The following analysis of the relationship of some members of the majority community toward the Romani minority in Slovakia is reprinted from the online Czech daily Deník referendum (in Slovak at http://www.denikreferendum.cz/clanek/14065-postavit-sa-proti-lavine-nenavisti-vyzva-k-politickej-a-obcianskej-odvahe). The author is Doc. Mgr. Eduard Chmelár, PhD, a Slovak civic activist, college teacher, historian, media analyst and political scientist. The piece calls on well-known people and personalities to break their silence regarding the rise of populism and racism in Slovakia.
This longer piece is definitely worth reading in its entirety and we are publishing it in recognition of the fact that the atmosphere in Czech society is gradually growing more and more like the atmosphere in Slovak society. Czech personalities who are publicly active, including politicians, should also find the courage to stand up for democratic values.
We must stand up to the avalanche of hatred: A call for civic and political courage
Slovakia is being shaken by waves of anger and hatred. The greatest concentration of negative energy since the end of the Second World War has accumulated here and could end in a tragedy of unimaginable dimensions. All the inveterate notions we created of ourselves as a benign, Christian, goodhearted nation are suddenly being proven false. The way in which the masses are reflecting on their coexistence with Romani people rather indicates that the mob does not want solutions, but merely to vent its anger. A mob does consider, it reacts. You cannot hear a person’s opinion from a mob, just its anger. Nothing good was ever built on anger.
Anger, desperation and fear are natural human emotions and responses to our lived experience. However, it is dangerous when these emotions are manipulated by someone in order to more easily dominate the masses, because the mob’s ignorance and prejudice become weapons of mass destruction in the hands of demagogues.
Here at the start I want to speak to all of the people who are angry and tell them that I feel their disgust, I do not underestimate their experiences, and I understand their concerns. No one is innocent in this situation. A whole generation of politicians passed the buck on this problem until it has grown to an almost unresolvable dimension and begun to spark panic. As always, when bad times come, people seek someone to blame instead of a way out. However, it is important to seek out processes that will work, not just theatrical gestures providing emotional relief. Otherwise we will all descend into a hell that will consume us irrespective of our skin color.
I will not tell you pleasant lies today in order to satisfy you and increase my popularity. I am going to tell you an unpleasant truth, something the politicians don’t want to tell you because they are cowards. The politicians tell you what you want to hear so they can keep you on their side. They lie straight to your faces and you enthusiastically applaud them. Someone has to tell you this. You chant slogans claiming you are not sheep, but sheep are what you behave like.
Based on unverified information, you spread half-trues and lies that turn into myths that are then handed down. You feed the politicians who covet power. On the one hand you curse them, and on the other hand you are easily trapped by them. It would be laughable if it did not have such tragic results. I will not flatter you, force myself on you or pander to you. I am not seeking your vote. I don’t care about being liked. I care that we live in truth.
Some of the politicians who are now flexing their muscles at the Romani people have not yet done anything to help any of you. The strong statements by Pavol Frešo, Ľudovít Kaník, Richard Sulík, Igor Matovič and Robert Kaliňák do not address YOUR problems, but increase THEIR numbers in the polls. The angry demonstrators from Partyzánský [Translator’s Note: A town where ultra-right extremists hijacked a demonstration in order to attack Romani people in September] are just testing the waters for their mayor’s campaign for district administrator in the next elections. No one is asking, for example, who is behind [neo-fascist leader] Marián Kotleba and where his party, which has a support level lower than the amount of alcohol permitted in one’s blood, has gotten the money for its uniforms, props and even paid advisers! Whoever is interested in stirring up this sedition is misusing you, but you aren’t angry at them - you take your anger out on the one powerless ethnic group that suffers from even worse problems than you do.
Soon it will be exactly one year since we all marched on the headquarters of the Penta financial group. On 15 October 2011, three months before the protests over the “Gorilla” corruption scandal, we heard the words of those public charges for the first time on Hviezdoslavovo náměstí v Bratislava: That Slovakia is governed, irrespective of its electoral results, by two or three financial groups and five or six big entrepreneurs.
What has changed since then? Where is your determination and enthusiasm? Has the oligarchy been defeated? Has the partitocracy gotten any smaller? How is it possible that people are bothered by the meager dwellings of poor people on the fringes of society, but won’t go protest against the illegal constructions erected by billionaires? How is it possible that we are indifferent to the abused “white” women, the children put to death by their “white” parents, the white-collar workers who are thieving from the state on a large scale - but we are angered by petty theft when Romani people commit it? What kind of heroism is this, to fear the powerful and lynch the weak? Don’t you feel like cowards?
When we went to “serve” our citizen’s arrest warrant for the chiefs of J & T in front of their headquarters, only 20 people were brave enough to walk up to police officers present, who outnumbered them. Twenty. All of the statewide media were there and not one of them broadcast a single clip of the event - but against poor Romani people, you all have the courage to turn out in the hundreds and thousands in a noisy media carnival. You shout racist slogans, you vulgarly curse them, you insult an entire population group, and you have the nerve to call yourselves “decent”. That’s not what cries for justice sound like. Those are the roars of the weak.
Hatred is the worst counselor, it clouds judgment. People whipped up by hatred cannot be satisfied with rational steps, only with support for their anger. In such an atmosphere, truthful arguments fall by the wayside, even though they have been spoken by experts countless times. Many people here, for example, continue to believe that most benefits to people in material distress in this country end up in the Romani settlements here even though a World Bank report and data released by the Slovak Social Ministry from the Social Security agency confirmed at the start of this year that only 3 % (!) of those benefits flow into the Romani environment and that most of that money is being drawn by young “white” unemployed people under the age of 25.
The politicians know these statistics. They are either lying to support their passions, or they don’t have the courage to openly speak out against these distortions. Yes, today we need courage to tell the angry majority the truth - but who is going to do it?
When government and opposition politicians discuss the Romani issue today before the tv cameras - for example, the duo of Róbert Kaliňák andr Igor Matovič - it looks like a conversation between Dr Jekkyl and Mr Hyde. I get shivers down my spine when I watch these debates. To reduce such a complex, multidimensional problem to the terms in which they discuss it is not just brainless, it’s dangerous. Repression can work only when the person you are frightening has the choice of a better alternative.
If you are living in extreme poverty, without the option of employment, you have nothing to lose. Anyone who has read [the 1930’s-era Slovak children’s book] “Čenkovej deti” can understand that. Romani people from the settlements have no chance of getting a job, because even if there were not racial discrimination on our labor market (and we know such discrimination does exist), their low qualifications would keep them in last place. We must understand that the crime problem is just a result of the social one. We must also recall that only absolutist monarchies and totalitarian regimes have dealt with social problems through repression (under Chancellor Metternich it was the Ministry of Police, under Alexandr Mach it was the Interior Ministry, under Karel Bacílek it was the Security Ministry).
That approach has always merely led to an accumulation of problems. A warning example for us should be Hungarian policy vis-a-vis the socially backward Slovaks, who in the 19th century suffered waves of starvation while the Hungarian Government refused them economic aid, discriminated against them on the labor market, and forced them into emigration.
Today we don’t have a systematic policy aimed at raising the level of ethnic Romani people, but a typical populist policy, doing its best to win the favor of a majority population that is either latently or openly racist. What we need to resolve is a problem, not our feelings. We need ideas from the Education Ministry and the Labor Ministry, not the Interior Ministry.
Yes, people need the state to start taking their problems seriously, to listen to them competently, to protect those at risk. However, we also need courage to take measures that will not be as popular as marching on Romani settlements. We need to understand that this problem is primarily economic and social, that it is a priority problem demanding priority financing. It is unusually brainless, if not primitive, to expect to never pay a cent for development programs for Romani people and to let police officers instil order instead.
We need a social contract in which responsible politicians will finally explain to the citizens that functional solutions benefiting everyone in this society will cost money and that this is an investment into a calmer future. Are we willing to agree to that? Or are we only willing to curse the situation from behind our computer screens and in the local pub? It is horrible to see how more and more respected personalities are succumbing to the poisonous fruit of racism. Extreme opinions which in a healthy society are pushed to the margins have become the usual mental equipment of the mainstream media, while proto-fascist rhetoric is insinuating itself into the strongest political parties.
We need politicians who will look around the corner and not fear sacrificing their popularity for the good of the state. I believe such politicians exist, but why are they silent? Why are they hiding like cowards behind Richard Sulík and Pavol Frešo and permitting Marián Kotleba to set the tone of the discussion on these questions?
Where are the social authorities, where are the artists? Those people know how to hire themselves out for money to advertise private health insurance companies, but they are afraid to support societal reconciliation between the majority and minority parts of society. Where is Archbishop Zvolenský, General Bishop Klátik, Rabbi Myers? Where are the church representatives who proposed missionary activity in the Romani settlements? Does that no longer count? Isn’t there a need to emphasize to the majority community of believers the need for Christian love, mercy, understanding and unity with their brothers and sisters of Romani origin? How is it possible that the church has not yet responded to these waves of hatred?
It’s nice to talk about “long white robes at a heavenly distance” and their symbolism, but people need clothes and shoes here on earth. It’s nice to talk about “roads running with milk and honey”, but God tells Christians to care for the poor neighborhoods here on earth, to care for his children who are starving. It’s nice to talk about a new Jerusalem, but priests must finally start talking for once here about a new Rudňany, a new Letanovský mlýn, a new Luník IX. Romani people need such a strong voice on their side. Until they find one, we can help ourselves to the speech by that apostle of nonviolence, Martin Luther King, Jr., who said the following words on 9 June 1961 at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania:
"Every academic discipline has its technical nomenclature, and modern psychology has a word that is used, probably, more than any other. It is the word maladjusted. This word is the ringing cry of modern child psychology. Certainly all of us want to live a well adjusted life in order to avoid the neurotic personality. But I say to you, there are certain things within our social order to which I am proud to be maladjusted and to which I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted.
If you will allow the preacher in me to come out now, let me say to you that I never did intend to adjust to the evils of segregation and discrimination. I never did intend to adjust myself to religious bigotry. I never did intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. I never did intend to adjust myself to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence. And I call upon all men of good will to be maladjusted because it may well be that the salvation of our world lies in the hands of the maladjusted.
So let us be maladjusted, as maladjusted as the prophet Amos who in the midst of the injustices of his day could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Let justice run down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.’ Let us be as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who had the vision to see that this nation could not exist half slave and half free. Let us be as maladjusted as Jesus of Nazareth who could look into the eyes of the men and women of his generation and cry out, ‘Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you. Pray for them that despitefully use you.’
I believe that it is through such maladjustment that we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice. That will be the day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Catholics and Protestants, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thanks God almighty, we are free at last!’ ”
This society will never be free until it is healed. It will never be prosperous until it is united. It will never be developed until it has foresight. It is time to stand up against the avalanche of hatred.
I want to finally hear from the President of the Republic. I want him to fulfill his obligation to speak to the nation and calm the situation, I want him to behave like a head of state, not like someone with his head in the sand. I want to hear from the Prime Minister, I want him to speak not like a social populist, but like a Social Democrat, and I want him to unequivocally condemn these hate campaigns against ethnic groups.
I want to hear from the chair of the KBS, the General Bishop at ECAV, the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church and the Rabbi of Bratislava. I want them to thoroughly condemn the rise in intolerance and to more thoroughly fulfill the moral mission of their churches and religious societies. I want to hear from our popular actors. They shouldn’t lend their faces for light entertainment only, but should clearly express their own civic positions. I want to hear from successful athletes who have sworn to uphold Olympic ideals. I want them to revive that spirit in a diverse Slovak environment.
I call on all the silent to speak, to not to be afraid of speaking out against those who, under the hypocritical shield of “decency”, avoid all the laws of morality in their own speaking. I call on all people who shape opinions - artists, politicians and thinkers - to find the courage to publicly defend opinions based in cohesion, empathy, and rationality, opinions that are now a minority in the majority atmosphere of fear, hate and passion. I call on all people of good will to participate in a culture of solidarity and understanding.
Eduard Chmelár, translated by Gwendolyn Albert