'Nostalgia'

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I have always been a little skeptical of psychological and sociological evaluations of people and events. I believe things are usually what they appear to be, so it is fruitless to look for "hidden meanings." But to some social scientists, things are never what they seem to be. They believe that some awful truth lies hidden beneath the surface and must be uncovered regardless of how unpleasant it may be.

But the kind of mindset that looks for hidden meanings can be easily led into subjective analyses. The scientific community is itself conflicted over the relative value of exact science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) versus social science (psychology, sociology, etc.). The argument is made that social sciences are less reliable than exact sciences because they are subject to the individual interpretation of the investigator.

Taking that objection a step further, I maintain that a social scientist can create a problem where none exists. And if a social scientist is pushing a political agenda, they can and do create special terminology to gain favor for their program while discrediting those who oppose it. In other words, they subject those who criticize their program to creative, manipulative language that insinuates that dissidents are either biased or have some other mental defect.

A recent case in point is the novel use of the word: "Nostalgia." The expression implies that our memories of the past are false; clouded with a wistful longing for a time that really never was. Because people are threatened by social innovations (for example: the latest PC craze), they yearn to return to a comfortable yet fictionalized past. This yearning for the past is caused by a complex psychological mechanism: Nostalgia.

Stephanie Coontz, a history and family studies professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, uses this technique in her book: The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. Miss Coontz is a product of the feminist school of thought and her views on gender equity make her a frequent and popular lecturer at Women’s Studies programs. Like Betty Friedan and other well-known feminists, Coontz believes that traditional marriage is a trap that snares women and prevents them from achieving their potential. Furthermore, she maintains that what we normally think of as the contented traditional family is fiction; a creation of "nostalgia" based on 1950s television programs like "Ozzie and Harriet," "Father Knows Best" and "The Donna Reed Show."

People like me who grew up in the 1950s remember families that were like the one on "Leave it to Beaver." But Miss Coontz emphatically states that "Leave it to Beaver" was not a documentary. This is her take on the 1950s: "The stability of family and community life during the 1950s rested on pervasive discrimination against women, gays, political dissidents, non-Christians, and racial or ethnic minorities, as well as on a systematic cover-up of the underside of many families. Victims of child abuse, incest, alcoholism, spousal rape, and wife battering had no recourse, no place to go, until well into the 1960s." Strong stuff. And her book is filled with strident indictments like this.

Curiously, she claims that the so-called "traditional" family did not exist before the advent of Capitalism. Prior to that time, there were commune-like extended families wherein all work was shared equally. Capitalism created corporate entities that took husbands away from the idyllic egalitarian family unit and elevated them to the superior role of "bread winner" while reducing wives to the subservient role of "help-mate."

To Coontz, the holding up of traditional marriage as the ideal living arrangement discourages alternative forms of relationships, especially same-sex marriage. Also, according to her, the idea of marriage based on love is a "myth" and such marriages are unlikely to be satisfying. She maintains that marriages based on economics are far more solid, but even these may not succeed without the support of strong government programs. In fact, a larger role for government in all aspects of life is what Miss Coontz promotes. She lavishes praise on the social legislation of the 1930s and 1960s while dismissing the notion that a loving husband and wife team can be successful and contented without help from the state.

Stephanie Coontz’s interpretation of cause and effect is diametrically opposed to the view Charles Murray presented in Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950—1980. Murray argued that the Great Society programs as well as other social legislation of the time did not produce significant improvements, and often made conditions worse. Coontz states: "The phenomenal publicity and approval generated by Murray’s book had more to do with the way it tapped into powerful cultural myths about self-reliance and dependency than with any connection to empirical evidence."

Coontz’s book does contain an immensity of data. Her research is impressive. But her feminist bias allows for only one interpretation of facts. No doubt Coontz will be disappointed to learn that a recent poll revealed that three out of four women described the word "feminist" as an insult. Even worse, the percentage of working women who believe that a career is as important as being a wife and mother has fallen a dramatic 23% since the 1970s. The truth of the matter is that outside of a few cloistered environments like academia, feminism is already dead. And Coontz and her ilk may be the last gasp of a dying breed.

Traditional marriage is a fairly recent target of academia but the American south has been one of its favorite whipping boys for decades. A recent version of south scolding is: Reconstructing Dixie: Race, Place and Femininity in the Deep South. This is the work of Tara McPherson, an assistant professor at the University of Southern California, who teaches courses in gender and cultural studies, television and new media. Her book also employs the nostalgia ruse.

Miss McPherson believes her book can "advocate progressive change in southern racial transactions" which will help the south move beyond being viewed as simply "an embarrassing site of retrograde regionalism." To her credit, McPherson admits that there is no such thing as an "objective scholar." With that disclaimer out of the way, she proceeds to dismantle what she calls the mythic portrayals of "southern belle" and "southern gentleman." And stories related by southerners are categorized as products of "nostalgia, guilt, and race."

Miss McPherson examines stories by southern women, especially Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. She faults them for not adequately discussing the south’s racial past but focusing instead on nostalgic recollections of other aspects of southern life. In doing so she maintains that they evade any "personal responsibility" for the region’s racist acts.

I wonder what Tara McPherson would say about Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, a novel describing high-society life in New York in the late 1800s. Wharton portrays the glamorous lifestyles of wealthy New Yorkers, but makes no reference to the atrocious exploitation of child labor occurring in New York at that time. Children, often younger than ten years old, were forced to work up to 14 hours a day in mines, mills, factories and New York’s garment district; commercial enterprises that generated the wealth of New York’s upper crust. Unable to attend school, these children worked in crowded, unsanitary conditions where disease and premature death were common. Miss Wharton’s novel, a Pulitzer Prize winner, makes no mention of this tragedy.

But McPherson is only concerned with southern women writers whom she accuses of having exaggerated the harshness of post-war Reconstruction measures in order to twist racial guilt into victimhood. McPherson conveniently overlooks the fact that many of these accounts by southern women were diaries, like Mary Boykin Chestnut’s famous, A Diary from Dixie. These diaries were day by day journals of the actual events as they unfolded. I don’t know if daily dairy entries are significantly influenced by "nostalgic memories."

I am astonished that McPherson actually accuses PBS filmmaker Ken Burns of downplaying the south’s racial past in his documentary The Civil War. She is also quite upset with Burns for producing a "masculine" narrative of war where the bravery, honor and sacrifice of the soldiers is extolled but the role of women is ignored. Also she claims that Burns rarely mentioned the issue of race; it was certainly not mentioned as a cause of the war. But Mr. Burns himself felt that race was the centerpiece of his documentary.

Professor McPherson doesn’t think the New South is much of an improvement over the Old South. After all, she states, Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation, hails from Arkansas, exporting a new style of plantation economy for the next millennium. For "scholars" like McPherson, only the heartless south could produce such a mean-spirited, insensitive corporation.

If I may wax nostalgic, the writings of Stephanie Coontz and Tara McPherson bring to mind the oft quoted lines of Alexander Pope: "A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring." It appears that these two professors did not drink deeply enough. But, despite the fact that both books resemble graduate school term papers, we can assume their work will receive applause in academic circles and might even win one of those numerous literary prizes that are only awarded to politically correct books. Those honors will certainly look good on their curriculum vitae!

Social scientists pass judgment on the pluses and minuses of society. But social science faculties at many colleges include former graduates who stayed on to become assistant professors without any detour into the real world outside the walls of academia. This is like obtaining a driver’s license by taking the written test only and skipping the driving test.

So we end up with professors more adept at indoctrination than teaching. But the future may not be so bright for such instructors because with the current cost of college for one year being roughly $30,000, parents are scrutinizing faculty members more carefully before choosing a college. And alumni are beginning to question financial support of alma maters staffed with agenda-driven professors.

These professorial types seem to think that with the passage of time, things get better and better. But I believe there is an equal probability that things might get worse. In fact, I think the societal changes of the last fifty years prove that things can get worse.

Nostalgia might shade our memories of the past but it certainly cannot make the sum total of our recollections wrong. Opposition to much of so-called "modernity" is actually based on common sense and the nostalgia ploy is nothing more than a devious technique to stifle dissent.

In any event, social scientists now have a new term to manipulate us with — "nostalgia," an expression that will probably take its place in the vernacular alongside sexism, racism, and homophobia.

Gail Jarvis [send him mail], a CPA living in Beaufort, SC, is an advocate of the voluntary union of states established by the founders.

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