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.

Loser Should Not Be an Insult

This will be just a short contemplation about one word. But before you proceed with reading, I would recommend watching this video. It is only tangentially related, but it sparked a few months ago the train of thoughts leading here.

English is not my first language and I have always trouble to understand some things. And one of those things is the use of the word loser as an insult. But it got appropriated into the Czech language in the late decades, and given how it is used, I do consider its use as an insult to be a symptom of a toxic culture, even if not necessarily of toxic masculinity specifically. As a prime example of this, I would like to point out that it is one of the most favorite insults that Donald Trump likes to throw around at anyone he does not like – and now some people like to use that word as an insult against him. I do not.

Using the word loser as a derogatory term in this way signifies that losing at something (usually at finding a relationship and/or financial independence) is always a choice and personal failure as if we all have full control over everything. It also values zero-sum games over cooperation. It completely disregards the huge influence of chance in our lives. Plus we are often pressured by society to try to succeed at the arbitrary and sometimes downright daft things against our will – there are people who are happy to be single, women who do not want to have children, men who do not want a managerial career, etc. It divides people into winners and losers and only winners are worthy of consideration and empathy.

So before you, as an SJW, continue to use the word loser casually as an insult, perhaps consider why you are doing it and whether you are not inadvertently contributing to the things you intend to oppose. There are better insults for shitty people who chose to do shitty things.

 

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