The dangerous appeal of nostalgia

Trevor's Take

Trevor Hutchinson headshot

By Trevor Hutchinson

A graduate of the University of Toronto, Trevor Hutchinson is a songwriter, writer and bookkeeper. He serves as Contributing Editor at The Lindsay Advocate. He lives with his fiancee and their five kids in Lindsay.

"Watching 'Leave it to Beaver' may help some imagine how wholesome America was in the late 50s," writes Trevor Hutchinson, "but it won’t help me realize that a CEO only made 20 times the lowest paid worker back then (instead of 400 times now), and corporations were taxed at a much higher level than they are now." Photo: ABC Television, Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

I was having lunch in Lindsay the other week at the Pie Eyed Monk. While thoroughly enjoying my meal, my mind wandered back some 45 years, to when it was not a beautifully renovated spot and was a rough-around-the-edges pool hall and arcade. I was flooded with sensory memories of opening a 25-cent glass bottle of Coke, playing pinball and admiring the mysterious pool-playing men coming and going. That rush of nostalgia seemed more intense than the tasty pizza I was eating.

There are very few of us that don’t experience nostalgia: the sentimental yearning for a happier time. For many of us, our listening habits may be one giant exercise in reliving the past. As a fan of the Beatles and Led Zeppelin (the best bands ever), I have to work harder than before to find new music that isn’t just an exercise in reliving my youth.

The fact is nostalgia is a powerful force in humans. That’s not conjecture: It has been proved and quantified in multiple studies.

And that’s why advertisers and corporations will use it relentlessly. Advertisers are literally reselling our childhood to us. We are being bombarded with (according to our individual demographic profile) any number of products meant to appeal to warm and fuzzy thoughts about our past.

And that’s because there are a lot of emotional positives with nostalgia. It can provide cultural cohesion and increase a sense of belonging.

But there are negative aspects. Researchers in South Africa found two types of nostalgia: a restorative nostalgia, in which people seemed to ignore historical fact; and a restorative nostalgia, where people were more critically aware of historical issues.

The political right across the globe has been using nostalgia as a marketing tool more and more frequently. Of course, the most famous example would be ‘Make America Great Again.” While there have been many attempts to Canadianize that particular phrase, we can expect new slogans soon.

We are going to be asked to remember a time when there was common sense and we will be urged to bring it home. Sounds benign on the surface, I guess.

But political nostalgia can be dangerous. It usually contains “dog whistles,” or subtle hints to imagine a time when there weren’t as many (insert a political, cultural, racial, gender group here). It also usually cherry picks history. Watching Leave it to Beaver may help some imagine how wholesome America was in the late 50s, but it won’t help me realize that a CEO only made 20 times the lowest paid worker back then (instead of 400 times now), and corporations were taxed at a much higher level than they are now.

I love history and most of my past. But getting all nostalgic about my past will do nothing to help me solve the complex problems of the present and future. So I’ll pass on the new old Coke – but I fear many won’t.


  1. Patricia Teskey says:

    Very thoughtful article. Thank you! It says there are two types of nostalgia: restorative nostalgia in which people ignore historical fact, and restorative nostalgia in which people are more critically aware of historical issues. My question: Is nostalgia that ignores historial fact really restorative (in the sense of healing today’s issues)? How can an attempt to glorify a return to a politically oppressive society be “restorative”? I would call it “delusional and destructive” nostalgia.

  2. Wallace says:

    All you have to do is look the absurd social issues , that the ‘media’ has turned in to front page ‘news’ almost every day, for the past 5 years to understand why people miss the days of yesteryear. Look at the enormous number of people on the streets celebrating the horrific attacks that occurred on Oct.7, in Israel . No one in their right mind would celebrate such a thing in the past, regardless of where is happened. Look at the housing market. Look at the job market. Look at the number of homeless, and soon to be homeless. Look at the number of broken families. Look at the number of working parents who have daycares raising their kids. Look at the social media platforms that have our children addicted to their phones. Look at the way these platforms are indoctrinating our kids with nonsensical 1 sided view points. Look at the disgusting adult content these same kids, at a very young age, have access to on their phones . Look at the climate extremists who constantly try to convince children that the planet is about to burst in to flames . Is it any wonder those of us that are of a certain age are nostalgic for the past ?

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