The 200-year democracy itch

Published 1:28 pm Wednesday, May 21, 2008

“We can have democracy in this country or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.”

— Louis D. Brandeis (before he became a superior court justice)

Some of you are probably tired of me talking about Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident responsible for the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. I noticed the authorized biography of Havel by Eda Kriseova a few days ago on my son’s bookshelf. I remembered borrowing it to him a few months ago. I had only read a couple of the first pages when I shared it with him. I’m reading it.

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Inside the book I discover an e-mail pointing out the words a Scottish history professor wrote around 1787, about the time our original 13 states adopted their new constitution. He talks about “The Fall of the Athenian Republic” 2,000 years previous to that date.

Part of it reads: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse (generous gifts) from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy” which he says “is always followed by a dictatorship.”

He goes on, and this is the part I remember listening to an orientation as a rookie teacher in Austin sitting next to Red Hastings in the auditorium wondering what the hell I was doing there when she said, “The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through this sequence. From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance, from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back into bondage.”

This was in the fall of 1965, 22 years this side of our 200 years. Now over two hundred years have passed and our “democracy” still stands—sort of! It seems to me that we are stuck in the complacency to apathy phase. Looking back on that day in Knowlton Auditorium I was startled to hear the speaker share those words — now a reminder.

The mishandling of what our current administration is doing and has done comes to mind along with the assistance of Charlie Rose guests Monday through Friday at 10:30 p.m. It was last Friday I believe that Gen. Sanchez was on Charlie’s show, now a retired general. He mentioned the President’s talk on the aircraft carrier sitting off the coast of California with the banner that read: Mission Accomplished. This, Sanchez said, according to the Pentagon, was perceived as the end of the war. We remain there with now over 4,080 American deaths and how many Iraqis as well as a copy of the Qur’an that was used for target practice.

Fortunately this administration has prompted renewed interest in politics and it appears our own state government worked things out so more Minnesotans will be covered by health insurance, more money will flow to public schools and nursing homes, and light rail is a step closer between Minneapolis and St. Paul as well as Gov. Pawlenty’s new state park along with the earlier gas tax approval that will help maintain roads and bridges.

I read where younger students from John Glenn Middle School met with Sen. Sandy Pappas to discuss legislation. “It’s very authentic” Kathryn Marget, their middle-school gifted and talented teacher said. “The kids are not doing worksheets or reading out of a book; they’re doing something that is real. What’s taught in school is the history of government and history of politics. There’s not as much focus on what’s happening today.”

Pappas thought it was a real cool idea to get younger people engaged. She wanted them all to run for the Legislature when they grow up. I think we need more women in politics and this seems to be happening.

And now back to Havel for a closing minute. In “Vaclav Havel-The Authorized Biography,” it mentions human life is a person’s struggle “with order, or with God—the name does not matter. It is impossible to conform to order, but order is necessary to live, and the struggle with it shapes one’s life.”

I think this would be a good question to ask of graduating high school seniors and answered before they adjust their graduation caps. What’s shaped you?