Both the US and the Netherlands are nostalgic about the way things used to be. But Americans draw strength from this, while the Dutch just wants to return to the past, argues Jan Willem Duyvendak.


By Jan Willem Duyvendak

Nostalgia. Many native Dutch suffer from the 'good old days' syndrome. So does the average American. But the latter misses something different: the way home used to be, when parents still had time for their children.

Time and home

American women – certainly in comparison to their Dutch counterparts – seriously went about joining the labour force. Since men did not respond by taking on more household duties, women's emancipation put the 'home' under a great deal of pressure.

Americans live under the permanent stress of being short of time: they not only combine full-time jobs with family responsibilities (especially the women), but in the lower segment of the labour market they often combine several jobs. They have long commutes, and couples are sometimes forced to live apart because of their jobs. The divorce rate now exceeds 50 percent, and for children there is at best something curious called 'quality time'. There is a time and home crisis in the US.
This crisis in the home makes Americans nostalgic: there used to be time for everything. The fact that family values are so popular now is mainly because they are under pressure. America is a nostalgic nation: a country wrestling with a revolution that has already taken place.

Feeling at home

In the Netherlands too we live in nostalgic times; we are also undergoing a crisis of our 'sense of home'. To such a degree in fact that the government has elevated promoting 'feeling at home' to a national policy objective: "The aim must be to establish a society in which everyone can feel at home."

In our case this failure to 'feel at home' has little or nothing to do with women's emancipation, but with that other major social change of the last decades: the increased global mobility of people.

When Dutch politicians talk about a crisis of our sense of home they are referring to increasingly ethnic neighbourhoods, growing diversity in social conventions and public religious expressions in a predominantly secular society. The Netherlands, imagined as a house, is being taken over by foreigners who disturb 'our' feeling of being at home. In response 'we' long for the time when it was still 'just us.'

There is a deep nostalgia in both the American and (Western) European debate. Home is no longer what it was: not on the individual level (because of the gender revolution), nor in the neighbourhood or nation (because of migration and globalisation). Politicians are deeply concerned about this perceived loss, and as a result they feed the nostalgic perspective. Many politicians, and not just the populists either, feel that we can get rid of today's 'uprootedness' by looking back at our past.

Reflective vs. restorative

Svetlana Boym, a professor of Slavic studies and comparative literature at Harvard University, calls this longing for the past a form of 'restorative nostalgia' in her book The Future of Nostalgia (2001). This describes a rather desperate longing for how everything was allegedly real, authentic and original in the past. She contrasts this with 'reflective nostalgia', a form of nostalgia that investigates what the value of the (remembered) past could have for the present.

If we compare the nostalgic condition of the Netherlands and the US, it seems as if the Netherlands primarily suffers from a restorative form of nostalgia, while America tends more towards a reflective form. In the Netherlands, the crisis of our sense of home is partly so deep because it is a public matter, in which we have made our perception of home dependent on the behaviour, opinions and feelings of others.

As long as (Muslim) immigrants do not behave like guests or do not fully assimilate, 'we' perceive this as compromising our sense of home. The Netherlands is one of the most culturally homogenous countries in Europe. We want to see the Netherlands as a single house in which a harmonious, progressive family lives. In such a household, every family member with a divergent view detracts from everyone else's sense of home.

Good old days

In the US, the home is missed, but women's emancipation is also seen by many as an achievement. There is not only a sense of loss, like in the Netherlands. Moreover, Americans – and certainly American women – have supported this change themselves; it did not just 'happen' to them (a sentiment that strongly dominates sensibilities in the Netherlands with respect to the rise of immigration).

Americans do not feel they have to address others about these changes, therefore, but primarily themselves: if we want to strengthen the home as institution, we have to learn how to be good parents, Americans tell each other endlessly in the public and political debate. In the Netherlands, on the other hand, there is a strong restorative nostalgic sentiment: all the changes have been for the worse and we want the good old days back.

This nostalgia is revanchist and based on the idea of the oldest territorial rights: we were here first. This allegedly gives us the right to tell others how to behave; chronology is hierarchy. It is 'our' land on which 'others' have settled – and where according to official statistics they even feel at home! – and partly because of this we, the first to settle here, no longer feel at home.

Dutch qualities

How can the Netherlands change a restorative, unproductive form of nostalgia into a more reflective form? In the first place by positively citing what qualities of the Netherlands we feel are worth retaining: not because they are Dutch, but because they are valuable qualities.

Secondly by looking at the Netherlands differently. Instead of looking at everything with a diachronous view – in which we are stuck between our origins and an unknown future – it may help to look at the Netherlands' place in the world. Then we do not see an isolated country that can only draw strength from its past, but an area that is connected in countless ways with a great many other places.

There are few countries, for instance, where so many goods flow in and out; where such a large part of the population keeps in touch with the world online; where so many share solidarity with so many others elsewhere in the world; where science is so internationally oriented; and indeed, where so many immigrants live.

And precisely on this last point, dealing with diversity, we might be able to learn from examples from the US. Note that I say 'might', because diversity can also have the power to drive animosity or prompt a reaction of retreat, as the American sociologist Putnam demonstrated. But what if we manage to create the conditions in which people can better cope with (certain) differences?

Recent research from American sociologists Mollenkopf, Kasinitz and Waters shows that second-generation immigrants do predominantly well in New York, partly because they live in an environment that values diversity. 'Values' in the double sense of the word: in the sense of 'evaluates' and 'appreciates'.

Everyone contributes his or her history. No one is asked to simply forget that, but everyone is asked to have a reflective relationship with his or her own past. When does something 'old' have meaning in one's new place, and when does it not? When do goods, people and images from one's place of origin help one feel at home in the place of arrival; and when do they pose an obstacle to that?

Nostalgia is not necessarily ballast; the past can also be luggage for the future.