Narrating the past is really about controlling the present direction, writes David Quinn
Is it a good or a bad thing to be nostalgic about the past? If the latter, then the Irish need not worry, because we are one of the least nostalgic countries in the world about our history according to a new international study.
The survey, called Global Trends 2021, conducted by IPSOS, includes countries as diverse as China, India, the US, Britain, Italy, Australia and Brazil.
Who would want to go back to that past? Only 24% of Chinese do”
A variety of statements were put to respondents, and they were asked if they agreed or disagreed with them. One of them was: “I would like my country to be the way it used to be”.
Only the Chinese were less likely than us to agree with that statement.
The Chinese, of course, have an excellent reason not to wish to return to the past. They were far more likely to be living in extreme poverty. That only began to change from the 1980s on. In addition, the country was in turmoil for decades. In the 20th Century, it had to contend with western imperialism, then an extremely violent Japanese invasion, then civil war, then the communist take-over, a man-made famine that killed millions followed by the ‘cultural revolution’ in which millions more lives were upended. This period of continual upheaval lasted right into the 1970s.
Who would want to go back to that past? Only 24% of Chinese do.
This compares with 82% of Thai people who prefer the way their country used to be, 78% of Nigerians and 74% of Indians.
These results are surprising to me. Those three countries are trying to climb out of poverty. Why would they be nostalgic for a poorer past? It is hard to know unless you have direct experience of those countries. Maybe they think life used to be simpler? Perhaps they are very disillusioned with their rulers?
In Ireland, 41% of people would prefer if we were the way we used to be, as against 49% who disagree.
Explaining why we don’t want to go back to the past is easy. We were poorer a few decades ago and many of us had to emigrate. In addition, we associate the past with the Catholic Church and the institutions and the scandals. Many of us regard ‘old Ireland’ as cruel, backward, priest-ridden, inward-looking and intolerant. Who would want to go back to that?
But despite the continually bleak way in which the past is depicted, 41% would prefer if things were the way they used to be, and that rises with age, meaning the people with direct experience of that time are the most likely to be nostalgic about it.
How is this possible? Surely older people above all should have bad memories of the past? Aren’t they the ones who saw friends and family emigrate, who lived through economic hardship, who saw the cruel attitudes and had some awareness of the institutions?
On the other hand, maybe they hanker for the deeper sense of community that existed then, the neighbourliness, the strong family bonds, the lack of violent crime, the fact that people were more polite to each other. They might believe that things were simpler, even though money was scarce. They might think that even though many of us have more money now, we have also become more materialistic. Perhaps they believe we have become less spiritual and have a less keenly developed sense of personal right and wrong, and also that we have become too individualistic.
At an official level, Ireland does not permit nostalgia at all. How many documentaries have you ever seen on RTÉ that show the past through rose-coloured spectacles? There are some that invite us to admire those who fought for independence, but none I can ever remember that inclined us to believe there was anything good about social attitudes in the past, chiefly because of the Church.
Given this, it is astounding that 41% of the Irish would still prefer if life was the way it used to be. That percentage might be one of the lowest anywhere in the world, but given the way the past is constantly depicted, it is amazingly high.
It is often said that whoever controls the past controls the future. What is meant by that? Primarily it means that if you understand your history in a certain way, you will also understand the present in a certain way also, and wish your country to move in a particular direction in the future.
Nostalgia is therefore regarded as something very dangerous because it might stop ‘progress’”
If you take pride in your country’s history, you might fear something is being lost in the present and you might want to recapture old glories.
Opponents of Brexit believe too many Britons are nostalgic about their past and regret that Britain’s place in the world has fallen. Brexiteers think leaving the EU will allow Britain to rise up again.
On the other hand, if you are ashamed of your country’s past, then you will want to ensure that everything in the present is changed so as to erase that past and create a supposedly better future.
In the case of Ireland, that means eradicating the influence of the Church over Irish society (unless it agrees to be a servant of ruling class values) and overturning all traditional attitudes starting with our understanding of the family and the right to life.
For this reason, we cannot be permitted to believe anything in the past was better than anything in the present. Nostalgia is therefore regarded as something very dangerous because it might stop ‘progress’.
But what is at least as dangerous is refusing to allow any sense of nostalgia at all because that makes us very pliable in the hands of those who keep promising us a better future. It is actually possible that some changes do make things worse and that some things in the past were better.
In fact, if we are led to believe that everything today is better than it was, and nothing has got worse, then it becomes harder to criticise and present and look at it objectively. Of course, that suits the people who run the country today very well indeed.