Racism and Nostalgia

Some people have no use for nostalgia and others can’t live without it – probably because their life peaked-out in their senior year in high school. It’s been all downhill since then – a bit of college, reluctantly settling for the safe but boring career, and the house in the suburbs, the wife and kids, the bills and all the rest. There were the dreams, but those dreams were never going to come true anyway. Nope, you weren’t going to be a writer in Paris or sit in with Miles Davis, or drive at Indy or hit that homerun in the World Series. You know that now. There was that one good year, when everything was possible, and then the walls closed in. And now there’s just Facebook, the shadow high school, with all the baby boomers reconnecting with each other after all the long years. On Facebook everyone’s perpetually eighteen. There no one knows you’re now old and fat and, all in all, rather boring. Some choose to live there. That’s all that’s left.

But nostalgia can be problematic for those of us who grew up in the fifties and hit high school in the mid-sixties. What was it like to be a ten-year-old in 1957 in a tract suburb just north of Pittsburgh? Was that a great time? It’s hard to remember, other than remembering wanting to grow up and get out. But cars had big fins and steady and calm Dwight Eisenhower was president, not that anyone really noticed. Eisenhower just got things done, somehow, while everyone else was watching Ed Sullivan on Sunday night and, each week, Ozzie and Harriet. The world was white-bread calm and middle-class prosperous. That was a good time in America. The unsettling sixties were yet to come. But it was boring.

And it’s odd to be living in Hollywood now. Those icons of fifties culture, Ozzie and Harriet, actually lived a few blocks east – you can see their house from the window here – and Rickie and David went to Hollywood High of course, just down the street. But these are not the Eisenhower years and no one now even remembers the Nelsons. The tour busses roll down the streets with the tourists up top, hoping to see Paris Hilton get arrested again. The past is gone.

But for a certain segment of the population that is a real problem. And the quite pleasant and affable conservative Reihan Salam explains that problem in his latest column:

One thing that is undeniably true is that American conservatives are overwhelmingly white in a country that is increasingly less so. As the number of Latinos and Asian-Americans has increased in coastal states like California, New York and New Jersey, many white Americans from these regions have moved inland or to the South. For at least some whites, particularly those over the age of fifty, there is a sense that the country they grew up in is fading away, and that Americans with ancestors from Mexico or, as in my case, Bangladesh, don’t share their religious, cultural and economic values. These white voters are looking for champions, for people who are unafraid to fight for the America they remember and love. It’s unfair to call this sentiment racist. But it does help explain at least some of our political divide.

Reihan Salam was on MSNBC explaining this idea that there’s a difference between racism and nostalgia – that these really aren’t bad folks – and that seems plausible. But Matthew Yglesias isn’t buying it – “Reihan Salam says that cranky old white conservative nostalgics aren’t racists they’re just white people who are nostalgic for a whiter, more racist America.” And for Yglesias this is a matter of social-cultural-political history.

In fact this reminds Yglesias of House Speaker John Boehner’s explicitly expressed view that the problem with President Obama is was that he and the 111th Congress were “snuffing out the America that I grew up in.”

And Mike Tomasky argued at the time that this was in many ways an odd statement – the America that John Boehner grew up in, which would be the fifties and sixties, was in many respects, as Yglesias notes, “a much more statist and left-wing America.” Yglesias points to dramatically higher top marginal income tax rates, and much less income inequality, and much higher and now unthinkable levels of unionization. And it was a much more regulated America – “Prices for all kinds of goods and services were set by government commissions. A bank in Maryland couldn’t open a branch in Virginia or Delaware.”

Mike Tomasky put it this way:

Boehner was born in November 1949. Let’s take a look at the America he grew up in.

In the America John Boehner grew up in, the top marginal tax rate on wealthy earners was 90%. It had gone up there during the war, and five, 10, 15 years after armistice, no sizable group, Democrat or Republican, felt any strong urge to lower it.

In the America John Boehner grew up in, private-sector union membership was around or above 30%. Today’s figure is 7%. The right to form a union was broadly accepted. Outside of a few small turbulent pockets, there was no such thing as today’s union-busting law firms hired by management to go into workplaces and intimidate workers.

And then there was a Republican president, that calm Eisenhower fellow, saying stuff like this:

Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes that you can do these things. Among them are a few Texas oil millionaires, and an occasional politician or businessman from other areas. Their number is negligible and they are stupid.

And Tomasky at the time added this:

Interesting, that mention of unemployment insurance, the week after a “majority” of 40 Republicans in the Senate (plus one Democrat) managed to block the will of 57 Democrats and cut off such benefits for 1.2 million Americans.

In the America John Boehner grew up in, when little Johnny was just starting school in fact, the federal government undertook the largest public works project in the country’s history, the interstate highway system. It cost $100 billion dollars, a little more. The feds picked up 90% of the tab, and it was paid largely through dedicated taxes.

In the America John Boehner grew up in, the Republican Party was a moderate-to-conservative party. The modern conservative movement was just coming to life – in Bill Buckley’s offices in Manhattan, on the campus of Notre Dame University, in Orange County, California. But many establishment Republicans considered these people a bunch of dangerous kooks.

Obviously these points don’t represent the sum and substance of the 1950s, and there were ways in which the period was more conservative than ours. But if Boehner really wants to go back: fine, let’s start negotiations.

And Yglesias added this:

But of course in many other respects the America of John Boehner’s youth was a much more right-wing country. Gays and lesbians were stuffed deep into the closet, and there was no suggestion that they should be allowed to serve openly in the military or in any other role. African-Americans were subjected to pervasive discrimination in housing and employment, and in the southern states they couldn’t vote or exercise any basic rights – all this backed by the state, and also by collusion between state authorities and ad hoc terrorist groups. It was a whiter country with dramatically fewer residents of Asian or Latin American descent. It was a more religiously observant country, and it was a country in which Jews were far from fully accepted into American life.

I’m not nostalgic for that era at all. There are a few areas of policy in which I think we’ve moved backwards since the mid-sixties, but I wouldn’t want to return to an America with almost no immigrants or to an America with a single monopoly provider of telecom services. I’m glad airlines can set their own ticket prices and I’m glad black people can sit in the front of the bus. What is it that Boehner misses?

And now Yglesias adds more:

John Boehner was born in 1949. Does he feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in? For the much larger labor union share of the workforce? The threat of global nuclear war?

It’s difficult for me to evade the conclusion that on an emotional level, conservative nostalgics like Boehner are primarily driven by regret at the loss of social privilege by white men. In Boehner’s defense, I often hear white male progressives express nostalgia for the lost America of the 1950s and 1960s and think to myself “a black person or a woman wouldn’t put it like that.”

But progressive nostalgics do at least have the high-tax, union-dominated economy and egalitarian income distribution as the things they like. But from a non-bigoted conservative point of view, what is there really to miss about the America John Boehner grew up it? The tax rates were high, but at least they didn’t let Jews into the country club?

Maybe nostalgia is not at all the same thing as racism – there are too many moving parts, including Ozzie and Harriet and young Rickie and his brother David – but it’s in there, and a rather big part of the mix.

But Isaac Chotiner says he would phrase it a little differently:

Let’s be generous and say that nostalgic conservatives are not driven by the regret Yglesias notes, but are rather longing for other, less problematic aspects of the past. My question for Salam is this: how racially insensitive does one have to be to prefer an America with segregation because he or she saw other advantages to 1950s society? What possibly could outweigh the disgusting racial status quo of the 1950s? (I am leaving out the status of women and gays.) To wish for a return to that America, I would argue, one has to be so racially insensitive that bigoted seems like an apt descriptor. The alternative answer, of course, is complete solipsism.

And up the coast out here the Berkeley economics guru Brad DeLong – at his blog Grasping Reality with Both Hands – lets it rip:

Reihan Salam, I think, lives in a fantasy world.

Consider the self-image of the Republican right. They regard themselves as a chosen people, an elect: aggressive, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, wanting to climb the ladder, upwardly mobile, intolerant of niggling laws and regulations that take away their freedom and keep them doing what it is their right to do to better themselves.

So what group in America today best fits that self-image? What group in America today ought to be the darlings of the Republican right?

Yep. You guessed it. Illegal immigrants from Mexico. They really are aggressive, entrepreneurial, risk-taking, wanting to climb the ladder, upwardly mobile, intolerant of niggling laws and regulations that take away their freedom and keep them doing what it is their right to do to better themselves.

But the Republican right does not love them. It does not embrace them. It does not even dislike them. It hates them. It loathes them. Why? Because they are brown. Because they do not speak English well.

That may be unfair – something only conveyed by words and deeds and tone and substance. Maybe some of their best friends are Mexicans. But Delong doesn’t think so:

Reihan Salam lives in a fantasy world – not there is anything wrong with that. If he works hard enough and is persuasive enough, maybe he will someday create a Sam’s Club Republican Party, a Republican Party in which illegal immigrants from Mexico are the darlings of the right-wing evangelical Republican churches that will offer them sanctuary, in which Republican opposition to the Civil Rights Act is genuinely based in a fear of government overreach rather than in a cold, cruel calculation that sacrificing the rights of African-Americans is worth doing if it leads to Republican electoral dominance.

And pigs may fly, or as DeLong puts it:

I am not holding my breath. But the task is worth attempting. And it can only be attempted by somebody living in a fantasy world.

And that brings us to Sheriff Joe Arpaio – the Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona with his decades-long crusade to rid Arizona of anyone even vaguely Hispanic. Arizona’s SB-1070 anti-illegal immigration act made him grin. And WorldNetDaily broke the news that he “has agreed to examine evidence challenging the validity of Barack Obama’s purported long-form birth certificate in a determination of the president’s eligibility for the 2012 election ballot.”

Yes, there is the effort – still chugging along – to declare Obama was NOT born in America and thus make sure he cannot be on the ballot in Arizona. The item even had a picture of Arpaio with Jerome Corsi, the author of that book Where’s the Birth Certificate? The Case That Barack Obama Is Not Eligible To Be President – but even Governor Jan Brewer is smart enough to reject the whole thing now. Yes, the president released his original birth certificate, to complement the first perfectly legally valid one he released years ago – but here we go again. Is this racism, or just being careful, or what Reihan Salam would call simple nostalgia?

But you know who is behind this:

Arpaio told the tea-party leaders that he expects political pressure, but he pointed out that as the chief law enforcement officer of Maricopa County, he’s taken an oath to respond to citizens who approach him about enforcing the law.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Justin Griffin confirmed to WND that Arpaio is “waiting to receive all the documentation and all the investigative material from Dr. Jerry Corsi, and then he will look into the matter and compare it to the Arizona revised statutes.”

Ah, the Tea Party – old white folks who peaked-out in high school in 1964 or so. But now even the sheriff is having second thoughts:

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has denied that he “promised” Tea Party leaders in Arizona to investigate the validity of Barack Obama’s long-form birth certificate to determine the president’s eligibility for the 2012 election ballot.

Hey, nostalgia for the white-bread days of the fifties in America – when no one could even imagine a black man becoming president, of all things – can get you in trouble.

And who are the nostalgic Tea Party folks even Sheriff Joe Arpaio stepped back from? Well, it seems that in 2006, Robert Putnam and David Campbell began a research project on political attitudes that included interviewing a nationally representative sample of three thousand Americans. They then went back to talk to the same people over this summer. “As a result,” they explain, “we can look at what people told us, long before there was a Tea Party, to predict who would become a Tea Party supporter five years later.”

And this is what they found:

Early on, Tea Partiers were often described as nonpartisan political neophytes. Actually, the Tea Party’s supporters today were highly partisan Republicans long before the Tea Party was born, and were more likely than others to have contacted government officials. In fact, past Republican affiliation is the single strongest predictor of Tea Party support today.

What’s more, contrary to some accounts, the Tea Party is not a creature of the Great Recession. Many Americans have suffered in the last four years, but they are no more likely than anyone else to support the Tea Party. And while the public image of the Tea Party focuses on a desire to shrink government, concern over big government is hardly the only or even the most important predictor of Tea Party support among voters.

So what do Tea Partiers have in common? They are overwhelmingly white, but even compared to other white Republicans, they had a low regard for immigrants and blacks long before Barack Obama was president, and they still do.

Even compared to other white Republicans? That’s some serious nostalgia there. Or it’s something else, no matter what Reihan Salam says. Maybe you should call a spade a spade – referring only to cards of course.

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.
This entry was posted in Race and America, Racism Lives On, The Fifties and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Racism and Nostalgia

  1. Ray McInnis says:

    Another good one, Alan. In truth, I haven’t been reading you posts lately, because of other activities, but today, when I noticed the heading, couldn’t help but take a look.

    “The world was white-bread calm and middle-class prosperous.”

    I do disagree a little with your characterization, repeated above, about the ’50s. Along with the 1920s, the ’50s is one of the pivotal decades of the 20th century. TV, televangelism, rock-and-roll, an economic engine fueled by WW II, the GI Bill, a housing boom, a population boom, and the birth control pill (1960), among many other things, taken together, created a huge wave of social change that began unfolding in the ’60s and still carries on. Until 1964, conservatives pretty well watched helplessly, but then, when they caught on in the ’80s, calculated on how to manage to have greater sway in national affairs. Today, we see how their calculus paid off.

    Ray McInnis

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