Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 7, 9 August 1999

Jan Culik C U L I K ' S  C Z E C H  R E P U B L I C:
No Pulse 99

Jan Culik

Attempting to evoke memories of the dissident human rights manifesto, Charter 77, which was, however, written and published under somewhat different circumstances in 1977, a group of Czech "intellectuals" have used the sleepy time of the summer-vacation silly season to publish their "manifesto" by which they hope to save Czech society.

Three spokespersons - formerly "right-wing" journalist Jana Smidova, priest and Havel protege Tomas Halik and Prague political scientist and, until recently, head of Havel's Foreign Policy Deparment at the Presidential Office Jiri Pehe signed a proclamation with the snappy title: "Impuls 99: An invitation to a society-wide debate about the direction of society."

I am sure the authors and signatories mean well. They are frustrated by the current Czech social and economic crisis and want to join with other people to look for a way out.

The trouble is that the whole venture is so absurdly amateurish. The stilted, convoluted language of the document reveals all. The proclamation is written in a turgid newspeak, full of Communist-era cliches. Thus, we find the following linguistic gems in a text which is currently being signed by the alleged "creme de la creme" of Czech intellectual society:

"One of the main hopes of the post-November [1989, ed.] development (sic) was the opening up of public life to citizens."

"There appears a non-transparent merging of political and economic power."

"The atmosphere of confrontation and arrogance is growing."

"Loss of faith in the future and the legitimacy of economic success (sic) is... a source of disappointment."

"In our country there has taken place a serious stagnation of the process of the transformation of society..."

The question of clarity is important. Czech intellectuals cannot even being to start debating the problems of their society if they do not know how to define them using normal, natural human language.

Czech society has lost its art of self-analysis and self-communication. Face to face with their politicians, Czech society is mute and, hence, helpless.

The Impuls 99 people feel that a crust of rigid political establishment has originated in the Czech Republic over the past ten years and that politicians ignore the ordinary citizen while indulging in personal or party political power games and ignoring the deteriorating social and political situation.

In order to counter these negative developments, the Czech "intellectuals" want to start a public discussion. They also want to see the Czech Republic enter the European Union soon. They want to see Czech civil society develop "more quickly" make Czech society more friendly, decentralise government and improve law and education.

There are various problems with their approach. In the first place, the whole text is vague. It offers no solutions. Basically, it just fulfils the need of some Czech intellectuals to pompously pontificate in public.

Apart from gross stylistic clumsiness, the text seems to say very little except "we are worried about the state of the Czech society and would perhaps like to do something about it." That is hardly a political programme to inspire the Czech masses. And indeed, while the publication of the manifesto has produced a large number of - mostly verbose and self-indulgent - responses in the newspapers, it can be fairly said that the ordinary person in the street remains unimpressed.

The existing Czech political parties have reacted angrily. They see Impuls 99 as an attempt by self-appointed social arbiters to gatecrash politics. "If they want to enter politics, why don't they found a new political party and stand at the elections," said one MP from Vaclav Klaus' s Civic Democratic Party. Good point.

There is talk of a Havel-sponsored conspiracy. According to this theory, Havel, through his puppets Halik and Pehe, is trying to undermine the main political parties (Klaus' Civic Democrats and Milos Zeman' s Social Democrats) and their coalition - known as the "opposition agreement."

The problem is, that some Czech intellectuals are still mesmerised by the basically unworkable concept of "anti-political politics," a favourite idea of Vaclav Havel way back in the 1970s and 1980s. But it seems to me that they are confusing two different things: the absence of proper checks on the powers that be (due to the pitiful state of Czech journalism), which should ultimately be exercised by the public opinion through the media, and power politics, normally exercised by the political parties.

The participation in politics surely means pursuit of political power. The vague notion of "civic politics," in which the citizen somehow gets involved but does not strive to obtain political power, is surely a contradiction in terms.

Many of the serious problems facing the Czech Republic today revolve around two things which are ignored by Impuls 99:

(A) The deplorable state of the Czech media, which on the whole acts as a lap dog to the powerful and is incapable of functioning as a proper critical and analytical counterbalance to the power orgies in the Czech political circles. Nobody in the Czech Republic undertakes systematic investigative journalism in the political sphere, because that kind of work is expensive, both in time and money.

Rather than writing vague proclamations, Czech intellectuals should get seriously involved in systematic, professional, critical assessment of the deficiencies of the Czech media with a view of radically improving it. There are various effective ways of doing this, but Czech intellectuals do not seem to be interested.

(B) Czech society has to be opened up to the world outside. Its parochial nature and its linguistic isolation are serious problems. Threadbare, conventional ideas circulate round and round for months in the Czech Republic without any serious competition from abroad. Czechs can self-indulgently talk any amount of rubbish amongst themselves in their "secret little language," because practically nobody understands it. They would be very surprised how quickly their ideas would be shot down in flames if they tried to support their nonsense in the international arena.

For the good of Europe, it is important that young people from the Czech Republic be exposed to such sharp international competition in ideas and practices. They have to learn the ways of the world to become equal partners with people from the West.

Czech intellectuals should leave their ivory towers and apply pressure on the governments of the Czech Republic and its Western allies to open up West European schools and universities to young Central Europeans. It is heartbreaking to see how difficult it currently is for young people in the Czech Republic to gain a place at a British university.

This would be one of the most effective ways of integrating the post-Communist countries into Western Europe, a wise investment even for the West European countries. Unfortunately, nobody seems to be working in this direction.

Impuls 99 should concentrate on doing something about this rather than publishing vague manifestos.

Jan Culik, 7 August 1999

The author is the publisher of the Czech Internet daily Britske listy.

Other Articles by Jan Culik in CER:

Princess Diana, Al Fayed, the CIA and a Czech Spook, 2 August 1999

Nova TV: Commercial success or embarrassing failure?, 2 August 1999

Book Review: Martin Fendrych's Jako ptak na drate, 26 July 1999

A Concrete Example of Muddy Thinking in the Czech Press , 19 July 1999

Press Freedom under Threat, 12 July 1999

Corruption at the Czech Law School, 5 July 1999

The Czech Malaise, 28 June 1999




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