"Remember: democracy never lasts long. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide."
- John Adams
Within the space of four recent days, President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice all gave speeches on democracy and the war on terror " and I discovered the above quote by one of our founding fathers: the second president of the United States, John Adams.
What's a citizen to think? Are we being programmed now to keep believing a faltering American dream, or was Adams only issuing a warning then that the utopian system he and his "band of brothers" had so painstakingly formed would falter without constant effort to make it work?
I've been sitting on that fence for some time now - not because I've joined the anti-American crowd, or because I think there's a better system somewhere than democracy, but because echoes of a speech by former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev are resurrecting in my ears.
No doubt some of you also remember the desk-pounding, Soviet leader's shrill prediction that America would be defeated from within. (Actual quote: "I once said, 'We will bury you.' Of course, we will not bury you with a shovel; your own people will bury you.")
That, and not the effort to spread our Founding Fathers' dream to other nations, is what worries me now.
No, should the prophecies of Adams and Khrushchev come true, the reason for our demise will not be the war in Iraq or any other perceived misstep by our leaders. As I see it, both presently and historically, the path to "democratic suicide" runs along the parallel tracks of dishonesty and irresponsibility.
Whether we read it in the Ten Commandments or heard it from our mother's knee, one of the basic tenets of any civilized system is that we should not lie. Yet from contracts, to oaths of office and "scout's honor," we make promises every day that seem increasingly unnecessary to keep.
In a recent survey, for example, one company's human resource manager learned that only one in three employees who call in sick is telling the truth. In her report, the manager drew two conclusions: 1) As a society, we don't see anything wrong with lying anymore; and 2) We feel entitled to the extra time off. A big conclusion, perhaps, for such a small, almost universal practice, but it might also be the tip of the behavioral iceberg in a society where standards are giving way to a state where, as someone has described, "there are no shoulds, anymore."
Entitlement is also the basis for a second, out-of-control social problem: irresponsibility. Does any of the following sound familiar to you?
"No money down"
"Is the IRS keeping you up at night?"
"Legally erase your outstanding balance"
"Let us cut your credit card debt in half"
"Get a grant you might never have to repay"
On and on go the ads on e-mail and TV, promising what likely cannot be delivered or, if some fairly godmother could wave a magic wand and erase your financial obligations, would land you back in similar straits because the basic lessons of responsibility were not learned. Put another way by author J. William Harris, "Dependence begets subservience, suffocates virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of (the advertisers') ambition."
I don't like hand-wringing, and I don't believe America is doomed already. There also are some problems we as individuals cannot solve, like wars in Iraq or the Middle East, hurricane cycles, and the eradication of incurable disease.
But there is so much we can and must do to improve the quality of life for our community, our country and ourselves. On this thought, today's higher gas prices may turn out to be a blessing rather than a curse. We can drive less, resist the temptation to buy more until we've paid what we owe, and tailor our lifestyle to fit our means.
Above all, we can curb our dishonesty, bequeath that principle to our children, and greatly strengthen the fabric of America.
Let's prove our nervous ancestor and a tyrannical Soviet premier wrong!
(Barbara Seaborn is a local freelance writer. E-mail comments to email@example.com.)
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