Remember when you were a little kid and somebody said
“Slav” and you thought they said “slob” and wondered
if the two words were the same and then realized they weren’t
but thought they might be connected in some way and that
maybe Slavs are messy and throw their underpants on the floor
and leave their dishes in the sink or are said to do those things
by their sworn enemies, the Whomevers, the people who live
across the river, on the other side of the valley, in the heart
of the dark wood. What are Slavs, anyway? Answer:
an Indo-European ethno-linguistic group, even though members
of that group are diverse both genetically and culturally and relations
between them vary, ranging from a sense of connection to mutual
feelings of hostility. Slavs have even waged war on other Slavs.
Why, though? Listen up, you Slavs: your ancestors spoke
the same languages you do and shared cultural traits and historical
backgrounds—why can’t you get along? I know, it’s because
of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences,
or “the need to distinguish oneself by minute shadings and to insist,
with outsized militancy, on the importance of those shadings.”
But Marie Curie was a Slav, and so were Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky.
Why not bond in pride over these illustrious predecessors?
Even better, in the sixteenth century, the bodyguard of the Doge
of Venice consisted largely of Slavs, which makes sense:
if your bodyguards were Venetians, some of them
might belong to families that hold a grudge against yours,
and you know what that would lead to: gossip, rumor, betrayal,
stabbings, people trying to trip you as you cross the Rialto,
somebody else saying, “Look out the window!”
and dumping a white powder into your wine glass,
and when you turn around and say, “I didn’t see anything—
say, what’s this white powder in my wine glass?” they’d say, “Oh,
that? I don’t know. It’s white powder. Drink it! It’s good for you.”
But a Slav wouldn’t do that. They’d be on the payroll.
They like it that you’re the Doge, and they want you
to be the Doge for as long as you can. I wish I were a Slav.
No, wait—I don’t. I want to be the Doge, with Slavs
on every side. Slavs to protect me, to get me from one place
to the next, to keep me focused on the business of the Republic,
to put others above myself and insure that Venice is a safe
and happy place brimming with culture and enterprise, with
green industries and vigorous bilateral trade agreements
but also musicians in every piazza and only the finest plays in our many
Venetian theatres. I love my bodyguards. Every time I look
into their honest Slav faces, I think, “I’m the Doge.” Only Slavs
can save us. Only people who aren’t us can tell us who we are.