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December 14, 2019
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Czech presidential candidate said three years ago that Roma justifiably feel surrounded by barriers

21.12.2016 16:43
Michal Horáček. (PHOTO: Saša Uhlová)
Michal Horáček. (PHOTO: Saša Uhlová)

The following interview was conducted in 2013. Earlier this year Michal Horáček announced he will run for Czech President in 2018.

On the occasion of International Human Rights Day 2013, the Czech Helsinki Commitee and the ROMEA civic association have designed a series of interviews with leading publicly active figures. Our first interview was with Czech Senator Eliška Wagnerová, and now we are publishing our interview with Michal Horáček.

Cultural anthropologist, lyricist, person interested in public affairs, poet, publicist, writer - all of this and much more describes Michal Horáček. He is a famous, publicly-active figure.

His song lyrics reach many people, but he is also famous for his civic activities. Together with Michael Kocáb, during the revolutionary ferment of November 1989, he estbalished the MOST initiative, which set and achieved the aim of "facilitating what was then unthinkable:  Communication between the communist Government and representatives of the dissident movement", as Horáček puts it on his website.

We spoke with him in his study about cultural anthropology, the differences between cultures in relation to human rights, the coexistence of the majority society with Romani people, and the "mental riffraff". Speaking about Czech society's approach to other cultures, Horáček said: "We so-called white men keep invading everywhere and feeling an absurd superiority because of it. We still have that in us, even though today we are actively fighting it, because of what we read when we were children about savages and the developing world."

About Romani people, he had this to say: "When I reflect on it, when I imagine myself in the situation of marginalized Roamni people, my blood runs cold. We all just have one life. Each of us wants to spend it in dignity, to try to do something with our lives, to have various experiences, somehow. If somebody were to prevent that for me, they would be taking away the most important thing any human being has - life."

The Samburu tribe and anthropology

Q: You graduated in 2011 after beginning to study again after the age of 50, in anthropology. From your fellow students I know that you actually made an honest job of it. Was it difficult to again immerse yourself in studies at your age?

A: Strangely enough, it was much easier for me than it was at the traditional age for being a student. When one is 20, many things distract one from what we think of as honest study. Back in 1970 the normalization era was beginning, that was heavy. People who had created something pretty decent at the department of journalism and social sciences during the 1960s had to leave academia again, and journalism studies ultimately ended up as a school for propaganda, which I didn't want to study in the least. So to return to my studies now seemed much easier to me, because during the intervening decades I was able to read a lot. My fellow students who were younger hadn't managed to read as much yet. That was the first thing. I also had motivation, I wanted to finish my degree. The third thing is that I had a social advantage. The others had to hold down jobs, make a living, or one colleague had a child she had to bring with her sometimes. I could make a big deal of how difficult it was, but I had nothing but advantages.

Q: You have traveled a great deal all over the world, did that influence you somehow when you chose your field of study?

A: When I began studying I hadn't traveled that much. Especially not to more exotic countries, where one actually today can still encounter different cultural circles. This is how it was:  I finished my Bachelor's degree in 1998 and I didn't know what to study next, and I randomly ran into Docent Pinc in the hallway, and he asked how I was. I said: "I'm fine, but I don't know what to do next." He said to me: "You must do anthropology, I remember your letters from the 'Love and Hate' column in [the magazine] Mladý svět, and that's basically a kind of cultural anthropology, that will be good for you" - and he left. I didn't know, at that time, what anthropology even was, I imagined it meant measuring skulls, physical anthropology. When I got to know the field, I was absolutely captivated. It's a beautiful field, a wonderful one.

Q: When you traveled after studying, did it influence you somehow? Did you travel differently?

A: That's precisely how it is. I did not choose anthropology because I traveled somewhere, but vice versa. What anthropology gave me, and what is most important and nicest about it, is that it acknowledges other people as different, that it respects their difference. We so-called white men keep invading everywhere and feeling an absurd superiority because of it. We still have that in us, even though today we are actively fighting it, because of what we read when we were children about savages and the developing world. It's been planted in us by all the Captain Corcorans and Jules Verne. My studies greatly aided my being able to encounter other people with respect for their difference.

Q: Did you use what you learned on your travels for your academic work?

A: For a long time I couldn't decide whether I should write my thesis about the Samburu tribe, who live in northern Kenya, and whom I visited many times. I have excellent contacts there and I have many hours of film footage. One of their astrologers, a local informal authority, told me how the Samburu see the creation of the world and other matters, which may never have been recorded before. That would have been nice work, but it seemed to me that if one doesn't speak the local language, it wouldn't be absolutely honest to attempt an interpretation. It would be very superficial. I would have even tried to learn the Maa language, but there are no textbooks for it. Anthropology has to be done 100 %. You should live there, be with those people, experience everything with them. Not be a smartass in the great outdoors whom they've sent from Foreign Ministery. Anthropology also had an era, starting with the time of the Jesuits, when it was powerful. The reason to study other cultures was so that those in power could at least symbolically rape them (and very often, not just symbolically). Ultimately I chose a different topic to write about.

Q: Do you believe it was precisely going back to school that changed your perception of superiority, or was it knowledge from living your life? In your writings you discuss the problem of aid, that aid isn't necessarily assistance when it's not offered in a spirit of partnership, but paternalism.

A: That probably was already in my mind, but it was all mixed up. When I read those ideas formulated by good authors, I didn't have to think for even one second about what they were writing. I said to myself: That's it! During socialism I experienced that, I was at the very bottom of society, I was on the invalids' team, I was a gambler and my family was absolutely horrified by my very existence. I was different, I have personally experieced this. All of my relatives were able to be so-called "decent", and the price they paid was that they joined the Communist Party or the unions. They were doctors, they did a lot of good work. I experienced personally, just a bit, the difference of being the marginalized person, and it always helps when you know something not just from books, there has to be a life story behind it, something experienced, suffered. Otherwise it's not impactful.

Human rights and conflict between cultures

Q: What do you believe about the universal dissemination of human rights, which are frequently in conflict with various cultures? Respect for foreign cultures can contravene the rights of entire population groups in any given culture. The example that occurs to me is that of women in strictly patriarchal societies, or the caste system in India. How do you believe Europe should approach this?

A: That's a big question. It's difficult. As Vaculík says, as an intellectual I am able to argue both sides simultaneously, and basically I haven't finished that argument with myself, but the question pleases me all the more because of that. The example I would give you is female circumcision among the Samburu. This is something that to us is unimaginably cruel and unnecessary. Now there are white missionaries there saying:  "You can't do that, that's not the civilized world, you're savages, don't be savages". However, this is something they believe and say they want, not just the men, but the women too. The women told me: "Two or three of us refused it and they ended up in Nairobi as prostitutes, caught AIDS, and here you see the result. This is something that in our culture is a centuries-old tradition. Nobody can recall a time when this was not the case, it's always been like this, and whatever has always been is correct. This is a component of our identity, we want this, we consider it to be correct." You can respect this by telling yourself that they consider correct something that is, for us, absolutely frightful. I don't know the answer to this. Actually, I even believe that all of anthropology is problematic. Once an anthropologist enters the life of a community, he or she changes it irreversibly. Many times he or she becomes like a judge, for example. The others come to the anthropologist with questions about how to resolve matters. The anthropologist will address that in his or her own way. It's just problematic to be an anthropologist in a community like that.

Q: In the Czech Republic, human rights are frequently reduced to a foreign policy topic. The social aspect of human rights is ignored - social exclusion, poverty. When we say "human rights", many people imagine China, Cuba, Russia. Why do you believe that is?

A: That projecting of human rights into the foreign policy agenda is even more problematic than it seems. Once I experienced a meeting with Václav Havel prior to the Olympic Games in China. We discussed that the games should be boycotted, or that at least some protest should be made during the procession. Even though everybody was attuned to the idea of boycott, I warned them that it would be much more complicated than they believed. A moment later, that was proven. There were some Chinese women present, and they said to us: "For us this is absolutely horrible what you are saying here, what Tibet are you talking about? What rights? This is like if somebody here were to talk to you about the Sudeten Germans, that's what this is like for us. For us, China is normal. This problem is tearing our identity apart. You are Czechs, you had a similar problem, and we have one too. It doesn't work for you to tell us what we are supposed to do with Tibet." The Tibetans, of course, are speaking up for their rights. It's the same as if there were Sudeten Germans here who had managed to survive expulsion. Suddenly you see how horribly complex it is, but somebody here in Prague has an opinion and believes it's universally valid. Human rights in and of themselves are something absolutely new in the history of the world, in cultural and political history. This concept is not at all axiomatic - we consider it axiomatic, but it is not. It's an innovation we are working with - I espouse human rights, I want things to be that way, but on the other hand, as an anthropologist, I must say that it's a problem. I, naturally, do not want people to be suffering in Cuba, but many of my friends who travel there don't see it so unequivocally. They say people there are basically rather happy. They don't want to be under American rule. They may prefer being poor to being under American rule. How am I supposed to say anything at all about this without deeper knowledge of the issue? For me, this is a problem. Be that as it may, if I had to say "yes or no" to human rights, I'd say yes. I am a part of our culture, I have experienced something in my life, I was glad when French President François Mitterrand invited the Czech dissidents and, on the basis of respect for human rights, took the Charter 77 people seriously. If I have to say "yes or no", then I say yes to human rights.

Coexistence of the majority with the minority

Q: The number of people is growing who live in impoverished ghettos. These places, moreover, have a particular ethnic character. Last year we witnessed frequent demonstrations against Romani people that were convened after local interethnic conflicts, either actual (but banal) ones, or fabricated ones - in Břeclav, in České Budějovice, in Duchcov, in the Šluknov foothills. How do you explain this? Can this development be reversed somehow?

A: First I must say that I don't have enough information about this to make any assertions. In cultural history, we very easily encounter, in almost all eras, one group that the majority scapegoats. Frequently the Jews have been in this position. Sometimes a culture resolves a situation by saying "it must be the ram's fault, let's cut his throat or drive him into the desert", but most of the time they blame a marginalized group of people who are visually distinct. They have a different religion, different rituals, a different skin color. This is always latently present in society. Especially when the feeling intensifies that society is not developing as we promised ourselves it would, as we wish it would. If the Roma weren't here, somebody else would probably be in their place. Another matter is that coexistence between the majority and the minority is actually problematic for both sides. That is not invented, this problem actually exists.

Q: Should this go along the path of emancipation, on the model of the African-American movement in the USA< or gradual integration up to and including assimilation? Which of those two routes is more likely to lead to conflict-free coexistence?

A: I am a pessimist. Even though many people are dedicated to this, I have never read any recipe for this that I might agree with. People talk about being left-wing or right-wing, but I am a liberal. I believe that all members of the polity should always have the feeling that they don't have too many barriers preventing them from living a dignified life, from being able to actualize themselves. Romani people in our country do have barriers in their way, they are justified in feeling that way. That feeling of theirs is not deceptive or fabricated. If I were to imagine myself as a Romani man in Roudnice, and that they would have stuck me in a special school because I couldn't speak Czech well, or because I didn't have the same habits as everybody else, my path would have been clear! I would never have discovered I was meant to be a cultural anthropologist or a director or a doctor of something. I would never have believed I could achieve that. Society would not have given me an equal starting line. Nobody ever gets exactly the same starting line as anybody else, but that ideal exists here and we are supposed to be trying to draw closer to it. In the case of Romani people in our country, though, we are not even close. The second problem here is symbolic. Society has not let Romani people know that they take an interest in them. Society tells these people "Get to work". How am I supposed to do that, if I were a Romani man from Roudnice, without an education and with a different skin color? Anywhere that man goes, everybody says: "Hey, a Gypsy!" That must be infernally frustrating and humiliating. At the very least, there is a need to change that symbolically. It is a frightful shame that Lety is still not yet resolved. It doesn't matter how much it costs, whether one billion or three billion Czech crowns, it's terribly important that our country resolve it. We must come to terms with it and say: We neglected this. It's not possible for somebody to just go there once a year and give a speech. They shouldn't talk anymore, they should do something. All that talk is just crap that doesn't cost anybody anything. The example of the African-Americans is a good one. They were in a similar position, maybe even worse because there was slavery there. However, suddenly we see African-American judges, physicians, a black President. That's fantastic. The Romani people in our country lack that. I think the blame is partially on them for that, they aren't generating role models, despite all the barriers. Many years ago I was on the Superstar competition jury. I really wanted one of the Romani boys to win. The majority population cast their votes for him. They wanted, maybe even secretly, somebody like that to win. It wasn't just Romani voices saying that. There is a certain hope here, a preparedness to say:  That guy's a badass. All of the marginalized groups have begun with their music, one has to start somewhere. Then they become athletes, but gradually after decades, they are judges and surgeons.

Q: There's probably a bit of a problem there. When somebody is black, he can't just get out of it. Identifying as Romani, though, is a question of choice, to a great degree. Not all Romani people are so dark-skinned that the majority society would clearly identify them as Romani. I know rather a lot of them who have stopped identifying that way once they graduated from college and began doing interesting work. If those people would stand up and say "I'm a doctor", "I'm a lawyer", certainly it would be a great inspiration to others. Is it our place to want them to do something like that?

A: No, we can't insist on that, but we can wish for it, we're free enough for that. I wish for it. It won't be possible for these people to inspire others without that, and without it those who say "No, it's not worth it", are the ones who will inspire them. A question occurs to me that I wanted to ask you:  Who, basically are the Roma? When we hold the census, we learn there are a couple thousand of them here only.

Q: Romani people generally do not like seeing their ethnicity listed somewhere because of their historical experiences with such lists. Espousing their Romani nationality might be unpleasant for them. This is a question of identity, in my view. We don't each have just one identity. Each of us has many identities, they are situational, which means that in various situations an identity can take on a different importance. For example, children from mixed families, or partially assimilated ones, can strike their Romani relatives as being more like ethnic Czechs, but then at school, they can seem more like Romani people, or vice versa. That is why there is not an unequivocal answer to the question of who is Romani.

A: I get it that Romani people don't love their ethncity being listed somewhere and I agree that it isn't easy to say who is Romani, but when Romani people have a problem with their own identity, then it's difficult to create political pressure on their behalf. It's difficult to enter into the political environment on behalf of somebody or something else in that context.

Q: Do you believe it can be positive to promote ethnic identity?

A: It is certainly a good thing, because otherwise you will be given the label of socially inadaptable. People will call you "below the poverty line and inadaptable". That's like having some kind of defect. You're walking around with a defect. I have to say that the environment where I live is very racist. I must use that word. It's not about lack of trust or about problems, it's racism. Harsh racism. I can imagine that if somebody assaults somebody else and the perpetrator is Romani, whether actually or just allegedly, then in Roudnice will happen what has happened in Duchcov, in the Šluknov foothills. It's smoldering.

Q: What kinds of problems are there in Roudnice?

A: We have a new town square with a fountain and trees, and we have a big problem with the children who go there, they are Romani children and they damage it there. Because I always want things to be better, I always fix it up. Whenever something is broken, when there is a need to install a sidewalk, I commission it from the Romani firm that is local. The conditions are the same as they would be for anybody else, but I give them the job, and it works. There is a need to do something concrete, not just make academic declarations. One Romani gentleman there has a beautifully turned-out house. In their community it is the custom - and it's a nice custom - that when it's good weather they bring benches outside and sit there and the others come over and there are a lot of them together. I was living across the street from him and I hadn't repaired my house for about 10 years, and once I was walking past and the Romani gentleman called to me: "Come here, please, is that your house? You should fix it up." I was glad. That's how it should be. Once we have more such stories, there will be some hope.

The Internet and the mental riffraff

Q: The Internet, online discussions, social networks, e-mails - these all serve us for communication, for information, they certainly have many positive aspects, but they can also function as platforms for disseminating hatred and racist hoaxes. Do you believe we can say that the Internet is playing a negative role in this sense, or is it just reflecting the atmosphere that would find some other outlet in society anyway?

A: I think it's both. It's a kind of spiral and one supports the other. If you search online on the term "Gypsy", you will see terrible things there. Video footage. Somebody who's drunk and falling down in front of a supermarket. If such a person is a so-called "white", then you "won't see" anything like that, but when it's a Romani man, you will notice it. Footage posted with all those commentaries. I don't like using the word riffraff, but this is the mental riffraff. I can imagine them sitting on the square and shouting "Execute them!"

Frustration can unfortunately spark fire

Q: Are there some eras, some constellations of social order, when there are more such people, or where their dark side displays itself more?

A: I assume that this frequently happens during times of uncertainty. Now we are in such an era. We basically aren't, as an entity - a nation, or a society - much in danger. There is no occupation by a foreign power here, there is no earthquake, no epidemic like the Spanish flu was. When there were such twists of fate in the past, the minorities always began to suffer immediately. When there was plague in Europe, it was said that the Jews had poisoned the wells. The more such circumstances grow, the more people tend toward such explanations. For the last several years they have begun to tend that way, with the recession and the loss of faith in the idea that the transformation was fair here. That has spread throughout all of society, justifiably. It is possible that the more frustrations grow, the more, unfortunately, will grow the opportunity for a small spark to cause a fire - one fire in Budějovice, another somewhere else. Suddenly there will be somebody to take one's anger out on. Naturally if you add not just the Internet, but the Úsvit (Dawn) movement, whose leader says the kinds of things he says... that's evil. It's more dangerous than it seems.

Q: Xenophobic rhetoric is growing in the normal political parties, it's not just the domain of extremist groups. How do you explain that?

A: This is partially in the politicians already, they think that way, they never watch what they say. On the other hand, people who go into politics do have radar for what seems good to their potential voters. They have sensed that the atmosphere in society is such that xenophobic statements always encounter silent agreement at the very least. They score points. It would be very brave to make some radical proposals to restrict the actual marginalization underway. However, almost nobody will dare do that, because everybody suspects that it would not score them political points. That's already bad. When I reflect on it, when I imagine myself in the situation of marginalized Romani people, my blood runs cold. We all just have one life. Each of us wants to spend it in dignity, to try to do something with our lives, to have various experiences, somehow. If somebody were to prevent that for me, they would be taking away the most important thing any human being has - life.

Saša Uhlová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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kulturní začleňování, Racism, Roma, Rozhovory s osobnostmi ke Dni lidských práv 2013



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