Cautious Necessity of State Rituals

/, Essays, Blesok no. 18/Cautious Necessity of State Rituals

Cautious Necessity of State Rituals

Albert Camus, a hero of mine whose life as well as work – and this is a demanding standard to uphold – inspire both respect and admiration, wrote in the influential magazine Combat upon the liberation of Paris in 1944, that the banks of the Seine glittered not only in the light of liberation but also in the light of future freedom.
This distinction comes to mind when I observe the attitude of the Slovenian people towards their state. With the necessary degree of simplification, the people in my country can be reduced to two main ideal-types: on the one side there are those who exhibit a resistance to everything that smells (or, rather: stinks – the term which representatives of this type would doubtless prefer to use themselves) of the state and its institutions, while on the other there are those who display enraptured enthusiasm for everything Slovene. The first group is composed, for the most part, of non-reconstructed leftists, perpetual complainers, nostalgic members of the 1980s civil initiative movements, attendant anarchists and people who refuse to see beyond their nose, all of them perversely claiming their attitude to be the culmination of »autonomy«.
These characters in principle abhor all state structures, the three-part division of power, the mechanisms of a parliamentary democracy and even the symbols of the state such as the flag and the coat of arms. It seems that such an attitude was automatically inherited from the Yugoslav era when the now disintegrated state more-or-less operated as the incarnation of a communist oppressor as well as Serbian cultural customs, the latter having grown considerably in both its impact and public perception the closer we had all approached the ultimate disintegration of Yugoslavia. Such a deep-seated abhorrence implies that these individuals a priori refuse – without any particulars of a critical analysis – to see the principal raison d’être of the state. That is, they tend to dismiss the fact that the state provides the larger frame for the habits of collective existence of its citizens. It is precisely the abstract workings of state structures and its institutions which guarantee the plurality of public and private lifestyles within the limits and under the protection of the architecture of collective existence. In short, we are in a position to entertain and cultivate our own pleasures precisely because the framework of the state ensures that such a cultivation is possible.
The state, after all, guarantees that not all spheres of life are subject to political will and its often arbitrary outbursts.
In this respect I am compelled to claim that the logic of citizenship is the most important aspect of the state; citizenship is by definition blind to ethnic, racial, sexual and cultural differentiation. Cultural identity is namely not the same as civic identity. The universal legacy of the Enlightenment also essentially shapes the structures of the independent and democratic Slovenian state which ensure the constitutional conditions for collective existence under the same roof.
The people in the second group, however, are hardly less short-sighted. A weird combination of nationalist jingoists and dimwitted patriots who acknowledge the conservative formula »this is my country, be it in the right or wrong«, as the one and only valid platform for public action, navel-gazing writers scared of encountering anything which could in any way be considered different (e.g. “Europe”, non-native Slovenian citizens, other national traditions and achievements, and in particular the global village, to name but a few examples of nationalist nemesis). This group resolutely equates the Slovenian state with Slovenian culture. Pouting over the remark I (and other reluctant practitioners of a sphere of critical discourse) often make in public that the Slovenian national coat-of-arms looks more like a scout badge than an intriguing and symbolically coherent heraldic device, they easily launch a militant opposition against anyone who dares to support a different opinion than themselves.
Nationalists perceive all of that which pertains to the Slovenian state – be it a flag, the corruption of the political office-holders, the sensible separation of Church and state, and sometimes even the equality before the law – as being one and the same. All the state’s gestures easily become equally black in the dark blindness of uncritical love. Voices from this group seem to murmur “either you love it or get out of here”.
Neither extreme is close to my own public philosophy. I realize that the point of the liberation which Slovenian citizens achieved with unexpected success in the summer of 1991 must always be carried in the heart if we are to be worthy of the aims of such a liberation – i.e. freedom itself. Liberation should be here seen as primarily a concept of transition, a single solitary accomplishment vital for establishing the conditions necessary for engendering freedom. These conditions must be established again and again, every day. Freedom is essentially more than liberation. As idealistically espoused by Camus, it is a state in which “it is not important to fight for power, but rather for justice; not for politics, but rather for ethics; not for the domination of the state, but rather for its noble character”.
The key significance of the “everyday plebiscite” for freedom is in expressing the will for the architecture of collective existence in which everyone can look for his or her own happiness. Freedom cannot be a freedom of the individual if it fails to spread the freedom of the collective. Happiness, which I understand it to be but as a metaphor for the total fulfillment of the potentials of the individual, is after all the only thing which grows if it is shared with others. National holidays are an opportunity to realize how deeply we are – willingly or unwillingly – caught in the dialectics of the individual citizen and the collective body with its habits and mores. I honestly don’t see any particularly convincing reasons to ridicule tout court the respect which may be displayed for the rituals (such as flags on houses, public holidays, anthems, street celebrations, etc.) with which our young state attempts to preserve public consciousness of some principal events in much the same way as all other countries do. Through various rituals the state asserts that it was not created only yesterday (even though, in the case of independent Slovenia, it was) and demands respect and worth for itself which are otherwise assigned to those stories that enrich, if not give meaning to, our collective existence.
No state, including the modern Slovenian state which rose from the ruins of communism and the broader common experience of a life in the South Slavic federation, cannot exist without pseudo-mythical stories of its own beginnings, without the ritual of conveying the consciousness of such belonging »from generation to generation«, and without a maintenance of civic associations in which the demand for the realization of rights goes hand in hand with responsibility and maturity.
How this adherence is profiled is another matter. It is a matter for political negotiations, as well as confrontations of different views of the world. This is normal. Such a story is invariably the subject and often the result of public “negotiations” concerning the sense of collective existence. Yet no stone slabs carry a prophesy about this Slovenian state lasting for ever. Moreover, any biographical history of some of the old Slovenians, born at the beginning of our waning century, is quite likely to reveal the need of at least four passports and four different states in the course of a single life. However, if we ourselves don’t believe in our own state, then we cannot hope that other subjects on the international scene will take us seriously. If we ourselves don’t realize how necessary state rituals are in establishing civic self-confidence, and if we believe that they are just a necessary evil (not unlike the socialist self-management once used to be), then we have but little hope that our state shall be given any consideration by others, since it will have been given precious little by ourselves.
I have no personal interest either in the first group which want rights without obligations and responsibilities, or the group of rabid nationalists who would – in the name of responsibility – easily sacrifice the protection of rights which must be demanded of the state. Instead, I prefer to quietly whistle to myself a tune by the American protest singer-song-writer Woody Guthrie, who responded to the right-wing patriotism in his country and in his time with a song: “This land is my land, this land is your land, this land was made for you and me”. By suggesting a collective – i.e. “your” and “my” existence – Guthrie made it perfectly clear that every individual must, in one part of his being, strive for the collective existence, too. From this perspective it becomes, I hope, evident that both the stereotypical rejection of the state and its blind praise are woefully inadequate. I admit, though, that they are highly comfortable.

2018-08-21T17:23:48+00:00 January 1st, 2001|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 18|0 Comments