Viewpoint: Howling Mad

LSM's Lauris Veips mixes poetry and politics, which seems to be all the rage at the moment.

Though most don’t attempt to succeed in two disparate fields, like a professional glass blower deciding to perform in a Broadway musical in the evenings, Latvian politicians at least like to try. In addition to their day jobs, several have recently tried to become both literary critics and moral guardians of the public, with predictably disastrous results.

The heated debates over naming a restaurant most people don’t care about, or perhaps language cops’ investigations over the language spoken at May 9 (Soviet Victory Day) events and even swearing on public media may say a thing or two about the language politics of Latvia. They also reveal local priorities, unthinkable anywhere else, especially since so many get involved: officials, writers, actors, socialites, and the movers and shakers who think of themselves as 'opinion leaders'.

In short, just about anyone endowed with the most basic faculty of language and enough mental energy to spare can contribute to the debate on these often trifling matters. Admittedly, many of the stories have a silly angle, like the State Language Center’s recent decision to consecrate calling a hipster a ‘hipsteris’ in Latvian just as hipsterism itself goes out of fashion.

Increasingly, the funny side is nowhere to be found. On September 29, two almost perfectly aligned stories broke across the Latvian media space. One concerned the bizarre move by the Rīga City Council to remove pro-tolerance posters after receiving complaints by locals.

In reaction to this, Jūlija Stepaņenko, a 'social democrat' MP of the opposition Harmony party and author of the controversial ‘morality amendments’ to the Education Law, posted a Facebook update calling the pro-tolerance posters ‘scribblings’ and expressing her pleasure at their disappearance.

The posters seemed harmless enough and featured four silhouettes: one of a person in a wheelchair, one of a girl whose mother is infected with HIV, one of a homeless person, and one of a gay man. Their text-filled silhouettes related the stories of the respective groups, written with the goal of promoting tolerance. The worst that could be said of them was they were perhaps a little too smug about their own value. Stepaņenko, though, was dissatisfied about the appearance of Jānis, the gay man on the poster. She said that gay rights are being unethically pushed by having morally suspect Jānis standing next to a disabled character.

It’s interesting to speculate on what she’d think if the man in the wheelchair also revealed himself to be gay (sadly he wasn't given enough space to go into detail), though that’s another story. The important thing is that, regardless of the ‘constitutional morality’ amendments, there is no ‘gay propaganda’ ban in Latvia, unlike Russia for example.

Incidentially, if language really is to be considered in forensic manner, it's worth noting that 'ķēzījumi', the exact word Stepaņenko used to describe the poster, can mean both ‘scribblings’ and ‘the result of bird poop being smeared over something’.

The other story broke the web when the poet and middle-school literature teacher Iveta Ratinīka tweeted about being disciplined over her teaching methods. In one of her classes, Ratinīka had used “ō”, a poem by Latvian poet Agnese Krivade, in the teaching process, for which she was hauled before the school management as the poem contained swear words.

In particular, it featured the words 'bļaģ', and 'atpizģītie', the first a Russian loanword roughly corresponding to the expletive ‘fuck!’, while the latter, also from Russian, means ‘those who've been beaten up’ with vulgar overtones. The poem was used in a 10th grade class, in which most students will be 16 years old and technically able to marry (with parents' permission). Any 16-year-olds who have never heard such language before must have led sheltered lives.

In response to this, Stepaņenko posted another piece on Facebook, saying the school management had acted according to the law (that is, the amendments she authored), which binds them to protect children from harmful materials. She also said that pupils “may want to try understanding what the author [of the poem] meant” only after taking a crash course in famous Latvian poets Ziedonis and Rainis to give them a “stable system of values.”

Specifying the order in which people should read literature is not something that has been tried for quite a while, but as it smacks of Plato's Academy, maybe it's not such a bad idea? Though no-one should read Ziedonis or Rainis until they have read Shakespeare and Goethe. And no-one should read Shakespeare or Goethe until they have read Virgil and Homer. The Epic of Gilgamesh would be a good starting point.

The full-blown Greek irony, in which the viewers are aware of something that the protagonists - in this case Stepaņenko and Rīga mayor Nils Ušakovs, who used the exact same bļaģ when he thought he was off the microphone during a council meeting - are not aware, is that the poem clearly echoes Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, or rather his Footnote to Howl.

An inadequate translation of a few lines would testify to that:
Holy those run over, beaten to a pulp and shot
Holy all the Russians in my neighborhood and all the store clerks

Besides the fact that Howl was itself suppressed during its first release, there’s also an irony that runs deeper. One important aspect of Howl as well as the poem by Agnese Krivade is that everyone, including groups of people commonly sneered at - like bums, homosexuals, madmen, store clerks, disabled people and HIV patients - is of intrinsic worth to humankind, and can even be considered holy.

That amounts to an inclusiveness and compassion more profound but not entirely unlike the tolerance of the poster campaign. What Stepaņenko and others like her are campaigning for is in direct opposition to 'social democracy' and Western values.

Actions like these pose a real threat, both to groups of people too easily trampled upon, as well as to independent thinking. Perhaps these champions for purity of language and thought would do well to get their howling priorities straight and, if poetry is not their thing, they could instead read something that can open up a way of making a tangible difference in education.

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