Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Who's the true successor?

As anyone reading enough of my posts knows, I read a fair amount of Britské listy. The web site has a particular point of view, and so I keep asking myself whether the writers there are to some extent simply malcontents, making mountains out their molehills of disagreement with a legitimate government. But this issue of debt collection seems to go to something undeniably rotten in the state.

As detailed here, the current law was originally proposed in 1999, worked its way through the process, and was eventually signed into law by the president--at that time, the president was Václav Havel. The legislative process shaved a couple of excesses off the original form of the law, but left many of them in. It really does look like a legal regime meant to help unethical people get control of other people's assets by turning trivial debts into large sums and then blocking control over the victim's wealth.

And it's a multipartisan effort. The law was proposed by legislators from the Christian Democrats and from the Freedom Union (a now-defunct party with libertarian leanings). The government at the time, which didn't block its enactment, was headed by Miloš Zeman, a Social Democrat. It was signed by Havel, the great humanist and humanitarian whose life story seemed to embody the triumph of idealism even amidst the muck of real life and real politics. And it has since been carried on with narry a complaint by further governments, whether headed by ODS (the Civil Democratic Party) or ČSSD (the Social Democrats).

As another post asks in its title, Why aren't (at least) the left-wing parties intervening against the debt-collection extortion of the population? "How is it possible that when ČSSD was in power it allowed such a drastic privatization of one of the state's existing powers into the hands of a fistful of predatory entrepreneurs? Why hasn't the battle against the debt-collection lobby been topic number 1 of leftist politics for a long time already?" It's like the dog that doesn't bark--as the author says, one possible answer is that everyone who is or might be in power finds the current situation advantageous to themselves.

All of that is background for the following commentary about students and their political activities. The other piece of background is the fact that communist parties throughout the Soviet bloc made a big deal out of their anti-Nazi credentials. There were two parts of that credential. The first was the rather obvious contrast between communists on the left and Nazis on the right. The second was the fact that the Soviet Union played the largest single role in the defeat of Hitler's Germany. Conveniently overlooked were the facts that Stalin had seen fit to make a pact with Hitler to divide up the space between them, and that setting ideology aside, the Nazis and the Soviet communists shared a fondness for killing people or otherwise ruining their lives, either because of the victims' opposition to the ruling ideology, or just out of shear cussedness. But hey--bygones! What's important was that, by the end of World War II, everybody knew that Nazis were bad, everybody knew that communists were enemies of Nazis, and so if you encouraged people to have anti-Nazi demonstrations, you (the government) could have them doing something you approved of, even if they didn't have much use for you.

As I mentioned in another post, the recent local and Senate elections produced relatively strong results for the KSČM, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which in turn has prompted a great deal of angst among people who identify the KSČM with the KSČ, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, that ruled from 1948 to 1989. Students from the gymnasium (high school) in the town of Třeboň demonstrated against the communists, eliciting the following response.

Open letter to the Třeboň students
Demonstrating against the KSČM in 2012 is like using a demonstration against the Naziism of 1989 to support the communist regime
by Boris Cvek

Dear students of the Třeboň gymnasium (and also all other students who are bothered by the KSČM),

I often hear or read about you, usually in admiring tones, about how you're supposed to be an emancipated, independent generation, which won't stand for the communists. But have you ever asked yourselves what's so horrible about the communists?

You must have answered that question by saying that, thanks to their ideology, anywhere in the world where communist parties have taken absolute power, they've murdered, jailed, tortured, and stolen.

Nothing of the sort can be expected of today's KSČM (except for the thievery it would represent if it were to adapt itself to today's system and support corruption and the theft of public funds the way the rest of the "democratic" parties do).

It's true that the KSČM has the word "communist" in its name and it is a particular successor of our country's repellent past of normalization. ["Normalization" was the reimposition of more repressive measures after the increasing openness of the 1960s, culminating in the Prague Spring of 1968.] Nonetheless, it bears no responsibility for the real wrongdoing and horror of the present day.

Today, the tradition of normalization thievery and lawlessness continues along the line of "right-wing" policy, from coupon privatization (whose founding father sits today in the Castle), light heating oil, the methanol affair, the unregulated system of usury and debt collection, and the general unobtainability of justice. [Coupon privatization was part of how state property was privatized after the fall of the communist government. There were complaints about the corruption involved. One of the intellectual fathers of the program was Václav Klaus, who is now the president and thus has an office in Prague Castle. A couple of months ago there was a scandal where methanol found its way into bootleg liquor, killing several people and blinding others. I don't know what the deal is with the light heating oil.]

If you're truly troubled by human suffering and by injustice, then you must demonstrate against today's government, you must concern yourselves with the situation of the Roma from around the railway station in Ostrava or with the tragedies of families destroyed by usurers.

If you demonstrate against the KSČM today, you would be like students in 1989 demonstrating against the Nazis, thereby providing cover for the communist regime of that time and for its crimes.

You too would serve the pro-regime media who want to draw attention away from serious contemporary problems.

The growing support for the communists was and is related to the fact that people have been pushed into misery, that democracy hasn't been working, that the ruling stratum of rich people has been decimating the society.

So if you really were opposed to the KSČM and wanted to take the wind from the communists' sails, you would push for our thieving and fraudulent democracy, built on normalization principles, to become a real democracy, where the law functions and where people can live decently and securely and without fear of criminal mafias.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Differing visions of the 17th

November 17th is an important day in Czech history. That was the day in 1939 that Czech students demonstrated against the Nazi occupation that had started in March of that year. Many of the student leaders were executed, and the Czech universities were shut down for the rest of the war.

It was also the day in 1989 that a student march from Vyšehrad to downtown ran into a wall of riot police, resulting in an incident that touched off the Velvet Revolution and the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.

This past weekend there were conventional commemorations of the day, featuring the president and prime minister (the pictures that follow are from here):
President Klaus (to the soldier's left) and Premier Nečas (in the plaid scarf) at a wreath-laying
But there were other responses as well. The picture at the top of the post shows an anti-government demonstration that filled the upper portion of the square (organizers claimed a turnout of 20,000). Some more humorous messages for the rulers:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Return of the Wild Wild East

Back in the early 1990s, just after the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc, there was a minor stampede of young people from English-speaking countries into the former communist states--including me.

Motivations differed. Some wanted a cool place to hang out. I was interested in learning Czech as part of my bizarre path from music school to economics. Pretty much all of us were drawn by the relatively cheap cost of living and the easy ability for a native speaker of English with a college degree to get a job teaching English.

And we were drawn by a sense of adventure.

though the commentary there suggests a lack of awareness of the background

Friday, November 2, 2012

Technology, farming, diet, carbon

There was a lunchtime roundtable on technology today as part of Hartwick College's theme, Tools for Life. My colleague Andy Piefer was one of the panelists, and he responded first to the first question (partly because other panelists had food in their mouths). Asked his candidate for the most important technology, he offered up the Haber-Bosch process, that allows us to take atmospheric oxygen nitrogen and fix it into a form that plants can use. (Andy caught my braino here, where I'd described the Haber-Bosch process as fixing oxygen rather than nitrogen.)

The second question of the forum was about what technology you would like to see, either in your lifetime or in the far distant future. It was either Andy or another colleague, Bob Gann, who suggested it would be really handy to have a way of pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere.

I suggested organic agriculture since, at least under some climatic conditions, soils that are farmed organically have more carbon in them than do conventionally farmed soils. On a global scale, that would represent a potentially large amount of carbon pulled from the atmosphere by plants and locked up in the soil.

Andy countered that organic might be OK in the rich countries where we already have plenty of food, but in many parts of the world people need more food, not less, and so switching to organic would mean a reduction in diet and/or increased deforestation (which in turn would increase atmospheric carbon) to make up in farmed land what organic would cost you in yield per acre.

It's a common argument, and it may ultimately be right, but there three areas that I think warrant more attention. At a minimum, they mean that it's a weaker argument than it seems. And it may actually be no argument at all: