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Think Magazine in The Economist

Think Prague co-founder quoted in The Economist!

Think Magazinein the Economist

Wicked, really

from The Economist print edition

IT IS "space pussies night" in Radost FX, a trendy Prague dance club. Slender Czech girls gyrate to techno music pumped out by a British DJ. Male hipsters stand off to one side awaiting the promised "Lesbian Love Show". A poster on the wall advises dancers to bring their own ecstasy. It could be anywhere really - London, New York. But that is precisely the point. Prague is no longer fenced off. East and west mean less to Czech hipsters than cool and uncool.

Techno music and ecstasy belong to a world more nuance and ambivalent than the bleak, harrowing world in which Jan Palach chose to douse himself in petrol, set himself alight, and stagger dying into Prague's Wenceslas Square to protest against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Palach was a 21-year-old student, whose passionate ideals inspired Czechs and Slovaks at the time.

Not now. Most of the youth propping up the bar in Radost FX have a vague idea who Palach was ("That guy who did the Buddhist thing - right?"), but none is curious to contemplate what drove him to despair. "My son is 20," one Czech mother later explains. "For him and his friends the past simply does not exist." So it goes with older Czechs too. In 1990 thousands gathered to remember Palach's passing. Last month only a handful stood with President Vaclav Havel to mark the 30th anniversary.

In small Czech towns most young people subsist on a lamentable cultural diet of second-rate American television shows and pop music. Few speak a foreign language; those who do opt for German.

Prague is different. Here the more affluent and educated young people have made their own underground. They choose English over German, listen to edgier American and British alternative music, prefer "indie" movies to television, surf the Internet, and favour snowboards more than skis. Most of these hipsters& formative years have been spent in a post-communist world. "For me," says Tomas Hacek, a student of 20 at Charles University, "liberty means raves and swapping e-mail with guys in Brooklyn."

Such views are echoed by the crowd camped out at a snowboard shop off Wenceslas Square. Snowboarders here debate the merits of Burton versus Sims boards, often using idiomatic English to make their point. A snowboard is a major investment. A decent Burton goes for 12,000 korunas ($400) - more than most Czechs earn in a month. Then there is the look: imported skiing jackets starting at 4,000 korunas and daily lift-passes at 300. Less affluent skateboarders sprawl on a couch watching surf videos imported from California.

Whether they get their kicks from music, skating or film, one thing Prague's hipsters share is an apathy for politics. The few who do protest tend to stick to well-worn civil-rights and green issues. A few campaign for gypsy rights or for Free Tibet or blockade local branches of McDonald's.

And perhaps the apathy is a return to form."The Czechs have been passive-aggressive for 400 years," says Keith Kirchner, publisher of Think, an alternative magazine published in English and Czech.

Another feature of hip Prague is English. A sizeable number of American expatriates, often artsy graduates attracted by Cool Prague's beauty and cheap living, have made it the city's second language. The Internet is spreading it too, though owning a computer is still beyond the pockets of most youthful Czechs. But many frequent Internet cafes, where for 80 korunas or so you can surf the net for an hour, download snazzy sites, send e-mail and sip espresso.

So far the Czech underground has produced little it can call its own. But Czechs have begun to put out local movies and trade home-made CDs of local bands. Still, with so few foreigners speaking their language, Czech hipsters, like their Danish or Greek counterparts, will stay net importers of culture.

Mr Havel finds it sad. He laments not so much the influx of English-language counter-culture (one of his heroes was Frank Zappa, the American music icon) as the lack of youthful purpose and what he calls "selfishness, opportunism and everything that at the time of Palach's act was called stealthy collaboration". For Mr Havel's generation of dissent, underground culture was a protest medium. Today it is just a way of having a good time.

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