Showing posts with label Vaclav Havel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vaclav Havel. Show all posts

Monday, June 18, 2012

Listening to dissidents

Manal Al-Sharif
A woman with the simple demand:
I need to drive in my daily life.
Before coming to Little Rock, I had had dissidents on the brain due to the first award of the Vaclav Havel Award for Creative Dissent. I was moved by Vaclav Havel and his friends' simple desire to live in freedom when I lived in the Czech Republic. Now, a generation later, I was fascinated by the lady who so eloquently described what the simple ability to drive in her daily life would mean to her. I find the idea that anyone would deny her that, unimaginable.
Dan Choi
Former U.S. Army Officer and
American dissident
who worked to end
'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,'
the policy demanding gays lie about their identity
while serving their country
I thought about Dan Choi, the gay West Point-educated Arab linguist, who had the simple desire to serve his country in the American military. He was discharged under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" for being gay at a time when our country could have used every single Arab linguist available.
Elizabeth Eckford's dignified and quiet demand:
"I want to go to a good school."
Live in freedom and safety, drive, serve one's country. Another simple wish from history, this time from Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957: go to a good school. Regular people asking their society to grant them dignity and equality. It's stunning what humanity puts them through when they ask for it.
Global Dissident Eve Ensler
demanding that people
all over the world
rise up and change the global paradigm
on violence against women.
Who are the dissidents pushing buttons in your country or culture? If they are pushing for change and meeting resistance, what is they want that seems so outlandish? How do you and I evaluate whether or not our own attitudes are on the right side of history? For example, I find the American political party, the Tea Party, often 'pushes my buttons.' But if you boil down their demands to one thing, "live within our means as a nation," that doesn't seem outlandish, does it?

I always want to make sure I'm on the right side of history. Their single demand deserves respect in my book, even though I don't always agree with how to get there.
6th generation Iowan and Eagle Scout
Zach Walls
demanding the State not discriminate
against his family
I leave you with the message of one last dissident asking for respect. He's from my home state of Iowa. All he wanted, was for Iowa lawmakers not to write discrimination against his parents into the State of Iowa constitution. His name is Zach Walls. Seems like a simple enough request, doesn't it?

What dissidents 'push your buttons' in your country? Do you agree with their cause or disagree? How do you decide whether or not you are a barrier to progress (one way to look at it) or a steward of traditional values (another way to look at it)? I ask to learn. This difference between these two ways of seeing things is at the heart of so much of our political hearthaches. Let's listen to each other.

I see what the people of Little Rock achieved when they thought of themselves as "us:" together they built the most beautiful high school in the United States of America the year it was built. When they chose to think of themselves as "us" and "them" what did they achieve?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Touring the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock, Arkansas

A typical Ozark road sign
We took a scenic route
It wouldn't do to fly back to America without spending more time with my girls than just graduation weekend. I picked their brains about what we could do that was in the area because who knew when we would be back in the center of America again.

Should we go to St. Louis and see the Arch? One of them had already done it. Go to Hannibal, Missouri and celebrate Mark Twain? My girls failed to see how that would be interesting (obviously, they need to read more Twain as he's hilariously funny). Drive the river road along the Mississippi? Go see the Eisenhower Presidential Library in Salina, Kansas?
The gorgeous Ozark Mountains
on the way to Little Rock, Arkansas.
They reminded me of the Lubéron in Provence.
All they need is their own Cézanne to paint them.
Of course, then the real estate prices would quintuple.
We settled on driving down to Little Rock, Arkansas to see the Willliam Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library. All three of us love American presidential libraries because they are so evocative of the times and teach us so much about the American political experience.
Small town riverside dinner view
in Allison, Arkansas
When I first visited my youngest daughter at Mizzou her freshman year, I couchsurfed with a fun couple in Columbia, Walt and Mary. I joked then that I would be back in four years when my child graduated. I was!
Mammoth Spring
See how the water springs up out of nowhere?
My girls and I took the route Walt recommended down to Arkansas because he had suggested such outstanding local history sites during my last visit.
One of the highlights on the trip down was stopping just across the Arkansas border to see Mammoth Spring State Park with a beautiful natural spring. My girls had both loved their geology courses in college and so it was fun for them to see the water come pouring out of the ground there.
The beautiful Arkansas river trail
perfect for runners and walkers.
Eventually it will be 17 miles long.
Isn't it beautiful?
Blessed to share
American democratic heritage with my girls -
like my Mom and Dad did with me
The William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library -
First Federal building certified by the
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design
(LEED) program
The next day we woke up bright and early to devote the day to the museum and library. I remember when the museum was first built, critics derided it for having the appearance of a 'double wide' mobile home. I snickered when I saw pictures of it on TV because it did sort of look like one.
Having been to it in person now, I consider that a cheap shot. President Clinton wanted the old historic railroad bridge, built in the 19th century, to represent the bridge to the 20th century. His library and museum, right next to it, represented his administration of America as a bridge to the 21st century. The metaphor works. Listening to him explain it on the audioguide, I was grateful for politicians who think in 100-year cycles rather than to the next quarter or election. Where can we find more of those?
There's that 100-year cycle again.
Diagonally across from the museum
is this magnificent old railroad station
where the University of Arkansas
Clinton School of Public Service
is housed.

Let's all say this gorgeous phrase together
from the building:
"The Choctaw Route."

Even more gorgeous,
the name of the passenger train
that did this route was:
"The Choctaw Rocket."
A glorious view of the Railroad Bridge
from "42,"
the elegant cafe in the library.

A pretend shiny dime to whomever can guess
why the cafe is named '42!'
Clinton's stump speech
What's not to like?
I was Bob Dole's Story County, Iowa campaign co-chair in one of his presidential campaigns. I admired Dole's wartime service to his country, his moderate Main Street Republican views, and his biting sense of humor. It was fun to host Elizabeth Dole for a coffee at my mother's home. That was when I was still a Republican.

Even though Gov. Bill Clinton beat Senator Dole in the presidential campaign, Bob Dole was later asked to give the Inaugural Lecture at the University of Arkansas Bill Clinton School of Public Service. I love that about American politics. I admire the stature of Bill Clinton inviting him to do so, and the equal virtue of Bob Dole accepting. As citizens, we should demand our politicians not polarize us and find the common ground.
It's easy to understand why librarians
would support Clinton.

He is a famous practitoner
of recreational reading
(reading for the fun of it).

The library showcased the books that influenced him.
One of them was "Creating a Nation of Readers."
A nation of readers can continually renew themselves.
I came around a corner
 and had my breath taken away
by this fine assemblage
of young American talent.
How can we not have hope for the future, America?

Their teacher told me they were the
"The Gentleman's Club,"
2nd and 3rd grade
from Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
Norman Rockwell, did I
"do good" with this picture?
Look at those faces!

Two future leaders
thoughtfully take in
a reproduction of the Cabinet Meeting Room.

The pace of change can seem so slow in America that I forget how much things can change in one generation. Examples from the library include: it was during the Clinton Administration that gay people were first eligible for security clearances. The introduction and benediction to Clinton's inauguration seemed so overtly Christian. America would be much more inclusive now. There were photos from the Little Rock school desegregation episode that said, "race mixing is communism." Laughable. Everything seems to get labeled communism or socialism these days. This is a long tradition of over-the-top political rhetoric.
Three stellar staff members at the museum.

The lady on the right told me
that she was halfway through a PhD
but never graduated from high school
because she was a member of the senior class
of Central High School that lost their senior year
when the Governor chose to shut the high school down
rather than integrate.

 2,914 other seniors lost their senior year as well.
Zany gifts to the Presidential family
 are always a popular exhibit at these libraries.
Hillary Clinton and a bench!
One of the things you could look up
 was the Presidential Daily Schedule
and see what the President did on any given day.
I looked up the days surrounding Vaclav Havel's State Visit.
The menu for the Czech Republic State Dinner
with President Vaclav Havel
The best description of this whole event is in
Hillary Clinton's book, "Entertaining at the White House."
While Presidents have to consider things on a level beyond the personal, one thing the Museum brings home is how the personal stories of those from foreign countries inform the President about their nations.

I know President Clinton knew far more culturally about the Czech Republic than necessary (given the 10 million population) simply because of his friendship with Vaclav Havel. Havel had taken President Clinton to the Reduta and even to Czech novelist Bohumil Rabal's favorite pub "The Golden Tiger." The pub keeps Clinton and Havel's picture on the wall.

Nelson Mandela gave the Clintons a personal tour of his prison cell at Robbins Island and described to them what it had been like there. Do Presidents still have the time to invest in that level of personal narrative in understanding a country? I hope so. The Robbins Island visit is detailed in the museum.

One thing I felt the Library and Museum couldn't do justice to was President Clinton's biggest success. His fiscal discipline resulted in the longest peacetime economic expansion in American history. That discipline unleashed a period of enormous creativity in American business. How do you exhibit fiscal restraint in a museum? Maybe the best exhibits of the output created during this time of fiscal restraint are out in the Computer History Museum in California!
President Clinton wanted his library
to echo the bones of
Trinity Library in Dublin.

My one disappointment with the library was the temporary exhibition space was devoted to promoting a corporation instead of hosting an exhibit that would teach us as citizens more about politics. I appreciate that the majority of the population loves sports, but what do the St. Louis Cardinals have to do with a presidential library? It seemed wierd that there were season ticket promotions as a sidebar to the Cardinals exhibit. Respectfully, our experience could have been that much richer with a political exhibit.
You might also like:

An Evening of Jazz at the Reduta

Entering the Land of Lincoln

What Inspires Stories?

The Springfield Race Riots of 1908

Sites outside my blog:

C-Span's coverage of Clinton's Presidential Library

William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library website

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The perfect tribute to Václav Havel : the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent

The Goddess of Democracy
from Tiananmen Square
circa 1989
Václav Havel and the Czechs inspired my 'Empty Nest Expat' adventure. I knew people who could elect a playwright as President were different in a way I couldn't define than me and my countrymen. The Czech Republic seemed like such a delightfully highbrow non-warlike society. I wanted to learn all about the Czechs by moving overseas and seeing what they were like.

To this day, I'm inspired by Václav Havel. This week, I discovered that one of the most beautiful tributes has been created to honor what he did so well: creatively dissent from the State.

Havel, for years a dissident at odds with the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, led the challenge that eventually overthrew the regime, and consequently, he became the first President of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

Many credit Havel with the fact that both the Velvet Revolution resulting in the overthrow of Communism and the Velvet Divorce separating the Czechs and the Slovaks were violence-free.

The inaugural Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent will be awarded to Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, Saudi women’s rights advocate Manal al-Sharif, and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

I am particularly delighted that Saudi citizen Manal al-Sharif has been recognized. At a time when human beings have walked on the Moon, it seems so strange that other human beings still aren't allowed to drive a car on a particular part of our planet just because of their gender.

Showing breathtaking courage and speaking plain common sense, Manal al-Sharif posted a samizdat video of herself on Youtube driving in Saudi Arabia while she described to the camera all the different reasons a woman needs to be able to drive to fulfill her different duties. The video was swiftly removed. I was one of the 600,000-1,000,000 people who got to see it before it was gone. Awed by her courage, I also thought her reasoning was undeniable.

Manal al-Sharif is an internet security consultant in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia working for Aramco. I predict someday she'll have her own statue in her nation.

These three Havel Prize laureates will receive an artist’s representation of the “Goddess of Democracy,” the iconic statue erected by Chinese student leaders during the Tiananmen Square protests of June, 1989.

To learn more about the prize, here is the web page.

To see additional posts about Václav Havel

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Checking Out the History of Dissidents: New Vaclav Havel Library to Open in 2013

A Force for Good
Vaclav Havel

Modeled after the American Presidential Libraries, the new Vaclav Havel Library will be a repository for Vaclav Havel's published works and unpublished papers. Unlike Presidential Libraries, this Library will carry the samizdat of years of repression and the official papers of years of expression.  The unique gathering of that collection makes for an interesting juxtaposition and the final triumph of Prague dissident voices from repression - to rule  - to Presidential level archives. It's a fairy tale, really.  A political fairy tale.

Click on my title to read more about the project.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Czech People Overlooked Yet Again for the Nobel Peace Prize

I am sure that 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo of China is a brave and amazing person who puts mere mortals to shame. However, it made me sad this year to hear that yet another year passed without Vaclav Havel receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.  It would have been so moving for him to receive the most prestigious decoration humanity offers  - last year - when the Czech Republic was celebrating the 20-year anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.  It could have been one giant festival of appreciation between President Havel and the Czech people who helped him transform their nation.

Instead of using the prize as a carrot and a capstone for a statesman's career, it seems the Nobel committee wants to use the prize as an accelerator of change, demanding almost through recognition that winners and their governments conform to what the Nobel Committee thinks should happen.  This cheapens the prize in my opinion because it switches it from honoring the noblest and bravest among us to having a political motivation.

Last year, when Barack Obama won, I was offended, because I felt that as President he would need to make decisions that could be at odds with the Peace Prize goals.  It felt manipulative to me, as an American, that the Committee would try and influence the course of his Presidency while it happened.

My emotions conflicted, though, because I recognized that anyone who voted for Barack Obama could feel a bit of pride in the Nobel Committee's contention that no one of that particular year had done more to change the landscape than Barack Obama.  Since he had been in office such a short time, the American people could be proud that we had changed the landscape with new leadership.

I remember when I got on my half-full bus at 6 a.m.on that bleary day, I shouted out to the whole bus "how about that Peace Prize?" I was living in Madison, Wisconsin at the time where there was close to a 100% certainty that anyone on a bus in that town had voted for the President.

The Peace Prize selection glory reflects to those who followed.  No one can be a prophet without followers. Vaclav Havel was the statesman he was because the Czechs chose to follow him.  Barack Obama was elected President because the people of America chose to follow him.

Vaclav Havel's moral authority transitioned the country from Communism to freedom without violence and retribution in the Velvet Revolution and again to the stand-alone Czech Republic during the Velvet Divorce with Slovakia.  How fraught those giant changes were and how much worse they could have been!

Even in retirement, Havel's moral authority can slice through rationalizations made in the name of strategic interests. Once, meeting with an American reporter for an interview, he asked,  "Is it true Barack Obama cancelled his meeting with the Dali Lama?" (presumably to pacify China's leadership).  Havel demonstrates the courage it takes to speak truth to power when your own country's is less.

America is comng to the age where our power will be eclipsed in size by China.  Havel's success in keeping true to his values while navigating this size differential between the Czech Republic and the former Soviet Union is an example the whole world can learn from as the globe copes with China's rising, and frequently bullying, power.

One measure of a leader is how institutionalized the changes he embodied becomes;  yearly, the citizens of the Czech Republic set new attendance records at the internationally-famous "Jeden Svet (One World) Film Festival in Prague, devoted to human rights around the globe.  Czech people, having lived through totalitarianism, have a sophisticated understanding of oppression that is rarely found anywhere in the Free World. Havel, and the citizens of the Czech Republic, have something to teach all global citizens about what it is to speak truth to the larger power.

As I understand it, Liu Xiaobo and his fellow Chinese dissidents who created Charter 08, were inspired by Vaclav Havel and the Czech people who were signatories to Charter 77.  Would a science Nobel go to a scientist whose work was derivative of another's theory? Wouldn't the committee honor the original thinker of the idea? Shouldn't Vaclav Havel receive a Nobel for inspiring freedom in the Czech Republic but now also China? It seems he is becoming worthier and worthier.  Is there not time to honor that young man and not much time to honor Vaclav Havel?

Saturday, April 10, 2010

An Evening of Jazz at the Reduta

 At the Reduta Jazz Club

All of this "Obama in Prague" commotion, took me back to a wonderful memory from "Obama in Prague" weekend last year.  My President had just arrived in Prague, it was the night before his big speech and the entire city was jazzed.  What would be a better thing to do than to go hear some jazz?  Actually, that's what the last democratic American president did when he was in Prague in 1994.

A display of photos from that special night in 1994
of the "Two President's Gig"

Vaclav Havel took Bill Clinton down to Prague's most famous jazz club, the Reduta, and therein a night of magic was created.  It's gone down in history as the "Two President's Gig."  President Havel presented President Clinton with a saxophone.  In this small intimate club, so tiny it could almost be someone's rec room, Bill Clinton played "Summertime" on his new sax.  Czech musician Jan Konopásek, now living in Florida but keeping a home in Prague 1, had also created a piece of music that was a blend of the two nation's hymns.  It was played.  Our Secretary of State at the time, Madeline Albright was also there, which was fitting since she has Czech roots. This evening was beyond statecraft.  This was friendship.

 I knew President Obama wouldn't be there on the eve of his speech.  Lightening doesn't strike in the same place twice -- or at least so I'm told.  But I had a very special invitation from Czech bandleader and clarinetist Pavel Smetáček to come hear his Traditional Jazz Studio band play at the Reduta on a breathtakingly beautiful springtime evening.

 Reduta Bandstand

The evening to me was a celebration of deep roots.  Pavel Smetáček's band has been in existence for 50 years.  When you think of how fashions in music come and go, and personnel come and go, and then you add a totalitarian regime harassing musicians on top of all that -- it's hard to underestimate the accomplishment.

The crowd forming - 
music begins at 9:30 p.m.
Pavel Smetáček's band was not the only Czech jazz institution to have lasted for so long and with such a grand reputation.  The Reduta jazz club has also continuously operated as a jazz club for 50 years as well.  Sometimes I think jazz is celebrated more here in Prague than at home! What wonderful memories Pavel must have created over the years at this club.

Vojtech Hueber
Announcer for the Evening

So there was not only Pavel's 50 years of musical leadership present, and 50 years of Reduta jazz history present, there was also the incredible long-standing friendship between Pavel Smetáček and his friend Vojtech Hueber, PhD present. Spending time with them, it's obvious to see how lucky these two men are to have each other as friends.

Vojtech, associated with Czech Radio's jazz department, also has a lengthy career history in international affairs.  These men have their love of jazz to discuss and also global politics.  Pavel helped represent the Czechoslovakian government with new democratic faces after the Velvet Revolution, having served as the Ambassador to Italy in the early days of democracy.

 The dreamy Smetáček brothers.
Pavel on the left, Ivan on the right.
this picture is better.

Pavel on the left, Ivan on the right,
and me chillin' with the dreamy Smetáček brothers!

Oh, and one other long-standing partnership was on display. Pavel's brother Ivan, was also present that evening.  Ivan played the trumpet for years and no longer plays since his embouchure has taken a well-deserved retirement. Both Pavel and Ivan carry themselves with an urbanity quite uncommon in today's world. Can we bring it back?

 I asked Pavel, "where did you learn to be so elegant?"

"From my father, Václav Smetáček; he was a symphony conductor.  He died in 1986 at the age of 80.  He was known for his handsomeness."  He wrote a piece of music for Pavel's band called "Ragtime Echo."

 I haven't met Pavel's son Stěpán, representing a third generation of musical leadership, but he has his own modern band called the New Orchestra of Dreams (Pavel plays traditional dixieland jazz although he says he's a "tolerant traditionalist!"). Dasha, Pavel's wife, is a flautist.  She played in Pavel's band for 10 years.  She now teaches and has a chamber music ensemble with flutes and cellos.

The depth of all these connections was moving!

The band began to play with a power that just blew those of us in the front row away.  Wow, I want to be like this when I'm his age.  It was so fantastic.  They started off the first set with the song Nobody's Sweetheart. and continued with:
Careless Love,
Some of These Days,
I Can't Give You Anything But Love,
and Oh, Lady Be Good.

I was touched when Vojtech introduced me to the crowd as a special guest of the band.  While many of the people were local, quite a few in the crowd were Asian tourists.  Would I be as hip to their fabulous music if I went to their countries?

The trombone player was adorable.  Anytime he did an extended solo and the crowd clapped he did this very cute "aw shucks" schtick that did not get old. He not only played the trombone, he had a trombone 'kazoo' that he would bring out for fun.

The second set, the band played:
All of Me
Pennies from Heaven
Burgundy Street Blues (arranged by George Lewis)
When You're Smiling
Strutting' With Some Barbecue

The third and final set the band played:

I've Found a New Baby
C-Jam Blues
St. Louis Blues
Sweet Georgia Brown 

I especially appreciated hearing St. Louis Blues because one of the seminal jazz moments in my life was hearing Count Basie's band accompany Joe Louis on that number in Nice, France when I was 17 years old. I remember it like it was yesterday! It was yesterday, wasn't it?

Band members on stage:

Armin Reich - drums
Ondřej Cernil - bass
Antonin Bílý - piano (not pictured but jamming in full force!)
Jaroslav Zelený - trombone et al.
Vitězslav Marek - trumpet et al.
Jan Chvosta - tenor sax
Pavel Smetáček - clarinet

Pavel and Vojtech also gave me some tips on who I should listen to in European jazz. I'll keep those recommendations to myself.  I wouldn't want to say anything that harms a diplomatic legacy.   Thank you gentlemen, for an unforgettable evening of music and terrific fellowship!

You might enjoy this earlier post about Pavel's band:

I Could Have Danced All Night

Sunday, March 28, 2010

'Soul Of A Citizen': Barack Obama and Vaclav Havel, And When Small Steps Yield Unexpected Fruit

Recently I saw the Czech movie "Twenty-One Spokespersons of Charter '77." What a great film for showcasing the singular courage individuals had to possess to work for change at a time no one thought change was possible.  In the film, Vaclav Havel said that Western reporters would always come and interview him and then tell him that what he was trying to do was impossible.  You are only risking your life, they intimated.  The balance in power is too great.

A grateful Czech nation is glad he ignored that advice.  He did not work alone to create change.  As more and more Czechs not only didn't believe in the totalitarian system, but grew willing to show their lack of belief,  Charter 77 evolved from dissident protest group to celebrated speakers of truth to power.  I was struck by one of the spokeslady's comments in the film.  As she watched her fellow citizens congregate in Wenceslas Square to protest, she went home.  She said "her work was done and she was no longer needed."  Aren't you grateful for courageous citizens like that?

A recent essay on the Huffington Post celebrates these people who take small steps to yield unforseen fruits.  What steps are you comfortable taking to change your society?  Are you one of the early canaries who sing in the coal mine or are you more comfortable helping later when a movement picks up steam?

Has one person's political risk-taking and actions ever inspired you? Who was it? What did they do? How did they open your mind?

Have you ever felt passionately about an issue yet kept quiet?  How come? What kept you from expressing how you felt?

Two issues that inspired me to activism in my own country were protesting the Iraq War to my elected officials, including my-then United States Senator Barack Obama. What was depressing about my letters is I read them five years after I wrote them early in the war and nothing in the situation had changed.  I could have sent them again and just changed the date.  I'm grateful that my Senator was finally elected to the Presidency to change all that and he has.

The other issue that inspired me to activism was our recent health care debates in America.  It took zero courage on my part to call my elected officials over and over and over again.  It merely took time.  But when the President of the United States said afterwards "thank you" to everyone who ever made a call or worked for change on health care in America, I found it deeply meaningful.

Click on my title to read the essay on Paul Loeb's book "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in Challenging Times." 

Friday, October 23, 2009

Havel Recalls Days of Revolution

The 20th anniversary of that bloodless regime change known as the Velvet Revolution occurs this year. Click on my blog post title for memories of some of the revolutionaries involved, including President Havel. This article made me realize what I don't know about the Velvet Revolution. Why did the Slovak people feel unaccommodated during this time? What happened then that fed into the Velvet Divorce between the Czechs and Slovaks later? Teach me, Central Europeans.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Vaclav Havel laments "consumer palaces" throughout Czech Republic

It's an interesting question that Vaclav Havel's latest interview brings up. He says post-communist Czech society is 'worse' than he expected. Czech people, if you had an idea of what a post-communist society would be like, what was it? Is this it? Do you agree with Vaclav Havel that the lack of moral underpinning in an atheistic society is a real problem?

I don't understand why there aren't more politicians in the Czech Republic like Vaclav Havel. Today's Czech politicians can seem really silly. He seems like such an anomaly.

Just as an aside, the article states that Czechs tripled their gross domestic product from 1995 to 2008. Czech people, you rock.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Addicted to twitter

Yikes, I've been on the thing like...a week. I'm already addicted. It's awesome. Mr. Tweet is awesome too. I'm really enjoying Jane Fonda, Jack and Suzy Welch, Ruth Reichel, Mark Bittman and a bunch of other foodies. Vaclav Havel is on there but he never updates. Who else should I follow in the Czech Republic and the EU besides my regular pals(who are already digerati w-a-y before me)?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

A Table for Tyrants

What is the antidote to cynicism? Action.

In this New York Times editorial, Vaclav Havel takes action by demanding that the human rights organizations dissidents in countries with poor human rights records would look to for help -- actually be able to help them from a position of moral authority and credibility. Click on the title to read his recent editorial.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"We are here because enough people ignored the voices who told them that the world could not change!"

What's Latin for "they came, they saw, they charmed?" That's what President and Mrs. Obama did when he spoke to the Czech people on April 5th, 2009 on a hazy Sunday morning at Hradcany Namesti (Prague Castle Square).

Beginning with Czech history from Chicago (something well-known to Czech people and hardly known outside of Chicago within America), President Obama shared his Chicago roots in a way that charmed the Czechs and Americans like me in the audience. He honored Czech people for things they love about themselves and by extension, that Czechs teach foreigners to love about them as well: their humor, their high level of culture, their "unconquerable spirit despite empires rising and falling, and the "revolutions ... led in arts and sciences, politics, and poetry. "

My very favorite part of the speech was one I did not expect. When he was establishing connection with his Czech audience, President Obama talked about the improbability of him serving the United States as President and of Czech people being free to live their lives in democracy:

"We are here today because enough people ignored the voices who told them that the world could not change."

What a perfect thing to say to a nation of skeptics who don't believe that democracy will change anything, who don't believe that corruption can ever end, and that don't believe their politicians will stop arguing and start governing. President Obama was asking Czechs to believe. It was easily the most moving part of his speech.

He was asking them to recognize their own power as citizens and visionaries if they organize and work for and believe in change. After all, it was their first democratically-elected President, President Vaclav Havel, who proved that "moral leadership is more important than any weapon." Believe, Czech people, believe!

He did not come here to argue the merits of the proposed missile defense system to the Czech people. He aimed much bigger than that. He came to propose a nuclear-free world. Now if any other politician proposed such a thing in a speech, I have to admit, I would roll my eyes that he expected me to believe such a Pollyanna vision is possible. But if there is anything I have learned about my President is that he accomplishes things that others might not even dream up. This is a man who had his credit card denied trying to get into the Democratic convention in 2000 in Los Angelas just so he could attend and eight years later was the nominee of his party. I'm not discounting the possibility that he could actually do it.

He broke the whole idea of eliminating nuclear weapons down to manageable short-term goals, any one of which would be an accomplishment in it's own right. Godspeed, Mr. President.

He even labeled the Czech Republic as a being in the heart of Central Europe, not Eastern Europe! Americans labelling the Czech Republic as "Eastern Europe" drives Czech people crazy. We Yanks can't help it, we still have that Iron Curtain line in our heads. When I talk to Czech friends my age, I realize they do too. It is a new generation, born in freedom, that has a new reality. Major charm points, President Obama. Thanks for coming to the Czech Republic!

There are great photos of President and Mrs. Obama in Prague on the White House blog dated April 9, 2009 at

Friday, April 3, 2009

President Obama will speak to the most vibrant part of Czech democracy: the people

Vaclav Havel was quoted in the Prague Post as saying "what bothers me most [about the government falling] is that it deepens the alienation between politicians and society." Truer words were never spoken.

Czech people are mortified that their opposition politicians chose to use this moment during the Czech presidency of the European Union to bring down their government. Also, two weeks before Czech people have a fantastic opportunity of having their views represented to the President of the United States of America when the administration is new and formulating policy on missile defense, opposition politicians kept it from happening by voting that this government doesn't have the confidence of it's representatives.

While watching the opposition bring down the government, I couldn't help but think of the bad mom in Solomon's story who wanted no one to have the baby if she couldn't. So if you're a foreigner looking at the Czech Republic from the outside, and you see this weak government and you see the Czechs squander their legitimacy as presiders of the EU, you may think that this isn't a strong democracy. You'd be wrong.

The President of the United States is going to end up speaking to the strongest leg of the triangle in Czech democracy. Not the Prime Minister, not the President, but the people. Czechs are educated, interested, and involved in their politics. They don't ignore them like many Americans used to do stateside. Now Czech democracy just needs some politicians worthy of the people. One Czech friend lamented, "we lost an entire generation of political elites. The ones we have now just fight."

I hope foreign journalists notice how in just twenty years these people have created a vibrant economy that is one of the strongest in Eastern and Central Europe. I hope foreign journalists notice how the Czech Republic is attracting immigrants from all over the East who are coming here for opportunity. I also hope foreign journalists take notice of how strongly Czech people express their grass root opinions through demonstrations. That's democracy!

The "body" of Czech democracy is healthier and stronger than it's "face." There is incredible opportunity here for a politician who doesn't play stupid power games and brings a government down just because it can.

Who in the Czech Republic is going to choose to responsibly represent the people in a way that has them feeling the enthusiasm we feel in America for our current leadership? Can it be done here? Skepticism and cynicism on the part of Czech people are just hunger for someone or something to believe in!

Related posts:

I sooooo don't understand parlimentary politics!

Dear President Obama, Please Come to the Czech Republic

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jeden Svet: One World '09

This is the 200th post on my blog! Since what I like to blog about is cross-cultural issues between America and the Czech Republic, it seems appropriate to devote my 200th post to celebrating the Jeden Svet '09 Film Festival now occurring here in Prague and outlying cities.

You know how there are some things you only do when you're out of town and aren't so harried? I realized there was a perfectly exciting film festival near my home in America and I never got around to going. By all reports, the fledging Beloit International Film Festival in Beloit, Wisconsin was fantastic. It was only 17 miles from my house. Here I am, out-of-town, so to speak, and I finally got off my butt and went to see some movies!

This is the 11th year of this film festival devoted to human rights. There are 120 documentaries from over 40 countries. In 2009, the festival has a wonderful subtheme celebrating 20 years of Eastern and Central European democracy in film. Indeed, the festival trailer (which you can link through by clicking on the title of my post) shows former Czech President Vaclav Havel helping in the maternity ward as a new generation of Czechs, born in freedom, arrive in the world. The Velvet Generation comes of age. What will they do with their freedom?

And as I looked around at each venue, it was the young people who had shown up for the films. The first movie I attended, directed by a Canadian, was called "Letters to a President." It showcased the cheap populism of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. People in Iran write him over 10 million letters a year asking him to solve their problems. Every letter is answered, which on the face of it, sounds like responsive government. It came across though as him setting himself up as a Messiah-like figure and the people, many of whom are lacking a decent education, being grateful for any little crumb. Not educating the populace is quite often in the interests of world leaders.

I also went to see "The Death of Stalinism in Bohemia" and "Paper Heads." "Paper Heads" is an especially useful movie for expatriates and young people to see because it shares what life was like under communism in the Czech Republic. Watching the movie, you can see how if you were a Czech back then, when the West had sold you out at Munich, and the Soviets were the ones that liberated you from the Nazis if you lived in Prague, communism just didn't seem like the threat we saw it as in the West. The Soviets probably saved your life.

Once communism was in place though, it was completely inhuman to those who objected. It's hard to look back and think of all the angry, nasty history that occurred here. It just doesn't square with the beauty I see around me every single day.

The festival continues until March 19th.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Entertaining President Havel at the White House

Here at the Empty Nest Expat blog, I occasionally can't resist trying to be useful. The librarian in me, rabidly interested in politics, would like to recommend to anyone in the Czech Government who will help host the new American Secretary of State and President Obama in April, finding a copy of Hillary Clinton's wonderful book called "Entertaining at the White House."

There's a chapter that describes the State Dinner that she and Bill Clinton planned and pulled off for Czech President Vaclav Havel. The details of the dinner capture all of the hopes of America for the new Czech Democracy led by Mr. Havel and the lengths America went to show it's respect. It's a delightful and fascinating read.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Bipolar Society

Last month I happened to be having dinner with a Czech politico who's political abilities were as apparent as Arnold Schwarzenegger's ability to do a bicep curl. "How come you're not serving in elected office?" I asked.

"This is a bipolar society right now. I have perfectly capable friends who have run for office and lost. It's better to be in an appointed position until the country sorts out which direction it's taking."

I was fascinated by this observation and have since seen he's right. This is an exciting time politically in the Czech Republic because the country is assuming presidency of the European Union for the next six months. The presidency rotates among member nations.

Czechs are proud to be only the second post-totalitarian country to have this honor. I see pride among people as they imagine how their politicians should solve EU problems (the Russian gas crisis, the European position on Isreal and Gaza) while their country is in charge. It makes me wonder if more stuff will get done because every country faces an arbitrary six-month deadline with which to make it's mark.

Yet the president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Klaus, is the one who creates either enthusiastic yeas or equally enthusiastic denunciations of embaressment among Czechs.

I've heard people appreciate him for saying what he believes regardless of result. One friend mentioned how much he appreciated how hard-working Vaclav Klaus was. "Vaclav Havel just let all the prisoners go when communism was over. Some of those people were real criminals, not just political prisoners. Vaclav Klaus reads every single file to see if the person locked up is a political prisoner who deserves a pardon and release or a real criminal. That's hard-working."

Yet other Czechs are deeply embarrassed that Vaclav Klaus wouldn't show up for a artistic performance celebrating the Czech takeover of the European Union, that he considers global warming a fraud, that he makes such a point of letting everyone know he thinks he's the smartest guy in the room. According to the New York Times, even communist secret agents were struck by Klaus's arrogance when they infiltrated his classes:

“His behavior and attitudes reveal that he feels like a rejected genius,” the agent noted in his report, which has since been made public. “He shows that whoever does not agree with his views is stupid and incompetent.”

It will be interesting to watch how these six months unfold for the Czechs. It's a wonderful feeling to be detached from their politics and not have strong feelings. As an American, I'm just getting used to the idea that I can relax a bit about my own country's politics. Someone I approve of is in charge. That is such a great feeling.

Link to the title to read the entire New York Times article about President Klaus.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Saturday Profile: Vaclav Havel

The New York Times featured Vaclav Havel today as their Saturday profile. He has a new play debuting called "Leaving." It sounds like an interesting articulation of the unintended consequences of power.

Vaclav Havel makes me appreciative of Czechs and Czech culture because his actions are incredibly admirable and brave. He modestly poo-poos this sort of admiration saying "oh people looking from afar may see a fairy-tale hero."

I disagree. My admiration encompasses the entire country and it's culture because the Velvet Revolution was not the actions of just the one man leading it. It's the entire country that fired the piercing bullet of moral authority, not gunpowder, when the Revolution happened. If that is not the best of humanity, well, I don't know what is.

Link to the title for the full article.
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