In his eloquent NYT opinion piece,“How Democracy Become the Enemy,” Roger Cohen talks about what’s been going on in — primarily — Eastern Europe lately.
The squib underneath his title reads, “In Hungary and Poland, the liberal West used to be the promised land. Not anymore.”
I do understand why our hearts are ripped by the rise of autocrats in what were countries that had achieved democracy, like Poland, Hungary, Turkey. For us Americans, it feels like a punch in the face. We like to think we invented democracy, albeit in an imperfect form on “the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven…”
And we accept this imperfect starter document, in all its meagerness and covert ugliness, as a living thing which grows and shifts and morphs toward changing ideals of perfection — as we who live here feed it and shove it and yell about it.
So what the hell is wrong with people in other countries who are permitting everything that is antagonistic to our democracy to burst into foul-smelling swamp life, rejecting what we all know is the best way to live?
I have a couple of things to say about this, and one is a book recommendation.
But, first, We the People have been choosing repeatedly to live with this kind of government system for 231 years — or 242, if you want to start counting from the Revolution.
Whichever, it’s quite a long time. And yes, it’s a messy thing, isn’t it? It’s complicated, zillions of things go on in government every day, no single person could dream of keeping up with them.
And we are a very, very big country of wild, endless variety in land mass, geographical features, resources and people. Areas of impossible density and others of impossibly vast stretches of not much.
Although our percentage of voters is decried as low, in general elections nearly 130 million people go to polls and vote. One hundred and thirty million of us grasp enough of what democracy is to trot to a local school, usually, and fill in circles on ballots, thereby voting not merely for political officials but for the system of government itself. We vote for democracy.
We’re used to democracy. Used to the bitter, sometimes dopey battles between candidates, the inexplicable differences in political views between us and those of us who aren’t us. Used to getting depressed when the wrong person gets elected. Used to the rotten Supreme Court decisions, raging disappointments and expectations of wreckage, or soaring unrealistic hopes after major elections.
We’ve lived through a lot, have fought for a lot more, but have pretty much always expected that we as a democracy would survive the exciting, complicated mess our system has always seemed to be.
As a democracy, we’ve been around for a while — those two hundred and thirty one years unmatched by any other country on the planet.
So I, too, find it difficult to grasp why a country emerging from mostly unrelieved millennia under some form of totalitarianism or another would not thrill to the experience of choosing its governors. And then thrill to the experience of replacing them — dumping them — in raging disappointment. Or keeping them in qualified approval.
And then thrill to the arrival of…yet another totalitarian figure who promises to take care of all the problems — especially the problem of open elections and a free press? Nah.
So let’s go to the recommendation of a book which explains it all — Escape From Freedom, by Erich Fromm, first published in 1941 –an auspicious year for analyzing why people might choose to live in tyranny rather than the complex freedom democracy might provide.
Fromm himself, a German Jew, who left Germany after the Nazi takeover and came to New York in 1934, escaped from tyranny to freedom. He knew what he was writing about.
I’m going to need a new copy; mine, a cheap ($1.50) Avon paperback, is dissolving in my fingers as I try to turn the pages. Here are the quotes Fromm uses even before his Forward:
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself only, what am I?
If not now–when?
–Talmudic Saying, Mishnah, Abot
Neither heavenly nor earthly, neither mortal nor immortal have we created thee, so that thou mightest be free according to thy own will and honor, to be thy own creator and building. To thee alone we gave growth and development depending on thy own free will. Thou bearest in thee the germs of a universal life.
Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.
So democracy is not the enemy. It is among the “inherent and inalienable rights of man.” It’s just having a bad day.