Professor Jařab & the Velvet Revolution: “Freedom is a Sleeping Beauty”

By Lauren Rogers

As students of Europe, we like to believe we have a good grasp on the history and political development of the continent. Too often, however, we have been educated from a singular perspective, one that rarely includes the perspective of what we have labeled “the East”. The tragedy of Central Europe, as Milan Kundera once called it, is not that the Soviet Union gobbled up so much of the continent after World War II, but rather that “the West” allowed such a massive piece of its cultural heritage to slip away. One of the most common things Euroculture students say after spending a semester in Olomouc is, “I never knew.”
“I never knew about Václav Havel.”
“I never knew about the Prague Spring.”
“I never knew about Tomáš Masaryk.”

The Euroculture program, however, is fortunate enough to have among its professors Josef Jařab, a person with a keen memory and a knack for being around at the turning points of history. Professor Jařab, or JJ as he is more commonly known among Euroculturers, is a professor, former rector and dissident who calls Olomouc his home. We sat down with JJ to speak to him about his life, the Velvet Revolution, and lessons we should be taking from Central Europe.

A Central European Story

Born in 1937 in the Silesian region of what was then known as Czechoslovakia, JJ’s life has been studded with academic and literary accomplishment. He glibly refers to his birth as his first major achievement; he somehow managed to be born full term only three months after his parents’ marriage: “It usually takes nine months! My first surprising sort of record was to make it in three or four months.” This, he told me, is why he is so famous in Olomouc.

All joking aside, JJ’s reputation in Olomouc – and throughout Central Europe – truly does precede him. At the risk of turning this article into a listicle of defining moments, I would like to mention a few that stand out. Throughout the Soviet occupation of then-Czechoslovakia, JJ worked to bring Western culture beyond the Iron Curtain. When the Velvet Revolution began in Prague, he led the students in Olomouc to a similar revolution. On the day he was officially fired by Palacký University, he became its first freely elected Rector. He was a close friend to Olga and Václav Havel, served as rector of the Central European University and as a Senator of the Czech Parliament and pursues, to this day, his passion for poetry, literature and jazz. This, too, is a fitting profile for a Czech revolutionary; the Prague Spring and Velvet Revolution were, after all, not driven by activists or the overtly politically minded, but by the writers, the students, the poets, the actors. Continue reading “Professor Jařab & the Velvet Revolution: “Freedom is a Sleeping Beauty””

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The Who’s Who of Europe: The Powerful Personalities in the EU

Eleanor Brooks

The American Foreign Secretary Henry Kissinger famously once asked “Who do I call when I want to call Europe?” The modern day version coming from Rex Tillerson might be, “Who do I call, email, text, tweet…”, but the premise remains the same – who does one call to get the lowdown on Europe? With certain leadership figures rising above the crowd, the current U.S. Secretary has some pretty good options available.

Emmanuel Macron – The ambitious new kid on the bloc

The poster boy of French politics, Mr Emmanuel Macron has recently joined the ranks of rosy-cheeked nation state leaders on the world stage. After founding his own party En Marche! in early 2016 (a keen observer will note it shares the same initials as his own name), he led his party to victory less than a year later in the French parliamentary elections. His triumph was unprecedented and audacious; the presidential election was his first time running for public office and he won it with apparent ease. Such a rapid rise power is rarely achieved in politics by democratic means, although comparison could be made to a certain head of state across the Atlantic Ocean who also circumvented the typical route in his bid for Presidential office. Continue reading “The Who’s Who of Europe: The Powerful Personalities in the EU”

OPINION: Has Culture Replaced Race in Europe?

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A mosque and a church sharing a yard in Kosovo. Photo by Valdete Hasani

Sabine Volk

During my whole life in Europe, I did not know that I was white. I knew I had pale skin and light eyes, but this was because my father was a ginger. Then, when applying to an American university for the first time, I had to indicate my race and ethnicity in the official paperwork. I learned that I had to tick the box that said “White/Caucasian.” Then, within a couple of weeks on a Midwestern campus, Americans made me understand that I was white – not only in the literal, but in the racial sense of the term. Together with my fellow exchange students from Europe, we decided pretty fast: Americans are obsessed with race. Race is everywhere; in media and political discourse, in art, in peoples’ minds. In my classes, African American and Latino students repeatedly reported racial discrimination by white police officers or in job interviews. Friends advised me to avoid specific neighborhoods – black neighborhoods.

Before going to America, it would have never occurred to me to even use the term race. Race may apply to dogs, or horses. But humans? No way. To me, groups of people were rather characterized by their different cultures, traditions, values, and beliefs. For example, I knew that I, myself, was European. As such, I identified as an heir of centuries of European culture with its Greek and Roman heritage, Christian traditions, secular art, Enlightened thinking, modern science and technology, as well as the more recent belief in liberal democracy.

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Photo by Mark Dixon

When looking at the actual ideological debates in Europe, I now wonder if Europe is not as obsessed with culture as America is with race. Just as most Americans take “the” five races (white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian American, Native American/American Indian, Latino) as naturally given, most Europeans tend to think that one can distinguish between clear-cut and mutually exclusive cultural communities, such as the European cultural community, the Muslim cultural community, the… well, it often stops here. Against the backdrop of current issues such as the so-called refugee crisis, the term “European culture” is only used in order to contrast European culture with Muslim culture. In so doing, the speaker suddenly forgets about the cultural diversity within Europe, as well as the negative prejudices toward other European nationalities (e.g., the humorless Germans, the lazy Greek, the arrogant French, and so forth).

In Europe, the cultural category has very clearly replaced the racial category that is still used in America. Culture is hereby seen as something that is inborn in individuals or trained at a very young age, and therefore cannot evolve, transform, change. I often have the impression that it is understood exactly like race was conceived of during Europe’s darkest periods – as a biological determinism that decides good and bad, superior and inferior. As a consequence, Europeans seem to be experts in exercising cultural racism – they prefer to declare that a certain culture is not compatible with Europe, instead of a certain race or ethnicity. This wording might seem more lenient, but has the same meaning in the end.

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A German anti-Islam demonstrator. Photo by blu-news.org

So what is real, and what is a mere construction? Race? Or culture? Maybe neither. Or maybe both. Looking at the lived realities in the United States and in Europe, one has to conclude: in the US, race is real. It is real because it has real consequences on peoples’ daily lives, and entire personal narratives. In Europe, on the other hand, the belief in incommensurable cultural communities is gaining ground in a manner that this social construction is real as well, because it influences how Europeans perceive other parts of the world. Yet, with regard to current issues such as the refugee crisis, we could try to put our convictions into question. Is Muslim culture really as opposed to European culture as right-wing populists and racists want to make us believe? Are cultural values unchangeable?

Click here for more European Politics on The Euroculturer.

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Can the Roma Speak? Roma in the UK in the aftermath of Brexit

 

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A Rumney group performing music. The Rumney are Romani whose ancestors came to Britain in the sixteenth century. Photo by Rumney2012

Sohini Rajiyung

“Brexit”. The search results for this term in Google immediately direct us to its implications for the national and global economy, for the European Union’s (EU’s) solidarity, its potential misuse by growing populist parties, and how the United Kingdom (UK) can deal with the fallout of its choices. There have been numerous discussions on Brexit’s implications for ‘the Union’, ‘the UK’, ‘the economy, ‘trade’, and ‘agreements’. Yet these multiple problem-areas so carefully delivered to us by the media have overlooked Brexit’s effect on one of the UK’s minority groups; the Roma population. Not only has it overlooked it, it has resulted in the sustenance of a European discourse that continues to exclude the Roma, as illustrated by the scarce media attention paid to how Brexit affects this community. One needs to actively search to find the few articles which discuss this issue. This highlights how the discussions surrounding Brexit have failed to include the concerns of the Roma community.

The fear of exclusion and discrimination that the Roma community now faces in the UK since Brexit is unnerving, particularly if the UK takes the same approach towards dealing with the Roma population as it has in the past. For instance, the UK’s 2012 report on ‘Creating the Conditions of Integration’ had no reference to the Roma, as it puts Irish Travelers, Gypsies and the Roma in the same category. The compartmentalization of minority groups with different needs into one homogenous category is not only misleading, but points towards a lack of attention or concern for the Roma community by the UK government. Continue reading “Can the Roma Speak? Roma in the UK in the aftermath of Brexit”

The ignored revolution: The Dutch referendum crisis

Arne van Lienden

“The democratic revolution has begun”, proclaimed politician Thierry Baudet after the April 2016 Dutch referendum on the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine met the minimum threshold of votes and showed a decisive ‘no’ to the agreement. But so far, the referendum has not set off a revolution. In fact, until now the Dutch government has constantly delayed or deferred from acting upon the outcome of the referendum. This reluctance to respect the referendum result has grave implications for the legitimacy of governance and will only spark a further rise of populism in the Dutch political arena. The government needs to act, or the parliamentary elections in 2017 could see a landslide win for populist parties.

The response of the Dutch government to the outcome of the referendum has been characterized by deferral and inaction. The referendum on the Association Agreement with Ukraine differs in one great aspect from the other referenda we have seen in Europe this year. Unlike the Brexit referendum in the UK and the refugee referendum in Hungary, the Dutch referendum was a bottom-up initiative and was neither initiated nor wanted by the Dutch government. The government never took the referendum seriously and was not willing or capable of effectively campaigning for a Yes vote for the Association Agreement. Hence, after the result was announced it took the government by surprise. This can be seen in the reluctance of the government to act upon the outcome. Continue reading “The ignored revolution: The Dutch referendum crisis”

OPINION: The Italian Constitutional Referendum: some reasons Italians should vote NO.

 

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Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. Photo by BTO

Vittoria Valentina Di Gennaro

Today Italians will be called to cast their vote on the constitutional reform promoted by the government of centre left politician Matteo Renzi. The citizens will have to decide with a simple YES or NO, whether to approve the changes to the Constitution laid down in the Boschi draft law. The reform has been approved by the Parliament, but it can enter into force only if the referendum succeeds. For this plebiscite there is no quorum: whatever the turnout, the result will decide the future of the Italian Constitution.

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The Palazzo Madama, home of the Italian Senate. Photo by Francesco Gasparetti

In this article I will tell you why Italians should vote NO:

  1. It is not a clear and comprehensible reform, as it is written so as not to be understood. It is not an innovative reform, since it preserves and strengthens the central government at the expense of self-government.
  2. Regarding political participation and citizen initiatives, the proposed reform fails to expand the direct participation of citizens, since it increases from 50,000 to 150,000, the amount of signatures necessary for a citizens initiative. For abrogative referendums the quorum will be lower but even in this case the signatures needed will mushroom from 500,000 to 800,000.
  3. The most significant change will be the reduction of parliamentarians and consequent cost cutting if YES wins. In this case, the future Senate will not have 315 members elected directly by citizens, but will consist of only 100 members: 74 will be appointed within the various Regional Councils with a proportional basis according to population and the votes taken by the parties, while 21 will be chosen by the Regional Councils between the mayors of the region (each region will have a mayor representing, while the Trentino Alto Adige will have two – why is this region so different from the others?). Each senator will hold his or her chair for the duration of his or her administrative mandate and will not receive any compensation for their parliamentary activities. The 5 remaining senators will be appointed by the President of the Republic and hold office for seven years. The office of Senator for Life will remain in force only for ex-Presidents of the Republic and for those who already hold it. However, the new draft law does not effectively reduce the cost of politics. Indeed, the Senate costs are reduced by only one fifth, and if the problem is the cost, why not to halve the Chamber of Deputies instead? See next point.
  4. The costs saved are not so impressive: There is no denying that the reduction in the number of Senators will lower the cost of politics, but not as much as is suggested. A reduction in the number of Deputies or a simple ordinary law regarding a reduction in the amount of salaries of parliamentarians would be far more effective.
  5. Elimination of perfect bicameralism: The Senate is not abolished, but only revised: you switch from a perfect bicameralism to a bicameralism ‘confused’ by conflicts not only between the two wings of the Parliament, but also between state and regions.
  6. Abolition of constitutional bodies: The Renzi-Boschi constitutional reform provides for the abolition of the National Council of Economy and Labour (CNEL). CNEL is an advisory assembly of experts for the Italian Government, Parliament and Regions, and has the right to promote legislative initiatives, limited to economic and social subjects. Its suppression will be a loss for economic democracy.
  7. Confusion: This reform, despite its promotion, does not produce simplification as it multiplies by ten legislative processes in Italian government and increases the confusion.
  8. Government stability: It is not true that there will be more stability in Government as a result of the proposed reform. In fact, if the majorities in the Chamber (of Deputies) and Senate will be different, the latter, using different instruments, may still hinder the legislative activities of the lower chamber.
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Palazzo Montecitorio, Rome, the home of the Chamber of Deputies. Photo by Presidenza della Repubblica.

If the Constitutional Referendum should return a majority of votes for NO, the Renzi government could fall. It is difficult to predict how Renzi would manage a defeat for his flagship reform. However, if citizens do not recognize as legitimate one of the main points of the current government’s program, their representatives in Parliament would hardly be able ignore the political significance of the result. It would open the possibility of a motion of no confidence in the government.

The Euroculturer would like to thank Vittoria Valentina Di Gennaro for the contribution of this piece. Vittoria is a young communications specialist focused on European affairs. Originally from Italy, this piece is her own, informed opinion and does not necessarily represent the opinions of The Euroculturer Magazine or its staff.

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Refugees.tv Challenges The Way We Report On Asylum-Seekers

 

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One of the refugees.tv, featuring the original makeshift camera and mic. Image by refugees.tv.

Lauren Rogers

People huddled together in makeshift shelters in Germany. Long lines of people waiting for food at a camp in Italy. Bright rubber boats filled to the brim with masses of people. The body of a Syrian refugee boy washed up on the shore of Greece. As familiar – albeit heartbreaking – as these images have become to us, a different set of images have become familiar to the thousands of refugees currently living half-lives across Europe. Cameramen lurking in the background, waiting for the perfect shot. Microphones shoved in people’s faces as they are walking across the continent. Western journalists, well-fed and over-paid, asking questions about hunger and suffering.

In Idomeni, a refugee camp located at the Greek border to FYR Macedonia, a group of young refugees who were fed up with this second set of images decided to do something about it. In a stroke of satirical genius, Syrian refugees Mustafa Alhamoud, Basel Yatakan and Mahmoud Abdalrahim began their own news station: Refugees.tv. While reporters combed the camps looking for palatable stories for Western audiences, Yatakan, Alhamoud, and Abdalrahim followed their lead, carrying a fake camera (a block of wood with a water bottle for a lens) and microphone (a plastic cup on a stick) and mimicking the grave tone of the journalists. Their interviews, recorded on cell phone cameras, went viral on Facebook and soon some generous fans donated real camera equipment to their cause. Continue reading “Refugees.tv Challenges The Way We Report On Asylum-Seekers”

The Silver Lining of the 2016 Election and the Way Forward

Ryan Minett

As we all know now, most of our nightmares have come true. Trump has become president and we are all coping with this shocking development in different ways. Many are surprised, some are confused, a small percentage of those I’ve seen online are pleased, but most, I am relieved to see, are very, very angry. We knew this was a possibility, but the reality of the situation only really started to sink in as swing state after swing state fell to our newly elected, Oompa-Loompa in Chief. I myself am not altogether surprised. Just think for a second how dumb the average American is, then realize that 160 million Americans are, by definition, stupider than this, and the reality of President Donald Trump becomes somewhat more understandable. In the meantime, I, with all the American optimism that can get someone like our future Racist in Chief into the Oval Office, have been looking for a silver lining to this horrible cloud, and if you bear with me, I have hopefully found one. Continue reading “The Silver Lining of the 2016 Election and the Way Forward”

The Trump Presidency: The Importance of Staying Rational

Alexander Pitts

It was Election Night at the Groninger Forum: a USA-themed event featuring music, lectures, workshops, and live coverage of the results. I had been looking forward to it since I first heard about it. An American-themed party in Europe? Awesome! Getting to follow the election with friends, instead of staying up all night in my room, biting my nails and staring at my laptop screen? Wouldn’t miss it. It was supposed to be fun.

I’ve probably discussed American politics more since I moved to Europe than I did at home. Everyone is very curious. I completely understand – I’ve been baffled by this whole thing too. But I have a tendency to joke about things that make me feel negative emotions – anger, fear, sadness – which led to a very flippant take on the election. Any time someone asked me if I was scared or nervous, I would say, “No! I’m excited! I can’t wait to see what happens.” When people asked me if I thought Trump could really win, I would say, “No, but I’ve been wrong before, and at this point, nothing can surprise me.” That was a stupid thing to say. Continue reading “The Trump Presidency: The Importance of Staying Rational”

Message from an Obama Groupie: An ode to the Obama decade

Lianne Arentsen

Some say most Europeans are fans of Obama. I am not sure about that, but I definitely am. You could say I am an Obama groupie. So this article will be an ode to Obama. Or better said, an ode to the feeling that Obama gives.

The Obama hype is not new; we have had it since his first run for President. However, in light of the current events in American politics, more and more Obama groupies stand up to sing his praises. This is hardly surprising. When it seems like the good days are over, it is common to look back at the first blush of the romance. Now, with all the drama between and around Clinton and Trump, Obama is like a sweet memory of the good old times, even though he is still in charge. We know Obama cannot stay. We know our Obama-days will be over soon. So we are sad about that, we are afraid of a future that include Clinton and Trump, and are therefore already looking back on the great years we had with him.

Of course Obama is was not the perfect POTUS. He did not do everything he promised. Guantanamo Bay is not closed, even though Obama said he would close it years ago. However, there is no such thing as a perfect president. They are all humans, and humans make mistakes, especially when caught in an endlessly tangled bureaucracy. They learn from it. With that in mind, let’s get back to the ode to Obama.

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What’s not to love about Obama? The Huffington Post even made a list of 55 reasons to love Obama. Read it. If you didn’t love him yet, you soon will. Some examples of those 55 reasons: Obama is the first black president, he has made great reforms (think about Obamacare, and the Lilly Ledbetter Act) and, he has even won the Nobel Peace Prize. And did you know he can sing? He can easily start a professional singing career once his presidency ends. Another choice of career could be a DJ: for the past two years, he has released summer playlists on Spotify. But, also importantly, he has a great sense of humor. He makes the most out of his final moments as the President of the United States.

That is what we love about him. Whenever there is a new video of Obama mocking himself, of making a hilarious joke, we laugh and we like and share it. We cherish these moments, because we know all the laughing will soon be over. So for now, we stay in our little cocoons watching the videos of Obama, pretending all the American election drama is not happening right now. So here’s a little advice: whenever you read articles about the terrors of a Trump or Clinton, or discovering a new drama or embarrassment for Trump and Clinton, pretend you didn’t see it. Go watch Obama doing Thriller. What you don’t see, is not there.

What will happen in the next Presidency, we do not know yet. For now we can only say, Obama out!

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Photo by John Kees

Click here for more by Lianne Arentsen.

Featured picture credit: Pete Souza.

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