Nostalgia in Politics and Philosophy

How did the Capitol insurrectionists get into a frame of mind where they felt storming the Capitol was a natural – in fact essential – thing to do?

From the videos and pictures, it is clear they were not all poor white people. Some were black and brown and I even saw an interview from that day with a Native American woman supporting Trump. And there were rich people as well, flying in private plans to partake in the event. And some well educated too, like Senator Hawley, with his fist in the air leading the protestors, who studied at Stanford and Yale. Nor is it a matter of lifestyle. The Qanon Shaman guy apparently only eats organic food.

What unites this group which is not racially or economically monolithic? They support Trump and believe the election was stolen. Which only begs the question: why would a diverse group unify around those beliefs? So much so as to spend their own money, time and endanger their life to do this?

I have no idea of course. Not sure anyone can say for sure right now. But I have a guess that they are united by a sense of nostalgia and not having robust local ties to their communities in terms of family, friends and so on. Not saying they don’t have family and friends and jobs. They might. But that those aren’t meeting the needs of the nostalgia they are feeling.

Nostalgia isn’t the same as being alone or poor or uneducated. It’s something else. It’s it’s own thing in terms of its structure psychologically and how it’s needs are met.

For all my disagreements with extreme Trump supporters, there is this sense in which I identify with them. Nostalgia has played a big part in my life as well. And like they are running into the abstractions of Trumpism to respond to it, I ran into the abstractions of philosophy.

Imagine a child being taken out of a parent’s arms forever and the parent longing for continuing that last embrace with their child. To me that is the root of nostalgia. When something one is used to and loves is inexplicably lost and one keeps searching for it – and unable to let go and face the new reality, one keeps searching for it in new ways and new experiences. Seeking the sense of that old feeling becomes the habit, and feeling like one can experience it again becomes the new high. Like a drug and an addiction, the high of that sense of recovering what was lost becomes the center of one’s life, crowding out everything else. The mob storming the capitol was seeking that collective high. Willing to “be at war” because everything else feels hollow when the nostalgia feels unaddressable and the past feels lost.

Nostalgia is driven by fantasy. If what is lost is the kind of thing that could be gotten back, one wouldn’t be content with nostalgia. One would seek the way to get it back. But when something feels completely lost in one sense and one can’t accept it, then nostalgia supports the feeling that somehow it can be gotten back. That indeed the solution to the nostalgia starts to seem inseparable from the thing that was lost, as if the past which is wanted and the feeling of nostalgia are the same.

Some family and friends have said to me that I am giving too much credit to extreme Trump supporters. That I am “bending over backwards” to make them seem rational. When, the thought goes, they are irrational and racist. That’s all.

I can’t agree. Sure, storming the capitol, besides being illegal, is irrational. It was driven by conspiracy theories and fantasy thinking. And by a good deal of racism by some to boot.

But I don’t have to bend over backwards to identify with them. I feel it intuitively, the way an alcoholic might recognize a drug addict.

It was partly my luck that my substance of addiction to deal with nostalgia was not something that led to nationalism or fundamentalism, but to something more grand and majestic sounding: philosophy. I feel a sympathy for those Trump supporters, the way I do also with those on the left with a different emotional nostalgia, because I can see that if I didn’t have philosophy, I might have been tempted to fall into the same kind of conspiracy theory wormhole that leads to storming the Capitol. And which will lead some in the coming days, months and years to continuing the violence.

There is a simple recurring experience I have which captures how and why nostalgia entered my life.

I love Indian music: Bollywood music, Telugu film music, Carnatic music. Love is perhaps not the right word. It’s more like the music feels like home. But with the twist that it also constantly makes me feel estranged from that home because I dont fully understand the lyrics in Hindi or Telugu or Sanskrit as the case maybe. I could of course brush up on my Telugu or Hindi so I can understand better, but I never did. Never felt like doing. Because it’s not the fact that I don’t fully understand the lyrics that is the root issue. That is but a marker for the deeper, root issue. Which is the sense of having lost the community I experienced with my friends and family in my neighborhood in India when I was 11.

Our move to America was sudden and the way it happened was unexpected. My father’s health was critical and what was supposed to an immigration to America in the future became “mom and dad are leaving now for America and my brother and I will follow in a few months and that is where we will be from then on.” This happened so swiftly, and in what no doubt were extremely stressful conditions for my parents, that I doubt as a 11 year old I processed their leaving or even processed it two months later even as I was sitting in the plane with my brother on the way to New York.

We landed at JFK around the time of the presidential election in 1988. From the airport my uncle drove us to the hospital where my father was to have surgery the next day, and when my uncle took my brother and I to Pittsburgh to live with his family for a few months until my parents could get settled. I remember the drive from the airport to the hospital. It was fall. My uncle bought me an ice cream. I was eating it and looking at the skyscrapers. Feeling buoyed by my brother sitting next to me, who I realize in retrospect was my rock and sense of home through that flight and in that time.

I don’t mean to play this up as if it was somehow particularly hard. Surely in terms of trauma and hardship, this is pretty mild. I had it lucky. My parents were roughly the age I am now and I admire them all the more imaging what it must have been like for them.

But one’s experience is one’s experience. The roots of a nostalgia were set with that plane ride. All this would be news to most of my extended family since they saw only the happy, engaged, communal Bharath. The same Bharath they felt as in India.

What they didn’t see, and I didn’t either for many years, was that there was a big difference between the Bharath in India and the family Bharath in America.

I was a boisterous, happy go lucky, social kid in India. With my family and also with my friends. I left India just as that Bharath was entering adolescence, developing a more social identity outside the home. All my nascent habits for a social identity were rooted in the Indian context of my upbringing. With the sudden shift to America, I was forced to now enter adolescence in a new context where the social habits were quite different.

After a few months in Pittsburgh, and my father got better and my parents got jobs and a place, my brother and I joined my parents in New York. After a year my brother went to college.

Facing the middle school and high school social contexts that I was unfamiliar with and didn’t understand, I withdrew. After school, I came come to play video games or watch tv or listen to sports radio – the last the only link I felt to the sports comradarie I enjoyed in India with my friends and which seemed hard to cultivate in America. I had friends in high school, one I still talk to today. But it often seemed a pale image of the friendship and teenage years I might have had in India or if I grew up entirely in America – a pale image of the alternate world of nostalgia that was starting to get a grip on me. The more I withdrew from the social world of high school, sensing it to be too American and in tension with the Indian life at home, the more the alternate world of nostalgia seemed my natural home. Not so much yearning for the life in India – which as a teenager I no more had a connection to than I did to the teenage life America – but yearning for this third thing which existed nowhere but which was more real to me than either India or America. The nostalgic world of India where I was home.

In 1995, the summer before college, my family and I visited India, back to Hyderabad where we were from. My cousins and friends who I had been close to six years earlier talked eagerly with me, sharing their teenage experiences as if we lived in the same world. I felt withdrawn from them as I did from my friends in America. It felt like they were talking about a different Bharath, one whom they claimed to know so well and yet who I myself had forgotten and couldn’t remember. They, like my friends in America, saw me in only two terms: either the Bharath they knew or the other Bharath (Indian or American, as the case may be). But for me both these Bharaths were somewhat unreal. The real Bharath – the one in my inner ruminations and emotions – belonged neither to America nor to India. He belonged to the nostalgic world where he was whole, simple and pure – without the divisions and the confusions but just with a abiding sense of being home and all is well.

Incidentally, this is why Trump supporters genuinely can’t recognize themselves as the racists their critics claim they are. Even if they are waving confederate flags, the America they yearn for isn’t the actual past but rather the nostalgic America of their imagination. In nostalgic America there are no evils, no troubles, no inner conflicts – it is the land not of the past or the future exactly, but of a side reality which has a grounding in the past but isn’t defined by that past. Nostalgia expresses itself as a desire for the past, but what it mainly points to is itself – to the perpetuation of the nostalgia itself. In the nostalgic imagination the past and the feeling of the nostalgia are inseparable. The feeling of nostalgia is the home base. What one fights for in the name of the past is to preserve that feeling.

That was me as a sixteen year old. I felt no social links to either India or America. I had deep social links to my extended family in America, but it was not an indicator of who I could become as I grew older.

When I started talking philosophy with my father when I was 16, the world and emotion of philosophy merged perfectly with that of my nostalgic world. My father’s philosophy, like many Indians of his generation, was a Hindu, Indian enfused universalism. Both resolutely Indian and global at the same time, akin to how for many Christians and also many European philosophers their worldview was European and global at the same time. How can something be Indian and global at the same time? I had no idea. But emotionally I was drawn to it because it had somewhat the same structure as my nostalgic world: not quite Indian, not quite American, but still Indian and also including both.

Philosophy thus started to become my expression of my nostalgic world. When I was confused about who I was or what was happening in the world, in my mind I started to fall back onto I am a philosopher. The identification grew stronger and gained more and more resonance. If I told people I yearn for a nostalgic world, they wouldn’t understand, or worse, they might have laughed at me. But if I said “I am a philosopher”, they seemed to leave me alone and even respect me somewhat. As if it was something worthwhile to be. It was a honorific which gave me a public identity while merging my interests with my passionate sense that the only place I really belong is in my nostalgic world. Even more: philosophy seemed the way in which I could get others to join me in my nostalgic world. People who might otherwise say I am being too emotional and I just need to let go (or what I was told a lot by friends: I just need a girlfriend), would change their demeanor if I mentioned philosophy, the Bhagavad Gita and Plato. Now the tables were turned. Instead of me in my nostalgic world being the delinquent, philosophy gave me a the sense that the others were the delinquents – and so made me feel more that my nostalgic world might be the real world after all.

I am not saying this is how everyone gets in philosophy. Surely not, just as not everyone gets in politics through Trumpism or Antifa. There are simpler, less nostalgic entry points into philosophy and into politics. Those entering in the less emotionally laden way usually aren’t the ones storming the Capitol. For the extremists, the actions don’t feel extreme but entirely natural because it is their only outlet for their nostalgia – or for their futuristic utopia, as the case maybe.

For me at 18 the nostalgia inspired philosophy made me think and say that I want to be a monk. It was the social identity that felt most in line with my disenchantment with the available social identities. I argued with my father about it. I told my friends and family about it. I believed it myself, and saw it as the reason I didn’t date or go to parties or generally felt I had no meaningful friendships that spoke to me in a deep way. All without actually going even once to a monastery and doing anything remotely practical in the direction of becoming a monk. After all, the point of the monk talk ultimately wasn’t to direct actual action. It was to enable me to grown into the philosophy world which was also identical for me with my nostalgic world. The feeling of being a monk was all the reality I needed. The feeling and reality were merged in the nostalgic world I was growing into.

When I became a philosophy major and then went to grad school, more than the eurocentrism, what unnerved me was that philosophy student in a university didn’t have any relation to monk philosopher in my nostalgic world. I became a philosophy major thinking it was an extension of my monk identity. Over time the folly of this assumption became more and more clear. It’s like if an extreme Trump supporter joined the establishment Republicans thinking it will be a natural fit. Though establishment Republicans have their problems, can’t entirely blame them for wanting to keep Trumpism at bay. This was the question I pondered over constantly in academia: is academic philosophy wrong or was I wrong to think my monkish/nostalgic energy should be a guide for academia? In the end, after I left academia, I decided it was a little of both.

Even after I left academia, the fusion of the nostalgic world and philosophy for me was so intense that often I felt I needed to forget philosophy just so I can live into a new world, free of the emotional space from the teen years. Because for me philosophy and that nostalgic world were fused, often philosophy seemed not to free me into a new space of being, but actually tie me down to a past world which I no longer needed. Whereas I am a philosopher seemed to liberate me in my teens and twenties to pursue my nostalgic world, later on I am a philosopher seemed to keep me tied to that same nostalgic world even as I was outgrowing my attachment to it.

If philosophy hadn’t become an outlet for my nostalgic world and I went to college filled with my sense of nostalgia for an I don’t know what but which makes me feel at home, what would have happened? I might have gotten a good education as I did. Have a family as I now do. A home in the suburbs, as I now do. But perhaps might be filled with a sense that the social world I am in is somehow all wrong, controlled by the wrong people with the wrong interests, and that the nostalgic world I have been seeking is still out of reach. And that perhaps these other people, so different from me in race, class and education, but who are also looking for a similar nostalgic world, with a similar emotional outlook, might be on to something. That perhaps with them I could finally be open about my nostalgic emotions and the world they seem to open up, and together we might do something. Make a difference. We can share this feeling of nostalgia and also not just feel it, but bring it about and create anew that world I have been wishing for but couldn’t articulate, the world I yearn for but can’t talk openly about. Maybe left to myself I might feel overwhelmed by my own nostalgia, as if the nostalgia was a mere subjective emotion. But together with them I can feel that the nostalgic world- so full of goodness and really only goodness and oh so misunderstood – is worth holding onto and standing up for.

I don’t know how we can engage with extreme Trump supporters so there isn’t more violence. We can’t just talk to people wielding guns and nooses. Self defense and the law are essential. But perhaps one thing we could do is let go of simplistic stories, which make us feel safe and good, about their motivations or what it is like to be them. Holding them morally and legally responsible can go hand in hand with trying to understand them a little more through their eyes. Not to the extent of excusing them or even agreeing with them. But just enough to understand them better and to see some reflection of oneself in them. To be wrong they don’t have to be wholly other. They can be a different version of us had things gone differently.

One thought on “Nostalgia in Politics and Philosophy”

  1. I don’t know if you’re correct about their motivations, but it seems completely justified to me that you try to understand the mob that assaulted the Capitol building. They have the same psychological mechanisms as the rest of us do, but in general, most people enjoy blaming and self-righteousness so much that they don’t even bother to try to understand those others whom they can blame and feel morally superior to. I’d say that soon virtue signaling and moral self-righteousness are going to replace football as the world’s most popular spectator sport.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.