40 Years Behind?
Andrew StroehleinI have often complained about the overuse of "my" and "nas" to mean "the Czech nation" in Czech public discourse. I am amazed at its frequency in the media and I simply cringe when I read or when people in the Czech Republic say "nasi Nemci" and "nasi Romove".
Sometimes I hear people say "Problém s našimi cikány je jako problém s vašimi černochy. " I always say "Žádné černochy nevlastním a neznám nikoho, kdo černochy má. Otroctví bylo zrušeno a teď jsme všichni občané." I know it is a bit drzy of me to be so blunt, but really it is nonsensical to use possessives when discussing huge groups of people. Of course, such discourse clearly shows how ingrained racism and nationalism are for some people. Recently, however, I came across something very interesting in this regard. I was reading an American book from the late 1950s, and to my amazement the well-educated author used terms such as "our American Indians" and "our Negroes". This set me thinking, that maybe the Czech debate on ethnicity, race and nationality is somehow "40 years behind" the dialogue in America. I asked some friends about this idea, and they thought that there might be something to it.
Musing aside, I do not actually subscribe to such thinking. For me it relies too much on historical determinism. Unlike Karl Marx and Newt Gingrich, I do not believe that every society must pass through the same "stages of history".
The level of public debate about ethnicity in the Czech Republic may be similar to public debate in America in the 1950s, but that does not guarantee that Czech society will follow a similar pattern in the future as America has in the past. The surrounding world is full of new ideas and new technologies that influence today's public debates in ways that debates 40 years ago could not be influenced.
Still, the way that America has dealt with and is still dealing with the problem of racism may provide some lessons to the citizens of the Czech Republic. One recent event from the American South is particularly interesting.
A few weeks ago, the white supremacist Ku Klux Klan held a march in Memphis, Tennessee. The event was charged with symbolism as it took place at the time of the national holiday formally dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. and in the city where that civil rights leader was assassinated thirty years ago.
At the march, anti-racist protesters outnumbered the Klansmen ten to one, and, although the police tried to keep the two groups apart, a scuffle ensued with the Klansmen apparently getting the worse of it. The police escorted the Klansmen to safety through a hail of bricks and bottles. This incident involving 50 or so white supremacists was in many ways just another simple skirmish in America's difficult struggle to confront racism in society. But one footnote stands out in this story and may prove telling: both the mayor who granted the Klan permission to march and the police chief who offered the Klan protection are both black. Their dedication to the basic democratic right of assembly was stronger than the temptation to play the racial card in local politics.
Returning to Central Europe, imagine that the Romani mayor and the Romani police chief of a North Bohemian city grant permission to a handful of die-hard Republicans and skinheads. The public protests vociferously at the march, but the principle of freedom of assembly is upheld by the two officials. Can such a scenario even be imagined today?
Human civilisation does not really pass through "stages", and there is no guarantee that the Czech debate on racism will follow the pattern of the American one. Still, the Czech Republic will know that it has passed a democratic milestone if anything like the above scenario ever comes to pass.