June 11, 2012
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.