My thoughts today have taken a rather circuitous journey, from demography of the American right, through the history of Montréal, through the Middle East, and then settling in my own heart. The tie that binds these disparate strands is dispossession and, more broadly, loss. (If the title of the post was not warning enough, consider yourself warned: the thoughts that follow are scattered, overly simplified, and only loosely bound.)
This morning, I read this interesting — though unsurprising — discussion on the rise of the religious right in the US and their apparent increase in political power over the past decades. The writer notes that the seeming increased anger and sense of persecution voiced by many American Christian groups can be at least partially explained by the double trend that the United States is more religious — and more conservatively so — than ever before while simultaneously being more secular than ever in its public life (itself likely due to increased diversification of the nation as a whole). At a time when they are more numerous than ever, conservative Christians feel like society reflects their beliefs less than ever. What this is really describing is a sense of dispossession and loss.
Dispossession is something that has long fascinated me. There is something both heart-wrenching and pathetic about it. Whether in the stories of persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East (as vividly demonstrated in William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain), the sad, one-sided history of my Anglo tour guide in Montréal, the sorrow of a proud Yugoslav who watched as his country disintegrated, or even the anger of some Southern whites who have seen their society changed on them by outside forces, I have seen three common traits among the dispossessed: 1) A genuine pride in what once was: whether a vast a wealthy empire, a cosmopolitan city that birthed a nation, a proud multicultural nation, a genteel agricultural society with beautiful architecture and literature, or whatever; 2) A sense of justification that refuses to see the causes of their downfall, whether these are simply forces of history or genuine structural flaws (as in the blatant racism of the US South); and 3) Resentment of ‘the other’, whether other religious groups, “Sovereigntists”, “Nationalists”, or blacks/gays/”Elites”/”Immigrants.”
These are all complicated emotions and at least to some extent they are understandable in every case. What was is never what is and what is will always fade into what will be. This is unstoppable and it’s frightening. Who can’t relate to that? Who hasn’t experienced loss to some degree? These are but extreme examples of a universal phenomenon.
As I’ve said previously here, I’ve experienced a lot of loss over the past two years — certainly different kinds of loss from the examples that have permeated my thoughts today, but loss nonetheless. I can relate to the staggering disorientation, the disbelief at what is happening / has happened. And, like the dispossessed communities referenced here, I don’t want to be ashamed or embarrassed about what was. I want to celebrate it and enjoy the memories without feeling guilty about it despite the discomfort it may cause some others. So I look upon dispossessed groups with pathos and a bit of sympathy.
There is, however, a big BUT: A jarring historical event does not end history. A change in demographics or cultural mores does not end a society. There is always continuity as much as interruption. And if things collapse, there are generally internal reasons as much as external ones for that collapse (e.g., a ‘free’ society that systematically excludes vast swaths of the population is untenable). A beautiful lost past is a wonderful thing, but to be paralyzed and stuck within it , and to be blinded to its inherent failures is not. There is little worse. All that does is give rise to resentment and bitterness and a myopia that renders us unable to see beyond ourselves.
The trick for all of us is to celebrate the past while working — whether in society or in ourselves — to fix the old faults and weaknesses that made that past unstable. Easier said than done, but needful nonetheless.
“We hold this treasure in earthen vessels…”