Big Govenment and the Arts: Belarus Style

Andrew Broussard submitted this guest post.

As a result of the shootings in Arizona we hear numerous calls to tone down the political rhetoric.  But who is to determine when speech has crossed the line? Perhaps we should take a lesson from Alexander Lukashenko.

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Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried – and as we struggle to save the Constitution on which this country was founded, there are countries struggling to have a constitution at all.  Take Belarus, for example.  The last remaining dictatorship in Europe, President Alexander Lukashenko embodies the old-school Soviet-style of oppressive government – and he is fighting to hang onto power in any way that he can.

Ranked 188 of 195 countries on The Freedom Index and ranked 139 out of 180 in terms of corruption, Belarusians are limited in what they can do, say, and (it damn near seems) even think.  On December 19th, 2010, after the most recent fraudulent Presidential election, over fifty thousand protestors took to the streets of Minsk and lead a peaceful demonstration for their rights.  The demonstration was broken up by the KGB – the President’s secret police – resulting in thousands of injuries and over a hundred people arrested.  These arrests included three prominent journalists and five of the major opposition Presidential candidates.  Also arrested were the members of the theater group “Belarus Free Theatre.”  

In Belarus, government censors approve what plays are allowed to be performed, as well as where and when and by whom.  Frustrated by their inability to put on the plays that they wanted to do, the Belarus Free Theatre was founded in 2005 as a truly underground theater company.  The details of the performances are sent out a half-hour before curtain by text message.  The shows are performed in different locations, never in an actual theater.  Police raids are not out of the question and performances have been shut down before by either the police or the KGB.  And yet, the members of this company continue to perform – sometimes known plays, sometimes plays of their own devising, all at the risk of their lives.

Those of you tuned into the NYC arts scene have probably heard about the BFT recently.  They just wrapped up a two week run of their acclaimed show, entitled “Being Harold Pinter”, which was performed as part of The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival.    However, at the start of the New Year, it was unclear as to whether or not they would even make it to the U.S. – they’d been tried and convicted in speed-trials lasting no more than a few minutes, thrown in jails where they were intimidated and physically abused, and it is still unclear (for the protection of those involved) as to how they managed to escape.  Some members of the troupe were unable to leave the country and they’ve gone into hiding.  The members who managed to make it to the U.S. are now facing a difficult watershed: to return to their country runs the serious risk of being arrested for something as serious as treason the moment they step off the plane.  But they cannot stay here and claim asylum – they are patriots and don’t want to give up the fight.

As a result, The Public Theater has decided to show support for these incredibly brave artists by hosting a benefit performance (now sold-out) of their show on Monday evening (1/17), featuring appearances from artists like Tony Kushner, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Mandy Patinkin, and Lou Reed.  The Public is also organizing a peaceful protest outside the Belarusian Mission to the UN on Wednesday (1/19) at noon – and we’re encouraging everyone who believes that art should be free to attend.  Here’s the event page, for more information: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=180838118613347&index=1

Andrew Broussard, submitted this guest post.  As a result of the shootings in Arizona we hear numerous calls for abridgement of free speech in an effort to tone down political rhetoric.  But to limit what we think and to limit what we think is to limit our humanity.

Ludwig Von Mises said “There can be no freedom in art and literature where the government determines who shall create them.”  We defend this right to freedom of expression here at home – but there’s a lot to be said for helping those who seek to defend it abroad as well.  In the last twenty or so years, we’ve seen Orange, Rose, and Velvet revolutions in Eastern Europe that peacefully overturned the dictatorial governments of Ukraine, Georgia, and Czechoslovakia (respectively).  This could very well be the beginnings of a similar Color Revolution in Belarus.  Please consider showing your support for the brave artists of the Belarus Free Theatre and for the right to freedom of expression by joining us at this protest.  It is the 21st Century – the time for repressive governments is finally over and the future starts now.