A good friend of mine, Helena, came to Canada in her mid-teens, a refuge from the form Czechoslovakia. Though she still speaks English with a bit of a Slovak accent, I've long since stopped thinking of her an an immigrant. Her feminism, her left-wing politics, her general emancipated ways of being all scream "Canadian" to my biased eye. (And, thinking about this while saying as much to her the other night, reminded me that my idea of what makes for a "Canadian" mind-set is probably not that shared by most of my compatriots; perhaps I'd be better off describing her as "post-national cosmopolitan or something like that. But I digress.)
Helena has recently started to dabble in acting and was cast (in five roles!) in a production of a play called "Horúce Leto" by a writer called Viliama Klimácka, apparently an important figure in what is now Slovakia.
Now, the play was performed in Slovak, so I'll not attempt to critique either the script or the performances, except to say that the two-act, two-plus hour-long performance didn't seem to last nearly as long as a post-performance glance at a friend's clock told us it did. Which can only be a good thing.
I will say that the play's set design was excellent — subtle, yet (for me at least) a constant reminder of the subtext.
In short, the play is one woman's reminiscence of the past 40 years, when, following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in order to crush Dubcek's reformist government.
Anyway, it was the backdrop that moved me more than anything else. Combined with the play's basic synopsis and setting, the image of barbed-wire — intended not to protect citizens of the Eastern Block from outsiders, but to keep those citizens trapped inside — was a constant reminder of the dangers of Abstraction when it comes to human affairs and, especially, to such affairs as geo-politics.
In other words, whatever the merits of the two sides during the Cold War (and the West has plenty about which it should repent), the East was based on the un-freedom of its people (i.e., of individual men and women). Individual men and women were arrested, were tortured, were killed, simply for trying to leave their country without official permission.
Quite a few times over the years I described the Soviet Block as a "political experiment" and proceeded to discuss it as an experiment, intellectually accepting the (more or less) complete lack of liberty under which its citizens lived, but emotionally forgetting that reality.
Abstraction is a vital tool in a complex world, but when we take people out of our equations we become that which we do (or should) condemn — the generals and industrialists and politicians for whom countries are but coloured sections on a map and persons are only statistics.
"The people" are not an abstraction, they are real flesh-and-blood individuals. Especially in matters of war and peace, we forget that fact at risk of our souls.
The most monstrous crimes are routinely committed by "good" men (and sometimes women) who forget that fact. Who forget (as a topical for-instance) that "the Palestinians in Gaza" are in fact about one-and-a-half million persons.
When thinking about solutions to the world's problems — to wars, disasters, climate-change, what-have-you — the moral imperative is to remember the actual, literal, humanity of the Other. Whether the question is Should we make war? or Should I use Amazon.com's sweatshop because it's cheap? it behooves us to always consider the human repercussions of our choices.
I know, none of this is terribly original, but I, at least, need the occasional reminder. And I bet you do, too.