Nostalgia & Freedom
“In general, I am agnostic on exactly how libertarian I want society to be. What I know is that I want more libertarianism (of certain kinds) than we have right now. After some changes on the margin, some reduction of the most harmful aspects of the state, we might be in a position where bigger changes are both desirable and feasible. Or, we might be in a position where the state that remains is more credible and worth having, because the worst parts have been removed.” ~ Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings
Jim Manzi recently commented on this profile of Paul Krugman, noting that Krugman’s nostalgia for the ‘golden age’ of the 1950’s “is in many ways a profoundly conservative sentiment.” From the New York Magazine profile of Krugman:
Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history?…”
Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”
I think that seen in its best, and correct, light, what Krugman is expressing here is the desire that as many people as possible should have access to this kind of middle-class life.
I think of it as the politics of nostalgia, and the basis in many ways not just for a lot of conservative policy prescriptions, but for a lot of progressive policies as well. It’s also the reason I’ve been writing a lot of what I’ve been writing lately, having fallen into the nostalgia trap for some time.
I believe that nostalgia is one of the driving forces in society, along with love and the desire for security and a handful of other primal motivations. Unlike love, however, nostalgia is a subtle force. It works around the margins. We think of our childhood and we want to pass along what we remember that was good about it, even though we know that many other things were wrong with the past. Krugman’s fond memories are inevitably tainted by the pervasive racial and sexual inequality of that time, even if there were more opportunities for blue collar workers.
In my rush to the left, I think I have written the most conservative work I have ever written, and much of it stems from this sentiment of things lost and things remembered. A post like this one, for instance, is in many ways a post of mourning. It is a post in which I am expressing a deep fear of change, and a deep longing for the past. It is reactionary, almost. And while the emotional truth is real to me, I’m not sure the conclusions I draw are as sound as I would like them to be. Nostalgia, after all, is a lot like writing love letters to mirages.
I wrote this a while back and I will echo it again now: “We are very rarely one self, one set of ideas, one uncompromising vision. People are piecemeal. We are governed by the tensions of our compromises.”
Here, for instance, I think I am grappling not so much with labels (labels are merely a vehicle for discussion) but with conflicting selves: the nostalgic self (the romantic, or conservative); the egalitarian (the progressive); the doubter (the libertarian) . And it is the doubter that keeps resurfacing. That belief that freedom and choice, however messy, are the best guiding principles upon which to build a society. There are limits to our knowledge and there always will be.
That last self is hard to embrace. The art of letting go, as Jason called it, is not easy.
I have called myself a ‘reluctant libertarian’ and I believe I still am, though again, labels only seem to confound. Here I explain my reservations as clearly as I can about libertarianism in practice vs. libertarianism in theory. I am trying to piece together a small “l” libertarian philosophy that is ultimately a liberal philosophy (liberalism and libertarianism are long lost cousins as far as I’m concerned) that takes seriously the plight of the working class and the poor. As Jason has also pointed out, libertarian policies often do favor the little guy – and yet, I think, libertarians place too much emphasis on winners and losers when in reality, this deep in the woods, the distinction is far from clear.
I am working backwards here, trying to close in on the tension and how it plays out between egalitarianism, nostalgia, and freedom. Not only are the three points not easily defined, they are in many ways at odds with one another.
At some point you become your own special interest group. You suddenly see the public library as a symbol of everything that has been lost or that you imagine has been lost. You want to retake or protect what is valuable to you, and what you believe is valuable to others. The key question that needs to be asked is this: do these things you value inhibit the freedoms of others? Is your nostalgia inadvertently causing someone harm?
Krugman’s vision of the 1950’s really is a vision of an insulated world, locked precariously in amber. Can it ever really come back? Did it rely too much on the plight of the disadvantaged – women, minorities, post-war Europe? I cannot help but think that the 1950’s never really happened. That my childhood in 1980’s Montana never really happened.
So maybe we should look forward toward a new vision of the good life. If we do, in some ways it will require us to look back at freedoms lost, and that will require some level of nostalgia. But it will also require us to recall that coercion and oppression exist on many levels, that the state is often just the arm of our culture, enforcing whatever freedom-quashing cultural trend exists at the moment – whether that is a long history of women as second-class-citizens or the relatively new (and far more benign) tendency to ban smoking in restaurants and bars.
Krugman talks about an era when kids were free to go out and play in the streets all day, unsupervised and pretty much safe. I’m not thirty yet and I remember that freedom myself. I remember biking or walking just about everywhere with very little supervision. Or taking the bus into downtown Vancouver, B.C. with a friend when I was ten. I remember when I could smoke in a bar; when I could cross the border with my driver’s license; when we could pretty much just walk through a metal detector and board a plane.
In many ways, our nostalgia relies heavily on our conception of freedom, and our egalitarianism stems from a desire to free as many people as possible – from poverty, from a life of abuse, from violence or hunger. And so these three concepts are almost inseparably bound. Or at least I suspect that they are. If we want to make the most of our nostalgia, rather than attempting to merely hoard or glorify the past, then we must value freedom first and foremost. And yet, if we are to truly value freedom, then we should think of it in egalitarian terms, because we cannot be truly free at the expense of others.
I tend to agree with the sentiment expressed by Thoreau above. I’m not sure how libertarian I want the country to be. So let’s start with the bad stuff and go from there.
BlaiseP includes this poem from Howard Nemerov in the comments. I think it’s fitting for the post-proper:
So much of life in the world is memory
That the moment of the happening itself—
So much with noise and smoke and rising clear
To vanish at the limit of our vision
Into the light blue light of afternoon—
Appeared no more, against the void in aim,
Than the flare of a match in sunlight, quickly snuffed.
What yet may come of this? We cannot know.
Great things are promised, as the promised land
Promised to Moses that he would not see
But a distant sight of, though the children would.
The world is made of pictures of the world,
And the pictures change the world into another world
We cannot know, as we knew not this one.