The Bad Old Days
World War II Nostalgia Is Thinly Veiled Collectivism
SEPTEMBER 01, 2001 by SHELDON RICHMAN
Collectivism runs deeper in our society than we like to think. Several phenomena indicate this. One of them is the regular display of nostalgia for World War II, the latest of which was sparked by release of the movie Pearl Harbor. It’s understandable that people whose lives were disrupted by the war would get together to relive their common experiences. People do that about all kinds of things.
What I’m referring to goes deeper and actually is insidious. Political leaders, pundits, television historians, and regular people longingly look back on the war as a grand time when, as a commercial for recordings of war-era songs put it, “we all pulled together.” Apparently, an era of peace, freedom, and privacy just can’t compare.
The commentators go further and lament that the baby-boom generation didn’t face something comparable: there was no great, unifying crisis. (Alas, Vietnam does not measure up.) Roosevelt-Johnson hagiographer Doris Kearns Goodwin recently whined that no leader has come along to “challenge” the boomer generation. These are the same people who swoon when they see the film of President Kennedy saying, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” (Now there’s a false alternative!)
What’s wrong with all this? Two things. First, there is the implication that a society’s commitment to a single cause is a good in itself. This is sheer collectivism. As a general principle, if a free society is attacked and its members must drop what they were doing to defend themselves, it is only so that they can resume their private lives as soon as possible. Solidarity at best is an emergency measure. Second, those nostalgic for what war produces on the home front ache to make it the normal condition minus the blood and destruction. Thus the unending search for “the moral equivalent of war” (William James’s phrase) in the form of destructive government crusades for this, that, and the other.
What it all comes down to is a thinly veiled collectivism, in which individuals are increasingly deprived of control over their own lives and resources—in the mantle of a sappy patriotism.
Rather than indulging in such nostalgia, friends of liberty should identify it for what it is.
* * *
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