With post-modernism came all of history in it’s carry case (we call that an iPhone these days) and we delight in pouring over our past in minute detail. We have immediate access to everything in human history which I believe is a great and useful thing but I am curious as to what that is helping us with. I have written before about how we seem to have reached the singularity of in that regard, nearly all previous visions of the future have all but come true (except those flying cars) and all writers and artists can see ahead now is some form of apocalypse. Perhaps this is why we take such delight in our past today?
Nostalgia is no longer the thing Grandad indulges in by the fire of a Sunday evening its a hard and fast brand. We have Instagram filters designed to ape old photography, vintage posters are all the rage, we all wear ‘retro’ clothes, women use winged eyeliner again, even politically we seem to be sliding backwards further and further to the conservative point of view of yesteryear. As a culture we are now obsessed with the aesthetic of the past, and I stress the word aesthetic there. An actual deep and nuanced understanding of history evades most of us as any information we don’t have is but a google away. We even use older methods of philosophy and analysis today.
Churchill once said, “those who do not learn from history will be forced to repeat it” and a thorough knowledge of where we came from undeniably helps us know better where we are going I really don’t feel like most people do know or understand where we came from. History is a complex and malleable thing, we all know how subjective personal accounts of a past event are and how totally open to interpretation even hard evidence can be so an investigative and skeptical approach to both our past, present and future is a must, whereas all culture does now is uses a given piece of history as a glib reference or out of context evidence to bolster a claim or legitamise a work of art. This surface level of historical knowledge can be extremely damaging however as is regularly proved over in the United States of America.
The United States Constitution is the road map for American Democracy. It is a piece of paper created in 1787 and ratified in 1788 on which the foundations of that country are built. It was laboriously devised by many (white) men, poured over and adjusted then signed by thirty nine men and then enshrined in law. It dictates how the country should be governed and the rights of the populace and along with the Bill of Rights added in 1791 offers what many consider to be the leading example of democratic justice and reform for an independent country. Except, no. Even at the time the Constitution was contested. Benjamin Franklin, one of the great intellects and overall badasses of history, even said at the time “There are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall ever approve them.” It was initially riddled with holes, it didn’t even clearly explain who was allowed to vote and following the Civil War had to be amended again. Amendments have constantly been written and rewritten to adjust a 200+ year old document to bring it more in line with contemporary thinking and the world at large. It was also entirely based on and borrowed heavily from European social philosophy, namely John Locke and the Magna Carta, both British, the country the USA wished to secede from. Adherence to the constitution is something all Americans believe in, understandably, it is what made their country and some stick to it doggedly. Most well known is the US right wing and their love of GUNS. Enshrined in the constitution as a right they have the justice of history on their side when people have the audacity to question whether it is sensible for them to own these murder sticks but they are citing a 200 year old precedence that is so woefully out of context it is entirely irrelevant in the modern age. Written at a time when roaming militia were likely to kill you and your family for supporting the wrong cause, owning a gun was probably a wise move, that is not remotely relevant to our fast food, on demand, iPhone generation.
Culture’s love of historical ephemera without regard for context or nuance is worrying. We are quick to label Trump – sorry Drumpf – a Hitler clone and we may not be far from the truth in overall rhetoric but Hitler was not a “litigious serial liar with a string of failed businesses” he was a military man with a sharp mind, coherent policies and an understanding of international politics. Nostalgia is being used as a shield, a defence mechanism that hides us in a cloud of the good-old-days, a threadbare comfort blanket that offers no comfort and barely resembles a blanket anymore. The weight of history is crushing as is the pressing thrust of the future meaning we are sandwiched in between and we are giving neither the fair amount of thought. Every day a troubling revelation comes to light that effects us all yet we shrug it off and carry on with our Netflix and Chill. To ignore these dire warnings, as history has repeatedly shown us, will be to our cost.
So consider the Black riots next time you add a grainy filter to your photo to make it look like the 60s. Consider the sexism inherent in the 50s when you use those retro graphics. Remember segregation inherent in the performance and lyrics the next time you sing an old blues song. Remember the various individuals who have died for rights that would not have been afforded you 50 years ago when you discuss 200 year old legislation. Consider the context of what you say and do, nothing was made in a bubble and the old days were as good as they were bad.