Another Way of Seeing the Ukraine
by Peter Gabel
We all long for mutual recognition, to see one another with full presence as I and Thou. This longing is in the heart of every living being in Russia, in the Crimea, and in the Ukraine. But we are also conditioned within long histories of relationships suffused with fear of the other. And one form of these conditioned identities is identification with ethnicity, sometimes also expressed through identification with nation-states. In the introduction to my book Another Way of Seeing and in several essays in my earlier book The Bank Teller, I refer to these “national” identities as “imaginary” in the sense that people develop a hyper-identification with national identity in proportion to the absence of an ability to experience the there-ness of the person right next to them, in proportion to their fear of the actual other.
At the same time, these very ethnic and national identifications are carriers of what connection there is–the forms of sensual and connotative (through language) bonding that manifest the really existing forms of recognition and realization of our social being. Thus the rituals of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia are simultaneously bonding expressions of spiritual community, and also patriarchal, authoritarian manifestations of fear and alienation of each from the other.
It is this double-character of ethnic and national identifications that are being played out in a symbolically complex way in the Ukraine.
However, the particular manifestations of this complex intersubjective history in the present areas of Western Ukraine, Eastern Ukraine, the Crimea, and Russia–and the “cathexis” with the other and fear of the other that are being enacted by each person within each group and subgroup, are supposed to be “contained” by the act of democratic voting…that is, on specific formalized occasions (election days) a vote is cast that declares for the next period of time how the totality of these intersubjective flows in conflict are to be consensually and democratically held in place or balanced.
In the case of the Ukraine, the most striking unbalancing fact in the whole recent crisis has been that Viktor Yanukovich was democratically elected in just this way. No one has alleged the election was the result of fraud or duress – in fact, Western monitors stated they were “free and fair.” According to the democratic norms in play to contain the ethnic and national flows that I’ve outlined above, those opposing Yanukovich should have awaited the next election (as agreed upon in the February 21 pact between Yanukovich and the opposition forces)…but the opposition instead abandoned this agreement, seized the state buildings in Kiev, and forced Yanukovich to flee the country.
The U.S. response to this should have been to participate with Russia to reinstate Yanukovich and use the UN to oversee fair elections within the year, the agreed-upon time in the Feb 21 agreement. But the United States didn’t do this; Putin legitimately felt the flow-calibration norms were no longer in place and that this fact threatened his ethnic identification group on or near his border; and Putin moved to protect “his” group, or sub-group.
Leaving aside the question of why Putin then “went too far” and annexed Crimea via an illegal process (the flawed referendum), the key point I want to note is the fact that the United States “forgot” about Yanukovich’s having been elected in a democratic process and has been sliding toward a dangerous, and my view mentally unbalanced and totally unnecessary re-starting of the Cold War.
Here I think we must recall that the internalization of the fear of the other characteristic of national identity (“We Americans”) leads to an ontological insecurity, an insecurity at the heart of our being, a sense of constantly being under threat from the person next to us. The defense against this Basic Fear (we might call it) is to seek opportunities to inflate the hyperidentification with our imaginary connection as “Americans”. We have a tendency, influenced by our internalized fear, the fear in each of us engendered by our culture of alienation, to inflate our hallucinatory national imago of “togetherness” and to intensify our demonization of the threatening other–to project that threat that is actually caused by our own prevalent and internalized fear onto the Bad Other and to symbolically or actually go to war with it. We seek to protect the false outer group-self (“America,” “our interests,” “the West” “the NATO countries”) against its own unmasking and the consequent risk of fundamental humiliation of the longings of the fragile true-self within. So we project out and split to protect what is actually our defensive false identity or collective image: Once again it’s the good United States (the idealized false group to be protected) vs, the bad Russia (the demonized false group to be warded off).
This dynamic is what is being elicited by the Ukrainian situation, and it explains why the United States has “forgotten” the critical fact of the legitimacy of Yanukovich’s election, has forgotten the terms of the February 21st compromise that included Yanukovich, the Opposition, and Europe as represented by the foreign ministers of Germany, Poland, and France, which established the framework for presidential elections. From the standpoint of the anxiety of the isolated self afraid of the fragility of its social existence, of whether its longing for authentic mutual recognition could possibly be recognized, the “bad” resonance of the Russian Bear was too tempting not to create the safety maneuvers of the false self, the inflation of the Good West against the Bad East. It’s an expression of the motivation of our fear of the other to express itself, like an awakened shadow, when an opportunity in the world, in actual world events, presents itself
What should happen?
The answer to that is that diplomatic steps should be implemented with the help of the UN to calm the entire situation down (which the Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has every day of the last two weeks been trying to do), to decrease the level of fear in the flows in social space, and to gradually work our way together, including all actors in the situation and their leader-representatives, out of the crisis through reliance upon the underlying longing in all actors for mutual recognition. This means simultaneously working as one international community to appeal to one another at a universal level for authentic contact–through “surrounding” our hysteria and then “thawing” it (please see the essay in Another Way of Seeing called “Spiritualizing Foreign Policy”)–and also to address the need for safety within the historical particularity of the region, including balancing all of the prevalent ethnic and national identifications of Western pro-European Ukraine, pro-Russian southeastern Ukraine, and Russian concern about NATO expansion and EU presence on their borders. Obviously it is not possible to just call for universal love and instant social transformation of all past fear and all past particularist identifications, with their histories of bonds of ethnicity, language and the like, and also with their histories of the patterning and stabilization of their internalized fear of the other based upon how far (and no farther) the complex inter-cultural situation has actually developed to in real historical time. We can’t instantly transform everything and bring into being the future society based on love and mutual recognition of our common humanity. But it is nevertheless possible through a spiritually attuned foreign policy to connect the universal longing for mutual recognition with the stabilization and positive movement forward of the particular historical identifications of all involved, in including our own American community.
In other words, everybody calm down. Try to see each other.
Peter Gabel is a law professor and a founder of the critical legal studies movement, a marriage and family therapist, author of The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning, associate editor of Tikkun, co-creator of the Noe Valley Farmers Market in San Francisco, bass player in The Central Park Zoo (www.cpzoo.com), partner of union organizer Lisa Jaicks, and father of Sam (14).