History without the guilt: nostalgic patriotism

Another month, another UKIP leader. Now it is Paul Nuttall, the 39-year-old Member of European Parliament, who takes the reins of the UK Independence Party with 62.6% of the leadership vote.

UKIP gained international prominence earlier this year as a key player in Britain’s EU referendum, arguing that a vote to leave was a vote for British sovereignty and pride. Nuttall clearly intends to continue the party’s patriotic rhetoric under his leadership, promising to ‘make UKIP the patriotic voice of working people’ and to ‘put the Great back into Britain.’

The last point is interesting, as it is reminiscent of Trump’s stateside vow to ‘Make America Great Again’ (for more on Trump’s patriotism, see our 4th November article). The president-elect’s promise itself echoes earlier White House bids, such as John Kerry’s 2004 ‘Let America be America again’ and Gerald Ford’s 1976 ‘He’s making us proud again.’

‘Again’? Why, when it comes to patriotism, is there often an unmistakable sense that the best is in the past?

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For starters, nostalgia is more common than you might think; it’s deeply entrenched in humanity. The word was coined in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, a Swiss doctor trying to comprehend a host of symptoms exhibited by some of his patients, including ‘a lifeless and haggard countenance,’ ‘indifference towards everything’ and, intriguingly, ‘an ability to hear voices and see ghosts.’ (He also toyed with the term philopatridomania for the newly diagnosed condition, but that somehow failed to catch on.)

However, a belief that the grass used to be greener is evident long before the seventeenth century. The poetry of 11th century Ibn Hamdis is full of sadness for the Siciliy of his youth, ‘once inhabited by the noblest of people.’ We even find traces of its melancholy in the Iliad, when the Trojan hero Hector reminds his comrade Polydamus how, ‘in the old days,’ Troy was ‘famous the whole world over for its wealth of gold and bronze, but [now] our treasures are wasted out of our houses, and much goods have been sold away.’

Indeed, Hector’s entire worldview would have been shaped by the nostalgic Hellenic belief in the Ages of Man, which categorised time into a series of declining epochs, beginning a sinless Golden Age (‘when men of their own accord, without threat of punishment, without laws, maintained good faith and did what was right,’ recounted Ovid) to a Silver Age, Bronze Age and finally Iron Age – our present time – when ‘all manner of crime broke out; modesty, truth and loyalty fled.’

A similar pessimistic worldview is expressed in the Hindu cosmology, in which gargantuan world cycles are divided into eras, or yugas, starting with the glorious Krita Yuga and steadily sinking into the sinful present age, the Kali Yuga. In fact, a belief in a lost golden age is so common that it unites otherwise unrelated cultures, whether it is the Hebraic Garden of Eden, the Iranian land of Airyana Vaejo, the Incan myth of the Age of Viracocha or the ancient Egyptian fabled time of Zep Tepi. If there’s one thing the world can agree on, it seems, it’s that things aren’t what they used to be.

Now consider again those presidential slogans and their concern with restoring some lost glory. Consider the political atmosphere taking hold in parts of the United States and Europe, where strengthened nationalist movements are appealing to an unhappy, fearful nostalgia of those uncertain what globalisation will mean for their country. In France, the far-right National Front has promised to bring back a national currency; more worryingly, the Dutch Party for Freedom wants to turn the clocks back on Netherlands’ immigration policies and ‘de-Islamise’ the country.

‘Open markets and globalisation, combined with freer people movements across borders, has created a kind of mass nostalgia for sovereignty,’ summarises Katharine Murphy in The Guardian. ‘We want our country back,’ chimed a Brexit slogan, a touch more succinctly. Nostalgia is a rich vein to mine, and self-professed patriotic parties like UKIP are capitalising on it.

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There are a couple of reasons why patriotism and nostalgia can work so well together. Firstly, nostalgia is such a pervasive emotion that it is inevitable that it should seep into politics, just as it finds its way into so many other parts of life, from fashion and music (does anyone else think Bruno Mars is trying to channel the early 90s a little too hard?).

But it is also significant that patriotism spends a great deal of time trying to define nations and nationality. What does it mean to be French? What makes Malaysia special? Where do minorities fit into the national picture? In searching for the essence of a nation, whether it’s the American dream, the bulldog spirit or the Japanese kokutai, it’s inevitable that people will look backwards, drawing on traditions and institutions that have shaped the country’s history.

For some countries this is easier than others. The USA, with a very clear political founding, can easily draw on the narrative and documents of its fledgling independence to make confident appeals to ideas of ‘American’ freedom and tolerance. National symbols such as the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution have served as patriotic touchstones down the centuries, and continue to be relied upon to evoke the purpose of the American project.

Countries with a foggier genesis, however, have a trickier task. Take the English Democrats, a small nationalist party founded in 2002, ‘standing up for what made England great’ (there’s that past tense again). In their manifesto, after briefly attempting to define Englishness as ‘a communal identity and memory’ and ‘a sense of belonging,’ they admit that ‘our community, like others, has no easily defined boundaries.’ Yet they are happy to build their entire party on these shifting sands, regularly warning of ‘the deliberate subversion of English national culture and interests.’ National Questions contacted the English Democrats to get a clearer understanding of what they meant by Englishness, and (eventually) received the following explanation: ‘Tea, Fairplay, supporting the underdog, order, sportsmanship, justice, cricket, football, rugby, sense of humour, irony, Roast Dinners, Fish & Chips, Pubs.’ Depending on your taste, this list may be evocative, but it’s hardly inspiring; and as national symbols go, even the most optimistic British patriot would have a hard time equating the Declaration of Independence to fish and chips.

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But there are serious points to be made here. Firstly, nostalgic patriotism is not just the preserve of disillusioned old UKIP supporters – it’s the stuff of dangerous nationalist forces. Mussolini’s longing for the glories of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance may have been pure fantasy, but for a time it was compelling to millions of Italians. Similar implausible feats of historical memory are currently fuelling the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party in Greece (pretending to be ancient Sparta) and Erdogan’s Turkey (the Ottoman Empire).

Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, nostalgia in politics is perilous because it unfailingly presents the past in a flattering light. ‘Nostalgia … is essentially history without the guilt,’ writes historian Michael Kammen, and it is certainly true that patriotic parties are today breezily overlooking the less savoury aspects of their countries’ histories – sexism, racism and homophobia, say – irrespective of whether or not they condone such attitudes. It’s hard to revive a golden age if it never existed, after all.

Of course, patriotism can be infused with a sense of optimism and hope for the future. There have even been presidential slogans expressing such a belief. But as the West struggles to adjust to globalisation, with unpleasant consequences, optimism is presently in limited supply. A long time ago, James Madison could praise Americans for not suffering ‘a blind veneration for antiquity, for custom, or for names, to overrule the suggestions of their own good sense, the knowledge of their own situation, and the lessons of their own experience.’ Right now, we may feel less deserving of the acclaim.

Paul Nuttall may be comfortable appealing to a rosy memory of Britain’s past – to be fair, it’s perhaps the one thing uniting UKIP now that they’ve realised their goal of seeing the UK leave the EU. But as history – and not nostalgia – shows us, it’s a dangerous game to play.

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