onsdag 17. november 2010

Sedmnáctý listopad

Today is November 17, the 21st anniversary of the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, which put an end to Communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Anyone old enough to remember those days, and the amazing, even miraculous events leading up to them, will never forget. I am not going to blog about the Velvet Revolution per se, or even Václav Havel.

(Havel fans, never fear: here is a clip from Czech Television from a documentary series that ran this summer entitled "Democracy: The First Year". At about ten minutes into the clip Havel enters the hall at Prague Castle to the presidential fanfare (from the Smetana opera Libuše) and takes the oath of office. Yes, that's Alexander Dubček right behind him, the newly elected president of the parliament, who is reading the proclamation (in Slovak: pan prezident, not pane prezidente). If this clip doesn't move you, you have a heart of stone, though being at least part Czech helps).

I am blogging about the other significance of this date. November 17 is a state holiday in the Czech Republic, "Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day" (Den boje za svobodu a democracii). That struggle did not begin 21 years ago, though the demonstrations held that day were the spark that brought down the Communist regime--since the Soviet army stayed in its barracks when the Berlin Wall fell, there were no tanks on their way to save the apparatchiks in Czechoslovakia either). No, the first November 17 was in 1939, and it was a very different occupation.

Under the 1938 Munich Agreement, Czechoslovakia was forced by its supposed allies, Britain and France, to cede portions of Bohemia and Moravia to the Third Reich in the interest of "peace in our time". Of course, despite protestations that this would be the last territorial claim Hitler would make in Europe, the Wehrmacht marched in to Rump-Bohemia and incorporated it into the Reich, its Czech residents reduced to a status lower than even the worst of the Habsburgs had imposed on them. On November 17, 1939, nine Czech students were executed for the "crime" of organizing protests against the occupation of their country by the Nazis to be held October 28, which would have been the 21st anniversary of their country's founding.

The reason for the dismemberment of Bohemia and Moravia was that its fringe, the so-called Sudetenland, was populated by German-speakers. Though they had lived there for centuries, once the Austrian Empire was gone, the Sudeten Germans were no longer privileged subjects of a benevolent monarch, but foreigners in their own country, now run by people the Sudeten Germans were used to looking down on. And while Czechoslovakia weathered the 1930s in better shape than most countries (no hyperinflation either), its Sudeten fringes had higher unemployment than its Czech and Slovak regions during the slump. This explains the fervor with which the Sudeten Germans heiled Hitler. They heiled and they heiled. Oh, how they heiled! To go home to Germany, Heim ins Reich (in truth for Germany to come to them) was what they pined for. And in 1938 they got their wish, at least temporarily.

After the war, the vast majority of ethnic Germans were expelled from the Czech lands, without compensation, under the so-called Beneš decrees. Some people say that "collective punishment" is unjust, and I suppose it is, but Czechs would argue that the Sudeten Germans had their chance, but at the first opportunity they connived to dismember their country. Besides, didn't they want to go "home to the Reich"? Fine; that is exactly where they were sent, along with the East Prussians, West Prussians, Pomeranians and Silesians, I might add. Later, it was reported that the expulsion was not peaceful, and many Czechs took the opportunity to settle scores by taking vengeance on the fleeing Germans, many of whom lost their lives.

As it happens, the current Czech president, Václav Klaus, made a statement today at a ceremony honoring the nine Czech martyrs of 1939 to the effect that the violence by the Czechs against Germans cannot compare to the crimes of the Nazis. This is not a controversial statement at all, and there is not a single Czech who doesn't agree with it. The Czechs are all too aware of the fact that once all the Jews had been gassed and cremated, that they were next, with non-Arianizable first in line. I suppose I knew this vaguely, but since the Germans ran out of oil and the Red Army rolled into Berlin before they could kill all the Jews of Europe, we can never be 100% sure. Still, the first time I read these words in Hans-Jörg Schmidt's frank and painful book, Tschechien,, quoting Hitler's secret speech outlining his plans for the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia", I felt a fury that I had never felt before in my life (pp. 61-62):

Man dürfe aber nicht das Endziel aus den Augen verlieren, "dass dieser Raum einmal endgültig deutsch besiedelt werden muss. (...) Wir werden nicht nach der alten Methode versuchen, dieses Tschechengesindel deutsch zu machen." Nach einer rassischen Bestandsaufnahme müsse man sagen können, "so und so sieht die Bevölkerung aus. (...) Die einen sind gutrassig und gut gesinnt, das ist ganz einfach, die können wir eindeutschen. Dann haben wir die anderen, das sind die Gegenpole. Schlechtrassig und schlecht gesinnt. Diese Menschen muss ich hinausbringen. Im Osten ist viel Platz. Dann bleibt nun eine Mittelschicht, die ich genau durchprüfen muss. Da sind in dieser Schicht schlechtrassig Gutgesinnte und gutrassig Schlechtgesinnte. Bei den schlechtrassigen Gutgesinnten wird man wahrscheinlich so machen müssen, dass man sie irgendwo im Reich einsetzt und nur dafür sorgt, dass sie keine Kinder mehr kriegen. (...) Dann bleiben die gutrassigen Schlechtgesinnten übrig. Das sind die gefährlichsten, denn das ist die gutrassige Führungsschicht. (...) Bei einem Teil der gutrassigen Schlechtgesinnten wird nur eines übrig bleiben, das wir ersuchen, sie im Reich anzusiedeln, einzudeutschen und gesinnungsmäßig zu erziehen, oder - wenn das nicht geht - sie endgültig an die Wand zu stellen."

Now I knew exactly how my Jewish friends felt about Germany. And here I was, who had lived in Germany, liked it, taught German, feeling the same anger (and sadness) that they did. Even the cast of characters at Wannsee, who let euphemisms and unrecorded winks do their dirty work for them, were more circumspect in what they actually said about their plans for the Jews than Hitler was here.

It is true that Havel, at great political cost, sought reconciliation with Germany and was fortunate that his counterpart was Richard von Weizsäcker, probably the greatest Bundespräsident in the history of the Federal Republic, if a man elected to so modest, and yet so morally powerful, an office can be great. However, the Sudeten Germans and their descendants, aided and abetted as always by the cynical CSU, wanted to dictate terms. The answer was and always will be Ne.

But since it is November 17, I will end this blog entry with a link to a moving slide show commemorating the Velvet Revolution, accompanied by Marta Kubišová's "A Prayer for Marta", the anthem of the resistance to the August invasion in 1968.

onsdag 27. oktober 2010

Osmadvacátý říjen

Today is October 28, or Osmadvacátý říjen, Den vzniku samostatného československého státu, Independent Czechoslovak State Day, the anniversary of the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, and still a public holiday in the Czech Republic, even after the Velvet Divorce. I don't have time today to blog very much on the topic of what turned out to be a mismatch (though not nearly by far as rancorous - or for that matter, murderous - as the union of the south Slavic peoples). All I will say is this: despite the best intentions of the world-improvers, indelible traces of the past keep returning like a palimpsest. In the case of Central Europe, the parchment has been scraped more than once.

mandag 4. oktober 2010

Bowlers of the world, unite! You have nothing to choose but your lanes...

Like so many current and former members of the American assistant, associate and full professoriat, I am a proud, out member of the petite bourgeoisie. While I do not bowl, my parents did (I can remember my dad's pink-and-charcoal 1950s vintage bowling shirt). My mother was always afraid that once I entered the rarefied aether of academe, that I would look down on her. While she was still alive, I tried to make it clear to her that I always believed that she was the most astute observer of politics of anyone I knew (and I meant it). Not only did she have the ability to see through phoniness and pretension, but she never had to unlearn patent untruths picked up at university.

The silly punning allusion to both The Communist Manifesto and stereotypical lower-class pastimes is intended as an observation that, for all of Marx's incisive social criticism, he was too wedded to his preconceived notion that history (or, rather, History) was a riddle to be solved, instead of what it more likely is, namely "one damned thing after another.". He was simply too much of an optimist (yes, I said optimist) to have the courage to toss Hegel out the window (and not just turn him on his head), unlike, say, Schopenhauer.

For all that, Marx's original insight (one of the "truffles of truth to be dug for in the enchanted forest of Marxism", an observation made by either James Dale Davidson or William Rees Mogg in a book they co-authored) is the centrality of class struggle in human affairs. But such class conflict is systemic, and not only restricted to ownership of the means of production.

The most interesting class conflicts are between immediately adjacent classes, and not between classes that are far apart (such as in Upstairs, Downstairs, which readers d'un certain age will recall from its years and years on what Nicholas von Hoffman (and not just he) termed "the Petroleum Broadcasting System" ("public housing for the poor and Public Television for the rich"). The best example of popular entertainment that capitalizes on class conflict is the 1970s-1980s spinoff of All in the Family, The Jeffersons. The fact that George (played with panache by Sherman Helmsley), his often exasperated wife Louise and their put-upon maid Florence are black is merely a red herring, diverting the inattentive viewer to the endless racial sideshow that continues to distract both blacks and whites from pursuing their shared interests. The real conflict is between self-made dry-cleaning tycoon George Jefferson and the genteel upper middle and upper class denizens of his new apartment building. You always saw George in a tailored three-piece suit, never in preppy sportswear, or even country-casual tweed jacket, turtleneck sweater and chinos, like his antagonist Tom Willis, one half of an interracial couple and editor (a nice, non-money-grubbing occupation, perfect for someone with some inheritance capital but not independently wealthy). No matter how hard George tried, he was never accepted. Not because of the color of his skin, but because of the content of his character: a pushy, obnoxious philistine who got on everyone's nerves, regardless of skin pigmentation. Isabel Sanford was also perfectly cast as Louise (Weezie), who unlike her social-climbing husband, was perfectly content to be what she was. Anybody who looked like Louise Jefferson and was anxious about her social standing would have enrolled in aerobics classes (or at least dieted), but if you were to suggest it to her, she would have probably laughed in your face. I remember reading in the program for a University of Illinois theater production of Tartuffe that the closest analog of a Molière comedy in contemporary American popular entertainment was The Jeffersons. I thought then that that observation absolutely hit the mark, and I still do.

You can even have bitter class conflicts in societies without an aristocracy or even much of a true capitalist class. Norway is an example of a country without a native aristocracy and with a bourgeoisie that lived rather modestly compared with their class comrades in other European countries (for evidence, all you have to do is walk around the ritzier parts of prewar Oslo). Even so, the lack of a genuine plutocracy in Norway did not spare this country from a very red labor movement. From 1919 to 1923 the Norwegian Labor Party was even a member of the Comintern, the Bolshevik Third International. In Bohemia, however, the brunt of the class struggle was between a class-conscious proletariat and the petite bourgeoisie of shopkeepers, clerks and schoolteachers (ideology to the contrary). Here the difference was not necessarily family background, but attitude. The fact that many rather wealthy businesspeople and successful academics came from humble origins could be seen as a constant reproach to factory workers and miners, as if their relatively low station were due to laziness rather than lack of interest, entrepreneurial skill and/or an understandable preference for leaving work behind the factory gate once the shift whistle blew. Anyone who has worked in a family-owned business (like my great-grandparents' tavern) or slaved from early morning till late at night in a research lab with no guarantee of success knows the meaning of hard work. Not only that, but the children of barkeeps and greengrocers put in far more hours than any outside employees, and nearly always for no pay.

But myths about what labor consists in die hard. Anyway, when the Communists, with a plurality of the seats in the parliament, staged a coup in Czechoslovakia, even many non-proletarian Czechs and Slovaks were favorable toward the Soviet Union, who were seen as not having betrayed them (the Poles, who were the proximate victims of the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact, knew better, but were in less of a position to do anything about it--a cursory glance at the Central European rail network required Bohemia as well as Poland and Hungary, but not Austria, safely behind the Iron Curtain, so that the February putsch was probably an inevitability).

The Communist takeover of Czechoslovalia was the start of 41 years of buyers' remorse, beginning with the expropriation of model enterprises, such as Tomáš Baťa's shoe factories in Zlín and elsewhere in Czechoslovakia and ending with the seizure of even the most humble pivnice, proletarianising and demoralising the shopkeeping class under the pretext that since their modest enterprises depended in part on hired labor, this was prima facie evidence that the owners were exploiters and had to be eliminated as a class (though graciously hired back as state employees and not rounded up and shot, like in the Ukraine). The more intellectual wing of the Czech and Slovak petite bourgeoisie had to wait for the debacle of 1968 to come to the same conclusion as the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, namely that "democratic socialism was as contradictory as a fried snowball".

And that the hard-working true-believers in socialism with a human face that wasn't Stalin's were the real class enemy of the post-Dubček party was borne out in the aftermath of the Prague Spring: a purge of half of the party membership (and as, Györgi Dalos remarked in Der Vorhang geht auf: Das Ende der Diktaturen in Osteuropa, "nicht unbedingt die dümmere Hälfte", i.e. "not necessarily the dumber half"). These newly purged technocrats could join the ranks of menial laborers, sweeping factory floors and stoking furnaces alongside those who for "class reasons" were denied university educations to begin with, like Václav Havel, the son of what in Prague passed for a movie mogul (even so, the cream always rises to the top).

It is also interesting to observe that of all remaining Communist parties, the core of the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia has not undergone a democratic socialist Third Way makeover, but remains unrepentantly true to its Stalino-Brezhnevite roots, continuing to pine for the good old days when the mediocre and talentless were able to lord it over their intellectual and moral betters and make them like it to boot. Not unlike the attitudes of true aristocrats...

torsdag 30. september 2010


"The Chinese people have stood up!" proclaimed Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949. A brilliant tactician, the charismatic and singleminded Mao was able to outmaneuver the feckless and vain Chiang Kai-shek for ultimate control of China, with Chiang beating a retreat to Taiwan, where he and that island remained in a funk until his death. As great a general as he was, however, everyone has long known (even and especially on the mainland) that Mao was mercurial, petty, vindictive and insanely jealous, especially of the one man who had the genuine love and respect of the long-suffering Chinese people. I am referring, of course, to Zhou Enlai, whom Richard Nixon referred to as "the greatest statesman of our era."

Around this time last year, I came across the English translation of Gao Wenqian's 晚年周恩來, Zhou Enlai, the Last Perfect Revolutionary, while browsing at my favorite bookseller in Oslo. It is a riveting read. Gao had been chosen to be Zhou's official biographer, but fell afoul of the party when he began to depict Zhou as a human being with flaws rather than as a living saint. Gao was forced into exile and published his book in Hong Kong (whence the traditional character spelling of Zhou's name in the title--just in case anyone noticed). Probably the best example of Mao's pettiness toward Zhou was his deliberate postponement of treatment for Zhou's bladder cancer until it was too late. Mao did manage to outlive the man he relied on and despised by eight months, only to be galled by the genuine outpouring of grief at Zhou's death, which the infamous Gang of Four did their damnedest to suppress. Those of us of a certain age all know what happened to them.

lørdag 25. september 2010

Class in classic Hollywood films

This afternoon the s.o. and I were walking downtown, and while we were discussing relationships between people of different social backgrounds and educations, the Hitchcock film Rebecca came up, one of my favorites actually. I said that this particular film dealt with the issue of romance between social classes. The person who "marries up" always feels a sense of insecurity, in addition to the suspicion that he or she is loved for being "refreshing" or "quaint", and that once this person feels comfortable in the new social role, the "charm" for the other person wears off.

So we decided to watch the film again. This film was perfectly cast, with Judith Anderson as the creepy Mrs. Danvers heading the list (see Susie Bright's description of this character in the HBO documentary The Celluloid Closet), but even Florence Bates as the corpulent nouveau riche vulgarian globetrotter Edythe van Hopper and Gladys Cooper as Maxim de Winter's plain-spoken sister Beatrice Lacey are so good in their roles that one could scarcely imagine anyone else in them. Joan Fontaine is also perfect as Edythe van Hopper's paid companion and the otherwise nameless Second Mrs. de Winter (a non-hammy performance that deserved an Oscar, but for the fact that it was up against Kitty Foyle, the film in which Ginger Rogers proved her range as an actress). Nor can we forget George Sanders as the "favorite cousin"/would-be blackmailer and dealer in fine motorcars Jack Favell, the queeniest heterosexual man who ever lived. Very unlike the male leading role, Maxim de Winter, played by the very butch and very bisexual Sir Laurence Olivier, whose not exactly discreet dalliances with men were what probably put his second wife Vivien Leigh in the funny farm (she should have listened to her mother, like I did to mine: if you love a man, don't try to change him. And girls, this does not only apply to getting him to put down the toilet seat).

torsdag 23. september 2010

Obese children eat too much "healthy food"

In this morning's Aftenposten, Oslo's major daily and Norway's newspaper of record, there was a story about a study which uncovered the "surprising" finding that obese children by and large ate too much "healthy food". Rather than gorging themselves on soda and candy, the fat kids preferred juices and sweetened juice drinks and other high-carb low-fat foods that come with the blessing of the government and mainstream dieticians. The only problem, according to the article, is that these youngsters simply ate too much of it. Like so much reporting on diet in the mainstream media, the assumption, of course, is that purportedly healthy foods are in fact healthy. This is just one of the many unstated assumptions in the article, one of so many that I get dizzy from trying to unpack them.

Did anyone consider whether the overweight youngsters actually ate more of what is supposed to be good for them, not because of some character defect, but because they were hungry? Maybe all that healthy fruit juice and pasta might not be so healthy after all? Speaking as a former chub, I can identify with these kids. I probably drank less sugary soda than the average teenager, but I was absolutely addicted to macaroni. And I have the stretch marks to prove it. The solution to my weight problems has been the paleo/primal diet. In this connection this diet's most important characteristic is the elimination of all gluten grains. In addition, I get over 60 percent of my calories from fat. Not just any fat, either, but butter, tallow and lard (these last two included in the various cuts of meat and sausages I eat).

So instead of starving these kids and putting them on treadmills to "slim them down", why don't they try eliminating the grains and fruit juices (fruit juice is to fruit what crack and powder cocaine are to coca leaves), cutting down on the remaining carbs (no potatoes to start with, but all the broccoli slathered in butter that they want) and otherwise reintroducing real food, like eggs, meat and full-fat plain yogurts and cheeses, into these youngsters' diets?
These kids have already tried the food pyramid. Maybe that's what's making them fat (ya think?) I know that if I ate according to the food pyramid, I'd look like it. Time to try something else, I would say.

fredag 10. september 2010

I trust my heart to...pastured butter

I am currently in the US on my first visit since I got my new Norwegian passport (no hassles at immigration, by the way). It has been fun seeing family and friends, but I am dismayed by the prevalence of the metabolic syndrome. At O'Hare, by the gate, I could only count four men who were not at least 15 pounds overweight, and there were only two of us non-fatties who looked to be over 50.
I also can't get over the fact that practically all of my peers are on some statin drug or other. One, who is not rotund by any means, bragged at lunch about how his total cholesterol (TC) has now been lowered from 200 to 150. I didn't want to pop his balloon by pointing out the cancer risk, but I did say that 200 is not an unsafe level and that I thought that the drug companies were merely manufacturing illness to expand their customer base for "treatment".
The day before, I had lunch with another former colleague, and while he ordered a "low-fat fajita" something or other, I ordered a "Mexican omelet" and a side order of bacon (hold the toast - forgot to tell them to make the omelet in butter - I could taste the "heart-healthy" vegetable oil, luckily the sour cream made up for any polyunsaturated fatty-acid (PUFA) nastiness). I'm sure he was thinking that, with my 32-inch waist, I could eat all the eggs, cheese, bacon and sour cream I wanted, whereas he needed to watch his weight by eating low-fat. Well, as someone who struggled with a gut since the age of 11 and had no choice but to "watch my weight" (all I had to do was look down!), the opposite is the case: I look and feel the way I do because I eat cheese omelets with sour cream and would not touch a chicken fajita with a barge pole, unless it contained free-range dark meat, was sauteed in lard and I ate it with a fork, leaving the flour tortilla for the compost.

lørdag 4. september 2010

Diet and exercise

Another topic I will be blogging on from time to time is the two-headed beast of diet and exercise. Since my father died of severe MI when I was eighteen, the prospect of sudden cardiac death has hung over my head like the sword of Damocles. I am now the same age as he was when he died, though I have a far different diet and exercise regimen. After trying various philosophies of training and eating, I have found the best results from the so-called "primal" or "paleo" diet and training program. I do rather heavy weight training three times a week, and on a fourth day either a 30-minute run with five or six 30-second sprints, or when the weather turns colder, 20 minutes on the stationary bike with five or six 30 second sprints. Otherwise I walk to work (about 30 minutes each way) briskly and, on the way home, mostly uphill.
Yesterday I spent most of the day walking around downtown Chicago, where I am in town visiting my brother, and stopped in at Border's on Michigan Avenue to buy Neil Shubin's Your Inner Fish for another nephew (whom I will be seeing later today). While I was there, I browsed the health and exercise section, looking for Gary Taubes's Good Calories, Bad Calories, to buy for my brother. It was not in stock, but Mark Sisson's The Primal Blueprint was. I did not have to think twice. I am especially keen on my brother changing his workout routine from repetitive and boring "chronic cardio" to "lifting heavy weights" (as Mark Sisson recommends). However, compliance will be harder for my brother than for me. Just by walking to work I get the low-impact aerobic exercise that we are evolved to perform. I can run 10 K in a reasonable time, but I choose not to.
I remember reading somewhere that the residents of Manhattan were on average the healthiest of all Americans. This does not surprise me, since for New Yorkers, their feet are their major way of getting around (even including the subway). It is no accident that "New York music," the soundtrack for scene-setting in Manhattan, has a quick beat (BUMP-bada-bump-bump BADA-BADA-bump-bump, BUMP-bada-bump-bump BADA-BADA-bump-pump) because that is how fast New Yorkers walk (and if you are a gawking tourist from Iowa sauntering along Fifth Avenue looking up at the skyscrapers, you're liable to be mown down). I mention this, because yesterday I noticed that the people walking along Michigan Avenue at around noon did not walk like New Yorkers, but like people who mostly amble from the parking lot to the mall. Of course, you do get "New York walking" in Chicago, just during rush hour while folks are headed to and from the train. As it was, I had to weave through the strolling suburbanites on my way down Michigan Avenue back toward State Street. Pick up the pace, people!

lørdag 24. april 2010

Immigration is for keeps

In the previous post I mentioned that when Norwegians think of immigrants, they usually do not think of people like me. And, as it happens, I would wager that the vast majority of persons with backgrounds similar to mine (foreign-born spouses of Norwegians) do not think of themselves as immigrants either. This is certainly true when the spouse in question is from another Nordic country and probably also true when he or she comes from another European country, or the US (like me), Canada or Australia. While Norway's membership in the European Economic Area allows people from the entire EU to come to Norway to seek work and reside here permanently with their spouses and children, only marriage with a Norwegian citizen can put them on the path to naturalization. As for the immigrants from "non-Western" countries, it is safe to say that, unless they have come as refugees and would risk their lives by returning, those in the first generation usually assume that their sojourn in Norway will be temporary too. The idea is to save lots of money and return to Pakistan or wherever else they come from when they retire (this was likely the main motivation behind the cases of tax fraud among immigrant taxi drivers - see Svindel uten grenser: En reise i svart drosjeøkonomi, by Einar Haakaas and Kjetil Sæter). But it never seems to work out that way. For better or worse, Norway is home. Immigration is truly for keeps.

A fresh start

I began this blog almost two years ago and had originally intended to write it in Norwegian. I managed one full post, plus another that was never published. I have decided to start over, this time in my native language. I am keeping the Norwegian title, though. When Norwegians refer to their nye landsmenn, it's not people like me they have in mind.