December 16, 2011
Twenty-two years ago Czechs and Slovaks shook off the chains of a regime and a system that had failed them. Today America seems to be “trying on” similar, oppressive chains. The deeper America gets into this process of trying those chains on, the more unfamiliar she looks to me.
Maybe some readers will be angry with me for saying so, but I would be remiss if I did not say these things that 1. I so clearly see and 2. that many others must either not recognize or not consider important enough to discuss. This is when “if you see something, say something” must most importantly be applied.
Slovak schools and many businesses close on November 17 in commemoration of the Velvet Revolution. It’s probably the Slovak holiday that fascinates me the most and something I wrote about at length a year ago. November 17, 1989, when you look at it, wasn’t all that special as an isolated day, but some historians point to it as the day that Czechoslovakia began its rebellion against its communist government.
The social experiments that Slovakia has undergone in the last 100 years are not experiments in need of repeating, because their results can be gathered even today from Slovak culture. Oppression, whether that be oppression of property rights, or of freedom of speech and assembly or other civil liberties, is destructive to an individual. As if summing up the oppressive experiments of the region, Fredrick Hayek, after fleeing his home in Central Europe ahead of the Nazi advance penned the book The Road to Serfdom in which he denounces oppression as oppressive whether it comes from the right or left of the political spectrum. Segments of America, looking at an increasingly forceful government are starting to break out of the idea that right and left matter in the face of oppression. This would put them on course with what Hayek was saying roughly 70 years ago.
Ironically, Abraham Lincoln, a man criticized by his contemporaries and historians as America’s first dictator is credited with saying “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” Some considered the 16th president a benevolent dictator. Others, such as the man who assassinated him, according to legend, referred to him as a tyrant as he hobbled away on a broken leg by calling out “Sic semper tyrannis.” Lord Acton wrote in an oft quoted letter “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Looking at Lincoln’s and Acton’s quotes, it seems likely that the mere act of concentrating power is enough to bring unappealing results. Today, America faces increasingly centralized power in the hands of the government and the closest friends of politicians.
You can argue that some countries do better than others when power is concentrated in the hands of the government. I’ve heard it said “Thank God France/Germany/Russia/Slovakia was never allowed to get as powerful as America. Who knows what they would have done.” I’m not sure how to respond either for or against that hypothetical comment, so I generally just keep quiet. I don’t know if a hypothetical French hegemony in this century would be better or worse for the world than American hegemony.
You may argue that some people do not want freedom. That too may be true; perhaps freedom is not a universal value. What I know today is that so many Slovaks desire freedom. While I never stepped foot in communist Czechoslovakia, something tells me that Slovaks were quite free in their souls then just as they are today. Perhaps, about that, I am wrong. Despite knowing many people, I don’t know even a single person who can be a reliable source on that question. I base this statement instead on what I see today. So many Slovaks are too free in their souls for me to imagine that it could ever have been otherwise. It’s a lesson I hope I’ve begun to at least learn a little from Slovaks – how to ignore the world around you and still feel freedom inside. Along with that one, the country has many other lessons to teach me, including – Allan, don’t repeat the mistakes of our past.
Sometimes it’s good to listen to the advice of others, since, as one Slovak once said to me “Svoje vlastné chyby sú najdrahšie.” In one sense, it means – your own mistakes are the most costly, so you must avoid them by learning from others. If it were that easy, children would not stumble for many long years before their parents finally are able to call them adults capable of a little responsibility. A second side of that same Slovak statement is – “Your own mistakes are most valuable to you.” They both cost you the most and they end up being most valuable to you because you remember them the best. Sometimes we just need to stumble a little, or a lot, on our own. Realizing that experiencing a mistake makes it most memorable, doesn’t make those mistakes any more comfortable for me when I’m caught in the middle of a stumbling nation trying to find itself. I think the land of my birth, the United States, is now in the middle of such an identity crisis.
This winter I’ll go home to Chicago to see my family and the most regrettable moment for me each time I do that is when I step off of a plane and feel the atmosphere in the air. Because for each year of the last nine, I’ve felt something that most Americans don’t seem to feel. Gradual changes can be hard to notice. When you only visit the U.S. once a year, the changes aren’t gradual. They are clear.
I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that for the first time in nine years that it will feel more free when I enter my homeland than it did a year prior. Something tells me, this will be the most drastic return for me yet. It starts in the airport, but it continues through the rest of society on my trips home as I feel America growing less free. I think this is imposed by the government, but I also think some people voluntarily accept a diminished respect of freedom.
With my initial shock, whatever the violation of freedom is, a good reason is always presented. Always. Without a good reason, I believe that Americans would entirely reject an intrusion on freedom. It’s all done in our best interest and it’s all done for safety we are assured. Airports are only the tip of the iceberg, but can be so glaring because the welcoming committee carries guns, batons, tazers, and acts like a bunch of gorillas. Even authoritarian Israeli security experts point fingers at us and laugh because Americans are treated like chattel in airports with no appreciable improvement in security.
Examples of people being treated like chattel and criticism that our procedures don’t actually improve security can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here, here (pdf), here, here, here, here, here,
Older Slovaks who lived in Czechoslovakia after 1948 and after 1968 and who saw some of the worst times, and who have traveled to the U.S. have a particularly negative response to this behavior. They say the words “policajný štát” to me about MY COUNTRY. About America, a Slovak can look me in the eyes and say “policajný štát” – “police state.” It’s a sorrowful look, but the statement is a sincere one. I hear it regularly enough to make me take note. The last time I sat down for a drink with a group of older Slovaks professionals and business owners (which happens pretty regularly) is the last time I heard that.
There’s something wrong in the course of human events when a Slovak can say that about America. That Slovak looks at his own state, he looks at America, and he sees America less free than he expected. America’s good at a lot of things, but what it’s the best at is being an unobtrusive beacon of freedom, an unobtrusive example to others. It’s sad when America doesn’t realize that about herself.
Slovaks have freedom in their souls and will allow themselves to be pushed around while protecting their own souls. I think Slovaks are generally humble and just want a little internal happiness and solitude. We Americans tend to have more of an ego and are more willing to speak out at the idea of injustice even when that injustice is committed against a total stranger. In contrast with the first sentence of this paragraph, I’d say about America – Americans have freedom inside and out and will never be pushed around. But that sentence, something I long believed to be a “rule” of American culture, is something I see myself challenging every year with my annual return to America.
Ignorant government thugs push people around on the streets and in the airports and unless I want to get pushed around as well, I had better button my lip. Is that America 2012 that I’m describing or Czechoslovakia 1989?
You can always ask the question “which country is more free?” A more important question for me for this essay, however, is “Over the last nine years has the U.S. become less free or more free?” The answer is less free. In my nine years of travelling back and forth, America has grown uncomfortably less free. The great sadness I feel over this issue is practically too embarrassing for me to admit. Once I actually even got choked up in the airport, seeing what was happening, not in some third world country that I need immunizations to travel to, but in America. As I have come of age in the world, the generation before left me a country that was less free than the one that they inherited. As my generation comes of age and finds ourselves in more established positions in the world around us, I increasingly see people my age shaking their heads and asking themselves and each other how the baby boomers could have left us the mess that they left us.
Here’s one example of several dozen that I have come across over the last few months. Thomas L. Day, author of that article, and I disagree on some details, we agree on the bigger picture – it’s up to people like he and I to debate the future that our generation has already inherited. As Day points out: “I speak not specifically of our parents — I have two loving ones — but of the public leaders our parents’ generation has produced.”
My generation has the choice of either reversing that trend of diminishing freedom or giving up on the American notion of freedom. Playfully playing it lip service is of little value to anyone as it takes so much effort and accomplishes so little. I still don’t know what the rest of my generation will decide. I know where my feeling are on this topic. Until the day I die, I believe I will have an inextinguishable burning of freedom in my soul.
Twenty-two years ago the chains of an evil empire were thrown off in Czechoslovakia. Twenty-two years is not a long enough time for educated Americans to risk forgetting what recent history was like when the Czechoslovak state took to treating its people like chattel. My only conclusion is that America either never understood or America has forgotten. Which is it?
I am curious how your American friends looked at Czechoslovakia or Russia or any other communist country during communism – let’s say from after WWII until before autumn 1989. Were Czechoslovakia or Russia considered less free than the U.S. or the rest of the West? What concretely were things that were considered by Americans (or others Westerners) as less free about those places? I don’t really want to hear what historians have said on the matter, I want to know what you remember people saying about those places in everyday conversation. You are a unique resource that no historian can duplicate. Were they just considered ‘evil communists’ with people generally having no in depth knowledge of what that word meant? My high school aged Slovak students eight years ago could not explain communism to me, could Americans in the 1950’s also not explain the hated communism? For me, this all boils down to this – Was the USSR an enemy in the eyes of many Americans because of its policies? Or Was the USSR considered an enemy just because it was some other big guy on the block? That question helps to address the distinction between “never having understood” and “having forgotten.” To my Slovak readers, or readers from any other part of the world, I also welcome you to chime in on this topic – but the article that I posted a few days before this might be of more interest – 11 Things I Didn’t Expect in America.
Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time travelling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.