Jan Culik

An interview given to the Norwegian weekly Morgenbladet. The interviewer was Joerund Buen.

Can you tell us something about your background?

I studied Czech and English at Charles University in Prague in the 1970s, which was one of the most depressing times in modern Czech history. The country was sort of "frozen in time" in a police state. (We were actually lucky to be able to study at university at all. Can you imagine the absurd scenes: if you were fortunate enough to get special permission to buy hard currency to go for a brief visit to Britain, the country whose language you studied, you then were summoned to the Head of Dept. of English at Charles University who examined your passport to make sure that you had not visited Britain before! This man ACTIVELY PREVENTED his students from travelling to the country they were studying. There was constant political pressure, compulsory meetings and seminars where we were supposed to extoll the virtues of communism and the Soviet Union, etc. English was a very important window on the world for all of us.

I married a British person and was allowed to leave for Britain in 1978. First I taught Czech studies at Glasgow and Lanacaster universities, then we both worked for British TV (Channel Four), then I also worked for seven years (very intensely,as a freelancer) from Britain for the Czech Service of Radio Free Europe (often producing as much as 300 minutes of broadcast material per month) and then I ended up again teaching Czech Studies at Glasgow University. I visit Prague fairly frequently and write for a number of Czech periodicals. My wife now runs a multimedia company.

What is the main difference between the position of intellectuals inGreat Britain and The Czech Republic?

I must be very careful not to make sweeping, inaccurate generalisations. Nevertheless, having had experience of life both in Britain and in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic, I propose, perhaps as a point of departure for discussion, the following:

Unlike in Central Europe, where the intellectuals have been traditionally revered, the British intellectual is not necessarily regarded very highly by the general population. There tends to be a general belief that intellectuals, especially those working in universities, are slightly eccentric individuals.

Nevertheless, there is a proud tradition of intellectual thought in Britain which goes back for several centuries. It could be said that the British elites have been able to develop their "thought processes" without interruption for a very long time indeed. The nation at large may regard the British intellectual as slightly ridiculous, but the thoughts of the British intellectuals do influence what the nation does indirectly, as it were by osmosis. In other words, a British plumber may have nothing in common with a British philosopher, nevertheless, he still behaves according to what the British philosopher has written.

The Czech Republic has been very unfortunate due to repeated political cataclysms. No line of Czech intellectual thinking is truly continuous and mature. In this century, there have been several, often interesting attempts to create a strong cultural tradition, unfortunately, before they could come to fruition, there came a political cataclysm - destroying everything. Take for instance, the incredible flowering of Czech poetry between the first and the second world war - or the extraordinarily fruitful period of the late 1960s. But Czech culture could never mature. As a result, it has always retained a kind of adolescent feel. The writer Bohumil Hrabal is, to my mind, an archetypal author who expresses this Czech predicament very well. Particularly in his later works he shows the individual amidst the whirlwind of constant interruptions. The individual, often a child-like person, has to come to terms with different hostile, crushing forces.

It is a paradox that in the 1980s Czech culture, especially Czech independent literature, matured more than in other periods. Some Czech authors acquired international reknown. But many Czechs within the Czech Republic are not (yet) acquainted with this rich cultural tradition. I lived in the West and I could follow, over the years, the whole output of Czech emigre publishing houses, bringing out Kundera, Skvorecky, Havel, Hrabal. Somehow, since the 1989 revolution, the Czechs have not had the time (or the inclination) to read all these things. The times are perhaps too unsettled for people to sit down with a book.

The dissident culture and independent Czech literature was inaccessible to most people in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and 1980s. A strange, degenerate kind of "real-socialist consumerism" developed. The secret police strove very hard to isolate independent intellectuals from the body of the nation. They were quite successful in this. The ethos of the dissidents was markedly different from the ethos of the rest of (consumerist) society. Hence dissident rule lasted only for a short time after 1989. The nation then elected a group of politicians from their midst, who told them ther was nothing wrong with consumerism, that morals should not interfere with politics and that the most important thing was to become rich.

It could be said that the intellectual head of the nation had been severed from the body of the nation by the secret police. Headless, the body of the nation lost its way. It stalked away into a dead alley of consumerism. Hence perhaps the headlong rush for Western rubbish after the fall of communism.

This, undoubtedly, is also connected with one other thing. Communist propaganda told people that everything in the West was bad. That's why they naturally believed that everything in the West was ideal. They suspended their critical faculties after the fall of communism. They forgot that the world is, by definition, imperfect and that one constantly has to strive for perfection. They felt that communism had fallen, democracy was here and they could relax, not doing anything any more for the sake of democracy. The new, good, anticommunist government would paternalistically solve all their problems for them. To criticise this anticommunist government was bad because it could "destabilise the situation".

I hope it is not an exaggeration to say that Czech intellectuals emerged disorientated and emasculated from the 1989 democratic revolution. The new situation was incredibly confusing. At the same time, an important, all-pervading factor, was the fear that communism might somehow return. When you do not live permanently in the Czech Republic, it is very easy to fail to notice what an important role this fear has played in Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic since 1989. In March 1996, I attended the congress of one of the parties of the Czech ruling coalition - the Civic Democratic Alliance (ODA). I was amazed to see that this "fear of communism" was still a relatively strong factor. Such a fear is basically anti-democratic, because it prevents free, critical debate from taking place. ("If you criticise our nice government, you are a communist!")

Czech intellectuals are still to a certain degree emasculated and confused. Most importantly, they are very badly paid. The average Czech monthly income is now 8300 Czech crowns, i.e. some 200 British pounds. It is highly unlikely that a university lecturer would earn more than that. Many Czech research scientists are leaving their posts and becoming salesmen for West German companies. Czech intellectuals have currently very little purchasing power. In Britain, there are minority cultural radio and TV channels which are financed by advertising. Only a small percentage of the populace are following these channels, but the advertisers will pay for the adverts because the viewers/listeners are well educated and have relatively large salaries. That is not the case in the Czech Republic. People like Vladimir Zelezny, the head of the US owned commercial TV station NOVA (which commands some 60 percent of the Czech TV audience, mostly by broadcasting crass rubbish) openly disdain intellectuals, as does Czech Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus.

There is another important factor which has to do with the fact that the Czechs are a small nation, relatively tightly enclosed within the culture of their own language. There is an unsolved problem of the relationship betwen the Czechs living in the Czech Republic and those Czechs who have lived in the West for years. It is true that the Czechs living in the West often show off in front of their compatriots from the Czech Republic. The Czechs from the Czech Republic, perhaps because of a certain chip on their shoulder, react often very angrily to comments made by Czechs in the West. It is perhaps interesting that there is an ongoing conflict between these two kinds of Czechs on Czech newsgroups in the Internet.

When I gave my lecture to a gathering of Czech intellectuals in the Tepla monastery last October, I raised certain critical points about the state of Czech journalism and education. The lecture was a result of my discussions with colleagues working in both fields in Prague. However, my lecture provoked a very hostile reaction from some Czech intellectuals living in the Czech Republic probably mostly because they thought here was a Czech emigre, trying to lecture them from on high.

The lecture in Tepla and the subsequent debate have been published in the Czech Republic and have provoked further reactions, mostly in support of my original arguments. It is difficult to say why the reaction of some of those present was so violent. One participant, strongly critical of me at Tepla, later wrote to me and apologised.

The question of the relationship between members of a small nation living within the home country and those compatriots who live abroad is very complex. Just a few days ago, I was again accused on the Internet that I had no right to comment on the situation in the Czech Republic because I did not permanently live there.

Let me translate a passage from a leading article by Jaroslav Veis, which was published in the Prague Literarni noviny weekly on 26th June, 1996, under the title "Why did Vaclav Klaus lose the election?":

"Klaus and his political allies did not even try to gain the support of the Czech intellectual elites. The ruling politicians accused Czech intellectuals of traditional left-wing leanings, of tendencies towards social engineering, of voicing constant doubts, of being unable to do without a paternalistic state, of wanting to redistribute the wealth created by businessmen. The ruling politicians were convinced that thy did not need the intellectuals as anything else but a tame, quiet backround decoration. Czech intelellectuals were supposed not to mind that they are being overlooked, and they were supposed to, in spite of everything, proselytise among the ordinary people in support of Klaus' s economic transformation. Naturally, this has not happened. Only a deaf and blind person is surprised."

You can see from this quotation that the situation in the Czech Republic is now changing. About nine months ago, a leading Prague journalist confirmed to me that for several years after the revolution Czech intellectuals did not want to criticise the government, for fear of "harming the fragile flower of the new democracy". He admitted that this had been foolish. He added that he now realised full well that democracy can only be safeguarded and developed if the actions of the government are constantly subjected to public analysis, criticism and debate, in other words, if the citizens are vigilant and actively safeguard their democracy.

More and more people in Prague seem to me to be aware of the fact that an active civic society must develop, if Czech democracy is to function properly. This is undoubtedly why the Czech general election ended up in a draw amost two months ago. According to public opinion polls, most Czech are quite happy with the general election result. It means that the government can no longer reach its decisions in secret and must submit them to public discussion in parliament.

Of course, this is a totally new situation for the Czech opposition (this means really the Czech social democratic party, because the other two opposition parties, the communists and the republicans are undemocratic). Former Czech Prime Minister Petr Pithart remarked in a newspaper article a few days ago that until this very time, parliamentary opposition has never played a decisive role in Czech democratic politics, not even in 1918-1938. Perhaps, then it is not too surprising that the notion that the parliamentary opposition should be striving to defeat and replace the government in the interest of democracy, is still somehow shocking in the Czech context.

Why is the development of a civic society in the Czech Republic running at such a slow speed?

Communism caused a high level of fragmentation in the East European societies. Paradoxically, it preached common good and selflessness, but it created an incredibly selfish population which was taught that the only thing that matters is to take care of Number One, i.e. oneself and one's family. Communism also taught people that it is foolish to adhere to any moral standards. Communism destroyed moral values.

How can this situation be changed?

The Czech Republic needs good schools and good media. It is very difficult to create both out of nothing, although there are well-meaning individuals trying very hard to improve the situation in both spheres.

Could you comment on the main problems facing Czech media today.

Unlike the British media, which are always extremely critical of politicians, Czech media are relatively tame. Currently, the basic problem is lack of experience (most journalists are young and easily intimidated by politicians) and lack of funds. Since people in the Czech Republic earn only some 200 British pounds per month, it is very expensive for them (a) to buy a computer and connect onto the world wide web, (b) to travel abroad. Thus Czech media suffers from parochialism, although there are a couple of weekly magazines who are trying to public original reports, mostly from exotic countries.

The television scene is dominated by a crass American-owned commercial TV station with a Czech director (Vladimir Zelezny). This NOVA TV broadcasts mostly escapist stuff (Dallas, Beverly Hills, and similar American series and feature films). Its news is tabloidy and sensational in the worst possible sence. It includes almost no foreign coverage. Explicit sexual or violent items often top the news. (Some months ago, NOVA TV ran as the main story on the main evening news an item about a flasher, entering a small shop. The item consisted of an interview with a frightened shop-assistant, who was saying: "Here he revealed himself, and started approaching the counter, masturbating. And here on the counter, he culminated." (It would be almost comic if it were not tragic).

During my trip to the Czech Republic earlier this month, I drove through small villages in the highlands of the east of the country. After six o'clock at night, the villages are totally deserted. Everyone is at home. (Perhaps this is the result of communism: people stopped congregating in public because it was dangerous: you could never tell if what you said to your neighbours would not be reported to the police.)

This social fragmentation seems not to be being reinforced by NOVA TV, which is regularly followed by some 60 per cent of the Czech population. People are totally mesmerised by it. As I am saying, nobody was in the streets in the small Czech villages. The only thinkg you could hear, resounding through the village from people's living rooms, was the signature tune of NOVA TV.

It is perhaps quite amazing that Czech public service television is by law prevented from broadcasting analyses of political developments: it is supposed only to broadcast short, objective, factual reports of politics, without any comment. My colleague Ivan Kytka, the London reporter for CzechTV, frequently runs against difficulties: when he produces a piece of reportage which is too analytical, his editors in Prague are warning him that he might be breaking the law.

Generally, the greatest problem of the media in the Czech republic now is lack of systematic analytical coverage of problems. The media in a democracy should be to a certain extent setting the agenda to politicians, discovering problems and making politicians realise that these problems exist and to act upon them. Czech media still far too frequently just report what various members of the government tell the journalists. There are almost none independent political and economic institutions which a journalist could consult as independent observers.

How should the relationship between intellectuals and institutions of political power be, in your opinion?

There is no doubt that intellectuals should play the role of independent critical analysts of what is going on in their country. This was the gist of the verbal conflict between the British writer and university teacher Timothy Garton Ash and Vaclav Klaus at the International PEN Congress in November 1994. (Ash described the conflict in great detail in the New York Review of Books in January 1995.)

Ash argued that politicians deal in "half truths". Klaus was offended by this. Klaus maintained that no intellectual is truly independent. In the second part of the long piece, Ash criticises President Havel for "sitting on the fence". Ash argues that Havel' s position would have been much stronger as an independent intellectual rather than the President of the Czech Republic (who was elected only by the grace of the ruling government coalition. Let me add that many MP of Klaus's Civic Democratic Party showed quite a degree of arrogance towards Havel, talking, reading newspapers or playing computer games in parliament, when the President addressed it with one of his keynote speeches.)

The general election draw at the beginning of June was a very good lesson for the Czech Republic. Mind you, for many politicians and journalists it was an unexpected shock. (A leading TV commentator blabbered behind the scenes, when the election results, favourable to the social democrats were coming in: "This is a new 'February 48'!" [February 48 being when the communist took over power in Czechoslovakia.)The pro-government Czech newspapers attacked President Havel fairly strongly in the first days after the elections for not setting up a new government, headed by Vaclav Klaus, as quickly as possible.

How meaningful is it to draw a distinction between independent and dependent intellectuals?

Timothy Garton Ash would probably argue (and I would agree with it fully) that an intellectual can only be independent. A critical, independent mind is a defining feature of an intellectual.

What are the consequences of viewing the role of intellectuals as one of entrepreneurs in a free market?

This question cannot be answered in a straightforward way. The situation has been much more complex. Czech intellectuals were impoverished as a result of certain social conditions which were the result of certain policies (or rather of certain inaction) of the government. (By the way, it is perhaps interesting that the onging dispute between Czech doctors, represented by Dr. David Rath, who demand a higher social standing and higher salaries for themselves, was one of the most bitter, unresolved conflicts of the political era which ended by the general election at the beginning of June 96. The doctors' stance can be regarded as symbolic. They can perhaps be seen as defending the position of the Czech intelectuals.)

In what way can an analysis of the development of the role of intellectuals in the Czech Republic have a general value?

There is another interesting point. As a teacher of Czech literature, I can testify that for the duration of its almost seven-hundred year long history, Czech literature has always fought for moral values, for an independence of mind. It has always valued critical, independent thinking very highly. It has always fought for basic human decency and basic human rights. Looking at the few years after 1989 from this perspective, the disturbing situation in the Czech Republic has been a huge anomaly. But I feel that it is now gradually being corrected. Surely, sooner or later, proper, traditional values will be re-instated and things will return to normal.

Look for instance at book publishing. At the end of 1989, floodgates opened and the book market was swamped with a large number of hitherto banned books. As a result, the Czech reading public became disinterested in these books. Then, an avalanche of rubbish came onto the Czech book market. Now, the situation is returning to normal. Very interesting titles are again coming out, albeit in relatively small printruns. Etc.

Is your observation of the 700 year long moral tradition in Czech literature valid for Czech culture in general?

I think probably it IS true for other genres of Czech culture as well, although naturally literature, which is based on LANGUAGE, can express these concepts best of all. It is perhaps important to say that while Czech literature always SAYS that it strives for the highest humanistic ideals, i.e. the absolute, the notion of these ideals have probably differed considerably from age to age. A recent study of various works of Czech literature through the ages, by the British scholar Alfred Thomas, who teaches in the United States, argues that at different times, different moral approaches ("different discourses") clashed within Czech literature. But it is true that entertainment was never a primary concern for Czech literature. Czech literature has always been preocuppied by these "high ideals". Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Czechs are a small nation and have always needed to justify their existence? There have also been debates about the "meaning" of Czech history (Masaryk) and the "vocation" of the Czech nation. Can such debates be at all fruitful?

A general conclusion? Maybe it is very difficult to draw one. The 1989 revolution was yet another cataclysm for Central Europe. It freed people, but it disorientated them. For a few years after the revolution, many people in the Czech Republic tried to continue behaving in a monolith, communist manner, this time under a guise of a "right-wing" ideology. There are still many people in the Czech Republic who believe that a right wing ideological doctrine will save the country. (In a recent interview, the editor-in-chief of Mlada fronta Dnes, a leading Czech daily newspaper, said that it was perfectly normal for his paper to support the government and expressed an opinion that 'truly independent newspapers exist nowhere in the world".)

But there are now fewer such people in the Czech Republic than a year ago. I believe that their number is diminishing. During my most recent stay in Prague in June 1996 I had a distinct feeling that the monolith was breaking and that proper public debate was perhaps about to start. There are many people now, I feel, who hold these views, but for whom until recently, it was impossible to express them, because of the low quality of the Czech newspapers.

August 1996