A Healthy Disrespect Of The Police

The Police

June 11, 2012

Allan Stevo

I straddle two cities – Chicago and Bratislava.  It was hard for me not to notice the iconic photos from both cities three weeks back.  I know the world wasn’t exactly watching Bratislava, since, well, it’s just lil ole Bratislava, but I was surely watching it. Nor was the whole world watching Chicago the way I was.  Sure, it got some play in the media, but it wasn’t like the whole world was talking about how important Chicago was just because many thousands of protesters faced off against thousands of police officers.  A relatively small segment of society was watching.

Fascinated, I took note of how people in each city reacted differently to the police and how seriously the police took themselves in both situations.

In Chicago – people took the police seriously and the police took themselves seriously.

In Bratislava – no one took the police seriously and the police didn’t really take themselves that seriously.

You can make all kinds of “Yes, but…” statements that mitigate this distinction – such as “Yes, but the Slovaks didn’t want to destroy property,” or “Yes, but the Slovaks are peaceful people” or “Yes, but the the black brigade made very bold threats.”  That doesn’t change the fact that this distinction is noticeable and valid.

Americans are increasingly coming to respect their increasingly authoritarian government.  The mere fact that I would bother to write in these pages about the tyranny of the TSA tells me that I, instead of laughing at them for the buffoons they are, take seriously the threat of an increasingly authoritarian state on my liberties.

Slovaks, on the other hand are becoming increasingly free with their distance from communism and increasingly disrespectful of governmental authority.  Disrespect of the most prominent symbol of government authority could be seen three weeks ago in Bratislava – on Obchodna Street.  I can’t imagine a scene like this fifty years ago in Slovakia, nor even ten years ago in Slovakia.  Slovakia is a rapidly changing society.

I worry that the same can be said about my own homeland, about America.  However, in a different direction than Slovakia.  In America, that healthy disrespect for the police  seems to be waning.  Change in America does not worry me at all.  It’s the direction of that change that concerns me.  Police and government should be disrespected.  That’s part of being a free people – disrespecting those entities that possess the power to make you less free.  By maintaining that disrespect, you largely deny anyone the power to make you less free.

While protesters in America took the police very seriously in Chicago during the 2012 NATO summit in May, revelers in Slovakia barely took the police seriously at all.  The capital city saw Slovak youth blocking the path of trams and laying down on the hoods of police cars.  I know how tame that will sound to a Greek soccer fan or an American NATO activist, but that’s relatively wild for a Slovak.  No matter how stern-faced the police are in the video of that happening below, I can promise they laughed inside.  It would take a de-Slovakifying (if such a medical procedure were to exist) for a Slovak police officer to take himself 100% seriously.  It’s simply part of the nature of any Slovak to laugh at the authority of the government.

That’s why so many Slovaks are scofflaws when no one is looking, why so many Slovak go out of their way to avoid paying a little, some, or any of their taxes, why so many Slovaks laugh at authority, and why so few Slovaks turn out for elections (especially the foolish E.U. parliamentary elections to which Slovakia, for the second election in a row, which also means every E.U. parliamentary election Slovakia has had, had the lowest turnout percentage of voters from any E.U. country).  That last point is something I am thrilled about, because while all the world seems to take the European Union seriously, some part of each Slovak realizes that the E.U. is just another government run by fallible people waiting to fail.  I don’t say that to be pessimistic, but rather to be realistic about the nature of governments.  All governments fail, which means that no government need be worshiped as if it were an eternal entity.  Slovaks tend to understand that concept well.

Twenty-five years ago being a smartass to a police officer could earn you a trip to the police station where you might “accidentally” fall down the stairs badly.  That’s no longer the case.  The police know it and a lot of Slovaks know it.  This video below tells me that some segment of Slovak society has moved far beyond communism – even if that segment is simply drunken 19 year old male hockey fans living in Bratislava, it remains telling that a group of Slovaks in a joyous mood behaved this way – not only in public, but in the presence of and in blatant disrespect for a police officer.

The video makes me smile because it is shows youth having fun.  But more importantly it shows a significant step post-communism.  This is Slovakia, where people have a healthy disrespect of the police, even in the face of a police officer.  But today, that disrespect has passed from rolled eyes and comments made around the dinner table, into the public sphere.  I know that some level of disrespect of authority is something I admire. I like seeing that experiment taking place – a culture testing its boundaries.

On the left side of the Atlantic, on the left side of Lake Michigan, another group of people were busy testing a different boundary.  They were busy allowing an increasingly militarized urban police force to use them for live training.  Arguably the protesters were doing the same with the police.  What I disliked was how seriously each side took themselves.  To some extent the police rightly considered some of the protesters a bunch of bozos.  The protesters, wrongly, did not seem to think the same of the police.  A wise commenter on this site some months ago encouraged this jovial view of a growing authoritarian state when he called the TSA the Keystone Kop operation that it is.  Like any Keystone Kop operation it should be laughed at.  Authority is claimed.  Respect is given.

The Chicago Police claimed authority.  The protesters entered into that game with the police, thereby giving the police respect.  As much as I appreciate individuals who I know on both sides of the protest, I am saddened by the misuse of respect.

That’s what I meant earlier by writing: “That’s part of being a free people – disrespecting those entities that possess the power to make you less free.  By maintaining that disrespect, you largely deny anyone the power to make you less free.”  By giving respect, you legitimize authority that a person claims for himself.  You might change the physical landscape around you a little bit with that gift of respect, but you change the psychological landscape in which you live so much more.  In the mind, it would seem, a person can be free even in an unfree society.

Perhaps that kept Hungarian poet Gyorgy Faludy free in mind as he wrote poems in his own blood on toilet paper in prison.  Perhaps it kept Czech dissidents like Vaclav Havel free in mind.  I believe it is a large part of what makes Slovaks feel so free at times – a history of what historians call oppression through which they spent lots of time laughing at what historians call oppressors.  It’s hard to oppress someone who laughs at you every time you turn around.

Slovaks have some of their own cultural orthodoxy, but they love to challenge everyone else’s cultural orthodoxy.  That challenging of one’s cultural orthodoxy can be good training for someone from outside of Slovakia.  Love of a king, and by extension – love of a government, is not part of that Slovak cultural orthodoxy.  As a t-shirt sold at a Slovak restaurant reads “1,100 years without a king makes the heart free.”  It does make the heart free.  You aren’t accepting for yourself respect for the claimed authority of a king, just because he calls himself a member of your tribe.  It’s easy to trick a person into feeling respect by convincing that person of ownership.  An example of that might go something like this “I am your king; I am one of you, so it’s okay to respect me,” or ” I am your government; you can feel like you can change me any time you want, so it’s okay to respect me.” There’s a lot of fallacy wrapped up in that claim of ownership, however.  Who really owns a king?  Who really owns a government?  Is it ever “we the people,” whatever that statement really means? How easily can a government be changed?

Americans elected a President in 2008 on a platform of change then saw little change.  Americans elected a Congress on a platform of change in 2010 then saw little change.  Those highly touted elections might be little more than pressure valves.  Those elections are ways to feel some ownership over government.  If you can superficially change the appearance of the government, you can feel like you’ve changed the government.  Refuse to cede respect and those pressure valves are much less necessary.  Laugh loud and good at “your” government and you will be automatically a step freer than you were five minutes earlier, because you will have changed the psychological terrain in which you perceive yourself.

Slovaks laugh good at their government each day.  For the first time, I am seeing Slovaks laugh loud at their government as well.

The video of the hockey celebration on Obchodna Street can also be found on the linked text.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com.  He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing.  You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com.  If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email.  You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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  • Pete Baxter

    Jun 11th, 2012

    Mr Stevvo, I have been following your posts for a while and I love your views as an outsider in Slovakia, and the way you seem determined to get right under the skin of life here. I say “here” because I too am an expat working in Slovakia. So I was fascinated in your turn towards politics and can wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments towards both your country and the country we live in. I wanted to share something with you on the subject of Slovak police not taking themselves too seriously. OK, sure we have all been pulled over on some dubious traffic “offence” here and negociated a price without a ticket, but recently I heard this story from a Slovak friend of mine who runs tours in the Old Town. He was “done” for some parking or minor traffic offence and told it was a hundred Euro fine by the officer. She said she recognised him and asked if he had been arrested before. And kept asking questions until she realised that she recognised him from his work. He is a very well respected historian/author/photographer in this country. Then she enquired, “How many languages do you speak?” “Five,” he replied. “Right, that’s ten Euro’s off for each of them,” she said. “But I only have ten Euro’s on me…” “OK well…Good enough…” was the response. Don’t you just love this country? You are so right with your views on freedom and a healthy, but mutual, laid back attitude between authority and society. Thank you for your insight. All power to you! Kind regards,
    Pete Baxter

  • How do you punish patriots I guess… It’s funny though I have a friend from Bratislava who live in Toronto with me I didn’t know he was a cop till after a year. There I was revealing tajnostý haha… I’m kidding*) Probably the most mellow person I ever met. Holy if he arrested me think I’d probably fall asleep lol

    So glad you chose to keep the site going. Am always learning more and more and always look forward to get a link.

  • Interesting article. Though I´m not sure whether it´s good to use the hockey craziness as an example about how Slovak police works. I mean hockey is something special and when the Slovak team is succesful it´s just this special kind of euphoria and in a situation like this the policemen are a part of that euphoria too. I´m pretty sure that the reaction of both sides would be quite different if those were let´s say soccer fans after a match between Spartak Trnava and Slovan Bratislava or (to come closer to the Chicago examplke with the G8 summit) some kind of demonstration.

  • American Patriot

    Jun 17th, 2012

    One cannot laugh at a government which has genocidally exterminated 20,000,000 Native Americans and broken every single treaty ever made with them in order to steal their continent; a government which has dropped nuclear weapons – twice – on Japan, after provoking Japan into war; a government which has firebombed all the ancient cities of Europe into piles of rubble and killed 5,000,000 German noncombatant civilians in the process; a government which interned 1,000,000 German soldiers in starvation camps after WWII and had a program to reduce the German population by 50% through starvation, even though there was more than enough food for them stockpiled in Italy, until fear of the Soviet Union caused them to reassess the usefulness of Germans as a barrier to Russia; a government which murdered its own President – JFK – and his brother – RFK – and his son – JFK, Jr – and MLK, and UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, and Patrice Lumumba, and Rafael Trujillo, and Salvador Allende, and Mohammed Mossadegh, and countless other heads of State, and conspired to murder the Pope; a government which invades any country which does not open its resources to their corporations, and kills 1,000,000 Iraqis in the process; a government which kills thousands of its own citizens on 9/11/01 in order to establish the very police state you now see unfolding; a government which is now engaged in killing hundreds of women and children in Syria as a pretext to invade it for the benefit of its fellow-pond-scum Israel; a government which in 200 years has been responsible for more death, murder, war, and destruction than can possibly be imagined; this is not a government at which one can laugh with amusement. One does not laugh when Madeleine Albright calls the deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children “worth it.” One does not laugh when the CIA runs the opium and heroin trade out of Afghanistan. One does not laugh when this government claims the right to murder anyone, anywhere in the world, without a trial and without even accusing them of any crime, whenever they please to do so. One does not laugh when this government deploys tanks and machine guns against women and children who are guilty of nothing more than believing a different religion. (I refer to the FLDS compound in Texas. At least in your country the Soviets in 1968 only deployed tanks against men who were throwing firebombs and killing their soldiers.) One does not laugh when the FAA foresees 30,000 spy drones over America in 10 years. One does not laugh when the Echelon network monitors every single phone conversation on the entire globe. One does not laugh when every cellphone connected to the Internet can have a virus installed on it which turns it into a 24-hour listening bug and a GPS tracking device. This list only scratches the surface. The entire Cold War was a sham. Every war the United States has ever been involved in was a sham. The political process is a sham. The notion of democracy is a sham. The American government is not something to laugh at. Disrespect, yes. Contempt, yes. Fear, yes. But amusement, no, unless you have a death-wish.

  • Allan, here’s something you forgot. Most cops are regular guys with a family to feed, not conspirators with the evil forces within government as you seem to think. I agree the TSA must go they are useless and intimidating. As for the regular police. Here in the U.S. they are trying to stay safe at work and not get killed while they go about thier duties. If you knew any you might know this. In the past 20 years I have had 10 friends killed while working. Not cracking down on citizens or writing tickets. Mostly by ambush or at calls for service where emotions and alcohol unleashed violence against the peace keepers. 2 commited suicide due to the costant stress of public hatred and media mistruth.
    Imagine going to work with the threat of being killed or injured or loose your job because someone lied to avoid criminal charges. Imagine being a shop owner who cant cover his costs because demonstraters shut down or damaged his buisiness. Especially in todays economic times. How about the employees? The government could care less how many people yell in the streets, they never have. The only winners are the insurance companies.
    Lastly “American Patriot” wow! Not everything should be used as a soap box to scearm from. Our government has done terrible things as they all have. Germany and Japan also commited genocide during the war. And Russia, well where do we start. The realiy is that the governments are all run by the rich corperations. The rich don’t care about demonstrations, they probably make money from thier insurance companies! I think federal police in any form don’t hold the public’s interest as much as the governmen’s. I don’t trust them. The local police, well they’re the ones that are ther when one of your family members is afraid or has become a victim. The traffic guys, well if you know they are out there maybe everyone will mind thier manners and not so many accidents will hurt people. I still don’t like traffic cops though!
    I like your blog, Slovakia is the home of my wife, and my visits there I have come to love it there. It’s nice to see the scenes and read the cultural insights you are experiencing. Politics and governments are all designed to make someone richer. Your time is better served enjoying life, meet up with some friends and have a Pivo for me!

  • […] the NATO summit in Chicago, and the IIHF victory celebrations in Bratislava, I wrote about Slovak disrespect for claimed authority v. American respect for claimed authority.  I’d like to take that a bit further and to talk about how Slovak culture has it right and […]

  • […] item first appeared at 52 Weeks in Slovakia on June 11, […]

  • […] the NATO summit in Chicago, and the IIHF victory celebrations in Bratislava, I wrote about Slovak disrespect for claimed authority v. American respect for claimed authority.  I’d like to take that a bit further and to talk about how Slovak culture has it right and […]

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