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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

About small nations

Readers may have been surprised that the previous post on my Scottish visit did not mention the prospect of independence for that country – after all the official start to the 2 year debate (more hopefully “discussion”) on that subject was made during my visit. 
Perhaps as an ex-pat of 22 years’ standing who no longer is entitled to vote, I feel it inappropriate to comment. But no, it is more a matter of my own vacillation on the matter. I have – over the piece – blown hot and cold on the issue. 
In the late 1970s, when there was a referendum on the issue, I campaigned actively against the notion of a Scottish Parliament (believing it a slippery slope to independence) but, in the privacy of the polling both, found myself voting yes! Although a majority of those voting did favour a change, it was not a majority of those entitled to vote and the status quo prevailed at the time. But, as the Thatcherism which was so consistently rejected by Scotland, began to bite there too in the late 1980s, I strongly supported the constitutional campaign which got underway then for a measure of independence - which the Scottish Parliament and Executive has given the country since 1999. 
In the 1950s we mocked the notion of a country of 5 million people being independent but Norway and many EU members now demonstrate its feasibility – let alone desirability. I have worked in many of these countries recently – Czechia, Slovakia, Hungary, Kyrgyzstan, LatviaAnd I was fascinated a few days ago by an article After the Velvet Divorce by Martin Simecka which spoke about the linguistic aspects of the two countries which were united until the late 1990s - 
The two languages, indistinguishable to a foreigner, represent two independent entities in my brain. Czech, historically more ancient and rich, is aggressive and domineering, words seem to rush to the lips of their own accord and listening to Czechs speak you feel they are literally revelling in their language and don't know when to stop. This is a feeling I am intimately familiar with: even if you lack any ideas, Czech allows you to spout meaningless nonsense or lies, and still give the impression of speaking wisely and truthfully – that's how enthralling Czech is. It has the enormous advantage of a formalized division between so-called common (colloquial) and standard Czech, both versions of which are acceptable in writing, if necessary. The richness of the Czech language, however, is sometimes more of an obstacle than an advantage, and does not make it any easier in and of itself to understand national identity. Havel was right when he bitterly remarked that "talk of Czech national identity often doesn't go beyond mere chatter".
Perhaps one of the reasons why Czechoslovakia had to split was the fact that the Slovaks felt humiliated by the verbal dominance of Czech politicians, who spoke seemingly rationally but in reality misused their language to suppress the budding Slovak longing for equal rights. Even Havel, one of the few people capable of moulding the Czech language into a most beautiful shape, took far too long to understand the urgency of this Slovak longing.  Slovak is soft and melodious and you can tell Slovak women by their voices, which are higher and more delicate. It is humble yet it doesn't let itself be violated. Of course, you can lie and talk nonsense in Slovak, too, but thanks to the sobriety of the language you are soon found out and your words turn into embarrassing drivel. Lacking a written colloquial form like Czech, Slovak imposes discipline and accuracy on the speaker.
  Unlike the Czechs the Slovaks can now elect their mayors (as well as the country's President) by direct vote, which has curtailed the excessive power of the political parties; the country has been more profoundly decentralized; and the prosecutor's office has been separated from the executive (the Prosecutor General is elected by parliament, whereas in the Czech Republic he is appointed by the government).
In the fight against corruption Slovakia puts greater emphasis on transparency: all state contracts with private companies have to be published on the Internet and for the past ten years anonymous firms have been banned from trading their stocks. In the Czech Republic most companies that are awarded state tenders still have undisclosed owners, many of whom are undoubtedly politicians.

the fight against the grey economy has even managed to override the traditionally more relaxed attitude to money mentioned above. In a Czech pub, a waiter will typically add up your bill on a scrap of paper and you have to rely on his maths skills. On the other hand, even in the remotest corner of Slovakia, if you order a beer you will receive a proper receipt from an electronic cash register. The Slovaks introduced these registers ten years ago as part of the fight against tax evasion, while the Czechs still keep making excuses, claiming this form of oversight is too expensive.
It was understandable that, in the immediate post-war period, people were suspicious of anything which smacked of nationalism. Times have changed. Some time ago I resurrected an important book by Lepold Kohr 
Two insights I found particularly relevant – one which he produces as one of the reasons for the intense cultural productivity of the small state – “in a large state, we are forced to live in tightly specialised compartments since populous societies not only make large-scale specialisation possible – but necessary. As a result, our life’s experience is confined to a narrow segment whose borders we almost never cross, but within which we become great single-purpose experts”... “A small state offers the opportunity for everybody to experience everything simply by looking out of the window" – whereas a large state has to employ a legion of soi-disant experts to define its problems and produce “solutions”. The other striking comment he makes is – “the chief blessing of a small-state system is ...its gift of a freedom which hardly ever registers if it is pronounced.....freedom from issues....ninety percent of our intellectual miseries are due to the fact that almost everything in our life has become an ism, an issue... our life’s efforts seem to be committed exclusively to the task of discovering where we stand in some battle raging about some abstract issue... The blessing of a small state returns us from the misty sombreness of an existence in which we are nothing but ghostly shadows of meaningless issues to the reality which we can only find in our neighbours and neighbourhoods
Most people would probably see this as utopian – and yet its argument is ruthless. As he puts it at one stage in the argument – “many will object to the power or size theory on the ground that it is based on an unduly pessimistic interpretation of man. They will claim that, far from being seduced by power, we are generally and predominantly animated by the ideals of decency, justice, magnanimity etc This is true, but only because most of the time we do not possess the critical power enabling us to get away with indecency”.Kohr’s main challenge, however, is to the principle of specialisation and you will find in chapter 6 – “The Efficiency of the Small”. There he is merciless in his critique of the “wealth” of the “modern” world – daring to suggest that most of is useless and counter-productive and that people were happier in medieval times! “The more powerful a society becomes, the more of its increasing product – instead of increasing individual consumption – is devoured by the task of coping with the problems caused by the rise of its very size and power”
This is the bible for both new management and the “slow-food” movement! The writing sparkles – and includes a good joke about a planner who, having died, is allowed to try to organise the time people spend in Heaven into more rational chunks of activity, fails and sent to help organise Hell. “I’m here to organise Hell”, he announces to Satan – who laughs and explains that “organisation IS hell”.

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