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Vivere Civile?

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Saturday, 4 June 1859. Saint Petersburg, Russia. Ilia Chavchavadze is composing his immortal poem Elegy: “The slumber of my land caress. O God! when will we wake and rise again to happiness?” The poet’s words endure. But are they doomed to be quoted forever in languor?

Georgian protest is something rather strange. It exists in a somnolent state. Sometimes it is voiced; more often it is not. The primary explanation for that is that Georgian protest is selective. Protest – or at least, the sense of protest – is a constant presence when we are dealing with an imaginary enemy. But it is not always present when we deal with our immediate reality, our home, our fellow citizens.

Georgian society is poised to voice protest following any pseudo-patriotic or pseudo-religious appeal. But it does not protest the demise of cultural heritage. Nor does it protest when minorities within the Georgian society are offended in the name of the majority of that same Georgian society. It does not protest, for instance, the fact that as many as 77,000 children live in extreme poverty in Georgia.

Such apathy can be attributed to a lack of social empathy as well as to the absence of social awareness. But there is a third reason too – origins, beginnings which got stuck and cannot move beyond.

Developments of late are more than enough to illustrate the point. Not very long ago, many of us were indignant about the beating of a journalist by the priest Grigol (Berbichashvili). Many demanded that justice be done; soon thereafter, however, everyone went silent. We showed interest and concern when the issue of autocephaly of the Abkhazia church was considered in Istanbul; soon thereafter, everyone went silent. We were shocked by the suspicious death of a Kakhetian baby; but that incident also ended as usual – in silence. What is the problem?

I think the problem here lies in our perception of reality. Let’s go back to Saint Petersburg in June 1859 when the Georgian society was asked rhetorically by its famous poet “When will we wake?” A century and a half later, we slumber still.

Of course, in his Elegy, Ilia Chavchavadze used “slumber” metaphorically. But let’s finally put the metaphor to rest. Noted Georgian psychologist Dimitri Uznadze believes that sleep represents a state of indifference to the environment, a lack of interest in it.

Our environment is our present, the reality in which we live. Sleep signifies indifference to reality or the inability to perceive it. Slumber is the time when, according to Uznadze, the sleeping organism is by itself and the external environment by itself; no matter what happens in the latter, the organism does not react to it. It is as if the environment does not exist.

It is indifference to the present that makes our instinctual responses emphatic and emotional but incapable of adequate continuation. Concrete endings are a rare occurrence. Indifference to the present is also the reason why the Georgian society does not engage in the creation of its own reality.

The latest World Values Survey shows that only one percent of the Georgian society belong to political parties; two percent are members of professional unions, and nil percent are members of humanitarian or charitable organizations.

No matter how incongruous it may seem, sixty-five percent of Georgians still consider themselves to be community members notwithstanding a severe lack of civil engagement.

It is quite clear that the modern Georgian idea of civil membership does not imply either establishing tangible ties with reality or evidencing any desire to influence it. Indifference induces indolence.

But now, at this moment, the sleep seems dispersed, the society awakening. That awakening was expressed in an unprecedented surge of civil protest across the country in September. With that act of national protest – which I conventionally call “an awakening” here – the Georgian society, for the first time ever in its history, showed that it has a real potential for criticizing the authority. That was an important and welcome development.

But more important is the question “What sort of awakening was that?” In reality, that protest in September was only an angry arousal stirred more by external ire than internal positivity.

In those days back in September, many of us were angry and, accordingly, expressed our wrath. We probably could not have done otherwise. But angry protest abates; ire dissipates.

As time goes by, one system is replaced by another. The system itself is never dismantled; it is merely replaced by a new – maybe for better or maybe for worse – system, as well as a new vision of systemacity. The threat resurfaces when public wrath abates and the regime, as always, continues to exist.

The “Rose Revolution” rested largely on an isolated emotional awakening. But, soon thereafter, we were returned to our somnolent state, sometimes concerned and sometimes not. The Georgian society only sporadically became angry enough to protest. There were instances as well when one segment of the society was concerned about one thing while another segment worried about something else entirely different.

It was indifference to the present that created a political reality which the majority of the Georgian population grew eventually to dislike. It was reality against which the population voted. And it was indifference to the present that led the former ruling force to its recent and undesirable political result.

It is necessary to dispel the illusion that the angry arousal which produced that result was the type of awakening essential for a healthy democracy. And if we agree that every illusion is dangerous, we must also admit that this latest illusion will be destructive.

Awakening remains a future prospect for us and not a present fact. As long as we, the Georgian society, cannot go beyond origins and beginnings, our potential for real progress will remain theoretical and our daily practice will still be dominated by drowsiness.

The main challenge facing the Georgian society today is the transition from reflexive action to reflective and healthy criticism. We must dismantle those mental systems which have created an undesirable present for many. In that way, political and cultural sameness must be overcome.

That can only happen if we develop a legitimate desire to dominate, own and determine our reality. That implies not only criticism of a specific regime but also positive civil engagement.

In the Machiavellian lexicon, “vivere civile” means a civil and political life which rests on active citizenship. Where and how does such a practice begin? Potentially, here and now, methodologically through social opposition to the present reality and its mental or political regimes (and, consequently, through active social engagement).

Vigilance as the converse of somnolence must begin here and now.

 

This article first appeared in Tabula Georgian Issue # 119, published 22 October 2012.

 

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