On the Roots of Strangeness

God knows, exile and wandering is as old as the hills, and some of the world's greatest stories are about this Odyssey or another. What's new in this picture, and what I sense in Mr. Cohen's voice (Roger Cohen, "Modern Odysseys," New York Times, 7/29/2010) and some of the comments posted on the NYT site, is that the frame has now expanded to encompass the whole world. The picture has become global. Emigration used to be bound up with a story of a particular war, as in the Odyssey, or persecution, as with the Biblical Israelites, or economic opportunity, often all three, and it still is. But it has never been as much of a universal condition as it is now, notwithstanding all of the poetic intimations from Homer to Ovid, to the Bible, and Robert Frost, cited by Mr. Cohen. At the turn of the 20th century, Georg Simmel offered to explain modernity by dividing society into the "owners of soil" and the proliferation of the new type of "strangers, who came yesterday and stayed tomorrow." Now, a century later, the order is reversed, and it is the owners of soil who are fighting the rearguard battles. Serbians are a good example. Along with their Yugoslavia cousins, all proverbial "owners of soil" and warriors par excellence, they are angling to becomes “strangers” by joining the European Union, where they would like “to stay tomorrow.” In Russia, both Putin and Medvedev, not to mention the country's educated elite, dream of Mother Russia becoming "normal European." And this is why, perhaps, Zionism, born out the the nineteenth-century nationalism and the catastrophes of the past century, appears so tragically mistimed today. The French legislation to ban the full-face veil, too, seems doubly ironic: the French, as owners of soil, pass a law to disallow the "strangers" in their midst to maintain the appearance of the owners of some tribal soil elsewhere. And while the French legislate universal strangeness, the US soldiers fight the Taliban, the Afghan "owners of soil," thus making Afghanistan safe for modernity and "strangers," while defending their own soil half a world away - the land whose citizens venerate their own ancestral migration. Will those who are not “strangers” or feel like exiles please stand up?

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