Militant Nostalgia

It was too much too fast. At the tail end of the Bush presidency – the second Bush presidency – no one remembers his father – the economy collapsed, catastrophically. All credit froze. There wasn’t even short-term financing available to meet payroll or stock the shelves, thus the whole economy seized up. Investment banks went under as did quite a few major banks, which had to happen. They’d been selling worthless crap to each other, all those ridiculously bad home mortgages sliced and diced and repacked to thin-out the risk. But it was still all crap, and AIG had insured them all against any potential loss, even though they had no way to cover even a tenth of these guys’ incredibly complex investment instruments if things went south all at once. That was a bad move. Things went south all at once, and after taking over the mortgage insurers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government had to buy AIG to keep it afloat – and had to bail out GM and Chrysler too, so we’d still have an auto industry. The markets cratered and early on and never moved up, tens of millions lost their homes in the mess, and unemployment soared as countless businesses, large and small went under. That meant that no one was buying much of anything, because no one could buy much of anything. The economy was in a death-spiral. Then, somehow, on the second try, Congress passed the Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) – a seven hundred billion dollar blank check to Treasury, to do something – anything – to save us all. They pumped most of those billions into the remaining banks, to unfreeze credit, to get them lending money again, at least for day-to-day operations, instead of trying to make all their money on high-risk high-reward derivatives of derivatives and credit default swaps, and clever hedging of both. That sort of worked. Some of the boring old-fashioned simple credit became available again – not much, but enough to stave off total collapse.

No one saw that coming. The free-market supply-side guys had said this sort of thing couldn’t happen – these things regulate themselves – and no one else was paying attention. Things seemed fine, until all hell broke loose. Then, suddenly, Bush was gone. The nation had elected its first black president – young and untested, but then John McCain admitted himself that he didn’t quite get the economic stuff, and it was clear that Sarah Palin didn’t get much of anything. Obama seemed calm and reasonable, and he was damned smart, so he would do. Still it was a cultural shock – his middle name was Hussein after all. The world was changing too fast, at least for those who remembered, fondly, the white-bread world of the Ozzie and Harriet fifties. There was a black guy in the White House, there were what seemed to be Mexicans everywhere, and gay folks weren’t hiding in the shadows anymore, like they should. With one election, pleasant and conventional White America, as a not particularly racist notion of how things simply were and will be, had simply disappeared. That too was too much too fast.

What happened next didn’t help – Obama’s own seven hundred billion dollar stimulus program, necessary because the banks were still making most of their money where the big profits are, in the complex odd and unregulated surreal-securities stuff, not in stupid low-return mom-and-pop loans – and the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, where the government would make sure everyone could buy at least some form of health insurance from the for-profit providers out there. For many, all of this was also too new – too much too fast.

There had to be a backlash, and there was, on February 19, 2009 – CNBC’s Rick Santelli delivered his now famous rant – all about the Homeowners Affordability and Stability Plan of all things. That was simply a program to keep at least some people from losing their homes, but Santelli didn’t see it that way. He said the government was “promoting bad behavior” – and then he called for a “Chicago Tea Party” (he’s based at the Commodities Exchange there) and he sneered at all those who knowingly signed up for those high-risk mortgages and were now facing foreclosure. The problem wasn’t the banks tricking them. They were “losers” and it was time to rise up, or something. His point was that it was high time to take the country back from the losers and flakes and those who say we’re all in this together. No one’s tax money should go to those whiners who didn’t read the fine print, if there was any. We’re taxed enough already, and so on and so forth.

Santelli rode that particular pony for weeks and weeks. It was his thing, and now and then he’d even wave tea bags at the camera. This wasn’t the CNBC line – they’re market reporters and analysts – but the ratings soared so they let him rave on, and thus the Tea Party movement was born. It was his idea, or at least his metaphor. It caught fire. Too much had happened too fast, and these folks wanted their country back. The makers wanted to take their country back from the takers, the Jesus folks wanted to take their country back from folks with the wrong religion, or no religion, and a wide segment of angry older white folks wanted to take their country back from the black folks and Mexicans and so on, not to mention rolling back the obvious rapid spread of Sharia Law everywhere in America. Yeah, that last part was absurd, but getting rid of Obamacare would do just as well. It was all the same thing, many variations on one theme. They’d fight tooth and claw to get their country back. Call it militant nostalgia.

There’s just one problem with their effort to get their country back – the matter of proprietorship. It isn’t their country. It’s everyone’s, and there’s something else too. Nostalgia is dangerous. Not only is the past never quite what it seems – everyone remembers the good stuff, or makes it up – it is the past. If it ever was what you thought it was, it doesn’t matter if it ever was – it’s gone now. Too much may happen too fast, but it happens, so deal with it.

That’s hard when conservative thought is basically structured nostalgia and conservative politics might be called militant nostalgia. Change is always the problem, and the latest example of that is the reaction to the new Pew study which Hanna Rosin assesses here:

Four out of ten American households with children have a mother who is the sole or primary breadwinner for the family, the highest share on record. And all trends for the future – men out of work and earning steadily less, women earning more college degrees, fewer couples with children getting married – point to us moving farther down this road.

This is indeed a change, and one that is hard to deal with:

From the broadest historical perspective, this is a radical reversal of a power dynamic that we believe has been around since the caveman days. But in its details, it doesn’t look so glorious. Old systems die hard, and it’s clear from the Pew numbers that Americans are still deeply uncomfortable about the changes and haven’t settled on anything like a happy new egalitarian paradise.

Americans are very conflicted, for example, between their materialism and their traditional family values. In the Pew study, two thirds say that the increasing numbers of working women has made it easier for families to live “comfortably,” but comfortable doesn’t translate into moral. Three quarters say that the women working makes it harder for couples to raise children, and half say that children are better off if women are at home. That said, women are starting to like working full time. In the recent survey 32 percent of women say they want to work full time, up from 20 percent in only 2007.

There are only meager signs that people are getting used to what’s happening here:

Just 28 percent of Americans agreed that it is “generally better for a marriage if the husband earns more than his wife.” But then other studies have shown that couples in which the wife earns more have higher rates of divorce, and that breadwinner wives overcompensate by being extra wifely at home, doing more housework or cooking more elaborate meals.

There’s also this:

The worst part of the new trend, though, is the class divide. The female breadwinner looks very different depending on which social class she’s in. About 37 percent are women who make more than their husbands. They are more likely to be white, older and more educated, and their median income is $80,000. Single mothers on the other hand are younger, black or Hispanic and have a median income of $23,000.

Rosin can only offer this:

The old days aren’t coming back so we might as well stop pretending and evaluate the new characters as they are – the displaced men, the overworked single mothers, the guilty high earning mothers – and try and make it easier on them.

In short, deal with reality, such as it is. Nostalgia is useless here.

Don’t tell that to the conservative crowd. They’ll find a way to engage in their usual militant nostalgia, and as Amanda Marcotte reports, they did just that:

Most of the time, conservatives pooh-pooh the pay gap as a result of women’s “choice” to work less and attend to the home more. They’re not against equality, they assure us, but equality just naturally fails on its own because women make it so! That ruse lasted right up until the announcement that four out of ten households with children now have a female breadwinner. So how did Fox News respond? By gathering a panel of all male pundits to explain that, under no uncertain terms, the disappearance of male economic dominance signals the end of life as we know it.

Choice phrases tossed around, including from resident liberal Juan Williams: “disintegration of marriage,” “society dissolve around us,” and “something going terribly wrong in American society.” Then there’s Lou Dobbs, darkly intimating that women’s escape from economic dependence turns them into killers: “And those are the children who survive!” he exclaims at one point, in reference to all those money-grubbing ladies having abortions on their lunch break.

You can watch the video she embeds or follow Marcotte, as she quotes Erick Erickson:

I’m so used to liberals telling conservatives that they’re anti-science. But liberals who defend this and say it is not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, when you look at the natural world, the roles of a male and a female in society and in other animals, the male typically is the dominant role. The female, it’s not antithesis, or it’s not competing, it’s a complimentary role.

Marcotte is not amused:

Erickson must have this nifty scientific “fact” by studying the animals in the well-known academic text, The Berenstain Bears, which clearly shows Papa Bear going out and earning the money while Mama Bear stays at home and cooks the food for the cubs. Of course, in the actual natural world, bears don’t make money – plus there’s a lot of diversity in how animals raise their young. (In case you’re wondering, outside of the two weeks of maternity leave mothers take to nurse their babies, foxes embrace a fairly egalitarian approach to child rearing where both parents go out and get food for their young.) One thing, however, is certain: Other primates besides humans mostly shun the male-dominated monogamy that Erickson prefers, with most species living in large bands with lots of kinky partner swapping.

There are also other issues here too:

Needless to say, the utter destruction of social stability that these men predict from the growth of female independence is not borne out by the facts. The divorce rate is actually declining. The abortion rate is roughly what it was pre-Roe and is mostly in decline, in part because of all those women opting into the sole breadwinner lifestyle. The only man on this panel who got close to the facts in midst of the full-blown panic was Williams, who hinted at how this is more about men’s declining fortunes than women’s growing ones.

That’s the key here:

It’s true that these new breadwinner stats are not all good news, but the real problem is that men earning less means less money overall for the average American home. What’s really hurting Americans isn’t female equality, but growing income inequality between the rich and everyone else. Pitting men against women is simply a distraction from the real economic issues facing us all.

One deals with the real world or one doesn’t. This may be too much too fast, but it is what it is, as Salon’s Irin Carmon explains:

If you’ve spent any time reading about the radical but incomplete changes in family life in the United States in recent years, you could be forgiven for thinking they’re a female problem. It’s as if women are doing this all by ourselves, a special female problem to be fixed in our lady’s corner – not for nothing has “work-life balance” been defined as a “women’s issue.” It’s true that women’s lives have changed the most dramatically, but framing it as only the concern of half the population – incidentally, the half that collectively has far less political and economic power – is a recipe for very little change.

Men and women face different circumstances – including biological ones around pregnancy and childbearing – but as long as families are made up of both men and women, these are everyone’s issues, and men need to step up. The question is how to talk about them without turning it into an angry zero sum game or oppression Olympics.

Alex Seitz-Wald notes there’s little hope for that:

Erickson tried to clear things up with a blog post this afternoon, but only made matters worse by showing how much he doesn’t get it. The missive started off poorly, with some whining about how feminists and “emo lefties have their panties in a wad” (pro-tip: when accused of sexism, don’t reference your opponents’ panties while mounting your defense) and only got worse from there.

Erickson says this:

I also noted that the left, which tells us all the time we’re just another animal in the animal kingdom, is rather anti-science when it comes to this. In many, many animal species, the male and female of the species play complementary roles, with the male dominant in strength and protection and the female dominant in nurture.

Seitz-Wald:

There are also species where males castrate themselves before sex to avoid being eating alive by females. Perhaps Erickson would like to experience that – you know, because science?

Erickson goes on to equate all female breadwinners with single mothers, and then to assume that the outrage directed at his comments was about some kind of politically correct effort to destroy families – “But we should not kid ourselves or scream so loudly in politically correct outrage to drown the truth – kids most likely will do best in households where they have a mom at home nurturing them while dad is out bringing home the bacon.”

Here he shows he just doesn’t get it. What upset people about Erickson’s comments had less to do with single mothers and the decline of marriage rates than about gender roles. It was his notion that women should always stay at home and tend to the kids and that men should always be the breadwinners and dominate women – because that’s only natural.

But almost 40 percent of the female breadwinners identified by the survey are married mothers who have a higher income than their husbands. Married women “are more likely than before to be the primary provider in the family,” growing from 4 percent in 1960 to 23 percent in 2011. That’s faster than the rate single mothers have grown. Married women have gained because they’ve had better education and employment opportunities — in other words, more equality.

But Erickson says that breadwinning is not the woman’s role anyway – it’s the “female who tames the male beast.”

There’s more. Seitz-Wald is merciless, but it comes down to this:

What’s so shocking about the Fox News clip and Erickson’s blog post is not the ideas themselves, but how transparently they’re presented. He comes off like a liberal’s caricature of what conservative men think – except this time it’s real.

Yes, it is, including Erickson with this:

Men can behave like women, women can behave like men, they can raise their kids, if they have them, in any way they see fit, and everything will turn out fine in the liberal fantasy world. Except in the real world it does not work out that way.

Steven Benen responds:

I should probably mention, for the benefit of those who aren’t familiar with Erick Erickson’s work, he’s not kidding. This isn’t satire or a parody of Republican pundits. He didn’t publish this in a deliberate effort to make conservatives appear foolish, but rather, his missive is entirely sincere.

His piece went to argue that there’s “nothing wrong with mothers having jobs” – there’s no end to Erickson’s graciousness when it comes to explaining what women should be allowed to do – but he’s nevertheless outraged by mothers being the sole or dominant breadwinner in a household.

Indeed, that was the key takeaway from the all-male Fox panel Erickson participated in: men, they said, should be economically dominant in American society. To disagree is, in Fox’s Doug Schoen’s words, to invite “catastrophic” consequences that “could undermine our social order.”

For Erickson, it’s just “science” – it’s not his fault the facts are so misogynistic. “Reality,” he argued, shows that his opinions are “the truth.”

It doesn’t, but Ed Kilgore has a more useful approach:

If people like Erickson actually do, as they often say they do, believe human civilization itself is being ruined by feminism and its failure to understand that women need to stay home and raise the chirruns, what do they intend to do about it, other than resisting any government initiatives that might make it a bit easier for those rebellious women to reject their biologically determined destinies? I mean, seriously: the private sector can be counted on to provide a pretty significant level of discouragement to those benighted women who “try to have it all,” but it’s not like we’re in the early days of Mad Men; businesses desperately need the full workforce participation of women, and most understand that. So what’s the positive public policy agenda for misogynists these days? Making abortion and contraception as difficult to obtain as is possible is a given, I guess. Maintaining a tax code that offers higher child tax credits and lower (or perhaps zero) earned income tax credits probably also makes sense.

But if you are a conservative misogynist who doesn’t believe in using government to achieve desired social means any more than is necessary, it gets tough after that.

Think about it:

After all, many women are in the work force instead of staying home to be “full-time moms” not because they are lacking the beneficent servant-leadership of a man, but because the menfolk can’t earn enough to support a family alone. An economy characterized by high and growing inequality isn’t terribly conducive to large families and stay-at-home mothers outside the very privileged classes. And anyone saying “it used to work” might want to consider the kind of collective bargaining agreements, minimum wage laws, and subsidized housing arrangements we “used to have” – back before we all understood that those items were socialistic and hence un-American.

To put it most obviously, you can’t have the family structure of the 1950s without the economy of the 1950s, and few conservatives want that at all.

There’s something else going on here:

Suffice it to say that for all the bluster, I strongly suspect conservative misogynists (and I use that term precisely, because there are conservatives who aren’t misogynists and misogynists who aren’t conservative) prefer a situation where women aren’t really forced back into the home and men aren’t really paid well enough to support a wife and kids, but where inequality can perpetually be excused and male privilege perpetually exalted – and men feel free to go on Fox News and act like early Mad Men.

It is all bluster. It really is militant nostalgia, but without purpose. Ah well, no one knows what the Tea Party folks want either – other than not this. But this is what we have. Too much happened too fast for them, but it did happen, which means there’s no reason to consider their arguments, until they choose to see the world as it is. It’s nostalgia that’s for losers.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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