“Burying Jiří’s Ashes”

[Note from Christopher:  I won't say much about this piece, as it is self-explanatory. Call it an encomium, a memorial tribute. And suffice to say it's about the man who is largely accountable for how I ended up living in Prague, Czech Republic. The piece was published in several newspapers and journals, including The Prague Post in the Czech Republic and The Progressive Populist in the U.S.]

Jiří working in his Paris apartment, circa 1970s.

 
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — July 28, 2011

We buried Jiří’s ashes today. On a warm summer afternoon, in a cemetery under ancient trees. After all these years, he’s come home.

It was not an easy journey, or a short one. He fled Prague in 1948, escaping on foot over the mountains into Austria, one step ahead of the communist purges. There followed 63 long years in exile, in Paris and New York, living two lives under a double identity.

When I first met him in Paris in 1994, he was known as Paul Barton, an unlikely name for a Czech. He worked for the European office of the AFL-CIO and was planning to retire soon. In his 70s, he was not well. He smoked heavily, loved French wine and good food. His humor was ironic, the laugh wicked. I’d been brought aboard from the United States as his apprentice and replacement.

He apparently took a shine to me, a young man abroad for the first time, eager to learn, and soon after we became acquainted, he told his real name: Jiří Veltruský. Then, in bits and pieces, he told me his story.

As a university student in Prague, he’d been forced to leave school as the German occupation led up to World War II. He was later put to work in a weapons factory, where he became an underground trade union activist and member of the resistance movement, one of those Czech workers prone to sabotage who became a thorn in Hitler’s side.

When the war ended, Jiří returned to Charles University to finish his PhD in the philosophy of aesthetics—semiotics—with a special interest in theater. He became an assistant professor and member of the Prague Circle, a group of intellectuals, as well as a democratic activist.

All that came crashing down in 1948 when Stalin’s Russia made its final move on Central and Eastern Europe. Those Czechs who’d participated in the resistance and trade unions—in fact, anyone advocating western-style democracy—served as fodder for show trials, executions, prisons and labor camps. Jiří just barely escaped into Austria and made his way to Paris. His sole possessions were the clothes he wore and a book by the philosopher Edmund Husserl.

In Paris, he became a freelance journalist. Those were heady years, full of poverty and intrigue. He made weekly broadcasts to Czechoslovakia for Voice of America and Radio France. He wrote articles and books, served on a commission reporting on the concentration camps in the USSR. After using several pseudonyms, he finally settled on “Paul Barton,” a name suitable in French, English and German.

In 1962, Paul Barton moved to New York City as a representative of the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. He focused on economic policy and human rights at the United Nations. Those were dramatic years, too, full of high aspirations and hard work. And, finally, a regular paycheck.

After 1968, when he returned to Paris to run the AFL-CIO’s European office, he resumed his career as a philosopher, and thereafter led a double life. By day, he was Paul Barton, trade union activist. Nights and weekends, he was Jiří Veltruský, a highly respected and much published scholar in the field of semiotics and theater. Few in the labor movement ever learned of this second life.

The first time Jiří invited me to his apartment, I saw walls lined with bookshelves overflowing with books. The classics of literature, in French, English and Czech. I saw hundreds of books on philosophy and semiotics, on drama and theater, all worn from constant use. It was there, too, that I met his charming wife, Jarmila, another Czech who’d lived for decades in exile.

At Jiří’s and Jarmila’s urging, I visited Prague in 1994 and immediately fell in love with the city. The atmosphere was vibrant, still teeming with energy just five years after the Velvet Revolution. I returned to Paris with a much larger understanding of the world.

Jiří died shortly after from a bad fall down the stairwell in his apartment building. Jarmila was heartbroken. She and I became closer, and I learned even more about the remarkable life of the man known as both Paul Barton and Jiří Veltruský, whose ashes then rested in a funeral urn on the mantel.

I eventually left Paris and moved to Mexico. But upon returning to Europe in 2001, I made Prague my home. Jarmila visits often; we remain close friends. So when she came to Prague bearing Jiří’s ashes, she asked me to the ceremony at the cemetery of the Brevnov Monastery.

There, today, we laid Jiří Veltruský to rest.

His exile was long, the journey even longer. But finally, he’s come home.

*****

Jarmila, right, during ceremony. Katerina Veltruský, widow of Jiří

Jiri

“Democracy Under the Radar”

[Note from Christopher:  Czechs have mixed feelings about the U.S. They also have mixed feelings about their own politicians. Sometimes not so mixed, actually, because Czech politicians are notoriously corrupt, a legacy from all those years of state communism, which ended only in 1989. These politicians like money. So when the Bush administration offered to build a radar base in the Czech Republic, they wrung their hands… and asked how much money it would mean. The Czech public was less ambivalent. Lest you think anything changed when Barack Obama became president, think again. Obama, too, wants the radar base. After all, it’s not a matter of liberal versus conservative. It’s a matter of Empire. This 2007 column appeared in The Progressive Populist, a biweekly political journal based in the U.S.]

 

PRAGUE, Czech Republic—December 1, 2007

Vaclav Havel, playwright, friend of rock stars, and political prisoner under the Communist regime, is former president of the Czech Republic. He enjoys an international reputation for courage and noble character.

The current president, Vaclav Klaus, is an economist of mediocre abilities who passed the pre-1989 Communist era keeping a low profile and playing it safe. He also famously nagged then-president Havel, repeatedly, not to befriend rock musicians and other persons of low repute.

The two Vaclav’s don’t agree on much. Klaus, for instance, calls environmental activists “terrorists,” while Havel worries about climate change. But they do agree on one thing: the U.S. ought to build a radar base in the Czech Republic as part of the western empire’s global missile defense system. The political party in power—the centrist-right Civic Democratic Party (ODS), which would be a leftist party by U.S. standards—agrees.

Problem is, the Czech people by a large majority oppose the idea. And now that the CR is a democracy, the people get to decide. Right? Well, maybe. But probably not.

But before we get to current politics, let’s consider geography and history. The Czech Republic is a small country (about the size of South Carolina) with a population of 10 million (about the same as Michigan). Situated in Central Europe, surrounded by larger powers, the Czechs populated a region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918, then enjoyed a 20-year independent hiatus before Nazi Germany rolled in. After WW II—when the U.S. and Allies conceded this part of the world to the Soviet Union—the Russians took over. Then the USSR fell apart, and the Velvet Revolution of 1989 freed Czechs once again.

So, now for the politics. It’s fair to say that Czechs, despite a very old and very accomplished culture, are relative newcomers to democratic self-rule. They relish their independence. They are fairly skeptical of foreign powers showing up at the border offering to help. And they don’t enjoy the role of a soccer ball kicked around by superpowers.

So it’s also fair to say that Czechs don’t relish the idea of being part of any U.S. global military strategy. While George Bush may claim the radar base—along with its accompanying missile silo in next-door Poland—is needed to contain Iran, Czechs don’t feel much of a threat from that direction. On the other hand, past experience causes them to keep a vigilant eye on nearby Russia, while prudence keeps them from poking a finger in Russia’s eye. And therein lies the problem.

Would a radar base in the CR—that is, would a U.S. military presence here—be a safeguard against Russia’s growing muscle, strengthened by its oil and gas reserves? Or would it provoke Russia into throwing a vicious jab, such as jacking up the prices of exported oil and natural gas? After all, how much oil and gas can the U.S. offer the Czechs?

In short, the radar base asks the CR to choose between a crippled former superpower (Russia) and a superpower corpocracy that hasn’t yet realized how crippled it’s become (the U.S.). It’s a lousy choice the Czechs didn’t ask to make.

Not that Czech politicians openly admit this is an issue, much less a problem. Vaclav Havel, for instance, still feels indebted to the U.S. because he half believes Ronald Reagan brought down the USSR singlehandedly. So what’s a mere radar base in repayment? Whereas Vaclav Klaus has more complicated motives—too complicated to explain (even to Czechs). As far as he’s concerned, there hasn’t been a decent western leader since Margaret Thatcher, though George Bush did invite him to Washington to pose for a photo op.

But back to the people.

Until the Iraq War and sundry other cowboy craziness exhibited by George Bush, the Czechs had a generally positive view of the U.S. That view has declined here, as it has elsewhere around the planet. Bush has done what McDonald’s and KFC and even Paris Hilton could not in this newly capitalist country: caused a collective national shudder of disgust. Ordinary Czechs want no part of Bush. They don’t trust him, and they don’t trust his ideas, especially his ideas regarding foreign policy, and most especially when those ideas concern Czechs. So forget the radar. Please.

But elected politicians aren’t ordinary people, here or anywhere else. They see the broader picture. The national interest. They see spheres of influence. Globally. They see farther down the road. At least until the next election. And they see dollar signs. A radar base, plus people to run it, plus infrastructure, plus… well, you get the idea. Somebody’s gonna get rich, someone always does when the U.S. moves its military might around. And Czech politicians, a goodly part of them still under the influence of corrupt past practices, are notoriously corrupt. Just ask any Czech.

So the Czech people don’t trust the U.S. anymore, and they never have trusted their own politicians. But they’ll probably get the radar base anyway, and they know it. The politicians in power will do what they want. Which is what is best for their constituents, whether the constituents agree or not. After all, this is a democracy.

Sound familiar?

*****

“If You Can’t Take a Joke, You’ll Hate the Cartoon”

[Note from Christopher:  Back in 2006, when a Danish newspaper published several cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, firestorms exploded around the world. People died, buildings were burned. The publication of the cartoons and subsequent violence prompted a fierce discussion of what to do when fundamental cultural values clash. In this case, the conflict pitted freedom of speech against devout religious belief. And it caused me to write this column for The Progressive Populist, a biweekly political news journal based in the U.S.]

 

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – March 15, 2006

What began as a political assertion of free speech within the tiny country of Denmark has become a global-wide calamity. Economic boycotts. Violent street riots. Embassies burned. Ambassadors recalled. Protesters gunned down. Charges of racism, cultural provocation, imperialism, terrorism. . .

All that over a dozen cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad.

If it seems hard to swallow—this scenario of cartoons causing a global crisis—then it’s smarter not to swallow it. Because the story really is much more complicated than that.

The mainstream media takes in the U.S., where any event must be defined by a headline, miss the complexity of the story. The explanation in the European media—that this is the latest clash in the ongoing culture confrontation between Western secularism and Muslim theocracy—is perceptive, but not very useful.

What, then, would be useful? First, to understand why the Danes (and later, many other European newspapers) published the cartoons. Second, to understand why Muslims reacted so violently. Third, to understand how fundamentalists and extremists exploit such a controversy and drive it toward violence.

Let’s start in Europe, where the two world views of Western secularism and Muslim theocracy aren’t so separate anymore. About 5 percent of Europeans are Muslim immigrants; religion is important to them. Religion is less important in European cultures, which are essentially agnostic. Fatigued by hundreds of years of religious strife, this region birthed the Western Enlightenment and dumped theocratic institutions. Secular democracy represented progress. As Europeans see it, Muslim immigrants who now resist assimilation, who demand theocratic exemptions, are resurrecting ugly ghosts.

So when a Danish author confessed he was afraid to publish a children’s book on Islam, a Danish newspaper editor responded by publishing cartoons depicting Muhammad. In his view, freedom of expression must trump religious belief. Other European media agreed and published the cartoons in a show of solidarity (except for the British, who offered a convoluted rationale that seemed driven more by fear than logic).

In short, Europeans expect Muslim immigrants to adjust to European culture, not vice versa. If that makes the Muslims unhappy, well, there’s the door. And frankly, those Muslims aren’t eager to leave Europe. One look at Muslim regimes in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, and you understand why. Those countries are repressive, poverty stricken, undemocratic. Who’d want to live there given a choice?

Which takes us to the Muslim world’s take on the cartoons. The cartoons were offensive, most certainly. But the violence that erupted globally was—and is—mostly about something else. It’s about rage. Rage about massive poverty in oil-rich states where royal family members commandeer the wealth while hobnobbing with Western leaders. Rage about living under corrupt, repressive, non-democratic regimes. Rage about watching TV ads for products you’ll never afford, over feeling powerless as the days of your impoverished life pass by. And rage over knowing if you dare take to the streets in protest, you’ll be arrested, imprisoned, likely murdered.

Unless, of course, you ventilate your rage toward someone other than those directly responsible for your predicament. Doing that is permissible, even covertly encouraged. And certainly far, far safer. Muslims know that. So do Muslim fundamentalists eager to exploit the rage.

You’d think the secular West, led by the U.S., would respond by actively going after the roots of the rage, not just extremists who exploit it. But any western idealism is sacrificed to its economic dependence on oil from theocratic Islamic regimes. What? Lean on the Saudi royal family? Forget it. The one place where the U.S. has purported to express its democratic idealism, Iraq, doesn’t even address this issue. It’s an expensive side-show, a pork barrel venture.

As for Europe, for the moment it is struggling to resolve the clash of two world views within its own borders. The problem was imported. The Muslim rage from overseas is being resisted. European political leaders have refused to apologize for cartoons they say were published by a press they don’t control. Angry Muslims overseas don’t understand; in the regimes they inhabit, the media serve at the pleasure of theocratic governments. But most Muslims in Europe get it. They are adjusting. Given the choice between that and the door, well, it just isn’t much of a choice.

*****