19 May 2010


Judy and I just returned from Riga, Latvia, where we spent three days arranging for new business visas. While there, we visited the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, documenting Soviet, German, and again Soviet domination in the years 1940-1991. The museum is a sobering monument to the suffering caused by organized oppression, and the desire to survive and overcome that oppression.

I'll let these two images from the Occupation Museum stand for that oppression, with its compulsory public language and murderous outcomes:

Pravda hails the decision of the "free Latvian people" to request membership in the "friendly family" of Soviet peoples; then it's the Nazis' turn at the printing press.

We spent our last evening in Riga walking all around the city center. When we entered Dome Square, we found a display of huge photographs commemorating May 4, 1990, when the Supreme Soviet of the Latvian SSR adopted its declaration "On the Restoration of Independence of the Republic of Latvia." The cumulative effect of these emotional images was very powerful.

(Photos by Judy.)

From radio and television coverage, I remember hearing about these events as part of the larger fabric of glasnost, perestroika, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But the independence movements of former Soviet republics was part of a larger 20th-century phenomenon, the breakup of centralized confederations and colonial empires of all kinds.

Last fall, in Oslo, I visited the Norwegian defense museum. Usually in such places I focus on World War II--the war that, in effect, formed my family. But this time I paid much more attention to the founding event of modern Norway, its separation from Sweden in 1905. There is practically nothing in common between the relatively benign royal union of Sweden and Norway (imposed on Norway by the victorious anti-Napoleonic coalition of 1814 as a reward for Sweden at Danish expense) and the duplicity and cruel coercion practiced by Stalin and Hitler. But the rhetoric and emotions so evident in the events in Riga on May 4, 1990, strongly reminded me of Norway in 1905.

Where does the intoxicating power of nationalist identity and nationalist ecstasy come from? When is it helpful to remind people that, in the end, nationalism is "all in our head"--and when is that the most useless, insensitive, and insulting thing to say? On the one hand, nationalist fervor breaks the power of oppression, and on the other hand, it reinforces prejudice, camouflages corruption, and perpetuates the poison of "us/other" thinking.

For many patriots in the Baltic countries, Russians are the historic villains--although many ethnic Russians count themselves among those patriots! And now we're back in Russia, living among those supposed villains, benefitting from their hospitality, enjoying their culture and their frequently self-deprecating humor. Life is such a complex weave of relationships, of which ethnic and national identity are only a few of many threads. Even when the leaders of one nation command its forces to occupy another, and settle their newly-seized territory with their own citizens, it's not easy to classify the oppressors and oppressed according to citizenship. Who are the real patriots--the ones who beat those same old nationalist drums, or the ones who build a genuine community? Who are the real "enemies of the people"--those named by the commander and the conqueror--or that commander, that conqueror, that speechmaker (even among "our own"), who insists on doing our thinking for us?

When I was a child, I once came across my mother's Masters thesis. I never saw it again, and to my subsequent regret never had (or took) the chance to talk with her about it. It was on "nationalism."

Righteous links:

Until I get a chance to read James Davison Hunter's new book,this interview in Christianity Today will have to do. Sample:
Culture is far more profound at the level of imagination than at the level of argument. Deep structures of culture are found in the frameworks of our imagination, frameworks of meaning and moral order that are embedded in the very words we use. There's a difference between the weather and the climate. Contemporary politics is like the weather, changing day to day or week to week. But culture, in its most enduring qualities, isn't about the weather at all. It's about the climate. Changes in the climate of culture involve convoluted, contested, and contingent dynamics.
John Wilson reflects on what constitutes cultural normalcy for American evangelicals-- and the role played by books as "agents of influence" in his own development.

At Reedwood Friends Church this Saturday, 2 p.m.: Paul Anderson and Marcus Borg, "Jesus in Bi-Optic Perspective: Latest Scholarship on the Synoptics and John."

A conversation with Tariq Ramadan: "Islam, the West, and the Challenges of Modernity."

Permanent war watch: "Spending on U.S. military bases in Afghanistan surges."

For computer fans: A fun and fascinating ENIAC simulation; and (thanks to slashdot.org) a site to help you document your own involvement, however modest, in open source development: OpenHatch.

"Sometimes it's hard to say 'I'm sorry,' too easy to be cruel." Ruthie Foster, "Runaway Soul."


Ian Davis said...

If you are interested in nationalism I would recommend "The Lion and the Unicorn - Socialism and the English Genius" by George Orwell. In this thesis Orwell champions the power of nationalism both as a force for good and for evil, and says that the only force strong enough to motivate a people to oppose nationalism as then was arising in Nazi germany was nationalism. If you want a copy ask for it at textserver.com@gmail.com

Johan Maurer said...

I'm definitely going to ask for it.