Just after midnight on New Years Day in 2006, a neighbor comes banging on the door of the apartment my parents rented in Memphis.
“Get out, get out,” the person screams, the space in between the bangs growing closer and closer together as the warning continued.
The apartment building is on fire. My brother, my parents, and I are all home and luckily we are able to hear the warning. We gather some essential possessions and leave. Not wishing for either of us to lose anymore sleep, my parents whisk my brother and me around the corner to a family member’s house. He and I stay put for the night.
The following morning my parents arrive to drive us back to the house. Everything is gone. Everything. Local news cameras were on the scene, as a person — a neighbor — died that night in the fire. We also lost our cat.
A loss of this magnitude is unimaginable until it happens. The feeling is mostly grief. After all, this was the place of so many memories. The loss was followed by reckoning. How was I to move forward having lost the home filled with a life of irreplaceable memories? And how was I to go about filling the void without descending into madness?
I recently reflected on this as I moved into a new apartment and attempted to appraise the value of my possessions for a renter’s insurance application. I can very clearly and for the most part accurately quantify the cash value of my possessions; I cannot, however, fully account for the meaning of their potential loss.
The memories enclosed in things and other living beings — if those things and beings matter to us — hold something beyond monetary value. We are psychically attached to them. Perhaps we can reckon with losing them, but we certainly cannot render a full account of how the losses might transform us in advance of their loss. Nor can we fully replace that which has gone. That loved one or loved thing held a special place, we might say. On this measure, we will have to choose whether or not our psychic attachments to things, identities, ourselves can be undone in order to make room for others in the wake of loss. We will have to decide whether we have the sufficient will to handle loss without becoming jaded.
Why do we struggle so? Could it be that we believe we cannot go on in the world without that which is gone or that, somehow, losing those things means we also become unrecognizable to ourselves?
The most recent iteration of this struggle comes in a twisted and perverse form. The scene that has unfolded in Charlottesville is vile and evil. White supremacists, a title fast becoming demographically unviable though still institutionally affirmed, descended on the town to protest the removal of a confederate monument in honor of the losing side’s General Robert E. Lee. But the stakes for them seem higher than this.
“One nation, one people, one immigration,” they are said to have chanted, marching onto the campus of UVA with their bamboo torches and khaki pants. The removal of the statue that animates their immediate cause is but a proxy for their real grievance: they are losing their grip on power. If this grievance seems to reflect the appearance of a fringe, alt-right sentiment, that would betray the litmus test on which far too many white Americans hedged their bets in 2016: new data from the Public Religion Institute identified, somewhat euphemistically, “cultural anxiety” as one of the primary reasons many voters pulled the lever for Trump.
Trump voters believe their world is collapsing, their identities being crushed by a burgeoning multi-cultural society. And so they lash out.
Physically, they unleash their terror on the innocent as was the case when a homeless man was violently beaten in Boston in May of last year; or when two men were brutally murdered in Portland in an anti-Muslim attack earlier this year. In Charlottesville, their lashing out produced three casualties, and 19 serious to critical injuries according to the Virginia State Police.
Rhetorically, they peddle dog-whistles and racist stereotypes about people of color: like the whopping 45 percent of Republicans who think black people make up the majority of welfare recipients; or when Trump himself told a crowd of his supporters during Black History Month that black youth “have no spirit.”
Some of this is no doubt the immediate consequence of an administration that has used all its resources to trample over the values of a pluralistic society. But this is also a gross failure of individual and collective imagination. The “culturally anxious” white Americans who put Trump into the Oval Office mostly fail at undoing their psychic attachments to unearned privilege in the face of the competing visions of freedom, justice, and equality.
The shadow of Ferguson and the new era of black activism that has grown in its wake offers a moment to reflect. Black Americans facing down police violence on the streets and in the political domain regularly come up against loss. There is the loss of life that instigates the protests in the first instance. The unrelenting news reports of premature deaths of Black Americans due to state violence are a reminder of systematic disregard. But there is also the failure to get justice — a failure that has the potential to hobble our efforts, to disempower us from continuing to go forward. Why bother, we ask? Yet, we have continued onward. Loss has not become ruin and destruction. There are no dead who can be genuinely claimed to be the result of our crumbling in the face of loss. No bitterness that can be claimed to have weakened our resolve.
The same cannot be said of those who’ve looked on, inspired by Trump as he ascended to the White House under the banner of rage and resentment. For more than a year, they sneered in fake concern at his rallies as he lectured them about what little black and Latino voters had to lose by electing him; at times, cajoling him as he encouraged violence against dissenters. They had everything to lose, we now know.
Political theorist Danielle Allen argues in her book Talking to Strangers that democratic politics demands that those who face loss must nonetheless accede to it. In other words, they must not lose sorely. The unjustified resentment of many of Trump’s supporters — in its physical and rhetorical forms — offends this principle and another. Democratic politics also demands that we share, equitably. Failing to do either, both Trump voters and the fringe from which they now wish to run become the paradigmatic example of sore losers — stingily decrying liberal welfare statism as the exclusive tool of greedy minorities. Unable to now offer the periodic self-appraisal that equality demands, unable to loosen their attachments to an oppressive form of whiteness, that feeling of losing now descends into madness. The deluded version of sacrifice is tyranny and violence is its expression.
The difficult question the polity must now work out is whether we can stay with the loss of a world without descending into madness; whether our pre-existing attachments can be undone in order to make room for another reality, perhaps a more just one. Will white Americans be capable of losing psychic attachments to unjust privileges? Can they reckon with substantive equality without identifying it with tyranny and oppression?
Whether or not any of this is possible, depends on our collective imagination in the face of this terrible set of circumstances. Wherever we go, we are going together.
Jared Loggins is a political theorist in training at Brown University.