Keychains and Potlucks

Author: Mikuláš Pštross

The essay “Keychains and Potlucks” contrasts two opposing moods prevalent among Czech citizens. In spite of the initial optimism of the so-called “Velvet revolution” many Czechs today are cynical and passive in relation to the public sphere; some even long for “the good old times”. On the other hand, active communities, where people trust each other while working for a common good, exemplify the notion of civil society. This essay invokes community as a place where the real democratic transition takes place.

 

"Rejoice citizens! Our country has undergone a democratic transition!" In this picture with turtledoves, two important-looking people are smiling and shaking hands with sparkles in their eyes. Fireworks burst into a rain of stars lining the background. A driver on the D1 intercity going 140 km an hour somewhere between Prague and Brno does not bat an eye at such a billboard appearing at the side of the road. Cynicism and distrust, a bad experience complemented by misinformation. "Here we are! Democracy - a wonderful label for a new type of systemic prison. It's not going to get any better, is it?" With his foot on the gas, the driver has escaped these thoughts, exceeding the speed limit even more...

Are there any reasons to celebrate the fall of a regime that claimed to be best equipped for the challenges of the future and yet could not even explain the elementary bonds that tie societies together? Optimism and trust: denied! A notion of a common good: yes, but don't bother asking the local greengrocer. He hasn't read our sacred texts so how could he know? The suffering of my neighbor: he deserved it anyway. And just because someone is trapped in the same grey rabbit cage, it doesn't make him any more special than the rest of us. Right to free speech: who told you to write this paper anyway? Your uncle from Canada? Or some other element disrupting the marvelous plans of the sages? Creating a bright future for everyone, except for the spoilers who disagree: "Throw them into the lions' pit!". For the sake of the others, for the sake of us all.

The echoes of the past vibrating in our eardrums. "Quiet!" Keychains ringing in the distance. Something is in the air. Crowds of people, not just sheep. Sounds of joy. "Our hands are empty!" As they have always been, anyway. Euphoria, the walls are cracking. As if a cirrus of New Year's resolutions merged into a cumulus of good intentions; a cloudy sky before the storm. Revitalizing mana from the sky replenishing our resources squandered decades go. And yet, the pouring rain failed to wash away all the relics of the past. In fact, those who claimed the sky was always bright participated in the rain dance. A whirlpool of water, air and light.

And yet things have not remained in situ. A building being reconstructed, radiating bright shades of colors. The same building? Maybe, but at least the elevator has an emergency button. "Hello, how can I help you?" "Well, it seems I'm trapped..." "A technician is on his way. Please remain calm. Thank you for using our services!" So maybe only death and taxes remain certain. Wait a minute, I can shout out the name Franklin and not get arrested. Maybe I can say that communism was a good ideology, but wasn't carried out well. Or better yet, as my father says - it was a horrible ideology, but carried out far too well... Yeah, that sounds about right.

Here we are now. Rights acquired just by being born into the Homo sapiens family. Representatives we can choose and/or criticize. A variety of organizations devoted to improving the quality of life. You name it: the environment, social justice, remembering our neighbor (who is obviously not a rabbit and even if he was, we would not devour him). The beliefs we won't be persecuted for. Is this all that belongs to the so-called "democratic transition"? Isn't there something missing? If so, what is it?

Just as one and one is two, liberty can never exist without responsibility. "Wait a minute - I did not sign up for that... whatever it means." Maybe if our driver did not go 140 km/h he would not have missed the billboard. "But my interview in Brno is so important, I can't afford to be late!" The all-encompassing tablets of precepts. Where do they end? And yet, rules do not completely fulfill the definition of responsibility. We have no choice, but to look at it from a different angle.

"Our neighborhood committee meets tomorrow. Please think about the design of our new playground. And bring some food for our potluck lunch." "Can I give you a call about Alík's broken leg?" "Definitely, poor dog, he must have suffered a lot. I hope he gets better asap." So dogs are my neighbors too? I am surely hearing and seeing new things. People chatting peacefully, a group of children playing in the park: they don't belong to the same family! Old men sipping tea. Where have politics gone? Why is no one criticizing the government? Should I tell them what I think about our deputies? These people are not just being polite. Are they actually excited about the new playground? And what I hear next sounds like nothing I have ever heard before: "Why don't we all chip in for the new slide?"

Community. A single word so empowered with meaning, especially when its full definition can sometimes become so tangible. Or can it? It all depends on one's point of view. "Yeah, but why should I be active? I don't get any money for it?" Or as the grandma of a young volunteer from Ústí nad Labem put it: "Even a chicken doesn't dig for free..." So why bother? For the fun? For the friends? For the potluck cakes? And maybe even for the greater good? The soldiers of the past, marching in the streets probably did not look as happy. But something tells me that a group of people can actually dedicate their free time and money to something that exceeds their immediate needs. And have a good feeling about it. A sense of an acquired meaning. In fact, how else can the demos of democracy "rule" other than in the small everyday tasks. Details sometimes display the most beauty, if you know what I mean, and especially if they are done with the intention of helping others. A change of definition: from a rabbit to MY neighbor.

What a contrast. "But I thought we were talking about something completely different! You know how the politicians haven't changed, how they act like old commies and how they just dig up all the money for themselves... and the corruption is overwhelming, I can't trust anyone." A set of exclamations follows. Community or democratic transition. The choice is yours and it doesn't matter what you call it. But deep down there is a call for responsibility and that call can only be answered if people act together to help one another. Or put more simply: if they care. Caring - that's the term I have been looking for.

Sometimes I wonder if Alexis de Tocqueville was our contemporary and if instead of going to the United States, he visited the Czech Republic, whether he would be able to write that Czechs "of all ages, all conditions, and all minds constantly unite together." It is never-the-less very important to create and sustain active communities. Citizenship means caring with others for others. Gone are the grey nimbostratus clouds that prevent the light from shining through. Democracy or maybe a "federation of communities". The term community can only enlighten our understanding of democracy if we experience what a community means in real life. All the money spent on cheesy billboards would thus be wasted - a quick glance from a fast going car never lead to a question. But there are activities in everyday life that surely can.

 


 

Mikuláš Pštross is a student of humanities and a teacher of civic education, interested and active in community organizing and nonprofit management. He worked with a number of Czech nonprofits designing programs which aimed to increase young people’s engagement in public affairs. He is currently researching the implications of Emmanuel Levinas’ philosophy on civil society and is applying for Ph.D. program in the field of community development and nonprofit management.

 


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