The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and Europe in the Post-Communist World, by Aleš Debeljak. Translated by Aleš Debeljak and Rawley Grau. New York and Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. 123 pages.
If the EU is to inspire anything like patriotism, it must develop a sense of identity while respecting the cultures that comprise it, writes Aleš Debeljak.
Although the Slovenian poet and cultural analyst Aleš Debeljak spent enough time in America to acquire a Ph.D. and a wife, devotes one of four chapters of The Hidden Handshake to a lament that Slovenian art and history are almost unknown in America, and concedes that “at least since World War II, America’s cultural importance has transcended any single tradition; it has become a stage for the entire world,” he is, as his subtitle indicates, much more seriously concerned with the cultural and political roles, or their absence, of the newest nations within the European Union.
Debeljak is particularly concerned by the EU’s failure to adopt some of the values of the nation-state, in his view a European creation, which at its best transformed nationalism into patriotism, allowed not only the existence but the flourishing of minority cultures, and fostered, through its cosmopolitan atmosphere, fruitful multicultural competence. (He is, of course, aware of the ways in which Germanic culture in particular inhibited Slovene political and cultural life, and he worries about majority languages becoming the exclusive vehicles of political discourse in the EU.)
In fact, Debeljak seems to be a thoroughgoing euroskeptic, and in view of last year’s French and Dutch rejection of the EU constitution, his analysis seems not only acute, but prophetic. He cites four reasons for skepticism: worry about diminished state boundaries; desire to protect ethnic identity; a “democratic deficit” in the management of EU affairs, from Brussels down; and “the failure to form a ‘common mental framework.’ ”
The last concern pervades the book. Debeljak maintains that the impulses behind the EU are primarily technological and economic; that “Europe” is defined as Western Europe, which accounts for the EU’s failure to intervene in Bosnia; and that “Old Europe” is acting as if it were an American gated community, constructed to exclude lesser cultural, ethnic, and economic breeds, accepting the implications of divisions which date back not just to the Cold War and the Schengen Treaty but to the Treaty of Trianon, which concluded World War I.
To counteract this exclusiveness – and to ensure a place for Slovenia and other smaller nations – Debeljak proposes the construction of “a common grand narrative,” “a substantial imaginative framework of general identification, material for ‘common dreams’ that can give all the citizens of Europe a certain minimum of existential meaning and emotional density, through which we recognize a commitment to something that transcends us as individuals with particular identities.”
Just how this is to come about, and what would result, is not at all clear, and Debeljak admits that “such a construction is idealistic, hinged as it is on a search for balance between ethnic and cultural traditions on the one hand, and loyalty to a supranational, overarching cultural habitus on the other” before lapsing into near-duckspeak about the “mutual acceptance of a publicly shared sphere within which such reciprocity can take place.”