Exodus from paradise and forced return to following politics (comments on Ukraine war from Poland)

This is more a generalised update post. I have been toying with various article topic ideas, but in the end the point is that my best friend has a crisis and can’t listen (incl. to my newest theories), and I don’t feel like paying a stranger to listen, so I’ll once again simply write up stuff that is on my mind.

Listen to what?

The last period has been pretty eventful, both for me personally and on a “regional” level, let’s call it that, meaning the geopolitical region and collective consciousness of eastern Europe, bleeding into central Europe (yeah, “bleeding” is a weirdly telling word choice here).

Frankly, I didn’t care much about Covid – given my neurodivergence and other factors, I’ve been living a semi-lockdown lifestyle anyways (though I have to say, in Berlin, where I stayed a good part of the Covid time, lockdowns were just about activities that aren’t accessible or interesting to me anyways, like clubs, restaurants, shops – the French one that we got caught in for a few months did get me down because of the inability to exercise outside freely). Also, I didn’t / don’t really have major fears of catching Covid itself – no indications it would be a big deal for my system. One person in my family probably died from it right at the beginning before tests were available (died from a sudden worsening in a lung condition), while everybody else either had it or is vaccinated or both. My job was remote anyways (cause I can’t stand offices and I can’t stand dealing with strangers or random colleagues). My partner got permission to work from home, which actually for me was an improvement in daily routine. I don’t think, frankly, that I even lost sleep over this (and I lose sleep easily).

On a world scale, I was more in a “there’s nothing I can do so there’s no point watching it” mode. For some reason the hyper-empath reaction that I get to some things didn’t come on – might be because I felt this is something inevitable, like a flood or an earthquake, it sucks a lot, but again – nothing to do, no one to blame, and not enough personal impact to freak out personally.

And I think it’s Ok if I’m simply honest here – observing the war in Ukraine in the media, seeing the refugees that have reached both Berlin and my tiny town in Poland, listening to Russian, American and other speeches, reading Polish, Estonian, Bulgarian, Israeli, German, French analysis (after 10 years of a media fast triggered by my stay in Israel, where the news were getting me down so I stopped them) – yeah, full U-turn into reading any and all reliable / thorough media outlets in any country that I’ve ever lived in or had any contact with – is something else. I’m still a country away (in western Poland at the moment – for whatever reason I felt I should at least come here if not closer), but I have lost sleep, appetite, and gone through a range of bodily reactions that continue a month into the events. Sensations of weird free fall, new lethargic kinds of exhaustion.

Ah yeah, I wanted to be honest – specifically about how this has taught me that I’m not a world citizen, and that empathy is selective. The emotional and bodily reaction teaches me clearly that there are people who are more “my” people, the same about cities, land (maybe as an explanatory note, part of my family came from Lviv, I’ve travelled the European east, learnt Russian – weird for a Polish person, but I’m reasonably russophilic in cultural terms because of travel, friends etc. Funny enough, the two friends who taught me Russian are Ukrainians, from Donbas and Odessa). Not implying any Polish imperialism into Ukraine but more the fact that for me there’s no “otherness” here (there has been a two-way bloody past, too – but my family in particular wasn’t traumatised by it, so that for example my grandma who was deported from Lviv as a child like many ethnically Polish people was still very excited to meet my Ukrainian friend).

So I guess, this will maybe not sound sensational, but it still surprised me – I was in Palestine, I had Iraqi friends, but I didn’t lose sleep or get shaking fits over Gaza or Iraq. They did. As did Pakistani friends over tensions in their country. That was when I studied in the UK, and I wish I had had more awareness about world history and politics and esp. post-colonialism and racism then – I think I had very, very limited empathy and understanding. Now all this comes back to me, the Palestinian colleague who couldn’t function when there were rocket attacks, Pakistani colleague having breakdowns – I understood it on an intellectual level, but now these scenes come back to me and I’m thinking to which level I really didn’t get it. I presumably still don’t get what Ukrainians (abroad and in the country) are going through now, and what these colleagues went through then, because I’m still a country away from the disaster – but suddenly my mind replays their gestures and body language and dark humour and hardened / numbed quips from years ago and think, whoooa damn was I clueless and unhelpful.

Which brings me also to – racism. Why did I not even know the history and context of these countries? (Oddly, turns out my mother always knows – because in Soviet times world history was taught in Poland – not to glorify it, it was presumably taught because of the USSR’s imperialist ambitions, but at least educated people of that generation seem to know where Myanmar is on the map, basic South American, Central Asian and African history and geography; I only learnt mostly Western European and some North American history, the former minus the colonialism, the latter minus the genocides.) … but also, perhaps more significantly, why did I somehow brush it off that yes, war sucks, but somehow it’s “normal” and to be expected in some regions? And specifically, in regions where the faces aren’t white? Why am I almost used to seeing misery porn pictures of homeless starving children who aren’t white, and that’s sort of always been that way and that’s the way it is – kind of no particular comment or deeper emotional reaction necessary?

I’m by far not a cold or unempathic person, if I may say so, but being honest – that’s just how it functioned. I suspect I also know why – it’s largely media portrayals. I got used to seeing non-white bodies in a misery, war, crime contexts – and few other contexts (for example, I have seen exactly 2 movies with mostly / only black actors featuring simply universal human, emotional, social, intellectual dilemmas – and that’s because I sought them out on purpose). That’s why subliminally it got the “normal” flavour – whereas now seeing (in the media and in the street) war refugees that look exactly like my family and speak a language I also speak is of course totally not-normal.

And I think on one level of course it’s natural if we’re from neighbouring countries that are also culturally and historically similar to some degree (for example via former Russian occupations). So yeah, being eastern European. But I’ve also noticed that even the white folks in Western Europe and North America that are further away react in a pronouncedly different way – since that’s not shared history (well, shared trauma in practice) and language similarity, it’s presumably the whiteness that causes the outrage (and solidarity)?

The only people I’ve seen say this directly is Arab friends, for example one posted this video on Ukraine vs. Yemen. Other stuff was also posted, but I’m not reposting it because it mentions “bias” in terms of not using Russian sources – sorry, but. I dare say, no person in eastern Europe will use Russian sources for very good reasons (such as direct memory of the level of USSR propaganda, its known strategies that can be directly recognised now. Yes, there’s Western propaganda, but it’s the lesser evil in this particular case). For my own part – I guess since I’m an ex-academic, I try to stick to in-depth analyses that aren’t sensationalist and haven’t started covering the region yesterday, such as the Polish Centre of Eastern Studies, Balkan Insight, bunch of other smaller regional analytic sources, and yeah – I cross-read the international press incl. the few surviving independent Russian sources (explicitly: Novaya Gazeta, Meduza, and posts by specific Russians) because I know the languages and I can.

So the point? Btw. I included myself in the racist point above – I don’t think being eastern European explains 100% of why this war is not-normal but others seemed normal to me. It’s the bias in news coverage (and I don’t mean an anti-Russian bias here – I mean the bias that we are so used to seeing non-white people portrayed as helpless victims and/or ruthless villains, but not in the kind of human “normality”, universality and complexity that Whites enjoy in the media).

Why do I care about this outside of a generic fluff social justice point (that I’m not placed to make anyways)? Because I think racism is part of why almost no(white)body saw Georgia, Chechnya etc. as a real problem (they aren’t white enough to most – wild hordes of central Asia or whatever) and now we have Ukraine in logical progression (logical based on history). Also, there was Syria, and the same Russian military actors supported / enabled the murder of civilians in the same way it seems to be done now in Ukraine – and yeah, it was sort of Ok and far away (“anyways these people somehow always fight”). Said actors got experience on how to crush a country that they can use now, and a sense that it’s Ok and won’t be seriously opposed by anyone worth mentioning. I include myself here in this unconscious line of thinking. I know many white people who were much more aware of this than myself, but I still don’t think I was / am unique in “not getting it”.

I think the illusion of Europe as a special island is partially gone.

I get the sense Arabs and others are bitter, and Western lefties are confused (to put it mildly) – I understand the former now, I get the sense of being tormented by what happens in “your” sphere while the Western folks who surround you (and would perhaps have some collective potential to help) brush it off unemotionally or are just clueless about the context and say uninformed / racist nonsense. It’s a particular sense of isolated agony and it does build walls (well, to quote Zelensky talking to the German parliament here – think he’s right on this one) and resentment.

On the other hand, being honest – since I’m following the informal coverage from inside Russia, it’s probably the first time I consciously feel grateful for having lived in countries that yes, for all their issues are far freer, where action seems at least somewhat possible and a future is imaginable. Haha and yes, it’s the first time I look up to the US and think between two evils, my region and myself very clearly chose one (NATO :). Not that I have ever particularly adored US policy or its “cultural exports” (except for … all the colourful countercultures the mainstream culture has given rise to!). So it’s weird to find myself defending the US as the lesser evil here from Western (hey, even Middle Eastern and Iberian!) leftie friends. But it is. In countries that it has invaded “personally”, it was of course the greater evil. It’s all contextual. Where you live, who’s gonna step on you more.

So I didn’t really intend to write about politics, I’ve never done it before and it’s not an area I have particularly followed. I realise though that this has been a certain exceptionalism, too. Not having to do it. I feel I now have to.

Many more thoughts, but probably more productive to go outside.

3 thoughts on “Exodus from paradise and forced return to following politics (comments on Ukraine war from Poland)

  1. Thank you S it’s always a privilege to listen to you. I think you’re spot on with the racism. White exceptionalism is in our very bones

    1. Haha yeah. I thought after a year or so of trying to read non White folks and understand racism I’d be a bit freer from it. Not the case. Also I wonder why I thought it’s easy to get rid of — I know I’ve actively worked with internalized sexism for 20 years — it’s of course still there.

      1. It takes a lifetime to unlearn This is an ever present issue for people like me who live on stolen land (Australia, Naarm)among indigenous survivors whose voices are still suppressed & where colonisation is ongoing. We have grown up steeped in a history that erases their culture, sovereignty, knowledge & experience. We can listen to those we have othered & learn to see through their eyes but the gut responses that arise from our body & in our minds do not disappear with new knowledge. The advice here is notice, own it, shut up & listen. I’m sure you know this. But noticing & owning our own racism is a powerful act. Wherever it happens

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