A response to Jiří Pehe's comments
First allow me to apologise to the world and to Mr Pehe for calling him "nejnedemokratičtější komentátor v ČR". That was a silly exaggeration used to grab the attention of the reader and was written in haste at a time when I thought absolutely no one ever read my articles anyway. More importantly, I should not have attacked his character, which, having never met the man, I know nothing about. I should have kept to the issue and to his words, not the person.
This lesson has taught me that such attention grabbing shenanigans don't really work anyway, because it seems from the first paragraph of Pehe's current reaction, that he has not read my first article about his (and Neff's) views on the NATO referendum.
For the record, and the reader is invited to look at the article itself in the archive (pondeli 20. října 1997), I did not call Pehe undemocratic because he was against a NATO referendum. In fact, I clearly stated that there are many valid reasons for rejecting referenda within democratic systems. I objected to the reason that Pehe (and Neff) gave for rejecting the referendum. I objected then and I object now to the idea that a particular potential electoral result (displeasing to segments of the elite) could ever be any kind of justification for denying citizens the right to vote. I have repeated this line of reasoning so often recently that I feel guilty of boring the reader with it again (BL 13.3.98, BL 23.3.98, and BL 30.3.98). Briefly, my argument in all these articles is that some influential voices in the Czech Republic (Pehe, Neff, and Havel among many others) have been rejecting a NATO referendum for very dubious reasons. They have said that the decision to join NATO is too important to be left to the whim of a referendum; that it would be some kind of risky gamble ("hazardirstvm" in the infamous words of Havel). This, I have explained, is tantamount to saying that the people should not be trusted with important decisions. Such thinking elevates the position of a ruling elite above democratic considerations. By rejecting a referendum on this basis, one is actually arguing against the fundamental concept of democracy: that ultimate power always rests with the people. (I summarise my argument here greatly; I would ask the reader to see the aforementioned articles)
Arguments claiming that the referendum couldn't be organised in time or that it was not an issue which affected the sovereignty of the state were always very weak and transparent. I stated that most citizens saw right through these transparent arguments and this has been confirmed by recent polling data which show that people wanted a chance to express themselves in a referendum and felt cheated that they would probably not get that opportunity (STEM via CTK on 17.3.98).
It is clear to the average man in the street that a referendum on NATO could have been organised to coincide with the upcoming general election, for example. It is equally clear that talking about the sovereignty of the state was only ever an attempt at obfuscation because at issue was not sovereignty of the state so much as the sovereignty of each individual. The question is what are you willing to die for and what are you willing to see your sons die for, and such an existential question is fundamental to the each citizen's sense of identity and belonging.
My point is that a fantastic opportunity to unite society and rally citizens on a vital issue has been lost. A referendum on NATO would have demanded that each individual examine himself or herself and declare what he or she really believes in. Such a mass self-examination is precisely what is needed in a turbulent society that is trying to figure out its place in the world is what values it holds. That test, that challenge was denied to the citizens of the Czech Republic, and that is a great shame.
The amusing thing about this exchange is that both Pehe and I support the entry of the Czech Republic into NATO both in word and deed. I object to the logic behind his rejection of the referendum, not his position on NATO entry as such.
In sum, I did not criticise Pehe for rejecting a referendum. I criticised him for the faulty and undemocratic justification of his rejection. It seems from Pehe's reaction that he is not aware of what I have actually been writing. I invite him to read the aforementioned articles.
Pehe's effort in this recent reaction to hide behind other commentators and behind Havel himself is rather pointless. First of all, Pehe should be able to defend his position himself without reference to others. Second, the above mentioned articles of mine are full of direct and indirect criticism of other commentators who take the undemocratic line of reasoning that Pehe takes. Pehe's views are not unique, and I do not single him out in my other articles on the subject. I have also criticised Havel for adopting the undemocratic view. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Havel is not beyond criticism. The man makes mistake like any other man, and his reasoning on the NATO referendum issue is one of his mistakes.
As far as the discussion on "civil society" goes, I have checked all my articles very carefully, and I can assure the reader, that I never claimed the discussion of this topic was limited to the post-Communist countries as Pehe implies I have. I have said that many Western academics place an emphasis on "civil society" when discussing the post-Communist situation, and that "civil society" has become something of a mantra for many commentators in Central and Eastern Europe. Too often, such commentators do not clearly define what they mean when using this term, however, and too often they do not recognise elements of civil society growing right under their own noses. Just to be clear, I am referring here to many influential commentators and political actors in CEE not only Pehe.
I am glad to see that Pehe recognises the development of civil society in the last few years and recognises that it cannot be forced from above. From the original article in question, that was less than clear.
I think we will have greater disagreements over the issue of "provincialism". Contrary to what Pehe seems to think, I lived in Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic long before I began to formally study Czech society as a post-graduate student in the UK. Having lived in a small Czech town for many years, I am well aware of what some intellectuals in Prague and others at Western universities label "Czech provincialism" and "sebezahlednost". From my personal experience, however, I simply do not think it is really as problematic and even as extant as these intellectuals think.
From my personal experience, the citizens of small towns and villages in the Czech Republic are much less "provincial" than people in small towns in the USA and the UK. Citizens of the Czech Republic seem to me to have a good understanding of world events, world trends and they are relatively savvy to politicians' games. They certainly know more about European geography and politics than small town folk in the UK, I can assure you.
Also from personal experience, I know that many people in the Czech Republic absolutely resent commentators calling them provincial and inward looking. When commentators make these arguments, people simply turn themselves off, because they feel they are just being insulted. That is no way for intellectuals to communicate successfully with the wider public.
Again, I know Pehe is not the only person who talks about Czech provincialism in this manner. I know Havel speaks like this as well, and I have criticised Havel for it in other articles (BL3.2.98, though there is a linguistic misunderstanding in one subargument there). Everyone, even Vaclav Havel, makes mistakes.
One of my mistakes was not knowing that Pehe once had a conflict with some publishers over their replacement of his written "Cesi" with "my". It is too bad Pehe did not stick to his guns on that point because it is an important one. The issue does not just concern semantics but actually concerns the deeply-rooted concept of identity which Pehe elsewhere recognises as a key obstacle to the blossoming of civil society. I have talked about this linguistic sebezahlednost on many occasions (see my MPhil thesis and BL 16.2.98).
I agree that the terms "my" and "nas" in the Czech linguistic context do not always refer to the Czech tribe, but unfortunately they do rather often, and more importantly, they did in the original article in question written by Pehe. I would ask the reader to see the extended quote I analyse in my article (BL 20.3.98). There I criticised this language as itself provincial, inward looking and not conducive to re-enforcing the principle of citizenship above national identity, and I stand by that argument. I'm glad to learn that Pehe once followed this line of reasoning, as well. Too bad he doesn't now.
I did not intend to portray Pehe as a provincial Czech nationalist, and I said nothing of the kind. I was merely pointing out the incoherence in Pehe's argument by asking the following question: How can someone claiming to be so dedicated to cosmopolitan thinking continue to use language that only serves to re-enforce the concept of a multi-tribal society over a society based on citizenship. I then suggested that Pehe ought to address his own inconsistency before criticising others.
The fact that a Roma periodical does not take issue with the terms "náš" and "my" does not mean anything. It is very possible that its editors are so used to this style of language, that they do not recognise it for what it is. It is also possible that the editors there see the world in tribal terms and accept Pehe's article as a comment from the other tribe.
Na závěr musím říci, že je mi velice líto, že mé polemiky nevyšly ve Slově. Pehe má v tom pravdu. Bylo by lépe, kdybych mu mohl odpovědět ve stejných novinách. Poslal jsem svou reakci do Slova, ale bohuzel ji neotiskli.