The State Is Not Your Mommy

Oftentimes conservatives talk about the dangers of a “nanny state”, where citizens come to expect their government to care for them rather than caring for themselves.  However while we often debate this concept on a philosophical and public policy level, we do not often consider this line of thinking on a cultural level.  And we should think about the impact of making the state at least as worthy of our filial devotion as our mother, for it is a notion replete with problems of its own, particularly in the area of culture.

An interesting story from the art world, out of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, caught my eye this morning.  Reports are that an artist who painted what is referred to as an “interpretation” of the Biblical Last Judgment is upset, because the director of the art museum which was to display his piece is said to have “covered” the work in black paint, thereby destroying it.  It was to be part of an exhibition entitled “Great and Grand”, on the 1025th anniversary of the conversion of the former state of Kiev to Christianity, exploring the effect which that conversion has had on Ukrainian arts and culture.

The piece depicts elements from Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, intermixed with images making various political and social statements.  It resembles something that weird Goth kid in your 10th grade geometry class would have drawn with a black and a red pen on the back of his copybook.  Impressive, perhaps, in an adolescent, but ultimately highly derivative. The painting was an immature piece of protest art, not worth paying much attention to.

The motivation of the (admittedly rather fetching) Mystetskyi Arsenal director, Natalia Zabolotna, according to a statement which she subsequently released, was not one of attacking blasphemy or poor execution, both of which this piece had in abundance, but rather something more reminiscent of the concept of the imagined fecundity of the nanny state, combined with the jingoism of early 20th century politics.  “You cannot criticize the homeland,” she stated, “just as you cannot criticize your mother. I feel that anything said against the homeland is immoral.”

This brings us to an interesting question about what, exactly, is immoral about criticizing the state, particularly in the arts.  For the state, after all, is simply an artificial construct.  It only exists, insofar as it does, because people choose to believe it exists, and agree to be bound by it. Moreover, one can reasonably argue that in order for a state to exist, at least some other states need to also recognize that it exists, or the whole enterprise collapses.  Thus, while everyone in the world has a mother, not everyone in the world has a state.

Zabolotna’s reasoning that it is immoral to criticize one’s mother is not borne out either in human experience or in the arts.  No doubt we can all think of people in our own lives whose relationships with their mothers were not characterized by the loving, supportive, and nurturing care which motherhood usually provides to children.  We see examples of this going all the way back to the roots of Western civilization, such as the Greek tragedies about the scheming Clytemnestra and her vengeful children Orestes and Elektra; to the Renaissance and Shakespeare’s dramatic treatment of the bitter relationship between Prince Hamlet and his mother Queen Gertrude; to the modern camp classic film, “Mommie Dearest”, about the vicious, lifelong competition between actress Joan Crawford and her daughter Christina.

All of the mothers in these tales betrayed their children in some fashion, and were deserving of criticism.  While we may deplore the actions taken in some cases against those mothers, reasonable people should be able to agree that in some cases, there comes a point where honoring thy mother is a duty they ought best perform at a safe distance.  Fortunately such circumstances are rare, but those of us who have always had a close and loving relationship with our mothers ought to embrace them more tightly the next time we see them, and thank Heaven that we have such love in our lives.

Given that there are, regrettably, times when a bad mother must be criticized for mistreating her children, is it so unreasonable to point out that there are also times when, regrettably, a bad state must be criticized by her citizens?  There is nothing intrinsically immoral about speaking out against the state, and indeed, as the Founding Fathers showed us, one may in fact have a moral duty to criticize the state. Destroying a piece of art because of a false, secular morality which defines the state as mother, smacks of the kind of secular state-worship which brought about the great bloodbaths of the 20th century.

The mural defaced by Miss Zabolotna was, frankly, a rather poor piece of art at best, the rather pitiable work of a marginal talent.  It did not belong in any museum, let alone in an exhibition dedicated to the glories of centuries of Christian culture in Kiev.  Yet her disagreement with the painting’s criticism of the state did not give her license to destroy it.  She could have refused to display it, had it removed and sent back to the artist, or taken other, legal measures to keep it out of the show. Instead, she took the law into her own hands, claiming that it was her job to protect the state from what she perceived to be a quasi-immorality, when so far as I am aware no one elected or appointed her to perform that duty.

The real immorality, here, was in escalating what was essentially a matter of bad taste on the part of an artist, and possibly a contractual dispute, into an international scandal in the name of a state held to be above criticism. That escalation was based on fundamentally flawed, and frankly rather frightening, bit of secularist logic.  One cannot conflate the honor due to one’s state, with the honor due to one’s mother.  For when that happens, not only do we see atrophy in the arts, but a decline in the culture of society as a whole.


Detail of “Orestes Pursued by the Furies” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1862)
Chrysler Collection, Norfolk, Virginia

Life Celebrating Life: Could You Adopt This Custom?

This weekend the European Football Championships began, with Poland and Ukraine co-hosting the matches in several cities in their respective countries. One of those cities is Donetsk, in Ukraine, which I had never heard of before seeing a report about it on the BBC earlier this week, in the lead-up to the competition getting underway. In the course of watching the news report, I was struck by a particularly charming custom of the city, which I think we ought to consider, wherever we are.

Donestsk is a relatively new city for this part of the world, having been founded in 1869 when a Welsh businessman built up the steel and coal industries here, as a British concession from the Russian Tsar during the Industrial Revolution. Its current population is around 1 million people, and one of the things the city is most proud of is that in the public gardens around town, it is estimated that they have planted one rose for each citizen. It has earned Donetsk the nickname, “City of A Million Roses”. This is a relatively new custom which took off in the mid-1980’s under Perestroika, to soften some of the harsher lines of the Soviet-area architecture that dominates much of the city. Fortunately, having been laid out by the British, the town has a rational plan but is not lacking in parks and green space, as is the case in so many Soviet industrial cities.

I do not know for certain whether there is an official city ordinance to assure that there is one rose planted for each citizen: my knowledge of Ukrainian is non-existent, and with so many spam attacks coming out of Ukraine, performing too many internet searches of sites based in that country is both impractical and dangerous. However, the fact that this is an understood custom in Donestsk to honor its citizenry in this way is something that struck me as being a particularly good idea. On a practical level it a wonderful investment, aesthetically, for the beautification of the city, which no doubt requires significant municipal funds for maintenance and upkeep. Yet this is presumably counter-balanced by the fact that such floral displays must draw in tourist revenue throughout the spring and summer when the roses are in bloom, and people stroll through the city parks and gardens to admire the estimated 180 different cultivars of roses on display.

On a symbolic level, what I find  deeply appealing about this practice is its life-affirming nature. Rather than looking at its growing population as a burden, the people of Donetsk look at their fellow citizens as being a gift of life, and something to celebrate with a living, growing, beautiful thing. They have even created permanent sculptures of roses placed around the city, so that in the winter months when the real roses are dormant, the people will be reminded of the unique beauty of their local custom.

This got me thinking about whether, in some capacity, we might be able to encourage a similar custom in our own families and communities. Obviously there are budgetary constraints to consider: roses can be finicky plants, with some varietals requiring a great deal of care. It may not be a practical expenditure in many instances to try to have a rose garden with the upkeep that requires, and space may be very limited.

Recently at my parish of St. Stephen Martyr here in the Nation’s Capital for example, a generous, anonymous benefactor donated a beautiful stone statue of Our Lady, along with a plinth and landscaping, for the somewhat long and narrow strip of garden which the parish has on one side of the church. The church itself, along with the rectory and parish hall, take up almost all of the land on the city lot, which means that this is really the only significant bit of green space we have. It would not be practical for us, in such a comparatively tiny garden, to be able to plant hundreds of flowers for the hundreds of registered parishioners in the parish.

Yet for some groups and communities, planting a rose or some other plant for each member is not impractical. A large suburban parish with plenty of room for landscaping, for example, could do so. The same idea could be adapted to apply to all sorts of groups: schools, businesses, civic organizations, municipalities, etc.  And the communities of our families, or even those who live in community for religious reasons, like monks and nuns, or for social-financial reasons, like flatmates or housemates, could do the same.

If you are a family of five, for example, could you plant a rosebush for each member of the family in your yard? Or if not roses, what about another type of perennial that requires less work? If you do not have a yard, could you grow five perennial, potted flowering plants that die back in winter, such as Solomon’s Seal, on a window sill or balcony? There are many ways you could take the idea and make it your own, with something meaningful to you.

Gardens such as those in Donetsk may be out of reach for many, where there are budgetary and space constraints. However there are many ways to symbolically honor the people with whom you live, work, and serve, by using living things as the Ukrainian people do. It is a way of life re-affirming life, recognizing God’s gift of creation, displaying to visitors and passersby that you care about the people in your life, and that you are grateful to be able to tend to those relationships and keep them flourishing.

Park planted with roses in downtown Donetsk