PRAGUE: Identity and sovereignty are often discussed nowadays. But what do they actually mean? Both probably consist of feelings that a community can only be its true self when it can be so without hindrance – in essence, when a community can decide its own fate.
Today’s talk about identity and sovereignty is often rather gloomy. Both are allegedly endangered: by an EU that wishes to assimilate “us” as much as possible; by the European Commission with its standards; by NATO, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; by the United Nations; by foreign capital; by Western ideologies; by Eastern mafias; by American influence; by Asian or African immigration; and by God knows what else.
Some of these concerns may contain a rational core. Yet they all derive from a traditional misconception – the belief that upholding character, identity or sovereignty is not principally the task of a community or a people but is something left in the control of others; that is, left to those who would attempt to deprive “us” of our identity, or at least to weaken it. I do not think, however, that the world’s main concern is to find ways to rob people of their identity and sovereignty. Respect for any nation’s unique character; the manner of its development; and, the degree to which a community decides its fate, is determined primarily by those living within it.
How is this fate determined? It depends on whether a people close themselves off in hope that the various winds of this world will pass them by; or, whether a nation takes the opposite tack and conducts itself as true inhabitants of this continent and of this planet, that is, as people engaged with the world and who assume their share of responsibility for it. All humanity is faced by this crucial dilemma: to silently watch a suicidal self-propulsion of our civilization; or to become active participants in the maintenance of global public assets, including the most precious one of all – our planet and its biosphere – of which we are a part.
But the concept of community is also composed of concrete things. It depends, for example, on whether the environment is nurtured. It depends on whether a people let their cities and towns become marred by a banal universal architecture devoid of creativity and imagination. Such blights are not imposed by the European Union or by global capital with its transnational corporations, or by evil foreigners. All of this physical degradation – as it happens – is accomplished with local consent and active local assistance. In other words: those who defile “our” identity are primarily ourselves – we who should be its protectors and guardians.
Who is it that infests language and conversation with cliches, ill-structured syntax and rote expressions that flow mindlessly from mouth to mouth and pen to pen? Who is responsible for the sterile language of commercials seen on every wall and television, indeed, seen everywhere, and without which we appear to be unable to know even the time of day? Aren’t these severe attacks on language also assaults on a root of our identities? And aren’t we who use them, quite willingly, also responsible for them?
Let us go farther: Who allows young people to bathe from morning till night in blood flowing on television and movie screens, and yet are sanctimonious and astonished about the aggressiveness of the young? Who reads all kinds of trash and porno-trash? These “entertainments” are not filmed and published by bureaucrats from Brussels or by representatives of international institutions, foreign states or large international corporations: they are marketed by citizens to fellow citizens.
Behind these visible assaults on identity found in every industrial country, the postcommunist countries confront other serious threats to both sovereignty and identity. Over the past ten years of economic transformation, unimaginable wealth has unaccountably disappeared from banks and companies; billions in taxes go unpaid. Few of those responsible have been brought to justice. Perhaps worst of all, those who transferred money to tax havens seem to enjoy the silent admiration of the people of whom they have taken advantage.
But who, precisely, are those who do not repay their debts, and who are those who hire assassins to get rid of their creditors? Who, among those who should be serving as models for others, that is, who among the leaders of political parties, denies his own financial machinations with a smirk?
Who emits into our political and public life the poisons of dissension, foul play, egoism, hatred and envy? Who – quite inconspicuously – is leading us to become ever more hardened in our sensibilities and toward becoming increasingly accustomed to the fact that everyone can lie about everything and anything?
I repeat: if a nation's identity is jeopardized, it is placed in that position primarily from within; it is placed in jeopardy by choice – often the choices expressed at the ballot box – and out of negligence or indolence. Threats to identity nowadays are primarily not matters of dictates from outside. True, the blind pursuit of profit is not the invention of any one people. True, that pursuit is a trait which is immensely contagious. But it is also true that nobody can force anyone to take that course.
If we really want it, if we all are prepared to express the desire to preserve community and identity by taking part in elections and by making the right choices, an open international environment and the advanced democratic cultures of our neighbors, friends and allies constitutes the best ground for advancing a people’s uniqueness. Nowadays, any identity can truly live and flourish only if it breathes the free air of the world; if it defines itself against a background of lasting and living neighborly relations with other identities; and, if it confronts, in a dignified manner, both the adverse winds that blow across today’s world and, perhaps more importantly, the adverse desires that come from within.