Instead of interviewing people today, I thought it would be a nice idea to write about what I have seen so far. It`s the first of September, and I am planning to write similar reports again on the first of each other coming month.
Officially, I visited four countries during the last month: Ireland, the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland), Lithuania and Latvia. They are all in quite different stages in their development, yet the resemblances are striking. In each country, people create and cherish rituals, customs and social values. The economic differences are quite clear, but their main origin is a difference in timing. Lithuania and Latvia are catching up with the rest of Europe and should be able to reach the Western European level of prosperity by the end of the next decade. Interactions between the countries propel economic growth, but more ambiguous tensions are hiding beneath the surface.
`Us and them are common terms in debates about integration`
The Ireland, the UK, Lithuania and Latvia have all had to deal with cultural contradictions - even to the point that tacit or open war was part of people`s daily lives. Ireland and the UK have had clashes over Northern Ireland than are only now starting to get under control. While the UK has considered Northern Ireland just another part of their territory, the Irish have felt suppressed. Lithuania and Latvia felt occupied by the USSR, when the Moscow point of view was that the Baltics simply belonged to Soviet territory.
In the meanwhile populations have mixed and as time goes by, old wounds seem to heal. Seem to heal, because the traditions of each culture keep the different national identities alive. Russians who live in Latvia may have become Latvians by passport, even the young Russians today consider themselves Russians. They keep Russian traditions and identities alive and transmit them to future generations. Latvians have learnt to be suspicious of Russia and Russian manners, because the Soviets were ruling the country for 50 years against the Latvian people`s will. Russians are likely to feel resentful against the Latvians for not allowing them to be fully accepted citizens of the new nation.
The situation in Northern Ireland is similar. Although Irish families officially live in the United Kingdom, they keep their Irish traditions alive and remember having been, or still being, treated unfairly by the British. Younger generations may not be aware of the exact historical facts, but they are still taught to see the British as `them` and the Irish as `us`.
Us and them
This them and us story is omnipresent in Europe and in the entire world. Traditions serve not only to keep a community together, but also to keep outsiders out. One of the most successful ways to create a common `us`, or keep it from disappearing is to put another culture in the `them` position.
Songs, flags, names and symbols are part of the cultural heritage that unites and divides. The most decisive factor in distinguishing between cultures seems to be language. It helps people communicate or completely disables communication between people and cultures. Forcing people to speak another language seems to be the toughest claim that a dominant culture can impose on another culture. In the exact same way, developing or nurturing an alternative language is the perfect resistance against a dominant culture. The growing popularity of Gaelic can be seen as a return to nationalistic values after decades of European integration. The perseverance of the Lithuanians and Latvians in speaking their own language helped them reclaim independence in the 1990s.
Press and media
Continuing along the same line, different cultures tend to have access to different media coverage. They make their decisions based on different, and potentially contradictory, truths, lies or arguments. In the above-mentioned conflicts, each side has another version of the truth. On either side, the different truths are coloured by whatever each side is fighting for. It may not be a surprise that in time of tensions, information supply is key in shaping opinions. Propaganda oftentimes starts out as very subtle and unnoticed reproductions of truth. They potentially end up in world wars, growing from minds of single persons who become overconvinced of their own version of what slowly becomes a whole people`s universal truth.
It may be interesting to find out about the few thin layers that separate cultural freedom from world wars. Freedom seems to be highly correlated with people`s confidence in their own future. Once this confidence is undermined, they quickly return to their basic needs in which there is no place for those who do not belong to the `us` group. Nationalism and fundamentalism rest around the corner to purify `us` and isolate `them`. Opinion leaders gain political support by projecting a self-declared superiority of their own person, or the culture they represent, over `them` - people declared as undesired.
During this process, people are susceptible to be lured into handing over their personal freedoms for the sake of the general freedom and the continuity of `us`. The dominant culture starts to disrespect the civil rights of the undesired party and propaganda feeds the popular opinion that supports such developments. It is alarming to see that during such processes, intellectuals and minorities fall victim of the dominant culture. Intellectuals because they oversee the situation and may be a danger to the purification objective, minorities because they are turned into the sole source and reason for other people to feel afraid.
The European dream
The European Union intends to provide sustained stability and prevent the above from happening. Key to its success will be the ability to match national interests with the creation of a common European culture. Having a single language of conversation would be of great help as long as other local languages are recognised and stimulated. The same goes for symbols and rituals that are practised in the EU countries. The cultural diversity of the European Union is the one main asset that makes it unique in the world. Whatever political integration is being made, the main threat to the EU is to underestimate the strength of local and historical forces that will continue to have more influence on people`s behaviour than insensitive legislation that is prepared in far-way Brussels and Strasbourg.
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