Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 15
4 October 1999

A Right to Fight

Tomas Pecina

To Vladimir N,
an uncanny Muse
and an anonymous
harbinger of civic bravery

Great men bequeath great words to their nations. JFK's "Don't ask..." or Churchill's "We shall fight..." are taught to American and British students to this day. The exhortation of Czechoslovakia's first President, Tomas G. Masaryk (1850-1937), poses a counter-point of sorts in this context. It simply says: "Nebat se a nekrast!" (Don't be afraid, and don't steal!)

The problem of neighborly stealing was dealt with in Part V of this "(Survival) Guide," and it turned out to be an unusually inflammatory subject: the furious and largely irrational reaction of Ivan A Rebensteiger indicates that the incidence of theft in Czech society is still a taboo subject (we are no thieves, and even if we were, you ought to shut up and not tell anyone - they will find out for themselves, wont they?).

Now it is time to probe the other half of Masaryk's dictum.

A commonplace interpretation of the Czech national character, alive and well as recently as in the 1920s and 1930s, may be understood as a case in point: it likened the Czechs to a dove-like ("holubicci") nation. The dove is (supposedly) a gentle, tender, almost aristocratic animal. "Coward" is an insult. The problem is that the one is euphemistic for the other...

Fortunately for the Czechs, the romantic and sentimental patriotism of the last century gave way during the 1930s, being replaced by bolder and more realistic stances, represented by such men as Karel Capek (1890-1938), a world-renowned writer and journalist, and Jiri Voskovec (1905-1981) and Jan Werich (1905-1980), prominent actors and phenomenal political satirists.

Fortunately for the Czechs again, the achievements of Czech airmen in the Royal Air Force during WWII as well as the outburst of spontaneous resistance against the Soviet-led occupation in 1968 countered the accusations that Czechs never put up a fight: in both cases, it was the nation's political elite that failed and gave in without fighting.

However, on the day-to-day level, Czechs may appear rather sheepish and bashful to "Western" eyes. But, in most cases, what is at play here is not exactly cowardice, rather an overgrown and ingrained respect for authority.

Exhibit One: A post office, around midday, almost no customers in the lobby. A Czech customer approaches a counter behind which a middle-aged female postal officer is seated, busy sorting letters or doing some other easily-interruptible work. A Westerner's expectation: the lady greets the customer and starts attending to him, or asks him to wait till she is done. The Czech reality: for a precisely dosed period of some thirty seconds, the lady pays absolutely no attention to the waiting customer, then raises her head and - without greeting him (a greeting clerk is an extinct species in this part of the world) - gives her attention to his business. The timing is crucial: the officer uses it to show her superior position, and the customer, by waiting it out patiently, accepts her authority.

Exhibit Two: A Czech restaurant, a departing group of patrons is presented a bill. Estimates based on field data indicate that about 75% of restaurant bills are incorrect in this country. However, none of the Czech customers check it out. In general, Czechs give little or no tips to their waiters, while more or less expecting to be cheated on the bills. In addition, they almost never complain about the quality of the food (or beverages) they have been served. A waiter, no matter how young, is an authority and only notorious troublemakers (and foreigners) challenge authorities.

Exhibit Three: The streets of Prague, the inside of a cab. A Czech customer specifies the destination, but as soon as the car pulls out, he sees that the meter is running about twice the normal rate; indeed, the taxi driver has activated an ingenious homemade device, called "honic," or booster, which approximately doubles the fare. The customer is so scared that without a word of protest, he kisses goodbye to an extra two hundred crowns, punishing the villainous driver by giving him a couple of angry looks instead of tips, and, while getting out of the cab, he swears to never use a Prague taxi anymore.

Exhibit Four: An office. A lady browses through some data on the monitor of her PC, a customer tries to explain something and points his finger at a figure on the screen. The lady shrieks and shouts: "Step back at once! These are our confidential data!" The misunderstanding is immediately explained: although the nosy man speaks fluent Czech, he has been living in the West for more than thirty years, and has got out of the habit of respecting authority in every public servant.

Such exhibits could go on for a very long time. Many Czechs still think that by the events of 1989, they were given freedom. Only a small minority realizes that the removal of the tight and cross-linked controls of the police state only means that the citizens are now free to start fighting for it.

Every taxi, every sub post office and every restaurant is part of a nation-wide battlefield, and Czechs are still in need of another Great Man who would tell them that stealing is a bad thing, and that not only politicians decide the quality of one's life. If Czechs want a better life, they should stop complaining and raise merry hell every time a postal clerk keeps them waiting or a waiter brings them cold and tasteless soup.

Tomas Pecina, 4 October 1999




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