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Prague in Spring

A riff on jazz, dissent and democracy in dark times

“I merely took the energy it takes to pout, and I wrote some blues.” -Duke Ellington

I started writing this in Prague, on May 20, which is my birthday, while sitting across the street from Villa Lana, the home of the Czech Academy of Sciences, which for the past twenty-five years has served as home to the annual May “Prague Conference” on Philosophy and Social Science.

The Conference brings together scholars from across Europe, the Americas, and indeed all parts of the world, to discuss Critical Theory. It has its roots in the annual summer conferences organized every Spring by the Praxis group of Yugoslavian Marxists, so-called because of their commitment to a “Marxist humanism” and links to the journal Praxis, and then to the offshoot Praxis International, edited for many years by teams of Western and Yugoslavian scholars that included Mihailo Markovic, Svetozar Stojanovic, Richard J. Bernstein, and Seyla Benhabib. As Alessandro Ferrara—one of the current conference organizers—explains in his fine Introduction to a special June 2017 issue of Philosophy and Social Criticism on the conference, while the original Praxis conferences met in Korcula and then Dubrovnik, in 1991 the rise of Serbian nationalism, and the looming Yugoslavian civil wars, drove a wedge between the Yugoslavian and Western organizers, ending both the Dubrovnik conference and the journal Praxis International. In 1993 the now-mainly Western organizers found a new home for the conference in Prague; in 1994 the journal Constellations: A Journal of International Critical Theory was founded; and for the past quarter-century the conference has taken place every year, serving–along with Constellations and Philosophy and Social Criticism–as a major nodal point of Critical Theory as a global theoretical discourse.

The Prague conference is an excellent and engaging scholarly conference. This year I attended for the third time. The conference featured five themes: suffering and critique; the ethics and politics of migration and borders; truth and politics; performing protest; and populism, “the people,” and the crisis of liberal democracy. The latter topic occupied much attention. Don Moon, Maria Pia Lara, David Rasmussen and I all delivered plenary lectures on the topic; mine was a version of “Putting Liberal Democracy First,” which recently appeared in Dissent. The ascendancy of authoritarian populism in the vicinity—Hungary, Poland, Slovakia—loomed in the background of much discussion. At the same time, little of the discussion centered on the region per se, and the overall tone of the conference was, in an interesting way, post-post-communist. This can be seen, positively, as a reflection of a preoccupation with a crisis of neoliberalism that is playing out not simply in Eastern Europe but across Europe and the Americas as well. It can also be seen, more critically, as a kind of forgetfulness about recent experiences of Communism, and the trajectories of resistance to it, that should perhaps not be so quickly forgotten. Both things seem true.

I thought a lot about these things during the conference, which featured much lively and constructive discussion and debate, and as I traversed the streets of Prague, an extraordinary city. I thought about Paul Berman’s 1997 A Tale of Two Utopias: The Political Journey of the Generation of 1968 , which nicely charted the consonances and dissonances between Western and Eastern European experiences of the rebelliousness of 1968. I thought about the legacy of Vaclav Havel, and the precarious legacy of that generation of dissidents, as recently discussed in these pages by my friend Adam Michnik, in his evocatively titled “From Velvet Revolution to Velvet Dictatorship: Reflections on Democratic Regression,” and also by Public Seminar’s Founding Editor, Jeffrey Goldfarb, in his recent “The Democracy Seminar Then and Now” (I also strongly recommend Elzbieta Matynia’s 2014 collection An Uncanny Era: Conversations Between Vaclav Havel and Adam Michnik).

While in Prague I visited with my old friend Martin Palous, a former leader of Charter 77, a close associate of Havel’s, and now a Director of the Vaclav Havel Library Foundation in Prague and also Director of the Vaclav Havel Center for Human Rights and Diplomacy at Florida International University. I thought about how odd it is that Martin is not involved in the conference. I visited with my friend Halyna Senyk, a Senior Program Advisor at the CEELI Institute (Central and East European Law Institute), who was in the process of organizing an important conference on “Using EU Legal Tools to Advocate Against European Crackdowns on Civil Society.” I wished that she too had been a participant in the conference. There are so many important conversations to be had and connections to be nourished.

On my last day in Prague I traversed the old city, and came upon an extraordinary art exhibit at the Prague National Gallery at the Kinsky Palace. Jiri Kolar: The Grimace of the Century features the work of Jiri Kolar, a brilliant Czech writer and artist who played a major role in the cultural ferment leading to the 1968 Prague Spring. Kolar was an artistic and a political dissident, one of the earliest signers of Charter 77, and the art on display testifies to the hypocrisy and the cruelty of the Czech experience under communism, and evocatively depicts the dashing of the hopes of the Prague Spring by the so-called “fraternal assistance” of Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops, who deposed the Dubcek government and brutally cracked down on independent cultural activity and political dissent.

Being in Prague, in the Spring, walking the same streets on which these events unfolded, was a bracing experience. (During this trip I also visited the Nazi concentration camp at Terezin; that bracing experience will be the subject of a separate column.)

As I walked, I carried with me Talkin’ Moscow Blues: Essays About Literature, Politics, Movies, and Jazz, a terrific collection of essays by Josef Skvorecky. Skvorecky, who died in 2012 at the age of 87, was a major Czech writer and cultural figure whose novels were routinely banned by the Czech authorities in the 1950’s and 1960’s. He was active in the Prague Spring; emigrated to Toronto with his wife Zdena Salivarova after the Soviet-led invasion; and with Salivarova founded 68 Publishers, which for decades published banned Czech literature, including work by Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Ludvik Vaculik, and many others. I first encountered Skvorecky, and his book, in the pages of the Atlantic in 2012, in a terrific tribute written by J.J. Gould entitled “Josef Skvorecky on the Nazis’ Control-Freak Hatred of Jazz.” Gould reproduced a widely-shared text from the Introduction to Svorecky’s novel The Bass Saxophone, in which Svorecky describes his early days as a young jazz lover and jazz musician under the Nazi Occupation of Czechoslovakia, and recalls from memory the musical regulations instituted by the Nazi Reich:

  1. Pieces in foxtrot rhythm (so-called swing) are not to exceed 20% of the repertoires of light orchestras and dance bands;
  2. in this so-called jazz type repertoire, preference is to be given to compositions in a major key and to lyrics expressing joy in life rather than Jewishly gloomy lyrics;
  3. as to tempo, preference is also to be given to brisk compositions over slow ones so-called blues); however, the pace must not exceed a certain degree of allegro, commensurate with the Aryan sense of discipline and moderation. On no account will Negroid excesses in tempo (so-called hot jazz) or in solo performances (so-called breaks) be tolerated;
  4. so-called jazz compositions may contain at most 10% syncopation; the remainder must consist of a natural legato movement devoid of the hysterical rhythmic reverses characteristic of the barbarian races and conductive to dark instincts alien to the German people (so-called riffs);
  5. strictly prohibited is the use of instruments alien to the German spirit (so-called cowbells, flexatone, brushes, etc.) as well as all mutes which turn the noble sound of wind and brass instruments into a Jewish-Freemasonic yowl (so-called wa-wa, hat, etc.);
  6. also prohibited are so-called drum breaks longer than half a bar in four-quarter beat (except in stylized military marches);
  7. the double bass must be played solely with the bow in so-called jazz compositions;
  8. plucking of the strings is prohibited, since it is damaging to the instrument and detrimental to Aryan musicality; if a so-called pizzicato effect is absolutely desirable for the character of the composition, strict care must be taken lest the string be allowed to patter on the sordine, which is henceforth forbidden;
  9. musicians are likewise forbidden to make vocal improvisations (so-called scat);
  10. all light orchestras and dance bands are advised to restrict the use of saxophones of all keys and to substitute for them the violin-cello, the viola or possibly a suitable folk instrument.

Talkin’ Moscow Blues includes a fine essay entitled “Red Music,” in which Skvorecky writes about the power of jazz as a form of musical expression and cultural freedom, and about how the Nazi approach to jazz was mirrored by the “entirely different dictatorship” instituted by the Communists in 1948. Skvorecky is withering in his account of the regime’s promotion of a caste of “new little Goebbelses” who made “literary” careers for themselves by disparaging, attacking, and harassing independent jazz musicians and critics, while at the same time serious critics were marginalized or disallowed to publish and real musical creativity was stifled.

It is now fairly well known that Charter 77 was spurred by the Communist government’s arrest of members of the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, a story nicely told by James Sullivan in his 2011 Rolling Stone piece “How a Revolutionary Czech Rock Band Inspired Vaclav Havel” (see also the terrific 2001 documentary “A Plastic People of the Universe”).

Here is some footage from a 1972 performance of the band:

Here is a clip from an official propaganda film denouncing the influence of the counterculture, of which Plastic People was one important expression:

What is less well known is that during this period a principal supporter of the new music, which combined elements of psychedelic garage rock and jazz fusion, was the Jazz Section of the dissident Czech Musicians Union. In a 1984 piece called “Hipness at Noon,” Skvorecky profiled the courageous activism of Karel Srp, who worked tirelessly in the 1970’s and ‘80’s to publish small journals and magazines featuring independent music and culture criticism and samizdat literature, and to promote the activities and performances of the musical avant garde. In 1987 Srp and a colleague were tried, convicted of “irregular business practices,” and imprisoned by the government for their “subversive” efforts. In June of 1988 Skvorecky published a critique of this repression in The New York Review of Books entitled “Jamming the Jazz Section.” This is how he concluded:

The case of the Jazz Section, it would seem, is far from over. Every report from Prague agrees that the trial held in Spring 1981 could not take place in Spring 1988—the effects of glasnost would prevent it. Much depends on the continuing energy of Karel Srp and his friends, and on their having strong domestic support . . . But equally important will be international backing for the Jazz Section and also, unfortunately, the unpredictable climactic conditions of the Muscovy empire.

Skvorecky could not have known it at the time, but in a way he was right, but in another way he was mistaken. In a little over a year, in November 1989, the Velvet Revolution brought the end of Communist rule and with it the end of the legal case against the Jazz Section. At the same time, the Section has lived on, as both a symbol of the earlier dissidence and as an ongoing enterprise that has continued to promote jazz in the Czech Republic. And Srp, who has become a successful music publisher and promoter, remains its head.

And here is where things become a bit interesting. For Srp remains a public figure of controversy, but in a different connection: as a close associate of Milos Zeman, the recently-reelected current President of the Czech Republic. Zeman has widely been described as “the European Trump.” He is a right-wing populist, and a demagogue with authoritarian tendencies who is a fan of Vladimir Putin and an adamant opponent of immigration. He also works closely with both the far left Communists (which won around 8% in recent elections) and the far-right SPD (Freedom and Direct Democracy party, which won around 11%), which is closely aligned with the Austrian Freedom Party, the Italian Northern League, and the French National Front in the “Europe of Nations and Freedom” initiative. According to an article recently published in Politico: “Zeman’s victory was welcomed by Tomio Okamura, the head of the far right-wing, anti-immigration SPD, who shared the podium with Zeman. ‘It is obvious that there are more and more citizens in the Czech Republic who are able to think for themselves,’ he told Czech television. ‘President Zeman promotes direct democracy, is anti-immigrant, is anti-Islamic, is patriotic and he is a warrior against international terrorism.’”

Politico also reports that the run-up to Zeman’s re-election featured a broad billboard campaign featuring the slogan “Stop Immigrants . . . This Country is Ours” supported by a shadowy group called “Friends of Milos Zeman”; and that the sources of the group’s funding are obscure, with some suspecting that it is financed in part by Putin.

And it turns out that one of the leaders of “Friends of Milos Zeman” is none other than . . . Karel Srp.

Srp continues to promote jazz, and indeed this very month he participated in an exhibition organized by the Jazz Section, in collaboration with the National Monument Institute, commemorating the anniversary of the Prague Spring and of the role of the Jazz Section in the years that followed. In 2013 he was awarded a Medal of Honor by Zeman for his previous activism, and in 2017 he was nominated by Zeman to serve on the government-sponsored Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (an institute that has been mired in controversy, like similar institutes throughout Eastern Europe that seek to provide official and sometimes partisan interpretations of the Communist past). But Srp’s nomination was withdrawn in August 2017 because of controversies over his past connected to lustration, linked to unverified charges that in 1968 Srp belonged to the Communist Party (many dissidents were Communist till that point), but also to allegations that he may have cooperated with secret police thereafter.

Srp remains for many an iconic anti-Communist dissident. He is a lover of jazz. And, at the same time, he is now clearly associated with Zeman’s brand of nationalist populism and xenophobia, with its far-right hostility to liberalism and its call to “take our country back.”

My knowledge of Srp’s trajectory, and of his current activities, is sketchy, limited to the very public details recounted above. It seems pretty clear to me that he was once a hero of artistic freedom, cultural pluralism, and the free flow of ideas, creations, and people across borders. He was an activist in the effort to tear down “iron curtains.” Now, it would appear, he is something else. He is hardly unique in this. One need look no further than the title of a recent New York Times profile of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban: “How a Liberal Dissident Became a Far-Right Hero, in Hungary and Beyond.” Orban’s Polish twin, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice Party, also began as an opponent of Communism. But there is little that is surprising in this. For as Hannah Arendt taught long ago, liberation from oppression is one thing, that can easily slip into its opposite, while support for freedom is something else, more challenging, and more precarious.

We live in dark times.

–Saturday, May 25, from Bucharest

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

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