Pehe At It Again
Jiří Pehe, head of the Political Department of the President's Office, is at it again; this time in the pages of Slovo 17.3.98. Once again he has superficially attacked the society around him without knowing much about the people in it. Once again he has criticised that society without looking first at his own prejudices.
In his piece, Pehe repeats the common post-communist analyst's mantra of "civil society". The Czech Republic is not too good at creating one according to Pehe, and that will have to change when the country joins the EU. But despite the importance he gives it throughout his piece, Pehe doesn't actually offer the reader a definition of "civil society".
In the academic literature, so many authors have talked endlessly about "civil society", that a single definition may not suffice, but I will offer a definition relatively widely accepted in post-communist analysts' circles so at least the readers will know what I am talking about. "Civil society" is basically the social interaction that is neither on the individual/family level nor on the government/state level. "Civil society" occupies that social middle ground between those two worlds. In practical terms, it could be represented by anything from a stamp club to a political party.
Obviously, under communism this was the area of society that was almost completely eliminated as the government and party tentacles either reached into public organisations to control them or crushed them out of existence entirely. It is this middle ground that many analysts feel needs to be built up in post-communist societies in order for them to embrace democratic systems.
With a clear definition, one can look at Czech society and examine the state of civil society today, and actually, when you think about it, the Czech Republic is not really doing so badly in these terms. Look around you. There are Scouts, sports clubs, people talking openly in parks and pubs, groups of mushroom hunters, bee-keeping clubs and most importantly of all: people in the Czech Republic usually know their neighbours.
People also visit non-relatives with a very healthy frequency. Those visits are lengthy, and the discussion that flows during such a visit touches on every possible topic imaginable. I must point out that this is actually much healthier than in Britain and America, where people usually do not even know their neighbours and where people tend not to make as much time for personal visits.
Judged against the commonly accepted definition of civil society given above, any reasonable observer would have to say that the state of "civil society" in the Czech Republic is reasonably good considering the social, economic and political upheavals of the past ten years. Of course, one could say that it might be yet stronger and certainly political involvement should be greater, but that takes time, not an edict from above.
Civil society cannot be built "from above" no matter how much an influential intellectual in Prague wants it to happen. The citizens have to build clubs and associations themselves in order for "civil society" to have any meaning. As far as I can tell, the citizens have been doing this at a fair rate, so what is Pehe talking about?
In the last few years, Pehe has been trying to make a point about the alleged provincialism of the citizens of the Czech Republic and additionally about the alleged need for citizens to be cosmopolitan (presumably like Pehe is) in the new Europe (see, for example, his earlier articles in Slovo 3.2.97 and 7.5.97 as well as his article in Nová přítomnost in October 1996). This latest article in Slovo 17.3.98 is yet another assault in this highly pretentious line of argument, and the attack is as misdirected as ever.
If Pehe wants to criticise Czech provincialism and highlight the need for a cosmopolitan outlook, he ought to start with the language of his own articles. This latest article of his is full of "my" and "nas", and, as always, this is clearly the national "we" meaning "the Czech tribe" as clearly shown in the following sentence:
Pokud budeme i nadále akcentovat spíše prvky národního šovinismu na úkor principů občanského soužití, nebudeme nejen schopni soužití s větším počtem cizinců a romskou menšinou, ale obecně se nebudeme schopni vypořádat ani s multikulturním prostředím EU, které k nám vtrhne. (full sentence, my emphasis)
At first glance the words seem to be positively promoting tolerance, and that would be all for the good. But now look at the language. From the language of this citation and of article as a whole it is clear that Pehe is writing to and for "us", that is to and for "us Czechs", because the Roma minority is clearly excluded grammatically from the subject of the sentence. The Roma minority is separate and is not the intended audience of Pehe's call. "We" means the Czech tribe, not citizens in general for Pehe.
If he were talking about "citizens" and "civil society" as he superficially appears to be, why does this self-styled cosmopolitan exclude the Roma from "we"? Does Pehe assume that no Roma will read his article? Actually, it seems that Pehe uses such language because he cannot escape his own provincialism. The problem is not the alleged provincialism in the wider Czech society; the problem is the provincialism of Pehe.
If Pehe wants to do his share for the Czech Republic's entry into "kosmopolitizující prostředí Evropy", he would do better to stop criticising society in general and start looking at his own prejudices instead. The Czech Republic has been making real progress in the field of "civil society", but Pehe ignores this fact just as he ignores giving a definition for "civil society". The citizen-reader of Pehe's article is told that he must go through "revolutionary mental changes" in order for civil society to blossom, democracy to flourish and provincialism to be eliminated. To this concept of "revolutionary mental changes", one can only reply: you first, Mr Pehe.