September 2001  

September 29, 2001
The general was in a fighting mood. With international tensions on the rise, he ordered armored carriers to proceed to Prague at once to protect the offices of Radio Free Europe. Traffic was tied up for hours as soldiers moved into position around the building. Nobody knows how much longer it could have been tied up had half the carriers reached their location. They broke down on their way from the base, adding to the list of mishaps that have befallen the Czech military lately. Only earlier in the week a helicopter lost one of its machine guns in flight and the pilot didn't realize it until he landed. Enough, decided the army chief-of-staff, it was time to take action. He, therefore, called in the press and told them...lay off! OK, so the chopper lost its machine gun, let's not forget that American plane that lost an atomic bomb over Greenland (interesting comparison). As for the armored carriers breaking down, he insists the problem is simply one of disorganization. There's no reason to draw up any far-reaching conclusions as a result of it. What's important is that his people carried out a safe and effective operation and for that he thanks them. The Minister of Defense dropped by the next day to check up on the operation. It was St. Václav's Day and he was grateful to his men for spending the holiday in uniform. He didn't seem to mind that the area in front of the building looked like a promenade, with young people loitering around and tourists taking photos of the armored carriers (one of which, incidentally, was leaking oil). The minister declined to answer whether the building was actually safe from attack, referring the question instead to his absent colleague, the Minister of the Interior. He did have his own question, though, namely for his troops: How's the food, fellas?

September 22, 2001
The two exhibitions have a lot in common. They show a lot of clothes that hark back to an era of fantasy, when greatness was the order of the age. The one running in the Czech Republic gives visitors a look at the gowns worn by the Proud Princess, the Princess with the Golden Star, the Madly Sad Princess, and so on. These films were made for the most part during the 1950s, when the harvest was always plentiful and imperialism was kept at bay. These films added a touch of class and elegance missing from the country's communist leadership. The leaders were a revolting lot, by turns bald, pale and greasy, they had big ears, syphilis and no charm. Their wives never ventured out into the open for fear of being snickered at alongside the princesses. Fantasyland came to an end around 1960, after the president with the big ears died. Huge monuments to Soviet heroes were toppled, people were free to talk about wheat as they pleased and the great moment in Czech cinema was about to begin. Perhaps most ignobly, the mausoleum housing the first worker's president, the one with the syphilis, was closed down. His embalmed body, already half-consumed by mold, was taken out and cremated
     Across the Atlantic, fantasyland was set to begin in America. Cranky old Dwight Eisenhower, who lashed out at squirrels for stealing his golf balls, was about to be retired to the farm along with his dowdy wife Mamie. In his place, America elected John Kennedy, a young, rich senator who wrote books that nobody bought but were bestsellers anyway. A certain allure hung over him, which explains why he was given a medal for losing his ship during the war. Take away the big teeth and atrocious accent and he was Prince Charming come to life. His wife was Jackie, a young, attractive and refined lady with unimpeachable taste. Never mind that she sounded like a bimbo when she spoke, she could speak French, and even had a French maiden name. She was the anti-Mamie in every sense of the word. America was the envy of the world with this exquisite couple hosting state dinners at the White House. And then it all came to an end in November 1963. Fantasyland was dead and America was about to head into the abyss of Vietnam.
     The show that ran in New York this summer was an exhibition of Jackie's wardrobe. In Prague, one doesn't want to imagine what the wardrobe of the Czech first ladies looked like. But the show in the States was a spectacular success, as Jackie meant it to be since the day after her husband died. For all her grief, it was she who made sure that his funeral was full of symbolism that would resonate today, made sure that the people understood her White House years were akin to Camelot, with John playing King Arthur and she his lovely Guinevere. In the Czech Republic, fantasyland is in disrepute. The films are still popular, but so too are newer ones that depict the darker side of the era. It was a time of political terror and enslavement to Moscow, of harvests that weren't all they were cracked up to be. But fantasyland has never been more popular in America. The country has long known about its sinister side, like John's Mafia connections and his covert operations against other nations. Jackie was a whiny snob, full of hate and scorn for the husband who had neither the culture nor class America believed he had. Even Kennedy's long-held finest hour, the Cuban Missile Crisis, was marred by later revelations that the U.S., instead of forcing the Russians to back down, had merely agreed to a missile swap.
     His untimely death gave Jackie the chance to script the Kennedy presidency as she wanted America to remember it. She got a lot of help from the next president, Lyndon Johnson, whom she privately dubbed Uncle Cornpone on account of his rustic demeanor. His wife, Little Porkchop, was Mamie Eisenhower all over again. One look at these two, who could easily pass for a presidential couple in Czech fantasyland, and America would surely pine for Camelot. But in the Oval office, beyond the view of cameras and the public, King Arthur was no match for Uncle Cornpone. The scale of Johnson's domestic program was the greatest since Roosevelt and he achieved it all by the force of his personality. He had only one problem. Vietnam, as he saw it, was a goddamn mess, but Kennedys people were urging him to stay the course. Not wanting to offend the now martyred John, Johnson stayed the course and got swamped by it. Martyrdom was then employed to stick the hick with Vietnam as his legacy.
     American fantasyland persists in part because it's good politics. When Reagan wanted to face down the Soviets with an arms buildup, he told America that's what Jack would've done. A good portion of the arms buildup went to Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries that now top America's most-wanted list. But it got its biggest boost from Clinton, who once met his hero John at the White House and evoked his name whenever he could. Clinton even made it a point of taking his first presidential vacation with Jackie. His wife went along, even though she preferred a homelier first lady as a role model. The cameras rolled, the press loved it.
     But more important, Clinton gave America another run at fantasyland. By deftly manipulating the economy and championing globalization, America had entered into an era of incredible prosperity. The Czechs never had a harvest like this one. People got rich for simply pitching business plans, homes and cars and waistlines got bigger and bigger. America could splurge like no other and did so with a vengeance. Heroes from previous wars were idolized, monuments were planned so that all Americans, whether they liked it or not, could take in their sacrifice. The decadence extended to American cinema, which was reduced to cheesy fronts for established actors and directors. The American media tried to do them one better by offering non-stop coverage of wrestlers, car chases and villains like OJ. Clinton weathered his sex scandals by basically telling America it's what Jack would've done. As for the world falling apart, America had an answer for every problem. When Rwanda was cut to pieces by genocidal warfare, Washington opened a holocaust museum. When civil war erupted in Kosovo, Clinton devised a war plan with no military deaths on the American side. It was having it all without paying any price.
     And now it's over. America started to wake up when the stock market got real, as it had to some day. It tried to keep the fantasy going this summer with Jackie's clothes, shark invasions and demanding that the FBI find some girl named Chandra. Now she might never be found. The FBI and America awoke to real horror and sacrifice when the twin towers came crumbling down in New York. Suddenly America is preparing to go to war. Ready to use its lethal arsenal of technology against the caves and holes of Afghanistan. There is no precedent for fighting such a war, but for believers in fantasyland, all will turn out well. At the peak of the Clinton years, a movie came out showing evil forces destroying much of New York and Washington. The president rallies his people by reminding them that it's their Independence Day. God willing, we shall overcome. Of course, he hasn't got the slightest clue on how to deal with these slimy bastards from another world. But the cable guy does. Just hand him a notebook computer and the darkness will be lifted. Jackie couldn't have scripted it better.
     Fantasyland almost made a comeback in the Czech Republic in the 1990s when former dissident Václav Havel was elected president. He was another hero in the Kennedy style, and rich too. He couldn't speak as well as John could, but he wrote his own material. Unlike Jackie, however, Havel has insisted on giving uncut versions of himself. The result is most people now wish he would go away. But the good news is this year's harvest is the best it has ever been during his years in office.

September 15, 2001
The European volleyball
championship was already underway here in Ostrava when the horror struck in America. After that nobody was taking any chances. Security guards swarmed the premises of the sport hall, frisking spectators at random and making it a point to scowl in all directions. I got stopped by a police car on my way there for running a stop sign. Hearing that I was from abroad, the officer instantly took a disliking to me. Ostrava has a visible Arab community and my jet-black hair and dark eyes probably made me look like a hijacker sitting in front of him. When he asked where I was from, I told him America and suddenly his demeanor became more accommodating. He even let me go without a ticket. And that's how it's been for much of last week. Friends calling or sending email to express their sorrow over what happened on the Eastern seaboard. On Friday, sirens blared and Imagine played on the radio as schools and offices paid tribute to the victims of this incredible disaster. There is widespread support for a swift and severe response, one that drags these perpetrators out of their holes. And when the rebuilding begins, America will be in good position to rediscover itself, to throw off the gorging and sloppiness of the Clinton years, when Wall Street and scandal ruled, when Africa fell apart and the sub-continent went nuclear, when the first attempt was made to bring down the colossal symbols of American economic dominance.

September 8, 2001
Hluboka is a very nice castle in South Bohemia. My plans to visit it this summer were washed away when a thunderstorm arrived just before I did. So I took off north instead to go see the nuclear power plant at Temelin. I could have gone on to see any number of castles in the area. In some places they stretch from hilltop to hilltop. But a new nuclear power plant is something special in this country, and a non-stop source for the bitter relations that now exist with Austria. The Austrians claim they don't want a Chernobyl in their backyard. So who does? The Czech towns bordering the plant don't even have enough money to carry out an emergency evacuation, yet they aren't whining about it to the extent their neighbors are. At first the neighbors tried to blockade the border in order to force the plant to shut down. When that didn't work, they went before the European Commission and succeeded in tying in Temelin to the future entry of the Czech Republic into the European Union. Strange that no mention was made of the older Soviet-era nuclear power plants that border Austria in other EU-candidate countries, like Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. The Czech Republic even has one at Duchovany, although it too has somehow missed the debate. It's also noteworthy that Austrian criticism is being spearheaded by the far-right party, which numbers quite a few people who remember the end of World War II quite well. At that time, some 3 million German-speaking people were expelled from Czechoslovakia upon the order of President Benes. To this day, many Czechs on all levels of society go out of their way to defend the Benes Decrees. This despite the fact that ethnic cleansing, as seen in the Balkans, is a nasty business, no two ways about it. President Havel, who happens to consider Temelin the worst mistake of his career, had already apologized on account of the decrees, but he has backpedaled in recent years from discussing the matter and the government and courts have all but declared it a dead issue. The Austrians (and Germans) surely don't see it that way and Temelin provides them with some diplomatic leverage against the Czechs. Of course, they insist that the plant is unsafe in any case, but they would do well to look in their own backyard first. A report just came out that the fire in the Austrian resort of Caprun last year, which claimed 155 lives, was caused by an unsafe heating system.

September 1 , 2001
When two heroes meet, it's a humbug of an experience. John McCain, erstwhile senator and former presidential candidate, was in Eastern Europe last week to whip up support for NATO expansion. On the way home he stopped off in Prague at the invitation of Václav Havel, who would love to see NATO units some day exercising along the Russian border. Both men, designated heroes for the time they had spent in prison, were all smiles and congratulations during their meeting. It was a good opportunity to meet, for Slobodan Milosevic was just then putting in another appearance before the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. They seem to think that as long as Milosevic stews, NATO's war against Yugoslavia in 1999 will always be justified. It doesn't matter to either man that the mess in Kosovo has only shifted south to Macedonia, nor that the war waged by Bill Clinton violated the U.N. charter. At the time, Havel said there was a "higher law" allowing NATO to let the "humanitarian bombs" fall. Meanwhile, McCain had just voted to impeach Clinton, but he was already planning to run for president and nothing will sink a candidate more in the U.S. than showing a lack of patriotism when the president, even one you think is unfit for the office, orders it. As for that former president, he spent the week down on the beach in Brazil playing volleyball. There's little chance he will be brought to The Hague in his lifetime. America simply will not tolerate a human rights tribunal that targets its own citizens. Case in point was the recent accusation that former senator Bob Kerrey had ordered the massacre of women and children during the Vietnam War. Fellow vets like McCain were indignant that the world would call into question their actions during war. Obviously he has more in common with Milosevic than he realizes.