Graham F. Scott on Toxic Nostalgia

Don Draper sold nostalgia better than anyone. In a masterful scene at the end of season one of Mad Men, he uses photos of his own family to illustrate the emotional power of a Kodak slide projector: it’s a “time machine” that transports us “to a place we know we are loved.” It’s a beautiful moment, but it’s also just advertising bullshit: Draper’s family is gone, his home vacant.

Nostalgia—our comfort in the familiar, or the allure of an allegedly simpler past—is seductive but dangerous. In our politics, art, environment and sexuality, our culture shows a troubling failure to engage honestly with difficult contemporary issues. We often choose instead to retreat into the smothering embrace of outdated, discredited ideas and simplistic fantasy. Here are five arguments for ditching those illusions.

Graham F. Scott is a Toronto writer, editor, and designer. He is currently managing editor of Canadian Business and was formerly editor of This Magazine, named “Small Magazine of the Year” by the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors in 2010 and 2011. He has written for the Globe and Mail, Maclean’s, and more. Follow him @gfscott

1. “Taking our country back”—but from who?

Tim Wise is one of the best writers today working on racism and race politics. This post sketches how nostalgia politics–neatly encapsulated in the common phrase “taking our country back”–belie a white-supremacist streak in Tea Party politics and emerging European neo-fascist parties. Inevitably, popular calls for re-establishing the “purer” politics of some mythical past requires demonizing existing underclasses. Though it’s unlikely we can ever go back, far-right elements, from Oklahoma to Oslo, seem ominously keen to try.

2. We don’t need another hero

Historical revisionism in escapist entertainment is hardly new. Sarah Jaffe sees something sinister in Captain America’s total abnegation of the horrific reality of the Second World War. Run-of-the-mill Nazis apparently don’t make adequate villains anymore. America’s Jim Crow-era racism is scrubbed clean. Sanitized, theme-park dress-up versions of history–even frothy comic-book adaptations like this one–affect how we think about the past. Aping the aesthetic while ditching the substance may be fun, but it’s also false.

3. Jim Henson and the Muppet afterlife

The recent big-screen Muppet renaissance was eagerly awaited by many wistful fans, myself included. For Elizabeth Stevens, the Muppet resurrection was undercut with melancholy. Instead of fond homage, she suggests that what we are witnessing is actually creepy pop-culture necromancy. Jim Henson’s genius, she writes, was for lovable imperfection and the hasty muddle of a finite human life. I’m not sure I agree with her proposal that Kermit should have died with Henson, but I think her overall thesis may be right.

4. Teenagers deserve to have better sex

Most sex education is mired in delusion, the curriculum dictated not by what actual teenagers want (and need) to know, but by adult anxieties and illusions about teenage sexuality. Laurie Abraham investigates a radically different program that encourages high-schoolers to talk about sex as it actually manifests for them: something that can be fun, emotional and complicated (and usually all three at once). Teaching sex as a good, enjoyable activity may be a hard sell for many schools, but may also be worthwhile in the long run.

5. Photography as a substitute for living

This three-part essay examines the current mania for “Fauxlaroid” apps that artificially distress digital photos to mimic old film stock. This retro style, Nathan Jurgenson writes, is “nostalgia for the present,” in which we morbidly memorialize our own lives, even as we live them. Exhausted by its own ubiquity, he claims, the technique will likely fade away (like an old photo), as yet another curious fad of the early 21st century.