Opinion | A Farewell to Norms

This is an article from World Review: The State of Democracy, a special section that examines global policy and affairs through the perspectives of thought leaders and commentators, and is published in conjunction with the annual Athens Democracy Forum.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” wrote Thomas Paine in the heat of the American Revolution, and the temptation today might be to respond with a weary: “Tell me about it.” Despots flourish; dissidents are dismembered or poisoned; the president of the world’s premier democracy is immune to shame or truth; infernos set off by a changing climate lay waste to the American West Coast; Hong Kong’s freedoms are curtailed; and a lowly, spiked virus suddenly erupts onto the world, sowing death and economic destruction and radically altering the most fundamental aspects of human behavior.

And yet, as Paine and many others who have commented on periods of hardship and suffering have argued, it is trying times like these that most clearly identify the wrongs in how the world is run and separate the best from the worst in our midst.

The response to the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly shown the difference between good leadership and lowly opportunism; good science and quackery. The response to the death of George Floyd, a Black man, beneath the knee of a white police officer has galvanized a tide of anguished outrage. Marchers in Belarus have demonstrated, once again, that there always comes a time when people can take no more dictatorship.

“Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered,” Paine continued; “yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” It is a comforting thought, but not fully convincing when humankind is so radically divided on most any issue; when even something as elemental as wearing a mask during a pandemic might provoke a violent confrontation; when authoritarian leaders openly champion “illiberal democracy”; when President Trump routinely challenges science and treats a free press as the enemy.

There is no certainty of triumph on any of these fronts. Each is a battle that requires engagement, sacrifice and a willingness to change. Heraclitus, the ancient Greek philosopher, is believed to have declared: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” This continual change, he argued, was the natural way of the world. What is unnatural is to resist change, to cling to the illusion that there is some safe, unchanging world that we must forever defend.

That was the thinking behind the theme of this year’s Athens Democracy Forum, “The New Abnormal: Reimagining Democracy,” and behind the articles on these pages. Whether it’s Farida Nabourema writing about resistance to the dictatorship in Togo, or Patrisse Cullors on the broad ramifications of the Black Lives Matter movement, or Nathan Law writing about the struggle in Hong Kong, these are testaments to the determination and creativity of people prepared to challenge forces that appear indomitable and unyielding.

Democracy is not a static concept but an ever-changing, ever-evolving way of life that requires far more effort and courage than the casting of an occasional ballot or indulgence in the odd rant about feckless politicians. These have been the watchwords of the annual Athens Democracy Forum since its inception, and it defined the agenda of this year’s largely virtual eighth forum, which was held Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 and whose highlights can be seen at athensdemocracyforum.org.

The troubled waters we are passing through may be far different from Paine’s, and the people stepping in them have already come a long way, but the choice is unchanged. “By perseverance and fortitude we have the prospect of a glorious issue,” Paine concluded; “by cowardice and submission, the sad choice of a variety of evils.”

Serge Schmemann is a member of The New York Times editorial board and program director of the Athens Democracy Forum.

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