Brexiteers, Trump America and the corruption of nostalgia

PUBLISHED: 17:10 12 August 2017 | UPDATED: 17:10 12 August 2017

Matt Atkins wears a Make America Great Again hat as he attends the Manning Centre conference on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Matt Atkins wears a Make America Great Again hat as he attends the Manning Centre conference on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The Canadian Press/PA Images

Manufactured nostalgia always has a political end. Its aim is to create new foot soldiers for The New Vision.


If you stand as close to the summit of the Acropolis as you can, you may be able to understand the deep meaning of this word.

Its etymology is murky and ancient, but the root of the word is Greek: nostos (homecoming); algia (pain).

Those ancient Greeks sailing out from Athens must have looked back in longing at the home of the statue of the goddess of their city.

She would not have been the pale white colour that we’ve come to know now as Greek and Roman statuary. Athena would have been as she really was before the erosion of time: blazing in bright colours; standing erect in the temple named after her: Parthenos (virgin).

Legend has it that she sprang, fully-suited for battle, from the forehead of her father Zeus. She arrived with a yell, ready to be present for heroes. She was Wisdom.

The Athenians named their city after her, or vice-versa. Leaving it and her had to have created in the sailors a fierce longing for home. For the safety of the shore. This ‘home’, created in their memory at sea, would have been a mixture of the real and also the ideal. It would have erased turmoil, contradiction. This meaning of ‘home’, so far out into the unknown, would have been about a place of safety and refuge, conjured up in a turbulent place: the open sea with its possibility of monsters and death.

The word ‘nostalgia’, as we use it, came into being in the 16th century. It was a name and a term created to describe the melancholy of the Swiss mercenaries fighting in the German wars. It describes their Heimweh (homesickness). In time, nostalgia became an observed phenomenon that seemed to grow stronger, especially in periods of change.

During the Enlightenment and the Age of Romanticism, nostalgia was a response to the rapid advance of industrialisation. The Pre-Raphaelites insisted on the observation of nature as the only true and real way to make art. Partly because ‘nature’ was vanishing in the wake of town-building and enclosure; the Pre-Raphaelites longed for what they thought was a gentler, more civilised time.

The wars in medieval Italy; the brutality of the Crusades; none of this was a part of their longing for the past. Nostalgia became tied up with a medieval ideal, with the notion of chivalry. It was their own invention, their own longing for a gentler time. A part of this longing was connected to a notion of individual liberty versus absolutism. But, too often, nostalgia was in revolt against ‘change’ itself.

In that sense, nostalgia gradually became more than an ancient sailor’s longing for home; or a mercenary soldier’s lament. It also became the reconstruction of myth in the face of the tide of history.

This is the reason that totalitarian states used nostalgia as a means to create their own myth of themselves. Nostalgia became both a goal and a tool. It could be made to go hand-in-hand with the past itself, and fashion the reconstruction of that thing we call history.

“Make America Great Again,” for example, is a rallying cry for an America that only existed for some. For the majority of Americans, MAGA existed mainly in the movies and in musicals and in popular songs. MAGA is about US and not THEM, about the time that WE were great against all odds. Alone. This kind of manufactured nostalgia always has a political end. Its aim is to create new foot soldiers for The New Vision. It is reactive. Reductive.

Nostalgia does not really allow us to venture out to sea. Instead we are warned to stay at ‘home’; quivering from the anxiety that we cannot name, but know is about: change.

That old saying, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be”, seems to apply to the praise now being heaped on to director Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk. By all accounts, it sounds like a rapturous 21st century version of that lucky retreat. And Dunkirk was a retreat, fashioned into immortal glory by Winston Churchill for the sake of much-needed morale. And there’s no better indicator that this particular national myth is alive and well and ready to be launched in aid of the Brexiteer cause than this tweet from arch myth-maker and Brexiteer-in-Chief Nigel Farage: “I urge every youngster to go out and watch #Dunkirk”.

And so they have in their droves. The reviews paint a picture of a film about a relatively solitary Britain surviving insurmountable odds on foreign soil. From the reviews, the film seems to create or set out to create nostalgia itself. And in good time. Because Dunkirk has become not only a great war movie, but a kind of comfort food. It is the IMAX accompaniment back to a world that did not really exist. But a world that many, right now, may need.

But strewn amidst praise for the film is the backlash. It is the reality that always disturbs the nostalgia.

And the reality of Dunkirk? A big part of it was that, for instance, the Royal Indian Army Service Corps were at Dunkirk, too. They had come from the subcontinent, ready to aid the mechanised British Expeditionary Force. They were a service unit, captured in France in 1940. They were named “K6” and were four companies of the Royal Indian Army Service Corps (RIASC) . “K6” were about 1,000 professionals in an all-volunteer service.

The UK’s Merchant Navy had a large proportion of Indian sailors, who would have been in the evacuation boats, taking troops off the beach. There would have been a small proportion of non-white troops, too, rescued from Dunkirk. The British Army was an Empire Army.

France’s army was an Empire Army, too. It had soldiers from Senegal, Mauritania, Morocco and Algeria. These soldiers went on to serve throughout the war and all the way to the liberation of France. They were denied their victory march down the Champs-Élysées alongside de Gaulle by the US Army which maintained a strict racial segregation. Even with its own troops.

Women would have been on the beach at Dunkirk, too, female Auxiliary Territorial Service telephonists. They would have been among the last service personnel to have been evacuated. And there were female civilians.

A filmmaker makes the film that he or she wishes and Christopher Nolan is a very fine director. But that Dunkirk has become such a success is not only down to his artistry, but to nostalgia. And not just any old kind.

One critic wondered why the film is such a roaring success in the US since no Americans are in it. Dunkirk is a hit there for the same reason that Nigel Farage loved it: Brexiteers and Trump America are kindred spirits, twin souls. We now know that their links are literal, too. Some of the same people and the same money that supported Leave also supported and support Donald Trump.

But Brexiteers and Trump America are about going backwards. Back to a time of their own invention.

Unlike the ancient Greek sailors, they will not venture out. They only want to sit on the shore, gazing at the sea. Seeing only their own faces. Inventing their own myth of the past.

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