Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Bengal Famine Commemorative Tea Towel

Keep Calm and Click On It, you know you want to.  But maybe not; I suppose and hope this meme has passed its sell-by date by now.

I'm reading The Ministry of Nostalgia by Owen Hatherley, published earlier this year by Verso, and so far it's very good.  (An excerpt here; you can order the book directly from the publisher, including the e-book at about half what it would cost from Amazon.)  Among other things, I've learned where the original Keep Calm poster came from (the British propaganda ministry in 1939, but it was never used officially, and only surfaced at the end of the twentieth century.  Hatherley also discusses "hauntology," an ambivalent alt-music subgenre mixing nostalgia with anxiety that sounds interesting.  And to give credit where it's due, I stole the title of this post from page 72.

But what I want to write about today is a thought that occurred to me soon after I began reading The Ministry of Nostalgia.  There is a lot of nostalgia (or "amnesia turned around," as the poet Adrienne Rich called it) for the World War II period, in the US no less than in the UK.  It occurred to me how odd this is, when the nostalgia is expressed (as it often is) by people who see government as a danger to freedom.  The war years were a time of Big Government on joy juice: enforced conformism on a scale that you only see in that kind of war, with censorship, rationing of food and other goods, wage and price controls, limitations on union activity, and a general disregard for individual freedom in the name of a greater collectivist good. Winston Churchill had to cope with looting by civilians and by officials during the Blitz.  Of course it was also a time of resistance, with black markets in consumer goods, complaints (however muffled and cautious) about restrictions on travel, and profiteering by business and individuals when they could get away with it.

Which reminds me that the genuine threat of external danger didn't entirely stop people or organizations from looking for someone they could bully and attack at home.  For example, Manning Marable wrote in his biography of Malcolm X (Viking Press, 2011),
In response to blacks' modest gains in employment [in the 1930s and 40s], thousands of white workers participated in "hate strikes" during the war years, especially in skilled positions. In July 1943, for example, white racists briefly paralyzed part of Baltimore's Bethlehem Shipyards. In August the following year, white streetcar drivers in Philadelphia, outraged at the assignment of eight black motormen, staged a six-day strike. In response, Roosevelt dispatched five thousand troops and issued an executive order placing the streetcar company under army control [56].
To say nothing of the Detroit race riots, also in 1943, when white thugs ran wild for three days, killing 25 African-Americans and doing millions of dollars' worth of damage. (Seventeen of the blacks were killed by police; none of the nine whites who died were killed by police.)  Time magazine's retrospective account is interesting:
As a matter of fact, the Axis propaganda machine predictably jumped all over the news of America’s 1943 race riots, citing them as evidence of a corrupt, weak and fatally divided culture. (A few years later, of course, that corrupt, weak, fatally divided culture emerged from the war victorious and more powerful than any other single nation on the planet.)
That victorious, powerful culture remained fiercely racist and imperialist, both in policy and in popular attitudes.  But Time had to wave the flag after criticizing the rabble in Detroit (and in Texas, Alabama, and California) for giving aid and comfort to the enemy; they wouldn't want to go too far.

My point here is not so much the unreliability of nostalgia, which isn't exactly news, but that people who indulge in it are longing for a time they'd have hated to live in, and to some extent they're aware of it.  The culprits in England include the supposedly anti-government Thatcherites (though Thatcher was all for repression on her terms).  The Bush administration, like the Johnson administration planning its war in Vietnam, knew full well that it couldn't prosecute the War on Terror by asking Americans to make economic sacrifices -- indeed, Dubya urged Americans to do their part by shopping.  As Hatherley shows, the austerity of the war years is very different from the austerity we are being asked to accept today.

More to my point, Hatherley spends a lot of time on austerity nostalgia among the Left, though it's not uncontested there.  Hatherley quotes Perry Anderson's critique of the leftist historian E. P. Thompson:
Anderson claimed that when looking at the working class of the present, Thompson could see only that of the past: 'the divorce between his intimacy and concord with the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and his distance and lack of touch with the second half of the 20th century, is baffling.  It is a divorce that is evidently rooted deep in the sensibility'.  The composition of the working class - who they are, what they do for a living, where the political fault lines might lie -- is increasingly ignored, in favor of a vague, windy imprecise notion of 'The People' -- and 'who the "common people" are is never said.  They exist only as figments in this moralistic rhetoric.  The fact that the majority of the population in England in this period voted consistently for Conservative governments is brushed aside' [49-50].
We have the same problem in the US, where the phrase "We the People," used all across the political spectrum as if it were a single word, always makes me wary.  The cult of Woody Guthrie is, I think, an example of leftish austerity nostalgia here, epitomized by Bruce Springsteen in my generation.  (In England, the singer Billy Bragg recorded a couple of albums of Guthrie's lyrics with tunes Bragg supplied.  Hatherley mentions Bragg as an "early adopter of austerity nostalgia in the 1980s," who in his memoir The Progressive Patriot "did not flirt with racism in the way that many of these writers have done; the 'patriotism' that he refers to was that of tolerance and multiculturalism" (37).  Compare the attempts of many American liberals, progressives and others to reclaim patriotism for the Good Guys "without [as Hatherley says of their British counterparts] partaking in any of the 'sad passions' that actually makes much of the right's politics so powerful -- resentment, hatred, bitterness" (38).

So, halfway through The Ministry of Nostalgia, I'm enjoying it and very pleased.  It's polemical and very quotable but still properly sensitive to ambiguity.  Someone should do a similar book about the same syndrome here in the US.