Saturday, March 17, 2018

A crippled society

It’s hard to compete with the madness that’s been coming out of the White House for the last 16 months, reaching something of a crescendo this last week.

But let this serve as your periodic reminder that the insanity we see in the U.S. is part of a pattern across much of the world, just with a smaller vocabulary, weirder hair, more porn stars, worse lawyers—and nuclear weapons.

The Czech president (Miloš Zeman) was just inaugurated for his second 5-year term and gave not so much a vision of his renewed term as a call to arms against journalists who work at publications not under the control of his allies.

The prime minister (Andrej Babiš) looks like he’s trying to get the right people into place to prevent investigation of his alleged fraudulent use of subsidies from the European Union. Before he became prime minister, he was minister of finance as a junior coalition member of the previous government. There’s evidence he used that position to protect biofuel subsidies that are a tremendous source of profit to him as the country’s largest owner of canola-growing acreage, farm-chemical manufacture, and biofuel processing.

You could say there are two kinds of entrepreneurs. The “productive” type are good at making something, or providing some sort of service, or overseeing others in the efficient provision of goods or services. Their activity makes a country richer.

The other type are good at working the inside angles, using financial tricks to put the competition out of business, assembling an empire through connections and skullduggery. The effects are felt most directly by those who work in the companies they take over, but ultimately, their activities come at the expense of the society as a whole, even as they enrich themselves and their cronies.

I’m reading Žlutý baron (Yellow Baron), a book-length piece of investigative reporting on Babiš, and the authors make a strong case that he is decidedly in that second category of entrepreneur. He doesn’t seem to know much about how to produce a good product with a workforce that is fairly compensated and enjoys their work. Rather, he knows how to take over those kinds businesses, using access to finance and friends in the right places, then squeeze the workers and the product quality to fatten his bottom line.

In last October’s elections, he campaigned on the idea that he would run the government like one of his businesses.

And he got a plurality of Czech voters.

Tomio Okamura campaigned against Islam and foreigners, and ended up 11% of the seats in parliament.

Another 7% went to the communists, who seem to be working behind the scenes with Okamura’s party to keep Babiš’s government in place, even without a formal majority.

The president is bending the constitution by indefinitely leaving in place a government that can’t assemble enough votes in parliament to formally declare it to be the legitimate government.

This dysfunction in so-called “high politics” is linked with some real ugliness in daily life on the ground, as can be illustrated with a sampling of incidents from last November.

On the 4th, a group of soccer fans from Olomouc were in Prague to watch their team play, when they assaulted a fellow-passenger on a trolley.

The victim was an immigrant from Africa who speaks seven languages (including Czech and Vietnamese), has a doctorate from a university in Prague, has lived in the city for 10 years, and works as a computer programmer for a transnational company.

According to the victim, the attackers got on and immediately started yelling at him, including calling him a dirty nigger. “They also said I should go back to Africa, and that Blacks and Jews should be sent to the gas chambers.”

They beat him, then got off to go to the soccer game. The police seem to have responded well and were able to arrest several of the attackers already during the game, but the actions of the driver and the other passengers was less reassuring.

“The driver was surprised [when I hit the emergency button], but she must have seen that I’d been attacked. When I asked her to call the police and an ambulance, she asked why.” A spokeswoman for the transit company said that the man suffered head wounds and was bleeding.

“This whole time, I’ve been trying to fit into society. For example, for two years I volunteered teaching kids French in a nursery school. Now I have the feeling that that doesn’t matter at all. I’m also disappointed that nobody helped me. I asked people on the tram for testimony, and most of them refused.”

Three weeks later in the eastern city of Olomouc, a group of four foreign students was riding the tram when a man boarded and soon started yelling at them in broken English, “This is my city, I’m at home here. Speak Czech!” He and the students got off at the same stop, and he shoved a woman in the group who was trying to calm him down, then punched a man in the face and continued attacking him after he was on the ground.

In the northern city of Teplice, a local paper was publishing a series of pictures of 1st-grade classes, “introducing” the new students to the community. Early in November the class they published happened to have children mostly from Roma or Arab parents. Social media went full-on ethnic cleansing.

“A class full of terrorists, a hand grenade would be the thing, just straight up shoot them.”

Another comment played on the address of the school, which is on Plynárenská (Gas Factory St.): “They’re even in Plynárenská Elementary School. The solution suggests itself.”

Meanwhile, in the far east of the country in a town called Třinec, a birth announcement was bringing out the murderous calls.

Lucie, the mother, is a Czech of Vietnamese ancestry (Vietnamese are one of the largest minority communities here, growing from a base of guest workers who had been brought from the “brother socialist country” late in the communist period).

Mehmet first came to the country as a Kurdish refugee.

“They met in the detention facility in Vyšní Lhoty, when Mehmet was fleeing Turkish persecution, through Czechia to Germany following his father. In the detention facility he fell in love with Lucie, who was working there, and changed his plans: he returned from Germany to Třinec and they married.”

In May of last year, Lucie gave birth to their son, Ibrahim, and a few days later his picture showed up among the birth announcements carried by a local website. In November, Lucie happened to see her son’s picture being shared on Facebook by acquaintances, with the vile commentary attached.

“Let him croak.” “Stomp on his neck.” “Like rats.” “Blech, I would throw that piece of sh*t in the trash.” “What a wh*re, another ugly monkey.” “Coking coal?” “Immediate drowning.”

“He’s got no business here. If I were an obstetrician, I’d have a bucketful by the end of the morning.”

As I said at the beginning, this sort of thing is hardly unique to Czechia but rather is part of a dangerous international pattern. Just this week, the Tennessee legislature refused to pass a bill condemning neo-Nazis, because they thought that the resolution went too far when it called them a domestic terrorist organization.

But in the case of Baby Ibrahim, the magazine Respekt did some interesting journalism. (My account of this incident is taken from the article, “Drown that kid!”, by Ivana Svobodová, Respekt, February 19th – 25th, pp. 14-20.)

They tracked down several of the individuals and asked them about their online comments.

The man who wrote, “Immediate drowning!” came out of his house and talked to the reporters across his gate.

“Did I write that? That was some time ago ... Well, maybe I did write it.”

“I came home late from the pub, I’d had a fair amount to drink, I was reading the news on the internet and I saw the commentary under that photo and I got carried away and joined in. But I didn’t mean it like that—I like kids.”

When the reporters inform him that his words may constitute a punishable act, he freaks out, and then he reflects.
“When I think about it, it must have been horrible for those parents when they read it. Please tell them I’m very sorry” Why doesn’t he write them an apology himself? “No, not that, it’s simpler this way. I don’t want to get mixed up in this any more than I am.”
The commenter who compared immigrants to rats is a slightly different story. Like the first one, he sees immigration as an existential threat. Specifically, he’s convinced that the secretive, powerful people who run the world intentionally created drought and famine in Africa and civil war in Syria in order to unleash a wave of refugees that will destroy Europe.

He says he has a big heart, but the reporters suggest that his comment, amidst others calling for the baby to be killed, didn’t exactly reflect a big heart. “Today I see it a little differently. It wasn’t a nice thing to say. But I wasn’t thinking about the baby, I was talking about his parents. And I don’t want to apologize.”

You probably won’t be surprised by the Respekt reporters’ findings that the people going on websites and calling for the murder of newborns tend to get their news from online sites with a history of publishing groundless stories about immigrants and Muslims. Asked how he knows the stories on one site are true, he says he compares it with the website Parlamentní listy and the TV station Prima, where they talk about refugees the same way, so he knows that’s how it is.

In other words, he’s got enough different sources of the same false information to feel confident in its truth and similarly comfortable dismissing Česká televize (Czech TV, the government-run broadcaster) as nothing but lies.

And of course Česká televise was one of the outlets the president attacked in his inaugural address, while Parlamentní listy and TV Prima are on his side.

Like American culture, in Czechia there’s a pronounced strain of up-by-your-bootstraps, take care of your own problems, don’t be a burden on others.

This kind of individual initiative is admirable and an important element in society. When a country discourages it or (as under communism) actively suppresses it, they tend to stagnate, and everybody ends up worse off in the long run.

But what are the major problems facing us today?

There’s climate change.

There’s the greatly increased flow of refugees triggered by drought (which in turn may be intensified by climate change) and civil war (sometimes fed by drought).

The refugees are sometimes hard to sort out from the economic migrants, whose numbers increase as their home countries stagnate. Then there’s cell phones and the internet, which keep the wealthy world continually in the mental space of people in economically struggling countries, and which make it easier to stay in touch with migrants who have gone before and arrange your own way of following.

In the Czech context, there’s the problem of bankruptcy repossession, which affects 10% of adults. Some people have ended up in this process through minor oversights that grew into unpayable debts as exorbitant interest and collection fees were piled on. Some people have ended up under a debt peonage from which they will never recover, absent a change in the law.

(It has some resemblance to the mortgage crisis in the U.S. set off by the housing crash in 2007—some people took on irresponsible levels of debt, others ended up in trouble through no fault of their own, and in both cases, the courts and the financial institutions dealt with them in a way that systematically favored those with more over those with less.)

These are all social problems, and if solutions exist, they are similarly social, not individual.

Flows of information are how society exists. If we can’t communicate effectively with each other, in a way that reflects reality, then we can’t act together in a way that deals with reality.

The Czech Republic today looks to me like a crippled society.

As does the U.S.


  1. I can't believe there could possibly be more porn stars.

    1. No, I mean our own President Dennison is the one with the more porn stars. He is the maximum porn stars per world leader.

      At least for now.

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