A fellow Friend told me the other day about one of her passions. She is a skilled seamstress and designs her own ballroom gowns. The clothes she makes are ornate and authentic, designed to be worn to balls which seek to re-enact social functions that date back to the 19th Century. Part of the appeal, as she describes it, is to dress up, and part of the appeal is to participate in specific dances authentic to the period while socializing with others. I am conscious that recreating a Jane Austen novel has its appeal, but as a Feminist I am also aware of the gender inequality and sexism inherent as well in the practice. British society of that day was rigidly stratified and effectively divided by a strict adherence to class distinctions. I doubt many in the current day would care to deal with them or wish to feel marginalized and discounted to such a stifling degree.
Knowing this, the first question I have is why many feel such a strong sense of fascination with this particular time in history. Every few years the same novel is adapted yet again for film and yet again it makes money. I question if it is easy to brush aside the objectionable parts and still enjoy the experience. If such films, books, or plays were, for example, full of racism or homophobia I doubt we’d be so forgiving. We can tolerate that which effectively disregards the rights of women much more effectively than, say, a new adaptation of a minstrel show. I doubt few would wish to go to social functions where participants dressed up in blackface, attempting to emulate Stepin Fetchit the whole night long.
The past proves a respite from the daily grind, but we choose to see it in romantic terms, and really, squarely on our own terms. Some would return to Austen’s day, but they’d certainly want to bring their toothbrush and modern medicine along, too. Neo-cons and anti-feminists have done much the same thing in idealizing the Fifties, forgetting, of course, that those days were also full of paranoia and a constantly nagging fear of imminent destruction by way of nuclear war. In those days, the average housewife had access to a car perhaps a few times a week, almost always at the discretion of her husband, and was predominately cloistered at home doing household chores. This may be a very normal means of longing for simpler days, but some take it beyond fantasy and escapism. When this does happen, then problems arise.
I wonder if we have truly come to terms with escapism and its role in our daily lives. Most notably now it drives the Tea Partiers and those allied with them. As many have commented before, there is really nothing especially authentic or historically accurate that points back to the American Revolution, aside from the occasional demonstrator in colonial militia costume. Those who take the Second Amendment in its original context and apply it to today, arguing for the establishment of a well-regulated militia are the ones who scare us all; yet again it should be said that they are trying to use a document centuries old and make it fit exactly as justification for their own leanings. We already have the National Guard and have no need for vigilante justice or a firearm in every holster.
Some social critics warn of attempts by the powers that control society to provide means of escapism instead of actually bettering the condition of the people. For example, Karl Marx wrote about religion as being the “opium of the people”. This is to be compared to the thought of Saint Augustine of Hippo, who argued that people try to find satisfaction in material things to fill a void within them that only God can fill.
If nativist, xenophobic, reactive movements like these on the Right considered themselves wrought of honest religious dissent to the status quo, I think I would have less overall reservations. Most likely I still wouldn’t agree with them, but religion practiced honestly has a leveling, moderating influence. Without it, we quickly see rage and open hostility. Taken to extreme we have the Westboro Baptist Church and its hatred towards LGBTs, but this is the exception, not the rule. Tea Party groups thus far have cherry-picked passages from the Bible to suit their needs, but it is, by in large, a secular movement. If these activists really are intent on turning back the clock, I think adopting a conservative Christian framework to guide them might not be a bad idea, since the days they allude to were far less secular than our own. Here is another example of how many will selectively choose which parts of history agree with them while and disregarding the rest. If it is purity which we are seeking, none of us passes the test.
German social philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote that utopias and images of fulfillment, however regressive they might be, also included an impetus for a radical social change. According to Bloch, social justice could not be realized without seeing things fundamentally differently. Something that is mere “daydreaming” or “escapism” from the viewpoint of a technological-rational society might be a seed for a new and more humane social order, it can be seen as an “immature, but honest substitute for revolution”.
An important distinction to make here is that there is a difference between Utopia and Dystopia. That may be the best encapsulation of what is on everyone’s mind right now. I admit that I have my own bias and my own loyalty, but aside from a few misguided souls, I note that what we have been debating amongst ourselves in recent Progressive discourse are escapist means of imagining how government would run if our specific ideas were adopted. As we scheme and ponder, regrettably some on the other side want to take the law into their own hands, while, regardless of how they frame it, wishing to take advantage of the government which agrees with them while seeking to dismantle the government that does not. Our definitions of what constitutes active revolution are very different from each other, but regardless of it is phrased and by whom, one wonders what period in history or historical document will be cited next. Doing so would seem to be inevitable. And, as we do so, I hope we will realize that the past, consulted honestly, has no allegiance to Party or ideology. Rather, as C. Vann Woodward noted, “there is too much irony mixed in with the tragedy for that.”