26 December 2017

Is the personal the political?

My Moravian-Jewish immigrant great-grandfather

There is a certain feeling I can’t really shake, and I have to wonder if my political attachments aren’t somehow identity-political in a certain way, and a certain irony that these silly reflections of mine should fall on the feast remembering the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and that remembering Saint Constantine the Jew. For example: I can’t pretend that my sentimental attachments to Yugoslavism and to Czechoslovakism (both region-building, agrarian-rooted, authoritarian Slavicist movements with complicated relations to monarchy) are entirely free of awareness of my South Slavic and Moravian-Jewish heritage, or of my awareness of the fact that both have been attenuated by at least two generations of American assimilation, with all of its attendant illusions.

It’s easy enough to say, of course. I was waving the Czechoslovak per-pairle and drawing lions rampant as soon as I was old enough to understand that, okay, this is where Grandma was from. That’s basically the kind of kid I was. And certainly part of my early attraction to socialism was reading about Czechoslovakia and its œconomy in my parents’ old Encyclopædia Britannica. I immersed myself in the legends of the pagan Přemyslovci. I read about Good King Václav, and idolised him as a proto-socialist Robin Hood-type hero. I devoured what I could of Czech folklore – like the story of the cunning-but-good-hearted peasant girl Manka, or the tale of how Intelligence and Luck made a bet that toyed with the fate of the hapless plough-boy Vaněk. I memorised a couple of phrases in Czech. I ate sauerkraut and bratwurst as proudly as any good Wisconsin boy of West Slavic extraction would. In short, I just did what annoying white Americans normally do, right?

Here’s the thing, though. It both is and isn’t that simple. And I learned just how complicated that entire complex, so common to the ‘hyphenated-American’, actually was when I picked up George Grant’s essays in college. (Grant, of course, strove to be more English than the English, which made him Canada’s most ardent defender in the hopeless cause against American cultural and military imperialism.) It became more complicated, and I couldn’t help but feel guilty, when I read about relations on that side of the family who had died in the Shoah, both in the ghettos and at Kaufering. That knowledge did not make me more patriotic or give me the easy answers the standard American history sees fit to glibly give. It became even more complicated when I picked up Metamorphosis and The Trial by my cousin-by-marriage (and fellow political radical) Franz Kafka, who always felt his own identity to be under interrogation, even in the middle of Europe which was his home, and himself never felt quite at home as a German, as a Czech or as a Jew.

But what are you to do, hyphenated-American? You, too, are on trial. You are guilty. You are facing condemnation regardless of which way you turn. You dare not throw out your chest and toss your weight around as the Celts do with their ‘giddy self-assurance’ because, after all, you were a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’. You see the flags waving – not yours, never wholly yours – and can’t help but whiff the gas chambers and the smoke of the incinerators. Yet you play footsie with nationalism like it’s a harmless pastime. Take your belated outrage on behalf of your persecuted kin, and shove it. Dare you to speak of doyikayt? Hah! What an idle dream was that, when the Nazis and their collaborators came for you and your kin, and those who survived crept into Stalin’s shadow accordingly, or else defected to an illusory safe harbour amongst the Americans? Wake up. Dare you to critique your people’s own state, once they won it? Don’t you know what company you keep in so doing? Dare you to sympathise with the enemy? What business did you and your family have converting, anyway? And yet, none of these questions apply to you, hyphenated-American. You are already guilty – you, and your whole family – of taking the illusion that the post-war consensus offered you, and slipping quietly into the oblivion of assimilation. You, hyphenated-American, are guilty. Take that hyphen as a sword, and throw yourself upon it.

Little wonder I’m drawn to the less-deadly alternatives. Perhaps Yugoslavism and Czechoslovakism represent, too, the promise of a ‘melting pot’ without the necessity of such a derangement of rootlessness and paranoia; perhaps there is something psychological in my attachment to them. But that doesn’t stop them from being attractive. Czechoslovakism represented peaceable coexistence and œconomic justice, for that brief window of its ascendancy. And Yugoslavism the same: a crowned and shining brotherhood which later formed the nucleus of the great non-alignment, which held out high hopes for a more just, multipolar world order: a global resistance to the triple evils of racism, capitalism and imperialism – one which seems all the sweeter when NATO expansion and all its attendant evils go marching under the Orwellian banners of ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘dignity’. It isn’t wholly attenuated ethnic pride, or paranoia.

There can be no salvation in ideology, that much is true. I can take some comfort in the notion that it’s not the ideological aspects of Yugoslav and Czechoslovak regionalisms that attracted me, rather the Byzantine (and peculiarly Orthodox) theological heritage that lay behind both: the insistence on a multivalence that witnesses to the political ironies of the Cross; that doesn’t boil down political belonging to an ethnic identity or to a mere matter of procedure.

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