Colbert and the Problem with Nostalgia

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By: Mark Rain

Stephen Colbert premiered as the new host of the Late Show last night to good reviews. The show was fun, a bit overlong, but as anything with Colbert, filled with great promise for years to come. It’s been funny to watch the reactions on Twitter and the comment sections of web reviews. The one comment (or iteration of the same comment) I kept seeing was something along the lines of “I miss Dave [Letterman].”

This struck me as funny because most people haven’t even been watching Letterman on a regular basis since the 90’s. This isn’t a knock against Dave, but one about how we choose to see the past. That’s the problem with nostalgia. The good old days get frozen in time and begin to ferment with age. Some memories get better in our minds, while others sour. The past is either idolized or demonized.

Back in high school, I saw Cabin Boy (a Letterman produced movie where he also makes a cameo) twice on the opening day (don’t judge). I thought it was awesome and hilarious. I couldn’t get enough. I probably alone accounted for half of the weekend’s opening box office sales. Returning to the film years later, I have no idea what I was thinking. It was more about the moment in time and the friends I was with. It was less about the actual cinematic quality of the film. In memory, the moment trumps the reality.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this until we begin to assume absolute truth to the history of our memories. With the instance of Colbert, we have folks comparing one show to decades of Letterman’s best on TV. Dave had his moments, but with most of comedy, for every laugh, there are also three times as many jokes that went flat. Unless the joke went epically wrong (Uma-Oprah), we tend to only remember the high times.

Outside of entertainment, I’ve seen this happen in two prominent areas: politics and religion. I know these aren’t the only places we see nostalgia run amok, but they seem to be the places that scream (or preach) at us the loudest.

If you made a drinking game out of every time a Republican made a reference to Reagan during presidential campaigns, you’d die from alcohol poisoning. Politicians love to prey on the nostalgia factor because you can make promises out of memories, and they don’t ever have to be real. Hearken to the past you want to remember, and declare that you can take the present back there again. It’s a thing of fairy tales. The last thing we need right now is fairy tales.

In our churches, we play the similar game. Yesterday is framed as a more innocent time with less evil, less sin, and better morality. The message again is that we need to get back there. The funny thing about this is that we were never there. There has always been sin, evil, and corruption since the world began. The idea that there’s more of it today than yesterday is simply a farce, and it plays at our longing for nostalgia. Like politics, our faith can and should have a voice in our lives that drive us to engage deeply in the problems of the world. It’s not an excuse to run to the nostalgia of the past.

We can’t move backward. Moving backward means living in a world where smallpox is still a present issue or women and African American’s can’t vote. You can’t go back to the glory days and not get the mess that was present then. Hen picking memories can never be a reality. It’s counter productive and not healthy. When we live in the past, it clouds our vision for the present.

We can certainly learn lessons from history and recognize that we stand on the shoulders of those that have come before us. We just can’t go back. For the world to be a better place we need to be fully engaged in the present. Should we celebrate the past? Absolutely. We’re just not meant to live there.

Letterman had his day in the sun, and it was great. Today is not his day anymore. Hopefully, Colbert will move forward into years of late night greatness. With us, there are so many present issues pressing on life today: immigration, climate change, inequality and poverty (to mention a few). These problems won’t go away and require us to step into them with sober eyes fully focused on the present. You can’t solve a problem by wishing it wasn’t there. Nostalgia has its place, it just doesn’t move us forward.

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