Freedom's Burden

IT was a chilly spring this year in Prague. Clouds and cold hung low and close around the city's spires, matching the uncertain mood of the moment. Last year's euphoria has been replaced by a growing anxiety about a future that for the first time in 40 years is no longer predictable. Freedom has wrought many changes, and the largest may be still to come. Some have been refreshingly positive. In place of the once stolid, solitary voice of Rude Pravo, the Communist Party daily, the newspaper kiosks now sport a panoply of homegrown papers and magazines of every political stripe and cultural inclination. All that was formerly forbidden is now freely available, often in playful juxtaposition.

Rising prices of food, fuel, and other necessities have combined with the removal of state subsidies from the publishing industry to threaten the survival of Prague's 600 bookstores and the habits of a reading public traditionally larger and more literate than most in the West.

More important, freedom has brought a spontaneity back to people's lives and actions, enabling them to express themselves without fear of reprisal. Even the microphone of a foreign journalist does not startle them. Driven for half a century into silent submission, they have found their voices with remarkable rapidity, using them to criticize both the old regime and the new.

The open-hearted, almost whimsical playfulness evident last spring, however, has been largely replaced by a retreat into private concerns and pleasures. Youthful strollers gaze longingly at shop windows, but inside are few new goods and still fewer shoppers. Faces on the tram, in the metro, and on the street are no longer blank, as in the old regime, or elated, as last year, but riddled with an inward-turning anxiety. There is freedom now, but few possess the resources or skills to exploit its opportuni ties.

This mood of anxiety, what social psychologists might call ``post-totalitarian stress syndrome,'' is not an abstract existential dread. It is a realistic sense of foreboding before a series of economic shocks just beginning to roll across this society with the force of a Bangladeshi tidal wave. Engineered by its charismatic and controversial Finance Minister, Vaclav Klaus, Czechoslovakia's economic reform plan will soon strip factories, universities, and most other institutions of their accustomed subsi dies, leaving them to sink or swim in a merciless, chaotic market environment. In a society in which for the past 40 years unemployment has been not simply unknown but illegal, joblessness could be a still more deeply disconcerting experience than it is for Westerners.

Freedom has brought other unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. Crime is rising not only in the capital but in small towns. Prague's crime rate doubled in the first year following the revolution. Theft of newly acquired (or newly displayed) wealth is most common, but violence is reportedly also on the rise.

Many believe that President Havel made a dreadful mistake in pardoning all prisoners, political and otherwise, in his first days in office. The majority, it turns out, were common criminals, who have simply used their freedom to resume their mischief. In the resulting mayhem, 11 people have been murdered.

``No one fears the police anymore,'' many people complain without a trace of irony. Yet it was these same police who had until recently enforced the dictates of a deeply detested totalitarian regime on every citizen. But the police and the system that employed them also guaranteed a certain order, predictability, and safety - albeit the safety of a maximum-security prison. Freedom guarantees none of these things. Fluid, dynamic, and highly unpredictable, it demands constant vigilance and is easily lost - or surrendered in trade for a promised return to law and order.

Amid all these unfamiliar uncertainties, many people complain that they no longer have the time to enjoy their lives. ``There's absolutely no room for amusement anymore,'' a Czech friend told me. ``I must constantly pursue new possibilities in the hope that at least one of them will come through.'' Even former dissidents, thrust into positions of responsibility after decades of languishing as coal stokers and street sweepers, speak wistfully of the days when they had the time and tranquillity to tackle the great human questions.

Despite these qualms, few wish to reassume the yoke of ``totality.'' Martin Palous, a former dissident and now Deputy Foreign Minister, compares the mood of this moment to that of the Israelites who, having fled the despotism of the Pharaoh, complained bitterly of their sufferings in the desert on the way to the Promised Land. Some even longed for the fleshpots of Egypt and the security of a daily ration of bread.

Those who clamored for freedom during the revolution did not imagine its shadow side. Attracted by long-denied ``freedoms to ... '' (speak, travel, organize, demonstrate), they were unaware that in the process of embracing them they might lose some of the ``freedoms from ... '' (joblessness, homelessness, crime, anxiety). They didn't realize, as many of us in the West perhaps do not, that freedom and security often move in contrary directions, so that the more you get of one, the less you have of the ot her. Living in truth, as Vaclav Havel demonstrated, is an immensely challenging task. So, it seems, is living in freedom.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Freedom's Burden
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today