In Quebec, the politics of cultural despair?
In the early 1960s, the American scholar Fritz Stern wrote a book examining the 19th century intellectual and political roots of “national socialism” in Germany. Its title was The Politics of Cultural Despair which he described as political and intellectual efforts “to destroy a despised present in order to recapture an idealized past in an imaginary future.” These efforts included the intellectual and political organization of cultural hatreds and personal resentments in order to achieve some “national good.”
It is troubling to observe that in certain respects the current politics of Quebec display some of these same characteristics. A significant number of Quebec intellectuals and political leaders “despise the present” – in particular, Canadian federalism, the Harper government, and the market orientation of the North American economy. There is also the vague longing for some idealized past (je me souviens) – a politics shaped by the French language and culture but purged of the religious influence of the Catholics, Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims – all to be realized in the imagined future of an independent Quebec state.
As Stern points out, the politics of cultural despair can create an acceptance of, even a demand for, totalitarian measures to achieve the vision of the desired state. Regrettably the Quebec government’s proposed charter is a step in this direction since to achieve its vision of a secular society the government proposes to use its coercive powers to ban expressions of religion from the public square. A government that will use its coercive powers to restrict freedom of religious expression is unlikely to refrain from restricting other expressions of freedom which conflict with its declared vision of the future.
“Cultural despair” may also shape the social mores of a society, with significant biological and demographic implications. One wonders to what extent the low birth rate among the Quebecois, the high abortion rate, the growing preference for non-pro-creational sexual unions, and the increasing demand for government-sanctioned assisted suicide are manifestations of this phenomenon.
It is ironic that those who promote and defend such mores among Quebeckers are regarded as “progressive” while a biologist presented with evidence of these characteristics among a non-human species would see them as regressive – leading not to the preservation but rather to the endangerment and potential extinction of the species in question.
So what is the antidote to the politics of cultural despair? It is the politics of hope. But from what sources might such a politics of hope arise?
The most likely source is the younger generation of Quebeckers– a generation which is much more libertarian and cosmopolitan than the aging leaders of the PQ and BQ. For this younger generation, the past dominance of the Church, the Duplessis and Trudeau legacies, and the secession fixation are not crippling or distracting influences.
Perhaps it is even possible that a younger generation of Quebeckers will rediscover that ancient source of hope exemplified by the province’s patron saint, St. Jean Baptiste. He engendered hope among a people striving to preserve their cultural identity in trying circumstances by reviving an interest in the spiritual dimension of life without the trappings of institutionalized religion. History is replete with more recent examples from Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, to Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, to Desmond Tutu in apartheid-afflicted South Africa, to our own Jean Vanier finding hope among the severely handicapped, to Martin Luther King projecting hope in the midst of entrenched racial prejudice.
It is in the best interests of both Canada and Quebec that the politics of hope, whatever the source, soon displace the politics of cultural despair in la belle province.
*An edited version appeared in The Globe and Mail online on November 20, 2013.