Renewed offer: Avant-garde leadership or the comfort of mediocrity, what will the Czechs choose?
Thanks to President Milos Zeman and his uninhibited verbal expressions, the country has a chance to unite on a number of specific issues, first and foremost of which could be considered his impeachment from office. It would seem that enough people agree he is an embarrassment and a divisive figure who transparently chooses to comment on issues as a bully towards anyone who is not in a position of power. Major political leaders within the country may have waited until after the municipal elections were over to say anything, but they finally started calling out Zeman on his vulgar racism towards the Roma. Once again, an opportunity to work together for a brighter future presents itself as it has on several occasions since the Velvet Revolution. What is keeping politicians from actively reaching out to Roma and working with them for a common goal to help build a better future together?
Perhaps it’s just too hard to just try something they’ve never done before. Those mainstream Czech leaders who have publicly condemned the President’s words may be content to have done so simply on their own, speaking for themselves and thinking they were just doing the right thing. It may even be possible some of them thought they were also speaking on behalf of Roma, or in their place because they think we don’t have the power to speak for ourselves. Perhaps it didn’t occur to them that Roma might have something to say themselves? The latter thought only occurred when the producers of the sensationalistic TV Talk Show Mate Slovo (You have the floor) approached several prominent Romani activists to speak. They refused. Instead of picking up on this opportunity in a more serious forum, some news outlets immediately criticized these decisions as an unproductive boycott, claiming a conspiracy led by Romea.cz must be behind all of this (because Roma would not think for themselves and come to similar conclusions otherwise?). To provide a similar American comparison of the situation, this would be as if USA Today criticized Senator Cory Booker as being uppity for refusing to appear on Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox; how dare he refuse such a wonderful opportunity! Apparently, the mature decision to not compromise your narrative by subjecting yourself to an environment where you have no control of what or how your message is transmitted, is being criticized by some news media in the Czech Republic. How dare we break with the past, attempt to raise the level of public debate, and dash your expectations to be entertained by a minstrel show?
Leading by example. Changing the narrative. Roma are doing it. That’s what Monika Mihalickova of Romea.cz and others like her did by refusing to discuss such serious topics as institutional racism in an unsuitable environment. She was the first, and was joined by Martin Simacek, the non-Roma president of IPSI, the institute for social inclusion who also refused. That is progress. Nevertheless we still don’t see any of the major media outlets asking these questions in a more serious debate, Is it because they don’t care, they don’t see the need, or because they’re not accustomed to actually reaching out to their own political base and therefore, the idea of reaching out to Roma is completely out of their scope of consideration? That may explain why so many Czechs like to claim that Roma are demanding special privileges. Their own Czech politicians don’t consult with them regularly. The public has not held them accountable in the past, so when Roma citizens perform this function in such a society, it is seen as asking for more than what the common person is demanding. It doesn’t matter that everyone should be doing this, and everyone benefits. The fact that some Roma are doing this when no one else is, may be perceived as jumping the queue, i.e. they should wait their turn. Those attitudes persist because the common understanding of equality is perceived as equality among us, i.e. us not them. When Roma are still commonly perceived as the ‘other’, we need to remind ourselves of what equality really means. So, getting back to the politicians and the habits they have built over the past 29 years, it’s not surprising that they don’t consult with their bases and would not have an inclusive approach. Here is some advice: It’s really simple: they need to start investing the time in building some contacts among a Romani citizen base of potential supporters. Then there might be someone available and willing to make a joint statement, if only anyone bothered to contact them. It’s not special treatment. It’s what political leaders should be doing with everyone. Is this too avant-garde and uncomfortable?
We, the Roma, are the avant-garde. We know politicians are afraid to be seen as working with us too closely in the public, because not only will they be judged as giving us special treatment, they will lose votes. Leaders of this country feed into this perception by following these patterns of behavior, rather than attempting to lead us out of these same old patterns. That is why none of them spoke out before the municipal elections ended Saturday 6 October. But when was the last time such an opportunity to bring people together presented itself? The synergies that could be achieved by uniting forces for the common good to help transform Czech society for the better, for everyone, aren’t they worth considering right now in these controversial moments?
The opportunity has arisen once again for Czech leaders to reach out across the racialized barriers that have flourished in Czech society and politics ever since the Velvet Revolution gave ordinary citizens the right to express their racism. Vaclav Havel is often credited as having said in the early 90s the way Roma are treated can be considered a litmus test not of democracy but of a civil society. At that time there was a long window of opportunity to apply this knowledge and consciously overcome biases that had plagued Czech society for centuries. Besides those happy times in the early 90s when everything was possible, there were at least a dozen such occasions over the past 29 years for change. One of those was in 1996 to 1997, when a wave of pogroms forced thousands of Romani citizens to flee abroad, mostly to Canada and the UK. When Tibor Danihel, a young Roma man, was drowned in the river in Pisek, this was followed by a series of violent attacks for several years until finally Tibor Berki was killed with an axe by skinheads in his own living room in front of his family in Břeclav. We could have taken the time to analyze and take corrective actions. A series of crimes, which demonstrated that Roma lives don’t matter as murder gave way to manslaughter because the victim had a different skin color, went unchallenged as a phenomenon. It passed. The opportunity was there to seriously talk about racism publicly and confront the problem. Reforms to educational programs to help fight racism in schools and for the general public could have been implemented, but very little changed. In fact things have gotten worse as statistics show young people are exhibiting racist attitudes more often than their elders in the Czech Republic . This wave of violence occurred once again 10 years later sparked by the global economic crisis in 2008, causing a similar wave of refugees to claim asylum in Canada. Are we doomed to repeat this every 10 years even without an economic crisis, just because the President is goading us all into hating each other? Do we want to prevent this or continue the trend?
The European Roma Rights Centre has demanded the resignation of President Zeman in an open letter. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we got rid of him? Is it because this idea originated from a Romani person in another country that people would rather dismiss it? Or could it be too avant-garde for the Czech general public or any Czech leader to go with the flow that Roma have started? Despite the challenge this presents, thanks to some young people like Jozef Bouška writing articles like Už dost! K Zemanovým výrokům o Romech nelze mlčet, I see a glimmer of hope. Jozef Bouška is also avant-garde. It would be nice if some well-known Czech celebrities and artists could earn that label. Maybe some more young people like him will come up with the arguments that convey how to overcome our fear of change, or at the very least create a greater fear of wanting to settle for mediocrity. If we cannot run towards our desire out of our habit of avoidance, perhaps we can manage our fear just enough to avoid inertia: because doing nothing has gotten us where we are today.