The 1995 Bosnian Peace Accord was brokered in Dayton and was led by the distinguished diplomat Richard Holbrooke. The event put Dayton on the international map in a unique way and was of interest to me, as my father-in-law was raised in that immediate region.
The accord ended the war in Bosnia and is considered a serious success story. It did see the first-ever use of NATO forces and the US provided forces along with 25 other countries to implement the peace plan.
Growing out of this event was the Dayton International Peace Museum and, more recently, the Literary Peace Prize (LPP). (It is important to note that this peace museum is the only such museum currently open in the United States.)
The LPP is a, “lifetime achievement award that celebrates literature’s power to foster peace, social justice and global understanding.” The winner of this year’s prize is author Margaret Atwood, a Canadian author who in her acceptance speech addresses the possibility of the United States succumbing to a kind of totalitarian future.
As a way of introducing her talk at this fourth celebration of the prize, she illustrates the difference between Canadians and U.S. citizens by telling a joke. “How do you get 100 Canadians out of a swimming pool?” she asked, pausing for the response, “How?” “OK, you Canadians out of the swimming pool!”
But for the 100 Americans? “OK, you Americans, for the 40th time, out of the swimming pool!” — the implication being that those of us in the states simply won’t line up in lock step. “I would bet on American orneriness and refusal to line up” — that is, to succumb to an authoritarian government.
From the reading I have been doing, I’m not quite sure I agree with the Canadian author. I just finished reading “America: The Farewell Tour” by Chris Hedges, the fifth book I have read of his. He does not share Ms. Atwood’s optimism. He sees the United States in serious decay with seven chapters including the following: Decay, Heroin, Sadism, Hate and Gambling.
Hedges is a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and was a New York Times international correspondent for 20 years. On the last page of his book he declares: “As long as we fold inward and embrace a hyper-individualism that is defined by selfishness and narcissism, we will never overcome this estrangement. We will be separated from ourselves, from others and from the sacred.”
A book published just this year in a similar vein is “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism” by Anne Applebaum. Ms. Applebaum has written primarily about Poland and Russia, documenting the human rights violations in the USSR.
In an interview related to her recent book, she says that, in Poland, the movement from democracy to a one- party rule has been supported by intellectuals – “where they can eliminate a lot of debate… control press and universities.” This points to a criticism of democracy as too indecisive, slow to come to decisions … too much debate!
She points out that this trend has taken place in several other countries including Russia, Hungary, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, the Philippines and elsewhere and, of course, a possibility for the United States.
A discussion of this sort must include the many works of Timothy Snyder, whose parents reside in Clinton County.
Of his many books, his focus is also on eastern and central Europe where he documents the trends toward tyranny. Of his books I have read, the 2019 publication of “The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America” speaks most clearly to his understanding of our current condition.
The following much quoted statement, however, summarizes his overview of history and the issues that always face democracies: “The founding fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracies. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism or communism. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.”
These scholars and their books raise serious questions that will be addressed in less than two months. Just how definitively will the future of our world be determined in this short time?
Neil Snarr is Professor Emeritus at Wilmington College.