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.

Vávra says that the question of the column is essentially political. If it were really about getting rid of symbols of recatholicization, “we’d have to pull down all the churches by Santini or Dientzenhofer, because they’re from that time. But understandably, even I, as a convinced Protestant, wouldn’t pull down buildings like those.”
Interviewer: So for you it’s a political theme, including, say, the pulling down of statues in America.
Vávra: I would even say it’s even an out-of-date political theme. In America people are simply doing so well, with their shopping baskets overflowing, that they have trouble finding a theme to inspire their lives. The younger generation has it hard today, they have to find their way in comfort. For us it was simpler, the enemy was clear, the stupid Bolshevik. Everyone was poor, nobody had much of anything, we were all equal. So we put a lot of time into our hobbies and distractions. Defining yourself is hard today, so in my view people have the feeling that they aren’t living life fully. But slow changes for the better are often invisible. So people succumb to the feeling that they’re losing and want to win something. So they go in for chasing off Islamists or others, they become fanatical devotees of sports clubs and so on. So that leads to extremes. In a democracy victory somehow just doesn’t come.
I find this a useful window into a number of issues.

First, there’s almost a touch of nostalgia for the bad old days, when the communist government was so clearly wrong that it was easy to know what was right.

There’s also an element of romanticizing poverty, recalling a kind of solidarity and resourcefulness, a creativity forced on people by their straightened circumstances.

From my experience of the Soviet Union during the last years of communism and Czechoslovakia shortly after communism’s fall, I think Vávra’s describing a real phenomenon. There was a kind of comradery in hardship, a sense that we’re all in this together (well, most of us are in this together; there’s also “them” up above who are oppressing us).

But there was also, you know, hardship. Materially, while Czechs were far better off than people in poor countries, a middle-class visitor from the U.S. or western Europe could easily tell that the locals lived in more cramped apartments, had less comfortable cars, had a less diverse array of options at the grocery store, and had to spend a larger portion of their paychecks on basics.

And there was the political hardship of having to watch what you said for fear of your job or your kids’ standing in school, and the knowledge that a friend or lover might be an informant working for the secret police.

So even though there’s something to what Vávra says, he’s also indirectly complaining about freedom and prosperity.

Then there’s the deep misunderstanding of the current situation in the U.S. that his remark displays. “In America people are simply doing so well, with their shopping baskets overflowing, that they have trouble finding a theme to inspire their lives. The younger generation has it hard today, they have to find their way in comfort.”

As Michael Volný writes in Britské listy,
While the New York Times is discussing today the new executive order by which Trump is effectively complicating access to healthcare for a large part of poorer Americans, Lidové noviny presents an interview with David Vávra in which he seriously claims that Americans are so well off that they’re removing monuments of the racist South more or less out of boredom.
The timing that Volný points out is revealing, but Vávra’s misperception is deeper than that. The median American is still doing somewhat better than the median Czech, but 90% of the population has seen no net increase in real income in 40 years. Access to health care has been improved by the Affordable Care Act, but as Volný points out, we have a president and Congress trying to take a sledge hammer to that progress, rather than building on it.

As for the young, they’re being told that now more than ever they need a college degree if they’re going to have any hope of a decent life, and then are encouraged to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt in order to accomplish that.  Then they enter a job market where significant numbers of them end up in positions with mediocre pay.

So an outsider trivializes the seriousness of a discussion over whether to celebrate people who fought for the preservation of slavery, and he does so on the basis of a stereotyped impression of America as the land of plenty, missing the grain of many people’s lives. While an American might see White racial resentment being used as a useful tool to redirect people’s frustration with economic stagnation, the outsider glibly assumes people are so wealthy that they’re bored and have nothing better to do than argue over the past.

In quoting Mr. Volný above, I dropped his opening sentence, where he makes one other point I want to highlight: “Here you have a nice example of Prague café ‘thinking’.”

The “Prague café,” or pražská kavárna, is a catch-phrase for intellectuals living here in the capital, generally left of center, presumably well-meaning, but hopelessly out of touch with the struggles, priorities and world-view of “ordinary” Czechs. (The letter to Britské listy from Anna Kouzlová that I presented here displays some of the resentment felt by an ordinary Czech toward her self-appointed “betters” in Prague.) It is something like the concept of the coastal elites in the U.S. and their lack of understanding with the “real Americans” in “flyover country.”

But simplistic labels can be tricky to get right. The Prague café is known not only for inadequate identification with the daily reality of their countrymen, but also for excessive concern with such niceties as the treatment of immigrants and minorities.

Vávra’s incomprehension of many Americans’ economic struggles makes him a good representative of the Prague café, but when he downplays the racial and social issues behind our Confederate monuments, he’s more like those who criticize the café-ists.

Maybe the people criticizing the Prague café are out of touch with the pressures experienced by the capital’s intellectual elites?

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