‘Inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’: Approaching irrelevance

“The girl who can’t dance says the band can’t play,” says a Yiddish proverb. Few accounts sum up the lack of focus prevalent in Canadian-Latvian circles today any better than Viesturs Zariņš’ description of the contradictions that lead to “politics of inclusion and exclusion” in Toronto Latvian schools (see “The politics of inclusion and exclusion,” published Jan. 19, 2003).

Based on those observations (and anecdotal evidence), he offers two options for the future: 1) “continue along the current path and see the continual decline and erosion of the community and its resources”; 2) “redefine the community, its values and modus operandi and reach out in a way that maximizes those who feel good about their Latvian connection.”

But other readings of the situation indicate that we are playing out the emigrˇ end-game along a variety of diverging lines. The community is already redefining itself as segments of it choose different destinations.

Agreed: We avoid confronting the existential concerns Zariņš raises and lapse into denial when facing the true dimensions of our dilemma. We churn along (no small achievement), doing what we can and are accustomed to doing. No new “vision” (if one is still essential) has captured popular support. We have activities and budgets, but no real plan for the future. “Must-do” vs. “feel-good” priorities have not been sorted out while resources shrink. Attitudes rub each other the wrong way: “business as usual” (now delivering more form than substance) and “criticism = betrayal” (to distinguish “patriots” from “enemies”), for example, have no patience with “call me if it’s important” (special invitations) and “why can’t I?” (incomprehension that a community worthy of noting as “Latvian” still has entry requirements). This tends to limit rational engagement with issues. If, indeed, engagement is what people want. Maybe, as Zariņš puts it, many will be satisfied with less demanding duty-free “connections” that can be switched on and off selectively. A buffet menu catering to all tastes and appetites in this era of “entitlement” can be appealing.

If memory serves, our community almost had a serious discussion about future prospects 20-30 years ago, when the kind of “modular” and “multi-tier” membership Zariņš advocates was first proposed. Change was in the air. Well-educated new generations of Latvian-Canadians challenged “established thinking”—which too often drew on a painful past to impose old formulas. Those wore thin after many ritual repetitions. And, for better or worse, folks began to question their purpose. There had to be “something more.” More “modern” and timely, perhaps.

A strong counter-strain of “purism” surfaced then as well. It held that those who work to maintain a recognizable Latvian identity (traditions, language abilities) in family circles and organizations have no obligation to engage in (and little to gain from) missionary work among those who don”t bother. Even in those days, “there is only so much we can do” (therefore, let us do the important things) became a primary factor in making decisions. This “direction” was all about distinctive survival. Not a “blend-du-jour” come-and-go social club.

That view is still with us—at summer camps, for example, where knowledge of conversational Latvian remains a non-negotiable requirement. For parents who had counted on two weeks of “immersion” as remedial magic that would correct years of linguistic neglect at home, non-acceptance of their children was a tragic surprise. Which part of “unqualified” (resulting in “excluded”) did they not understand? They have no one to blame for disappointment and anger but themselves. The standards a family “lives to” (which later on open opportunities, or set roadblocks for offspring) are not trivial investments. As the fitness motto reminds us: no pain, no gain.

To be clear: some folks practice what they preach, and they should be saluted for the courage of their convictions. (This group includes mixed-marriage couples: a tip of the chapeau to them.) If these convictions carry over into social activities, fine. No one else is forced to participate. If others, meantime, seek broader solutions (“this project-in-progress involves all of us”), they are free to organize along lines of least resistance. But not everyone in the community believes that “inclusion,” by itself, has real value. My sense of Zariņš’ second option is that it tries to make those who have held their ground do the re-adjusting in order to accomodate the less-committed. He does not explain what this will accomplish.

Still others borrow bits and pieces of “Latvianism” to fashion political and social billy-clubs. You know who you are. The practice of narrow “correctness” was often bizarre. For example, when someone “in charge” ordered removal of Rainis’ portrait from the Gaŗezers summer high school because our national poet had long ago been a social democrat. (The irony of his famous line—“He who transforms himself will survive”—was lost in the heat of that “patriotic” moment.) Jockeying for “position” turned ugly during the period of “cultural relations” (with the-then sovietized Latvian rˇgime and its selected emissaries). Unable and unwilling to sort out wheat (cultural content, its genuine carriers) from chaff (propaganda, “guardians” along for the ride), portraying any challenge to authority as a threat to (unspecified) “unity”, playing on fear (when we had nothing to fear), some in leadership positions put out wild accusations (“collaboration!”) about those making contact instead of smartly “working the room” for our own purposes. They played right into the hands of forces seeking to divide us. All independent thought (the goal of higher education), though occasionally naive, was painted as “dangerous.” The artificial “crisis” that followed preempted saner attempts to build a diverse membership base, and to acquaint new generations with the main flow of our living heritage (with all its deformations). It is this flow (trying to straighten out, to rejoin the European mainstream) that survives today.

It should be sadly obvious that we lacked trust in each other. The “decline” Zariņš wants to arrest started during those turbulent times. Instead of reaffirming core values and mobilizing every available resource to build all kinds of “machinery” that would have served us well for the long run, we produced division, “the clash of generations” and casualties. (The “wounded” still don”t communicate.) We can take none of this back. The choices we had yesterday are long gone.

Leaving aside tactical points Zariņš makes (some valid, some not), both his options look like variations of the same thing: “decline by erosion” and “decline by dilution.” This is an artificial category in any case. Why? Because our “current path” split into several routes and byways after Latvia reclaimed independence in 1991. Because segments of the target audience are heading (or have already gone) in different directions. But mainly because there can be no compelling “need to change” without strategic purpose—without some new goal we can agree on.

Step back a moment, and consider. Whenever their faraway homeland regains its sovereignty, refugees and exiles face a fundamental decision: to return or not. The longer this decison must be put off—as occupation by a foreign power lingers, or a democratic rˇgime cannot take root—the more complications will attach to it. In such circumstances, the same scenario has been played out many times, by many groups. Latvians are no exception.

As time goes by, exiles become expatriates. Refugees behave like immigrants. They gradually establish normal lifestyles and careers in a new land, their intent to stay confirmed by new citizenship. They must learn local languages. The “mother tongue” suffers in the process, badly so if both parents work and bring the values of a “get ahead” milieu home with them. Daily immersion in a new culture (especially of the young) pushes “the traditional” to secondary, part-time margins. If integration is easy and the group is small, it does not form a cohesive, supportive “ghetto” (in a “melting pot” or “cultural mosaic”—it makes no difference). Ties with “back home” have been broken. Attempts to re-build them are constrained and poisoned by emigrˇ “politics,” rarely an objective exercise. An emotional, nostalgic sense of loss settles into the currents of community life.

Then distances become a burden. Children scatter and marry “locals”. Assimilation takes its deadly toll. Maintaining organizations based on “original” (sometimes overly rigid) ideals and models grows more difficult and controversial as leaders age and “reliable” publics dissipate. Publications decline as “the old” write about what they know (their youth, fate, concerns, activities, social life) for a shrinking audience. Meanwhile “the young,” if they still can, do not read (there is little for them to read) and, if they care to, can no longer write well. “The living record” (news, literature, song) starts to repeat itself, to run dry, and has no future other than as a memorial to “who we were.” Expatriate publishers close up shop. New generations (for better, or worse) try to think for themselves, they no longer demonstrate the same burning (and unquestioning) “commitment to the cause” as those who suffered through injustice firsthand can muster on any (sometimes the wrong) occasion—the basis for unproductive, alienating internal conflicts. These transformations churn up fertile ground for “sowing blame.” This game can have no winners, only losers and, perhaps, some agile survivors.

Like it or not, circumstances and people change, the community changes, nothing can ever be the same. As Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.”

Or can you? Basic questions have a nasty habit of returning to test us. The main goal many worked for has been achieved: Latvia shook off Russian occupation more than 10 years ago. What next? (And “for what new purpose?”) “Overseas Latvians” (as citizens of the re-launched republic call us) still struggle to find sensible responses. These questions are both personal (what should we do now as individuals and families?) and communal (what should our organizations do?). But some have already “voted” with their exit visas, talent, money, imagination and commitment in favour of prospects that are far from guaranteed.

Let us salute the minority (“activists,” entrepreneurs, academics, artists, those reclaiming property stolen by the Soviet rˇgime) that has returned to take up life in “the mother country” in spite of less than welcoming policies and attitudes. One such “repatriante” has become a popular, effective president. (“Leaders” who made a habit of lecturing her about “political correctness” here must have been grinding their teeth.) These “homesteaders” have kept the promise all of us made at one time or another, or wanted to make—if we considered ourselves to be Latvians first and foremost. (Those inconvenient “standards,” again.) It should be clear that the two options Zariņš presents are of no pressing concern to “returnees” (or immediate candidates for the journey, or “sympathizers”) because they have rejoined a much larger and more vibrant community that now must solve its own (and far more serious) problems of “redefinition.” He speaks, then, to “those who remain.” If Latvian embassy figures indicating that only 15 percent of those eligible to reestablish citizenship have done so are accurate, that’s a large majority.

But here, too, we should be precise. “Business as usual,” for example, one cause of the “decline” Zariņš posits, is typically associated with older generations—yet it is they who have been most active in reclaiming Latvian passports and property. They support Latvian political parties. They vote regularly in Saiema elections. (“Coulda shoulda” venting by non-citizens is an irrelevant waste of time and newspaper column inches.) Of course, not everyone “re-activates” (many continue to curse fate, while dwelling on “happier times”), but those who do set an example: this is not “preserving” the past but, rather, taking it out of mothballs, reviving it and moving forward. “Decline” may be inevitable, but any description of it should include this current of natural re-connection. Practical choices tend to sort out “talkers” from “doers” very quickly. Maybe it’s how you “decline” that really counts: how you act, not who you are, or which generation you belong to.

Large numbers have declined their Latvian heritage entirely. Many simply drifted away, captured by careers, friends and a variety of “outside” interests. (“I can”t sing, dance, or play volleyball, so…”) Others left in anger over an incident that was never important. “Smart people” could not wait to shed their “immigrant” status fast enough. They “localized” (or allowed mispronunciation of) their given and family names. Children were ashamed of their parents’ “accent,” parents withdrew and could not convey the value of maintaining traditions. Assimilation is easy. All you need to do is slide. Some “lost souls” re-surfaced during the run-up to independence (to sample what they had discarded, or just to join in our rousing “show of hands”), but have dropped off the community radar screen again. A few journey to Latvia—as tourists who can”t “speak native” and complain about service. (So much for this “holiday destination.”) Some still give mixed-marriage grandchildren Latvian (second) names for old times” sake. You can see ethnic candle-holders in their homes as reminders of who they once were, but that flame flickered out long ago.

With few exceptions, these people don’t join our organizations, don’t subscribe to Latvian publications, don”t attempt to guide children toward our schools, camps and activities, have no idea of what is going on in our community, in what is now the Latvian diaspora, or in Latvia itself. They are “ethnic illiterates.” (Some “prominent people” fit nicely into this category. Why, then, should we “celebrate” their local achievements? Are they role models?) Along the way, command of the language dissipates in proportion to lack of involvement. (Should the demands of careers and “the spousal peace teaty” be so devastating?) Speaking Latvian (well) at home may be difficult, but we have actually heard (convenient) rationalizations to the effect that just trying to do so “impedes progress” in local schools. (Toronto and U.S. apologists, or “minimalists,” should talk to Quebec Latvian-Canadian parents who juggle three household languages.) When heritage (always a living body of knowledge one must relate to personally, exercise and love, or it can never be significant) assumes the status of a “distraction” (from what? never mind…), or a “hobby”, or a “souvenir”… we’re done. The foundation of our distinctiveness, particularly language, cannot be set aside. Identity does not accept substitute building-blocks.

Yes, there may be valid reasons for “difficulties” (living away from tangible “Latvian centres” without “lifelines”—before the Internet came along). Yes, we should reach out to embrace those whose interest in things Latvian has been rekindled (especially the young, who face great peer pressure). There are always “special situations.” Zariņš, however, is not really speaking to this group-adrift, he is speaking to us—“of them.” His intent is commendable. But what, exactly, is the offer he wants us to make? “We’ll find something for you”? “Whatever, come on in”? Is he suggesting that no conditions need apply? That there is no community agenda? Of course there is. Gaining NATO membership for Latvia, for example, is hardly “a sexy cause,” but it is essential. All those willing to work toward that goal are more than welcome. But in general terms, frankly, I cannot see how it is possible (or desirable) to “maximize” people who won”t, or can’t make some kind of effort. “Connection” has to start with them looking for places, people and events to connect to. A swinging door calls for traffic control: do we need them (for what?), do they need us (for what?)? Is it a two-way proposition (In aid of something common? What could that be?)? A show of hands, please—on both sides.

That leaves those still “in between,” still “alive.” Even here, divisions prevail.

There is a core of “activists.” In smaller communities, the same people fill different positions in school, church and cultural organizations; they can hold one meeting for all, just by shuffling the chairs as they go along. Then there are “members”—they pay dues and come to events. Just outside this group is another, the “known,” who are not members, but can be reached and do show up from time to time. All of the above maintain contact with “Latvian news” by one means, or another. They also maintain not just the “form” of our organizations, but also their “physicality,” or infrastructure—church and social buildings, camps, publications, and so on. They can be drafted to help with “care packages” for the needy in Latvia. They will be middle-aged and older “veterans,” rather than the inert (and party-time) young, or busy “yuppies.” Taken together, this is probably the community whose ways and means Zariņš wants to improve by bringing in “new blood”. In search of… what?

But we should recognize a new subcategory: “travellers.” These are people who spend a good deal of time raising funds for projects in Latvia, then managing them there. Or setting up businesses in “the old country.” Organizing academic, religious and cultural initiatives, exchanges, forums. Helping relatives. Reclaiming property. Lobbying to-and-fro on behalf of Latvian and Baltic causes. Returning as on-call “experts” to help enterprises and government departments—funded and blessed by countries they come from, like Canada and the United States. The focus of their “maximizing” activities lies in Latvia. They will do “missionary work” (in areas of market and judicial reform, language and business training, environmental clean-up, agriculture, economic growth, military reorientation) there, not here. They have no need for “redefinition.” They define themselves through what they do—and feel good about doing it. (“Being useful” also sweeps along “the other halves” of mixed-marriage couples, who can finally see firsthand “what all the talk was about.”) To the extent that these people are busy “there,” they will be less inclined to worry about the need for a new “vision” here. You can pretty much subtract them—and organizations whose priorities they influence—from Zariņš’ target audience, except when it comes to resource allocation. More about that shortly.

Then we have a new group, a wave of (mostly economic) migrants from independent Latvia. Unlike those expelled during the Soviet rˇgime because of political and religious activism, these people profess personal reasons for leaving—better educational, business, career and similar opportunities. Leaving aside some who “married visitors to the old country,” or established “new lives” while visiting or studying here (thus had contacts with the expatriate community from the start), most don’t bother “buying into” a pale, part-time imitation of the milieu they have chosen to abandon. What was not important (and natural) “there” is even less so “here”—apart from job offers. So, again, Zariņš speaks of this group as potential community candidates, but runs into the old problem : why should expatriates who struggled through 46 years to maintain Latvianism “reach out” to those who renounce it now? Fast-track assimilation is as unattractive as the gradual kind.

In an ideal world, we’d all be holding hands and singing familiar songs without having to look up the words. We’d all be “participating” in some way, because it is the right thing to do—and each of us would have a valuable, appreciated role to play. (We’d also make an effort to find that role, to volunteer.) We’d be taking care of our Latvian roots out of simple respect for the generation that sacrificed everything to bring us safely to a new country. We’d be maintaining a distinctive presence here, especially through schools and cultural activities, while helping Latvia all we can. But it is not an ideal world and, at the end of the day, we have to deal with it as it is—not as it should be. Reality: our community has fewer people working for it, less to work with and limited staying power. We are weaker than we have ever been, paradoxically, because Latvia grows stronger.

This is obvious from allocation of resources. After almost a decade in Latvia, the Rev. Varsbergs of Chicago estimates that expatriate churches alone have transferred millions of dollars in aid to “sister congregations” there. One hundred percent of annual Latvian Foundation grants now go to “homeland” projects. Daugavas Vanagi support active investments and have affiliates in Latvia. Umbrella organizations—the Latvian National Association in Canada (LNAK) and the American Latvian Association (ALA)—regularly vote large chunks of money toward “back home” initiatives. The World Federation of Free Latvians (PBLA) steers almost all of its budget “in that direction.” (The Occupation Museum and restoration of the Freedom Monument are notable current projects.) The total value of personal grants, sponsorships, scholarships, charitable donations and “care packages” over the last 10 years has yet to be calculated. The point: all these efforts and resources, until recently, went to maintaining our communities here. Suddenly, that era is finished. This is more than “disproportional” (as Zariņš put it), more than “decline.” It amounts to accelerating self-demolition. How long before we are “running on empty” (losing the past, not knowing what lies ahead), as the song says?

A liberated “homeland” always threatens coherent expatriate life. “The air” (strong purpose) whooshes out of community activities, leaving “housekeeping” to-dos on the agenda. Without plans (that may provide for orderly retreat to “ethnic-in-country-of-refuge” positions), instincts say “help the homeland rebuild.” We have, and will continue to do so. This, clearly, is the new “cause.” (Some organizations now measure “relevance” by their contributions to it, and have little else to report but faraway achievements… and problems.) Strip-mining people and resources, our diaspora has almost transformed itself into an aid agency with little regard for its own ability “to continue”. (A vicious circle. Those responsible at the Latvian Foundation, for example, say “we have no applications for diaspora projects.” Is there nothing left to do here? No one left to do it? No interest? Just money. Our money. And it “walks” to “where the action is.” To those making demands. Or to “realize” our own desires “over there.” The more that happens, the less “action” we can expect to find here. And fewer resources to support it. Around it goes.)

There is no plot. We are taking these steps freely. No one is tricking us, or forcing the issue. Our own “good will” is doing the damage. Latvian Foundation members, after all, vote on projects worth funding. The leaderships of LNAK, ALA and PBLA make decisions based on lists of proposals submitted by stakeholders. Some individuals and single-track organizations concern themselves with “aid” only. But the sum (or outcome) is that we help ourselves less. Much less. Fine—if this is what we really want, and understand how the financial “death of a thousand cuts” and “decline” go hand-in-hand. Almost refreshing is the fact that we have little left to fight over, except those depleted budgets (and remaining “reserves”). In this regard, Zariņš is entirely right: if we had a respectable survival plan, priority funding would go to culture and education (which still offer young people the opportunity to “re-connect” with their heritage and homeland), rather than “legacies” (monuments, buildings, memoirs, hot-house publications like Latvija Amerikā). Our children are our one true legacy; nothing else comes close.

Even then, decisions are not simple. What portion of resources should go toward maintaining infrastructure, places like the Latvian Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto and Gaŗezers in Michigan, “homes of our own” where, as a fundraiser put it, we can “gather, learn and party hearty”? (We have already lost Minstere in Germany, Abrene in France and the Kalamazoo Study Center in Michigan with its wonderful library.) How long can aging church congregations carry on? (Some have already merged, or collapsed.) Where will resources come from in five years? Younger generations tend to forget that nothing is free. Someone actually built and paid for places they take for granted. Seems to me that one “redefinition” urgently needed across the board is a spreadsheet “when do we run out?” projection for “propertied” and “reserve-funded” organizations. (It should not count on any “redefined” community, just “the usual contributors.”) Maybe the results will show that “all possible resources to Latvia” is not a consequence-free concept.

And, please, let us not use “corruption” as a red herring. Yes, it is endemic in Latvia (some insist it’s “a mentality inherited from the Russian occupation”) and, yes, with all that needs to be done, the country cannot afford waste of any kind. But, compared to scandals like Enron and, in Canada, Liberal Party patronage contracts, the amounts in play are small change. Right, corruption should not be tolerated. But put aside posturing about our “moral superiority.” We must simply manage aid more carefully and choose partners we can trust.

Segments of the community are heading in different directions. Some have disappeared altogether, and will not return. A steady flow of people and resources goes to Latvia. Elements of cultural focus have shifted also: nowadays as many 3X3 family camps take place there as here; Laiks is edited in Rīga; the “seat” of several professional associations—for Latvian engineers, doctors—has been “repatriated.” Fraternities and sororities are taking similar steps. Our Evangelical Lutheran church “rules” and issues its yearbook from “headquarters.” The transfer of documents, libraries and entire archives is almost complete. Expatriate authors hurry to publish one last volume “there,” so they can be remembered. “The writing is on the wall”—if we care to read it.

As all this hollowing-out goes on, the diaspora devolves into a Potemkin village, a facade of the bustling, energetic community it once was, with no other apparent purpose than keeping up appearances, “helping things happen” and entertaining visitors. A “holding operation.” Here and there one hears “cries in the wilderness”: “How can this be?” and “What about us?”

Yes, what about us? Good question. That “us,” of course, is Zariņš” community-in-need-of-redefining. The “visible” remainder. Those of us who stay here, or are based here, and are still “alive” in some kind of recognizable shape. Instead of allowing the free flow of events, perhaps we should make some determinations and plans. This will take courage and logic—both in short supply.

The first thing to do is (re)admit that ours is not and has never been a traditional community. Leaving aside the gross aberrations of “central planning.” history shows, again and again, that communities, unlike city suburbs, cannot be “designed” at will. They spring up along trade routes, around centres of religion, learning, government and commerce. Around natural resources, factories, seaports and railheads. As extensions of military bases and “centres of competence” (printing and weaving in the Middle Ages). An expatriate community is none of these. It is “a community of purpose,” and meant to be temporary. It gathers and holds (often widely-scattered) people, those who care, around a common goal. It will build “physical symbols” and meeting places (churches, community centres, schools), but only to serve that goal. Read those old “dedication speeches:” they all said that one same thing.

We reached our main goal 12 years ago. Like it or not, we are now players in the expatriate end-game. So the second point is: accept the fact that we must deal with “closure” (in various forms), that “things will be different” from now on—and get on with organizing “the how of it”. Dispassionately, without recriminations.

Therefore, third, let us advance the notion (we can say it out loud, despite hectoring from know-it-alls “back home”) that “not everyone will return” and recognize, at the same time, that “survival” (here) means different things to different groups. This means—fourth—that identifying and coming to terms with new purposes is essential.

Chief among those is “helping Latvia”, our de facto new cause. But it is not the only one. Zariņš believes that “reaching out” (redefinition, reform) is worth another shot—we see this with English-language church services, for example. A “hard core” holds a “let it be” position (a.k.a. “don”t bother us” or “same old, same old”). An emerging group of middle-aged “purists” insists that a key goal of the community here still must be “prepping” (of themselves, their children) for an eventual return to the homeland. They emphasize cultural and educational initiatives. (But these, like lobbying for NATO and European Union membership, have a natural expiry date.) There are “politicians” who dream of reshaping independent Latvia along (to them) “desirable” lines. There is a group of “traders” and businessmen who go back and forth in search of opportunity. We also have “big-bang” proponents. They say: stop fooling around, gather up all resources, divide them into separate pots—one goes to two or three high-impact projects in Latvia, the other to one hell of a “diaspora closing party” here. After that, everyone is on their own. Then there is “residualism”: it proposes that, as expatriate life subsides into isolated backwaters, most important will be connections among them, and to the homeland—so we should provide for establishing “an Internet community” of Latvians. (Some pieces of it are already operating.) Another (more traditional) version of the same “line” argues that, as long as there are “poles of attraction” (our social centres), there will be an expatriate community. Nothing can counterbalance “the pull” of a revitalized Latvia, but there is no reason to plow under everything we have built here. And, of course, there are variations, combinations, permutations. One “purpose” I don”t want to hear from again was advanced by a featured speaker at my son’s Gaŗezers graduation ceremony: “Who knows? You could grow up to be the first Latvian-American president… of the United States.”

Fifth, then: all competing purposes (or “visions”) have some claim on remaining resources. No single group (if it controls an organization with funds) should be allowed to advance its interests at the expense (or exclusion) of others. Why not? Because expatriate organizations no longer have the same mandates they had 20 or 30 years ago, and have not established clear new ones as of 1991. So, sixth, we need to debate purposes again and only then decide how money should be spent. It is too late for the same old cycle of elections, committees, projects and what could be characterized as “rule by mystery” when it comes to priorities. It is time for direct representation, perhaps a diaspora referendum. (Maybe then all those on the “inactive” list will show up, sign on, pay their dues and cast a ballot. At least they will have been asked—one last time.)

Many countries “go to the people” when amending constitutions, which, in our own small province, is what we must do. (This might even be an object lesson for Latvian lawmakers.) Therefore, seventh, let all remaining “communities of interest” declare themselves and make their claims in the manner of the French “Estates-General,” whose aim was to replace “the former (autocratic) rˇgime” with consensus, after “all parties” had had their say. Sure to be messy, “the republican model” is, nevertheless, more representative than others. (Even if “idealists” vote with their hearts, while “practical people” vote with their heads.)

“Business as usual,” over the last 12 years, has failed to refocus the expatriate community. (Who are we now? “Recreational Latvians”? “Song-fest Latvians”? “Latvians by extraction”? Aid workers? Palliative-care patients? Travellers?) We seem to have forgotten the maxim good discipline teaches: goals first, tactics and resources second. Followed, again, by a realistic evaluation of goals. Eighth, then, should be an underlying conclusion that we need to make changes (if only as a response to changes that have already taken place). The experts call it “transition planning.” Drifting piecemeal along the “current path,” as Zariņš puts it, leads to more than “decline.” It gradually narrows choices as resources are used up. Eventually, we will have none of either.

Gentlemen, start your engines! “Circle the wagons,” if you wish. “Reach out,” if you feel the call. Stand in splendid isolation on ethnically-pure hilltops with your ideals and hopes, like a beacon. “Help” until there is nothing left to give. Complain bitterly, because you have lost all you care about. Fire up those stress-free diaspora barbecues. Migrate the community to the Internet. Try to influence the course of politics in the old country. Help it in practical ways. Only don’t do any of this as though you have a monopoly on truth and consequences, as though everyone else is “wrong.” As though we are incapable of making cold-blooded calculations. As though we can”t talk to each other. “Maximizing” should mean maximizing opportunities—all of them.

In the final analysis, “feeling good” is not a purpose, it is a result of doing good. In the doing, keep in mind the overarching law of the Iroquois Confederacy: in every decision we make, let us consider the effects on the next seven generations.

Out here, we don’t have that many left.

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, also in response to an opinion piece by Viesturs Zariņš, appeared in 2002 in the Montreal Latvian Society’s newsletter, Ziņotājs.

2 thoughts on “‘Inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’: Approaching irrelevance

  1. Latvian culture in the diaspora is doomed to fade out and disappear, but the speed at which this will happen will depend on the size of the various centres. Diaspora Latvians would do well to observe and learn from Jewish groups, Italian, Portuguese and Arab groups – and note why those groups remain so strong after over a century of presence in North America. There’s really no mystery to this at all but as long as purists keep guiding the Latvian community with the exclusive membership requirements will be its demise.

  2. I have heard stories that some people have regained property rights that were taken by the Russians back in the early 1940’s. The reason I ask is my mother and her family were pushed out in 1940. We recently came across documents that my grandmother had stashed away in her things that date back to the late 1800’s. We don’t know if these stories are true or not, but it would be nice to know. Any information on this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you, Butch Satzinger, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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