Nostalgia in the Time of Cholera

I remember… let’s say a few years ago, when I was 14 or 15, and a history teacher mentioned in class that Wagner inspired the Nazis. Even though I’ve never read Wagner, at that time, I was familiar enough with various European legends to know that, in the legend of Fafnir and other Norse mythologies from which Wagner stole, “Goose-stepping and death camps” had relatively few, if any, mentions. My teacher told me, “Billie, I think Hitler read a little too much into those stories.” Which was confusing for a whole host of reasons, not least of which is that my name isn’t William. But I digress; as I tend to do; I asked a question to satisfy my curiosity about a specific subject or factoid that would’ve required a lengthy lecture that would be beyond the whole, “Here’s a rough, teenager-friendly timeline of fascism” class.

What my teacher didn’t explain that subsequent history professors and courses did, is that there is no such thing as off-the-rack, universal fascism (there are certain, broad-strokes universal traits of fascism, such as disdain for education and due process, and obsession with crime and punishment, but European fascism does not look like fascism in Zimbabwe which doesn’t look like Dear Leader’s brand of 180-characters-or-less fascism). The common promise of fascism is, “Our best days are behind us, in the distant past, but we can somehow get back there if you quietly let us kill your neighbors and cling to power.” Everyone’s idea of a golden, distant past is a largely cultural-construct, and only minorities are immune to it, because we know, based on our own experience, that the past sucks. In my own case, even within my own lifetime, brain cancer survivors weren’t a thing until 1989, at the earliest. My black friends have no desire to return to 90’s levels of hyper-incarceration. My leftist friends recall that even the halcyon days of the 60’s and 70’s had the dangers of Vietnam and protester-killing kops. Most of us know on an existential level, that the past was horrible, and, despite modern problems like global climate change and Reddit, we’re usually better off. To bring this back to Wagner; he created an historically inaccurate, false narrative of Nordic-Teutonic history (even though most of history consists of one group killing the other, in turn) that appealed to citizens of the Weimar Republic, and Hitler borrowed liberally from that mythology and lexicon to create the illusion of a “master race” (Side-note: Why is it that people who claim to represent genetic perfection inevitably have terrible hair and questionable fashion taste?).

America has always flirted with overt fascism (we’ve been a covert fascist state for at least a century or two, but at least our political leadership had the basic decency to pretend that fascism was bad and should be avoided), but, this year, the year God Abandoned Humanity, our collective Annus Horribilis, 2020, fascism finally made good on its promise and returned us to the past. Unchecked infectious disease? Creeping fascism disguised as populism? Complex, multifactorial international problems requiring a nuanced, equally-multifaceted approach to solutions? Industrialized nations teetering on the brink of disaster as their demand for natural resources outstrips supply? Pollution? Lack of public health expertise? A widening chasm between the hyper-rich and the other 95% of the population? Enormous nautical disasters involving cruise ships? I’ve described both 2020 and 1920. Seriously, all that’s missing are the coal-mining jobs. Not to worry, I’m sure some moron who’s binged on Happy Days will tell us that those are coming back, ignore the black lung and melting ice caps. The point is, for the first time I know of, fascism (or fascism-lite, as I call it) finally delivered on its promise to take us back to a previous, bygone era. Hell, we even started a branch of the military to protect us from space pirates (pragmatists such as myself might point out that we can’t even get Somali pirates in line, so stopping pirates with warp capability would be a bit of a stretch). Here’s the good news: we also got to see why there is no going back. We’re now a majority-minority country, so, to white, heteronormative, abled America, take it from a cripple; the past is horrible, and if you feel nostalgic, that should be tempered with the bittersweet revelation that the past is horrible. If you think spending nine months indoors is hard, we can talk about 14th century Italy (which is also the last time any major road repairs were completed in that country), and why we don’t want to return to feudalism as a socioeconomic system. Speaking of which, maybe we can discuss how the current economic disparities were kicked into high-gear by dismantling labor’s political and economic power in the 80’s and 90's.

My central point is; any time some moron steps onto a debate stage and gets nostalgic for Gone with the Wind, they need to immediately talk about how very many Confederate generals were ardent about owning other people, and what Sherman did to Georgia. For the ISIS folks who want to return to a Golden Age caliphate, we need to immediately point out that they were conquered a short time later by the Mongolian Empire. In short, we can not claim any sort of love for a bygone era without also discussing why no one in their right mind wants to return to those eras.

These are important lessons to take into the next election cycle, because, inevitably, the winning team in every election in America seems to be the folks who can identify which flavor of nostalgia appeals to the greatest segment of the body politic, and then hammer that home. Even though I’m getting more excited about a Biden-Harris Administration the more I learn, I will admit that the man won by appealing to the golden era of 2015, when we didn’t have leadership that started the day with a half-kilo of uncut Bolivian blow who then attempted to legislate via Twit (even ignoring the basic fact that separation of powers is enshrined in the Constitution and one of the basic principles of American government, you can not solve global warming by typing in all-caps, “GLACIERS MELTING. ANIMALS DYING. INCREASED NOVEL DISEASES SPREAD FROM WILD ANIMALS. BAD.”). Again, I’m getting more excited each day about the new administration, but they didn’t exactly run on the revolutionary platform of, “The rich have had a great run for the past… well, always. Amazon will now belong to the workers who run it.” Both parties — and America, in general — need to stop celebrating our past glories, right now, because it makes the entire system more-vulnerable to fascist infiltration, which, let me check with 2018, is very bad. Or, at least, we should institute some sort of equal-time clause, wherein every nitwit who points out how great the 1950s were, will be required to comment on the mass, legalized systemic racism and sexism of that time in the very next sentence. This will require all politicians to get a cursory knowledge of civics and history, and serve to remind voters that political time machines are not a viable solution. Again, if you dislike the current dangers and problems posed by the epidemic, pretend it’s that golden era of 1951 (the year before Salk started developing the polio vaccine, widely-considered the first modern vaccine), forego your COVID vaccination, and die a preventable death, like every other person who wasn’t born into wealth and privilege. Or, suck it up, admit that the past isn’t quite the golden age of purity Newt Gingrich claims it is, and join us in the 21st century.

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Science journalist, cancer survivor, biomedical consultant, the “Wednesday Addams of travel writers.”

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