Behind the Iron Curtain part 35 – The Elusive Socialism

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.


At school we were constantly reminded that we are living in a socialist country that takes great care of its people, and where everything belongs to everybody. However, one of my schoolmates has once said “If you read the definition of socialism in a dictionary, you realize we are not actually living in socialism”. Which is a pretty deep insight for someone under thirteen. But was he right?

The blaring of propaganda was constant, overt as well as covert, and it all was poised to inform us about all the ills the societies to the west of us suffer (most of which were, even in hindsight, spot-on) and all the wondrous technological and social advancements that the USSR has made over its competitors (which were, in hindsight, grossly oversold). But the system never got rid of several things that it has criticized. Like private property and money-based economics. Which has left it with the pesky problem of ownership of the means of productions, which I have addressed partially in the past. I have seen this named “state-run capitalism” in comments on FtB, which is a term that I have always found a bit peculiar.

And this was the base of my schoolmate’s argument. The people do not own the means of production, the state does. The people do not have a say in how the fruits of their labor get distributed and used, the communist party does that. And thus the society is not truly socialist and equal, because there are still social strata, only not divided by the personal wealth, but by the status within the ruling party structure. After which this stratification got, of course, cemented by personal wealth too, since the party top brass were not too shy about accruing for themselves a bigger piece of the pie than the rest has got, as it always happens.

But did this make the country “not socialist”? I personally do not think so. It was still definitively a state whose policies were leftist and, at least on paper, aimed at the common good. But the peons were expected to shut up and work their asses off for their masters under the guise of working for the greater good, with the promise that the socialist paradise is just around the corner, if not for them, then for their children for sure. And its arrival was postponed for nearly two generations before the system finally collapsed. Any and all actual progress, both social and technological, was made only extremely slowly, because every criticism implying that the current course is perhaps not ideal, however mildly stated, could have dire consequences for the person making it.

The people have learned this lesson the hard way before I was even thought of, in spring 1968. That year the Czechoslovak communist party underwent a widely popular reform and started “Socialism with human face” politics, which has kept the socialist part of the party agenda but has intended to make away with authoritarianism. The USSR did not like it and invaded us. The top czechoslovak politicians were forced to sign a treaty literally at gunpoint and that was the end of any and all attempts at making their version of socialism viable in the long term. Because the “socialism” was not what was problematic with the regime’s politics, the “authoritarianism” was.

But since those two were (and arguably still are) inseparable in the minds of the communist parties of greatest socialist states in history, it is no wonder they are inseparable in many people’s minds both in the west and east to this very day too. Thus the leftist politics of the sixties has built an invisible iron curtain in our colective consciousness between socialism and freedom. And tearing that one down seems more difficult than the real one.

Jack’s Walk

Modern Warfare by Chase Meuller

This morning Jack and I came across a pile of papers scattered on the sidewalk near my house. This isn’t unusual. We live near a high school, and I often find littered test papers and assignments on my lawn, but this pile was pristine and on examination looked lost, not tossed. There were a few job applications and several pieces of art, including the one above. Luckily, the young man’s name and phone number were on the applications, so I phoned him to let him know what I’d found. He hadn’t known he’d lost the papers and was quite glad to hear from me. He was very polite and thankful, and we made arrangements for him to stop by tomorrow to pick up his things. This piece of art appealed to me, and I asked him if I could post it. He’s given me his verbal approval, and so I present to you the artist, Chase Mueller.

Good Luck with the job search, Chase.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 33 – McGyver in Every Household

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.


“Zlaté české ručičky” (Golden Czech Hands) – a self-flattering saying that Czechs like to say about themselves for fairly long time. I was not able to google-fu the origin of the phrase, but one of the speculations I believe the most is that it originated during the times of the Iron Curtain.

I have already mentioned the centrally planned economy and the many negatives it has lead to. But I did not mention one of the at least somewhat positive things – the widespread ability to get the most out of whatever little there was available.

For example one of my uncles wanted to have a gramophone, but those were hard to get by. So he scraped and scrounged parts from defunct gramophones and has built a functioning one out of them. He also has built two high-quality loudspeakers for it – and they worked and sounded good for a long time. Previously he also has built a simple radio. And a bicycle from parts.

This uncle, a Ph.D. mathematician, has emigrated to USA when I was only about six years old and he took this mindset with him. He married a Korean-American woman, whom I have met in 1999 during my only visit there. One of her complaints about her husband was that she rarely gets to buy new stuff, because whenever something breaks – be it TV, vacuum, microwave or a kitchen robot – he repairs it. And indeed all these items around the house were visibly repaired.

I have this mindset too. I wanted a nice sturdy knife to take with me on forest walks, but they were expensive and hard to get by, so I have made one. I am not as handy with electronic as my uncle is, but have repurposed parts from his old radio project and used the speakers for building myself high-quality horn-speakers. And many other things.

But around here, this was not exceptional. Every man had to be a handyman, knowing a bit about electronics, plumbing, carpentry, masonry and, if you were lucky, car repair and maintenance. Because when something broke in the household, buying replacement was often not an option and getting a professional to do the job for you was not easy or fast enough. Of course, some were better at somethings than others, and a thriving black market of skills has emerged. Indeed the only way to thrive was to have a network of skilled friends or you were screwed.

Towards the end of the regime, in 1987, there emerged a TV show dedicated to this kind of “DIY” thing, named “Receptář nejen na neděli” (Recipe book not only for Sundays), whose spinoffs and follow-ups run until today under different names. There was also a periodical of the same name as the TV show, another periodical “Udělej si sám” (Do It Yourself :-)) and even one of the periodicals for children that I have previously mentioned (ABC) had sections dedicated to small crafts.

Today there is a lot of moaning about how this aspect of our culture is slowly disappearing. The availability of cheap goods on demand did lead to a decreased need to be inventive and frugal. Some of the moaning is just that – the regular moaning about the corruption of youth and the good old times – but some of it is to my mind justified. Indeed when working in Germany, I was often able to come up with creative solutions to some problems with the things I found in a drawer, exactly because that is what I was used to doing, whilst some of my colleagues were content with listing through a catalog.

I think that being poor is not a virtue, but being frugal and inventive is. The only problem that remains is how to raise inventive and frugal people when being lazy and wasteful is easier.

Jack’s Walk

Late afternoon at the river ©voyager, all rights reserved

The Landscape looks mostly brown and grey, but there are bits of colour here and there. The dogwood is bright red and there’s a bit of blue in the sky that’s reflected in the water and some of the grass is still green, but overall the landscape is hibernating and gone fallow. This is the dread time of year for me. There’s so little light and the days end so quickly. This photo was taken around 3:30 in the afternoon and by 4:30 it had gone full dark.

Jack’s after supper walk is now always in the dark and I have to push myself to get out. I don’t mind the cold. I can dress for that, but I do mind the dark. Generally, I feel safe walking with Jack. From a distance, he can look intimidating and he’ll bark his big boy bark if he’s feeling nervous or uncertain. He’s also very protective of me. Overall I feel fairly safe in my neighbourhood, but things have happened here just like they happen everywhere. In 2009 an 8-year-old girl was abducted while walking home from school. Her name was Tori Stafford and her home was just a few houses down my street. She was raped, tortured and murdered. I try not to think about that sort of thing when I walk, but I go past that house nearly every day and it’s hard to forget. I know I’m not a kid, but I’m small, and I couldn’t protect myself well and sometimes I get nervous. Jack picks up on that and it makes him nervous for no reason so I work to stay calm and to keep my leash skills confident. I feel it most often when a young man is approaching me on the sidewalk. Often, I’ll simply cross the street, but there are places where I don’t like to do that because of other dogs. Once, I was walking Jack at night and a car stopped beside us. I watched a young man in the back seat kick the female driver in the head and then he exited the car, hurling expletives and he then approached Jack and me, muttering about the “bitch” that was driving. I couldn’t walk past him and I didn’t want to turn my back on him, but then another fellow got out of the car and apologized to me and led the angry man away. He obviously saw I was frightened and came to help. Jack didn’t do anything except wag his tail at the angry man – maybe he was trying to defuse the situation, but I was really scared that night. It’s another month before the shortest day of the year arrives and then I can slowly see the days get longer. Until then, Jack and I will carry on bravely through the night.

What do you mean “boundaries”???

These days a conversation blew up in my Twitter feed, started by what seemed to me a pretty thread about asking for help and emotional labour:

“I want to chat briefly about this text that I received from a friend last week:

“Do you have the emotional/mental capacity for me to vent about something medical/weight-related for a few minutes””

Sounds pretty harmless, right? She talks about friends respecting their friend’s capacity, how amazing she thought it was for her friend to check in with her whether she could handle such a conversation right now, and after being asked for one, she provided a template for declining:

“Hey! I’m so glad you reached out. I’m actually at capacity / helping someone else who’s in crisis / dealing with some personal stuff right now, and I don’t think I can hold appropriate space for you. Could we connect (later date or time) instead / Do you have someone else to reach out to?”

From some of the reactions on my carefully curated Twitter feed you’d think she’d proposed skinning live kittens. People accused her of being a shitty friend (because saying “that’s tough” is easy and all that is needed) to being so deep in capitalist thinking that she wants to make personal interactions transactional and I just thought “WTF”???

Because nowhere does she mention wanting something in return. Nowhere does she decline helping her friends in general. She’s probably a very good listener who is compassionate, providing her friends with emotional support, or otherwise that particular friend would probably not ask her for her time.

What struck me was how nasty the conversation turned and how entitled people felt to other’s emotional space. Because boy do I know what it means to be emotionally exhausted. I talk a lot about my job, and most of the time I take it with humour. I have good emotional hygiene, which is something that I had to build with time, and I have a loving family that can provide ME with emotional support. And still sometimes I’ll leave school feeling raw and overwhelmed. When you have to have long conversations about abuse. When you hear that a girl the same age as your daughter was raped. If you came to me to vent with something perfectly legitimate but less severe than that, I might blow and take it out on you. You don’t want me to call you a crybaby who needs to get a grip. Not because that’s what I think, but because it would be self -defense against you needing something I just cannot afford to spend. I would be a bad friend to you, but you’d also be a bad friend to me.

If you came with something equally serious, I might simply break down. Again, none of us would be helped by this. I have the suspicion that the people demanding 24/7 emotional availability from their friends don’t care about their side of the interaction. Maybe they have less stressful jobs. maybe they have a greater mental capacity. Or maybe they are usually the venting side, not the being vented at side. And maybe they just never thought about this. In that case: please do so now. Do reach out. You’re not a burden to your friends, but please don’t forget that right now, they may not be able to give you what you need.

The Art of Book Design: I am a Cat

 

Natsume Soseki. I am a Cat. (1906) First English translation published in 1909. Translated by K. Ando and revised by K. Natsume. Tokyo, Hatori Shorten, 1906-1909.

This classic book, written by one of Japan’s most celebrated novelists, is a satire of Japanese society during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912) when western customs were first being incorporated into the country. It’s written from the perspective of a supercilious and eloquent housecat who humorously comments on the people and events that fill his life.

I couldn’t find a copy of the book for you to read, but it’s been reissued many times (and in many languages) and is available at most major booksellers. If you’d like to read a few quotes before deciding to buy, the site Cocosse-Journal is the place to go. I’ll share just this one quote from the book:

“Thus, as I review the list of my friends and acquaintances, most of them emerge as stained with
 maniac stigmata of one sort or another. I begin to feel considerably reassured. The truth may
simply be that human society is no more than a massing of lunatics.”
                                                                    – from I am a Cat via Cocosse-Journal

Cover photo via: Old Timey Cats

The Art of Book Design: Are We a Stupid People, by One of Them

Charles Joseph Weld-Blundell. Are We a Stupid People, by One of Them. London; Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. Ltd., 1908.

A book of commentary about the social and moral conditions in Britain at the turn of the last century.

 

Cover photo via: Nemfrog

The book is available to read at The Internet Archive

The Master’s Tools won’t take down the Master’s House

Graduate hat

Every couple of months it seems a certain debate flares up on my Twitter and it keeps annoying me. It keeps being brought up by people whom I generally highly respect, who are usually kick ass feminists and right in so many things, except this one that drives me up the wall: The great debate of titles.

It usually goes like this: If somebody has a title like “Dr.” or “Prof.”, you must use them.The arguments brought forward are sound at first glance: too often women and people of colour are denied their credentials. While a (white) man is introduced as “Dr. So and So”, a woman is much more likely to be introduced as “Ms. This and That” or even by her first name. We’ve all seen this play out with the Clintons, who are “Clinton” and “Hillary”. This portrays these people as less competent, their voice having less value and them being less worthy of respect.

Another one is that marginalised people who hold these positions have overcome significant obstacles to reach them. They’ve fought an uphill battle against sexism and racism all the way and had to work much harder than the white guy who then gets paid respect by being addressed as “Dr.” while they’re not.

While both points are true on the surface, they both rely on the very premise that people with a PhD are indeed worthy of more respect than others and leaves a hierarchy that has racism and sexism and especially classism built into its very foundation intact because now those people are at the top of said hierarchy and would like to stay there, thank you very much.

Academic titles have been historically part of the self understanding of the bourgeoisie. Look, they said, we have titles as well, and ours are earned. For a long time, in many places, a PhD was a requisite for becoming someone in politics. They were supposed to show that this person was really fit to rule, a title that belonged to the new ruling class, and much like noble titles, they are inherited. Congratulations if you are the first in the family, if you are a minority that used to be cut off such opportunities, yet the overwhelming majority of people in that group come from homes where usually the father holds a PhD as well. the further up you go, the more they become. By insisting on the great importance of your title, you’re staking an allegiance and it’s not one with the communities that brought you forth.

Academic titles do grant people privileges. They, and only they (plus priests), are usually allowed to use their titles as part of their name and they demand and are awarded special respect. My brother in law has a PhD. From his own experience, waiting times for medical appointments and in the waiting room have become drastically shorter since he introduces himself as “Dr.”, but then he gets to spend more time with the actual doctor. The peons can wait. Many of the privileges will be more subtle and as usually the privileged don’t actually see them.

Academic titles are the only ones that become names. Many other people also work hard for their qualifications, often for similar lengths of time. In Germany, where professions are highly regulated everybody who finished successful training has a professional title. Mine is “Assessorin des Lehramtes” and yes, I have a document that shows it and specifically grants permission to use that title. Craftspeople have titles, especially the masters. Yet only a small minority of people are granted the right to use their titles in their names and daily lives. Insisting on them further perpetuates the idea that those other professions, teaching, crafts, nursing, etc. are of lesser value and the people who do them less worthy of respect, which leads me to my next point:

Academic titles do not make you worthy of more respect and the only reason why people can disrespect you by not using them is because you think you deserve some extra special respect. Names and naming are tools of power. We’ve probably all had the teacher who decided to use something different for our name, yet we couldn’t get away with some nickname. When transphobes refuse to use somebody’s real name and pronouns, they’re showing power. This isn’t about respect and decency, it’s about demonstrating power. Scandinavia doesn’t crumble down because most people there just use first name (always somewhat confusing for people from more uptight places when the doctor introduces himself as “Sven” and the calls the patient “Lina”). Using your partner or children’s first name doesn’t show you don’t respect them. At least it shouldn’t.

Academic titles also don’t make you an expert, except in very narrow areas. Remember my BIL, the one with the PhD? He’s a biologist. He once famously claimed that leopards and cheetahs are the same animals. Also caribous roam the African Savannah. Family joke is that if you present him with a horse, a donkey and a zebra he’ll have to do a gene test to identify them. In short, he knows the general stuff every graduate learned and then he learned a great bunch of stuff in a very narrow field. I don’t have to take his opinion more seriously on any other subject than Hepatitis, yet somehow a PhD is supposed to grant him exactly that authority. He also believed in crystals on the top of the monitor preventing headaches…

To finally sum it up, academic titles are a tool of the ruling class to strengthen their position and further the idea that they are simply better people, more worths of respect and better treatment whose opinion should be taken as authority. They are used to exclude marginalised people and their voices from discourse, since they’re lacking “proper qualifications”. While I understand the great personal satisfaction of having gained such a title despite all odds, and the frustration of people then still excluding them from their special club, you cannot dismantle those systems by insisting that you’re really part of the club now and be awarded the privileges that come with it.

As a final note, I’d still recommend you always use those titles if you are a student because apparently those people are very touchy about it and can fuck up your academic career. So much for Foucault’s production of docile bodies…

Is This What The Bullies Want?

I am beyond saddened by this news story in yesterday’s Toronto Star. A 9 year old girl in Calgary, a recent legal arrival to our country from Syria, has committed suicide. The paper reports:

 

A Calgary Syrian refugee family is dealing with the tragic death of their 9-year-old daughter, who died by suicide after being bullied at school. Amal Alshteiwi is shown here in a screen capture of a YouTube video. (SCREEN CAPTURE)

 

A Calgary Syrian refugee family is dealing with the tragic death of their 9-year-old daughter, who they say died by suicide after being bullied at school.

Aref Alshteiwi discovered his daughter Amal’s body March 6, according to Sam Nammoura, co-founder of Calgary Immigrant Support Society. Nammoura has worked with the family, and details of Amal’s death were relayed to him by the parents.

Police conducted more than a dozen interviews following Amal’s death, and found no evidence of foul play, according to Calgary Police Service media relations.

The family escaped war in Syria more than three years ago as government-sponsored refugees.

Amal’s parents told Nammoura that Amal had been coming home from school upset, telling them she was being bullied. She had been fine until around six months ago, they told him, when she moved to a new school and began having issues in math. Nammoura said they told him that’s when the bullying started — Amal was called stupid and ugly on a daily basis by several classmates.

The parents told Nammoura they raised the issue with the school, but that their daughter didn’t get any help. She went to school happy, they told him, and came home sad. However, Nammoura wasn’t aware of the issues Amal was having until after she died.

In an emailed statement, the Calgary Board of Education said it is working with the school’s staff and students “to try to understand if there were concerns or issues.”

“The school is closely working with both students and families to heal from this tragic event and come together as a community,” the statement read.

The family eventually moved schools to try to get Amal away from the bullying. Before she left, Nammoura said Amal was told by her bullies that moving wouldn’t fix anything.

Four days after she switched schools, Amal’s father found the girl dead in her room.

Story by Rose Saba, Star Calgary

She’s a beautiful girl who had a whole life ahead of her. She’ll never get her first kiss or go to the prom. She won’t graduate high school or go to college or fall in love and have children of her own. And she isn’t unique. This is what happens where hate lives and it sickens me. Is this what the bullies want? Are there really people in my country who would celebrate this loss? It is my hope that the the people who bullied Amal feel shame and remorse at what has happened and will carry that forward instead of the hate. Some will, but much work needs to be done to remove this cancer of fear and hate of otherness from our society. Lives are depending on it.

Teacher’s Corner: Introverts, extroverts, shmextroverts

This Teacher’s Corner is going to be a bit different from the usual ones as it will breach out to a broader topic, but it all starts with teaching.

Actually it starts with Twitter and an annoyed paediatrician  tweeting that since it was half term he would get lots of primary school kids’ parents who’d been told to get their kid tested for ADHD and such*. I replied something along the lines that if teachers could diagnose ADHD they’d be psychiatrists and not teachers, which is why we’d like parents to get a professional opinion on the matter. After all, the only thing we see is that a child has obvious problems paying attention and following the classroom rules.

While this is an interesting topic in and on itself, it was only the starter for a conversation with another user about introverted kids. Her complaint was that the German school system punishes introverted kids via the “participation” grade. In Germany almost all term reports have two separate grades that are “participation” and “behaviour”. All teachers teaching in a class submit their grade, the mean gets calculated and then there may be adjustments. To be honest, till the end of the conversation I couldn’t quite get what she actually wanted, because she kept contradicting herself, but I got that she was fundamentally unhappy, either from her own experiences or because of somebody else, and wanted CHANGE, even though she was not quite clear as to what should actually change. I’ll try to talk about why “just leave the quiet kids alone” isn’t a good idea from a teaching point of view and then move to what bugged me about the whole discussion. [Read more…]