The Yearning for the Golden Past

The Conservative Grand Narrative, according to Jonathan Haidt (mentioned in my discussion of his book The Righteous Mind in this post) is about “the struggle to return to a golden past” — a theme we hear echoed in Republican presidential candidates’ platforms, e.g. Trump’s “Make America Great Again”. Those who appeal to this theme never seem to spell out which past era they want to return to. When was America last great in a way it is not now? My guess would be the era after World War II, the last war the US won, and before all the other wars since then in which the US has gotten involved, in which the US has not won, again and again. (The Republican candidates, it might be noted, seem eager to start new wars. Carpet-bomb ISIS, says Ted Cruz.) But of course that late 1940s to early 1960s [before the Vietnam War] era was one of great social change, and this yearning for an era of unbridled US dominance across the world ignores what we would now consider social inequities of those eras. I’m guessing, again, that those inequities are of very little concern to the conservatives yearning for that golden past of US domination across the globe.

An op-ed in last Tuesday’s New York Times explores some of this, and how the conservative narrative, composed of many lies, seems not to matter: Donald Trump’s Unstoppable Virality, by Emma Roller. It’s partly about how Trump says outlandish things just to get attention — “As long as stories about Mr. Trump are receiving as many eyeballs as possible, it doesn’t really matter if people are reacting negatively to him. In fact, it probably helps his popularity.”

Echoing Chris Mooney’s book:

And people with certain political leanings may be more predisposed to sharing. According to Bradley M. Okdie, a social psychologist at Ohio State University at Newark, conservatives are more likely to share a given piece of content than liberals are, especially if it provokes a negative emotion.

“Conservatives tend to be a lot more reactive to negative information and they also tend to be a lot more insular in nature, and they also tend to have less tolerance for ambiguity,” Professor Okdie said. “Conservatives would prefer a negative concrete statement to a slightly positive, uncertain statement.”

With his us vs. them invective and his refusal to denounce hate-filled speech from some of his supporters, Mr. Trump is an echo chamber for certain corners of the far right, as evinced by his popularity with white nationalists and the so-called alt-right movement of mostly online activists.

“Donald Trump is telling them something they already believe, and they’re sharing it because they want other people to believe it too,” Professor Hemsley, who studies virality, said.

When was this golden era again? Two other op-eds in the same day’s paper describe ignominious moments of America’s past.

The Great Christmas Strike of 1906, by Peter Manseau: keying off a recent event in which a Virginia mother objected to a lesson at the local school to copy out an Arabic religious phrase, as an exercise in calligraphy. She perceived it as an attempt at indoctrination to Islam. [The parallel to the perceived ‘war on Christmas’ as somehow *not* being about Christian privilege in a nominally secular society is too obvious to pursue.]

There is perhaps no greater indication of the potency of religious language than the fear it sometimes inspires. Both those who believe the Shahada and those who don’t appear to agree that some words have spiritual consequences.

Concerned that their faith is being challenged in the classroom, Christians like Ms. Herndon have lately led the charge against supposed religious indoctrination in Virginia, Georgia and Tennessee. They have not had a monopoly on such fears in American history, however.

In fact, what may well be the single largest action taken by parents worried about religious indoctrination in American schools was made not in defense of Christianity, but against it.

The piece goes on to describe the event of the title, in which Jewish children in New York City, back in 1906, rebelled against the inclusion of Christian hymns, compositions, pictures, and decorations in the public schools, to the point where 20,000 of them boycotted.

And then there is Los Angeles, a City of Better Angels, by Héctor Tobar [author of that book about the 33 Chilean miners]. About lynches and mob killings in the city, in 1870 and 1871.

Here, as elsewhere, there are those who believe there is safety to be found in cultural homogeneity — and danger lurking in our embrace of diversity and openness. I’ve been listening to our local xenophobes rail about the perils of Mexican immigrants for decades. Now they’ve found Donald J. Trump adding to their “close the border” chorus with calls to bar Muslims as well as Mexicans.

In California, these are old arguments. Thankfully, we also have a long tradition of resistance to intolerance.

I’ve previously linked to other items about the relative intolerance of past eras — e.g. how the Irish were demonized, way back in the 1850s, in much the same way Muslims are these days — not to mention the Chinese and the blacks and many others throughout our history…

The conservative yearning for a golden past is a fantasy; like other conservative engagements with reality, as the Chris Mooney book explored (my comments on his book The Republican Brain), it prioritizes narrative, in the service of social cohesion and resistance to change and new understanding.

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