Behind the Iron Curtain part 37- 1st of May

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


One of the central dogmas of the regime was the notion that everything is for the common workers, the laborers, and peasants. Those were deemed not only essential for the proper running of society (not wrong), sometimes to ignoring that intellectuals actually have useful functions too.

The International Worker’s Day was a state holiday, and we were taught at school a bit about the history behind it. Not much, as far as I remember, but the actual reasons behind the holiday were discussed and even in hindsight, most of them were valid then and are valid now.

However, as it is with authoritarian regimes, the good came with the sidedish of the bad and sometimes downright ugly.

1st of May was an official day off of work and school, so officially people were free to spend that day as they choose. In every town and moderately sized village, there was a procession and a speech by some party representative, but attending was not compulsory. In the sense “it is voluntary, but you have to go”.

I did not like the processions that much, because I do not like crowds and loud noises. But I did attend. I do not remember much, only two experiences come to mind at least somewhat vividly.

The first experience was an extremely strong feeling of embarrassment when our local firefighter truck was driving along the procession, shouting propaganda and encouragements for cheering from loudspeakers. I did not like it and even to my socially stunted mind, it was clear that nobody else liked it either. If the day is so glorious, if our country is so great and the party so beloved, why on earth do the people need to be egged on to cheer and shout slogans by an obnoxious a-hole with a megaphone? I did not put it in those words exactly, but those were my feelings.

The second experience was the chastising of one of my classmates who was not a member of Pionýr and whose family did not attend the parade one year. In a small town, this did not go unnoticed and our class teacher did call him out publicly during class for this. There were no other repercussions other than the public shaming, but I did not enjoy seeing that at all.

In both of these instances, I have subconsciously sensed a deep disconnect between the messaging we get and the true state of affairs. That cognitive dissonance was not particularly strong, but it was there and it was nagging. When the regime finally fell, a lot of the things that did not make sense to me as a child started to make sense later.

Later in life, I was surprised that much of what I have been taught to see as “Capitalist countries” also celebrate the holiday, oftentimes including the parades and speeches, but without the voluntary compulsory nature. I am afraid that in my mind this holiday will always be tainted, as it is in the minds of many of my generation.

So, Howsda Brexit Goin’?

The UK is supposed to leave the EU finally and definitively at the end of this year and as each week some deadline is being set only to be ignored/postponed again, it is like watching a train wreck in slow motion. I will not pretend to be very well informed on the negotiations and everything with them, but I would like to shortly muse about one phenomenon that I see online.

Before and after the vote for Brexit, the Brexiteers with Farage, Rees-Mogg, Johnson and similar upper-class twits were all saying how easy it will be to close a comprehensive trade deal with EU and how after being freed from the EU restrictions they will be able to also negotiate much, much, much better deals with everyone else. After all, the UK is the fifth-largest economy in the world and the EU needs the UK much more than vice versa, so negotiations will be easy because the UK holds the longer end of the stick, etc. And even if no-deal happens, no biggie, cuz everyone else will clamor to fill the gap in business with the EU.

So far the UK has closed several trade deals with other countries, and most of them are just copy-pasted trade deals that those countries have with the EU. The trade deal with Japan is worse (for the UK) than the one the EU has. And the trade deal with the EU does not go so well so far. In fact, it seems that hard Brexit is creeping ever closer.

And the rhetoric of online brexiteer experts is suddenly concentrated on how the EU bullies the UK and tries to punish it for leaving. The EU is the bad guy, of course, refusing to back down and give the UK everything it wants. To which I would say – so what?

Those brexiteers who will inevitably blame the EU for any negatives that befall the UK due to this mess seem to me to fail to grasp a blatant contradiction in their own reasoning. Not only in claiming that the UK is bullied by someone who, supposedly, was supposed to have a weaker negotiating position. But also they are often hardline libertarian capitalists, for whom negotiating from the position of power with the intent of screwing the other party completely over is a good thing. So by their own logic, even if the EU is the bully (which I do not think it is) and is just trying to screw the UK over to teach it a lesson (which I do not think it is) they should just admire the business acumen and negotiating strength of the EU instead of whining how persecuted they are, shouldn’t they?

It looks like the British Brexiteers do show here one common characteristic of conservatives the world over. They fire the sweepers, then the drop banana peels on the floor willy-nilly and when they inevitably slip and fall flat on their arse, they blame everyone else.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 36 – Revolutions

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give a perfect and objective evaluation of anything but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty-eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


We were taught at school that Marx got one thing in his philosophy wrong and that it had to be corrected by Lenin – the idea of gradual societal progress over time. A violent revolution, we were told, is necessary to defeat the evils of capitalism and institute socialism, just as it happened in Tzarist Russia after WWI and in our country after WWII. After that glorious revolution, we can go back to gradual societal progress over time and the glorious, completely fair, and egalitarian communism will come. Eventually.

When communism did not come any closer after nearly one generation, people became restless. It was not exactly an attempt at revolution, there was no violence, and no attempt at actually overthrowing the regime, only an attempt at reforming it and making it better. But this cry for humanizing the regime that was supposed to care about human welfare did not suit well the powers that be in Moscow and the attempt was quelled by force. The Czech Republic was invaded and tanks from USSR, Poland, Hungaria, and Bulgaria rolled through the streets. It worked, but not as planned – the plan was to put up a facade that people do not want any reforms and that soviet-style socialism is wanted, as demonstrated by people welcoming the invaders as liberators. But weeks-long protests against the invasion put this idea quickly to sleep and what remained was subduing the population by brute force.

A year later, a young philosophy student Jan Palach has set himself ablaze in protest of this. He did not want the ideas that led to the push for humane socialism to die, he wanted the occupants to leave the country and in lieu of other options, he decided for protest by self-harm. I cannot say I condone his approach, but his goal was undeniably noble. He died, he became a martyr, but nothing much changed.

Fast forward another generation.

I was just a school kid during the times of the Velvet Revolution in the fall of 1989, in my last year of elementary school. I knew nothing about the things that happened short of a decade before I was born. I had no idea who Jan Palach is, I had no idea that we were still occupied by Soviet Army, and because I have lived in the countryside with no connectin to big cities, I had no idea that civil unrest is brewing for almost a year already. But it was. The boil of social unrest was swelling, unseen by many but clearly visible by others until it burst.

For me, the whole thing was an incomprehensible mess. I did not understand what is happening. Suddenly I heard on the news that peacefully protesting students were beaten to a pulp by police – a thing that only evil capitalists do to protesters, surely! And then the whole thing happened really quickly – and before the school year was over, before the next summer holiday, we had suddenly a different political regime and I had to learn that a lot of what I knew about how the world functions was bullcrap.

And suddenly I learned about all the things that were kept from school curricula – the deaths and torture in the name of the greater good, the lies and deception, and the fact that it all did not lead to a better life anyway. Those were not easy times – and I was lucky to live in a country where the armed forces were not given orders to use violence and the revolution was allowed to happen without bloodshed. Hearing about armed conflicts in other countries, and for example seeing Ceaucescu being shot to death was not cathartic or satisfying, it was only terrifying.

I do not like revolutions much. They might be necessary from time to time, but they are not pretty, they are not glorious and they do not lead to instant improvements. Not even the milder ones.

The American Meaning of Democracy

I am sure we all have encountered someone somewhere saying that the USA is the greatest and oldest running democracy in the world, yadda yadda yadda. But what does “demo” in this word actually mean, in America?

Let’s grant that the US democracy is the oldest continuously running one in the world. I have no idea if that is actually true and I am too lazy to try and find out, but whatever. Is that a good thing?

When I look at the spectacle that is the US voting, I do not think so. Even without such obsolete carryovers from a different era like the second amendment, two senators per state regardless of its size or the electoral college, it does not look like the American democracy is very much democratic.

Take voter registration for example. What the fuck is that? Many of my friends in Europe are constantly dumbfounded by how elections in the USA (and to an extent in the UK) work. The “first past the post” system is generally viewed as idiotic and Gerrymandering makes most people to say “wut???”, however, the existence of voter registration is something that, so far, surprised everyone. And if you told anyone that there is a ruckus now about sending people voting ballots in advance, they would look at you as if you told them that in the USA “water is wet” is seen as controversial.

In CZ, the mailing of ballots in advance is completely normal. Every citizen is registered at birth, issued a state-paid ID at the age of 15, and gets ballots in the mail for each and every election once they turn 18. During the pandemic, the ballots came with full instructions on how to cast the vote if you are in quarantine or cannot legitimately go to the voting place.

Whether the citizen then actually decides to use said ballots as anything else than highly uncomfortable toilet paper or very good kindling is completely up to them, but they get them, always. We are so used to this system that most people here take it as normal and are completely taken by surprise when they hear how the US goes about this.

Vote on working day and kilometers long waiting lines for voting are another hoot. Here the vote is on Friday/Saturday, the whole day, so everyone has a chance to find a few minutes to cast their ballot, either on a trip to/from work or whilst going shopping. Because – and that is real funny, I tell ya – the longest I have ever waited to cast my vote was maybe a minute when there was someone in the booth and I had to wait for them to finish casting their vote. It might be a bit worse in a big city, I have occasionally seen 10-15 people long lines in TV, I think. But the only big lines are those reported from ‘Merica.

What I want to say is, the country with the highest GDP in the world finally should pay for a full-feature version of government, they are trudging by on an un-updated trial for way too long.

If You Need a Gun, You Are Not Free

I peeked into the Trumpverse a bit and what I saw was unsurprising, but it surprised me anyway. I did not go to Breitbart or some similar far-right downright fascist propaganda sites. I just went to a YouTube channel that I had a reason to believe will have a high percentage of Trumpists in its following and I looked at comments under the only one video about recent politics the channel is hosting. I did not linger for too long, I did not even watch the whole video, just a few minutes and a few comments sufficed. This tiny window into the mind of a regular trumpist was informative, although I do not know what can be done with that information if anything.

From where I stand, Trumpism is just a new flavor of fascism. It is about the government controlling people, dictating what they can and cannot do with their private lives, in their private homes, sometimes even with their own bodies.

From where at least some Trumpists stay, the opposite is superficially true. They think that Biden is a socialist and that he is going to try and control them and take their personal freedoms. Their position with regard to him is the same as the position of leftists is in regard to Trump. And they despair and fear for their future after Biden’s win just as leftists despaired and feared for their future four years ago.

The problem seems not to be whether one values freedom, but what one considers to be freedom. Due to the main focus of the site I was visiting, there was a strong bias towards one uniquely American thing – guns, guns, guns. They see the right to own guns as the most important freedom one of them all, and they think that by having guns they are safeguarding all their other freedoms against a potential governmental overreach.

Which is, of course, bullshit. In modern times any uprising in which the government’s armed forces do not join in with the people is doomed to fail. Rifles, handguns, and knives are no match for tanks, rockets, and drones. But they really, really believe their fantasy that the right to have guns keeps them free and that is why they are/were voting for Trump and Republicans. They fear Biden is going to confiscate their guns and thus, by proxy, take away all their freedoms.

I do not believe these people can be reasoned with, but it seems to me they are overlooking one important aspect. If they need a gun to feel safe from an imminent governmental overreach, then they already are not free. Not only are they shackled by an unreasonable fear of something they would be powerless to oppose if it happened anyway, but they also keep the whole society in shackles of another fear – of random mass shootings, of armed militias going berserk, of random gun accidents. And if their fear of governmental overreach necessitating armed opposition were justified, then the government is already completely dysfunctional.

I lived my whole life in a society without guns, and a third of that life in a totalitarian regime. Fear of random stranger shooting up a school or a workplace never was on my radar, indeed I did not even know such things exist on the scale they do in the USA well into my thirties. And when the totalitarian regime fell, it was not because people took arms and stormed the whatever, it fell because the armed forces refused to shoot unarmed citizens and/or the top brass were hesitant to give such orders (personal anecdotes and historian descriptions vary). Having more guns in that situation would not make a difference except turning the Velvet Revolution into a Scarlet Revolution. I am not saying that armed revolutions are not sometimes necessary, or that they neer worked, but I am saying they do not work as these people imagine them.

But as far as I could see, the gut-wrenching fear and despair at Biden win were genuine. They really think that socialism means the state is going to get them, shackle them, and ruin their country. They really, honestly believe that Republicans and Trump were and are doing a good job, for them personally and for the American people as a whole.

Guns and abortins, these two issues are the only ones that matter to them. And only Republicans give them what they want.

And I am at a loss how to mend divides soo deeply entrenched in society. How do you snap someone out of a whole life of propaganda?

Teacher’s Corner: The Best Negative News Ever

My Covid test came back negative. This time. And since my sister will have one of those fancy new quick tests at work tomorrow, we scheduled for a hug.

In other news, the situation in schools is terrible. Today the second class had to go into quarantine. From Monday on all kids in secondary school will have to wear masks. Teachers as well, but only cloth or paper.

The ministry refuses to order us to wear N95 masks, because then they’d have to pay for them AND regulations say that you have to take 30 Min of break after 75 min. So we all wear them for hours straight to b protect ourselves and the school from collapsing.

And then you get the parents who are blaming schools and teachers for the regulations of the ministry. Fun times.

I Can’t Vote for Biden, but I Feel Like I Should Be Able To

Well, it is obvious why I can’t vote for Biden. I am not a USA citizen, so I do not have any say in the matter at all. However, I do care about who the POTUS is and I really do feel that I, and with me, billions of people around the globe, should actually have a say in the matter.

The problem is, the USA likes to position itself as the world’s policeman. It is constantly sticking its nose into other countries’ businesses, pretending to care about democracy and freedom and whatnot, whilst not caring about any of those things, not ever the whatnot.

Not to mention the almighty gall of US presidents being proclaimed the “Leader of the free world”. What exactly is the free world they are considered to be leaders of? And on what authority do they assume that title for themselves?

I am on record saying that the USA was a proto-fascist state since before 9/11  and it has been shedding the “proto” a bit by bit ever since Reagan. It slowed slightly under Obama but compensated for that by accelerating even more under Trump. And now, the self-aggrandizing title “Leader of the free world” is carried by an open fascist who does his best to deny the vote even to the citizens on whose behalf he is supposed to govern.

And all I, and with me the rest of the world, can do, is to watch from the sidelines and hope for the best. I think US presidents should either be voted on globally, or they should stop poking their noses outside the US borders. Neither of those two things will happen, which makes me despair.

I know the idea needs some refinement, but whatever. Please vote for Biden, if you can. More than just who gets to sit in the White House for 4 years is at stake.

The Art of …

… political protest, billboard-style

Just in time for the American election, a billboard project is being held in New York City.In October, Art at a Time Like This Inc., in collaboration with SaveArtSpace, borrows the moniker “Ministry of Truth: 1984/2020” to present 20 artists on 20 billboards around New York City, providing “a platform for artists to comment on the current state of US politics and increasing polarization just in time for the election,” according to a press release.

The twenty artists have been chosen, and below is a small sample of what the installation will include.

Mel Chin’s billboard imagery for “Ministry of Truth: 1984/2020” (all images courtesy of SaveArtSpace)

Dread Scott for “Ministry of Truth: 1984/2020”

Shirin Neshat for “Ministry of Truth: 1984/2020”

Marilyn Minter for “Ministry of Truth: 1984/2020”

The billboards will be placed around the 5 boroughs of New York, and there will be a digital map allowing viewers to plan self-guided tours. The full story is at Hyperallergic.

 

 

Lost Identities: How White Supremacy Maintains itself

As we all know, whiteness is a social construct (because everything is, duh). It is not a concept that has been clear and stable from the dawn of time. Actually, it is even a fairly recent concept as they go, yet it is still one people have naturalised quickly. Naturalising means that people believe that something is not socially constructed but a direct reflection of the natural world, with sex being another prominent one. Because of course you can see the difference between me and Beyoncé, right?

Whiteness as a concept cannot be separated from white supremacy as it is and was tied to it from birth. The only reason to define someone’s “race” via genotype is to establish differences and hierarchies. But since “race” is of course not a natural phenomenon we merely seek to describe, it’s always been in trouble. There is no logic to it, just power, and that power has developed several strategies to maintain itself. One pretty obvious one is including groups that had previously been excluded. You can see that pretty well in how, for example, folks of Irish or Italian descent were included into the “white” category in the USA: give them a stake in white supremacy, use them as a shield against accusations of racism. See, the Irish were discriminated against as well, they overcame it, if black people are still suffering it’s because there’s actually something wrong with black people.

Another way is by folding individual people into the group, erasing their identities and heritage. They can only gain the status of “white” by denying that they were ever anything else.Wait a generation or two and nobody knows anymore that you have indeed ancestors who were not considered white.

My own family history is such an example. I am white, of German heritage, for all purposes of the law and society. My last name, passed down from my paternal grandpa literally means “person from a very boring village 20km from the place I live now”. But my paternal grandma already spoils the picture, as she grew up as a member of the German settlers in the Ukraine. After the war she was considered a “dirty Russian”, my dad had kids bully him, and they did everything to hide that “dirty family secret”. Me? I just noticed that grandma had a different accent than the rest of the family. To me, any part of that heritage and identity has been lost. My cousin’s father in law, who is a hobby genealogist researched grandma’s family and I learned more about them from his essay than from my family. The Russian German families who arrived in the 90s were pretty quickly folded into the “white” category because they are needed to uphold white supremacy against the growing Muslim community and Muslim refugees. Same with Italians. In my childhood, prejudice against Italian immigrants was on par with prejudice against Turkish immigrants, but this has shifted dramatically.

On my mother’s side it becomes even more extreme. Her grandmother’s family used to be Sinti or Roma. I suspect Sinti, because they are more likely to settle and integrate into the community at the price of giving up their identity, but I have no clue. All the family ever knew is that they were G***. They didn’t even have a name for their heritage anymore beyond the slur used by white people around them. All we can trace back is the family name that is of Hindu origin.

None of that makes me not white. I don’t claim membership of the communities. It’s not a quest to seek faux oppression because some of my ancestors had to pay a heavy price for me to be considered white and gaining white privilege (see “my great-great-great-great grandmother was a Cherokee princess, that makes me so spiritual and also you cannot call me racist”). It’s an acknowledgement of their histories. It’s an acknowledgement of how white supremacy works in subtle ways, making sure that people don’t show solidarity with each other, because they’re fighting to be included in the dominant category. It’s an acknowledgement of loss. It’s also an acknowledgement of how these very stories can once again be used to dismiss systemic racism in favour of individual accounts of success and failure.