According to Mark Lilla (THE SHIPWRECKED MIND), “Apocalyptic historiography never goes out of style. Today’s American conservatives have perfected a popular myth of how the nation emerged from World War II strong and virtuous, only to become a licentious society governed by a menacing secular state after the [catastrophe] of the Sixties.”
Mr. Lilla has this to say about such myth-making, which tends to occur in the wake of historical “cataclysms for which no rationalization seems adequate and no consolation seems possible”:
In response an apocalyptic view of history develops that sees a rip in time that widens with each passing year, distancing us from an age that was golden or heroic or simply normal. In this vision there really is only one event in history, the Kairos separating the world we were meant for from the world must live in. That is all we can know, and must know, about the past.
Apocalyptic history itself has a history, which stands as a record of human despair. The expulsion from Eden, the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the crucifixion of Jesus, the sack of Rome, the murders of Hussein and Ali, the Crusades, the fall of Jerusalem, the Reformation, the fall of Constantinople, the English Civil Wars, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, World War I, the Russian Revolution, the abolition of the caliphate, the Palestinian Nakba, ‘the Sixties,’ September 11—all these events have been inscribed in collective memory as definitive breaches in history. For the apocalyptic imagination, the present, not the past, is a foreign country. That is why it is so inclined to dream of a second event that will blow open the doors of paradise. Its attention is fixed on the horizon as it awaits the Messiah, the Revolution, the Leader, or the end of time itself. Only an apocalypse can save us now: in the face of catastrophe this morbid conviction can appear to be simple common sense. But throughout history it has also provoked extravagant hopes that were inevitably disappointed, leaving those who held them even more desolate. The doors to the Kingdom remained shut, and all that was left was memory of defeat, destruction, and exile. And fantasies of the world we have lost.
I believe it was Andrew Sullivan who wrote that all conservatism begins with loss; and since loss is both genuine and unavoidable in this life, a conservatism which reminds us of what we have lost—and which cautions us of what we might yet lose—is a necessary element of our politics. An ideology of nostalgia, on the other hand (what might be called “weaponized nostalgia”), is of no use to anyone; and the notion that it is somehow noble to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” is as misguided now as it was sixty years ago when William F. Buckley proposed it as the purpose of American conservatism.
“We want our country back!” demand the right-wing populists. The real tragedy is not that the country they want back is long gone and that the rest of us have bid it good riddance; it’s that it never existed—at least the way they remember it—in the first place.