Democracy's ebb and flow

Elise T. Chisolm

December 11, 1990|By Elise T. Chisolm

HOW IS democracy playing in Eastern Europe? Better than in America I hope, where I think most of us would agree it has fallen into apathetic disuse.

A friend of mine is just back from Czechoslovakia where he lectured on democracy at universities in Prague and Bratislava to the newly liberated Czechoslovaks.

He also toured Eastern Europe and was in Germany on German Unification Day. He calls it the experience of his lifetime.

Stationed in Germany 35 years ago, Robert E. Kendig was in command of the air base at Kaufbeuren. Now a retired Air Force colonel, he recently went back to observe the changes, to see how Eastern Europeans were coping with their new status.

I wanted to know what he found with these people who have just been been set free from communism. Will they appreciate their new freedoms as time goes on, or take them for granted as we do? What form of democracy will they adopt?

While attending a reception for President Vaclav Havel's ministers and government delegates in Washington, Robert had asked them what Americans could do to help. They wanted volunteers to come and teach democracy and the constitution.

Robert has been teaching courses in government at American University since he retired from the University of Maryland. He went to Czechoslovakia under the auspices of the American Czechoslovakian Society and paid his own way over and back, so anxious was he to share his knowledge.

One reason I was interested in his experience is that in a November Harper's magazine article, editor Lewis L. Lapham tells us that here at home, not only the economy but also democracy is in decline.

Lapham writes that not only do we not practice democracy, but half the people in the United States, especially those who don't vote, don't even know what it is.

He writes that the spirit of democracy is fast becoming defunct: "We are a country in which most of the population doesn't take the trouble to vote and would gladly sell its constitutional birthright for a Florida condominium or another twenty days on the corporate expense account."

He wonders if the American experiment with democracy has run its course.

I asked my friend fresh from Czechoslovakia what he found.

"I agree with some of Lapham's points. Remembering that in their first free election last November, 93 percent of the people voted, I thought they would be more enthusiastic about what we had to offer. But I found them to be overly cautious. After all, they have been subjected to 45 years of indoctrination lectures on Marxism and Leninism that they later found to be propaganda. They were wary but very friendly. All my students spoke English.

"But during my lectures, I felt they were hesitant to embrace anything new.

"I frankly think, left alone, they themselves will do a first-class job of setting up their own government. Remember they already have better schools then we do, they have a high rate of literacy and fewer dropout problems. They will start from a better position.''

What will be the biggest problem for them.

"First, everyone had a job under the communist system. They felt secure, now they don't, and they don't know how to take the initiative in a free-market society. There is fear."

I wanted to know what one question they asked the most.

"They don't ask questions, they are not accustomed to that kind of exchange."

My friend summed up his feelings: "As a democracy we need to spend more time in re-examination and self-evaluation of the basic concepts we believe in. Until then, we really can't offer ourselves as a viable and exemplary democracy, can we?

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