The Slovenia Times

Against seeing society as black and white



His books have appeared in English, Japanese, German, Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian, Polish, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak, Lithuanian, Finnish, French, Italian, Spanish and Romanian translations. His recent publications in English include ¯The Hidden Handshake: National Identity and European Postcommunism®; ¯Reluctant Modernity: The Institution of Art and its Historical Forms®; ¯Twilight of the Idols: Recollections of a Lost Yugoslavia®; and three books of poems ¯Anxious Moments®; ¯The City and the Child®; ¯Dictionary of Silence®. He is the general editor of the book series ¯Terra Incognita: Writings from Central Europe® published by White Pine Press, Buffalo, New York. As a person with rich cosmopolitan experience and a member of a generation that took a significant part in political changes in the late 1980s, Debeljak frequently participates in various public debates in Slovenia and internationally. The subject is the Slovenian nation, which is difficult to describe and thus define as a "trademark" that would attract more attention and recognition in the world. Is there a way to reach a more solid and less disputable self-definition? I wish it were possible - but I don't think there is, as off-hand definitions like "Slovenians are like Austrians, except they have a soul" won't do. A commonly accepted historical narrative that gives meaning to the past and informs the present behaviour of the members of the collective is always based on a certain consensus, be it enforced or arrived at through a public discussion. Those things we do not agree upon tend to be repressed. I don't think it is possible to reach a sort of "organic unity" wherein all the members of the collective, including all the different regions inhabited by Slovenian citizens, will ever be seamlessly united. This is all for the good, though, because the ongoing public discussion - if at times vulgar and confrontational - is really a principled way for the modern nation to exist. There cannot be a final, ossified, petrified identity that would be acceptable to all its members. To be a Slovenian and to live in Slovenia means, after all, that we inhabit a whole range of identities, the ones based on gender, language, and social class, to those that stem from urban or rural environment, the Mediterranean or the Alpine customs, religious practice from Catholicism to Islam and cultural preferences from opera to hip hop. We all participate in an ongoing process of shaping and adapting our identities, or better, and our specific perception of what appears to be an identity. I want to further complicate the seemingly simple question of Slovenian identity. I don't think it is a simple question. Consider for instance the dominant image of Triglav, the three-headed mountain, in the Slovenian imagination. Yet, that is the Alpine character that has been hoisted upon the rest of the ethnic Slovenian population as its over-arching symbol. It is patently clear that to the people from Prekmurje or Bela Krajina, this symbol does not have a spontaneous, nativist, self-evident force, but they have to be taught, literally, how to assimilate it and accept. The fact that Triglav is on the coat of arms and on most of the official symbolic national presentations is a recent outcome of a struggle between different symbolic narratives. It bears witness to the power of a nationalist ideology that by definition has to homogenise, unite, make uniform in order to amalgamate various regional, dialectal, cultural, and social traditions into a larger whole, that is, a nation and, in an ideal-case scenario, a nation-state. However, it is worth pointing out that Slovenian identity is not singular as we need to account for an incredible variety in the Slovenian landscape and mindscape. This is a country and an ethnic group that enjoys a tremendous variety, including a good 50 distinct dialects, which blows the mind of any Pole or Russian, speakers of languages without historical dialects. Dialects, while often dismissed as quaint ornaments of folklore, are relevant in a personal construction of identity. They reflect a particular culture of micro-identities that set apart regions such as, say, Gorenjska from the Littoral. The diversity and unity play themselves out within Slovenia just as much as they do on a European level. The difference is, of course, in that European layer of identity as a trans-national marker is still weak, whereas the national or ethnically based identity tends to be the strongest in claiming our allegiances. No wonder: nationalism with all its attendant disasters and wars is actually the ideology that dominated the last two centuries. Moreover, it is inseparable from modernity. Years after the political independence, year and a half after EU membership and a year after a change of government, Slovenia encounters to a load of divisive issues from different pasts... How should we deal with them? In the period preceding independence and the nation-state, the Slovenian people have been very much united in a common goal. After that, the fault lines within the collective have resurfaced with particular force. A debate about the foundational crime with which I refer to-the indiscriminate slaughter of the Nazi and Fascist collaborators and civilians without due process in the wake of World War II-was one of the issues that returned with a vengeance, because it has been hitherto repressed. Slovenia is today the only successor-state of former Yugoslavia to have gained a membership in EU and NATO. It has thus accomplished three-fold transformation: it shed the communist yoke, it dissociated itself from a larger federal unit, and it has established democratic institutions and a capitalist market. Public debates during the heroic age of independence that gave way (with EU and NATO) to the age of interdependence have been heated and twisted, yet one thing is clear: it is impossible to reduce the complexity of national life onto a single standard, which is sometimes a temptation that the current center-right government seems reluctant to resist. What I have in mind is the ability and the need for all the members of the collective as a whole to accept the fact that it is impossible to neatly separate the good guys from the bad guys in the period of World War II. In this period, national liberation was intertwined with civil war: struggles between communists and anti-communist home guard were overlapping with the resistance to the Axis forces and the royalists, etc. Only a mythologized narrative will dispense with complexities and feed you a single formula, us versus them. The exclusivist account of history has been the domain of totalitarian regimes. It would be foolish and dangerous to retain this exclusivist mindset. We have to accept the fact that both extremes of the recent past, the communist crime and the collaboration with the Axis, are ours to reckon with and to integrate in our collective narrative. To apply these divisions to the current political agenda: Every political debate in Slovenia seems to end up in resurrecting WWII traumas. Is there a way to redefine Slovenian left and right without counting the bones from WWII? That seems desirable but also impossible. I do not believe it is simply possible to put this chapter behind, although I see that crippling, paralyzing effect of this ongoing examination of the recent past that splits the community into - roughly speaking - two sides. That sort of black-and-white perspective of good and evil seem to have only been turned upside down in the post-independence period, particularly under the new government. Those that were under the communist regime (good guys) are now bad guys and vice-versa. This is the basic cognitive error of many people who actively engage in reshaping the national symbolic narrative. This is predicated on the fact that everything that has been done under the previous regime was by definition wrong, hence all the actions designed to counter the previous regime need to be diametrically opposite. Here is a mistake. The actions need to be different, but not diametrically opposite. It is comfortable to fall into the trap of retaining the same mental form, though with a different set of values. You retain the exclusivist good vs. evil dramaturgy that basically brings rabid communists and rabid anti-communists very close together. Here is the hidden legacy of the communist regime, revealing the extent to which it has colonized our thought patterns, making it impossible - at least for some elements in the current government - to let go of that authoritarian mental form. The communist legacy remains alive in the method itself. In this regard, a new generation of political, social and cultural elite will have to emerge that will not be burdened by the pattern of exclusivism which has sadly marked the Slovenian 20th century. Is it possible to simply close the chapter and move on? No! There is a need for public public recognition of the crimes committed in the name of the nation by both the communists and the collaborators who aided the occupying Nazis and Fascists bent on exterminating Slovenians as a whole. These crimes need to be confronted and understood, but must not be explained away, i.e. swept under the rug of oblivion. The understanding of conditions and consequences of fratricide has to be integrated in a national symbolic narrative. If we fail to critically remember the past, we are more likely to repeat it. This is something we'd all prefer to avoid, of course. Could this be solved by a strong and trusted political personality, who doesn't lean on one of those extreme political stands? I'm weary of strong political personalities because Slovenia may very well be on the cusp of Central Europe, the Balkans and Mediterranean, truly integrating these three cultural spheres. But it is too close to the Balkan mind state where the strong personality has repeatedly resurfaced promising the nation the reconciliation and the unity under the single banner only to have turned whole countries into concentration camps of one kind or another. I have in mind such dictators in the Balkans such as Tito, Ante Pavelic, Todor Zivkov, Enver Hoxha and other "strong leaders" that have imposed their totalitarian version of the truth on the whole population. A "strong personality" is less important than a gradual process of educating the citizenry in the complexities of the recent past that cannot be squeezed in a couple of useful sound bites. To understand the complexities of the past, where the intertwined issues of guilt and redemption go hand in hand, is probably the only solution for the informed citizenry to participate in the decision-making processes about the common good. The ongoing "daily plebiscite" can also be seen to unfold in our negotiation between the patriotic education and the education for citizenship. One is culture and tradition-specific and the other teaches universal political values. The two need to be presented together, in the same package. Hence, the students will learn that the conflict lies in the root of every dynamic society, and that there is really no formula that would reconcile our commitment to a particular ethnic collective into which we happen to be born, and our equally important commitment to the universal values of freedom, solidarity, and equality in the face of law-including the constitutional habits of the mind. Speaking of patriotism - are Slovenians patriots? How do they perceive patriotism? What ground does it have? First there is a need to clearly distinguish patriotism from nationalism. Patriotism can be and originally was regional - Stajerska or Gorenjska patriotism. As a sub-national form of allegiance, it is an ancient term that speaks of attachment of an individual to the land of his primary socialisation. Nationalism can be seen as destructive and malign, when it is practiced as ethnic chauvinism and exclusivism. I like to invoke Karl Schurz: "My country right or wrong" - patented nationalistic slogan. But pay attention: the second sentence of that very same author, which often gets overlooked, is thus "...if right, to keep it right, if wrong, to set it right." This intelligent patriotism is something to which I wouldn't mind subscribing myself. Patriotism is something that allows the individual to celebrate the attachment to the land and the cultural heritage and at the same time allow others to do the same, for their own respective lands and cultures. Alas, it appears that the overall shape of Slovenian patriotism is the uncritical and unintelligent variety. Most Slovenians would only support - it seems to me - the first part of the dictum mentioned and would not integrate the critical attitude. Anyone who critiques is immediately suspected of disloyalty and is in a certain sense not Slovenian enough. I think this is a sentiment of a people that have not acquired a nation-state yet and our short history of independence is here again revealing itself as an impediment to a full-fledged public participation in democratic debates where both, the display of attachment as well as the critical attitude toward the pathologies of the nation, are on offer. I am inclined to believe that most Slovenians don't like the critical voices from abroad, glibly dismissing outside opinion as not sufficiently initiated into and familiarized with this specific culture and society. The evaluation of critique from within often depends on government policies, rebuffing critical voices as troublemakers rather than as participants in search of a common good. The critique, however, is a necessity. It is not a luxury that may or may not be allowed. I'm afraid that Slovenian nationalism is of a non-reflected and non-examined variety. Why? Because for the longest time we have been told the story of Slovenian nationalism as benign and defensive. We have not considered the malign character of nationalism that turns inward, not only in the terms of large incident of suicide etc., but also against the indigenous population that can be turned into "the Other", such as Roma, gay or other marginal groups, particularly Slovenian citizens, immigrants from southern ex-Yugoslav lands or their descendants. The fact that we are so overwhelmingly ethnically homogenous - 92% of the whole citizenry is ethnically Slovenian - makes slipping into ethnic chauvinism all the more possible, which may not even be recognised as pathological. Slovenia is somehow wedged between the cold, rational and systematic north and the emotional and improvisational south. In this light, the northern example promises us a good way towards a better material standard and so it seems that Slovenian self-perception wants to please that north. Is there a lack of self confidence here? You always need the other in order to be yourself. Slovenians, to use this tongue-in-cheek definition, are "Austrians with a soul." On one hand, we sit on a fence that allows us to flirt with both the north-western rational mind representing efficiency and work ethics. On the other, we'd like to congratulate ourselves for retaining-via flirting with the Balkans and its easygoing lifestyle-an 'lan vital and emotional charge, however badly stained it is with sloppiness and the lack of discipline. This sort of ability to reach into more than one stock of metaphors and narratives for self-definition and self-perception is precisely the potent force that have not been used enough. Consider this: Budapest has, wisely, established Central European University immediately in the wake of the changes of 1989 and is now a potent magnet for intellects across the regional borders. Ljubljana does not have the University of Southeastern Europe, but it could have. It would have facilitated the transfer of knowledge, information and democratic habits from the West to the republics that emerged from the ashes of ex-Yugoslavia and beyond. However, Slovenia only had a single goal over the past decade: the entry into the Western "clubs" - NATO and EU. This has, perhaps understandably, narrowed our perception. The Balkans was what Slovenia was running from as it was a "no-go" zone. We did not want to have anything to do with the Balkans. If we had carefully calibrated and translated into practice this variegated, multi-faceted character of the Slovenian culture, that takes various influences from the Mediterranean, the Balkan and to the Central European worlds, we would have had sufficient self-confidence to build the said University and would have thus brought to the EU a specific difference that would allow us to fight above our weight. Now we don't, because we scramble around and wonder what exactly is that we bring into EU other than being the smallest offspring in the nest, the runt of the litter, constantly saying "Ask me, teacher, ask me! I know the answer, I did the homework." There is no point in denying the fact that the EU-mandated Schengen border replaced the Roman limes, the main border of "European civilization", which today runs along the southern border of Slovenia. Rather than turning away from the Balkans we should have been much more engaged in an area about which the informal expertise that has supposedly been accumulated in a public mind is slowly being dissipated because Slovenia doesn't have an institution where this knowledge would be systematically processed and then used to facilitate the political and cultural projects in the commerce of ideas and goods. Slovenia's "Balkan card" is indeed a great potential that we could have played the way Poland used its valuable expertise with Ukraine and other countries outside EU. Likewise, Slovenia should and could have brought in the EU this particular expertise about the troubled region we call the Balkans. Major reforms are on the way. A better standard is promised on the base of some foreign experience (Slovakia). Will these examples necessarily work out in Slovenia or do you think we too easily take foreign examples without considering specific circumstances and Slovenian particularities? Make no mistake about it - I'm flatly opposed to the flat tax. I think the American-inspired model, though never actually implemented in America, yet was adopted in Estonia and Slovakia, may indeed do wonders for the thin layers of the top elite, but is likely to impoverish the large sectors of society, thus contributing to the long-term instability and the lack of social cohesion. The elements of the social welfare state and trans-generational solidarity need to remain in place, not only because this is what we have been used to, but because the safety network is in fact beneficial to the large segments of the society. The gradual method of the post-communist transition has actually allowed - in comparison with the other new members of the EU - Slovenia to really survive that transitional period with relative peace and with a considerable degree of social cohesion. This was not the case in other countries. Take Hungary, where they sold the media and the public services in the early 90s to international corporations and now they really don't control vital sectors of the society in their own nation-state. I think doing this in the name of neo-liberal reforms (free market as alpha and omega of human condition) only strengthens the need for political elite, which stands behind them, to mobilize the virulent forms of nationalism that are in turn used as a smoke screen. It attempts to make people believe that the problems of their lives lie not in the economic reforms but in the figure of "the Other" which can be filled with either single women, gays, Roma, Muslims or any other "Other". Virulent nationalism is the ideology that masks the big social differences that the radical neo-liberal reforms are likely to produce. There is a competition between what can be called a European model, representing the social welfare state including social networks for the more vulnerable parts of the society and the American free-market model that does propel the economy and allows the elite to enrich itself, but leaves a large society below the poverty line, where even fully employed and fully-paid blue-collar workers cannot make the ends meet. This is the kind of social-Darwinist society where "dog eats dog". In this regard I am a die-hard European who wants to have his state informed by both the Scandinavian and German social-democratic model which supplies well-being to the large number of citizens and not only to a select few.


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