A demonstrator in Moscow being detained by police. The poster reads “No to war” and “Ukraine is not our enemy.” Associated Press.
The question of national identity, and the questions of national sovereignty and territorial integrity which arise from the question of national identity, all of which are central to the Russo-Ukrainian War, must be defined categorically, addressed and resolved universally, if this war, and the historical conflict of which it is born, is to end at last — if at last life, the human right to live, is placed above everything else, above all ideas and philosophies and politics, if at last the guiltless masses cease to bleed for the ideas of the fanatical few.
Language — as it is the expression of a people, their distinct political and cultural voice that emerges out of historical conflict, settlement and political struggle — prescribes the individual to a people sharing the language and, consequently, to the history, artistic and literary expression and political struggle of that people. These facets of society — historical and political consciousness, artistic and intellectual expression — as much as they exist within language and are born from language, create for the people of that language a collective understanding of self, of shared history and present-day politics — a collective world-gaze which, as distinct from those of other societies, drives a distinct expression through art and politics. This drive for expression (and thus for existence), as it is directed by collective history, creates a collective people’s culture and concept of nationhood or national identity.
Being born of a people collected together through shared historical and political experience, with a shared world-gaze, national identity has its original root in language. After language, a people, then a collective consciousness, then a world-gaze, then a culture and politics, then a society and national identity come to be. A nation, then, comes into being after all the aforementioned as a political, practical, differentiation of that people and history and culture, of that society and language, from all others. A political state emerges out of that people, a society forms, geographical borders are defined — and so a nation, as a practical institution for the preservation and protection of a people and history and culture and the language that binds and births all these, comes to be.
Thus, a people’s national identity, and the language in which it exists, precede and transcend the nation which is a political and purely practical institution that holds within it a people and their identity and language but can in no sense be equated to these or conceived to inform these.
Russia — as Nazi Germany in the last century and all fascistic and fanatical societies that place the realization of a political or historical-religious mystical vision before life and the individual’s right to live — has premised its aggression in Ukraine and violation of the practical structure of nation (and national borders) on the suggested Russian national identity of inhabitants of eastern Ukraine, a claim deriving from the Russian language usage of those inhabitants. Russia would annex Ukrainian national territory and establish a Russian nation, in the practical structure of a nation, after violating Ukraine’s nation structure; denying a people’s and the individual’s foremost right to live which precedes any notion of national identity, history or language; and thus rejecting the necessity of a nation as a practical structure functioning, in the first place, to preserve a people, to protect human life.
Russia’s hypocrisy in first violating the (Ukrainian) nation structure, dismissing the foremost value of human life, only to erect a Russian nation structure over mass graves and razed cities — neither to preserve a people nor to protect human life, but first and foremost to establish a new and false national identity — must be denounced, socially and politically, and prosecuted, legally, in the strongest terms and with greatest urgency. For, as any fascistic war, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, reverses the purpose of the political and practical nation structure from firstly preserving a people and thus human life to firstly preserving a national identity, culture, history and language. This reversed nation structure is false — for neither can national identity exist without human life nor should it, as any political ideology or philosophy, be valued before human life or be built on its oppression and sacrifice.
We, living not a hundred years since the Holocaust, since the second World War, since the Bosnian and Rwandan genocides — we, inheritors of the last century’s evil, our forefathers’ evil, began our century’s first war in Europe and have turned deaf to the historical cry of all those millions oppressed and persecuted and slaughtered. And we commit the same sin, carry into our century the same evil: to value ideas and ideology before life, history and politics before life, national identity before life, land before life; to oppress, conquer and triumph; to deny, again and again, that others have the right to live, the right to life, that they are human.
The war must end, but only with the victory of the nation over national identity, life over ideology, Ukraine over Russia. And as language, as a people and their collective identity and distinct world-gaze, as national identity, transcend the practical nation structure, they must not remain passive to their nation’s bleeding, to its strife for survival — for the nation protects a people, preserves language and history and identity. And without the nation, without just politics and incorruptible law, without principle and courage, we, the people of the world, against evil, in our struggle to life, for all our visions and histories and philosophies, are nothing.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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Mr Smith Goes to Washington centers on the efforts of an individual senator against a legislature nearly totally corrupted by a political machine (controlling both public opinion and the government’s private dealings), greed for political and economic gain, and fear of retribution and political ruin for anything less than total allegiance to the political machine’s agenda. Corruption being thus entrenched and the function of government being thus perverted to serve only its members’ personal gain, Mr Smith (in believing politics to be honest, the Senate virtuous and the endurance of the founding principles of American democracy in modern politics) represents the outsider’s, the idealized view of government. The absurdity of Mr Smith’s ignorance is a counterpoint to the absurdity of the total Senate’s corruption, and, while both are improbable, Mr Smith’s characterization is necessary within the satire that is Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Although Mr Smith’s character, his naiveté and boyish reverence for the American ideal are sentimental and improbable, analogs to his qualities of outsider and disrupter of the status quo (and to his popularity for these qualities) may be drawn from the popularity of the outsider and disrupter in modern American politics; this popularity, unlike that of Mr Smith, stems from public cynicism or apathy, not, as in the film, from idealism.
The film portrays corruption as the norm in state and federal government and personal gain as the aim of government. In this, the film exaggerates the profusion of government corruption, and to this exaggeration the opposite must likewise be an exaggeration: Mr Smith, in contrast to those in power who view power and government as a means for profit, believes that American democracy is unconditionally just, its principles immovable, its founders infallible. Mr Smith, therefore, does not recognize the necessary imperfection, conflict and confused but democratic progress that is government. In this way, Mr Smith’s characterization is improbable for a senator, although necessary to the plot.
Arriving in Washington with little more than knowledge of American history and abstract sentiments on the virtue of American government, without any knowledge of the practicality of government nor the sensationalism of the media nor the extensive influence of Taylor nor the cynicism of senators, Mr Smith’s effort to pass legislation creating a national boy’s camp becomes a struggle to defend himself against slander, against Paine’s accusation of fraudulence, to prove himself honest and his slanderers fraudulent. Reciting the Declaration of Independence and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, Mr Smith struggles to remake the Senate into the honest, virtuous body he believed it was; to accomplish this he must overcome Taylor’s influence and the senators’ greed and fear — thus disrupting the corrupt status quo. In this, Smith’s characterization as disruptor is necessary to the plot, believable and applicable to modern politics.
Modern American politics is in part defined by the public’s belief, however unfounded, in the corruption of government. This belief in institutional and, increasingly from the Republican party, electoral corruption attracts cynical or apathetic voters to populist, seemingly outsider candidates (as Donald Trump) who are characterized as Mr Smiths: honest candidates seeking power only to remake government, removed from the practicality and intrigue and thus the alleged corruption of the status quo. Beliefs in the entrenched corruption of government are unjustified and threaten to remake a just democracy into a tyrannous rule of the majority; populist candidates, like Donald Trump, who claim to fight corruption sooner are themselves corrupt, self-serving and undemocratic. Thus, the idealized, virtuous, disruptive image of the political outsider that is Mr Smith is applicable to modern politics sooner as a facade to self-interest, disruption of a democratic status quo, and the chaos of authoritarianism than a necessary reality. Mr Smith’s knowledge of American history, reverence for democracy and American government must be met by the modern politician with a critical and constructive perspective and comprehensive knowledge of the practicality of government.
The importance of Mr Smith Goes to Washington is its exaggerated, satirical quality which portrays the potential for the corruption of any government, even of American democracy, if the politician fails to balance idealism and skepticism, traditionalism and innovation; if greed is followed before duty; if power becomes its own end. The film at once cautions against cynicism and encourages skepticism and nuanced understanding of politics. In a time of increased polarization, misinformation, media bias and intolerance of disagreeing views, the film portrays the potential for any government to corrupt, any democracy to cease to believe in itself and in the power of one individual against injustice. This portrayal of what may be if we surrender our individuality, our healthy skepticism to the apathy and discontent by which authoritarianism comes to power, is ever more relevant.
The improbable character of Mr Smith is, then, a symbol of the might of the individual, the urgency for principled government and faith in democracy, the importance of moderation, the necessity for tradition and improvement — for no institution or individual is without flaw.
Nickolas is a columnist for the Paper Crane.
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