“We can do it” (Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga)*

Posted by jlubans on July 27, 2021

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Caption: Memorial to the Victims of Communism in Prague, Czech Republic by Olbram Zoubek 2002. Photo by author.

A Latvian news article caught my eye: “Historian: Latvians see themselves victims, but there are heroes to discover”.
The historian, Markus Meckl, is a professor at Iceland’s University of Akureyri. No stranger to Latvia, he lived and taught in Rīga for two and a half years. Now he teaches annually at Rīga Stradiņš University in their media department.
Meckl’s interview – the one I assigned to my students - is based on his "Latvia's Vanished National Heroes" (2016) paper which suggests that after Latvia regained independence (1991), the ideal of the national hero "simply disappeared and no heroic image emerged. On the contrary, it was now the victim that became the emblem of Latvia’s regained independence."
It reminded me of my family’s flight from Communism after WWII and how my father would rehash the awfulness of communism and how he and his family had long suffered.
There was property seized by the Commissars. There were family members dispatched to Siberia never to return, among other atrocities. And, Latvians were treated as second class citizens by an imported Russian minority in efforts to erase Latvian culture and language.
My father, like many Latvians (and Czechs – see the illustration), did not want the world to forget Stalin’s depredations.
While my father spoke of Latvians as victims, he did not suffer from a full case of “victim syndrome”.
Remarkably, he and my mother in their late 30s with three kids, made a new and successful life in America.
I can recall, with horror, a suicide in our barracks at a German Displaced Persons camp. There were others. Some people just gave up. My father and mother did not; after 4 years as DPs we found a sponsor in Massachusetts.
I do wonder, if his dwelling at times on the awfulness he’d left behind, hindered his American acculturation.
Then, we hear of “cultures of complaint” in workplaces, large and small.
Yesterday my lady barber unloaded a jeremiad on my unsuspecting hairy head:
“I do 30 haircuts a day and I get tired. I’ve never had a vacation or time off. I’ve no money to do anything.”
As an afterthought, she asked if I wanted my eyebrows trimmed, I said no, but would like her to pay extra attention to my ears.
“Well, I’ve done them and that’s all I can do.”
When I paid her, she asked if I wanted a receipt. I guessed this would be a hardship, so I declined.
In a gesture of sympathy (“I feel your pain”) I told her that I had worked for 40 years but would not like to do it again.
She, like most workplace Jeremiahs, ignored me and went on about her miserable life. This all from someone who appeared healthy into middle-age, was well dressed, and remained not un-attractive!
Was this a practical joke? Could have been!
In my career in libraries, I’ve encountered staff who, like victims, “believe they have no control over the way events unfold, they don't feel a sense of responsibility for them.” Instead of “Can Do!” it’s “No Can Do”.
When outside consultants came in and listed out changes, these were rejected by the entrenched staff – they’d say the consultants did not understand the work and that the recommendations were foolish.
All that was needed was for the parent organization to supply money for increased staff and resources. Those were not forthcoming, and the aggrieved staff simply grew more so.
It became a several years-long stalemate which was not broken until a new leader appeared. With the full backing of his boss, he dismissed the pessimism of the past.
Perhaps amazingly, without any additional funding and the smart use of existing resources we made great strides toward becoming a “best practices” workplace.

*Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga, the sixth President of free Latvia from 1999 to 2007, said this in her speech in the outdoor arena of the Song and Dance festival in Riga. The live audience numbered multiple thousands and, simultaneously, her speech was televised all over Latvia.
“We are a strong nation! (say, please, all together – we're strong!) We are sublime! We're productive! We're beautiful! We know what we want! And what we want, we can! And what we can, that's what we do!”
“We are strong. We are great. We are productive. We are beautiful. We know what we want. And what we want, we can do it. And what we can, we do it!”
What inspirational words!
My Latvian cousin says these words were meant to inspire Latvians that they have “an inner strength, and that everybody should aim to develop that strength - this you can put together with the other people's strengths, and then big things can happen. Improve for the best, get over that sense of feeling as a victim (what has been throughout the years historically - pressed under Germans, then Russians) - and do not feel as a nation of servants.”

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© Copyright John Lubans 2021

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