Of National Character

With Especial Attention to the Americans, the Muscovites, the Magyars, and Various Balkanic Peoples, touching particularly upon their Aspirations to Global Hegemony, and their Use of Air-Conditioning.

Justin E. H. Smith

Feszty Organic nationalism, which emerged towards the end of the 18th century, supposed, or at least implied, that a nation bears some essential relationship to a particular territory. In the most mythologized version of this belief, the nation is thought, or at least said, to have arisen directly out of the earth, to be literally autochthonous, springing up from the depths without any connection to neighboring groups. Moderate nationalists of the period, such as Johann Gottfried Herder, sought for a way to defend national distinctness without resorting to such crude myth, and while they did not pretend that a people is born directly from the soil, they still hoped to tie national character to the way it is forged over the course of history out of a particular geographical nexus.

A clear demonstration that we are not in fact like plants, rooted in our national soil, is our ability to get up, should we so choose, and go somewhere else. We do not wilt and die, though we also do not remain quite the same. I am an expatriate, and it grows harder with each passing year for me to maintain a personal sense of what being American must mean. I have lived outside of the US steadily for seven years, and spent large segments of the decade before that outside of the country as well. Although I am fully connected, via the internet, to the American media that keep that country's pulse around the clock, it is increasingly difficult for me to maintain any real interest in domestic issues. Unlike nearly all the Americans I know, I am not really made angry, for example, by Glenn Beck. Outraged reactions to the latest stupid thing he has said strike me, I dare say, as a bit undignified. He is a buffoon, and he occupies a niche that has its equivalent in every time and place. Let him do his thing, and let us not stay tuned in to the networks that give him voice.

Expatriation, I mean to say, helps one to overcome the passions with understanding. As my identification with one or the other party to internal American conflicts diminishes, my perception grows sharper of the very long historical processes that give shape to current American life. Thus for example I often find myself trying to make sense for bewildered Europeans of western American crackpot libertarianism by arguing that it evolved directly from the settling of the frontier, with the ethnic cleansing and genocide that that involved, but also with a certain 'spirit' of freedom and individualism that cannot be valued nearly as much in dense urban centers. In turn, it seems reasonable to me to suppose that American imperialism, and the delusions of entitlement and superiority for which individual Americans abroad are so often criticized, flow directly from the late-18th and early-19th-century project of constructing America through expansion into the frontier. Oklahoma and the Phillipines and Iraq were just different stages of the same development, and this centuries-long process has something to do with the perception of the world, and of their place in it, often had by individual Americans.

Another consequence of extended expatriation is an ability to think about American history comparatively. In this connection it seems reasonable to suppose that it was a similar though opposite trajectory on Russia's part that brought the Russian Empire (now re-branded as the Soviet Union) into conflict with the US in the 20th century. From being a relatively modest regional power, Muscovy became an empire in the 17th century by subjugating what remained of the khanates left by the Mongols, and in that way, pushed all the way to the Pacific Ocean by 1639.

Just as the US pushed westward and southward, the Russians pushed eastward and southward, coming gradually to dominate in the various central Asian lands, the so-called blizhnee zarubezh'e or 'near abroad', at roughly the same time that the US imposed its will in Latin America by means of the Monroe Doctrine and other attempts at defining an enlarged sphere of influence. The US and Russia were the two powers to rise over the course of the 19th century whose growth involved expansion across and settling of their own frontiers, and establishing sovereignty across the extent of these frontiers. The European powers, by contrast, grew principally through asserting control over colonies that they never stopped seeing as foreign territory, even if Queen Victoria was officially named 'Empress of India' in 1876. By the middle of the 20th century, the US and Russia would both see the entire world as their frontier, as territory to be made theirs. The US's growth eventually brought it about also that it would take over many of the global charges once held by Great Britain. Thus the British Palestine Mandate would become, as Israel, what is essentially a US protectorate; and the Great Race for Central Asia, played out between Russia and Britain in the 19th century, would flow seamlessly into Cold War (and post-Cold War) geopolitical maneuvering in Eurasia on the part of the two superpowers.

But who cares about Russia? Isn't the Cold War over? Didn't Boris Yeltsin prove as much when he slipped out of the Clinton White House in his underwear, drunk as a true muzhik, and attempted to hail a cab in order to seek out a pizza joint and cure his late-night munchies? Though not so long ago, that was a very different era, as different in its own way as Khrushchev's shoe-pounding or Stalin's awkward pose at Yalta. Yet for some reason Americans still seem to think that Yeltsin and Clinton's hillbilly bonhomie continues to characterize post-Soviet US-Russian relations: hospitable and generous Americans on the one hand, and unpredictable yet harmless Russians on the other.

I can report from recent experience that it is only the Americans who remain in the feel-good nineties; the Russians have very clearly moved on, or, perhaps better, moved back. After more than 15 hours spent waiting outside the Russian embassy in Paris earlier this month, I was turned down by the Russian authorities for a visa. Well, technically, I was not turned down, but I was told that I would have to return to my home country in order for my case to be processed. Having waited so long, and having just slipped through the gate a few minutes before the consular department's closing at the end of my third day, I was naturally hesitant to take 'no' for an answer. I pointed to my official invitation from a distinguished scholarly institution within Russia, and insisted that I had been assured that arrangements would be made for me to receive the visa in France. I drew attention to the official 'Reason for Visit' stated on the invitation: 'scientifico-technical exchange'. “Well I'm a diplomat,” the young clerk at the counter smirked. “Would you listen to me if I tried to tell you anything about science?” I would not, I answered. “Then why did you listen to your scientific colleagues when they tried to tell you how things work here at the Russian embassy?”

I am told that it is a mere expression of my American sense of entitlement for me to complain about the circumstances at that embassy, but still I feel the need to say it: the treatment of the people waiting there to get visas was simply barbaric. Even if one were to arrive well before dawn, three or four hours before the consular division opened, there was no guarantee of passing through the gates, since over the course of the morning countless couriers and other figures with unspecified privilege would show up, strut to the head of the line, and be buzzed right in. There were no numbers distributed, there was no way of establishing one's priority other than to use one's body as a shield to block others from passing in front of you. Several shoving matches broke out over the course of three days, one full-fledged fist-fight, and countless exchanges of insults involving putain, ta mère, and mon cul. One attempt by an earnest student-type to block a leathery, long-haired motorcycle courier from entering with a stack of 100 passports (essentially enabling 100 absent people to cut in line at once), prompted the courier to say indignantly: “If you don't get the fuck out of my way, I'll say one word to the Russians and they'll cancel your visa just like that.” The student stepped out of his way, the gate buzzed, and the leatherman went in and shook hands with a Russian employee. Corruption! Corruption! shouted the French people from outside the gate.

One of the most striking lessons of my 15 hours outside of the embassy is that traits we often suppose to be part of the individual character of a member of a particular nation or ethnicity in fact flow directly from institutional arrangements. Due to the way the line was arranged (no bathrooms, no protection from rain, no distribution of numbers that would ensure adherence to the just and rational principle of 'first come, first serve', no information available from inside as to whether we might hope to be served that day), due to this precarity, the normally composed French people waiting in the line were reduced, within the course of a few hours, to behaving like animals towards one another. The crowd took on the character of a bread line during famine or wartime. The sort of behavior one commonly associates with the way they do things in less civilized parts was induced in French people, as if the subjects of a social psychology experiment, simply by obliging them to stand in a Soviet-style queue.

Many French people complained that the Russians had not adequately thought out their system of visa issuance in Paris. One young, rather adventure-hungry French employee of the OSCE, who was on his way back to Kyrgyzstan to monitor a referendum in the violence-stricken region, and who regaled us with stories of his experiences being held at gunpoint by drunk teenaged Kyrgyz soldiers, responded that his countrymen were being naive. Things worked at the embassy the way they did not because no one had thought about how to do it well, but precisely because someone had thought about how to ensure that it not be done well, that it be an ordeal, that it demoralize everyone who goes through it, and that it thereby gives us all to know who's boss.

Russia (alongside the very different case of France) is one of the only countries that continues to see its way of doing things as universalizable, and as a fully legitimate and worthy rival to the American way. When the consulate employee comes out of the Russian embassy in Paris, he speaks Russian to the crowd (not to give us information, but only to remind us that he has no information to give), not English or French, just like his American homologue speaks English and not Russian. Of course, the crowd is much less likely to understand Russian than English, but that doesn't diminish the sense, which seems widespread in Russia in general and must be most deeply felt among the loyal Putinites who get embassy appointments in Paris, that Russian ought to be understood, that it is fitting and natural for people around the world to be addressed in Russian. Again, this is a conviction that is felt only by speakers of two other languages: French and English. (For all our anxiety about the rise of China, one thing that most commentators have overlooked, with the usual sharp exception of Perry Anderson, is that Chinese inwardness and ethnocentrism virtually guarantee that no occupying army or paper-pushing desk clerk outside of China will be expecting us to respond to him in Chinese anytime soon.)

IMG_0371 While I could not travel to Moscow this year, I at least remain free to roam as far east as Budapest, and to ride around on Soviet-built metro cars identical to those in Moscow. Having just arrived in Budapest from London, I've had a fresh chance to observe the contrast between two very different species of geopolitical imaginary. London, when it was the center of the British World System, was the center, and whatever was felt to be great in it was never felt to be great in virtue of its similarity to or approximation of something somewhere else. Budapest at its fin-de-siècle peak, by contrast, was thought to be great, both by its local bourgeoisie as well as by visitors, in virtue of its supposed likeness to cities further west. The greatness of Budapest consisted in the fact that a sort of class and refinement ordinarily associated with cities that grew up much closer to the English Channel was successfully transported into deepest, darkest Europe, the part that was still thought to be quasi-Asiatic.

After its double decimation in the mid-20th century, Budapest remains a faded beauty, with blackened and pock-marked art nouveau façades that, then as now, cause visitors to say: 'Ah, so like Paris'. A reverse comparison, looking from Paris to Budapest, is of course unthinkable, while an eastwardly comparison, from Budapest to, say, Moscow, is not unthinkable, but is by definition a comparison with a highly negative charge.

Hungarians are not in fact descended from Huns, any more than Tatars, deformed into 'Tartars' by their enemies, emerged out of sulphuric Tartaros. The exonym 'Hungarian' comes from the Old Turkic term on ogur, 'ten arrows', and its transformation into something resembling the name of the dreaded enemies of the Roman Empire has no basis in genetics or historical linguistics. As nearly as can be made out, the Hungarians came into existence through the confederation of several different ethnicities. According to the national narrative, they were born as a people when they were led into the Pannonian plain by Árpád, the Grand Prince of the Magyars (pictured above), at the end of the 9th century. It is hardly a metaphor to describe this event as a sort of planting, as since 895 the Hungarian identity has been tightly fixed to a definite geographical region with important distinguishing features. They didn't spring up from the soil, but nonetheless came to thrive in it. When the remains of the Austro-Hungarian Empire were dismantled by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, and large chunks of territory under Hungarian control were ceded to Romania, Slovakia, and Serbia, it was understood that the Pannonian plain could not be ceded to anyone. It was essentially Magyar.

But what is that? The way forward for post-communist Hungary has been set in large part by the invention (or recovery, depending on how you see things) of the idea of Central Europe, which contrasts with Eastern Europe in that it has, so its advocates say, always been oriented towards the values and the institutions of the West. Hungary's definition of itself, along with Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, as 'Central' rather than 'Eastern', has necessitated the drawing of a line that is naturally disadvantageous to the solidly 'Eastern' countries, such as Romania and Bulgaria, as well as a good portion of Ukraine, the countries that cannot possibly claim 'centrality', but also do not wish to trace their own cultures and institutions back to tyrannical Muscovy. I understand Hungary's aspirations, but every time I hear the phrase 'Central Europe' with all its post-communist connotations, I can't help but think of the class-climbing young professional who drives a Lexus and shops at Whole Foods, looking down on the one in the Ford Fiesta at Safeway, unaware that there are yet others, still higher up, looking down on everyone equally.

One of the driving forces behind Hungary's recent orientation has of course been its richest son, George Soros, who in 1991 founded the Central European University. At that time, much of Eastern Europe was in the midst of what can only be described as a craze for Popperianism, with its somewhat simplistic account of the contrast between the 'open society' and its opposite, totalitarianism. The 20th century of course brought forth ideas more noxious than this, and I for one would much rather see a craze for Popper than one for either Heidegger or Lenin. But still, the Central European University, where I've had the pleasure of spending the past few days, can't but appear now as the product of a certain historical moment, which involved a certain vigorous reorientation, a reorientation that was, I want to say, fundamentally geographical and not just political, based as much on an ancient sense of the cardinal points and their different valences, as on any preference for demand-side over supply-side economics.

This reorientation has been both spatial and temporal. Particularly in Budapest, I think, there has been an effort to recover a lost greatness from circa 1900 that was and continues to be based on comparisons to Vienna and Paris. One thing that results is an antiquated sense of class and refinement that I myself know principally from having read Thomas Mann's underrated novel, Felix Krull. Much is made, here, of the number of stars a hotel merits, but these stars have little to do with what, dare I say, a real Westerner would associate with comfort; rather, they are a supposed measure of fin-de-siècle authenticity. What one gets with an extra star in Central European hôtellerie is an extra layer of servile bell-hops, but still no functioning AC.

And this brings me to my second main concern here, beyond the jockeying by superpowers for hegemonic clout in the world, namely, the differential ways different nations relate to air-conditioning. How much one could learn from studying the different ways different cultures have incorporated cooling technologies into their respective Lebensräume! Every time I return to deep Europe I have to psychologically prepare myself for weeks in advance just to be able to endure the stuffy unventilated spaces that the locals seem to find perfectly comfortable. It seems the further one travels to the south and to the east, the stuffier it gets, and the more phobic the locals grow about the deleterious effects of something as innocuous as a little breeze. If natural air is greeted with caution, artificial cooling, while it exists, is handled as if it were some dangerous force, some highly charged, almost radioactive technology that must be employed with the utmost restraint. Have you ever rushed, of a hot summer day in the Balkans, to the cold-drinks case of a corner store, only to lay your hand on a bottle of Coke or water that is, as far as the sense of touch can tell, no colder than room temperature? I used to think that this was a consequence of economic underdevelopment, that either the refrigerators did not work, or the shop owners could not afford to turn them on. But even now, in my luxury hotel in Budapest, where I had my internet password delivered up to me on a silver tray by an employee in a bowtie, the inside of the minibar is even warmer than the rest of the room. And have you ever walked into a sweltering store in Istanbul, only to be greeted by a merchant who, having noticed the incoming foreigner, declares 'yes, please!' and 'welcome!' with a beaming grin on his face as he turns on the AC by remote control? He would never think to use it for himself, and doesn't seem to grasp that by the time it's been on long enough to make a difference, any normal customer will be long gone.

There is a certain superficial view according to which the presence of Coke bottles on the table, or of Dallas on the TV screen, provides evidence that some distant culture has been substantially 'Americanized'. This misses all the other cultural borrowings from elsewhere (no American would suppose that the Brazilian soap that comes on next shows that, say, a Romanian TV viewer has been Brazilianized), and it also misses the more important fact that bits of borrowed culture no longer mean the same thing in the culture into which they are borrowed that they did in the culture in which they began. This is as true of technology as it is of soap operas and soft drinks. In some parts of Nigeria, mobile phone technology seems to be largely important as a new means of transmitting hexes. In the Balkans, as in 'Central Europe', something they call air-conditioning certainly exists, but not in the same way it does in the finely chilled banks and supermarkets of my Central Californian youth.

My spouse issues from the Balkans, and I probably need not mention that most of our quarrels are centered around the thermostat. In my imagination, the temperature I come forth to defend is so much more than a temperature: it is a way of life, it is cattle-herding under the big Western American sky, it is the Donner Party; it is, dare I say, freedom. It contrasts with serfdom, medievalism, and totalitarianism. It is also complete bullshit, of course, but I think this sort of bullshit says a great deal about what national character really is, what you can't shake even when you've renounced just about everything there is to renounce in the ethnic package imposed upon you at birth. What's left of my Americanness, when everything else has been cast off like snakeskin, is nothing more than a sense of the proper keeping of my body, of –to speak with Hippocrates– the airs, waters, and places with which it naturally agrees.


Budapest, 27 June, 2010

Works consulted for this essay include:

John Lukacs, Budapest, 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City and Its Culture, Grove Press, 1988.

Miklós Molnár, A Concise History of Hungary, Cambridge University Press, 1991.


For an extensive archive of Justin Smith's writing, please visit www.jehsmith.com.