Sunday, January 5, 2014

Ruud Meij, Euromaidan and the punishment trap

Fyodor Dostojevki would have been astonished seeing the spirit of his Crime and Punishment so prominent in the political culture of our young Ukrainian state. I'm convinced, could Fyodor by a miracle consider rewriting his novel in Ukrainian Newspeak, he would skip the first part of the title. Fyodor would simply call it Punishment.
I'm working now for several years in this beautiful country, and this is my final judgment: Ukraine is a punishment state. In Ukraine you don't have to be a criminal to get punished. If you don't work propely you get punished. If someone complains at the prosecutors office you get punished. If you do change something at you house, that is not according to regulations, you get punished. The president announces that he wants to fight corruption - and he threatens to punish virtually every Ukrainian citizen.
Also Euromaidan adopts the ideology - because that what it is - of punishment. Those responsible for November 30 should get punished. Those responsible for … - you may fill in - need to be punished. And of course the Prime Minister and President, and 'those facists of the Party of the Regions' should be punished. (Of course they want Svoboda, those Bandera Nazis, be punished.) It's such a nice, subtle language, this language of punishment. But for Euromaidan it is self defeating. The discours of punishment, of threathening to punish, of fear of punishment is a poor language. It lowers trust, it deepens fear, and with reason. Because in the end the obsession with punisment leads to terror.

It looks so obvious, to punish. But it isn't. This obsession with punishment is the only language that everybody understands in a public sphere where adversaries are enemies. Where low trust prevails, punishment and the fear for punishment is the lingua franca
Wouldn't it therefore not be a quite joyous new way of living - a European way - of relating to you friends and adversaries, and doing politics, if Euromaidan could transform the discourse of punishment in something new, something that could enhance trust? Something that is 'antipolitical'?

The practice of punishment is the language of the post-soviet political elite, using the stalinist remnants of the state, especially the Prosecutors Office and the Ministery of Finance. Punishment and the fear for punishment are very effective instruments in the Ukrainian blackmail state. In fact, they are its cornerstones. The most misused phrase in Ukraine to justify punishment is: 'We are just acting in accordance with our (!) law.' It's a legalistic way of using the law for political gains. You use the law as it suits you. It's a public secret: you can't engage in an economic, political or critical social activity in Ukraine without breaking the law. This is not a defiency of the law, but exactly how it is meant to be. See the trick: as part of the political elite you don't have to fabricate evidence against someone who is in your way: the businessman, politician, activist - they do it themselves! The ideology of punishment closes this evil chain. Again, you don't have to commit a crime to get punished. You just have to be accused of breaking a law, whatever that law is. It's not the crime that makes you a criminal. Its the punishment that does the job. That is political justice.

The real frightening experience with punishment was of course the totalitarian punishment, the terror. It robbed punishment from its roots in morallity. Ukraine had its part of it, to put it mildly. The aim of totalitairian punishment is not to enhance living in compliance with the law, and so protecting the rule of law. The aim of totalitairian punishment is to humiliate, to crush you enemies, to create an antmosphere of fear, and to strengthen totalitairian power. George Orwell in his 1984 gives a convincing picture of the art of punishment under totalitairian rule: 'punishment is serving the truth'. Punishing is doing good. It doesn't matter who you are punishing or for what reason: punishing is something good in itself. There is a cardinal virtue of punishing.

So lets summerize: It is a mistake to think that this preoccupation with punishment is innocent, or has something to do with justice. Not at all! The preoccupation with punishment prevents doing justice by the other. The current practice of punishment is in essence the way of doing politics by the political elite. The obsession with punishment prevails where there is low trust. The fear for punishment in Ukraine is justified. How could it be different, after almost a century of totalitairian, authoritairian regimes, which cherised punishment as a cardinal virtue, and punished who they wanted, where they wanted, and how the wanted?

It's obvious very difficult for Euromaidan to resist the punishment trap. Still, it's worthwhile to look for antipolitical alternatives, which defy the politics of punishment. One alternative is what I would call engaging in a practice of moral learning. But that has to wait for another blog. The most obvious alternative for the punishment trap is of course forgiveness. 
Forgiveness is an enormous moral challenge for all who are involved. Forgiveness has no meaning without a sincere moral inquiry and dialogue. It makes no sense if it's only about small money. It is meaningless if what should be forgiven is in not in a deep sense unforgivable, but will be forgiven anyway. Forgiveness is 'the European way' of dealing with moral horrors. Remember the famous letter the Polish cardinal, Stefan Wyszyński, and the metropolitan of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla in December 1965 sent to the German bishops, regarding the tremendous horrors of World War II, and the suffering of Poland. This is how they finished their letter: "In this truly Christian spirit but also in a very human gesture, we extend our hands to you, sitting on the benches in the concluding days of the Council, and grant you our forgiveness at the same time asking for yours." 
Wouldn't it be wonderful if Euromaidan could adopt and develop a language of forgiveness, not in stead of a practice of punishment, but as a supplement, maybe even as its moral justification?

1 comment:

  1. Dear author, I absolutely disagree with you, in many cases there should be no forgiveness, especially when this is about dignity, the dignity of the Nation, this is what it is about in Ukraine now, not about EU or Russia. We Ukrainians living in Europe do understand that EU is just another evil than Russia, and both of them are interested in weak Ukraine. Glory to the Nation! Death to the Enemy! ... And as the Christianity teaches us: we can not forgive, God forgives. If you wanna help pray God for us instead of writing articles like this one. Pacifists are the worst type of people, much worse and much more dangerous than enemies, they are weak by nature and tend to switch sides, so in any armed conflict have to be exterminated first, always remember about it. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to heroes!