Radar Indicates: People Die Every Day

18 July 2007
Is this supposed to pass as compassion? Or perhaps the remark, made by Czech Prime Minister Miroslav Topolánek, was meant to show honesty and realism? It struck most people who heard, I imagine, as rather insensitive and uncaring. And perhaps it's indicative of something else: there's not much uplifting news from the Czech lands this summer. Perhaps I say this now because I only know firsthand what people say on their blogs and what the "mainstream" media reports. Apathy reigns again, and I wonder if it can honestly be explained by the long summer days and trips to the chalupy. As I've noted before, there seems to be shockingly small opposition and consideration of the proposed anti-missile bases in the Czech Republic and Poland. Certainly there is opposition, but my feeling at this point is that it's rather a lost cause: the politicians and military already seem to have made up their minds.

I got thinking about this again today after reading a rather disturbing report from a May press conference with Topolánek. The conference took place in west Bohemia on 4 May 2007. An insightful, and rather scathing, account of the conference was published by Jan Neoral in Britské listy, the online home of the Czech and English newspaper. Neoral is the mayor of Trokavec, a village near the town of Brdy. Brdy is close to the large military installation that will likely host the radar base and near Plzeň, home of the legendary Pilsner Urquell beer. Although the account of the conference was available in both English (slightly abridged) and Czech, I have retranslated some of the excerpts below to restore some detail and specificity.

The report's implication, that little public voice is being heard by politicians, is disturbing. First we learn that the location of the conference was probably chosen because it is in a village that is likely to agree with Topolánek. (Starting to remind you of any other politician?)

Also disturbing is the glib comparison that Topolánek drew between the current situation and the Soviet treatment of the Prague Spring in 1968. This was a reference to the crushing of the Prague Spring and the Soviet force that marched into Prague in August 1968. The invasion, at least that's how the Czechs perceived it, was meant to ensure that the government hewed to the hardline Communist policy then in sway in Moscow. The invasion force stayed for 20 years. After Václav Havel became president in 1989, he promised that the Soviets would be the last foreign power to occupy the Czech Republic. Now it looks like another foreign military presence—the United States—will be welcomed by the Czech government. In the press conference, Topolánek drew a direct comparison between 1968 and 2007:
Prime Minister Topolánek opened the debate by saying that he was glad that we now can freely meet and talk, unlike in 1968 when the Soviet military presence was forced upon the people. He asked the citizens: "Where were you in 1968 when we were being occupied by the Russians? Today, this hall is crowded!" This opening statement did not go down well with the public.

The discussion continued in this spirit: "Be glad that unlike in 1968, someone is even willing to talk to you. Anyway, I am not willing to debate with you whether the radar should be here. I am not interested in the fact that a public referendum would reject the radar. I will only talk to you on my own terms, responding to your questions in the way that suits me. You must accept my views."

Is it not odd that Topolánek essentially blames the citizenry for allowing the invasion? It seems indicative of a strange sentiment of Czech politicos: distrust the people because they should not make the decisions. I've always found it strange that many Czech politicians (or at least enough influential ones) oppose public referendums. They distrust the people at large. Recently (on 13 July), Czech President Václav Klaus warned of "cheap populism" in response to a call for a national referendum. The implication is that public opinion would be manipulated by crafty ideologists. In other words, those who oppose Mr. Klaus's unfettered free-market ideology might have a chance to pull the wool over the eyes of the public given the "well-known pacifist atmosphere in the Czech Republic and across Europe," which might mean that a decision might not go according to the plans of the politicians in power now, the center-right ODS party. (Both Klaus and Topolánek are associated with this party.)

In Czech politics, it is thought best to trust important decisions (that may ultimately have a great impact one everyone) to the educated few who have somehow proven themselves by being elected, honestly or otherwise. This is somewhat logical given the country's recent political history. In the Czech Republic, the majority are regarded as the "gray zone" (a term explicated by sociologist Jiřina Šiklová), the undifferentiated and, most importantly, unthinking (uneducated?) majority. It is suspected that they majority will be swayed more by mob mentality than by actual individual thinking and independent decision-making. Thus, in 1948, the Communists took over the government with the support of "the people" after having been elected in open elections. Distrust is born and has fomented ever since. In 1993, Czechoslovakia was split into two independent nations, not by popular referendum but by a handful of politicians (current Czech president Václav Klaus chief among them) acting on their own economic interests. According to opinion polls of the time, the majority of Czechoslovak citizens did not support the split. The Czechs and Slovaks, after all, have often considered themselves to be cultural "brothers," at least since T. G. Masaryk forged them into a political force in 1918.

Distrust of the people is reflected in the Czech parliamentary system, an "indirect democracy." For example, the president is not chosen by direct popular vote but instead selected from the 81-member Senate, the upper body of the parliament. These are politicians who have already "proven" their trustworthiness by being elected. Mr. Neoral was quick to point out this doctrine of the meek following the leaders,
People asked Topolánek why he does not want to run a national referendum on this issue. He answered that according to the Constitution, the Czech Republic is an indirect democracy. People are represented by their parliamentary deputy (MP) who has time to study the issue and who will bear responsibility for their decision. People asked what responsibility this is? Supposedly, "political responsibility." On account of the next elections.

But MPs and senators do not have greater qualifications, expertise, higher IQs, or even better judgment than citizens. They most likely have less knowledge than us, because the government tells only them its nonsense and lies. So they're not so trustworthy because from the bottom, from us, one hears different information.

None of the Czech political parties has had this important issue in its election program. So, the politicians do not have a popular mandate to make a decision on such an important issue. . . .

The premiere simply did not convince the citizens at the meeting. On the contrary, he convinced them beyond a doubt, that he is arrogant, does not listen to citizens, and only dishonestly carries out what he wants: his own pig-headed and ungrounded promotion of this dangerous monster that could be the source of great human suffering.

The Czech political elite generally believes that decisions should not be left to the majority to decide. Perhaps this was more justified when T.G. Masaryk & Co. were establishing the First Republic, although even then Czechs as a nation were surprisingly well educated as far as "peasants" are concerned. But it's strange that the attitude survives so strongly now despite all the rhetoric of an open society and a free market, politicians do not actually trust their own people. And it's true that not everyone among "the people" have the same opinions and values as the politicians currently in power, so they do face a potentially weakened political position if they abandon their hold. The danger of this situation is that they might (and often do, I suspect from my short time observing Czech politics) make decisions based more on their personal interests rather than what they consider to be objectively or morally right.

So the Senators and other deputees to Parliament "should" take the time to study these issues and work for the greater good of all, but what is to say that do? There do not seem to be any "Czechs and balances" (sorry, couldn't resist that pun). Senators have legal immunity. Where does the idea that politicians are somehow more enlightened than the rest come from? It's not a shepherd and his flock (note the masculine here), it's the blind leading the blind. Being elected is obviously an art of popularity not a guarantee of moral infallibility or intelligence. In the last election I voted in, it was obvious that the victorious candidate was neither smart, nor compassionate, nor a critical thinker, but he still became, arguably, the most powerful person in the world.

Yet another peculiarity of this ideology that only the privileged should make the decisions: the people in power oblige themselves to act autonomously with what they call "mandates." (This probably rings a chord for anyone paying even a little attention to recent American politics: "Let's act unilaterally and without consideration of anyone . . . because I can! . . . I was elected.") According to one questioner at the press conference (presumably the author of the Britské listy piece):
The mayor of Trokavec shared with Mr. Topolánek that he would like to inform him publicly that in all probability [the radar signal] would exceed the health limits set by government directive No. 480/2000 Coll. . . . The Mayor requested Mr. Topolánek to have this information further confirmed by specialists or to introduce clearer evidence.

Mr. Topolánek solved the problem as is his typical habit: He announced that this is simply not true.

That's it. Taken care of. Solved in any fashion. It could have occurred to us—as early as February—"we have nothing to worry about, it's not true, that this arrangement will 'irradiate' everything." The only specialists on the radar are the premiere of the Czech Republic and then [Defense Minister] Parkanová, no matter what statistics from the Americans or perspectives of experts indicate.

And even then the Minister of Foreign Affairs had said, regarding the construction of the radar, "no one will speak to us or influence us."

The quote of the day came when Topolánek justified possible health risks by noting that people die everywhere. No statistics or plans have been publicized, to my knowledge, that indicate the base will conform to legal standards. After all, say Topolánek and his gang, we should be able to trust the Americans, right?
One lady citizen asked: When new insulation was being tested on the space shuttle Columbia, the US crew was told that the shuttle's take-off and landing would be perfectly safe. Yet the shuttle burned and killed all those on board. You are telling us that the radar will be totally safe. What will happen if this is not true and there are harmful effects?

Topolánek answered: People die everywhere. Some of them die in the wars, others during car crashes, some just die.

So the Prime Minister accepts the fact that as a result of the stationing of the radar people will be dying here? Do we need a Prime Minister who is willing to expose his own citizens to health risk?

And the shuttle crew were American citizens. There are enough cases showing that, when non-citizens are concerned, the U.S. military may not be the best steward of local ecological and social issues. As sociologist Benjamin Vail writes in a recent op-ed for the Czech Business Weekly, "It is important also to consider the probable ecological problems that would be caused by the proposed base in Central Bohemia. Just like the Soviet occupiers of Czechoslovakia, the American military has a history of polluting the environment in and around its bases." He supplies more unsettling examples.

It was summed up by another questioner: Why trust a government that has a questionable human rights record? Why trust a nation that was an architect of the largest arms race in human history?
A citizen said to Minister of Defense Parkanová that he had expected her, as a woman, to defend world peace. Mrs. Parkanová explained that he [the questioner] really knew nothing about how difficult it is to fight for peace, that peace must be fought for with weapons, and that she is ready to do anything for it [peace]. . . .

But, minister, you did not answer the basic question. Who is defending the Czech Republic? Who is threatening world peace in Europe? Who is defending American interests?

Do you really think that the American radar will not do anything to us, that we will not become a target? Why don't you promote peace with peaceful methods? Why do you ignore the United Nations, NATO, and the unified defense policies of the European Union?

Why do you want to affiliate with the U.S.A. that withdrew from the treaty on ballistic missiles, abandoned its doctrine of non-aggression in favor of pre-emptive nuclear strike, ignores the UN and has already started one war with fabricated evidence?

Previously at NvB: Arms Race, What do you really think?, No Nukes, No Nukes II, Nukes or Ukes?

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Administrator Update, or, Obfuscatory Technical Info to Follow

17 July 2007
I am tweaking the NvB feed to make sure it's working right with feedburner and taking advantage of the new feedburner/blogger compatibility. As I signed—for the first time in about six months—I was astounded to see that feedburner was tallying 13 subscribers. Who knew?! I don't quite believe it (after all, I know that I'm at least one of those subscribers), but at the same time, I don't want to disappoint anybody by changing the settings and depriving you of even a single moment of NvB fun, er, boredom. So, stay posted and if you don't hear anything from me for the next month or so, know that perhaps you're just no longer subscribing to the right feed! Cheers and see you on the other side...

**Update: you can subscribe, just as before (and probably with no interruption) by visiting http://feeds.feedburner.com/nudavbrne.

Of course, you can always just click over at your leisure and read the blog any time in the "old fashioned" way.

Sea Hedgehogs!!!

16 July 2007
Awww, they exist in other places and languages, too. This blog's URL comes from the Czech for sea urchin—or "mosk-jeek" as blogger shortened that post's title. We don't see them very often in Brno, but the situation is different in, say, Japan!

It's a whole happy family of little sea hedgehogs, paddling along their merry little ways.

You're a Danger to Society!

15 July 2007
Here's a scenario: you're mentally ill, a murderer, an alcoholic, have a "learning disability," and you've committed a sex crime. You're arrested, placed in a mental institution, and then sentenced. What does society tell you? "You are a danger to society and we don't like you, but we don't give the death penalty; however, there is obviously something wrong with your genes and we don't think that you should be able to reproduce—not just not allowed, but actually unable. So, we will see to it that you can't."
We don't cut off your right hand here, no, that's for heathens and we are civilized and refined Europeans! Don't worry, we have an eminently humane solution, we only cut off . . . well, let's call it "protective treatment."

Apparently, if you are male, fit this description, and in the Czech Republic, this could happen. The solution? chemical castration, but let's just call it libidinal suppressant treatment. And, with your consent (though there are doubts about whether this is freely given or not) you can elect the surgical procedure. At least, is what I took away from a report by Alix Kroeger at the BBC.

I hope that I'm not the only one who finds this slightly disturbing. It sounds to me more like population engineering and thinly veiled eugenics. (Recall, for example, statements of senators about proposed birth-rate quotas back in 2005?) How is it countenanced in Europe—after the horrors of WWII, the treatment of Roma, and no doubt scores of other small but questionable treatment of human rights in central Europe.

At least one group has raised concern about the situation. Kroeger cites the release of a report by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) to the Council of Europe dated 12 July 2007. Report authors, who visited a ward of the "Brno Psychiatric Hospital" with eleven sex offenders undergoing "protective treatment," stated (section II.D.5, paragraph 103):
At the outset, the CPT wishes to state clearly that it has serious reservations concerning the specific medical intervention of surgical castration as applied to certain sexual offenders (see paragraph 107). The Committee has grave doubts as to whether such an intervention should be applied in the context of persons deprived of their liberty.

The observers seemed to find the conditions lacking sufficient assessment and oversight by qualified doctors. Moreover, there were no statistics offered on how many patients receive such treatment or any follow-up information, such as how often patients who received such treatment were convicted as repeat offenders, meaning there is no way to tell if such treatment is at all effective. Nor are there standardized procedures followed in advising patients who elect surgical castration, an irreversible procedure. This appears to be in contradiction of a 1996 law on the treatment of individuals' health. Most notably, there appears to be an overlap (if not conflict) of interest by oversight panels, which the CPT noted in comments about what patients who elect the surgical procedure are told (Par. 108):
the patients received information about the potential adverse effects of surgical castration and, in all cases examined, final authorisation for the intervention was given by the panel of experts (often consisting of the medical ethical committee of the hospital that was to carry out the operation). Moreover, patients who had undergone such an operation told the CPT’s delegation that they had had the opportunity to withdraw from the treatment, even after they had made their request. One of the patients interviewed explained that an outside consultancy had been offered to him to help him make his decision, but that he had declined this. However, it would appear that the surgeon carrying out this treatment at Brno Teaching Hospital and at least one of the sexologists are also members of the above-mentioned panel of experts. The CPT considers such dual functions inappropriate.

What I thought most disturbing is that it appears that the CPT observers concluded that there was no way for patients considering these procedures could have any freedom of choice (Par. 109):
Medical interventions, and in particular medical interventions which have irreversible effects on persons deprived of their liberty, should as a rule only be carried out with their free and informed consent. Given the particularly vulnerable position of persons deprived of their liberty in this regard, it should be ensured that the patient’s consent is not directly or indirectly given under duress and that the patient receives all the necessary information when making his decision. Furthermore, the Committee considers that the concept of ‘free and informed’ consent is hardly reconcilable with a situation in which the options open to an individual are extremely limited: surgical castration or possible indefinite confinement in a psychiatric hospital.

There are certainly important and complex ethical questions involved here—but I'm afraid that the Czech position does not seem very stable. Despite the touted laissez-faire attitude toward sex in the Czech Republic, it makes me wonder whether there is not a lot of strangely repressed and rather dark currents in the Czech psyche. I'm reminded of Věra Chytilová's 1998 film Pasti, pasti, pastičky ("Traps, Traps, Little Traps," which was billed as a "feministopessimistic black comedy") in which the main character castrates two men after they rape her when she has flagged them down to ask for help repairing engine trouble. The opening credits roll over shots of pigs squealing and being castrated. Another example: recent statistics from the Child Crisis Centre show that one in four Czech girls were sexually abused and one in seven boys. This seems rather high. And what about the blind eye turned to the sex trade around Brno? And really, are all those straight men in it just for the money?

The full report is posted here. A more humorous view was posted at the Porkchop blog.

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Cultural Recognitions

09 July 2007
A few notable events related to culture and history of central Europe have or will have happened this week. In Prague, the Charles Bridge celebrates its 650th anniversary.* As the curious still from Karel Vachek's documentary A New Hyperion (1992) indicates, the Bridge is viewed as an artifact of culture that, at least in this illustration, not only metaphorically connects them, but actually places New York, Moscow, and London within the Czech lands. It's a wonderfully suggestive image that visually encapsulates the frequent characterization of the Czechs themselves as a cultural "bridge" between Eastern and Western Europe, Slavic and Germanic cultures, and perhaps even History and the Present. Radio Prague also has a special feature on the bridge.

In late June, UNESCO inscribed the "Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathian" (stretching over mountains in Slovakia and Ukraine). UNESCO describes the forest as "a transnational serial natural property of ten separate components and as an outstanding example of undisturbed, complex temperate forests exhibiting the most complete ecological patterns and processes of pure strands of European beech." (More here.)

I haven't experienced the forests much myself, although I was lucky enough to travel through them in June 2005. There is a definite magic to the Ukrainian Carpathians, they have a feeling of incredible ancientness. Villages there seemed highly secluded (in part because most people cannot afford cars to travel long distances, at least not quickly), much more so than similar rural areas in the Czech Republic. Czech fascination for this area is probably most apparent in Ivan Olbracht's novel about Nikola Šuhaj, which has inspired two musicals and a film since the 1970s. Perhaps, to artists and audiences during Communist times, the setting of the Carpathians appealed as a symbol of freedom and independence that was not to be found in Czechoslovakia.

*Of course, that was a long time ago and it seems that there is a bit of dispute. Petr links to a news report that points out a nine-day discrepancy between the Julian calendar in use during Charles IV's reign (fourteenth century) and the current Gregorian reckoning.

Notes:photo and information on the Charles Bridge anniversary is from Patrick Jackson's story at the BBC; Beech forests from UNESCO. I've also discussed the UNESCO recognition of the Moravian verbuňk (recruitment dance) and suggestion to add the Ještěd television tower to UNESCO rosters.

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Jan Hus - special edition

06 July 2007

Old town square of Prague
Originally uploaded by decafinata.
Yes, it's Jan Hus Day. The Czech Republic celebrates its religious heroes on July 5 and 6. Cyril and Methodius have to share the 5th, but Master Hus has the 6th all to himself. And, since it seemed like a good nationalistic holiday to celebrate with music, I'll be broadcasting a special pastiche of music and words in honor of Jan Hus and Czech legends. It will feature music from Smetana's Má vlast, and text from The Little Czech and the Great Czech Nation by Ladislav Holy, Václav Havel, and my favorite eminent musicologist. Tune in for some Czech fun on American radio, broadcast live at wcbn.org at about 9:30 a.m. (CET, Brno time).*

Don't miss it!

*Yes, that's 3:30 a.m. EST.

Independence Day

04 July 2007
For lack of anything better to say on this Fourth of July, I'm reminded of my attempt at an absurdist account of last year's celebrations in Praha.

Unfortunately, I can't help but thinking the quote from Elie Wiesel's I chose last year is perhaps an even more important sentiment now.
None of us is in a position to eliminate war, but it is our obligation to denounce it and expose it in all its hideousness. War leaves no victors, only victims. . . . Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.—Elie Wiesel

What do you really think?

02 July 2007
The sentiments (about the missile base) that I felt in Brno seem to be encapsulated in this picture from Alex in Zlin. I saw similar stickers in Zlin as well as around Brno on trams and billboards last fall.

And of course, don't miss this photo—how perfect for NvB!

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One Year

01 July 2007
No anniversary in my personal life, but a more influential one deserves mention: July 1 marks a year since same-sex partnerships became legally recognized in the Czech Republic. After a long road through the parliament, the bill recognizing partnerships was finally passed last March.

According to Daniela Lazarová at Radio Prague, 346 same-sex couples were united during the year. Of that number, at least two of the pairs have already divorced. A Czech comic reportedly quipped, "Well now at least they know what we go through—fancy putting up such a fight for it."

Earlier at NvB: Slow on the Uptake
Related: Gay partnership bill approved

Illustration designed by Greg Gomes, courtesy of Gay Journey.

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