When the Cheering Stopped in Riga

July 12, 1994|By RICHARD REEVES

NEW YORK — President Clinton, like most of his fellow citizens, tends to take for granted and, thus, to underrate the achievement of the people who came together to make the United States of America. So, he overestimates the prospects of ''new'' democracies in the rest of the world.

The triumph of American democracy is not that the majority rules; it is that multiple minorities are tolerated. Majority rule is easy to achieve, but it is not so easy to prevent the majority from disenfranchising, suppressing, driving out or killing minorities.

The president got a post-graduate education in American exceptionalism last Wednesday when he gave a speech to 35,000 people gathered in ''Freedom Square'' in Riga, Latvia. The New York Times called his words ''Jeffersonian,'' but Latvians are not. Latvians are more like Serbs in Yugoslavia or Hutus in Rwanda, or Armenians and Azerbaijanis, or Protestants and Catholics in Northern Island -- believing literally in majority rule.

''We will rejoice with you when the last of the foreign troops vanish from your homelands,'' Mr. Clinton said, and the crowd roared, waving small American flags. Then there was silence -- punctuated only by the solitary clapping of an American diplomat -- when Mr. Clinton continued, saying:

''Freedom without tolerance is freedom unfulfilled. . . . I come from a nation of people drawn from all around the world, a nation of many, many people who once were bitter enemies, but now live together as friends. In your homeland, as in America, there will always live among you people of different backgrounds. Today I appeal to you to summon what my nation's greatest healer, Abraham Lincoln, called 'the better angels of our nature,' never deny to others the justice and equality you fought so hard for and earned for yourselves.''

Great and brave words, I think. Too bad the Latvians did not. What they heard (but did not want to hear) was Mr. Clinton saying that the future of Latvia will best be served if the 1.2 million Latvian Balts tolerated and worked with the 800,000 ethnic Russians in their midst.

The crowd and much of the world do not have much tolerance for what the American said. The Latvian idea of fighting and earning is winner-take-all. They live in the past, like Christian Serbs and Croats determined to wipe out Bosnian Muslims, whose religion is a symbol that their ancestors collaborated with Turkish conquerors a thousand years ago.

''Innocents Abroad,'' Mark Twain's journal of Americans traveling the Old World, is a title that seems ever fresh, because $H whatever else we do, for good and evil, Americans live in the present. We do not have much past compared with older countries and groupings of people.

God blessed us in that way. But we were also cursed with an ignorant sense of mission (and a sense of superiority) that compels us to try to make other peoples in our own image -- and makes us believe that such transformations are not only possible but simple.

The new post-Cold War world has reverted to old types, a seemingly endless landscape of patches inhabited by two peoples and, more often than not, two poisoned histories. Let's say they are the blues and the pinks. Both sides buy into their own version of the American rap on democracy -- sold like patent medicine as a cure-all for national frustrations.

They do just what the American doctor tells them to do: Have an election! The blues win, and now they want to run the country their way -- and if the pinks don't like it they can get out, go back to wherever they came from. Even if the pinks know where they're from, they don't want to leave, so they decide they should have their own country -- run by the pinks, for the pinks.

The next phase, often as not, is war. Americans watch innocently, wondering how this could happen in the name of democracy. But, often as not, we have something to do with the beginning of the killing, because we preach (and believe) that democracy is a golden win-win proposition when the coins of democracy have two sides, winning and losing.

We forget that our own transition from British colony to American democracy took many generations. The United States of America began as what is now called in some places ''guided democracy.'' Only a small percentage of early American ''democrats'' had the right and freedom to vote -- mainly white, male landowners -- and then only in indirect elections, with men of property in state legislatures choosing U.S. senators and something called the Electoral College selecting presidents. And, though our own sanitized histories do not dwell on it, revenge was taken on the American losers, the Tories who backed the British before 1789, beginning with expropriation of property and the exile of its former owners.

But over time things worked out fairly well. The revolutionary general who led the first American army did not seek the presidency for life, or for his relatives, preferring the peace and quiet of his farm, Mount Vernon in Virginia. And our early electoral losers had faith that the American system included realistic hope that one day they might be able to organize a political majority.

But the American prescription is no miracle cure. The silence President Clinton heard was another sign that Jeffersonian rhetoric from Washington sometimes requires men named Jefferson and Washington. And men like that will always be in short supply.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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