The Czech Political Oscars of 2015
(Shot Duck Press Agency) All right, folks. Put that Holy Crusade of Yours on hold for a moment. Forget the Charlie Hebdo aftermath. Stop overanalyzing the child protection services in Norway. Enough about that stuff from Ukraine. And don't even think about the Greek debt. In short, put down whatever party flag you are waving today and roll out that barrel you keep hiding in the cellar. The Oscar night is upon us again. And that means it is time to kick back and take a look at notable performances on that continuously revolving stage that we all love to hate - the Czech politics.
Admittedly, this year hasn't been as rich in palace intrigue and outright shenanigans as the last one, but it did have its Hallmark moments. Even a simple roll call in the lunatic asylum of today's politics has a way of bringing forth all kinds of colorful characters. That's the saving grace of watching the ideological Lollapalooza on the evening news. Someone always goofs up. Someone always loses his temper. Someone is always caught with his hand in the cookie jar. But if you came here to find an ultimate moral to political fairy tales, take a number and get in line. We are all waiting for that miracle.
Having said that - let's see what those mysterious envelopes hold.
The Oscar for Best Picture goes to ... Milos Zeman
Hey, is this guy great or what? After the Crown Jewels extravaganza of yesteryear, he did not disappoint this year either. Nay, he bested himself. Following the infamous Sunday broadcast from Lany, he found himself facing the displeased citizenry on the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. He should know better than to stir up hornet's nest in the run up to such an important day. But he did and, in return, we got yet another installment of the socio-culinary farse we might call Eggstasy - this time featuring the amazing precision landing of the First Airborne Cholesterol Brigade. Sunny side up, please. Red cards notwithstanding - it wasn't a match of equals. The shell shocked body guards had barely time to shield the Big Cheese with an improvised umbrella wall. By our reckoning, the most creative use of defensive rainware since Mr. Tau.
...and the Oscar for Best Directing goes to ... Jan Hamacek
Say what you will, but implementing prohibition on the hallow grounds of the Czech parliament requires the combined directing skills of Alfred Hitchcock and Blake Edwards. You kind of have to juggle zombies and clowns at the same time. But jokes aside. After the Liquor Terminator in Chief ordained severe restrictions on alcohol consumption, it was bye bye giggle juice for all the legislators. Oh, horrors! For now, let's call this episode "Booze on Snooze" because, frankly, I don't think it'll stick.
...and the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role goes to ... Tomio Okamura
The tragic events at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris put Islam on the European center stage and resulted in a giant swell of popular resentment. The anti-muslim tsunami reached the Czech shores within hours and who better to ride it than the master of populist sentiment, Tomio Okamura. His earlier suggestion of parading pigs in front of mosques may seem to have come straight from Jara Cimrman's playbook but it did earn him an honorary mention in the Washington Post blog. You can think of it as a little plug for the budding Hatred Industry and that's nothing to scoff at. In the meantime, he does what all populists do best - surf the wave as far as it takes him.
...and the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role goes to ... Anna Sabatova
On the flip side of that same wave rides none other than this perpetually controversial ombudswoman. Unfortunately, she got off on the wrong foot when she took sides with the Muslim students caught in the scarf controversy last summer. The public response was swift and uncompromising: The Wicked Witch of the Middle East stepped on a sticky wicket. Having become a lightning rod for the growing anti-Islamic movement, she wisely chose to hunker down and keep a low profile during the Charlie Hebdo days. Considering that this issue has a staying power, however, the chances are she will remain on the political A-list for the foreseeable future.
...and the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role goes to ... Miroslav Kalousek
The enfant terrible of the Czech right wing isn't exactly twiddling his thumbs in opposition. No siree, Bob! This pit bull just won't let go. A permanent thorn in the side of the ruling coalition indeed. Not only he unabashedly bashes his successor in the office, but he never hesitates to point his sword at other cabinet members as well. To wit: agriculture minister Marian Jurecka has been dubbed a "pig farmer" by him. Too bad Tomio Okamura hasn't heard this quip. I smell a business opportunity there. Together they could build a big pigpipe from the farm directly to the nearest mosque.
...and the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role goes to ... Laura Janackova
The cat is out of the bag - and boy - it's a doozy! This senatorial wannabe may not have gone all the way to the Upper House of the Czech Parliament, but her risque billboards with that sizzling boudoir feel and deeply sensuous overtones raised some serious eyebrows. And perhaps more than eyebrows (for guys anyway). Not that there is anything wrong with that. You wouldn't get this kind of attention if you posted a Mud Wrestling Bimbo League ad in front of a military school.
...and the Oscar for Best Cinematography goes to ... Zdenek Skromach
Leave it to the suave bard of summer pools to take independent cinematography where it has never gone before and then some. This eager beaver of action photography could not resist temptation and took a selfie during commemoration at the Terezin Memorial. While the lesser minds around him were occupied with paying the respect to victims of the Holocaust, he managed to forever capture his own facial expression. A snapshot heard around the world. Give him a hand everybody.
...and the Oscar for Best Sound Mixing goes to ... Stanislav Huml
The world expert on Malaysian Airlines flight MH 17 and the darling of the Tin Foil crowd had some choice words this year for the Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. After denouncing her for relocating to Monaco and literally calling her "dirt", he was quick to congratulate her on the Fed Cup triumph. Man, just make up your friggin' mind.
...and the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay goes to ... Milos Zeman
That a sitting president could unleash the verbal equivalent of 15 kilotons of weaponized manure directly into the airwaves is simply beyond me. In case you just came back from a mission to Mars: this epitome of propriety uttered a really really nasty word in his radio address last fall (psst, c'mere ... he actually used the word whose English equivalent rhymes with "punt" and describes a part of a female anatomy).
...and the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature goes to ... Vaclav Klaus
The noble quest to step away from the shadow of his predecessor brought the former Czech president to new heights this year. In the never-ending effort to get the upper hand over his popular arch-rival, he claimed to never have applauded during Havel's famous speech in the American Congress. Did he or didn't he? That was the question that set investigative journalists on fire. It took hours of sifting through documentary footage to finally show that he was wrong - he did clap during Havel's lecture after all. Earth to Klaus: just let it be.
...and the Oscar for Best Film Editing goes to ... Roman Janousek
Living in that gray area between the sunlit fields of top level politics and dark alleys of backstage deal making can be tricky. The foggy chiaroscuro is a habitat that requires lots of evolutionary skills, but this "godfather" of Prague's political scene mastered them all. The Duke of Moolah. The Prince of Hushed Voices. The Seventh Earl of Bling Bling. A big time operator - always plotting, always hustling. Despite spawning more rumors than Lindsay Lohan between rehabs, he managed to edit his resume with surgical precision - blacking out the right names, fudging the right numbers - so the authorities got exactly diddly squat on him. But justice is a patient hunter. They got Al Capone on tax evasion and Janousek got his comeuppance, too. He was involved in a hit-and-run car accident in 2012 and no scissors were sharp enough to edit this one out. Book 'em, Danno! (cue the smoke and mirrors...)
..and the Oscar for Best Music goes to ... Bohuslav Sobotka
Sheet music as a vehicle for popularity? Nah - that's so 2013. Try rap sheet these days. Seriously. How many Prime Ministers have their own rap video on You Tube? This pesky wheeler and dealer gained a definite foothold in the music industry. After he dazzled the English speaking audiences with his impeccable South Moravian accent, the YouTube rendering of his speech became an Internet sensation. Off the hinges, bro!
...and the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film goes to ... Vratislav Mynar
Forget lowballing the new house, forget the lack of security clearance, forget the gossip about the sizzling romance with Alexandra - and just imagine. Can you see toy soldiers standing guard in front of the Prague Castle? Now they salute, now they don't. Now they salute, now they don't. That is what I call a cool animation.
...and the Oscar for Best Production Design goes to ... Andrej Babis
With the recent deficit running in the neighborhood of 100 billion Czech crowns, the national expenditure sheet isn't exactly a low budget movie. Enter this soft-spoken tycoon from Slovakia and his merry band of Undercover Doughnut Engineers. He vows to tighten the drawstring of the public pouch the same way Randolph Scott used to pull the reins in on runaway horses. Can he do it? Well, the jury is still out. He did promise to run the state like a company, but don't hold your breath for that balanced budget any time soon.
...and the Oscar for Best Costume Design goes to ... Robert Sedlacek
A classy sweatshirt, huh? How on earth did this guy manage to make it through the tie detectors?
...and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film goes to ... Eric Cantor
One of the most powerful men in the Lower House of the American Congress thought the primary battle would be a smooth sailing. This guy sure held all the aces, but a Joker blew up in his face. In one of the biggest political upsets of recent history, the current House Majority Leader lost his bid to a hitherto unknown professor of economics, one David Alan Brat. That's like Sparta bowing out of the Czech Soccer Cup at the hands of Slavoj Houslice. And to add insult to injury, the Mississippi Senator Thad Cochran did not even notice. Ouch!
Let there be light
I like late February. The time of latent colors.
On the surface, the winter still rules over the land with a firm hand. It is cold, snow comes down hard and the pond in the park is hopelessly frozen. It's black and white kingdom is indomitable. Or so it seems.
But the change is in the air. You can almost smell it. The promise of green renaissance is in the offing no matter which direction you look at. The colors are about to come out of the woodwork and that leaking expectation is nearly palpable. The days are getting longer. The nights are getting shorter. And snowmen are well aware that the patient drizzle of Spring is coming.
Let there be light.
How to balance a budget
The proverbial overspending of governments throughout the Western world has been a problem for most of the past 100 years. Now that the issue is coming to a head with national balance sheets on the brink of collapse and central banks going to extraordinary measures to keep the interest rates from exploding, we should seriously consider the way our political system operates. The sincere and effective effort to reduce government spending should be part of this debate. Something beyond the usual good intentions and empty declarations.
The debt in terms of GDP has been creeping up to the point of no return. Japan is running on fumes and an increase of interest rates on its 10Y note by 1% would trigger an instantaneous implosion. The Greek problem has been the staple of the global financial equation for the past 5 years. Italy, Portugal and Spain are barely keeping their head above water. So how do we force politicians to behave reasonably.
It is known that people respond best to stimuli. Most employers will tell you that a reward one receives for one's efforts should be proportionate to the quality of work. If we accept the premise that a large part of politicians job is taking care of the public purse, then we can set up a regime in which it will be desirable for politicians to behave like good stewards.
The principle is very simple. The larger the deficit, the worse job the politicians did. So the most natural idea for the correct incentive is for them to have their pay depend inversely on the size of the deficit. For every percent of the deficit, I would subtract certain multiple of it (say 5 times for easy calculation) from their pay.
Here is how it might work.
Let's suppose that the deficit is 1% and they make 100k. Then we would subtract 5x1% = 5% and they would take home only 95k. But if the deficit was 6%, then we'd subtract 5x6% = 30% and they'd bring home only 70k. That would make them think twice before spending like drunk sailors.
Now if only we could find politicians with balls big enough to implement it.
The fogs of Martinique
I am not very fond of cold temperatures and I have a rather strained relationship with snow, so every Thanksgiving - at the onset of winter - I make a trip to climes sporting much sunnier weather. This year I made a trip to the French island of Martinique.
One of the major attractions of this Caribbean gem is Mount Pelee, an active volcano which scorched the island's capital St Pierre in 1902 and killed nearly all of its 30,000 inhabitants. Its elevation of 1397 meters and plenty of humid and warm air around make for a perfect condensation machine. Indeed, the peak is rarely seen without a shroud of heavy clouds.
As we drove up to the parking lot at Aileron, it was clear that our hike will not be an exception. A thick bank of mist and constantly rolling steamy cavalry were informing us that we could definitely expect a low visibility event. As we were climbing the steep ascent into the mountain, we could barely see 50 feet ahead. Only on rare occasion did we spot the surrounding scenery through gaps in the fog. There was no one on the trail.
At the second hut we came to a branching point and took a narrow path steeply descending into a volcanic cauldron. It felt a bit irritating, because climbing up to that point was a grinding effort and here we were - losing all that precious elevation and not knowing how low it would go. After about 150 meters we reached what seemed to be the bottom of the pit. It felt like a tropical dream. Lush vegetation combined with fatigue and shreds of water vapor created a surreal, almost halucinogenic imagery. Every now and then we could see a vague mountain face looming over us, but mostly we were left to our own imagination.
A hint of reality sometimes creates much stronger impression of reality than reality itself - a fact known to horror movie directors and makers of female apparel. I love those moments when life throws you into a Tim Burton movie set. Those precious places where you can step out of time and space and see the world as a fluid stage. This was one of them.
No Noble Idea Left Uncorrupted
In the dying days of communism, I often pondered what Lenin would have thought had he lived through the miasma of latter day Soviet Bloc. Decrepit factories, runaway party apparatus, silenced dissent, inability to travel beyond the Iron Curtain, denied education for kids of political rivals. That was not the worker's paradise. That was a rotting corpse of a society.
Last year I read an article about outrageous compensation packages for public employees in California. I was surprised to find that the list of those who receive six figure pensions from CalPERS was over 12,000 long. Among those were retirees collecting nearly half a million in pension and employees of fiscally troubled cities earning over 200k a year. The idea of labor unions was a great tool in the struggle against unchecked power of greedy capitalists, but somehow in the hands of public servants it went terribly wrong. Over time this once noble idea became a smokescreen for the looting of public treasury.
Or what would Keynes have thought of the public spending mechanism in its present embodiment? His great idea became a vehicle for pork and bridges to nowhere. What would Christ think if he saw opulent trappings of Vatican or the cover ups in the children abuse scandals. What would the founding Fathers think of the revolving door between Washington and the Wall Street?
Over the course of its history, mankind had come up with plenty of great ideas - trade unions, social justice, church, public spending. Yet for one reason or another they have all gone terribly wrong somewhere along the way. Perhaps visionaries saw the moral landscape from their elevated plane and none of those that came afterwards could match their perspective. Perhaps they treated their idea as a child, they wanted it to succeed, they were willing to sacrifice for it. But those who carried the torch had much less love to give. They thought for themselves and the ideas have slowly been corrupted.
Too bad that thinkers and dreamers and so few and far between. We could always use an upgrade in the quality of torch bearers...