How Typically American

So White House has published a pamphlet about the evils of socialism. I have not read it in full and I probably won’t since I have better things to do with my life than to read drivel from Trump administration, but on casual glance it seems to insinuate that the disastrous attempt at socialism in former Soviet bloc invalidates everything with the word root “social” in it. Therefore since badly implemented socialism in Ukraine has led to famine in 1921, “socialism” in EU in 2018 is just as bad.

That is of course complete non-sequitur.

The whole document also seems to be rather American-centric and comparing apples with pineapples, or perhaps even bananas. Like this infographic:

Whitehouse infographic about Costs of Owning a truck

Now I admit I have zero personal experience with any of the countries on that infographic except with USA.

But my experience with USA is that people there own pickup trucks in about 80% of the cases just to own them, not because they actually, really need them. I mean, I have seen them used for grocery shopping in big cities, with the deck empty and the groceries being put in a bag on the passenger seat. People commuted daily to work in them. Most owners of pickup trucks in USA could do just as well with only ordinary cars and for those rare occasions where they really, really might need something bigger (like buying building materials for house repairs etc.) the options available in for example Germany (i.e. renting a truck or goods trailer at the shop for a few days) would suffice ample. Further populations in EU are much more tightly knit than they are in USA, there are not many far-off farms and isolated homesteads that really need pickup trucks. I am not sure how this is in Nordic countries, but I still suspect that a real need for big pickup truck there is smaller than in US just due to the USA’s sheer size and wast empty places.

Thus this infographic is used either ignorantly or dishonestly to scaremonger. Or both.

As far as the economic side of the pamphlet goes, I will leave the critique to an expert who says everything better than I ever can:
Are the Danes Melancholy? Are the Swedes Sad?

On the whole I get the feeling that this pamphlet starts with the assumption that everything USA=good and everything socialism=bad and tries to spin evidence to appear to validate those assumptions.

How typically American of them, to ignore all context an only seek ways to put USA at the center of the universe. Again.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 19 – Pionýr

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.


In my opinion, totalitarian regimes are very good at recognizing one crucial fact of life – it is important to reach children as soon as possible and indoctrinate them into your ideology, because later on it might not work. Throughout history of totalitarian regimes therefore are many examples of youth’s organizations whose main purpose was political.

The communist regime in former Soviet bloc was no different and the youth organization in our country was named “Pionýr” a derivative of the word pioneer, attempting to imply boldness and strength to freely explore hitherto unexplored. Where “freely” means “in the direction the party allows and if the conclusions confirm with party line”.

It started at an early age, about seven years, with a membership in “Jiskra” (spark), an organisation that was essentially preparing children for future membership in pionýr. After that, at the eight-nine years of age, the child could enter the Pionýr organization and become a full member.

Membership was confirmed by a public pledge first as Jiskra, then as Pionýr. I do not remember my Pionýr pledge, but I do remember some feelings about being overwhelmed by the Jiskra one, to the point that I still remember the first sentence of the pledge – but I had to look up the rest. I had my heart in my throat as I was standing in an auditorium in front of most of the town and piping up the pledge loud enough to be heard. I also remember that I actually believed and meant what I was saying.

Here are the translations (not trying to convey the cadence and rhyming of the originals):
Jiskra – “Slibuji dnes přede všemi, jako jiskra jasná, chci žít pro svou krásnou zemi, aby byla šťastná” – Like a bright spark I promise in front of all, that I want to live for my beautiful country so it can be happy.

Pionýr: “Slibuji před svými druhy, že budu pracovat, učit se a žít podle pionýrských zákonů, abych byl dobrým občanem své milované vlasti, Československé socialistické republiky, a svým jednáním chránit čest pionýrské organizace Socialistického svazu mládeže.” – I promise in front of my comrades, that I will work, learn and live by pionýr law, in order to become good citizen of my beloved country, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and with my behaviour I promise to guard the honor of the Pionýr organization of Socialist Youth Association.

Membership in Pionýr was not compulsory. But it was not compulsory in the sense “it is voluntary, but you must”. In my class, there were a few children who were not members, and our teacher – a fanatical communist to this day – did give them some grief for that. Remember what I said about education? Not being a member of Pionýr was a huge hindrance to getting meaningful highschool education, and made it nigh impossible to get into university later on. So most children entered the organization even when privately they and their parents disagreed with the regime.

I do not remember much about what we were doing in the name of the organization as such, apart from a few summer camps to which I went, and a few marches on memorable occasions (like 1.st of May). Maybe I will remember something more later.

I still have my red scarf in the cupboard, despite not agreeing with communist philosophy. I do not know why.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 18 – Periodicals for Children

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.


From a child’s perspective, this is one of those things again that the regime got at least mostly right, if not outright right. There were at lest five different magazines specifically for children, with target audiences from 6 to 18 years. Unfortunately most of them do not exist anymore, except one and the last issues I have seen of that one do not hold a candle to what it used to be – too many advertisements, too little real content.

The magazine I am talking about is ABC mladých techniků a přírodovědců (ABC of young technicians and natural scientists). I still have a stack of old issues that I have not thrown away and sometimes I still go through them and occasionally learn a new thing or two.

That particular magazine has a unique format – there are articles about science, technology and nature and occasional story of course and I learned a lot about those things from it. But it also featured two regular features that no other magazine in our country at that time had – paper models and comics.

The paper models are what made the magazine extremely popular and famous, and in my opinion also most useful for a young kid. I know people, even in my family, who sneer at that notion, but the truth is that even today I and I am sure my brother as well are using the skills learned while cutting, measuring and gluing paper models together. And by using I mean getting paid, because making models gives one nimble fingers, teaches patience and trains spatial intelligence. It is a pity that since made from paper, those models were not particularly long-lived so none of them survived until today. They required way to much care and collected way too much dust to be kept in a household with three asthmatics.

The comics were, in my non-humble opinion, much better than whatever nonsense Marvel is peddling. There were no superheroes and no mages. Over the years there were multiple series, and they all excelled in the past in one thing – combining education with entertainment. One series was entirely devoted to Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. One was about a robot uprising. And one particularly long-lived one was about a group of Pionýrs doing the things that kids do – going to school, going outside, camping, fighting etc.

It was full of covert propaganda of course, but even in retrospect it was mostly not propaganda that I particularly mind. Most of it was about the importance of having useful skills and knowledge, about not being an asshole and taking care of other people as well as yourself. Things that I personally think children should learn as a matter of course wherever they live.

Teacher’s Corner: Retarded!

As you may know by now I have recently started a new job as a special ed teacher without having actually trained as a special ed teacher. This is pretty challenging on top of the job being challenging anyway, and I’m trying to desperately read up on the concepts and theories of the discipline. In doing so I stumbled across a word that is one of the nastier ones flung around in English: retarded.

And I discovered that it is a good word. Or at least used to be.

See, special ed went through it’s development just like regular teaching. Concepts and ideas about children, learning and teaching have changed, change which is often (though not always) reflected in our schools. In its earlier stages, special ed saw children who were slow to learn as “defective”. Children who could more or less keep up with the classwork were “normal” and the other ones were broken, damaged goods, lacking. You see where this is going.

Then came science and studied children and how they learn. They put many things educators had long known on a scientific basis and formulated scientific concepts. One of the still most influential people in this area is the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who described the processes through which we learn and also formulated stages through which we develop.

Screenshot of Piaget bok covers

Yes, there’s an endless amount of books on and by Piaget

All legitimate criticism aside (it relates mostly to how far you can take his models and where are limits of their application), his models are still important. As teachers we want and we need to challenge our students to help them in that development, which isn’t an automatism. We need to construct our input at the right level. Primary school teachers will endlessly use concrete things and pictures to teach their students. They need to literally take away five marbles to find out what 12-5 is.

What especially Piaget’s students found out was that not all children develop at roughly the same pace. Some children are much slower than the average, they stay behind, they are “retarded”. The concept as such was revolutionary. The children were no longer seen as defective, just slower. They were not inferior to their peers but would reach the same levels of cognitive development as their peers, just later. This had, and has, great importance for teaching children with special needs, as it means that we need to give them different input, teach them using a much more hands on approach than with their peers and most importantly, get them to the same place, just a little more slowly.

It’s sad to see how ableist ideas turned such a revolutionary concept into a nasty slur. It also shows that you need to change society, not just words. The slur does not mean what the word means in a professional context. It still means “broken and defective”.

 

Wackaloon

Liz Crokin, right wing “journalist” has recently lost the tips of two fingers in a surfing accident and is blaming Hilary Clinton as the cause.

While she realizes that it was probably “just a freak accident,” that didn’t stop her from also asserting that it may have been the result of a curse that had been placed on her by Hillary Clinton or artist Marina Abramović or some other “witch” that is targeting her due to her efforts to expose the secret satanic cannibalistic pedophile cult that supposedly runs the world.

Is it just me, or do other people think that the right wing of America have lost their minds. I can almost get past their belief in their God (almost, but not really), but what is up with the belief in witches and spells and curses. Do they really think we live in Harry Potter World full of magic, and if so why isn’t their all-powerful, all-seeing God doing something about it? It seems to me that it just highlights the impotence of their sky God. It all seems so totally illogical and totally ridiculous. The full story is at Right Wing Watch, if you can stomach it. Just a word of warning, if you click on the links inside the story be prepared for even more ridiculous right wing thinking.

 

Behind the Iron Curtain part 15 – Cars

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.


Cars were some of those goods that were difficult to obtain and difficult to maintain, even when you had the money – so we never had one. We did not exactly need one either, because public transport was in those times sufficient. It was not market driven and thus was not dependent on population density.

However cars were still useful and partly they became a status symbol so many people in our little town never understood why my parents did not get one. One of my mother’s colleagues was visiting us one day and she snooped around in our garden shed looking for the car she was convinced we have stashed and hidden away there. She just did not understand that my parents did not use their positions to enrich themselves and get the much coveted goods of the time.

What was fairly typical of the cars was their distribution in any given land. Someone interested in cars could probably travel in hibernation between the various lands of the eastern bloc and then recognize which country they arrived at by looking out of the window at the nearest parking lot.

In Czechoslovak Socialist Republic the far most predominant cars were Skodas, at the time of my life mainly Skoda 120 and towards the end of the regime occasional Skoda Favorit. There were zero cars from the western part of Europe and a very limited amount of cars from other countries in the Soviet power sphere. Father of one of my classmates had a very coveted Lada VAZ-2101 “Žiguli” which was admired for its sturdiness and strength as well as for being essentially very rare piece. He only could afford it – and get his hands on it – because he was middle ranking military officer of the border patrol.

The parking spaces in CZ were mostly empty and usually there was some mix of different cars despite the prevalence of Skodas. I was not used to seeing many cars all at once, or a parking space really full.

So when I was visiting East Germany for a summer camp at about eleven or twelve years age, I had an entirely new experience at that time, one that was very strong to an impressionable little child.

Rows and rows of cars stretching for hundreds of meters on each side of the street. Parking lots so cramped it was difficult to squeeze between the cars. Different colors, but all the cars were essentially identical, leading to strange uniformity. All were Trabants.

Trabants were known in CZ, and they were much derided. They were the cheapo cars for those who could not afford a “proper” car. Having a Trabant was seen as a sign of under achievement, barely better than having no car at all. There were – and still are – many derogative terms for the car, like “angry vacuum cleaner”, or “bakeliťák”.

This added a discordant note to the experience. Seeing that eastern Germans had apparently more cars than we gave me a sense of awe, seeing that the cars are of lower quality gave me a sense of superiority. However the strongest of all the memories is the sense of a complete lack of choice and of a mind-numbing uniformity wherever you go. It was my first experience of an outward demonstration of the fact that we are actually expected to blend into crowds. And that everything in the system – all the overt legal and covert economic pressures – is designed to quash individuality and make us into a uniform mass.

I did not form this opinion so clearly at that time of course, but this was the start of that realization.

Youtube Video: I Smoke Armour

Metatron is not my favourite YouTuber, for some reason he rubs me the wrong way and on occasion he made me cringe when he opened his mouth about feminism (but to be clear, there was no obvious malice there, just cluelessness). But some of his videos are relatively good and I consider this to be one of them. Partly because my sister in law and her family are all heavy smokers who nevertheless looked at me in the past with derision for “wasting” money on books and time on bonsai trees.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 12 – Police

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.


Police did not exist. It was recognized to be a tool of oppression of common people by those in power and therefore something that an enlightened socialist regime does not need.

Did you believe that? I think not. But it is true. Police did not exist.

That is, the word “police” was not used in any official settings. During Habsburg rule in the Austrian Empire the police was mostly concerned with nabbing political dissidents and whilst during the First Republic it was actually really an organization for dealing with crime, that did not take long and during the WW2 it again morphed into an arm of oppression. The name “Geheime Staatspolizei” (secret state police) got stuck in people’s minds and the word police was irredeemably tainted in the minds of Czech people.

I do not know whether this was the actual reason for abandoning the word police by the regime, but I think it has played a role from what we were taught at school about history.

So the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic did not have any organization with the word “police” anywhere in it, but of course crime had to be investigated, traffic must have been regulated and miscreants had to be dealt with.

For this we had an organization “Veřejná Bezpečnost” short “VB”. Their yellow and white cars were very distinguishable and their uniforms made them easily recognized. Whilst they had the power to require “papers please”, they were members of community and at least where I live nobody minded them much. The derogatory term “policajt” applied to them, but without much rancor above what it usually has anywhere around the world.

And of course any totalitarian regime needs its secret police, even when not named as such, and ours was no exception.

The actual arm of oppression was the “Státní Bezpečnost“, short “StB”. These were plain clothes agents and everybody feared them. Nobody knew who belongs to this organization and who does not – a lot of the agents did have other primary jobs, infiltrating communities and spying on people, even their own family members. Everybody had to be extra careful about what they tell to whom and there was a huge culture of distrust. Critique of regime’s officials was one of the things that was frowned upon and one of the biggest challenges people raising kids had been to teach the kids tell truth at home, but to lie in public.

My father was a member of the Communist Party, he joined in his twenties and was an idealist. However he was also an honest man who spoke his mind, and one of his brothers was a political dissident living in USA – and they were in contact.

One evening my father came back from local gathering of the Communist Party and he informed my mother curtly “I might end up in jail, we’ll see”. These gatherings were officially places to discuss problems and solutions to them etc. but of course that was not particularly encouraged, what was expected was sycophancy. But in this one instance my father, when he had his turn to speak, did not reign in his honesty enough and said aloud words to the effect that a lot of the problems could be solved if only the grumpy fat old men in lead of the party actually cared about the people and not themselves. He got lucky.

Of course not everybody who opened their mouth and said something unfavorable about the Communist Party or the regime got nabbed and incarcerated. The way people function that would mean everybody would wound up in jail. But the possibility was always at the back of people’s’ minds. The way the regime worked, nobody knew if some innocent remark might be the point after which one gets into the regime’s focus, and once in focus, the StB could always find something. The maxim was that everybody is guilty and there is nothing you can do about it – only hope that you will not be the one who gets nabbed.

So people tried not to even think honest thoughts. This is how you control a populace – by building fences in their heads.

The Chains of Intolerance.

Andrew Ellis Johnson, “The ICEman Cometh” (2018, detail), ink, charcoal, wax, graphite.

Andrew Ellis Johnson, “The ICEman Cometh” (2018, detail), ink, charcoal, wax, graphite.

Art and artists most definitely have a place in answering wrongs, great or small, and everything in between. Andrew Ellis Johnson has a searing piece up at Hyperallergic. It’s well worth seeing and reading.

Tea for Trump.

Women adorning fancy hats celebrate President Trump's birthday over tea at an event hosted by Virginia Women For Trump at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on June 24, 2018. (Photo: Jared Holt).

Women adorning fancy hats celebrate President Trump’s birthday over tea at an event hosted by Virginia Women For Trump at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on June 24, 2018. (Photo: Jared Holt).

Tea for Trump. Uh huh. I’m just going to include choice quotes here, because reading the whole article made me feel rather ill.

The Trump International Hotel’s largest ballroom was packed wall-to-wall with Republican women donning ornate hats and fascinators made of mesh, lace, ribbon, and feathers, at the Virginia Women For Trump’s “Tea for Trump” event yesterday, which celebrated the belated birthday of President Donald Trump. Organizers repeatedly insisted that the idea that women do not like Trump was “fake news.”

[…]

Prior event descriptions claimed that a member of the Trump family was expected to attend, although none appeared to be on-site for the tea celebration. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was also rumored to be attending in order to receive an award, but did not make an appearance.

Rather, those in the crowd who had traveled from as far as California and paid at least $100 per person had a chance to gaze upon pro-Trump fashion designer Andre Soriano’s 45 gowns meant to commemorate Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States. One dress was dedicated to Trump’s meeting with North Korean officials in Singapore and a young girl wearing one of Soriano’s dresses earned widespread applause.

A model adorns a dress premiered at “Tea for Trump” that designer Andre Soriano fashioned as a tribute to Trump’s meeting with North Korean officials in Singapore. (Screenshot / YouTube).

A model adorns a dress premiered at “Tea for Trump” that designer Andre Soriano fashioned as a tribute to Trump’s meeting with North Korean officials in Singapore. (Screenshot / YouTube).

YouTube duo Diamond & Silk (Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson), who testified before Congress earlier this year after Facebook mistakenly flagged their fan page, were perhaps the biggest draw of the event and stepped on stage to a standing ovation. At the podium, the duo showered praise on Trump, at one point asking, “When I look at how our president has built this particular hotel. If he can do this and that, then why can’t he make America great again?”

The Tiny Tyrant did not build the hotel. He scammed a lot of cash to have it built, then turned around and refused to pay a lot of those people who did the actual work. When it comes to this country, he hasn’t changed tactics much.

The Deplorable Choir performs a brief song at Virginia Women For Trump’s “Tea for Trump” event at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on June 24, 2018. (Screenshot / YouTube).

The Deplorable Choir performs a brief song at Virginia Women For Trump’s “Tea for Trump” event at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on June 24, 2018. (Screenshot / YouTube).

The “Deplorable Choir” vocal trio made a surprise appearance while bearing a guitar that was not strummed once during their brief song. The lyrics were as follows:

Well, we love God and family,

We support our troops through everything,

We got Trump 2020 on the back of our pickup trucks,

We back the blue and the NRA,

We’re for pro-life and American-made,

Raise your hand if you’re proud to be damn deplorable.

Um…well, ladies, I wouldn’t be terribly proud of those songwritin’ skills you’re flaunting about. Perhaps if you learn how to play that guitar…no, wouldn’t help.

You can read the whole nasty mess at Right Wing Watch, although I don’t recommend reading with a full stomach.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 11 – Ownership of the Means of Production

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.


It can be argued that the regime in former Soviet bloc was never communist. I would agree with that and so did the regime itself. However to argue that it was not socialist or leftist would be false. The regime did try to provide for people and take care of them. And whilst it was agreed that the ideal of communism was not achieved yet, the means of production did belong to the people. Sort of.

The argument presented to us at school was a simple syllogism: Means of production belong to the state. The state consists of the people. Therefore the means of production belong to the people.

As it often is, it never is that simple and it did not work out. And the experience convinced me that ownership of the means of production by the people cannot work on grand scale. I think it might work on small-scale, on a scale of up to a few dozen or perhaps a few hundred people, not more. This is about the maximum where people can function as internally cohesive society (commune, if you wish), because at this small-scale people can manage to keep internal tabs of tits for tats. So cheaters and slackers can feel the negative consequences of their actions quickly either by being shunned by those they wronged, or by not getting their share of the produce etc. Thus people keep connection to each other and to the consequences of their actions, because those consequences – both social and economical – are nearby both in time and space.

I have already mentioned slacking at work, because nobody was motivated to work too much. What has thrived on the other hand was black market for labor. So for example if you wanted a house repaired, via official means it might take years and not be done properly. The only way to get things done was often to have “friends” help you to repair it in their free time. Such helps were paid cash without paper trail and artisans like plumbers, electricians etc. were highly sought after – and such illegal work was for them the only means to get extra money. So they skived off of work and often even stole materials from the state in order to make untaxed money on the side (immediate and personal reward – and also immediate and personal punishment if the word got around that one does a sloppy job).

Rarely anyone ever felt this is wrong. There was a great emotional disconnect between the State and its people. The above mentioned syllogism was not convincing enough. I mentioned the saying “who does not steal from the state, steals from their own family”. It was perceived by many people that since everything belongs to the state, it also belongs to ME and therefore I am entitled to help myself when the opportunity presents itself. One teacher tried to explain to us that such is not the case, that by stealing for example a sack of cement from the state of ten million people means one is only taking one tenth of one millionth of said sack that is their own, and the rest is stolen from the remaining 9.999.999 people, but I have noticed that none of my schoolmates was affected much by this logic. Those 9.999.999 people are a faceless crowd, an abstract concept too big to fit into human mind.

The problem here, as Terry Pratchett once brilliantly stated in Night Watch, was not the wrong kind of government, but the wrong kind of people. People on average are not kind-hearted, altruistic and rational. They are petty, selfish and short-sighted. Trying to make them connect with something as grand as a “state” or “nation” only works as long as they are personally and immediately affected. It cannot keep them motivated for long and for a reward that might only affect their grandchildren when the communism finally arrives and money is not needed anymore.

 

Behind the Iron Curtain part 9 – Shops and Services

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.


After the WW2 the regime, under the lead of Stalin, had no thought of anything other than preparing for WW3. So after communists took power in a de-facto putsch in 1948, they invested all effort into re-building heavy industries and nothing else. And, at direct order from Stalin, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic refused any offers of help from USA and their western allies.

This was, as many other things, idiocy of first water. The economy as a whole was doing relatively well, with people being employed in the heavy industries. The main support of the communist party, the labourers, were making good money. The problem was they had nothing to spend it on. There was barely enough food to buy and nearly no luxury or comfort items, because light industries were deemed secondary and therefore not important and no effort was made to restore them after the war. And the iron curtain prevented importing goods in any meaningful amounts.

But people do not work like that, they want not only to barely survive on bread and water, they want savoury things, shiny things and pretty things too. Just feeding them enough so they do not starve is not enough. Hard work has to be rewarded with something more tangible than a pat on the shoulder and a word about how you contribute to the common good.

The regimes way to deal with the situation was to artificially devaluate the currency and thus effectively steal people’s money in 1953. It was touted as a final blow to the exploiters, the last remaining self-employed artisans and land owners, but the hardest hit was on the labourers. Before they had money but nothing to spend them on, but they had a hope of spending it someday. Now they had nothing.

Riots ensued that were drowned in blood. The propaganda tried to spin those riots as a work of infiltrators and foreign agents provocateurs, but it did not work. The regime has lost the trust of its main supporting class – the labourers. And it never regained it.

In reaction to this, some effort was made to provide people with things they want. It was succesful enough to prevent further riots, but not enough to regain the trust of people.

At the time of my life the situation was not as dire as it was in the fifties, but it was still pretty glum. Buying something was very difficult, even if you had the money for it. Not only luxury items like colour TVs were difficult to obtain, but even many ordinary items, like materials to do house repairs. For cars there were waiting lists.

This has led to a few main things.

One day when I was visiting my aunt in Pilsen we went shopping in a big shopping center. A huge shopping mall with half-empty shelves that nevertheless to me seemed full because I knew nothing better. My aunt saw the shopkeeper to sell a lipstick to a woman who was apparently her acquaintance and she wanted to buy the lipstick too. The retailer told her there aren’t any, to which my aunt replied, rather angrily, “Do not lie to me, I saw you to put the whole box under the counter”. This was my first meeting the concept of “under the counter goods”. Those were items that were so rare, that shopkeepers actually kept them hidden from the general public in order to either keep them for themselves or for their closest friends. If one wanted bananas or oranges, without a relative in the shop it was difficult to get either.

At another time and place I was talking with a friend of mine from school about a little experiment I wanted to do and I sighed, “I need magnets, but no shop around here sells them.” to which his incredulous reply was “Why don’t you steal them simply from school?”. To which I, equally incredulously, replied “I do not need them as much as to steal them!”. This was my first encounter of the concept “who does not steal from the state, steals from their own family”. For honest people it was nigh impossible to obtain some even quite ordinary goods, because they either never reached the public counters or were quickly sold out when they did. So it was quite common thing to steal for example building materials from public spaces. Who did not steal, did not prosper. Part of the reason why our house fell in such serious disrepair was that my parents did not steal.∗

But not only goods were hard to come by. Labour was difficult to get too. Need a house repaired or built? You better had a friend who is a builder. Not only would he be able to steal the materials you need, but he might also be able to make a lot of the work at the time when he is supposed to work for his employer. This in combination with previously mentioned slacking has exacerbated the labour shortage that was an ever-present theme. “There is not enough people” was the commonest explanation for why nothing works as it should be and work does not get done on time. You need some minor house repairs? You better do them yourself. If you cannot do them yourself, you are in bad luck, because “There is not enough people”.

For those who had occasionally got their hands on foreign currency, like German Marks, or US Dollars, or special secondary currency called “Bony”, there were specialised shops called “Tuzex” where imported western goods could be bought. These were highly sought after and a sign of social status. Jeans and Lego for example could not be bought anywhere else. But the regime did its best to prevent ordinary people from getting their hands on these currencies, they were reserved for the elite. So of course black market emerged. The proprietors were called “Vekslák” (probably from german “wechseln” – exchange) and were the official villains for the regime, by encouraging people in the following their base instinct to follow their own good instead of sacrificing it on the altar of the common good.

The iron curtain in this regard demonstrated where extreme isolationism, protectionism and one-sided economy leads – corruption and criminality. A lesson worthy of remembering,  yet nobody seems to remember it.


∗ Since my mother was a head of local food shop and my father was a factory foreman, people had difficulty to believe that they did not use their positions to enrich herself. There were rumours about us only pretending to be poor and how we have a car hidden i the garden shed and loads of money stashed away. After the fall of the iron curtain my parents were frequently asked why they do not start their own business or invest money. Nobody believed them for years when they said that they are not rich.

But they did use their positions to get some advantage. We always had some of the scarce goods. One of such goods were canned tangerines, those were so rare that actual fights broke out when they got into the shop. So when we wanted to buy color TV, my mother bought a whole box of canned tangerines  in order to sell them to the electronics shop keeper in the district main town who in turn held the TV under the counter for a few weeks until my parents could organize transport.

I succumbed to the peer pressure and I stole a piece of steel from school when I first wanted to make a knife. The knife was never made, because I have hidden the steel bar in a drawer and never used it. It gnawed at my conscience. I failed to internalize the imperative “who does not steal from the state, steals from their own family”.