Broad Look at Democracy Hammers Away at Basic Issues


THE STRUGGLE FOR DEMOCRACY. PBS, tonight 9-10 p.m. Premi`ere of 10-part series exploring the past, present, and future of democractic government. Host/executive editor: Patrick Watson. If an American journalist had made ``The Struggle for Democracy,'' this 10-part series might have a different title: ``The Triumph of Democracy,'' maybe, or ``The Glory of Democracy,'' reflecting the faith many Americans have in the rock-solid endurance of government by, for, and of the people.

``The Struggle for Democracy'' was made by Canadian journalist Patrick Watson, though, and ``struggle'' is what he sees when he looks at democratic institutions. He looks askance at the assumption by many in the United States that their nation has uniquely ``got democracy right,'' and he rejects the suggestion that democracy can be definitively ``gotten right'' at all. To prove his point, he travels through history and geography searching for key developments in the ever-shifting relationship of freedom, order, and power.

Mr. Watson's exploration couldn't arrive on TV at a better time. Publicity for the show emphasizes its relevance to contemporary changes in China, the Soviet Union, and Poland, among other Asian and European lands. But questions of democracy are also shaking the US, as politicians disturbed by flag-burning prepare to propose an amendment to the Constitution, and the Supreme Court hands down rulings with deep implications for the balance among states' rights, federal law, and individual liberty.

Watson can't deal with questions that are still in flux as his series is telecast, of course, but his method of hammering away at fundamental issues of democracy assures that his program will relate strongly to the latest headlines. He believes that all struggles for democracy are ultimately rooted in the issue of who wields power in the world - governments, dictators, aristocracies, or the people.

The series begins by looking at a Canadian event that inspired Watson's special fascination with problems of democracy: the crisis of October, 1970, when mounting dissension led Canada's government to invoke the War Measures Act and strip citizens of many basic rights. Watson was perturbed by this occurrence, and also by what he saw as the failure of both press and public to speak up against it. With this as his springboard, he moves on to other examples of democracy-related challenges and opportunities.

Watson doesn't dodge hard questions or facts that impinge on his celebratory view of democratic practices. He notes that democracy was born in slave states (ancient Greece and 18th-century North America) where huge forced-labor pools made self-government an affordable luxury. He acknowledges that democracy has different definitions in different parts of the world - saying that systems of ``one-party democracy'' make him uneasy, for example, but allowing that even such a limited kind of democracy may have some justification in nations where tribal and ethnic conflicts have a deep-rooted history.

Watson is at his best when he reveals extraordinary flaws in the fabric of modern democracy. His report on India, for instance, includes a hard-hitting look at the practice of murdering women in dowry disputes, and a visit to a quarry where workers live in virtual slavery. Just as remarkable is his journey to Libya, where he gives a portrait of leader Muammar Khaddafi that's quite different from the usual American view.

Other episodes of ``The Struggle for Democracy'' travel the world from Argentina and Australia to West Germany and Zimbabwe, among other countries. After watching all 10 hours, I can't help feeling that democracy is too big a subject for mere journalism to handle; even with this much time at his disposal, Watson usually seems to be skimming the surface of his material, rarely plumbing the depths as a philosopher, psychologist, or historian might have done. The program is consistently thought-provoking, however, and often quite entertaining in the bargain.

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