LEADING ARTICLE : Nostalgia: not yet a thing of the past

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"We stand for a world in which men are the breadwinners and families are once again families. A world in which children trust their elders and so respect them, where kids can be left to play safely in public parks and stand up for old ladies on the bus. We want to restore public manners and politeness, Walls and Lyons Maid ice creams, ABC minors on Saturday mornings and the national anthem before the main feature at all cinemas. We want a Royal Family which behaves with the decorum that commands the loyalty we all want to offer. Above all we want a return to order, stability and security: at work and at home."

If a Nostalgia Party were ever to come into being, its manifesto might read something like this and judging by the events of the past week it could command a substantial following. The power of nostalgia to shape our responses to the random horrors which appear to characterise the modern world was confirmed as it coursed through the public debate over last weekend's murders of three young children.

We would all like to go back, wouldn't we, to some era variously plotted between the 1930s and the early 1960s when we felt more comfortable, more at home, more at ease and more hopeful for the future. Even those too young to recall such a time would recognise its merits, the nostalgics argue. When something goes horribly wrong like the murders of children we yearn to transport them back to a world of safety, when roles were clear: Mums were Mums, girls wore flowery dresses, boys wanted to be engine drivers and people could be relied upon to behave civilly and fulfil their obligations.

Diagnoses for this addictive dependence upon nostalgia have abounded. The literal view, advanced by traditional conservatives, is that nostalgia is entirely justified because at some point in the past we took a wrong turn towards liberalism and loose morals which has sent society spiralling towards moral decay. That is nonsense, according to the champions of capitalism. They point to our improving health and a cornucopia of consumer goods as measures of how much life has improved in the 50 years since the Second World War. They believe we are prone to nostalgia because we cannot bring ourselves to admit that we have never had it so good. The media spurs us on, with wall-to-wall coverage of tragedies such as last weekend's, demanding from us a moral revulsion that can lead nowhere other than a yearning for some easy solution bequeathed by a mythically rosy past.

For the futurists among us, the surfers on the Internet, the creatures of cyberspace, the debate is almost irrelevant. The moral codes of Swallows and Amazons could no more guide us through our various virtual and real futures than the old A and B button telephone box might become a site on the information superhighway.

All of this misses the point that nostalgia pervades our culture, not just at moments of moral panic, but every day. That is because we regard history as ever more malleable. Not only do we want to be able to go back in time when it suits us, we are more able to do it. We have all become archivists of our past, holding on to the images of ourselves as younger people, in photographs and videos. Most of us are engaged every day in some effort to roll back the years, in a desperate effort to preserve our youth, so that we stay young until we are into our early 40s or even 50s. We love to recycle and remix our culture and history. Fashion and pop in the 1990s unashamedly borrow from the 1970s, remixing old styles for modern tastes.

Nostalgia is also at the root of the most exciting business deal of the year, which was signed last week. Disney's merger with ABC television will create the largest entertainment group in the world, which will have unprecedented power to shape popular culture from broadcasting and films into video, cable and satellite television, music and computer games. The foundation stone of the first great corporation of the infotainment age: a cartoon mouse created in 1928 that has many years life in it yet.

History itself has come to resemble a pick'n'mix sweet counter in Woolworth's. The Daily Telegraph this week railed against modular methods of history teaching that, it alleged, rob students of intellectual coherence and academic rigour and produce minds resembling bric-a-brac shops.

Our ready access to raid the past is matched by our mounting fear of the future and a decline in faith in either politics or science to provide us with a reliable map of the road to progress. Indeed the most powerful current in science, which will soon start to have an impact upon social policy and politics, is genetics. The belief that our illnesses and even our behaviour might be traced back to our genes is the ultimate validation that nostalgics need for their belief that the past holds the key to the future.

If nostalgia is so potent culturally and so lucrative commercially, is it any wonder that we should attempt to pull off the same trick with morality and politics? The communitarian movement, which can claim Tony Blair as one of its members, is part of this trend to take us back to an era modelled on the claustrophobic codes of small-town middle America.

An attempt simply to return to the past as far as our morals are concerned is out of the question. Nostalgia in politics becomes deeply undesirable if it feeds, as it has done across Europe, the ethnic politics of blood and belonging. Yet the futurists' willingness to write off the past is also unrealistic and unworkable. That is an option only if you have a moral certitude delivered from the Church, the party, the leader or the machine.

The truth is that in virtually every sphere of its life society is experimenting and innovating, by mixing and remixing, borrowing and modifying. It would be extraordinary if society did not attempt to do the same with its morals and values. But the point with the past is not to get bogged down in it or even worse to choose to wallow in it. The point is to use it and play with it, judiciously and cautiously but unashamedly and repeatedly to help create the contemporary. The nostalgia of the last week may be without statistical foundation but it has served a moral purpose, provided a way of conducting a moral debate. As long as nostalgia is put to a contemporary purpose it can be valuable. If it is used for conservative ends it is retrogressive. But either way, history is there to be used and competed over as a political and moral resource. Nostalgia is here to stay; it's the modern way.