Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Like old times

If a web log is a “blog” and a video log is a “vlog”, what do you call a trek log?

A “trog”?

A “klog”?

Let’s go with klog.

Here’s my klog of a trek I took, from Loděnice (about 15 km west of Prague) south through the Český kras (a wooded area), past Karlštejn castle, to the village of Zadní Třebaň.

When I lived in Plzeň in 1991-92, I discovered that the country has a network of walking trails throughout the rural areas, with accompanying maps. As Plzeň is a rail hub with lines heading out in (I think) six directions, it was easy to find a route where you went out by one train line, walked 10 or 20 miles, then came back by another.

I’d been eyeing this route since I’d bought the relevant map back in early September. The weather lately has been gorgeous, and I didn’t have any scheduled obligations today, so I took the opportunity.

The journey started at Smíchov nádraží (the railway station in the Smíchov neighborhood southwest of downtown Prague).

After a delay due to some sort of track problem, I was at Loděnice about 15 minutes after I expected to be.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Welcome to the cafe

One of the benefits of living outside the country for a time is the opportunity to see your native land through others' eyes (to some extent). Just like a fish doesn't know it's in water, certain things about our day-to-day environment elude us simply because they are so familiar.

Other times, the "Aha" comes from seeing other people's misperceptions about where you're from.

This week’s example is Czech architect David Vávra in an interview with the newspaper Lidové noviny. He had a lot of interesting things to say about reconciling the need to make a city livable for modern life while preserving the historic character that people value.

A related issue is the Marian column that used to stand on Old Town Square, one of the tourist highlights of the city.
The Marian column on Old Town Square, from here
Just to the left of the column is the church of St. Nicholas, designed by Dientzenhofer (see below).
All the way at the left is the "new" wing of the city hall of Old Town, later destroyed in the Prague uprising against the Nazis in May, 1945.
Many Czech towns have these monuments from the Baroque era, signs of devotion to the Virgin Mary, also called “plague columns,” as they might be put up in thanks for the ending of a plague.

A significant part of Habsburg rule had been forcible recatholicization of Czech society after 200 years of uneasy religious pluralism. Some Czechs thus identified the columns with oppression suffered by their people under the Habsburg yoke.

In 1918, shortly after the creation of Czechoslovakia out of part of the ruins of the Habsburg empire, a crowd of Czechs took down the column in Old Town Square in a burst of what they perceived as patriotism.
A crowd gathers around the fallen column, in the background the newly empty base.
From here
Now some people are advocating for the column to be rebuilt, arguing for its value both as a piece of public art and as part of the historical fabric of the square. Others oppose the column’s restoration, continuing to identify it with religious oppression.

In the discussion with Vávra, the interviewer makes the connection between the issue of Prague’s Marian column and the current controversy in the U.S. over Confederate statues.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Don't smoke!

The Czech Republic has been reluctant to tackle smoking. When we lived here seven years ago there was an add on a bus-stop bench I was at with some frequency that said, “Europe is giving up smoking; Czechia isn’t?”

And they had a point.

Then-president Václav Klaus was not a big fan of higher taxes on cigarettes or of rules about where smoking might be legal. For him it was an issue of freedom and rights, rather overlooking the rights of a nonsmoker to get a job in a restaurant without sacrificing her pulmonary health.

Since then, they’ve made some progress. Smoking in bars and restaurants has now been banned, which has prompted a huge boom in sidewalk seating outside bars and restaurants since the last time we were here.

A couple weeks ago I even saw an entire outdoor seating area with several customers, and none of them smoking! It was as if people just liked eating outside with the pleasant background of a lively street.

Then about a week ago, an image behind the counter at a neighborhood grocery store caught my eye. I looked more closely, and realized it was on a pack of cigarettes, meant to be disturbing and dissuade you from smoking.

A few days later I saw some packs at a grocery store and had the presence of mind to shoot them with my phone. Some of the pictures came out blurry, but I got a couple of OK ones.

Here’s a picture of a rather unwell woman, with a text explaining that, “Smoking damages your lungs.”

This next one’s somewhat out of focus but you can still more or less tell what happened as a result of the unfortunate fact that, “Smoking clogs your arteries.”

Monday, October 9, 2017

Getting in the zone

Last night my friend Ewan invited me to join him and his son at Zvizdal, a multi-media performance about a village in the “exclusion zone” around the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. Or more specifically, it’s about the one remaining couple in the village, who are in their 80’s.

The story starts in a surprisingly humorous tone. The screen is blank, except for the English and Czech subtitles translating the Ukrainian conversation—as one of the filmmakers goes from office to office trying to get a permit to enter the exclusion zone. She’s told to go down the hall, 2nd door on the left, then you hear her walking and the screen says, “Down the hall”; a door opens, and the screen says, “2nd door on the left.”

In addition to the runaround of everyone telling her to go somewhere different, there’s one official who admits he doesn’t know whether the permit she’s looking for is within their work or not.

Someone else explains, “There’s nothing there. Well, there is that one couple, but the only way to talk to them is in person. There’s no phone.”

But obviously she eventually gets some sort of permission to proceed, and we are now looking out through a dash-cam as a guard opens a gate and we proceed into the exclusion zone.

After the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl reactor in 1986, the Soviet government created two exclusion zones. The zone have a few old people living in them, people who felt out of place after being evacuated to Kiev or other cities, and so preferred to return. If they were old enough, they were allowed back in, or they snuck in.

The outer zone is where the buses bring the folks out for some disaster tourism, as I experienced with my colleague Amy Forster Rothbart and our students in January, 2013. (Amy's husband Mike Forster Rothbart is a photographer who's done extensive work in the zone.)

On the standard tour you look at exhibits in the museum, see the firemen's memorial, and visit a former nursery school with dust lying thick on the beds and on the children’s books scattered across the floor (and a beer bottle placed on top of a bank of children’s cubbies, with a label showing it couldn’t have been there more than a year).

The inner zone has the plant itself, where you come within 400 meters of the “sarcophagus” that was built over the destroyed reactor, to prevent any further release of radiation. There’s the plant, and the workers there who maintain it, and the workers’ canteen (where the tourists also have lunch), and the former city of Pripyat, home in 1986 to 50,000 plant workers and their families, abandoned today and unknown to most of the world except for those who play Call of Duty.

Mike explains that there are actually a small but significant number of people still living in the zone, as described here. But the impression I got from last night's movie was that there was pretty much nothing there.

Except for one old couple on a farmstead in what was the village of Zvizdal.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Fan mail

In my previous post on l'affaire Blaive, I mentioned that there are people who will actively support a dictatorship, for a range of reasons. One of those reasons is that they are more or less in agreement with what the regime is trying to do.

One such is a letter written to Britské listy in response to an interview that Jan Čulík, the site's main editor, had conducted with Dr. Blaive.

Looking at the events of 1989 from the West, we had a narrative of a populace that was oppressed by a hated government. Anna Kouzlová's letter suggests that this narrative is much too simple.

I can see two main possibilities:
  1. She's misremembering her own feelings about the regime - she was unhappy with it at the time, but her experiences with the post-1989 world have made communism look good to her in hindsight.
  2. While the communists were still in charge, she was in fact fine with the system, liked it better than what has come afterward, and better than what came before (she says she's "well past 70," so she was born around 1940, so her earliest memories are likely the Nazi occupation, and then the brief period of more-or-less democratic rule between liberation from the Nazis in May, 1945 and the communists' seizure of power in February, 1948; she has no direct memory of the interwar Czechoslovak Republic, but had - as we all do - stories from her parents, who would have spent their childhood and young adulthood in the interwar Republic.
Either way, her letter can help inform our understanding of the spectrum of views that exist today, 28 years after the end of communist rule.

Mr. Čulík, I clicked on Britské listy for the first time in a long time, to see if you three idiots had found your way to common sense, and I watched your video.

I must say that that woman has her head screwed on right and is objective, even if you tried really hard to point her in the direction of expressing tendentious nonsense like you are in the habit of doing.

We regular people didn’t feel this nonsense, and anyway, why are you surprised that people chose a regime without servants and beggars? We had employment security, at work nobody treated us like slaves, something that we got a strong feeling of after the “glorious revolution” subsidized by the West!!

Mr. Čulík, I’m well past 70 and I can compare and unlike you I have life experience and still have my common sense.

As an eight-year-old girl I had to go with my mother to slog away in a farmer’s field. There were nine of us children, and in order for the farmer to plough our field we had to do quite a bit of serious labor!

Today’s brainwashed youth who moan so much about how their parents had their farm fields expropriated, I’d like to know if they would have toiled in those fields. It wouldn’t have been them—for that they had us poor people.

What do you idiots today have to say about how things were under Papa Masaryk,* how much poverty there was and shooting at workers, how ordinary people were dealt with. I heard those facts every day from my grandma and grandpa; today the truth is silenced and twisted. Supposedly it was a democracy, and we’ve got the same kind of democracy today—democracy for thieves and scoundrels, a decent person doesn’t have any rights. I experienced on my own back how today’s “demokratúra”** works, so some little fool somewhere babbling on about democracy and freedom just shows how messed up his head is.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

It's really not a game

I’m trying to wrap up this series on the issues raised by the French historian Muriel Blaive, so that I can get into other stuff, like Tomio Okamura throwing the word “traitor” at Czech representatives in the EU parliament who voted for refugee quotas, and those representatives then getting death threats. Or the last-gasp campaign of TOP 09 (the electoral sensation of the 2010 campaign), on the reasonable slogan that “The EU needs to be changed. But with us, not without us.”

But I do have some threads to try to tie off.

I introduced the basic argument, then looked at the implications in terms of current politics, before providing an analysis of the dynamics of totalitarianism through the simplifying lens of game theory.

And the big simplification in that last piece was the clean distinction between a “bad” government and a population full of “good” people being oppressed by their bad government.

As I argued in the first of my posts on this, I think Blaive seriously misses the boat in trivializing the communist dictatorship when she quibbles over the word “totalitarian.” But she also asks a real and important question, about the extent to which Czechs were purely victims in World War II, and by implication the extent to which they were purely victims under communism.

To be clear, Czechs were victims of Nazi aggression in World War II, and the communist leaders conveyed to President Beneš in February 1948 that if he didn’t approve the takeover of the government by the communists, there were Soviet forces ready to back the communists, so in a meaningful sense they were victims of an imposed government in the case of communism as well. But Blaive is right that a narrative of pure victimhood is too simple.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Overestimating ourselves

Atul Gawande has a piece in The New Yorker about people who are skeptical of Medicaid but support Medicare.

"I know so many folks on Medicaid that just don't work. They're lazy," he quotes one woman. Medicare is different.
“We all pay in for that,” she pointed out, “and we all benefit.” That made all the difference in the world. From the moment we earn an income, we all contribute to Medicare, and, in return, when we reach sixty-five we can all count on it, regardless of our circumstances. There is genuine reciprocity. You don’t know whether you’ll need more health care than you pay for or less. Her husband thus far has needed much less than he’s paid for. Others need more. But we all get the same deal, and, she felt, that’s what makes it O.K.
She's partly right.