Archive for the ‘send in the Slavs’ Category

Glenn Beck, consider yourself on notice.

You denounced $500,000 in government subsidies to help the National Czech and Slovak Museum after it was hit by massive flooding in Cedar Rapids as one of your stupid, ill-informed examples of “waste” in how taxpayer dollars are spent?

$500,000 for exhibits at the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids — what about the Serb, Croatian and Albanian exhibits? Don’t we care about them?

While I’m a bit surprised you managed to name three separate East-Central European ethnic groups (I honestly didn’t think you were that knowledgeable), your snide rhetorical question lacks any logic.

Do us a favor: when it comes to a question about which you know little or nothing, just keep your mouth shut.

(Yes, I realize this means you’ll have to be silent pretty much all the time. That’s the point.)

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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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Many, many months ago I happened to become a “fan” of NPR on Facebook, probably by accident. (I think I was trying to click an adjacent link and instead unintentionally hit the “become a fan” link.)

I’ve never, ever in my life listened to NPR, mainly because I largely stopped listening to the radio way back in high school, once my parents put a CD player in my car, obviating the need to listen to the endless commercials, inane banter and crappy quasi-metal that increasingly dominated most of the “modern” music stations at the time. (By that point, if I had the radio on in the car, it was tuned to classic rock, since I knew there’d be less chitchat, and more importantly, by virtue of the station format I knew I wouldn’t have to suffer through lots of crappy music whose sole “virtue” was its “newness.”)

Anyway, since I virtually never listened to the radio at home (where I had an ample CD collection at my disposal), no longer having a car in college meant I basically stopped listening to the radio entirely.

It was also in college that I was exposed to the phenomenon of liberal-minded, highly educated folks name-dropping NPR in everyday conversation. After a while, I started to think I might be missing something, and I kind of regretted not listening to it, but it was a passive lament; I wasn’t about to start listening to the radio on a regular basis, even if I thought there might be something worth hearing.

Anyway, since becoming an unwitting “fan” of NPR, I’ve been getting various NPR stories and articles popping up in my news feed, which isn’t bad. Sometimes there are interesting stories, things I wouldn’t get elsewhere or might otherwise miss, and it’s nice in general to have another source of news, even if not a comprehensive one.

Regular NPR listeners always struck me as people of relatively like mind in terms of politics and worldview. They’re probably much more establishment than me, and more wedded to the Democratic Party, even if to its “progressive wing.” In short, they’re people with whom I should see eye to eye and find easy conversation and general agreement on a range of issues, and that’s probably always been the case.

Still, in recent days my generally favorable view of NPR and its listeners has soured a bit. For instance, last Tuesday there was a story about the outrage of conservatives in Egypt over an “artificial virginity device” designed to simulate the wedding-night bleeding of a virgin bride. I had read about this controversy elsewhere, but I was unprepared from the culturally condescending attitudes of some of the comments of NPR Facebook fans on the story:

“Hard-line Islamic and Arab values are an assault on women”

“I laugh at their insane stupidity”

“This is no surprise for a culture that still lives in the middle ages, considers a woman as less than a man, and an object to be bartered, traded, or dumped if she doesn’t measure up to whatever arbitrary standards a man decides to invoke.”

“As I was flying home last week on Egypt Air, I was reading the English version of the Cairo Newspaper, and on the front page was this story about this virginity device…at first, I thought that my sleeping pill was causing me to read this looney story, but then as I read on, I realized that Muslim women can be put to death in Eygpt for lying about their virginity…. I shook my head and said yet again “so glad to be lucky enough to have born in the USA”. I didn’t tell anyone about this story when I got home, for they would have thought that I made it up….NPR comes through for me!”

And so on. I understand the instinct to feel outraged at a society in which women appear to be second-class citizens. But it’s another thing to use so broad a brush in conflating Egypt with the Arab and Islamic world more broadly in condemning this behavior. I can’t claim any great breadth or depth of knowledge about either, but I know that there is considerable difference among Arab (and especially Islamic) societies, and more than that, I know that I don’t know enough to make blanket indictments of the Arab and/or Islamic world. I mean, if I were to learn of a case of a young woman of European descent living somewhere in the United States being discouraged from attending college or pursuing work outside the home so that she might find a husband and become a homemaker — certainly not a stretch of the imagination — I wouldn’t take that as an invitation to condemn the entire European and Christian value system that I blame for this sorry state of affairs.

Discovering that Orientalizing attitude disturbed me, though after thinking about it I decided it wasn’t entirely surprising. I kept thinking of the Phil Ochs song about sixties liberals, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and thinking these were probably just the equivalent people for the aughts.

Then, this afternoon, another NPR story caught my attention, one with the suggestive headline, “Slavic Soul Party: The Bayou Meets Bratislava.”

Naturally, seeing “Bratislava” in the headline, I was intrigued and clicked on the story, thinking it would have some Slovak angle.

Naturally, that assumption proved completely wrong.

Evidently Slavic Soul Party is “a New York brass band that takes inspiration from Balkan and gypsy music, but also funk and New Orleans traditions.” There are mentions of “Greek and Macedonian groups,” “Serbian brass” and an “experimental Balkan music movement,” as well as “traditional Slavic music.” But the closest anything comes to Bratislava is perhaps conflating “Slovak” with “Slavic.”

Perhaps this is just a case of the person who writes the headlines not being the person who writes the articles, and thus the headline writer is to blame. A perfectly plausible suggestion. It doesn’t make it any more excusable to think Bratislava is somehow located in the “Balkans” — maybe the headline writer was confusing Bratislava and Belgrade? Or Bucharest? — and it doesn’t absolve the responsible party from having this Orientalist perspective to think the Balkans begin roughly where the former Iron Curtain stood. Moreover, it makes NPR look bad as a news organization if it can’t even get basic European geography correct. (When I was in journalism school this kind of factual error would’ve be grounds for an automatic F, assuming the professor in question knew it was a mistake.)

Of course, even if the headline writer is to blame for this butchering of Eastern and Central European geography, the author of the story isn’t immune from similar mistakes born of cultural ignorance:

Of the nine players in Slavic Soul Party, only one has a real background in traditional Slavic music. That’s Peter Stan, a third-generation Romanian accordionist. When Stan takes a solo with this band, his roots show, but so does his delight in breaking with orthodoxy.

Romanians, of course, identify themselves not as Slavs but as descended from the Roman colonists of the empire, two millennia or so ago. They speak a Romance language (even if it has absorbed various Slavic words), and they would be quick to take offense if someone was to suggest they were Slavic. To say a “Romanian accordionist” shows his “roots” in playing “traditional Slavic music” is nonsensical. Or, at least it would be to anyone who knew better.

Obviously, it’s not entirely fair to pick on NPR and its listeners for demonstrating staggering ignorance of a region they probably envision as “Eastern Europe” or the “Balkans,” since the wider population likely knows even less. But it does make me realize how dilettantish all the involved parties can be.

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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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I absolutely love this cartoon by Martin Šútovec, an outstanding contemporary Slovak cartoonist. In fact, I love it so much that I’m reproducing it here and explaining quite laboriously and awkwardly the wordplay that makes it so humorous.

Komárno is for mosquitos

Komárno is for mosquitos

The cartoon is mocking the new Slovak language law (the Hungarian political scientist and MEP György Schöpflin offers his perspective here), which seems, at least ostensibly, to outlaw the public use of languages other than Slovak — hitting the Hungarian minority that makes up roughly 10 percent of Slovakia’s population especially hard.

In the cartoon, you have a mosquito standing next to a sign for Komárno, a border town on the route between Bratislava and Budapest, which has the Hungarian name Komárom, ergo the two signs on the post. Of course, the word “Komárom” also essentially means “to the mosquitos” in Slovak (it’s the genitive plural form of komár — mosquito). So, a Slovak might read the sign as saying “Mosquitoville for the Mosquitos,” or something to that effect. And this is why there’s a mosquito on the left.

Naturally, the notion of a Slovak town being for anyone but Slovaks is offensive to the Hungarophobic Slovak nationalists who support the thrust of the new language law, which is why you get the thuggish skinhead on the right looking enraged with his sign, “Slovakia for the Slovaks!”

My clunky explanation hardly does it justice, but this cartoon cracked me up, and it’s hilarious to anyone who knows Slovak, assuming you aren’t a xenophobe.

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