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Insight: On identity and citizenship, a Central European perspective

Recently, the article To Be or Not to Be Hungarian raised questions surrounding identity, citizenship, and responsibility for politics you do not agree with. central european

The author, Nick Cosburn, strikes to the core of some of the most important questions that we face as individuals. Where did we come from, where are we headed and where do we feel at home?

The answers to these questions come from a mix of things we experience, the things we watch and read, and the myths and stories our families and our communities tell us. Hence, everyone’s approach and answers will differ. central european

But while we each fill our empty maps with different answers, it is useful to know how to use the correct framework which might guide us in finding our place in the world. When it comes to citizenship, an important distinction is muddled in the above cited article, the one between the nation and the state. Perhaps this is because the two often overlap, especially in the Central Europe.

A nation is a community of people, with a common language, history, culture, identity and territory. These shared elements create something intangible and valuable. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu labels our ingrained habits, skills and dispositions as habitus, and highlights that the individual habitus is shared by people of a similar background, be it national, economic, cultural or social. A favorite beer, a shared concept of an afternoon well spent or a form of greeting. And while the nation is not the only, or even the strongest determinant of our habitus, it is an important one.  

This becomes obvious when driving across Central Europe. While the lives of people across this small region are shaped by the same economic, cultural and historical forces, there is something unique and distinct about each nation. Within a few hundred kilometers, you will be met by a group of people proud of lángos and pálinka, another proud of burek and ajvar, a third one who loves beer and dumplings.

These differences, local habits and traditions come to provide immense comfort and stability to people. In an era which has stripped us of religion and tradition, at least we can seek comfort in nuanced and local way of being. These communalities are bundled up and labeled as nations, which serve as strong and imagined horizontal communities. 

This force is found everywhere and is hard to recognize. As in David Foster Wallace’s story, two young fish are swimming in the pond when an older fish comes swimming towards them. The old fish says “Morning boys! How’s the water?” The first replies “Fine!” but the other turns to his friend and says “What the hell is water?”. central european

We can only know the immense comfort that we derive from this shared habitus once we leave our community and travel to another one. The further we travel, the more stark the contrast becomes and the nicer it feels to come home.

The things that provide us with this comfort might not have any inherent charm or value in them, and outsiders can be befuddled by how they can provide anyone comfort. Dark sooty and crumbling buildings, cheap bitter coffee, the particular burn of palinka at the back of your throat.

This relationship and the comfort they provide are not voluntary. This community and connection is something you are born into, assimilated and nurtured into. The initiation rituals, the embarrassing moments in our childhoods when we trespassed hitherto unknown social norms. 

“Stemming from your ability to vote, stems some responsibility for the politics and direction of the state as well”, writes Viktor Mák.

Perhaps the saddest human condition is one where the individual has been ripped from his community. The true trauma of being forced into exile, to seek refugee in another country stems from, in the words of Edward Said, “the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” Hence anyone who lightly talks of uprooting themselves, and leaving behind these connections, or assuming these habits are easy to pick up, has surely misunderstood something. central european

The state, on the other hand, is an inherently hierarchical and political entity. It governs, it educates and heals, it suppresses, and enjoys a monopoly on legitimate violence. Often, states and nations are interwound and they serve to strengthen each other.

The nation serves a stable basis for the state by providing a clear delineation of who is in and who is out. In exchange, the state in part, serves the interests of the nation, by teaching the language at public schools, by funding the culture, etc. Citizenship is provided by the state. It comes with a set of rights and responsibilities.

With a Hungarian passport, you can travel freely in Europe, vote in Hungarian elections, and use Hungary’s crumbling healthcare system. Stemming from your ability to vote, stems some responsibility for the politics and direction of the state as well. 

But citizenship should not be confused with membership in the nation. The process of obtaining the passport is much easier than becoming “Hungarian”. Some cultures are completely closed off to outsiders joining. It is hard to imagine that, regardless of how well you learn the language, culture and common history, you will never become Guatemalan or Japanese. And while citizenship can be traded, applied for, purchased, given up, this connection to a place, to a culture, to traditions and habits is much harder to obtain.

Perhaps this joke captures well the point of this article:  

A Mother Mole and Baby Mole are tunneling underground and the Baby Mole accidentally breaks through the soil and sticks his head above ground for the first time. He says: 

“Mommy, what is this wonderful blueness above us?”

“That is the sky, little one” 

“And the blissfully glowing yellow orb in the sky?

“That is the sun, my dear” 

“And this peacefully green surrounding us”

“That is grass, my son”

“Mommy, everything is so wonderful around us, so while do we live underground?”

“It’s our home!” 

By Viktor Mák 

Born in Jászberény in the Hungarian countryside, Viktor studied and worked in the United States. He recently returned to Hungary and finished a degree in Public Administration at the Central European University. During the day, he works in political communication. In his free time busies himself with activism fighting for a quality, well funded and accessible education system in Hungary. Check out his latest articles right here!