Wednesday, January 18, 2017

‘Trust Doesn’t Arise Overnight, But It Can Disappear Just That Quickly,’ Estonia’s Imbi Paju Warns

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 18 – The trust that underlies the culture of any country and its ties with another is something that cannot be created in an instant; but the twentieth century has shown that it can be destroyed just that quickly, the reason behind current fears over talk about a new division of the world, according to Imbi Paju.

            Paju, an author and filmmaker who has explored the issues memory and forgetting in such works as Memories Denied, Fear Was Behind Everything: How Estonia Lost Its History and How to Get It Back, and Sisters Across the Gulf of Finland: Watching the Pain of Others, makes that argument in a new essay (

            Today, the media are full of stories that Putin and Trump will divide up the world into spheres of influence, something that inevitably frightens those like the Balts who have been victims of such divisions in the past. And there is also the sense that now “money and the power associated with it will begin to determine everything.”

            Paju continues: “It may become the case that anyone from the West can go become adviser to some undemocratic leader and lobby to become a shareholder in the dividing up of the world. There are enough examples in history of how immoral, bribed individuals are capable of doing anything for money.”

            Given this, she says, the question with which Sigmund Freud wrestled his entire life is once again at the center of discussions: can culture, in the broadest sense of shared knowledge and a social conscience, save the world? Or is it fated to be suppressed again by the powerful and the wealthy.

            Tragically, she notes, “humanistic studies are being driven out of European universities, slowly and quietly, so that we don’t even realize how the world is becoming more black and white. No need to think too much! There is no need for books and reflection to lead people to philosophical wisdom.”
“In 1940, Estonia was occupied and Soviet forces began stripping Estonians of their Western mentality and memory by destroying books. Freud’s works were hacked to pieces as well. A total of approximately 26 million works was destroyed. During the great deportations of 1949, as people were deported to Siberia, the last personal libraries were burned in ovens.”
                Not surprisingly,  many collaborated because “conformity is a survival strategy,” but to become widespread, Paju argues, the ground must be prepared by grinding culture down “with terror” and fear. “Trust does not develop overnight, but it can disappear overnight, as those who have lived through occupations, violent regimes and wars can attest.”

            Russia too has been a victim of the same thing. Before World War I and the 1917 revolutions, “Russia’s cultural figures, scholars and doctors who felt at ease in the capitals of Europe and soaked up ideas there were excellent cultural mediators …the world belonged to everyone. Everyone went where they pleased … even a passport wasn’t necessary.

            But Bolshevik and Nazi totalitarianism destroyed that common culture, leading Freud to conclude at the end of his life that culture couldn’t block the appetitive and destructive urges of the masses and his friend Stefan Zweig to recognize that these masses were being drawn to the centers of power and that neglect and indifference to culture also kills.

            Are we capable of using culture to “keep a lid on humanity’s drive toward destruction”? That is again the central question of our time. As some have pointed out, “books are incapable of preventing war,” and as others have noted, the shibboleths and networks of the divided world of the Cold War are returning. Does this reflect “a death wish” on the part of people?

            Today, the Estonian author says, we must ask ourselves: “can we manage with the help of culture to keep our base instincts in check?” That is no easy task as the banality of evil Hannah Arendt spoke of “hasn’t gone anywhere” and Julia Kristeva’s observation that cultures wrongly developed can not only die but kill.

            Paju concludes that despite this, she very much hopes that “with the help of culture,” the world “can avoid a great dividing up of the world.” But for that to happen, all of us need not only a deep knowledge of culture but the courage to organize its support and to speak truth to power in its defense.

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