Foreign Policy Digital

Irony Is the Secret to Saving Democracy

How has the Czech Republic avoided the nationalist populism tearing apart Poland and Hungary? By not taking itself too seriously.

In 2005, when the public broadcaster Czech Television asked viewers to name the greatest Czech of all time, the landslide winner was Jara Cimrman—a fictional character invented in 1966 who is said to have missed reaching the North Pole by 7 meters, invented yogurt, and composed the libretto for a lost opera on the opening of the Panama Canal, among a host of vanished masterpieces. Under pressure from the BBC, Czech TV nullified the decision and awarded the honor to the second choice, King Charles IV, a 14th-century liberalizer who founded what is today the oldest university in Central Europe.

I have just returned from three weeks teaching a seminar titled “Is Liberalism Dead?” at NYU Prague. I asked the scholars and journalists and

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