Archive | September, 2010

>Where do good (fundable) ideas come from?


The annual School of Slavonic and East European Studies awayday takes place at the Art Workers Guild building in Bloomsbury: we sit in an oak-panelled conference with portraits and busts of whiskery Victorian gents staring down at us, although luckily there are a few more modern pieces displayed around theie fine building (see opposite). We are there  to discuss grants and how to get them. The question is how to communicate with your prospective funder and whether fundable ideas stem from careful dissection of funders’ priorities or from interesting stuff that’s been brewing up at the back of your brain, or a mixture of both. Our mock group grant assessment exercise suggests that, if reasonably coherently formulated, good ideas win out in the end, mainly  because non-specialists will immediately tend to get them.

Pop (social) science author Steven Johnson tells us good ideas are slow burning hunches, which have bumped into other people’s hunches in spaces where ‘ideas can have sex’ and that ‘chance favours the connected mind’, explaining why C17th coffee house was a driver of intellectual innovation. YouTube has a nice five minute summary of his book (below), which seem a good way to save 20 dollars. But, of course,  when translation specialists are asked to relate their work to themes like statebuilding and policing in Afghanistan, it’s not surprising people start wondering if there is a difference between good ideas and fundable ones?

>Czech Republic: Protest and survive?


You Tube carries some unedited video from left-liberal internet daily Deník Referendum  of yesterday’s large trade union organized protests by public sector workers in Prague against wage and budget cuts. At 40, 000 the numbers are the highest since protests against pension and retirement reforms in the mid-1990s, although much larger numbers took to the streets of the capital in 1999 in protest against the perceived stitching up of politics by the two big parties – now safely at each other’s throats – and again in the ‘Television Crisis’ of 2000, when the same politicians were suspected of heavy handed interference in state TV.

Yesterday’s march seems a typically well ordered Czech social protest and interestingly, there seem to be, large number of home made banners suggesting a certain grassroots impetus lacking in mid-1990s –  Czech trade union are more bureaucratic shells and service organizations, than anything distantly resembling a ‘labour movement’. It will be interesting to see if the unions can build on this; whether the Social Democrats can exploit it electorally; and – if either of the former – if the government holds its nerve.  
All this adds, of course, spice and interest to the upcoming Senate and local elections.

>Off the map


In the spirit of David Černý‘s (in)famous Entropa installation (above) – which was in many ways the best thing about the ill-fated Czech presidency of the EU a while back unless you are a big fan of the Eastern Partnership – Bulgarian visual artist, graphic designer and illustrator Yanko Tsvetkov has come up a series of maps of Europe mapping the (supposed) prejudices of various nations (US, Brits, French, Germans and, Bulgarians, naturally) and, for some reason, also of gay men. Not inappropriately, the series seems to have been flagged by The Daily Telegraph.

Europe according to the Brits – Why are we always depicted as nation of europhobes? … possibly because we are?

Europe as seen by the French: Zut alors! Does this have the ring of truth?

A similar Europe-As-Seen-By-Estonians (that’s ethnic majority Estonians, I think) appeared on You Tube a while back (see below) – marvellous line about ‘…the country where Bjork and dragons live in harmony’.

And, of course, there is much weird and truly wonderful stuff on the Strange Maps blog (now also a book) such as the invaluable map of European alcohol belts (beer vs. wine vs. spiritis) – note the interesting beer/wine cleavages running through Northern France and the apparant identification of wine-drinking with ethnic Hungarians (although they should perhaps have marked South Moravia  in the Czech Republic more prominently as wine enclave) and Croatia seems oddly to have slipped into the beer zone.

Europe’s alcohol belts (from Strange Maps)

The venerable tradition of satirical map making – covered by the excellent just closed British Library exhibition – is it seems to be alive and kick and taking over from straight political analysis.

Updates: As my SSEES colleague Eric Gordy notes, you can also get this type of analysis in fuller tabular form and, Catherine Baker informs over Facebook, the slightly neglected Croats have produced a map of their own . Oddly, they seem to remember us in terms of the British Empire, but  so much discussion about British politics betrays a  subconscious obsession with our fall from imperial superpower status, I guess that’s OK.

>Czech history lessons?


Lack of time and lack of expertise means I don’t take more than a passing interest in academic history, but I note with interest the apparent outrage caused by a paper presented by French historian Muriel Blaive at a recent symposium held in London to mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovak and Poland governments in exile Has the Czech Republic fully come to terms with the memory of the Second World War? The memory in question, the paper says, is the (so far unresearched) extent of Czech collaboration and passivity underNazi occupation and, specifically, with the implementation of the Holocaust. This theme, it is suggested, would violate established national narrative of Czechs as a liberal European nation, who were heroes or (more commonly) victims of a grim totalitarian double-whammy of Nazism and communism, and, in particular, undermine Czech moral credit in debates over post-war treatment and eventual mass ‘transfer’ of the Sudeten Germans.
There is well established set of arguments that (large sections) Czech society bears a certain responsibility for communism – enthusiatically backing the statist national democratic project of the Communist 1945 and falling too readily for reform communist illusions in the 1960s. Indeed, Muriel Blaive’s earlier book (published in different versions in Czech and French) added to by suggesting that when Hungarians and Poles were taking to the streets in 1956, Czech society was unreactive not because deep democratic and anti-communist instincts were repressed, but because it was passive, inwardly and bought off by being (relatively speaking) well off. However, any suggestion that the Czechs were anything other victims of Nazism was, perhaps not surprisingly, moc silný kafe. Another implication, which you might take from the paper (although this is not explicitly given – merely mine) is that the agonised intellectual and historical debates over Czechs and (Sudeten) Germans which go back to the underground samizdat discussions of 1980s – including the self-searchingly self-critical ones – has obscured the need for one over wider Czech complicity
What should a political scientist make of all this? There is an interesting line of argument in the paper about the conversion and re-use of police and intelligence structures by successive regimes (democratic/Nazi/communist), which could feed interestingly into research on the nature of regime change state, especially given the current strong historical turn in the discipline. After all, wasn’t one of the biggest mistakes the American made in Iraq the decision not to convert Baathist state structures?). And there clearly are some thoughts to be had about history, democractic quality, the partisan use of decommunization, the politicization of academic reseach institutions. At bottom, in a democratic society, there should, be no historical taboos – which in the Czech Republic clearly there still are – and historians clearly have a job to do, and that job includes looking at all the skelteons in all the cupboards. And there is a well rehearsed argument that openness and honestly about the past make for society better able to face up, discuss and solve its current problems.
On the other hand, you wonder quite what the Czech politicians and public are actually supposed to believe about themselves and their past? And especially, what if anything, they should feel positive about? Sure, Czech politics is animated by crude national-democratic myth, but – as the warm bath of nostalgic feel good documentaries about the Blitz and the Battle of Britain currently airing on British television shows – this isn’t exactly unique. Admittedly, revisionist programming seeps uncontroversially into the schedules: watch the whole crop of WWII history and you can learn there was rampant crime and corruption during the Blitz; that British Blitz of German cities later in the war was more savage than than meted out by the Luftwaffe in 1940-1; that the Battle of Britain was won partly due to German incompetence in photo reconnaisance; that our military effort was buttressed by imperialism and racism and so on.
And, it would, of course be nice if British historical memory really wasn’t dominated by the early years of the Second World war: WWI and WWII it is the only bit of modern history that most primary schools touch on, so it is no small wonder we are rapidly eurosceptic and have inflated sense of national importance. On the other hand, the use of academic history for endless repetitive masochistic, self-lacerating national self-criticism which some parts of the Czech intelligentsia delight in seems more likely a recipe for cynicism and anomie, rather than democratic renewal.
Perhaps, realistically, in what Phippe Schmitter once rather nicely termed really Existing Democracies, a safe disconnect between academic and popular history is all you should wish for.

Update:  Madelaine Albright’s keynote address to the symposium can be seen in video here. It’s a rather eloquent and well delivered presentation making  a well argued – if ultimately not totally convincing – case for traditional view of strong, if naturally imperfect, Czech democratic tradition derailed by geopolitical circumstance. A politician’s rather than a historian’s speech, but then as I say above that has its place.