Yuval Levin has done a great service by showing how nostalgia blinds. And that malady affects both the left and the right in America today.
The truth is, usually, that things are always getting better and worse. And when we long for the past, we can’t help but idealize it. Still, nostalgia, in my own opinion, has its uses. I’m all for a rigorously selective form of nostalgia, and that kind of nostalgia, practiced by our most astute social critics, is less blinding than liberating.
The best book on democracy and the best book on America, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, is pretty much a handbook on that kind of nostalgia. Tocqueville is famous for presenting aristocratic criticisms of democracy and democratic criticisms of aristocracy. He makes it clear that there’s no go back to premodern aristocracies, and that’s basically a good thing. The democratic gains when it comes to technological progress and egalitarian justice are innnovations no one would really surrender. And, in any case, aristocracy is the strong senseincluding the aristocratic features of the philosophy of the Greeks and Romanswas bound to fade away over time in the face of the truthful Christian insight about the unique irreplaceability of every human person.
But the truth is aristocracy was strong where democracy was weak. And so Tocqueville recommends that the Americans destined for a literary career study those Greek and Roman writers in their original language. The intention is not some kind of return to those nasty, slave-ridden, and highly patriarchal places, but to remember what they knew and we do not. They knew, for example, that love and friendship trump technology and justice. And freedom isn’t “boundless autonomy” but shaped by the indispensable duties of citizens, parents, and (toward the end) creatures. They also knew that scienceor what we really knowisn’t most deeply about technology, but about discovering the truth about the strange and wonderful beings born to know, love, and die. Christianity does well to celebrate personal particularity, but the often promiscuous leveling of democracy and the techno-impersonality of both bureaucratization and mechanization erode the institutional contexts in which it’s possible to find authentic personal significance.
Agrarians, Front Porchers, traditionalists embracing the “Benedict option,” and so forth today rightly emphasize the cost to our relational lives that we pay for the displacements of high technology, “the screen,” and the various dimensions of globalization. And the longings they arouse in us for some kind of medieval village or Christianized Aristotelian polis can be authentic “learning experiences” if they cause us to think about the relational costs of the basically beneficial modern project. They help us situate the challenges of technology and economic growth as genuine trials to our free will. As Levin says, the basic challenge is to reconfigure relational life by both deploying and purposefully limiting the blessings of technology, our creative accomplishments that are, after all, wonderful revelations of what beings made in the image of the creative and relational God can do.
It’s not true, after all, that our progress has created a world where we can really be happy without being friends, citizens, parents, creatures, and so forth. Technological progress has lengthened lives and made each of us in many ways more secure, but it has also detached us from others in ways that have made us more obsessively security conscious. And the atrophying of relational lives has actually made it more difficult for us to be alone, and so we lose ourselves too readily in the disembodied worlds on the screen. The unhappiness of being “alone together” is, of course, a sign of hope. The raw material for relational institutionssurely, as Levin says, more decentralized and niche-y (as the screen itself, after all, facilitates)remains. And anyone with eyes to see can see the development of countervailing relational trends that, for example, new forms of screen-based “working from home” make possible. Among more prosperous and/or educated Americans, the family is actually getting a bit more stable, as careerist couples get less blinded by romantic illusions and more centered on the shared responsibility of lovingly raising a couple of kids.
Free-market conservatives, such as those who often write for the Wall Street Journal, make the error of saying that all we need to do is cut taxes and deregulate and the growth stimulated by “job creators” will somehow obliterate all our pesky relational issuesthose connected with pathological families, the exploding number of single moms, seeming superfluous men, and so forth. Well, there’s no denying economic growth will help in some respects, but a bit of selective nostalgia shows its limits.
Conservatives, for example, would do well to have selective nostalgia for industrial unions. They made possible “family wages” for those doing ordinary, or not particularly “cognitive” tasks indispensable for production. Work may have been boring and sometimes even degrading. But dignity was found in the lives it made possible with family and friends away from work. Fifty years ago in our country the biggest employer was General Motors, and guys on the assembly line made the equivalent of $50 an hour today with job security and excellent benefits. Today our biggest employer is Walmart, where the compensation average $10 an hour with minimal or no benefits and no real job security.
Liberals are blinded by nostalgia when they believe that it’s possible to restore the world of unionization. It depended on an American dominanceor absence of real competitorsof the global marketplace that will not return. Any scheme to somehow protect what remains of American industry will be counterproductive and just won’t work. Liberals are also somewhat blind to ways that the extravagant demands of unions undermined American competitiveness and were a cause of “outsourcing.” American unions will continue to wither away, and on balance might well be more good than not.
But conservatives really can’t say that the resulting new birth of freedom has been good for the dignified relational lives of ordinary Americas. In general, we live in a time where the competitive imperatives of the twenty-first century marketplace are eroding the safety nets on which we have come to dependfrom our government entitlements to pensions to employer and employee loyalty to responsible local leadership. We can say that while being fully appreciative of the benefits of technological progress for ordinary lives, from extended life expectancy to the democratic worlds of the screen. In the latter case, everyone has access to the wisdom of the ages and all the wonders of today’s world that once were reserved for a privileged few, just as everyone has access to mindless games or addictive porn. There’s no particular reason why churches, for example, can’t step up to fill the relational void, just as there’s no reason why ordinary lives will drift inevitably in the direction of idiocracy. To this extent Pope Francis is right: The Church has to reconfigure its mission to a world of broken families and all forms of unfortunate personal detachment. That doesn’t mean it should be about surrendering any part of its ennobling civilizational mission. It should be as moral and relationalor, in a techno-democratic world, as counterculturalas ever.
We should have selective nostalgia for unions, just as we should have the same for the vital and deeply judgmental parishes of the fifties with their affordable parochial schools. We don’t want to restore lost worlds, but we should want to appropriate what was good about themand only what was good about themfor our time.