tight-knit families and communities are forced to split up in order to find work that is increasingly concentrated in big cities, as opposed to the small towns over which Starnes waxes nostalgic, then so be it.
Market capitalism doesn’t care about disrupting American social institutions, but Todd Starnes does, and like other conservatives, he’s unable to recognize how his undying support for free-market capitalism creates the contemporary conditions that he views as far less simple than the idealized past that he longs to return to in God Less America. And therein lies the dangerous aspect of nostalgia: by creating a fictional and overly simplified vision of the past, it renders people unable to deal with the present as it is.
While it’s worth reiterating that nostalgia isn’t always a bad thing, it’s nonetheless something that can prevent people from understanding the very real complexities of the modern world. Shameless nostalgia mongers like Todd Starnes only make things worse by promoting a past that never existed in order to fix a present that they simply don’t like. So suck it up Todd; your gay rainbow is here to stay.
* See Todd Starnes, God Less America: Real Stories from the Front Lines of the Attack on Traditional Values (Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2014), 1-2.
* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961): 517.
* See Andrew R. Murphy, “Longing, Nostalgia, and Golden Age Politics: The American Jeremiad and the Power of the Past,” Perspectives on Politics 7 (Mar., 2009): 126.