Nostalgia By Any Other Name

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A friend of mine from Australia emailed me the following link to a clip from the television series The Newsroom. . The clip’s origin is not identified in the link he provided, however, so it took me a moment to recognize Jeff Daniels as the impassioned panelist angrily denouncing the present condition of America while extolling its past.  Instead, the clip is simply identified as "The most honest three and a half minutes of television, EVER." Is it, though?  Well no, not exactly.  Here’s why. First of all, Jeff Daniels’ speech is an example of something very familiar to American history: the Jeremiad, which is a sermon or text that, like the Old Testament Book of Jeremiah, denounces the moral state of the present in comparison to some distant past.  The New England Puritans were especially fond of Jeremiads, so it is only appropriate that one of their descendants, Robert Lowell, composed in his poem "For the Union Dead" a Jeremiad that is, for my money, the greatest in our history, as Lowell compares the flaccid materialism of 1960s America with the moral backbone of men like Robert Gould Shaw (made famous today by the movie Glory).  But indeed, as Raymond Williams so brilliantly demonstrated in his book The Country and the City, people have always decried the present on behalf of some lost "golden age," an age that keeps receding into the past whenever you actually go look for it.  What we praise today was once reviled in its own time. The Newsroom’s Jeremiad is no different.  Denouncing a floundering present state of America, Daniels’ character emotionally harkens back to an era of high moral purpose that never really existed (the U.S., for example, didn't enter the Second World War for moral reasons: we stayed out of it as Hitler gobbled up Europe, inaugurated the "final solution," and nearly knocked out England; we only got into it when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and Germany declared war on us).  More interesting to me, however, is the ideological incoherence of the rant.  That is, while the scene begins with a caricature of both a "liberal" (who is pointedly insulted for being a "loser") and a "conservative" (who is roundly refuted in his belief that Americans alone are "free"), in the end it isn’t clear just what ideology it represents.  On the one hand, Daniels’ position appears to be “liberal” enough to admit that America isn’t the greatest country in the world, anymore, but on the other hand, its nostalgic longing for things past (note the music rising and the tears forming in the eyes of the students as they capture it all on their iPhones) repeats the conservatively "exceptionalist" belief that there is something really special about America—that, in fact, we once were the greatest country on earth and we still ought to be. Whether or not America was, is, or someday will be the greatest country on earth is not a problem for semiotics.  What is is the question of just why television so commonly tries to have it both ways when it comes to ideology.  I’m reminded here of an episode of Criminal Minds that presented the gun-loving militia movement as a haven for misfits and psychopaths, while at the same time attempting to elicit audience empathy towards it.  The result is ideological incoherence.  Similarly in this clip from The Newsroom, after the ideological left and right are dismissed, sheer nostalgia is substituted for a coherent politics, sometimes with a conservative slant (especially in the reference to the “men”—never the women—of the past), and sometimes with a vaguely liberal slant.  Why this sort of thing is so common on TV is not hard to explain.  Television programming exists to generate profits, and you don’t succeed at that by offending too large a swath of your potential audience.  So you choose ideological incoherence: a position that isn’t really a position at all and so will not offend too many people.  That’s good for the bottom line, but, no, it doesn’t really make for an honest political assessment.
About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.