Imitation Game


Banging on the irony curtain

To avoid confusion and immediate categorization, I will give away my long-standing perspective right away. Living in Eastern Europe, I can't be accused of lofty judgment of alien culture that I do not understand. I was not raised in particularly wealthy environment, so my stance is not biased or detached from the everyday experience of ordinary folk. Though I also tend to disagree with fashionable liberal/multicultural pose that accepts every culture as it is, as "different", "not better, not worse", "good in its own value system" - refusing any comparison or judgment. Despite harsh criticism from within, I still think that Eastern Europe had its own unique course of accidents and mishaps of history that endowed it with its peculiar experience and wisdom – that West did not and does not have. We should not straight away consider ourselves "less bright" or "unlucky" and learn from the wiser West.

Even the tragedy like communism is a perspective. In a course of century - we have tried both planned and market economic systems (and we lived through better and worse of each), we have experienced totalitarian regime first hand, being possibly still wary of its reappearing traits. Where West (at least certain intellectual circles) may hold sympathies or hopes for the untried – in the East in some cases "we have been already there", we know it is a cul-de-sac. Strikingly common but not obvious example – especially fresh after the revolution, we had pretty sensitive nose for propaganda (and we tend to avoid it even when we are actually educated, something valuable and beneficial, or just more human) – the capitalist product advertisement far exceeds anything that totalitarian machinery produced, both in sense of sophistication and dumbness. Those who were already lucky to work in corporation know, that any socialist factory or state apparatus is nothing compared to the internal bureaucracy of oversized private monopolies. The market environment and profit drive seems to have no effect on its waistline and almost comical immobility.

Unfortunately, two paradoxical things happened – East is not aware of the riches of its less fortunate history, although it is curiously quite proud of its childish achievements (most beautiful girls, best beer, gold medals in ice hockey,...) and very stubbornly resistant to learn even couple of better things from the West: "Do they think they can lecture everybody?" We even suspect them of (our own) Pride: "What do they know better in America/Europe?!"

"Yeah, yeah, we have the same thing, even better"

Let's put it frankly – West always seems a bit gullible in Eastern Europe. It is so easy to make it believe when we say that we do something, because they have no experience with such poker-face ability to pretend and lie. Of course, westerners do not live in a an ideal world, far away from it, though there is certain accountability in society, certain borderlines, certain trust. In symbols – like letting your bike unchained next to the shop, selling surplus products in front of the house - trusting that strangers will put money in the box, creating public service that serves everyone and not robbed bit by bit, or even scrutinizing politicians over their promises. It's hard to imagine – emphatically – how is it to live in space where this trust does not exist, it is not advisable. There is an absurd discrepancy between what's written on paper and what exists in reality. Good old Potemkin village. Not that it is unknown concept in the West. It's just the extent, the scale that is so impossible to grasp. Certainly, this trait has an origin. It's that 40 (and more) years of history bypass - that only the East walked through.

The most developed, but often not realized feature of "national character" is the ability to imitate superficially. Not that it exists out of pure malice, this dynamics often fools first of all ourselves in the East. We have the unique ability to copy concepts from elsewhere – but just as an appearance, without content. Often it is because we do not understand them deeply – we just want them as an item of wealth, level, comparison – failing to fully learn not only how to achieve them, but also to graps what they really are. Translating everyday words from Western languages is never straightforward dictionary check, there is always an asterisk, a vicious twist, something added or something missing. It starts from national history and pride, includes infrastructure, architecture, urban development, entertainment, leisure areas, media, art, self-reflection, consumer products, services, business culture, political culture and ends at economics as a whole, social attitudes, relationships, aspirations, dreams. We often copy the thing, but somehow miss its complexity, (dys)function, (mis)placement, context, or just asking everyone affected how they feel about it. We have it! Yeah!

Everywhere you look

As the modernity viciously surrounds us, we try to keep up. We are building skyscrapers as well, though their dullness stands out as a monument to itself. Their main "aesthetic feature" is how much bribe money did the bureaucrats granting building permissions got. With angry revulsion we introduce bike infrastructure and modernize public transport - often both starts in the middle of nowhere and leads straight toward some column, deep puddle, open sewer lid, fence or post-modern installation of signs saying "step down from the bike". Everything is standing in the way of daily Formula 1 race on the roads. Pedestrians and cyclists are unwelcome in the cities. We have public parks that are more decorative (and fenced) than really used by public. We have "the most beautiful national parks in the world", though often they remind wood harvesting plantation with attached amusement park, casino and more parking lot spaces than trees.

When a public service is created, its infrastructure is soon stolen ("privatized", "appropriated") a little piece by piece. We have newscasts, newspapers, journalists – though they just viciously push their truth through, without any sense of ethics, responsibility. They talk about objectivity, but they don't aim for it, they just assume it. We try to employ new methods of communication, teaching and learning, though by and for the deformed socialist minds. That includes unfortunately also children of the last generation with socialist upbringing. They inherit the positions of their parents from embedded caste (with "our ways" because "this was always done this way"). We have accredited universities, with similar education and evaluation tools as in the West, though employed within old patterns of thinking, supporting old memes. Authoritarianism and whimsicality of the lecturers, no quality control, omnipotency of the directorate, submission to the bureaucracy, not objecting or questioning – just to pass quietly.

We have Internet, payment cards, electronic databases ... but simultaneously we still carry tons of papers from one wrong door to another, no office being able to send an email to the next one. Even if they are interlinked. The universal answer of the bureaucracy is "it is not possible" - regardless if it makes no logical sense, if it would be expected purpose of that particular institution, or it is supposed to be done by them according to law. It is an embedded mafia that does not create any product, service or value, it just is there. Understaffed, underpayed, they are overloaded mostly sorting out redundant papers and pointless data, not fulfilling any function in ecosystem. The old socialist maxim: "we do not work, we are employed".

Unlike the rest of the world, we are not really aware of local or other people who invented tools, discovered medicines, composed some breathtaking music, made movies, wrote books, invented some new ways how to better human life. The national pride is based on hockey team, cyclists, medal-winners. Embarrassingly, we do not realize that no one really cares who was the first at that particular artificial championship in that artificial discipline. We wave flags, celebrate, get drunk – when we defeat someone – that is the times when we feel unified within artificial concept of the nation. Next day we fight again – on the roads, to get first into the bus, to steal something somewhere in the business - we compete in somewhat more harsh an heartless capitalism, than the one known in West nowadays. Absurdly, even the artists, the pro-liberal journalists, the teachers – are performing their profession as competing machos – where the fervor of the battle is more important than the fact that its subject or at least heraldry is knowledge, dialogue, compassion.

We have elections and parliament, but boldly detached from their promises, political line or accountability. Nationalism and religion overhaul any mention of logic, taste or sense. Contemporary-feel movies and series, though replicating 19. century values, repeating the newspeak. Quarter-century of democracy was run by results of totalitarian education. We have laws and police, though again a bit like a state in state, authoritarian and unaccountable. It is not just an occupation like any other, a function in society - they are above mortals – one feels it in contact with them. No "I serve you" "I am here for you" attitude or any politeness. Their cars carry "help and protect", an irony, a cool slogan from Police Academy movies popular in 90s. (More on that later.) We have multinational corporations with quite progressive code of conduct, everyone signs it, but no one on any level follows it or even believes it. It always comes back to the same thing – the skeleton is there, though the soul is missing, something is weird about it, something does not feel right.

Understanding this not as an exaggeration, but as the facts of life, everyday reality, however impolite and offensive it may sound – can save both East and West from fooling themselves and fooling each-other. Possibility of rectifying. Steady income of financial support and good advice, without supervision, inquiry and healthy dose of mistrust is just making the habit root in deeper.

Lost in translation

Green/eco/environmentalist movement has been gaining political visibility and credit in the West since 1970s. They appealed to use more sustainable sources of energy, to conserve it, to preserve the endangered diversity of rare ecosystems, to reduce complex chemical footprint by consuming more local products (food, consumer goods, energy, tourism, culture). Some of it - with difficulties, delays and mutations - permeated popular awareness and has become mainstream. Oddly enough, nowadays on world scale, solar panels are produced in dubiously-humane and obviously environmentally disastrous (waste)land/economy/society of China, energy is preserved by wrapping prefab residential blocks in polysterene (and painting them in grey), precious natural spots are often preserved by drawing hordes of tourist and infrastructure into them.

Global slogan "think global act local" is interpreted locally as well - the regional products are not being sold as "sustainable", nor as good for local producers and economy ("keep the money at home"), but as an act of patriotism - quoting again 19th century sentimental romantic chauvinist textbooks. While in the West the "consume local products" took shape of hipster obsession with vintage, rustic, nostalgic return to childhood times - sometimes becoming vain in any environmental-awareness, just a pure consumerist fashion wave ... or bio-mother phenomenon (animal-instinct perpetuated and sometimes selfish zeal to get the best for my child)... in the East it deteriorated to good old populist nationalism when "our products" are "the best quality in the world" in vain self-feeding pride, while the opposite is often the fact. However, it seems that local population has become (has been raised) sensitive to only this sort of "arguments". Goal sanctifies the means?

As part of bizarre imitation game in the East, the "back to the roots" and "back to the nature" has become a commandment - to not only rediscover and adapt what is still functional/meaningful in self-sufficient ancestor farmer life-style, but to completely revive it. Flirting with keywords like "traditional" is interpreted (or rather "not interpreted") literally - including the old conservative social values and patriarchal family structure. Forget the "excessive sensitivity" of "spoiled urban man". It allows for return from gender-and-sexuality diverse complexity of identities into "simple is beautiful" or "as it used to work nicely back then" or "common sense" (which can be translated as "Let's not think too much, it's no good."). Folk crafts and costumes are rediscovered along the folk prejudices (just redressing all the traditional phobias against everything new/different/foreign) and fake pan-Slavic mythology, pseudo-history and hockey-fan self-adoration. Green/folk/alternative counter-culture is becoming synonymous with anti-Bruxelles sentiments and pro-Moscow sympathies.

Cry over mimicry

Imitation is a pretty well know concept in the nature. Adapting to the environment and even making oneself invisible through disguise - ensures survival. The imitation does not mean becoming – transforming completely into another species. Mimicry is characteristic of a certain degree of superficiality – as much as it is needed. Imitation or copying is also a way of learning, when we are growing up. Although we start with appearances (play), we are actually aiming to learn the thing, not just a semblance of it. Somewhere between these two poles, we can uncover the nature of East as well. Sometimes it reminds of the mischievous kids that have broken something and they try to fool their parents with cover-up and bold pretense. Sometimes it looks like bored employees that want to superficially satisfy the money-giving boss with artificial all green numbers. Sometimes it feel like the Eastern Europe is in permanent stress, examination or test sort of panic, whenever being questioned – trying to put on "everything OK" face.

Just imagine – first we were "globalized" through Christianity (which we adapted to local heathen taste, but also made it a bit more sour, inhuman, sterile), then trying to catch up with spectacular grandeur of the empires, then late but with zeal joined the patriotic-romantic nation building, then hastily built democracies, which were overrun by fascism, which was taken over by communism, soon autocratic democracies and later the folklore of European bureaucracy. We never had time to deal with previous regime properly, already expected to dance to the new rhythm like pros. We hardly have a moment to breath, think, invent – so far we have always been either overrun or trying to catch up. No excuses. Just the subconscious feeling of constantly having to follow somebody, please, comply, having to adapt and adopt, being adepts of some new order.

In some cases, faking was not such a bad habit. Pretending that we comply with imperial ambition for one nation and one language (annihilating ethnic minorities) ensured our (even if deformed) survival. Even if our contribution to the diversity heritage can be questioning quite a lot. Collaborating with fascism a bit more lukewarm saved some lives. Unless we admit that we were pretty eager to join, opportunistically benefiting, happy for our 15 minutes of glory. And survived again. The recent memories remind us that the communism of the satellites was sometimes a bit more civilized, humanized or even rebellious, than that of the Russian/Soviet base. And again, we are still here. Survival for the sake of it can be relativized – is it worth it for every prize? Surviving, even very different from the original us, tainted, rotten, deformed?

As a matter of fact, we have taken couple of diversions on our path through history – and at some moments we had to catch up. In that process, we accepted things and concepts from elsewhere, but as a ready product to be used. We did not go through the natural development, that would lead us not only to invent the tool, but to comprehend the need to have it. The superficiality lies precisely there. We went for the answers for problems and situations of history, skipping the part where we would pose the questions first. Our use of the tools is then ... yokel ... monkeys holding the remote control. Our trust in them, our belief in them, our care about them, our appreciation of them, our treasuring them – is lukewarm, un-solid, desultory. This can prove as an advantage (ideological immunity) as much as a disaster (oversleeping evolution).

Aside of aims to establish equality of opportunity, sensible differentiation of salaries, classless comradeship-driven society, employment as a human right, generally affordable luxuries of technological progress – the communism totally failed in some of these and many other aspects: building a new class of rules, embedded bureaucrats, widespread corruption, nepotism, black economy, arrangin everything in between the rules. Forty years of social engineering actually achieved a New Man, though not the one it has probably imagined. The replacement idols, festivities and language of the regime imprinted the skill of cheering with the crowd, reciting the phrases, wearing the masks, withdrawing from public into private space (on so many levels!) - all the pretending (not to be seen, no to be left out, not to be questioned, not to be persecuted) – that was impossible to root out in 30 years of almost unwanted freedom. Imitation or pretense of it.

A face of the farce

A sad example of the imitation politics can be summed up by so called "post-modern rights", "gender ideology", "alien LGBT agenda", "subversive activism", "plague of feminism", "moral relativism" and other popular derogatory expressions for the "evils coming from the West".

In order to gain access to the grants and funds overflowing from the conjuncture period of Europe, political class of the East quickly mimicked the proper vocabulary, a bit reluctantly adopted some new laws, on the paper. LGBTIAQ+ rights were not popular of course – shaking the totalitarian fluffy ego ("we slept for last 40 years and missed some parts of history, but we still know better what is good and bad" – though the acceptable minimum was incorporated, no enthusiasm involved. A bit of grunting, barking, resistance. There was no effort made to introduce the new laws to society (which did not support it), explain why they are important, or even to present the minority that it was supposed to protect. The laws exist, though the society is still hostile, everyday life did not improve so much. In the sense of awareness, attitude, sensitivity, progress to another levels – the gap from the West seems widening further on.

We have Prides, but the bigger are the straight ones. Marches of conservative, anti-gay, anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia people of all generations, alas even the youngest, wearing the same team dress (unlike the diversity of gay pride), celebrating sameness, connection through hate and wish to forbid and enforce. We have hipsters - usually the more worldly, savvy, liberal part of the society in the west – while here they just wear the right clothes, right haircuts, right tattoos, but they are the most backwards, prejudice-ridden, mean homophobes you can imagine. It's not a wholesome identity, just a style, a pose. The places where you would expect to find more tolerant atmosphere – like e.g. music festivals – are just alcoholic parties with toxic masculinity abundant. Multiculturalism is interpreted as a Panopticon of diverse conservative (or just dumb) dogmas, poses and attitudes ("it's my opion"). Even pro-liberal fighters are somewhat macho.

This environment affected the queer minority with multiplied intensity. In order to achieve acceptance of the conservative society, it adopted conservative values, the cult of normality (perhaps another relic of the late "normalization" period of communism), artificial sentiments and values, 19th century language and aspirations, shame, internalized homophobia, toxic masculinity – showing through declared and esteemed hostility towards gay community, gay Pride, gay clubs, gay events, gay identity. Missed history acts as a multiplier here.

Not only the ruling class had to deal with new terminology and foreign values, even the queer people themselves adopted the new self-designations, queer traditions, queer spaces – as a ready-made product. Like the smell of 90s – when we hysterically chased any western goods and novelties. We appropriated the results of tumultuous and complex history of the LGBT movement (Wilde, Hirschfeld, Kinsey, WWII, McCarthy, Mattachine, Flower Revolution, Stonewall, hedonist 70s, The Plague, Act Up), without living or even knowing the development or reasoning behind it. Therefore it may feel as something imported, alien, strange. There is no sense "we have been through that together, we connected and cooperated and supported each other, we made a common effort". The Eastern queer community remains distinctly anti-communitarian, private, normality-obsessed, sex-negative, inner diversity suppressing, unfriendly.

As for the title I borrowed from the Imitation Game movie: For western spectators it is obvious that it refers to both the approach that the genius mathematician took to break the Nazi communication encryption as much as to the way of life that many gay people (like the main character) lead to survive in the hostile homophobic world (wearing costumes of normality while preserving their identity inside). Here, it was translated rather neutrally as Enigma Code. (The folklore of "I know better than the author" title and context translations is another unique eastern art-form.) The story of gay person who helped to save the day (and the world) by employing his specific nature and peculiar perspective (developed perhaps even thanks to his identity) - does not sell well here. We did not grow there yet. "Maybe one day. We did not mature so much yet. For now, we are too conservative." - the mantra is repeated and thus imprinted and made perpetually valid.

From Schwarzeneger to Putin

Probably the most surprising part of this storytelling, I'd say the most important message, alludes to the enthusiasm of 90s, when borders opened, pressure was let out, we could reach towards all the withheld pleasures. Consumerist pleasure. Along the colored matches, stickers, Disney, Matell, MTV, candies, hamburgers, clothes, MCs, computers, VHS players – after 40 years of lagging behind the rest of the world! - we welcomed parties, sexuality open talks, erotic programs, porn media, toys, relationship and intimacy novelties. There was this gilded era when everything from the West was awesome and everything from the East was crap. Even the usual generation distinctions were blurred temporarily – grandparents enjoyed kids products, kids watched their parents movies, ...

This era brought then fashionable action movies – the new ones along all the missed out older production. Bruce Lee, Arnold Schwarzeneger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude van Damme, Steven Segall, Chuck Norris. The angry-faced panzer heroes with muscles and almost no emotions. On top of that all the action series – from A-Team through McGiver to Xena. A less conspicuous observation: Most of these were carrying a remnant of the 80s attitudes, a very specific cinematographic era, somewhat more harsh, bully, homophobic, rough, macho. Faggot, faggot, faggot. (just watch The Celluloid Closet documentary, to understand it in context of history of portrayal of queer people). The toxic masculinity, manly speech and teasing, aggressive interactions have become new cool.

Imagine a virgin society, for several decades (and generations) almost cut off the world, with almost submissive trust towards anything foreign and new, discovering the West through these hyper-masculine channels. It's not just adults passing through a fashion wave. It's a child-like society being exposed to very specific interactions in their forming years. Since 1990s, we have followed the rest of the western world, though still marked by totalitarian habits and VHS B-class movie flash – as our fundamental experience. Yes, it may sound weird, cargo-cult-like, Gods Must Be Crazy (as ironically another popular movie from the era). Sadly, the "tough guys" replaced even the native habits of the societies – like the male bonding and tenderness that historically existed in Russia.

Now, for just a moment, try to picture Orban, Kaczynski, Putin and others – not just as "regular dictators" or "leaders bringing their nations out of humiliation into dignity" - but as young boys, who never matured, combining their forming-years experience (street fighters, tough heroes, never wrong, never questioning, never defeated, always doing the right thing – whatever they decide to do) with 19th century textbook values and patriotism that were preserved throughout the communism. Even if you remember many of those 80s and 90s movies having heroes with traumas, weak spots, displaying sensitivity, dark side, uncovering layers to their personality – this was lost in translation or just filtered out by viewers, who were brought up not to consider shades in between characters. This anecdotal commentary, with all the irony and disbelief: "this can't be true, this can't be it" may be the best approximation of what the Wester world is facing.

Happyend (imitation of it, we don't like happyends, they are so American)

Whether it was our peculiar history, where the imitation evolved as a survival instinct, or our redneck laziness to understand what we copy – that we can just theorize. In many cases The "tool" or "secret weapon" is still here, a bit heavy, a bit outdated, perhaps ready to be questioned. Is it still helping, or rather impeding? The East still believes in male and female role-models in upbringing. Ironically, in though of its hostility towards queerness in general, two parents of the post-socialist societies were both male: Romantic patriotism and iron-men cult. When we choose among the new production, we try to import something familiar: macho, routine genre exercise, no surprises, no questioning, one-dimensional, either-or. Even if it becomes more difficult to find. When we translate, we eliminate all the novelties, ambiguities, in-betweens.

* A personal experience with possibly universal message: The velvet divorce of Czechoslovakia. All the peacefulness of the act was outbalanced by two separate evolutions it launched. A western-facing, secular, educated Czech state and the east-searching, peasant, religious, conservative, nationalist, authoritarian Slovakia. It is almost impossible to describe, how decades of different upbringing of the society created two completely different personalities. That includes magazines, books, series, theater, steady supply of art movies with their particular stories, emotional experience and shared knowledge they provided. You can overlook mis-education of one person. How can you "fix" missed cultural education of the whole country? On top of that, a reverse osmosis has happened – those more educated, ambition, creative had left westwards in mass. An exodus of spirit and aspiration has happened. A fluffy satisfaction of "our own national manure" has remained.

Some very zealous western intellectuals try to "stand behind" East in the affairs where it helps the least. Conspiracy theories mixed with ideological opinions mixed with activist enthusiasm – a bit blind towards the facts – they stubbornly defend right of us - Easterners - to be ourselves, different, not lectured – even when we would deserve and need quite a strong criticism and remodeling. While illiberal leaders elected through fraud and media takeover (we have a talent to discover weak spots of democracy) may seem as a voice of dignity and self-determination and emerging strength of the East in the international discourse ... these are still failed civil societies, with totalitarian forms of government, vain 19th century patriotism – nothing of a healthy pride.

Early 20th century saw a bold but never realized plan to establish Eastern European federation in between the Baltic and Black seas – Intermarium. The plan was torn to pieces – literally – by territorial ambitions of western powers and Russian empire. Comically, now that we have joined EU, we see it forming again: Mind split between western wealth aspirations, but stubbornly looking to the east in conservative values and patriarchal style of self-administration. From the north – the heritage of Christian fundamentalism tracing to Teutonic Order times, from the south – the hot-headed Balkanic machismo, pride, tribalism and economy-scale nepotism. Is that our own "flavor" in the multicultural mosaic of the world?