Welcome to my world
USA for your home
The hot political debates about America concern the whole world and, of course, us at home in Slovakia. While it is difficult to compare, real concerns about the future of the democracies we belong to are appropriate.
As an artist and filmmaker who lives politics if possible through direct experience, I want to share what I took from my second home, the USA. And reader might welcomes a few film and book tips. I was both lucky and persistent to make it on my own during studies in France and later working in New York City. It is a demanding process emotionally, it requires time - and let us leave aside the financial investment for a person who has left the post-communist world and without “backup”.
Today, after almost fifteen years in New York, I have two citizenships. As an adult, I took two oaths of allegiance to two countries - since I lost Slovak citizenship to the Americans and regained it. I also mention this because a compatriot, a Slovak, might even say to himself these days: "Wow, you have nothing to envy." There is one short sentence in that blue American passport, only three words actually: “We the People”. People and their personal freedom have fascinated me in America since I entered New York. And I will return to that.
But I have a little secret: I didn't vote in the United States as a relatively fresh American. In 2016, I voted for Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton. My friend Bob, Donald Trump's voter, tactfully went around this for a moment. A Texan and a Vietnam veteran living in Prague today, he often introduces me joking, "Anabela is a liberal, but she's allright."
During election night, we sat at the Zoom in Prague, and Bob congratulated me on the philanthropic gift of prominent human rights activist from Canada."I think it's harder to find support for arts in these difficult times than it is for convicts who come out of the jail. I just hope that you didn't brag that you didn't vote until after the money came into your account. "
I held my grounds bravely. (Trump's numbers were already falling at that moment, thankfully, and Bob had a reason to abandon himself a little. I wasn't mocking that.)
For conservatives and Republicans, liberals and Democrats are capable of violence, deception, and tricks because of the inconsistent ideas they fanatically defend. In such discussion the name of Sartre comes up and the Russian gulags, where many representatives of Russian elites and intellectuals dissapeared in. And pre-war Germany.
The example of an injured child rejected by their own family (whether for homosexuality, transgender, or simply a child who finds himself in the position of an unwanted black sheep) would be another way to access a deeper understanding of a certain, lets call it zeal inside cultural wars. Many utopian ideas are often based on unhealed injuries, or unmet desire, which often arise from early, preverbal childhood. Not only from too much comfort, or upper class upbringing that detaches you from reality and keeps you in false safety - and the way out, to be real is something extreme, lets say revolution. But acting as harmful insidious little children it is not just the "privilege" of liberals. Today, the neuro system of social networks itself is able to capture our own psychology and turn it against ourselves. Not only the two-part film Facebook Dilemma explains this well, but also, for example, the Israeli-French researcher and hacker Moran Cerf. Do you know what he says? That 90% of this mind hack depends on the human factor. If someone wants to hack the system, they have to throw someone a USB key, which the curious person inserts into the computer. Or your computer will hack someone you know, right at your home.
In the context of what is going down in a digital world today, Bob’s joke was a pleasanterie: me, an ungrateful, new American whose patriotism had declined so quickly. Bob flew out of Prague in person this year during Covid19 and voted for Donald in Texas. Paper ballot, baby.
However, the fact that I did not vote was, on the contrary, a conscious and very difficult decision. And I probably wouldn't dare to skip voting if I was in New York. I would not have an emotional distance and I would vote against Donald Trump.
Not voting in such a crucial US election needs to be clarified a bit to avoid misunderstandings.
At the turn of 2000/2001, to experience Apple in its booming dotcom business time, and where I flew from the elite school of Beaux Arts de Paris, surpassed my expectations. Especially people. Thanks to the selfless support of a few of them, I was able to make my first short films and met Ben Barenholtz, who taught me what a filmmaker needs to know (for example, to watch a film a hundred times and not to allow anyone to interfere with the œuvre). While classmates from Paris received $3,000 pocket money from the French embassy for their first solo shows at Chelsea galleries, I created my own art and film practice at a time when many Harvey Weinstein-types walked around those openings and clubs. And based on my own work, as an "Alien of extraordinary ability", I first received a green card and then American citizenship. Today, when we are fighting for fundamental human rights, and survival of the Slovak cultural sphere during the Covid crisis, I find it even more precious that I was able to do something so rare, and thanks to the people I met who selflessly helped and supported my projects. A hard-working journey would not be possible without solid, cultured people who also supported me financially and without requiring the "practical use" of their help. Without knowing anyone, I was taken as one of them - and based on what I bring to the table. The handicap of the Eastern European, which I think still catches up with us in Slovakia, was invisible at first sight: I am white, and that is why I should have the upper hand in America. Oh well, we will see about that.
And so I turned my attention, resources and colleagues from the School of Visual Arts to the topics of gangs in Spanish Harlem. Ben did not drag me back to the privileged "white world”. My therapist tried, but when my short film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, Ben took me to visit the NYU Tisch School of the Arts sponsor and I was given grant to explore, and dive fully into the socio-economic and racial differences, of the so called American ghetto. And also fly to Puerto Rico, which is super fast trip from New York. You get on the subway, then on a plane, and that day you dive deeper, but right in the sea of the former Napalm base left behind by the army on Vieques.
The political position is really best to be absorbed directly from its source and be shaped on the basis of the experience. Multiculturalism and openness in New York. The non-existent "Jewish conspiracy" and real, unconditional support for arts, culture and education.
What we see in the media today from the USA was already existent - albeit difficult to describe - invisible barriers. Racial and socio-economic differences were an unwritten taboo to cross. I speak about making my professional film work, not a light conversation on social media. If you're white, you have nothing to say on African-American issues. Or the Latino community. As a white woman (which I am not born into), I probably have no clue about struggles of Black women. And while I don’t, I do have a decent human empathy to carry a respectful dialogue, and act on what I learn. This complicated socio-economic and cultural division today, and in combination with digital era, deepens to a tragic depth that has an impact on human lives. It caricatures human beings and flattens their unique destinies into shortcuts. You're a woman, #metoo. But this trend does not represent, in the words of Ayan Hirsi Ali, violence against women in Muslim communities, and genital mutilation or forced marriages of underage girls. Rapes by farmers on the Mexican border. This hashtag trend mainly concerns a certain class of women in the media, politics, Hollywood, and in this way it is also exported to our home in Slovakia.
When things started to go down economically in New York City in 2008, we already saw the film Enron, which documents one of the huge schemes of corruption. It was after 911, the fall of the Twin Towers and the invasion of Iraq, which is confronted by the films Taxi to the Dark Side and No end in sight. US citizens were monitored through PRISM. This proves to be wrong effort from the US secret services on their own citizens. To combat terrorism, it was far from necessary to carry out a widespread spying on the privacy of innocent people to such an extent. That's what the film Citizen 4 is about, and why a German film about the secret police in communism, The Lives of Others, was sold out in cinemas for weeks.
Experts at the Center on Terrorism at John Jay College of Criminal Justice CUNY, where I have made it meanwhile as Visiting scholar, working on themes of New York gangs, talked about how easy it is to keep track of those who still have their phone with them.
Today, this unprecedented invasion of our privacy has consequences that are difficult to estimate. (For example, in the Capitol insurrection, the controversial AI Clearview system was deployed, which pulls anyones private data from the Internet. Those shall not be touched, nor used by third party, agree?)
In 2016, I was already in Prague and have made my own film Salto Mortale about the Communist Secret Police, ŠtB, right in my own family. It was a lesson for the present about how coming to terms with one's own past is important for the future. (My mother actually thanked me for this film, although it took a few years. As I have deliberately crossed my own family's privacy.)
After the US election, we had an online discussion for Contemporary Arts Center DOX in Prague between Trump voter, a liberal and an independent voter, who voted for Bernie and Hillary. The starting point for the discussion was the film HyperNormalisation. I set the actual discussion like this: let's talk together like human beings, and so that we don't kill ourselves. The fact that Donald Trump won the election was a signal of self-reflection in our own ranks. Not just for examining the parts played by Cambridge Analytica and film The Great Hack.
In fact, it didn't have that much to do with Trump, but much more to do with the fact that the strongest path is one that is authentic, non-violent, and verified in a respectful dialogue with a different opinion. The strength of conviction is weak if it must be enforced. Real dialogue makes us rich. I often don't learn as much in my own bubble as I learn from people I don't even want to hear out at first, but we gradually grow a dialogue. Openness fights conspiracies with strength of truth, and that shines away gossip, and back channeling. Being truly open is a strength, and its basis comes from personal maturity, and integrity. It requires respect for the other party, giving time and patience. To be able to debate so that no one gets offended ad hominem, ad feminam. Real authority is telling the truth. And if we don't emotionally agree, let's go beyond that comfort zone, let's not remain offended and, let's not take revenge that destroys the careers and stability of other people.
Bob Boudreaux is a good friend of mine today. We adhere to a certain non-aggression pact, and more than political ideas, we have natural respect and friendship. And classically American value: you walk your talk. We have been cultivating this luxury of real dialogue for several years now. It is a complete foundation that we must go back to as society. We also know from deradicalization that the way back is to return to the origin of the problem and work on the feelings in the very root of the actual trauma. Yes, it is a costly and long-term process, a kind of individual or even societal therapy. A strong culture will choose this path and invest in it. It is a reliable and durable way, even for the whole country. Its own, and sincerely told story. We don't have to call for a sexy revolution or repressive measures, as a surgical solution to the narcissistic injury of the entire culture identity and oppression, as Frantz Fanon nailed it. Here, in the former Czechoslovakia, with our own specific history, we can carry on the legacy of our non-violent, Velvet Revolution. That can be as subtle as self-awareness and self-love (l'amour propre). Not only Françoise Dolto teaches us about that in her work Tout est langage. It all really literally starts in language and words.
Even today, after the victory of the Democrats and the recent horrific defilé of trumpers in the Capitol, for which several people paid with their lives, and despite Trump being canceled on all possible digital platforms, those more than seventy million votes, his electorat is not going anywhere. And under the MAGA caps, there are people too. As a New Yorker pampered by a liberal millieu, I also find all difficult to understand. But a priori, it would be too easy to label the Capitol tresspassers with a label “mob," and that’s it. That should not satisfy a real liberal. And nobody should destroy his, her or their opponent. We need to go deeper, we need to know who Ashli Babbitt was and what happened to her. How did she get into debt and fall into the QAnon movement? How many people today have no idea about the future? Where does the confusion, hacked by the digital shortcut, come from? And what generated the president, who got into that position as if by mistake?
Isn't it all a bit similar in Slovakia? Many people have their reality, which has ceased to work, and their dreams are hardly unrealistic today. And therefore - anything unrealistic is possible. (Also crazy skazki, and fables, manufactured, and planted by the Russians, or the Chinese government, etc. But we can also find them in the cultural wars, so passionately visited by our (not so intelligent) intel and security forces. I always wonder what those gray trolls are looking for in liberal discussions about TERFs, for example. Are they looking for sensitive information to craft conspiracies and компрома́ты? Unreality gets cured, and resolved by returning reality to people. Then they will be immune to bullshit. Bullshit, misinformation or a toxic bubble should be clearly marked, or - when it flies in our direction - it should be simply burst, in a heavier case, kicked off with a smile. Like a ball. Done, and done. Because this is not a central problem, but only its symptom.
It is much more important to address the reality of people so they can really feel it. And this is exactly what affects us in Slovakia as well.
Although it's hard for us at home to carry conversations on why the Black Lives Matter, and Capitol protests can't be compared. I myself lack direct experience of being in New York City in the past year, and during protests.
However, it is important to know who the unarmed African American woman, Breonna Taylor was, as well as George Floyd. And that the BLM protests themselves were also full of violence. When the media chose the tactic of non-reporting that riots and violence were also taking place on the part of the liberals and the Black Lives Matter, they robbed themselves and thus all of us of the possibility of a real, and healthy dialogue. The justification that violence is more tolerable in this case makes African Americans look like helpless, aggressive victims. Although America already has its affluent African American middle, and upper class, as well as its own non violent take on problems that goes back to legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Throwing everyone in one group, simply based on their race seems offensive to me, even as a white bystander. I know because communist label used to offend me in France and New York, and any labelling would certainly would offend all of you, readers. And just as it offends, African American Community in USA, so can such guilt driven approach offend our Roma community in Slovakia. Their pursuit of a decent life, and despite overcoming enormous, multi-generational obstacles, is trivialized into one group with criminals, or uncritically glorified group of people. Unequal treatment, even out of sentiment of white guilt or debt, can pose an ugly problem in the future. The media in the United States did not report on the protest so objectively that in the opposing camp and in its harsh racist core, they did not confirm, and in the rest even create, a notion that looting and violence are actually okay for a certain part of the population.
In Slovakia, these topics have been matching similarly uncritical opinion that is enabling revictimization, or even directly confirming narratives of our domestic racists. Calling for defunding of the police is unrealistic vision, compared to reality, and also legitimate alternatives to policing as we know it, a real police reform. It can be done, police can cooperate with part of a gang inside of their own neighbourhoods as shown in Newark, New Jersey by Jelani Cobb in documentary Policing the Police. I do not excuse police brutality in Minneapolis, nor anywhere else and so many times before. But who wants to defund the police all together, should go to parts of the Bronx, Brooklyn or Bratislavian Petržalka in capital of Slovakia - and go all pretty, and by yourself (we can find such places everywhere in the world).
No violence has a stronger, or higher moral imperative. I understand why this rhetoric offers itself, given the history of slavery, the violence that was economic, physical, psychological, systemic, including the the emergence of corporations. Seen The Corporation movie? The question is, whether the current democratic politics will truly act on behalf of the interests of all people, and respect their rights. This will be shown now after the elections, and in a concrete impact on reality.
Feminist Naomi Klein warned immediately after the US presidential elections that if high politics allow highly intimate and sensitive topics to become a kind of capital and business, it will actually hardly deceive its constituents. This is directly related to the current democratic government and the president, whom we allegedly "had to elect" against Donald Trump.
What am I supposed to think about the fact that gender reassignment is tied to specific pharmaceutical companies? How much does it cost to be who you desire to be? A lot.
As in the past, you used to have cigarette advertisements that promote that when a woman smokes, she is free and equal. The right feminist smokes cigarettes. The reality and historical fact is that feminists successfully won the right to vote in those countries where there was a highly developed (white, male) culture that stepped back and allowed space to them. Yes, they fought, and it was not a romantic affair only. But, in short, the risk today is that politics shifting diverse identities from the realm of privacy to the realm of "public interest" will return to the minorities themselves, women, and ultimately all people, with their price tags, and the exact place to which they belong. This will weaken the very authenticity of all people, not just "minorities", but freedom as we know it. And why this is a huge problem that we have a duty to call it out if we are true to what liberal democracy is about. And, of course, the democratic model of the United States affects the whole world.
Barely NYU professor Mark Crispin Miller in the Red Scare podcast spoke about PR father Ed Bernays and possible censorship and propaganda at the heart of liberal democracy in the US, following Capitol riot, one by one private digital companies in coordination with the state canceled the accounts of Trump, QAnon and operate in a way that many of us find repressive and unconstitutional.
However, Facebook could have taken very serious measures already during the Arab Spring or in Ukraine. But Zuck waited until this moment, and we should accept that as a moral victory. Why?
The problem I see is that this way of thinking of private companies with such a political impact and combined with repression and emotion of revenge will not create anything new in terms of a tangible political idea, for all people. I have experience of totalitarianism, and it smells to me of totalitarianism.
What is happening to those "looters" and Republicans can happen to anyone in a free democracy now. Not only the Capitol, but also in the reaction to it. What happens to a language that creates inauthentic forms, such as the latest "amen", “awoman” debate? The word amen does not have origin in word man, men, nor gender. Dixit.
This separation from the root of the language, a healthy part of the tradition, and the very reality of the people can be a problem not only for the movements themselves, for the real equality of minorities, but also for the freedom itself. It can return back to us in the form of an even more radical, both right-wing and left-wing extremes.
The fact that a complicated reality cannot be reduced to tricks of the social media is all the more challenging and complicated conundrum, because democracy ties our hands, in the words of Václav Havel. We should play honestly, and without cheating. The situation calls for an in-depth analysis of people's sentiment of helplessness and more truthful, concrete solutions in the reality itself. This is and should be the current approach to be taken very seriously, not only in the USA, but also at home in Slovakia. Staying true to the values, on which the reality and service to the people is based on.
Over the years and during the C-19 pandemic, the world has become much more connected, and thanks to digital technologies, also its extreme "global village.” Communities which see no problem with violence, are networking and radicalizing themselves without border restrictions. This diverse tribes of people, nationalities, and races transcends the United States. What we have seen in the Capitol is serious in how much it affects the whole democratic part of the world. In the QAnon movement, it is difficult to find exact logic, just something deep ad hoc, even irrational. (It does not Save our Children but turns people into manipulated child like gangs.) Artists understand the conspiracies very well from their film screenplays, fiction books, and creative work. Many of them look at this world with a freer, unbiased and non-ideological view. It is not enough to respond to the disinformation illogy with facts only, or using repression or censorship of the media. It does not work on the level of fast emotions and it creates an even stronger response (so-called Backlash). Digital script, an algorithm that evaluates our emotions and prefers the negative ones because it makes money, is an impoverished, robotic appearance of real dialogue. Conversations where we exchange not only information but also pheromones and the whole range of what is the essence of being: we are there as people. It is precisely artists and ethically motivated humanists who can do something substantively with this pathological and dangerous situation. Because they understand that the motivation must remain good and the human scale in the very root of these things.
And that's also why it is so tragic that this creative and rare class was amputated economically and its human rights, and dignity was undermined during the Covid 19 pandemic by so many countries, including Slovakia. In our country, in addition to systematic lack of support during the pandemic and the fragmentation of the cultural sector, not one euro was recently allocated for the people in Culture, within the preliminary six-billion EU Recovery Plan. And I will allow myself here to evaluate it as an expert: a country that ignores its own culture then reflects the very same lack of culture, on the outside.
If we want to return substance to our realities, we must find common ground, resources and agreement in dialogue with regard to the human being at the very center of it.
It is a paradox to say in this fast era, that with a slow focused interest in others, we can change anything at a time when online emotions erupt in a second and spread like wild fire.
Apropos, that American passport and a short sentence: "We the People." There are countless ways to read this sentence. At least as many people, destinies, and opinions exist in the world. In the movie Taxi driver, the screenwriter and the director play with how this sentence that can be populistically distorted depending on where you put the emphasis - whether on the word "We" or “The People”. And even though the film was made in the late 1970s, it does not lose any of its expressive value and quintessence. On the contrary. Just as Travis Bickle returns to society after the horror in Vietnam, so many people are disappointed, aggressive and racist today. Disconnected from the reality, technologically and economically influential players and many politicians call them "mob". Will we be very surprised if the crowd cuts loose and riots again? For a different Donald, and different cause?
And whether someone likes it or not, they are exactly the people who need to be taken into account in the complex change that the whole world is undergoing today. Ivan Krastev also talks about the century of people.
Politics that have deviated too far from reality, and whether tied to corporate labels, or oligarchic and self-centered interests, those cannot work in reality. Logically, because they are measurably unrealistic. These things pose a huge problem for future.
What such a problem might look like, we in ex-Czechoslovakia know from the past, which must be dealt with in the first place. Justice in the matter of the crimes of communism is a basic precondition for a healthy free society in our country. Moreover, it is clear today that our post-totalitarian experience has something to say to Western democracies in terms of censorship, the rights to privacy, and the early recognition of how human rights abuses can quietly infiltrate society. People who have experienced totalitarianism have well-developed radars for the moment, when the temperature begins to change, ever so slightly, and society is being slowly boiled, like a frog.
If you don't feel like doing Czechoslovakian homework and watch film Ucho (Ear), check out the American Factoryfilm about China in the US, and their understanding of what "we people" means to PRC.
And I'm not worried about the US, because whatever things are going down in America, if anything can solve things there, it will be culture and American people. Not just film, literature and music.
Hiphop, a worldwide, Black, Latino, and multiracial, and intergenerational revolutionary movement came out of dancing on a cardboard in front of apartment buildings in the Bronx, set on fire for insurance money. While people lived in these buildings! Authentic, economically vital pop culture in America comes from the community and from people. People are the very political culture of the United States. And thus I am not worried about the United States, and even though my humble little self did not vote in Kings County, Brooklyn, where I'm registered as a voter.
Culture is how we all cope with life. Slovakia which has been killing its Culture communities for almost a year now, is a model example of the neglect. Art and Culture belong to everyone. It reflects us in the image not only inside but also outside. Today, this horrible treatment follows closely behind the huge corruption scandals in the judiciary, the police, the prosecutor's office and the secret services of the Slovak Republic. After the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová and the threats to the media, Culture is at stake today. Like an invisible target. And Culture is not a few elite stars and just talent. It is a community of hard working people. Several journalists were murdered, including Paľo Rýpal, and civilians were also surveilled by secret services. Such a gross criminalization of its own citizens past the trauma of communism, a mix of ethics lacking heritage of Communist Secret Police and digital technologies, would be best confronted by Culture. Processing the trauma, and drafting vision together with people at the level of the whole society.
We do not need to embellish a hungry, demoralized and humiliated sector with selling purpose of Arts, and Culture in society. All it takes is the legitimate fact that this is a matter of disrespect for the human rights of the people in a country that is in NATO and therefore it must to meet the basic parameters of democracy and reality.
And this unfair conduct of specific authorities and institutions runs across Slovak society.
The existential problem of Culture shoots the whole country right in its heart. The softest power of the country, its soul, serves no one and nothing. Real culture, like the dialogue, cannot be replaced by alibistic reporting of activities on the Ministry of Culture's Facebook, which actually obscures the fact that a large part of this sphere is almost a year without income and many people are devastated.
As in other marginalized communities, there is a lot of predatory activity going on amongst the very own, stealing invention and Intellectual Property, elaboration of which takes years. In Slovakia, many authors, some malnourished by the socialist type of feminism, confuse the solidarity with self-service to benefit their own Creative Capital. They simply rip off Original Content, that is protected by copyright. Flagship institutions, which are supposed to save the whole sphere and be the steady lighthouses, do not support financially only high-quality projects, but mostly "theirs" cliques. It is done in a non-transparent way, and this is protected by “expert commissions” that have many demonstrable (and legally punishable) conflicts of interest.
In this, Slovakia actually resembles not only post-socialist countries, which create a dangerous simulacrums, resemble only democratic institutions that do not work. The digital illusion,
le trompe-l'œil, which makes toothpaste look like a pop star and makes serious content invisible, seems like a word wide problem today. Not only in Slovakia, or in the USA, and it can further have a fatal consequences on our realities.
The institutions or politics that forge inauthentic concepts out of our realities, and disconnect us from it, are part of the problem, not its solution for the people.
And the situation, on the other hand, calls for the new ideas that make democracy further evolve, and sustain.
More of the independent, bold, not only critical, but also creative thinking is needed.
Why not from over here in Slovakia too, when we actually owe 1989 freedom in part to the Western world and the USA?
And since we are actually better off calling things by their real names?
© Anabela Žigová, Prague, January 2021.