Commentary: Frustration, political vacuum, and a society without vision
It is both remarkable and symptomatic that the unrest in the Czech Republic this summer and the increasingly oppressive atmosphere in society is receiving no response from the country's political representatives. They are all so overwhelmed by their own operations, by the ongoing chaos and the "fight for parliamentary democracy" here that they have no energy left for what is going on beyond the walls of their party secretariats.
The mainstream media is willing to follow their lead. With the exception of a few engagé news servers, no one is interested in the fact that xenophobic extremists are garnering the support of "dissatisfied people" for public demonstrations.
No one is surprised that politicians are not trying to score points on this controversial topic. However, the fact that not a single person can be found throughout the Czech regions to openly stand up to this rising xenophobic trend is a testament to the deep crisis in this country's political establishment.
It doesn't really matter whether the main reason the politicians are shut up in their own aquarium, unaffected by the broader social context, is their own cowardice or their tacit agreement with this xenophobic sentiment. The question is: What is the source of the "dissatisfaction" felt by the people joining the neo-Nazi events?
There is no doubt that this frustration is based in a more general frustration with the economic crisis, the intensifying social problems in this country, and the absence of a political vision as to where we as a society are headed now that a quarter of a century has passed since the fall of communism. The basic post-1989 vision of a return to Europe and integration into Western structures has exhausted itself, and for the time being there is no new inspiration on the horizon (as has been remarkably analyzed, in much greater depth, in the recently published The Politics of Unconcern - Politika nezájmu - by Petr Drulák).
It seems to me that the American context of the 1960s is worth recalling in our current situation, both as an inspiration for the political establishment and for the civic movement being built up from below. Robert Kennedy made a memorable speech at a pivotal moment just after Martin Luther King was murdered, one that is essentially banal in its content: "We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization -- black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love."
This speech became legendary because of what it meant as a political act at that moment. If at least a few Czech politicians would show even half as much detachment and wisdom, it would have a beatific effect on the societal atmosphere.
If we cannot expect such an impulse from above in this country, then there is nothing left to do but to attempt it from below, and here the civil rights movement led by King continues to be a valid source of inspiration. It is inspiring not just in the sense of the soaring, widely-shared vision expressed in his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, but primarily in the concrete methods used to promote the "dream" - mass campaigns that are both radical and strictly non-violent.
Just as the Black civil rights movement in the USA could not have been enforced without support from the white population and the systematic building-up of leadership capacity among Black people, similar challenges await the Romani emancipation movement in the Czech Republic. Those challenges are to win support from the majority society, to adopt and implement a conceptually-driven public policy, and to build up Roma potential.
King summarized the basic points of his emancipation strategy in a relatively unknown but inspirational essay, "Black Power Defined". Here he augments his soaring "dream" with a very concrete, pragmatic program for strengthening the economic, ideological and political potential of his own community.
Last year Czech commentator Martin C. Putna drew an analogy between the Black movement and today's Roma questions in an ambiguous, charming, provocative piece entitled "We want a gypsy king" ("Chceme cikánského krále"). Whether one will turn up and get a chance to apply himself in this society, only time will tell.
Things are similarly uncertain (if not the stuff of utopia) here in the Czech basin with our hopes for a strong, visible civic movement built from below. We are operating in a completely different context from America in the 1960s.
The majority society here is dominated by apathy, aversion to civic engagement, and a voluntarily vacated public sphere that has its origins in the "normalization" era of the 1970s. What is missing is something like a "Czech dream" - a shared, long-term vision for the direction of this society, whether formulated at the level of a shared story, general ideas, or a concrete political program.
The left here is not one bit closer to a vision adequate to our era and international context than the right. The silence about the recent openly hateful actions is one symptom of this, while the nostalgic return to leaders from the 1990s on both ends of the political spectrum is another.
The latter symptom perfectly demonstrates the fecklessness of the current establishment. Neither Klaus nor Zeman has anything to contribute to this country, and new bearers of a positive political vision are not on the horizon.
We don't just need a "gypsy king" in the Czech Republic - we are experiencing a crisis of political leadership in and of itself. This too, is why it makes sense to return to Martin Luther King.
All of King's engagement is a textbook example of how to reshape critical moments into a constructive vision and actively involve both disadvantaged groups and the majority population in that vision. The basic ideals remain the same - freedom, justice, solidarity - but the concrete ways in which to fulfill them must always be sought anew.
This week Time magazine returned to King as an American "founding father" of the 20th century. Left-wing Europe can take plenty of inspiration from him for our current century, and the Czechs, understandably, are no exception - unless they want to remain imprisoned by the skirmishing over power pure and simple going on between those in the Castle and those living in its shadow.
Robin Ujfaluši edited the Czech edition of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr's texts, A Testament of Hope (Odkaz naděje), for the SLON publishing house. This piece was first written for the "Deník referendum" news server.
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