Dizzy With Nostalgia

Aaron Lake Smith, considering the cultural politics of the moment, writes:

These past years, I have been witnessing a strange thing. A hidden subculture that shaped me and my friends, our politics and entire worldview, has been discovered and embraced by a new class of people. There’s no other way to put it: tryhard latecomers, second and third-generation zealots, late-adopters, everywhere. People who the day before yesterday were politically-speaking, babes in the wood. They have quickly picked up the appropriate subcultural language and learnt to weaponize the language of identity. In the darker recesses of the recent past, when it was all being formulated, these are people who just weren’t there. And all these decades later, they’ve turned over a rock and found a thriving little ant colony, and they’re amazed. But they don’t act amazed; they act as if they are now and have always been. 

Only the weary old weirdies who have been around the block long enough to get a bit tired—who now look and talk the way they, the fresh converts, used to look and talk—take notice. And who would listen to them anyway? Like Narodniks who stayed in the village too long, they were changed by the mass, rather than the other way around, as they had intended. They fell into the gravitational pull of common life. They have families. They wear white t-shirts and watch football.  By contrast, the latecomers seem and look so much more like the rebels now: they talk and act and dress in the appropriate way. It’s incredible, really. They caught up, finally, and blended in, and only an asshole would point out that they were drawn mainly by the subcultural magnetism—society had to get to a certain point for them even to consider it as a possibility for themselves, you see, these latecomers.

And yet, it is annoying. They talk loudly, saying things that you’ve heard a million times before. Talking loudly and not thinking deeply, they quickly ascend to leadership positions, and have the same immediately fall into the same battles that have been occurring for decades. The old guard linger bitterly in the backs of the rooms or at home, having their lives, preferring not to have the same debates and fights they’ve already been through with a new generation.

The piece is worth reading, for what it says as much as for what it doesn’t say. Smith nails a feeling that I’ve been struggling to articulate for years: the sense that people who started paying attention in the last five minutes believe they’ve mastered ideas that my friends and I devoted our lives to articulating and shaping 15 years ago (socialism, anarchism, feminism, transgenderism, black bloc “Antifa” stuff, whatever). We questioned and disputed; they sermonize on the basis of assumed expertise. We held these conversations at anarchist conferences, forest rendezvouses, in the pages of clandestine journals and the comments section of anarchistnews.org; they read Verso books in grad school and publish essays in academic journals. We poured blood, sweat, and tears onto the dust of the earth to bring these ideas to life; they inherit them whole-cloth while pretending they’re the first to ever think them. It’s a maddening, disorienting experience to watch as the people who once blinked at you in utter lack of understanding or turned their heads away in apathy now shout vulgarized tirades based upon questions you tried raising decades ago. “While there is nothing wrong with being delayed with finding your true calling,” Smith writes half-sympathetically, “it is extremely annoying to be very late, and then be shouting from the hilltops.”

But it’s weird and conspicuous that Smith never considers that this experience sucks because the ideas themselves are bad. That the knowledge we pretended as early-twenties anarchists is false and to be criticized rather than nostalgized. That the newcomers are frustrating not because they’re newcomers, but because they—and by extension, we—are wrong. I’d anticipated a reflective payoff, some kind of soul-searching self-criticism about whether what we’d been doing when nobody was paying attention was worth it after all. Nothing of the sort happens. Instead, the essay is a smug indictment of the zealous latecomer, the convert who takes the project more seriously than its founders, and whose danger lies in an attitude rather than the content of certain beliefs. It’s not that feminist sexual separatism and the general disparagement of men are bad ideas, it’s that the newcomers are too excited about them. It’s not that vulgar historical narratives about the evils of “white people” are misguided, it’s that the newcomers took it too seriously. We may have subjected people we considered friends to “accountability processes” more cruel and dehumanizing than what the cops do, but at least we were “on time,” whatever that means. We calmer heads may have believed these things—but we did it stylishly, with an ironic detachment that kept us from losing our cool.

There were a lot of praiseworthy aspects of early 2000s counterculturalism: enthusiastic communitarianism, DIY skills-acquisition for its own sake, a passionate engagement with the world and with each other. The ideas, however, were awful. It’s okay to admit that we were wrong. Anyone who participated in this milieu and doesn’t look back on the beliefs they held with some tinge of regret is either dizzy with nostalgia or hopelessly insane, and it’s time we were finally honest about this.

2 thoughts on “Dizzy With Nostalgia

  1. Interesting. The phenomenon is a real one, though, even for ideas which are good. This sounds an awful lot like the petulance of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. It is the false devotion of the hipster; one loves a thing not for itself, but because of what we believe we are or become by loving it.

    Jesus enjoins his hearers to instead be like the Father and delight that others have learned/decided to love that which we love. Even when rightly oriented towards the Good, we must guard against the impulse to love ourselves for loving the Good rather than the Good itself.

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