PRIVATE NATIONALISM Prague
Domestic Nationalism /Ivan Mecl/
In Europe, we are living in a period of great criticism. Things are bad, and so everything is bad. Things used to be better, they say. Only in Russia, China, and a little bit in America do people think things will get better. I’m leaving out those few countries where things are, allegedly, fine. Those three big countries are enough – after all, as they say: when things get better there, they’ll get better elsewhere, too. But until then, let’s be critical. The rest of the world suffers from a hopeless skepticism, because hope is not a quality found in postmodern society and its way of thinking. The postmodern world – a world without great hope – came fully into being only recently, and not when it was merely proclaimed. The postmodern era begins with the era of economics, with the application of performance indicators to everything just for the sake of performance. Performance has no other goal – neither ideology, nor well-being, nor empire. Its yardsticks are electronic account balances. Cash is for scum. Purification. Purify yourself and escape from the scum. In an era like this, you can’t do anything with the world if you don’t have a good corporate job or a large and successful company. And yet we somehow need to kill time. To kill bad time. It is an era suitable for eradicating the remaining myths and prejudices of past generations. So now let’s deal with remains of nationalism. After that, we would like to eradicate the churches and the still sustained myths of Gods who love Man and watch over the world. We are willing to tolerate Gods that hate Man and could care less about the pathetic results of their Creation. After all, we don’t have to worry about them. Why separate oppression on the part of religion and nation? Both are based on questionable values, constructed history, and non-existent or idealized figures. The basic idea is the same: The “others” are dumber and uglier, and simply have no value within the grand concept – the grand concept of the deification of the nation. Well, at least we have put that behind us here in Europe. I don’t even want to imagine what terrible things have to happen to America, China, and Russia for them to get over it once and for all. For the most part, nationalism in Europe has survived as a caricature of itself, primarily among the lumpen-consumerist class,1 which is economically almost entirely unproductive2 but capable of effectively producing hatred. Why a poor person, outcast, living in contempt of those who have had greater fortune3 does not produce love, we do not know. The economic middle class and the educated poor do not want to look ridiculous when it comes to the question of nationhood, and so they ignore it. The economic elite has transferred itself and its bank accounts to Singapore, and so we have not succeeded in getting their opinion. Things should stay like this, so that we could just laugh at it. Until we write demythologized history textbooks, we don’t stand any chance of eradicating nationalism, not even its domestic variety.
Aleš Čermák recently published a book comparing how secondary-school textbooks from several European countries look at the Second World War. It is surprising how differently we in Europe still interpret even our modern history. Often, questionable sources of pride – invented histories, heroes, and their acts – are created by a country’s founding fathers in order to shape nations,4 and their leaders, in order to absorb or eradicate other nations,5 and in order to avoid being absorbed or eradicated themselves.6 After achieving their goals, all these founding fathers and leaders forget to demythologize the sense of their national existence, and their at first theatrical inventions later turn against them and their successors like in a horror movie. Long after their deaths, we still fail to take heed. We keep textbooks that are full of ridiculous stories of he roism that historians have long described as insidious, if they ever happened in the first place, and full of heroes that others view as cowardly murderers – if, that is, they ever existed at all. And so any idiot who, like Daniel Landa, makes his way through secondary school can sow fear with a mystical nationalism based on the story of a group of deserters slumbering in a mountain, the poorly educated Left can love the Hussites even though they were a medieval Taliban, and senile presidents wave about the bones and jewelry of kings scorned by the rest of Europe. Better to do away with history. It brings nothing but problems, and nobody learns anything from it anyway. Not surprisingly, more people would ban sex education – i.e., education about something we have – than history, which is about things where we can’t even agree on how they happened. Fortunately, it is all quite humorous. Nationalists don’t like humor, and never had a sense for it. Humor is the greatest weapon of contemporary man, who must be capable of at any time seeing even his own actions ironically. As soon as you begin to take yourself seriously, it is your end. Your life is over. Kill yourself, because it won’t be worth living anymore. You’ll worry yourself to death anyway from the knowledge that you are no hero. The nation does not need you, and the idea of nationhood must at some point rot completely like even the best-maintained corpse. It is also a big mistake that we do not offer a helping hand to those needy individuals who seek to abandon the nationalist platform. Many of them have nothing except the traditional dark clothing and pseudo-uniforms in which they are unacceptable to contemporary society, thus leaving them caught in the trap of falanga-fashion. Let us, upon encountering such unhappy souls, offer them bright clothing regardless of whether they are true deserters or not. Let us show some courage for this campaign! Awkwardness is freedom! When things get better, we can forget about it again. God (or the Dalai Lama) willing, it will be soon! 1 In Hungary and Slovakia, it is currently acting up constitutionally, but hopefully that is just a temporary escapade. Things will get even wilder after the accession of the countries of the former Yugoslavia – then we will really have to eat what we all cooked up with our active support of Balkan redistribution. 2 European economists use the word “unproductive” to describe this class when they want to denigrate it and emphasize its productivity.
In Europe the economic force of hatred can no longer be used, and so we do not measure it. In Africa, for instance, this force is easily harnessed to start wars that are, economically speaking, highly productive. The world’s rich nations do not want to help Africa’s poor regions effectively, because a satisfied population does not like to fight. There would be nobody to purchase weapons, no profits from post- -war reconstruction, and no chance of gaining raw materials from war-ravaged countries for a pittance. The seemingly unintentional act of keeping of part of the world in a state of shit is an ingenious post-colonial strategy.
3 Yes. In recent years, it is really a question of fortune. Actual work has almost nothing to do with it anymore.
4 Masaryk and Štefánik. Thinkers, adventurers and do-gooders. At the peak of their success, they showed a typical penchant for riding boots and uniforms. Czech Television and Slovak Television are planning a joint children’s puppet series about them.
5 Hitler, Horthy and Mussolini. Typical world- -wreckers who began dressing in uniforms during childhood. The protagonists of many books and movies. Hitler and his swastika can be found everywhere in art and the media and will be with us forever, just like he wanted. If he hadn’t died, he would have grown rich from the royalties. They love Hitler in India and Pakistan – just ask Mefhooz.
6 Pilsudski. Controversial and boring like Poland itself. For style of dress, see footnote 4.
Private Nationalism Prague
The post-Cold War world loved to share the illusion that the system of nation-states is declining and is no longer a major force in this time of globalization. This widespread belief was not even shaken by the fact that in the early nineties new states mushroomed on the very territory of the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. The idea of the disappearance of all these obsolete trends and currents – among them nationalism, which was considered by its very essence to belong to the modern age – has been also promoted in postmodern discourse. The term “post-nationalism” (which satisfied the need for distinction) was supposed to stand for the change in meaning of the outdated and romantic national sentiment of the withered ages. The overlooked reality took a turn that was quite different from the prophecies of the theory-makers. It has become increasingly difficult to view nationalism as a waning force in a globalized world, since reality has turned out to be quite the opposite. The hateful rhetoric and violent xenophobic acts that have recently spread throughout Europe have increased the need to keep a close eye on the stealthy comeback of an old phenomenon with a new face and a greater adaptability to the new conditions. New theoretical frameworks have been put forward to draw a distinction between dispassionate, good “civic nationalism” (considered acceptable and up-to-date) and barbaric “ethnic nationalism”, which harkens back to previous eras.1 Patriotism, which signifies a future-oriented sentiment, is considered good, while nationalism, which represents the older concept of national pride and national sentiment, is seen as bad – here, again, the need for terminological distinction has been fulfilled. As for Europe, the theorists were ready to apply the “bad” definition to the New Europe (the eastern part of Europe), which suffered from “ontological insecurity”2 and as such served as a hotbed for obsolete ideologies. “Hot” and dangerous nationalism was routinely associated with the margins, the periphery. Anyhow, more than two decades after the Cold War and the collapse of the communist system, it is difficult to blame the difficulties of the transition for the rising nationalisms in the post-socialist countries. Nor is it any longer acceptable to locate nationalism at the margins and at the peripheries, given the fact that normative culture is on the rise throughout Europe, including the old Western democracies.3
Although this process is more likely to emerge in the belated and impaired variation of the capitalist system than in the victorious ones, in the new millennium it has been clearly demonstrated that even large and rich nations are not immune against nationalism if the cornerstone of their security and economic prosperity is at stake. Instead of engaging in further denial and illusions, theory shifted its focus accordingly onto trying to explain the phenomenon by identifying the composition of the soil on which nationalism is able to flourish even in the old democracies. In his exploration of the nationalism of established nations and democracies, for which he coined a new term: “banal nationalism”4 , Billig argues for the existence of an invisible, naturalized, “unflagged” and dormant type of nationalism that is ready to be mobilized when needed. As a bonus, he erases the clear dividing line between the national sentiments of the great and the small, and between the “cursed” and the “blessed” nations. Since the transformation of 19th-century nationalism into its 21st-century variant (named “neo-nationalism”) could no longer be exclusively connected to high politics driven by the state or to supportive state institutions, Edensor5 emphasizes the influence of popular culture and the mundane, everyday practices and secular rituals that were part of the process of re-shaping and reaffirming national identity. He also sheds light on the barely conscious set of assumptions and activities of laymen, as opposed to the earlier, more general focus on the official, traditional and historical manifestation of nationalism.
Billig’s analysis of the “unflagged” (cool and tempered) nationalisms of the established democracies reveals the tricky nature of nationalism, which naturalizes itself so effectively that we do not even recognize it as such. Edensor, warns us that the mechanism is not to be restricted to the macro level or high culture, since everyday popular culture is much more effective in propagating national sentiments. However, both authors fail to provide any examples from Central and Eastern Europe, a region otherwise considered to be a hotbed of neo-nationalism. The shifting focus of the way we scholars look at nationalism is reflected in the term “private nationalism” – an even more provocative, ill-fitting combination of words with supposedly opposing meanings that was coined by the initiators of the present project, whose aim is to make the disturbing point that nationalism is not something beyond private life or something imposed on the public by outside forces, but that it exists and prospers at the micro level as well. Ordinary people, otherwise good citizens, are eager to embrace the habits and rituals disseminated by national education, history writing, and visual banalities of nationhood, creatively promoting new ways of worshipping their own “natural” community. The building blocks of nationalism are part of our everyday life, our daily existence, our habits, customs and rituals, regardless of whether we notice them or not. The redistribution of national identity relies on our barely conscious set of assumptions about whom we do and whom we do not consider to be a part of our nation. Nationalism in any form is considered the most visual of all political currents; it presents itself via a plethora of vivid images, symbols and myths, to which dreams, fantasy and imagination also contribute. Nationalism speaks the language of images; it offers sensual experiences and the gut feeling of belonging, in the name of praised symbols and signs; moments of a shared history commemorated by monuments and the “homeland”; a sacred space, well-defined by borders, for which the security of private lives is to be sacrificed. Art and culture are very much a part of the nation-building process as well as being the disciplines capable of detecting hidden elements, decoding messages and subverting the hypnotic mechanism by which nationalism becomes a part of our daily lives. Although some recent exhibitions and collections of essays6 have addressed the urgent question of how nationalism resonates within contemporary art, far too little attention has been paid to the process of inscription, to the daily routine of the “privatization” of nationalism, and how artists observe and comment on it. This recent collaborative project focuses on the issue of “private nationalism” as it is seen by socially conscious, reflective and critical artists in the post- -socialist countries and beyond. In line with its chosen name, the Private Nationalism Project does not plan to focus on moments of high political drama, but rather on the process by which these moments are so naturally absorbed and embraced by ordinary people. It thus concentrates on the solid texture of ordinary people’s everyday experience and involvement in setting in motion the machinery of nationalism. The project will scrutinize our banal clichés, labels and stereotypes about ourselves as natural members of our nation and about those who are excluded from it. The aim of the collaborative project is to shed light on the overlooked issue of the daily routines of nationalism, the subtle process by which its ingredients infiltrate and are absorbed into citizens’ everyday lives. /read complete text at www.divus.cc/
1 Michael Ignatieff, Blood and Belonging: Journeys into the New Nationalism. London: Chatto and Windus, 1993
2 Anthony Giddens, The Nation-state and Violence. Volume of Two A Contemporary critique of Historical Materialism. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987, 218.
3 Andre Gingrich & Marcus Banks (eds.), Case Studies from Western Europe in Neo-Nationalism in Europe & beyond: Perspectives from Social Anthropology. New York, Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005, 69-196.
4 Michael Billig, Banal Nationalism. London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: SAGE publications, 1995
5 Tim Edensor, National Identity, Populatr Cultur and Everyday life. Oxford, New York: Berg, 2002
6 Minna Henriksson and Sezgin Boynik (Eds. By), Contemporary Art and Nationalism: Critical reader. Exit Institute for Contemporary Art and MM-publications, Pristina, 2007; Let’s Talk about Nationalism: Between Ideology and Identity. KUMU Art Museum, Tallinn, 2010; WHW, How Much Fascism? Berger Kunsthall, Norway, 2011; New Natinal Art. National Realism in XXI Century Poland Art. Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2012