A bad week for nostalgia

It was April and I was out (by your leave, Mayor Bowser) on my evening constitutional down Embassy Row. Weeks of near-zero traffic had cleansed the Washington air. Deer gambolled over the asphalt they once shyly probed. Only the Borg-like cube of the Brazilian mission spoke of the 20th century, let alone this one. Rock Creek Park seemed poised to overrun the built environment, as though in emulation of some Thomas Cole landscape.

How I hated it. More precisely, I hated the celebration of such scenes around the urbanised world. A year of no real hardship for me has been distressing in just one respect: the rise of a smarmy kind of anti-modernity, as much among liberals as the forces of reaction. They have taken this moment to “reflect”, you see, on the “rat race”. They sense a chance to restore the Arcadia before mass air transit and just-in-time manufacturing.

The pandemic teased this nostalgia out of people but it was already there in other forms. That vein of journalism we might call Millennial Grousings has much of use to say about generational asset inequities. But it can be credulous about how good the boomers had it, before the rubella vaccine and the MRI scan, before the drop in the marginal cost of communication to essentially zero.

Looking back, the years leading up to the pandemic were full of this stuff. Steven Pinker showed that life was getting quantifiably better and was not forgiven his impudence. “Against Modern Football” became a movement whose twee view of the past glossed over the death-trap stadia and the swindled players. As for the remorseless proliferation of costume dramas, it serviced the weirdest nostalgia of all: that for periods we did not even live through.

It has been natural in recent years to fear rightwing opponents of modernity. But nominal progressives are also given to a soft-headed ambivalence about human development. It was the Romantics, not just bovine gentry, who cursed the industrial revolution and thought a rainbow was sullied if it was explained. It is the liberal left who give Pinker the hardest ride. A recurring character in the work of Ian McEwan is the metropolitan kook, pious in their quackery, immersed in high-tech life as they vaguely chide its hollowness. By rendering them so sweetly, he implies that a fool is no less dangerous for meaning well.

It is important to argue systematically against nostalgia. But for now it is more effective to point to the news. This has been one of Lenin’s “weeks where decades happen”. The UK became the first government to approve Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine. Through artificial intelligence, we are also further along in our quest to fathom the structure of proteins. An unknowable number of extended and improved lives will be traced back to the events of the past several days.

This is a coup for science, yes, but also for the modern world itself. The global market for labour, the vast profit-seeking corporation, the technocratic state: all of these arrived about two seconds ago in the history of our species. All are contentious. And all intersected to produce an answer to a novel virus within a year of its still-mysterious emergence.

There was a phase in the spring when the pandemic was all but discussed as modernity’s comeuppance (as though the Black Death did not slightly precede the jet age). It seems that we will end the year with the opposite epiphany. Plagues happen in any era and only this one could have contained the effects as well as it did. Even aside from the vaccine, supply chains in food and most other goods withstood a once-in-a-century shock with almost eerie smoothness.

Anyone who would swap the present for much earlier than a generation or two ago has not thought seriously about the proposition. And still that sentiment is inescapable. The idea of our world as post-Fall, of the past as Eden, passes for wisdom. It beguiles the UK’s next sovereign, a pastoral romantic, but also righteous urbanites, babbling this year about the chance to “reset”. Something to be grateful for, I suppose, that only nostalgia defies inoculation.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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