NO question about it: The numbers have been swelling. In the last few weeks: Some 300,000 protesters gathered on the streets of Leipzig, East Germany, to tell East German communist officials what they thought.
In Johannesburg, another 70,000 poured out to welcome Walter Sisulu and other African National Congress members released from jail by the South African government.
In Prague, the 10,000 protesters in an Oct. 28 rally fared less well, as police hauled some of them away.
In Moscow, meanwhile, a candlelight vigil by hundreds of demonstrators at KGB headquarters went off peacefully, although protesters at nearby Pushkin Square were beaten and arrested.
What's going on? What brings people out into the streets in such numbers? The question is worth raising if only because Americans tend to shrug it off. ``Of course they protest,'' we affirm, ``since they're interested in democracy.''
Trouble is, that begs the question. It's not immediately obvious that the way to transmute tyranny into democracy is to turn large crowds out onto the pavement. The history of political action provides plenty of other methods, from unsavory assassinations and terrorist incidents to bloodless coups and high-minded revolutions. So why so much interest, these days, in the large-scale protest?
The pat answer points to publicity. As sharks to blood, the analogy goes, so journalists to crowds - and the bigger the crowd, the more newsworthy the event. So the event gets reported: So what? If the ruling tyrants believe, as tyrants usually do, that ``the people'' are ignorant, silly, and best kept in their places, why worry whether one or a hundred thousand protest? Maybe it's only in Western nations, dazed by consumerism and advertising, that publicity is thought to be such a powerful god. The post-Tiananmen Square Chinese leadership certainly doesn't seem to think so. Nor does Panama's Manuel Noriega.
Strangely enough, however, the recent protests seem to be making a dent in some hitherto undentable regimes. Erstwhile tyrannies seem to be listening. What are they hearing?
The message, I suspect, has to do with freedom, individuality, and consent - three things at the heart of democracy. Here, too, some puzzles arise. It's not obvious, for instance, that free people always set up good governments: Haiti, having wrested its freedom from colonial rulers in 1804, has ridden a downward spiral ever since. Nor is it clear that individuality is an unmitigated good: Look at the record of America's ``me generation.'' And consent? The 900 followers of cult leader Jim Jones, who drank poison in the 1978 Jonestown massacre, generally seem to have consented to their leader's will. So did millions who followed Hitler's lead.
Taken together, however, those three qualities combine into a tough alloy. The desire of the governed to consent to their own governance is a powerful force - especially when it grows out of a clear sense of individuality and operates in a context of freedom of choice. So is the desire for freedom, as long as it's protected by respect for the consenting individual. And so is individuality, when it depends for freedom on the consent of others.
It's almost as though today's tyrants sense these things. It's almost as though they see that the next wave of political change will have nothing to do with conquering physical frontiers and everything to do with shattering mental barriers. It's almost as though the shaping forces of the 21st century - of which democracy is surely one - are flexing their muscles a decade early.
No doubt there will be more protests - and more truncheons and imprisonings. But the trend toward democracy is clear. The handwriting is on the tyrants' walls - which, of course, is where it's always been.