Over the past few months, the Czech Republic has been roiled by the cases of two men who have been sent to prison for their unconvential public expressions. David Hons just completed a month-long jail term for replacing pedestrian walk signal silhouettes with figures engaged in alcohol consumption, fornication, and other uncouth activities. "It was an act against the law, clearly. No one denies that," he said. "But the crime wasn't the main reason - it was to point out some social problems." The other, a bus driver named Roman Smetana, faces three months in the clink for defacing a series of political posters in the run-up to the country’s 2010 elections. (I’ve written an article about both cases for the current issue of the New Republic.)
The provincial bus driver from Olomouc has since become the most beloved Smetana since his namesake Bedrich, the 19th-century composer whose stirring operas and melodies made him the bard of those Czechs who aspired to break free from the Austro-Hungarian Empire and create an independent Czechoslovakia. Although the former chose a mode of expression that is undoubtedly cruder, the two men embody a similar spirit of creative revolt.
These two causes célèbres have left many Czechs wondering what their hard-won democracy is worth when corrupt politicians routinely get away with abusing the public trust while a bus driver and a starving artist are thrown in jail. Smetana’s punishment is particularly galling, given that Prague’s public transportation system has long been plagued by scandals, including a suspect ticket-printing contract with a shadowy firm in the Virgin Islands, the purchase of television screens at seven times the market rate, and the resignation of the body’s former head over revelations that millions of dollars had been siphoned off during his tenure.
The late Vaclav Havel’s most famous political tract, “Power and the Powerless,” encouraged citizens to stop living “within the lie” of totalitarian oppression by refusing to go along with the rituals and falsehoods erected by illiberal regimes. As an example of such behavior, he wrote admiringly of a fictional greengrocer who refuses to place a sign with the slogan “Workers of the World Unite!” in his shop window. “In this revolt the greengrocer steps out of living within the lie. He rejects the ritual and breaks the rules of the game,” Havel wrote. Are not Smetana and Hons the real-life examples of Havel’s lesson?