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Don't be afraid of democracy

By BILL MAXWELL, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003


One of my favorite thinkers, environmentalist Edward Abbey, observed: "I love America because it is a confused, chaotic mess -- and I hope we can keep it this way for at least another thousand years. The permissive society is the free society. Who gave us permission to live this way? Nobody did. We did. And that's the way it should be -- only more so. The best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy."

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, American democracy -- that confused, chaotic mess -- has been put to the test like never before, and the very meaning of citizenship is being redefined.

In fact, what we have in the United States today is a war between two or more views of democracy and the definition of what we mean when we call ourselves a "free society."

Civil liberties are not what they used to be. Many of the freedoms that we, at least I, took for granted before the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks are being obliterated by a Republican administration that is blinded by its messianic zeal.

Go out today and speak of privacy, the bedrock of our culture. Chances are, you will become an object of derision. Privacy is whatever the president and the attorney general say it is.

And, for sure, as the president presses the Bush war in Iraq, you had better be careful where you attempt to practice your right of free speech. You could wind up doing it in the wrong place -- in your town square, on your college campus, near a military base -- where so-called patriots have decided that opposing government policy is un-American.

Few things make me happier than seeing thousands of the nation's college students protesting the Bush war. These young people, like students of the Vietnam era, are right to voice their opinions and are courageous to do so. In an ironic way, I am glad that right-wing war supporters are coming after these supporters of peace.

These young people will grow stronger in their convictions, and their respect for the confused, chaotic mess of democracy will grow deeper.

During a peace rally at Florida State University in Tallahassee the other day, a war supporter wore a T-shirt emblazoned with these words on the back: "Kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out." These words were on the front: "I support the war on Iraq."

One of my former students, now a graduate assistant at FSU, who attended the rally and who saw the T-shirt, sent me an e-mail, saying: "This guy & his crew were there to intimidate us. They want war & they want us to shut up. Well, we won't shut up. One of them spray-painted 'f-- terrorists' on one of our placards. Mr. Maxwell, this stuff makes me know we have to fight even harder to keep the right to speak out.

"Patriotism doesn't have to be stupid. I'm a patriot & I am hurting for what is happening to our country. We're attacking a nation that did not declare war against us. Why? Because we can get away with it. I think that's wrong. I will never support that kind of policy. I'm being attacked in my own country because I oppose bad policy. I fear that things will never be the same. Conservatives want us to be quiet; they want us to go along with the program, right or wrong. Democracy isn't about either/or. It's about the right to be true to your individual conscience. Too many people have become afraid of democracy. Peace."

Absolutely. Democracy is about being true to your individual conscience. It is a confused, chaotic mess. It is permissive. As Abbey wrote: "The best cure for the ills of democracy is more democracy."

By the way, the student above, a history major, sent me the Abbey quote. I love learning about American freedom from one of my former charges -- a young woman who is not afraid of democracy.

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