Archive for the ‘possible homes in exile’ Category

There’s nothing that raises hackles like some stupid nationalistic law trying to compel patriotism.

This week it happened in Slovakia, where the ruling left-wing/nationalist coalition passed a “law on patriotism” that requires students at all state schools and universities to sing the national hymn at the beginning of each week, as well as promoting the Slovak flag and other national symbols.

The new law isn’t universally popular within Slovakia, where people in some quarters are complaining about the effort to mandate this kind of patriotic ritual.

Moreover, the law is raising alarms among Slovakia’s neighbors. In Austria, an editorial this week responded to the patriotism law by describing Bratislava as “Pyongyang on the Danube.” I haven’t seen any reports about the reaction from Hungary, but it’s pretty clear that the language law, which looks like yet another sop by Prime Minister Robert Fico’s left-wing party Smer to the right-wing Slovak National Party, notorious for its baiting of Slovakia’s Magyar minority (as well as the Roma population).

Of course, it’s also interesting to see the backlash to the law, then to think about how American schools arguably take it further. I think we said the Pledge of Allegiance every day I was in public school, though I suppose there’s no federal law requiring recitation of the pledge, as far as I know. Then there was that whole period in fourth grade, during Gulf War I, when Mrs. Banks had our class signing Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” almost daily.

I guess, again, the operative difference is the element of legal compulsion. Still, it’s not like most schoolchildren are really old enough or informed enough to decide for themselves whether they want to participate in such nationalistic rituals.

Plus, it would be hilarious if, for instance, the Globe and Mail took to referring to D.C. as “Pyongyang on the Potomac.” It has a ring to it.

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It’s a red-letter day for Slovak aviation security officials, who committed a big boo-boo in planting and failing to remove explosive from passenger baggage.

It seems that someone got the bright idea to test the baggage screeners by placing explosives in eight suitcases. In seven of the eight cases, the explosives were detected and removed before ever reaching the aircraft. But in the eighth case …

A bomb-sniffing dog found one of the two explosive components, which was removed. But the dog’s handler was evidently too busy to be arsed to remove the second component.

As a result, 96 grams of plastic explosive went in the suitcase of a Slovak electrician flying from Poprad-Tatry Airport in Central Slovakia to his home in Dublin.

Of course, no one bothered to inform the poor electrician that his bag contained explosives. And the explosives were so well hidden that the man didn’t find them after unpacking his bag.

It must have been quite the experience when a bomb squad from the Irish Army came knocking on his door yesterday morning to search for the missing explosives, then police detained him for several hours, thinking he was a terrorist, until the Slovak police explained he was just an unfortunate victim of their ineptitude.

I have to say, it sounds like there isn’t nearly the sort of furor we’d see if this kind of incident had involved the United States in the slightest way. I can’t even imagine what sort of stupid measures TSA would implement in overreacting.

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Perusing the headlines on Sme, I ran across a report about how McDonald’s is rebranding itself as “green” in its German restaurants.

No, they’re literally rebranding the chain as green. As in, the red in the classic red-and-white Mickey D’s color scheme is being changed to green. Those golden arches will now stand before a green background.

From the report, and the little bit of German I parsed in the story from Financial Times Deutschland, there isn’t much substance to the rebranding campaign. The McDonald’s vice president for Germany simply said it’s a matter of “respect for the environment.” But it’d probably be more respectful if the fast food chain took steps more concrete than simply adding a new coat of paint.

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The main train station in Prague, once and again officially called Wilson Station in gratitude to the American president credited with championing the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the Great War, is getting a new sculpture of Woodrow Wilson.

Not without a fight, though.

Sculptor Michal Blažek won the competition and exhibited a scale model of his winning entry today in the area in front of the train station. Originally there was a statue of Wilson in that space, but it got removed during the Nazi occupation, and the bust of Wilson made its way into a storeroom of the National Museum down the street.

Now, the winning entry (in this case Blažek’s) is supposed to use a cast of the original bust in the final product. However, the National Museum couldn’t loan the bust to Blažek because previously it lent the bust to one of the sculptors who didn’t win the contest, Oldřich Hejtmánek, who made a cast of it for the ninetieth anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia last year.

That’s where today’s events got interesting.

For reasons that remain unclear to me, Hejtmánek was on hand at today’s festivities. Blažek called Hejtmánek a “thief who stole the head of the president” — that sounds like the title of a trashy paperback — then punched Hejtmánek before fleeing the scene.

Blažek (center, in red), tries to fend off two journalists after felling his rival, Hejtmánek, lying in the background after being felled with a punch

Blažek (center, in red), tries to fend off two journalists after felling his rival, Hejtmánek, lying in the background after being felled with a punch

This bizarre tale would get even more interesting if only somewhere in the train station or National Museum there was a statue of Wilson from the shoulders down, wearing a sad sign asking, “Have you seen my head?” a la the early Simpsons episode, “The Telltale Head,” where Bart cuts off the head of town founder Jebediah Springfield.

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Sme has an interesting story comparing Slovaks and Czechs in conjunction with tonight’s World Cup qualifier between Slovakia and the Czech Republic, a game that could see the Slovaks eliminate the Czechs while taking another big step forward toward their first World Cup.

Needless to say, the article is a lot more interesting than the NYT piece a couple of months back about how Slovaks purportedly live in the shadow of their Czech neighbors.

For instance, Slovak women living in the Czech Republic find their native language to be an advantage because Czech men evidently think Slovak sounds sexy. And other Slovaks report that when they go to Prague, Czechs ask them to speak Slovak because they miss getting to hear it. The converse isn’t necessarily true, since Slovaks have more exposure to Czech through popular culture, whereas Slovak is slowly becoming a more “exotic” language to Czech ears more than sixteen years after the breakup of Czechoslovakia.

The main takeaway, though, is that Slovaks and Czechs get along quite nicely, thank you. And any rivalry is pretty friendly.

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The good: the NYT has an article about Slovakia and the ongoing rivalry between Slovaks and Czechs (always nice to see some mainstream U.S. press on a topic vaguely pertaining to my research).

The bad: the article is probably oversimplifying things or overlooking key points (like the fact that the breakup of Czechoslovakia was relatively amicable and that Slovaks and Czechs still generally like each other).

The ugly: it’s a misinformed piece that also perpetuates some maddeningly inaccurate stereotypes about Slovaks.

Take, for instance, the “illustrative” photo that accompanies the article.

Slovakia: A little bit twenty-first century, a little bit nineteenth century?

The NYT’s caption describes this scene as “Slovaks walk past a polling station in northern Slovakia during elections for the European Parliament in June.” It strikes me as inappropriate on so many levels. For one, this is the first time I’ve ever seen a horse-drawn cart on the streets of Slovakia (though admittedly, having spent most of my time in its major cities, I’m unlikely to have come across the more rural and agricultural areas where such a scene would occur). I also find it amusing how the picture says, at least to me, “Look at how backward those Slovaks are — they’re still using horse-drawn carts to transport grain!” And yet, if you notice in the background, one of the buildings behind the cart is a kino or movie theater, a decidedly modern form of public entertainment, even if it’s not an American-style multiplex (which you can find in most Slovak cities).

Of course, the picture is also patently stupid — there’s no other adjective to describe it — since it evokes this idea of Slovakia as a land before (modern) time, yet the ensuing article mentions how successful Slovakia has been at attracting foreign investment, especially auto manufacturing, making it the “Detroit of Eastern Europe,” in the reporter’s phrase. It’s hard to imagine the NYT choosing to run a photo of a burro pulling a ramshackle vegetable cart alongside a story about the “Detroit of Detroit,” because that would be an obviously false and misleading juxtaposition of the modern and industrial alongside the premodern and preindustrial, even though Detroit is suffering from all sorts of urban blight — far more than Slovakia’s major cities.

Granted, the reporter can’t be blamed for what some idiot photo editor back in New York thought would make for a good visual. But if you want further proof that editors choosing pictures and writing headlines aren’t closely reading the stories in question, this would be Exhibit A.

Still, while the reporter, Dan Bilefsky, gets a pass on the photo, his article isn’t much better when it comes to dispelling common Western stereotypes of Slovakia.

Take, for instance, Bilefsky’s extended lead, which recalls the angry Slovak reaction to the way Slovakia was depicted in the Czech sculptor David Černý’s work “Entropa.” Sure, Slovaks didn’t appreciate being represented as a Hungarian salami.

But Bilefsky makes it sounds as though the Slovaks were the only ones outraged with “Entropa,” and the only ones urging the Czech government to apologize. Bulgarians were pissed about being depicted as a toilet. There were plenty of unflattering stereotypes being peddled as part of Černý’s goal of provoking a discussion of national stereotypes of the twenty-seven EU states.

Then there’s Bilefsky’s baffling characterization of the current Czech-Slovak dynamic as one of “ambivalence of relations between Slovakia and its richer, larger neighbor.” Frankly, if various opinion polls from the sixteen years since the split are any indication, there’s probably still more ambivalence over the decision to break up rather than any lingering tension between Slovaks and Czechs. I saw some survey data a couple of years ago that basically showed both peoples feeling they were worse off with the split while the other nation had benefited from it. There might be ambivalence, but I’d question whether it’s the sort of ambivalence Bilefsky seems to have in mind. After all, Czechs routinely name Slovaks as their favorite foreign ethnic group and vice versa.

Likewise, I don’t really get the sense that Czechs are lording over the Slovaks about the declining euro, since the Czech crown is hardly faring any better. And I would guess it’s probably a big disappointment to the Czechs (at least the non-Euroskeptics among them) that Slovakia adopted the euro first (and many other post-Communist countries remain in position to get there well ahead of the Czech Republic, which might well take until 2020, according to the projections of some Czech political leaders).

And while it’s true, as Milan Šimečka observes, that Czech culture remains more prevalent in Slovakia than Slovak culture is in the Czech Republic, the important point is that this is also a rather market-driven process, since there are roughly twice as many Czechs as Slovaks. Foreign TV shows and films are much more likely to be dubbed into Czech because most Slovaks can understand it anyway, whereas Czechs don’t have the same level of exposure to Slovak and the Slovak language. While the exchange of culture and influence remains skewed in favor of the Czechs, this is still a two-way street. Especially in Moravia, the eastern half of the Czech Republic that borders Slovakia, you find a lot more cultural proximity to the Slovaks than you’d find in Prague.

Plus, while some of the old mentalities remained entrenched — Czechs are probably still inclined to view Slovaks somewhat dismissively as “little brothers” while Slovaks probably still have a chip on their shoulder that inspires them to try to one up the Czechs — relations are probably a lot better today, after the breakup, than they had been for quite some time, since there’s no longer the mutual distrust bred from Czechs who thought they were subsidizing Slovakia and Slovaks who thought the Czechs were ruling over them.

I recall in December 2007, when both countries joined the Schengen Agreement the week before Christmas, there was a ceremony on the Slovak-Czech border with the Slovak prime minister Robert Fico and, I believe, his Czech counterpart. At the ceremony to dismantle the border, Fico said something to the effect that the barrier between the two peoples had always been artificial, and that it had never really been internalized.

Slovaks and Czechs might have had their differences in the past, and they might have a friendly rivalry today, but I think Bilefsky’s article is really overstating the salience of this rivalry for both sides.

On the other hand, maybe I shouldn’t be disabusing the American media of this notion of Czech-Slovak rivalry. After all, if I can get Americans thinking there are ongoing hostilities between the two peoples, it would probably enhance my job prospects. Though not as much as if the Slovaks and Czechs started shooting each other, which is probably less likely than a war between Canada and the United States, if “Canadian Bacon” and “South Park” are any indication.

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It’s a little late, but I just came across this brilliant observation from a friend’s blog about the Mozart-Eurovision connection:

Past visits by Mozart (see above) appear to inoculate a country against selection to the Eurovision finals (Germany, France and England have automatic bids) and in some cases (Luxemburg, Italy, Austria), even from desire to enter.

Mozart’s cultural and musical influence remains strong a quarter-millennium later. Who knew?

Kudos to Kevin Deegan-Krause for this new insight, and also for the courage to brave the Eurovision Song Contest finals. You, sir, are a man of great fortitude!

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