Even in a year of tremendous loss, there was something especially poignant about the passing of Shimon Peres. Israels former President and Prime Minister, the last giant of the states founding generation, died in September of a stroke, aged 93.
“Optimists and pessimists die the same way. They just live differently,” Peres told Newsweek in 2005. “I prefer to live as an optimist.” It was a dictum oft repeated, as it defined Peres’s life. He possessed, as Amos Oz said in the eulogy he delivered at his old friend’s funeral, the “deep innocence” of an “indefatigable visionary.”
Peres had, Oz said, at once “a deep respect for reality and its constraints” and “a fierce passion to change that reality and the emotional capacity to change himself.”
Many of his dreams were realised — the IDF, Dimona, Oslo —but “his enthusiastic innocence enabled his adversaries to defeat him more than once.” When he fell, Oz said, “It was because his eyes were turned toward the stars.”
As this annus horribilis draws to a close, Oz’s words have been very much on my mind. “Where are the leaders with the courage to come forward and bring it to pass?” Oz asked of peace with the Palestinians. “Where are the heirs of Shimon Peres?” Indeed, in the era of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli politics is dominated by an inward-looking, fatalistic, and deeply pessimistic discourse, particularly where foreign policy and the peace process are concerned. The left has acquiesced to this, too.
But this schism between optimists and pessimists, heroes and cowards, dreamers and sentimentalists is not unique to Israel. Increasingly, it characterises politics in much of the Western world. Whether the call was to take back control or make America great again, in the year just past, a great many nations —including our own — gave over to forms of populism, nativism, and parochialism that offered a bleak presentation of the present, in contradistinction to a sunlit glorification of the past.
We live in nostalgic times. Twenty-first century populism, not unlike other empty forms of the phenomenon that preceded it, argues that we’ve reached, in the zealous words of Nigel Farage, a breaking- point. The solution, which is no solution at all, is to stop the world and turn it back. Farage, Donald Trump, and their allies are wreckers who desire an end to transnationalism, globalisation, and mass migration. Jobs in the old industries will return, they argue, as surely as the migrants will leave, as the drawbridge goes up behind them and the great dreamlike projects upon which the postwar order was constructed, like the European Union, are torn down.
This is nothing but a retreat to nationalism and folk memory, a counter-revolution, and one that is doomed to failure. After all, as was in evidence in the former East Germany in the 1990s, the politics of nostalgia, of return or resurrection, is a hopeless endeavour as, by definition, one cannot have something back that never existed. In the end, this form of populism, constructed upon foundations of anger, only leads to greater resentment when its promises go unfulfilled. It is at once destructive and self-destructive.
“Almost every trailblazer, almost all the great individuals who were ahead of their time, seemed like dreamers until the future arrived and vindicated them,” Oz said of Peres. The political class, however, no longer looks to the future for their vindication. In the absence of dreamers, we have shabby, small-minded leaders who cleave to nostalgia in the absence of a coherent political vision. In the absence of luminaries like Shimon Peres, ours shall be a time not of dreams but nightmares.
Liam Hoare is a contributor to ‘Moment’ magazine and writes frequently for ‘The Forward’ and ‘Slate’