Moacir P. de Sá Pereira on April 21st, 2008

[This is a hastily assembled translation of the article, “Tolerantiški lietuviai — grėsmė senajai išeivijai” by Mykolas Gudelis, published in Vakarai. I’m providing the translation here for those (both who consider themselves Lithuanian and not) who care about these sorts of issues. The translation is reprinted here with permission from Vakarai.

Personally, anyone who read my letter in Lietuvos rytas (English) about this issue can see that I have much in common with Gudelis’s viewpoint—a less charitable soul would even whine that he seems not to have read my piece. He loses the plot a bit with his invocation of a slippery slope, which furthermore risks an equivalence of anti-Semitism with other forms of intolerance. It is definitely not as simple as he makes it seem. Furthermore, he runs into his own set of dichotomies between old and new, which reek of their own prejudice.

Still, it is important that this issue of intolerance writ large remain in the public forefront when it comes to affairs of the Lithuanian diaspora.

I may change the translation around in parts as corrections are given to me. Some tricky or key words I’ve reproduced with their Lithuanian (original) counterparts in brackets.

–m]

In the seventeen years of Lithuanian independence, more than half a million Lithuanians have left their homeland. As such, an existential question arises both among Lithuanians in Lithuania and Lithuanians abroad: is the Lithuanian nation [tauta] vanishing? Clearly, there’s no single answer to this question, and, upon further investigation, it seems to me that there is nothing to worry about: Lithuanians are surely not becoming and will not become extinct.

The Lithuanian nation has a unique property, which protects it from globalization, cosmopolitanism, internationalism, the migrant workforce, and so on. It’s tricky to name this defense mechanism. I wouldn’t want to call it “hatred” [neapykanta], but perhaps “dislike” [nemėgimas] works better. This word, “dislike,” is based on the Lithuanian verb “to like.” It’s simply the negative form. We often say, “well, it’s not that I can’t stand it. I just don’t like it.” But what is the difference between hating and disliking? Where do we draw the line, past which disliking becomes hating? Surely disliking and hating are two different things, but how do the two concepts really differ? Leaving aside the subtleties of the Lithuanian language as well as the ontological explorations, I think that everyone has a different answer to these questions.

Thinking about this dislike, my attention moves to the object of dislike by reflex. So when we’re talking about the nation, about its continuity, and about dislike as a means of avoiding the threat of extinction, the obvious question arises: what do Lithuanians dislike? I probably would not have consider this question at all if not for the recent events regarding the Los Angeles Lithuanian-American Community (LALB). In February, the LALB chairperson, Darius Udrys, resigned from his post, after he suggested that a Lithuanian-Jewish folk dance group be invited to participate in the Lithuanian Folk Dance Festival, which is occurring in Los Angeles this year. This suggestion was rejected by the Folk Dance Festival’s Organizing Committee, a subcommittee of the US Lithuanian-American Community (JAVLB). The rejection was accompanied with disapproval from the JAVLB chariperson himself, Vytas Maciūnas. The first reason given for the rejection was that there was not enough time to change the program of the Festival. But that was just one of the reasons, making an appeal to the logistic and technical details of the Festival’s organization. It was the second reason that was far more interesting: the committee and Maciūnas were convinced that if a Lithuanian-Jewish dance group were to be invited, then they would have to invite folk dance groups of other ethnicities. Then the Folk Dance Festival would simply be no longer “Lithuanian.”

think that what triggered Udrys’s resignation was the committee’s opinion that the Folk Dance Festival would cease being “Lithuanian” if they invited a Lithuanian-Jewish dance group. This event prompted various opinions and interpretations. There were appeals to democracy: if a majority were to decide that this dance group should not participate in the Folk Dance Festival, then the will of the majority should be respected, not met with ultimata. Others blamed Udrys, arguing that the entire LALB and its members are all suffering because of his personal ambition. And even others regretted how intolerant the Lithuanian community was.

n this case, the appeal to democracy doesn’t work. Here it’s useful to recall the de Tocqueville’s notion that democracy is merely the tyranny of the majority. If a constituent’s opinion differs from that of her representative, then the very democracy is called into danger. The constituents and their elected representatives should not square off from opposite sides of an issue. The opinion that Udrys harmed LALB and its members with his actions is not entirely wrong, but it’s important to remember that the position of chairperson does not demand a disavowal of one’s own—personal and individual—beliefs, perspective, and understanding of the world. If there’s a conflict in perspectives, the individual has the right to stay true to her personal beliefs. Udrys decided not to change his perspective, and, having a strong difference with the perspectives of the Folk Dance Festival Organizing Committee, he resigned. We could talk about how they could have reached a compromise, but that is not what’s at issue.

Udrys’s resignation was worthwhile simply because it forced us to pay attention to how it is that we understand what is “Lithuanian,” and how we—Lithuanians—perceive our own identity. There are two ways of answering the questions of who we are, and what it is that identifies us as Lithuanians. We could burrow deep into ourselves, searching for our roots, wanting to understand and be familiar with our history, culture, and the idiosyncrasies of our community. Should we burrow through history and culture, however, we would inevitably reach the conclusion that what is “Lithuanian” was not formed in a social and cultural vacuum, but, rather, was a necessary product of interaction with other cultures and their histories. It is inevitable that other nations contributed to the formation of the Lithuanian nation. It is a simple fact, and it cannot be otherwise. It only requires a cursory glance at Lithuanian history, whether we like it or not.

However, it’s possible to understand one’s “Lithuanian” characteristics [lietuviškumas] differently. This different method, which is the more popular one these days, is to discover and reconstruct a “pure” set of Lithuanian characteristics [„gryna“ lietuvybė]. This is how we Lithuanians use dichotomies and oppose “us” against “others.” This concept of “Other” is very important. Who is “the Other”? The Other is she who is not us. She is different. She doesn’t belong with us. Belonging is yet another important aspect of  this principle of opposing. Those who don’t belong with us are not us—in other words, they are not Lithuanian. It seems that a similar principle was in play regarding the Folk Dance Festival in Los Angeles. We separated ourselves from the Other, and in so doing, we made more pure what it is that is Lithuanian. It’s not for nothing that Udrys’s opponents rested their opinion on the concern that the Folk Dance Festival would cease being Lithuanian if a Lithuanian-Jewish dance group were to perform. But still, how would we go about separating the non-Lithuanians? We could use all sorts of criteria here. Or is it that we are supposed to try and conceive of what it is that makes a “pure” Lithuanian? In the same way that the Nazi government in Germany tried to conceive of a “pure” German?

Obviously we don’t have to completely bulldoze ourselves together with other nations. After all, then we’d lose our own identity as a nation. The question, however, is not whether we have to maintain our “purity,” our identities, our sense of being Lithuanian, but rather by what means and by what principles do we search for and construct this identity? The word “construct” goes against the very root of identity. But identity is not a universal virtue, which we lost in the past and are now trying to find anew. Identity is constructed, created. Our identity is created about us by others, and, and the same time, by us, for us.

These days it seems that the Lithuanian identity is constructed on the aforementioned principle of dichotomy, which relies not on neither logic, historical objectivity, or cultural research. Rather, it relies on our emotions. We oppose ourselves against others using the criteria of “dislike.” Using this criteria, it’s not difficult to say that those whom we dislike are also not Lithuanians. Those, on the other hand, who lack the characteristics of those we dislike—they are Lithuanians. And what and whom do Lithuanians dislike? Easy: Lithuanians dislike Jews, Russians, Poles, Blacks, gays, communists, capitalists, globalization, cosmopolitanism, immigrants and emigrants. Logic then dictates that a Lithuanian is a person who dislikes Jews, Russians, Poles, Blacks, gays, communists, capitalists, globalization, cosmopolitanism, immigrants and emigrants. What’s too bad is that those around us form a similar impression and often notice this criteria of dislike.

But why should Jews not consider themselves Lithuanian? So many of them lived in Lithuania before the Second World War. Lithuania was their homeland. And the Poles? The Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth is a fact of history. Poles aren’t Lithuanians, but do we differ from each other so radically? And Russians? Why is it that in Lithuania no one curses in Lithuanian but rather in Russian? Can we really, then, say that we have nothing in common with Russians? Perhaps this is precisely the problem: that we do have a lot in common with other nations, however we dislike this fact. In trying to be “unique,” then, we take that dislike and apply it even to those for whom our dislike is completely baseless: gays, Blacks, emigrants. In this way we form not our own identity, but rather stereotypes that merely let us “perceive” who is not a “real” Lithuanian. For example, if you take the smallest step leftward, you’re a communist. That is to say, a Russian. That is to say, no longer Lithuanian. If you’ve left Lithuania for England or America, then you’re now English or American. That is to say, no longer Lithuanian. Fight for gay equality? You’re a bad Christian, an atheist, not a Lithuanian, and so on. This chain of identification can be applied practically to anyone whom we dislike.

But what do we gain by identifying ourselves this way and separating the Lithuanians from the non-Lithuanians? Doing this, do we actually find the basis of a “pure” Lithuanian? Is this how we protect nation from extinction? Is this how we gain renown for Lithuania abroad? Is this how we strengthen our Lithuanian identity? Is it finally more important to be a Lithuanian than to be a good person?

Today, as the number of emigrants continues to climb, the previously existing diaspora [senoji išeivija] is feeling a little uneasy. “Thirdwavers”—the new generation of immigrants and active youth—apparently threaten the status quo of the old diaspora. Now that Lithuania has gained its independence and the USSR has collapsed, the old diaspora no longer has a moral authority with which to worship itself. Of course, it still does so. But to the ears of the new generation, it sounds quite like a worn out record. That does not mean, of course, that the old generation is ready to give up. While isolated “partisans” continue their passive war by writing memoirs about the “Lithuania of my reverie,” the old wolves appropriate the methods perfected by the very Soviet Union (and Reagan administration): propaganda. Having chosen a set of concepts— national identity [tautiškumas] and Lithuanian identity [lietuviškumas]—they manipulate and change the goal to the intimidation, denunciation, annihilation, and demoralization of those who think differently, those of their nation who are tolerant. It is this tolerance that is the biggest threat to the old diaspora generation. And there is certainly something to fear: if Udrys’s suggestion regarding inviting a Jewish-Lithuanian dance group to the Folk Dance Festival was met with this kind of opposition today, then what will come tomorrow, when someone will suggest the invitation be extended to a gay or Black dance group? Half of JAVLB would suffer heart attacks!

We don’t have to let ourselves be manipulated by these sorts of ideas like patriotism, homeland, and national identity. We don’t have to let Lithuania be associated, in the minds of others, with the arrogance and intolerance of “national purity.” Coming to a new nation, everyone in their hearts and minds brings their own Lithuania and those virtues that, in her opinion, best reflects our nation.

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