20. 11. 2007

Do we really need foreigners in Brno?

I find it curious that someone who claims to be a great fan of Brno should ask why it should be beneficial to people in Brno to have foreigners living and working in our midst (Slava Slavík, Hlavu vzhurů Brňané, 7.11.2007)

If you consider nineteenth-century Brno and the great burst of creative energy that shaped the modern city we know today, again and again you run into foreign names. It was foreigners coming from England, from the Rhineland, from Belgium, from Italy and from many other places across Europe who brought to Brno much of the know-how and the capital for the industrial take-off of the city. It was these same and other foreigners who played leading roles in Brno’s transformation from an ambitious but somewhat obscure provincial town into an internationally recognized model of municipal government and civic pride, with a sophisticated urban plan and a Ringstrasse second only to Vienna’s. It was the son of a foreigner who as mayor was the driving force behind the “greening” of Špilberk and Koliště and Kraví hory and today’s Wilsonův les. It was architects from “outside” who designed many of the splendid buildings that still grace the city centre.

Throughout the twentieth century this same phenomenon continued, taking many forms: contributions from foreigners can be traced in all spheres of the city’s life – economic, political, social, cultural, educational, religious. Now in the twenty-first century, as Brno emerges from decades of relative isolation and absolute neglect, the value of this input from “outside” is greater than ever. People – and above all lovers of Brno – should remember, or be reminded, that without the contribution of countless foreigners over the past two centuries, Brno would be only a shadow of its present self, a much impoverished and much lesser city.

Three final points.

First, the question of “více kultur”. What is “Czech culture”? Czechs, and Czech culture, are probably among the most heterogeneous in Europe – one vast mish-mash. In fact one can argue the point that there is nothing original whatsoever about Czech culture: its genius lies in its phenomenal ability to absorb outside influences and transform them into something distinctively Czech. And it flourishes best when it absorbs these influences most voraciously. It is no coincidence that during the First Republic, when Czechoslovakia was not only itself culturally heterogeneous, but also filled with refugees and immigrants and students from Russia, from the Ukraine, from Hungary, from the Balkans, the country, and Czech culture, experienced what has so far been their Golden Age.

Second, “outside” is relative. Slava Slavík asks rhetorically whether the fact of someone’s having being born “outside the Czech Republic” is of benefit to Brno. Fifteen years ago, he would have had to phrase the question differently: what might the usefulness be of someone born “outside Czechoslovakia”? Does that mean that fifteen years ago a Slovak was “us”, but isn’t “us” now? And that now we have to ask whether or not a Slovak might be beneficial to “us”, whereas fifteen years ago this wasn’t necessary? Of course not. Nothing has changed but the artificial and arbitrary borders of the country.

Third, speaking personally and somewhat immodestly (unusual in a Canadian) – yes, the very fact that I was born outside the Czech Republic and have chosen to live here is in itself of great benefit to Brno. I was brought up in a different society shaped by different historical and cultural forces. I embody an outlook which in many ways differs from that shared by most people in this country and this city, and simply by living here, being myself, bringing my set of values into play in my work and my daily life, I force Czechs to reflect upon themselves and their culture and to look outward and view themselves in a wider context. This is not cultural imperialism. In the first place, this confrontation with “the other” enables Czechs not only to see the shortcomings of their own society and culture, but also to appreciate better many things of value here that they may have taken for granted or not even appreciated. And in the second place, exactly the same process works in reverse for me as a foreigner, forcing me always to view my own cultural assumptions in a different light. In other words, if you value self-reflection, self-questioning, and an open and tolerant society, then cultural heterogeneity is a good in itself and creates – or rather can create, when fostered intelligently – a win-win situation, beneficial to all.

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