30 December 2011

Democracy for the sake of dignity, thanks Vaclav

In my younger days I believed all kinds of things.  I thought that I'd live in Indianapolis for most of my life.  That never played out.  I thought that I'd probably be self-employed.  You never know, one day maybe.  I thought that democracy was preferable to other forms of government because it brought economic growth.  Way off on that one.  We're currently watching as most of the world's democratic countries go through extended periods of economic difficulties.  At the same time we see countries with non-democratic systems experiencing strong growth.  A horde of wannabe Cassandras argue that democracy should be reined in, that economic growth should take precedence over our freedoms.  Could they be right?

Whether something is right or not can be a silly road to walk down.  Right about what?  We step onto that road not really knowing where it's going to take us; we step onto it with a basic set of beliefs, not just a fixed destination.  There's no destination, only walking.  By the time we get close to our social goals, society has changed, and we're left with a system that once again needs to be changed to match our new reality.

Even if it were right that democracy holds back economic development, that'd be no reason to give up on the ideas of freedom and representation.  In my younger days, pissed at the world and my relative poverty within it, I thought that the answer to all problems was lined with fat paychecks.  Turn an eye to Egypt, poverty and a lack of freedom deprived people of dignity.  Economic growth wouldn't have been enough to save Egypt- a citizenry that demands dignity can't just be bought off.  They might be able to be beaten down, but only for so long. Take that other eye and swivel it over to China.  Deep poverty in the countryside coexists with wealth in the cities, but in neither is there a way for people to live a free, truthful, and dignified life, and I can't believe that a people will live for long in systems that degrade them without fighting back.

The chance to start your own business can't stand as the reason that freedom exists for, nor does it exist for the right to bear arms or to get your fair share of government services.  Waking up each day and being able to live in truth- that is the cornerstone of a good life, and that has to be the ultimate goal of democracy.   

Havel appreciated that fact deeply, and he didn't see democracy as a way to solve practical problems, or as a way of averting war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact.  Democracy was a path that allowed people to live in basic dignity.  There are problems of course.  We lose our jobs, we lose our loved ones, we face all the fundamental tragedies that come along with being human, but living in freedom allows people to live in a way where they are not forced to degrade themselves as a daily precondition of social involvement.  

It's possible to live peaceably in a non-free system.  It's possible to have normal moments of happiness in a non-free system.  It's possible to get rich in a non-free system, but it's nearly impossible to live with real dignity in a system that requires constant negotiations with the truth.  And that is what communism, dictatorships, and other non-free systems bring, a need to constantly have your mouth betray your eyes and your pen betray your mind.

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