Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Democratic Inspiration from Abroad

President Bush declared last week that America’s duty is to promote liberty and democracy all around the world. Who better to do it, after all, than people who have had over 200 years to perfect these ideals?

Well, I’d also like to consider America the sage of self-determination, but these days, I think we could use a refresher course from some unexpected societies.

In two days, Iraq will hold democratic elections, after 30 years of oppression under a dictator and two years of violent chaos.

The notorious terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has declared a war against these elections, designating whoever participates in them an enemy of God. Politicians are too frightened of assassination to openly declare their candidacy, and citizens who actively encourage others to vote on Sunday are being targeted by gunmen outside their homes.

Just across the Black Sea in Ukraine, an opposition leader this week assumed his rightful place as president of the fledgling democracy following an outpouring of public indignation over rigged elections. The former administration tried all it could to derail Viktor Yushchenko’s success, but their schemes were no match for the furious insistence of Ukrainian citizens that all of their votes be counted.

There was a time when Americans also risked their lives so that ordinary citizens could control their destinies instead of distant kings. There was a time when Americans also took to the streets to demand that all of their citizens’ voices be heard, regardless of gender, race or background.

The times in our history when America has progressed the most are the times when its own people have recognized a disparity between the highest ideals of our founding and the reality in which they live.

This past November, there were no roadside bombs or terrorist gunmen to keep us from the polls. The biggest obstacles most of us faced were long lines or confusing touch screens. And yet 40 percent of us who were eligible to vote chose not to.

After this election, widespread discrepancies were reported between exit polls and official results. Electronic voting machines, which leave no paper trail, were used by about one third of voters. This is not to imply that the election was fraudulent, although the possibility of fraud in this and future elections is something that should deeply trouble us here in this cradle of democracy.

Investigations focusing solely on Ohio, the decisive state in the election, found widespread voting irregularities ranging from the disqualification of thousands of provisional ballots to expunged registrations of legitimate voters.

Furthermore, the waiting time to vote was considerably longer in urban areas, with many voters forced to leave the polls without casting a ballot because they had to return to work. Yet there is still no widespread movement to make Election Day a national holiday so that people not normally allowed to take time off from their jobs can cast their votes.

Yet all this pales in comparison with America’s grossly undemocratic Electoral College. I wonder what the Ukrainians would do in the aftermath of the 2000 election if they were told half a million of their votes simply didn’t matter. The complacent attitude of most Americans after that election is certainly no textbook example of how to value popular democracy.

Perhaps this is not so surprising. As Thomas Jefferson once noted, “Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.”

Americans today are informed in the way they want to be informed. The splintering of news programs to fill various political niches, the proliferation of talk shows that substitute sound bites for sound analysis and the slow merging of news with entertainment make it increasingly difficult for Americans to be well-educated about the world around them.

And this trend only looks to worsen over time.

A recent study found that American schoolchildren spend an average of nine hours a week playing video games. In a separate study eighth grade boys logged an astonishing 23 hours.

In addition to this, the average American teenager watches between 21 and 22 hours of television per week, and 65 percent of American children have a television set in their bedroom. In contrast, only 23 percent of people under 30 read a newspaper on a typical day.

Americans increasingly seem to seek out what’s comfortable over what’s challenging. We look for the passive pastime, the latest celebrity scandal, the news analysis that confirms what we thought we knew all along.

But if we never get outside our comfort zone, we can never get truly angry – about AIDS in Africa, genocide in Sudan, sex-trafficking in Asia or gaping flaws in our own democratic system. And it is anger – the passion to correct injustice and perfect our democracy – that fuels any movement for social change.

President Bush stated last week, “America proclaims liberty throughout all the world.”

This Sunday, as Iraqi citizens risk their lives to go the voting booths and Ukrainians enjoy the fruits of their democratic protests, perhaps Americans should listen to what other countries are proclaiming to us.

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