Thursday, September 7, 2017

How do things die?

We begin this episode with a light discussion of the proper terms to use when dogs die, but then progress through the more serious topic of the burkini (trust me, as it’s being discussed here, that is a more serious topic), which leads in turn to choice of allies and ultimately, how we know anything.

The Christian Democratic – People’s Party (KDU-ČSL) is a small party with a relatively committed base among religious Catholics (unfortunately for the party, that’s an elderly and shrinking population). After their disastrous results in the 2010 elections, they chose a new head, a young guy, a veterinarian, Václav Bělobrádek.

A fresh face.

The kind of guy who will scold a woman on Facebook for posting about her sadness that her dog died.

This part gets very tricky to explain, because Bělobrádek is obsessing about the choice among many different words for the end of life, and the punch is in the connotations that each one has for a Czech speaker, because the translations more or less overlap, but I’ll do my best to render his post into English with the appropriate flavor for an English speaker.

The woman described her dog’s passing with the verb “umřít,” which translates as “die / exit / decease / pass away”. From those options, let’s go with “die,” and see what Bělobrádek—a veterinarian—had to say about the matter.
He didn’t die. Only people die. Animals perish, pass on, snuff it (in the case of animals, this doesn’t have a vulgar connotation), drop dead, extinguish, are killed, are cut down … Giving animals human characteristics and applying human terms to them (die, food, eat, take a poop) is modernist, leftist, and liberal, typical of bourgeois eco-ethno-bio scrawny folks with beads around their necks, earings in their noses, belly buttons, and eyebrows, with loose-hanging skirts and drinking tea from a bowl.
Called on it, Bělobrádek doubled down on Twitter: “I’m a veterinarian. That’s my education. … An ultraconservative Catholic blogger talks about an animal like a person. That’s the point. And truly, animals don’t die. Trust a veterinarian.”

To which another user answered, “But you’re probably not a Christian – maybe you should hand your Twitter password over to your wife.” The thread includes someone citing Ecclesiastes 3:19, “Sure the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: as one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath.” And of course, the Czech version uses specifically the word “umřít” that was getting Bělobrádek so upset.

The whole thing was best summed up by the headline on the Britské listy story from which I drew this material, “Have the election prospects of the People’s Party kicked the bucket, or passed on?”

Moving along to a subject equally absurd but more serious in its potential consequences, we have the burkini.

Czech president Miloš Zeman was an early endorser of Donald Trump, back before our election. He is also a “man of the people” who likes his drink (maybe too much?) and isn’t afraid to speak his mind (based on what follows, maybe he could do less of that?).

On August 27th, the tabloid Blesk published an interview with him in which he held forth on the subject of this new swim garment that covers most of a woman’s body, allowing observant Muslim women to enjoy an outing to the beach. According to Blesk, there was a public discussion of the clothing item after a picture showed up on Facebook of two women in burkinis at a water park in the town of Čestlice. In his interview, the president decided to elevate the discourse.
It depends what the women look like. There are women who should be covered as thoroughly as possible, because of their proportions. There are women who should be thoroughly covered. And then there are girls where I would tear that burkini off them.
The Blesk article continues,
Zeman was most concerned about the aspect of hygiene: “You never know what sort of filth is in those burkinis.” … The president also emphasized that Czech women in bikinis wouldn’t get a warm welcome in an Arab swimming pool. “There’s no reason for someone to swim in Arab clothing in Czech swimming pools,” he concluded.
Alright then. The presidential election will be next January, a few months after October’s parliamentary elections. Let’s see what some of the other presidential candidates have to say.

Jiří Drahoš is the president of the Czech Academy of Sciences. He says simply, “Every swimming pool operator is fully within its rights to determine the conditions under which it’s possible to enter the pool.”

Michal Horáček is a writer, and the former president of the Czech Academy of Popular Music. His position is that “The rules should be the same for everyone, in the swimming pool as well.” I’m not sure I’m fully getting his point with the song-lyric reference he brings up next, but it sounds like he’s not going after burkinis in any meaningful way. “And as far as meeting hygiene standards, the hygienicists should decide about that.”

Vratislav Kulhánek, the former chairman of the Czech Ice Hockey Association, takes a similar hands-off line about it being up to pool owners to set rules. “In America if you want to swim without a suit at all, they’ll lock you right up.” But he sees a more serious side to the discussion: “The president shouldn’t give in so easily to populist themes, especially when they have an entirely clear xenophobic subtext. The debate should be carried out on the level of how the entire society will manage to come to terms with the changing geopolitical situation, rather than about who’s getting in the water wearing what, or whom we want ‘here’ and whom we don’t want.”

Petr Hannig, a singer-songwriter, is more on Zeman’s page.
Just like Europeans, including us, have to adapt to the norms of behavior in Muslim countries, Muslims have to adapt to the norms of behavior in Europe, including the Czech Republic. We need to pass a law codifying a ban on wearing burkinis in public swimming pools. What’s more, this is all just a provocation, because according to the Koran a practicing Muslim woman isn’t allowed to bathe in the same water with unbelievers, not to mention with men, even if they’re covered head to toe.
If “mansplaining” is when a man tells a woman what it’s like to be a woman, what do you call it when a Christian tells a Muslim what Islam means?

Hannig also agrees with Zeman about hygiene, but would choose his words more carefully. “I agree with President Zeman’s statement, I would just have left out the word ‘filth.’ That is, the same idea, but the verbal expression more compatible with the function of head of state.”

Miroslav Sládek is the head of a right-wing party that was disbanded in 2001 and reformed in 2016. He’s critical of what he considers Zeman’s tendency to be all talk and no action (I’m not sure what he thinks Zeman should have been doing, since the Czech presidency has limited powers), but he agrees with the president on the burkini issue. He also professes astonishment at the politicians and NGO’s that make a big show of pushing for women’s rights in the Arab world, and the fact that they’re not on his side in this. “Here these women have the possibility of freeing themselves from obscurantist prejudices, so why don’t they put on a bikini, rather than crawling into a swimming pool in those horrible frocks? Why instead of freeing themselves do they drag here their simply absurd medieval rules and on top of that impose them on others here? Try something like that with a White woman in a bikini in the Arab world.”

Jana Yngland Hrušková is a singer and children’s theater performer. On top of hygiene, she’s concerned about the fairness of the thing, and the women’s own well-being.
Muslim men can go everywhere without being covered up, including when it’s really hot out. Their dearer halves are entirely covered. It’s also a health problem. They don’t have even a bit of important vitamin D. And it’s also about oppression of women. Men go about in a t-shirt with short sleeves and the woman is wrapped up as if for the North Pole. In that way, something is degraded—it’s no longer someone. It’s an anonymous thing.
Cultural norms are tricky. If a Muslim woman doesn’t want to abide by some Muslims’ interpretation of how a woman should dress, I fully support her choice to dress differently. But if she’s choosing a burkini or a hidjab of her own free will, what business is it of a Czech presidential candidate what she wears?

The question of “her own free will” is itself tricky. Where’s the line separating what a person genuinely wants for herself from what she feels pressured to do by her community, and the line separating pressure from directly forcing someone into something not required by law?

We have Christian communities in the U.S. that insist women in the community be dressed in a long skirt, a long-sleeved blouse, and a covering for their hair. Are they being oppressed? Where for them is the balance between free will and community pressure?

On a more practical level, how would you define your burkini ban? Is there some minimum amount of skin a woman would have to show before she could enter a swimming area? Or is it in the eye of the beholder? Yeah, I don’t see that causing any problems.

The last candidate here is Josef Toman, about whom it’s hard to learn much other than from his own website. Asked for a response to Zeman’s burkini comments, Toman said,
I lived in the US for a long time, I worked for Caltech and UCLA, and if they had experienced over the last 28 years what’s gone on here for the last 28 years, there’d have been a revolution there, all the culprits would have been executed and those who don’t respect our values and culture wouldn’t even have time to flee the country.
So, Czech Republic, these are your choices in January. Happy voting!

The fear of foreigners, especially Muslims, shows up repeatedly, leading sometimes to surprising conclusions, as in this passage from an article by Kateřina Duchoňová:
I was sitting with a friend in a Serbian restaurant when a passerby shouted in the direction of the employees that they should beat it back to where they came from, and if they didn’t, he’d come back to shoot them.
Last week in a Turkish bistro in South Bohemia there was another instance unprovoked insults and threats of physical violence against a waiter of Turkish background.
After I stepped into the conflict, the verbal aggression was aimed at me. There were several other customers in the bistro and nobody reacted. Fortunately, after a moment the aggressor moved on.
The server in the bistro later mentioned that he faces similar attacks almost daily and is beginning to fear for his life, and he’s afraid to call the police, because from his acquaintances’ experiences he has the impression that they wouldn’t come anyway.
At a swimming area (also in South Bohemia) local women were saying that reliable accounts were coming out of Germany about attacks on hospital personnel by migrants, as well as the spread of dangerous infectious diseases.
When I informed them that a friend of mine is a doctor in Germany and doesn’t know anything about such events, they stuck to their position. They have their trusted sources of information. According to them, foreigners have no business being in Europe.
Later they were joined by men lying nearby who said that they’d most like to vote for the NSDAP, if it were still around, and that it’s necessary to leave the EU unconditionally and as quickly as possible, and better to become instead a Russian satellite again, because Putin would do the best job of protecting us from immigrants.
(A little break here from the Czech-bashing that seems to be building up in this post. My own country has a visible number of people who seem to think Obama was president when hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. And at least some of them vote.)

The broader view of Russia in Czech society is something I hope to get a better handle on. Obviously, at one extreme there are people fond of the old days as a Soviet satellite because they didn’t have all these immigrants. (No, they just had Soviet troops crushing the society’s effort to find its own way. Well, tradeoffs.)

But I don’t have any sense of how widespread that attitude is, vs. a live-and-let-live stance, or even hostility.

I did notice a short item about an attempt by the web portal to do something about the spread of false information. The firm’s managers recently decided not to support pro-Russian disinformation websites through the placement of paid ads. The portal’s owner, Ivo Lukačovič, annulled the decision: “I learned that the new business terms could also affect web sites that merely have a different political view, so I rescinded the censorship.” (“Last week”, Respekt, 14-20 August, 2017, p. 66)

I give some credence to what has been termed the “Gerasimov Doctrine,” after an article written in 2013 by General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff. Russia doesn’t need to be able to overwhelm all foes with raw military strength, but can profit from chaos in various parts of the world.

Part of fostering chaos is undercutting the sense that reality exists. From that perspective, the proposed policy by would have been useful.

But then it raises the intractable question of who gets to decide what’s “disinformation” vs. what’s merely a difference of opinion.

Do you have the right to be wrong? And how wrong? And about what? And according to whom?

If significant numbers of people believe things that are simply untethered to reality, that’s very dangerous for a society.

But what’s the cure for that that isn’t itself a potentially mortal assault on civil liberties?

Score one for the Gerasimov Doctrine.

Is democracy dying, or merely kicking the bucket?


  1. Perhaps democracy is simply nailed to its perch.

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