Intellectuals And Their Position In The Czech Republic Now


The Debate

Sociologist Jirina Siklova, who spoke first, condemned the whole piece outright as a rehash of communist rubbish. The young editor-in chief of the political weekly Respekt Vladimir Mlynár said, I quote: "It is impossible to react to this talk. Because when I say at the end, God preserve us from the kind of intellectual Mr Culík represents, Mr Culík will welcome me saying so. He wants to hear my condemnation. When I start abusing him here, this will be for him a confirmation of everything he has been saying.

Point one: the media cannot now play an important role in the Czech Republic, because after the fall of communism, words have lost their weight. Mr Culík is right when he says that Czech intellectuals are failures. But why is this? For forty years, talented people ended up as intellectuals because they could not be doing anything else. These days they go into business, which you of course despise.

Mr Culík, you are telling us that we should have good journalists. But where can they come from after forty years of communism? Your demands are impossible.

You have said that politicians blackmail journalists. That is a blatant lie. I have never been blackmailed by politicians. Yet my weekly is one of the most daring in the Czech Republic. I hope that Petruska Sustrova, from Cesky tydenik, which is often quite critical of the government, will confirm this.

Petruska Sustrova: I have not heard of politicians blackmailing journalists, but I know that journalists who ask critical questions are not invited to take part in television discussions and are not invited to informal meetings with ministers.

Jaromir Slomek, on staff of Literární noviny: Every sentence of Mr Culík's talk was controversial. You are telling us that we should write for daily newspapers like Karel Capek. But Capek was an exceptional personality of European stature. It is easy to say that we should be like him. You said that students do not read books in Czech schools. I must say that books have never been read in Czech schools and should never be read in Czech schools. Students are to be taught at school, not to read books at school.

Zdenek Pinc, who teaches philosophy at Prague University: I would like to ask myself to what extent what Mr. Culík was saying here is connected with the topic of this seminar. And I think it has a great deal of relevance for the topic of this seminar. Because this seminar deals with the experience of Czech exiles. Many of you who have returned to the Czech republic after the fall of communism have had very sad experiences because you were not received as warmly as you had expected. And you should thank Mr Culík for this I am not saying that you irritate me, Mr. Culík. Mr Culík, your talk was impolite. I was debating with you until two o'clock in the morning last night, I was trying to understand certain things and it was very pleasant. But if you come with a missionary lecture among cannibals who do not want to hear such a lecture, you are asking for an unpleasant experience. I do not know about the Czech Republic, but in my family, Mr. Culík, you are a persona non-grata. I do not want people like you to talk to my children and I would like to ask Vilem Precan not to send me the text of your lecture. Strictly for hygienic reasons. I have met a large number of people who speak like you, Mr. Culík. They mostly come from Britain or from America. I know that they mean well, but, excuse me, Hitler also meant well.

Zdenek Kotrly, former MP and writer from Brno: In Brno there was a very professional team of journalists working for the catholic daily Lidova demokracie. The paper went bankrupt. The journalists lost their jobs. They have found it impossible to find new journalistic jobs because they do not write in a way which is encouraged by the powers that be. There are two Charter 77 signatories among them.

Jiri Pelikan, former member of the European Parliament for the Italian socialist Party, publisher of the bimonthly Listy: Mr Pinc was saying here that he does not even want to touch Mr. Culík's lecture. I, on the other hand would like to ask Vilem Precan to send it to me. So far, I have always thought that tolerance was the main feature of independent Czech thinking. That is why - if Mr Culík's piece is not published by a newspaper with a large print run, our small Listy would like to print it. The piece has made me think.

Jiri Vancura, editor of Listy: There are situations which unsettle us. I am shocked by Jirina Siklova, with whom I have been working for many years. For the first time in my life I thoroughly disagree with her. I was amazed when I heard Professor Pinc. Yesterday he gave a moving lecture about tolerance. He talked about things I will not forget in several years. But today, what he said was not tolerant at all. Ladies and gentlemen, I know very well what Mr Culík is talking about. He has made available to Listy an analysis by a British-Czech economist which nobody in this country would publish for five years. I know how Mr Culík went round economists in the West, trying to find counter-arguments against this article. He is not biased. Perhaps we should learn better manners. Mr Mlynár, how can you say that Mr Culík is lying when he talks about journalists being blackmailed by politicians, when he talks about NOVA television being blatantly pro-government? Surely it is enough to watch that television station, you do not need the insider information Mr Culík has given us.

Sylvie Richterova, Czech fiction writer and Czech lecturer at Rome university: What is going on here at this moment is not about Czech exiles. It shows us one very important, fundamental, maybe tragic fact, which could turn out to be very valuable for all of us - that of course depends only on ourselves. Those of us who have lived abroad know very well that for five, six years now it has been impossible to find a common language with those who had stayed behind, although we had all started out from the same point of departure.

Languages carry experience. Yesterday we talked about this for a long time. Not to allow somebody else's language means not to allow his or her experience. We know very well that a language is like a pair of glasses - Comenius wrote about this. When -you do not take these glasses off, you will never learn how other people see things. We do meet, so this means that we do want to understand one another. When Mr Culík spoke here today, he talked about things that everyone who comes from the outside has noticed. If it is not a sin to come from the outside, if we do not assume that he has come to harm us, it is necessary to listen to him.

I do not want to defend Mr Culík. But I have noticed what a tragic lack of understanding there is between us. People from the Czech Republic tell us: things are what they are because it has to be like this because of certain historic conditions. Those who do not respect this must shut up. People from elsewhere have taken a risk - they are trying to find a common ground with people at home. Mr Culík has experienced racism here.

In 1990 I was invited to Trident to the faculty of sociology, to a congress called European Springs. I stood up and with some trepidation I told them there: you are talking about European Springs and you do not realise that you live in a country and work at a faculty where you are pampered and can do what you want. Czech intellectuals would laugh at you. Before you discuss European Springs, you should realise that there lies a chasm between East and West. Words that are identical mean often totally different things in the East and in the West, and words which are different may often mean the same things. My lecture was called the Ghost born in Europe. I said that that chasm across which I had been trying to jump - from one to the other side for twenty-five years, that chasm will never disappear if each and every one of us, from their own sides, do not descend to the very bottom of the precipice and if people do not examine what kind of ghosts are hiding there. Because this is a ghost - the inability to listen to somebody else, not to free oneself from one's own views and examine whether the person opposite may not be right. Mr Pinc yesterday told us that it is all-important to listen to other people. Today he showed us that there are limits to your tolerance. But, excuse me, these limits are very very low indeed.

I do not want to reproach you. But beware: there is total misunderstanding between us. If we do not attempt to analyse this misunderstanding, which is only a symptom of the divided Europe, we will never get anywhere. The Czechs constantly talk about wanting to join Europe. But first, we must realise what divides us. From both sides. Just as left-wing intellectuals are guilty because for so many years it did not seem strange to them what was happening in the East, not to close one's eyes, not to want to see, just to say: be quiet and do not interfere, that is a dead end. That is all. I wonder why Mr Uhde (Speaker of Czech Parliament) is making such terrible grimaces at me.Antonín Liehm: I am one of those people about whom Zdenek Pinc spoke. I am one of those who are impolite and come and interfere with what is none of their business, using the wrong language. Although I do not like Mr Culík's missionary tone, it is true that this discussion is not a discussion about Mr Culík, it is a discussion about all of us. Because all of us know that there is an awful lot of truth in what Culík has said. Nobody has mentioned this. You do not like that Culík criticises you, but all that is irrelevant. What is interesting is where he is right. And I am telling you: If Literární noviny printed - having cut that missionary conclusion - Mr Culík's speech and invited people to take part in a debate about what he has said, people would start reading that paper. Because they would find themselves in his arguments.

This is not a question of tolerance. The problem is that six years after the revolution we are still unable to take on board a view which is in direct contradiction to our own view. Perhaps we should examine whether our own views are as bullet-proof as we make out. So, I am very glad that Mr Culík spoke here the way he spoke because had he not done so, this debate would not have started and we would not have learnt a number of very important things about ourselves.

Eduard Goldstücker: It may be that I am more or less speaking from inner exile so I have a full understanding for what Mr Culík has said here. You see, we should respect the principle that a critical piece should be assessed according to what it contains and not according to who has written it. All the critics have attacked Culík's tone. That is an old method of avoiding criticism. Judging these reactions, you would think that everything in the Czech Republic is just perfect. Is that true? Is intellectual life flourishing here? We have totally lost the art of dispassionate, intellectual, rational debate. Mr. Culík's paper has shown that. When somebody presents a different view, his person is immediately attacked. No attempt is made to counter rational argument by rational argument.

There is a total levelling of ideas and attitudes in our cultural life. People do not have the courage to differ from the ideological mainstream. We lack intellectual courage. This is not just the after-effect of communist totalitarianism. The most frequent quotation that I have heard in the past six years is a quote from Friedrich von Hayek, saying that intellectuals who created noble ideas thereby caused the worst catastrophes in the world. In other words, beware of the intellectuals. This is what paralyses Czech intellectual life, what paralyses a free exchange of opinions. Hence I am very glad that Mr Culík has spoken. It is up to us to take from his speech what is the truth and what we should be thinking about and include it in our lives. Petruska Sustrova: I must say that I am really amazed. Surely we should be able to accept provocative argumentation.. But I am really surprised. I thought that Czech émigrés and dissidents understood one another. It is totally amazing for me to see that each side uses a totally different language. Why do we meet when we are not willing to talk to one another? To jump up and say that it is impossible to listen to this and there is no point arguing about what has been said, OK, do not let us discuss anything then. But most of what Mr Culík said is true. I do not agree with his enthusiasm for networking and I also think that he does not distinguish properly between an intellectual and a journalist, but all those things he has said, come on, all of you are perfectly familiar with everything that he has talked about.

Miroslav Kusy, Slovak political scientist: I really do feel that I am now only an outside observer. I realise that I simply no longer understand things in the Czech Republic. The division of Czechoslovakia is truly complete. I have followed this discussion with total amazement. I have realised that Czech society is now fully "normalised", like in the 1970s. You have assumed the typical attitude of Husak's "normalisers" in the 1970s, rejecting and trying to discredit a view which is uncomfortable to you. Czech society has jumped straight from "real socialism" into "real capitalism". This capitalism of yours you created here you present as the best possible of all kinds of capitalism. This is my feeling , as someone who has been following this debate as a total outsider and to whom it seems that your reaction was absolutely inappropriate.


This is an abbreviated English translation of a text, published in Czech in LISTY No. 1/1996