Democracy, freedom, and change

We Americans tend to equate “freedom” with our political system.  It’s a judgment I happen to agree with, but for many around the world that equation would ring false.  They think of our politics and our social life as something out of the Wild West, if not the jungle.  They think we compete with and exploit one another savagely.  They think we have no rules.

I have just returned from a few days in Europe, and I was struck, while there, by what a wonderful, just-so, rule-bound culture the Europeans enjoy.  From sitting down in a train car to walking the dog, there’s a proper way of doing it, and everyone knows what it is.  By comparison, we Americans seem to make ourselves up as we go along.

While the Europeans feel the presence of centuries cushioning them into a comfortable pattern, every American generation is, in some strange way, the first:  every American man is Adam, and every woman Eve.  We are in a bustle to build the world, something the Europeans, who seek merely to enjoy it, find alarming at best, and at worst contrary to nature.

Both sides of the Atlantic claim democratic systems, but differences in outlook pervade political practice as well.  Generally speaking, the Europeans have built a highly structured, rule-bound, immobile politics, anchored in universal consensus, therefore unable and unwilling to conceive of life other than as given.  To be a politician requires a certain background; to talk about politics requires a certain tone of voice, and the use of words that confuse and difuse differences of opinion until these die of boredom (read, if any doubt this, the text of the Maastricht Treaty).

By comparison, American politics can swing from a Jimmy Carter to a Ronald Reagan – and from a George H. W. Bush to a Bill Clinton – in one throw of the dice.  Such drastic alterations of persons and beliefs could never happen in Europe today.

In the past couple of centuries, the Europeans have struggled desperately against the immobility of social and political life.  The monuments I saw last week were covered with inscriptions praising this or that “movement,” or “progress,” or “revolution”:  words that declare war on stasis, and conjure a life less hemmed in by tight horizons.

But even in their dreams of revolution, the Europeans expected behavior to be just so:  one need only recall Marx’s bizarre stereotypes of “proletarian” and “bourgeois” personalities to understand the futility of the effort.  And, from the first, the struggle against immobility inspired real wars, and internal slaughters unparalleled in history.  The current generation of Europeans, which learned this lesson well, has given up the struggle.

There’s a constant dispute between the Europeans and ourselves about the virtues of our systems.  We each claim to be more democratic, more egalitarian, more caring.  But in the end, every political system must meet a more fundamental need, or it tempts fate and failure:  it must know how to change and adapt to circumstances.  That is the point of freedom, which is simply an openness to change.  That is the great virtue of democracy, which allows swings in the balance between left and right, government and governed, public and private, as seems best fitted to the moment.

I have no doubt that Americans have retained that kind of freedom, and that democratic virtue.  We swing.  The Europeans, I fear, have locked themselves into single, just-so answer to every question about how life is to be lived – and while there is comfort in numbers, and quiet in consensus, the world outside their windows is just as messy, harsh, and loud as ours, and no amount of incantations in Eurospeak will make it go away.


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