WHAT is real? In the United States we are asked to look at a television series, ``Amerika,'' and imagine that Americans have handed over to fictitious Russians the democratic freedoms that Americans fought a revolution, a civil war, numerous civil rights wars, and continuous other legal and personal battles to ensure. As if to mock the fiction, the Miss America pageant goes on amid a controversy over whether contestants should parade in real furs or fake. Meanwhile, in Moscow with a ``c,'' Mikhail Gorbachev stages a ``peace pageant'' of his own, to which Gregory Peck and Kris Kristofferson were invited. We are finding it hard to discern whether dissident Iosif Begun has been released or is still detained - much as outsiders are straining to perceive whether the release of 140 other detainees, the publishing of long-banned books, and other signs of ``freedom'' within the Soviet Union are real or imagined.
In Washington, again, the latest reports in the Iran scandal are of a dark side to Project Democracy, the undertaking President Reagan announced in London during his first European tour in 1982. Project Democracy was advertised as a kind of free-enterprise foreign policy effort, with older democracies supposedly leading the way in by fostering free institutions like the press, political parties, and universities. Billionaires were invited to support it. Unfortunately, the undertaking apparently soon acquired a secret side - a covert network of communications, emissaries, arms suppliers, and transportation facilities, under the direction of the National Security Council's former employee Oliver North. Such an operation, designed to circumvent the established foreign policy apparatus with its legislative and judicial review, mocks the true meaning of democracy. What fantasy land must officials and their colleagues inhabit when they determine that a democracy's tasks are too urgent to be decided openly and left to the elected representatives of the people?
Another irony: Today marks the 40th anniversary of the first Voice of America broadcast to the Soviet Union. The Voice seems like an almost quaint institution, now that television satellites bring Moscow and Washington spokesmen together for instant discussion or confrontation. Yet the Voice has played a long and useful role in reporting on world affairs. The daily Voice dispatches, heard by millions of Soviet citizens, help build a foundation for democratic freedom there by broadcasting an independent view of world affairs.
Times change. Mr. Gorbachev can see that the Soviet Union needs to release some of the creativity of the Soviet intelligentsia, its scientists and managers, if his state is ever to meet its economic and cultural goals. With every inch of freedom comes the risk of greater expectations, which if not realized can lead to bitterness and dissent. Given the strains within the Soviet system and the history of repeated repressions, the West should be cautious in expecting either too much or too little of Gorbachev's glasnost. When he contends that peace with the West is requisite for his freedom experiment to succeed, he is probably right. He may be about to give up on the Reagan administration, which wants to reinterpret the ABM Treaty to permit ``star wars'' deployment.
In Washington, the Reagan administration's credibility comes under daily review. Does it mean what it says about democratic idealism, or is it secretly and willfully pursuing a separate agenda?
Freedom is a process that West and East cannot afford to trivialize.
Yesterday's editorial ``On trivializing freedom'' referred to the ``Miss America'' pageant. It should have read ``Miss USA.''