Following the latest wave of teenage suicides in a remote reserve close to James Bay, the government of Canada was quick to announce its solution to the problem: it will build a Youth Centre to help the moral of the suicidal youth on the reserve.
The news reminded me of Abádszalók, but before I get to that, let me explain the Kulturni Dom concept.
The essence of communism is the community of purpose. Every citizen of a communist country is supposed to believe in and strive for the common goals as they were articulated by the organ of the common purpose, the communist party. Capitalism, you see, is divisive, to serve the interest of the ruling class. It uses a strategy of divide and conquer to set against each other the many organizations of the working class. The first thing every communist country does when it comes to power is creating ‘unity’ by systematically destroying every civil alternative. The greatest enemy of communism is the variety of civic organizations. Once eliminated, the people can be provided with a single institution that can replace them all. The Soviets called this kulturni dom, ‘house of culture’, an equivalent of the Canadian ‘community centre.’
The universal public space where people were supposed to meet and do community things. The chess club, the knitting group and the Foosball league. That was the place where they were supposed to spontaneously gather to express their support for their wise leaders. (Not too spontaneously, though).
Since the institution was imposed on us by the Russians, we did at times referred to it by its Russian name.
Just before I left Hungary in 1979, I was working on a very ambitious research project. It involved a survey of every single community centre (kultúrház) in the country. The communists were genuinely puzzled by their overall unpopularity. They couldn’t understand why people were not more engaged. The party made it so easy for them. Everything was prepared, everything was organized, everything was explained. All they had to do is to go there and appreciate it. There was a whole class of people, called ‘people’s educators’, catering to the needs of the community. The profession required a university degree akin to social work, just a bit more political.
Despite all the money spent on them, these places were mostly empty. The goal of our study was to understand why. The revelation came to me in Abádszalók.
This village of 3000 people was a historically important location with the only ferry across the Tisza for about 50kms in either direction. Before the war, it had several clubhouses with their own libraries and their distinct memberships. The gentlemen’s club, a club for the landed peasants, another for the landless ones and a special club for the cartage people and all of these before the congregations of the two main religions. When the communists destroyed the diversity of social and political interests, they also destroyed the social institutions that grew out of them. What’s the point of social engagement when nothing can be achieved by it?
All of these clubs existed without any outside help. People contributed their time and money to make them into something they wanted to be part of. A community of like-minded people with shared interest. A community that is supporting them; a free market of social value and status. An identity builder.
Communism, on the other hand, atomized people, it was the ultimate world of alienation.
I often think of the experience when politicians (mostly of the leftist persuasion) bemoan the lack of political participation while actively labouring on making that participation ever more meaningless.
The more things the state is responsible for, the less participation matters.
People will only engage in any activity if they can get something out of it. A sense of purpose, a sense of importance, a sense of appreciation and being appreciated, a sense of belonging and a sense of achievement. Take that away and participation becomes meaningless.
At the end of the article about the announcement of the Youth Centre there is only one comment before it was closed for further comments:
“perfect opportunity to get to work. give them hammers and maybe they’ll appreciate it enough that it won’t be burnt down or trashed in no time. let’s see a picture of it day one, and one year later. I’ve seen how much these buildings are appreciated and how long they’ve stood.”
It is a comment of frustration based on observed reality but without consideration of the underlying problems. The failure of the system is not the fault of the people as the failure of communism was not the fault of the people ruled by it either.
It is easily predictable that multi-million-dollar youth centres will make absolutely no difference in the lives of the natives living on remote reserves. Neither will the presence of another handful of social workers and youth Councillors.
Canadian policies keep and treat Canadian natives like zoo animals. They are fed and housed, and yes, if they burn their house down we build them a new one. The only things we do not give them are freedom, equal treatment under the law and respect.
The value of a sweat lodge built by their own hands is far greater than the value of the multi-million-dollar government project.
People seldom kill themselves due to lack of food or shelter. They do it when they feel trapped, when they feel that there is no hope, no future, no meaning to their existence.
What Canadian natives need is not another government built kulturni dom but full engagement in their own lives.
But isn’t that what we all need? Isn’t that what freedom is all about?