Around 20 years ago, I was working at the French Cultural Institute in Bucharest. One day, wearing my ID, I reach the entrance door at the same time with an older man, probably in his late 70s. I stop and, smiling, I gesture towards him to go in first. But he changes his demeanor immediately, bows to an almost 90 degrees, and says, “Mais non, monsieur, après vous.” I was 22 years old. Someone close to his 80 bowed down before me because of my ID that indicated I was from another culture. I think it is an example of a situation in which a man believes that another man is his superior simply because he comes from a different culture. And, to my mind, such attitudes are also at the basis of hateful nationalist discourses.
However, and perhaps surprisingly so, I do not think humans are equal, and I think it is a good thing that they are not equal. Of course, I am not discussing the equality before the law or the nature of human beings which is manifested in the same way in all the members of our species. So I am not saying that anyone is more human than another. I merely point to the fact that for me humans are not equal. There is no person in this world who is equal to my son. There is no man in the world who can be my father other than my actual father, and there is no woman who can be my mother other than my mother. The same goes for my wife and my brothers. But it also applies to all the human beings I encounter: there is no other human being who can take the place of the person with whom I interact at any moment, unless I do not interact with a person, but rather with an object or with the function that a human can perform. If I go to a bank, for example, any employee can deposit a check into an account (so one may say “it’s all equal to me who does it”), but the personal connection that may be established between my eyes and the bank employee’s eyes is unique, irreplaceable, and makes the person who fulfills a job unequal to any others.
In personal relationships, equality is meaningless. The concept can not be applied. I think the same goes for nations. Even if, on one level, I can have various relationships with the people who share my nationality (I may love some, be indifferent to others, be angry at others etc.), there is something that connects me with them, something that makes us one. It is actually interesting how in personal relationships we always constitute one thing, a body, or I would call it a constellation. The constellation of my family lives only with certain human stars, and not with others. I may want to replace that “mean uncle” with someone else, but that would mean that I fully replace the constellation with a new one. I may also want to not have murderers or torturers in my nation, but there are such people, and being there they are also part of my body, of my constellation. So they are my torturers, different from those who commit similar acts in a different part of the world.
I have often read how people who suffered in prisons during communism say that it was an honor to suffer for their own people. Petre Tutea said that he did not want to say anything about the tortures that took place there because he did not want to bring shame on his own people.
It may seem at times that this love for one’s own nation stays at the basis of many conflicts. I think, however, that if it truly is love it can only be a reason for peace. I was born in a family, in a town, in a region, in a country. Each one of them, at different levels, constitute my own constellations, given to me as gifts. I have traveled and encountered people from different families, different towns, and different countries. Doing so, I interacted with other constellations. But I have always done it coming from my own–I am and I will die the child of Maria and Gheorghe, even if I am no longer the boy who was playing soccer on the field next to the hospital. I am and I will die a Romanian, even if I no longer live in that country and I speak and work in a different language. But all these interactions remind me of something: if the constellation of my country is to be beautiful on the sky of this world, it can only be so in connection with others. My love for those who are “mine” celebrates the difference of those who are also “mine” (all other people), but in a different sense. And this is rather because I am theirs, and they all live in me. But this is possible only as long people are not equal for me. If they were, there would be no constellations on the sky; there would be no beauty. Just uniformity and sadness.
The problem with the nationalist discourse, then, does not seem to be the love for one’s own country, but rather the understanding of love as hatred–a corruption of love. If the only way to love my country is to hate my neighbors, then I do not realize that, doing so, I have already lost my country. If nationalism is a problem, this is because people who love their countries as their own constellations do not find in the public space a discourse that can account for their love, and thus they fall into pride and darkness—which is just the other face of the same coin, if we consider the situation with the older man at the French Institute 20 years ago. What we need to remember is that we do not love our spouses by hating all other people, just as, by loving my wife, I do not hate all other women. But my wife is my wife, and her uniqueness stems from her personal relationship with me, just as my country’s uniqueness stems from my personal relationships with the people that share my culture.