Time to Grow

This article originally appeared on 8 September in BalkanInsight, www.BalkanInsight.com

At 20, you are not a child anymore. But nobody expects you to be mature, either. You are grown up, but you lack the patina of experience.

You are creative, but not realistic. You are loud and impulsive, but what you say and do is often radical, not always thought through. You enter relationships just as easily as you leave them.

The system of coordinates that should drive you for the rest of your life is there in the rough, but it needs a lot of fine-tuning still.

And for that, whether you recognise the necessity or not, you still need some mentoring, combined with quite some amount of information and education. In the meantime, most others overlook your caprices with a smile.

And some will invest energy and time in you, because they recognise some potential in you. It is however up to you to develop that potential.

Nice metaphor, isn’t it? It is so tempting to compare a young country or rather its society to a twenty year old girl. Fatherland – mother tongue and the whole oedipal story in between.

It opens the space for poetic language, for tender thoughts, for fatherly advice, for a whole range of sexual connotations borne of feathers of stuck-up late national romantics. Except – it doesn’t work. Really, it doesn’t. All it produces is bad poetry, bad literature and pathetic journalism. And there is more than enough of that around.

This type of late romantic symbolism is so tightly connected to ethnic nationalism that it cannot interest me. And even more so in the Macedonian context, which is the one I am writing about here. It is omnipresent these days leading to the 20th anniversary of Macedonia’s independence and this is all I shall say about it. Not worth it.

But why doesn’t the metaphor work? Quite simply: a society is not one compact body run by one brain (and a soul, some would insist), but a complex network of different clusters, held together by a number of ideas.

This truth is as simple as it is often ignored. Let me give you a recent example. I was watching a news program, a run-down of events between 1991 and 2011. When talking about the crisis government of 2001, the reporter mentioned Ljubcho Georgievski and Branko Crvenkovski as coalition partners, simply ignoring their Albanian partners Xhaferi and Ymeri. I am sure it was not ill intended. It is however symptomatic that the “other” reality is simply eclipsed. What does that tell us about the state of affairs?

To make a society work, one needs a vision and a narration. The premises in 1991 were already not very encouraging, and today, one conflict and a lot of commotion later, this situation still persists. If a deputy prime-minister can say publicly that he acknowledges the independence of his country, but that there is nothing for him to celebrate, and the day after he is still deputy prime minister, then something is really wrong.

The various visions don’t match the narration. Or rather – there is no narration to integrate the variety of visions.

Macedonian society is faced with a lot of problems today, which could very theoretically have been avoided if other people had entered politics than the ones that hijacked the country for their personal interests and continue to do so. But that remains theory.

Let us see what can be done from now on. Apart from the mountains of social and economic issues, there is a conceptual one to be addressed.

The first two decades of independence have not provided answers to a few crucial questions. What is the glue that has the power to hold Macedonia’s society together?

Academia is intolerably slow and shy in providing these answers. The Academy of Sciences and Arts is alzheimering away, producing merely the glue that keeps its members attached to their seats. And when it finally comes around to actually doing something, it produces scandals of the likes of an attempted Macedonian encyclopaedia.

And politics – well, look around in Skopje and to a lesser degree in a few other towns. Politics provides a very strong narration, which materialises itself in bronze, marble and a lot of plastic. Strong it is, but it is also divisive and backwards oriented.

Inventing a past is a nice exercise when it comes to creating jobs in the construction business. It gives a whole plethora (or rather phalanx) of self-styled pseudo-artists an otherwise unlikely opportunity to express themselves and to be admired by the masses, who alas know no better. Fine.

It gives political actors a boost in ratings and perception. Legit. It puts a lasting aesthetic stamp on the faces on towns and cities. Alright, others have done that too. It keeps battalions of apologists in media and science busy with producing increasing amounts of absurdities. At least it sells. And it sells well. And eventually people start buying in, believing these absurdities.

The tighter the mental, physical and psychological space around the narration mainstream, the more this mainstream penetrates people’s minds.

But the problem is that the narration is hollow, because it is re-telling the past. It tries to occupy territory on the mental map of the region. Ok, others have done that too. But they have done it a long time ago.

The spaces on mental maps are taken. Squatting them does not do much to legitimising the narration, but it does a lot to polarising and alienating potential allies and friends, as well as to reinforcing unfriendly positions. Wouldn’t it be more useful and logical to look ahead, starting from today’s setting and problems? The narrative bubble will eventually burst anyway. The question is how much damage would have been done by then.

It is far more challenging to find the glue that can keep Macedonia’s disparate and partial societies together, thus turning the memetic soup into a cohesive mass. For that there is need for a crystallisation agent.

Who can play that role in the absence of a viable economy, and in the face of failure of academic and political elites? There is no easy answer.

The complex one is probably civil society. A civil society that resists political temptations and keeps up the struggle for a truly open society in Macedonia; a civil society driven not by the logic of donor funding and project cycles, but by activism and voluntarism in recognition of the necessities in creating this open society; a civil society that sees itself not as an extended arm of political forces but as a powerful, independent chorus of a large variety of voices singing not in unison but in multiple polyphonic layers. Loudly.

Impossible to overhear and thus listened at.

It is time to create a narration that enforces this vision. Twenty years after it suddenly found itself independent, it is high time for the Macedonian society to grow into that role, to emancipate itself from servitude and clientelism, from group treatment and group exclusion and embrace the values that put the most powerful of factors into the centre of European societies: the responsible, self- conscientious citizen.

Vision? Grow up…

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