During my recent trip to Prague, I reunited with Jeff Weller, a former student. Jeff was in my class 35 years ago. He’s an expatriate who owns a hotel near the Legion Bridge. His sons, Emil and Damek, study political philosophy at Charles University, founded in 1348.
I spent hours with the boys in the Café Evropa on Wenceslas Square, discussing the philosophies of the great thinkers and political reformists. It was the intellects that influenced the Prague Spring of 1968, a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia.
“Dr. Joe,” Emil Weller said. “Look out the window, in front of the National Museum.”
On the ground I saw a cross made of bricks embedded in the street.
“That’s where Jan Palach set himself ablaze protesting the Soviet invasion,” Emil said.
In 1968 the students of Prague, under the mentorship of Alexander Dubcek, rebelled against Soviet oppression. Russia sent 200,000 soldiers and 200 tanks to extinguish this flame of liberty.
I was curious why students born 20 years after the Prague Spring still carry the memory of ’68 and of Jan Palach. I learned they believe the struggle for liberty and equality is humanity’s greatest initiative.
Emil quoted Ayn Rand, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual.”
“Those who deny individual rights become the oppressors; the rights of the individual is the cornerstone of liberty,” Emil said. “Sacrificing individual freedom for the collective good is the first step toward political oppression.”
Damek interjected, “Liberty is never unalienable; it must be redeemed regularly with the blood of patriots or it vanishes. Of all the human rights that have ever been sought, liberty is least likely to be cheap and is never free of cost. That’s why we don’t forget,” he said.
There’s a disparity between the students of Prague and those of America relative to the value we place on freedom. They are more serious than we are. I can understand this since the people of Central Europe experienced a degradation of the human spirit and were subjected to oppression for 40 years. Have we lost our ideals? What once touched our hearts and made our blood boil we now take for granted.
After I returned home from Europe, I became sensitive of the dance between majority and minority perspectives. I began to see evidence of a gradual decline in our individual liberties. Recently the majority at Glendale College banned smoking from the campus and disregarded the rights of those who smoke. We just don’t have a democracy in this country where-by the majority’s will prevails. Instead, we have a Constitutional Democracy, which safeguards the rights of the minority.
Of course it’s a bad example to compare Glendale College with North Korea, but it makes me wonder what they’ll ban next? Soda? Candy? It’s the gradual decay of individual liberties that scare me. We cannot defend the concept of freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
Last year the LCHS seniors were banned from wearing a shirt because of a reference to Dos Equis beer. They then wore shirts that declared them as the most politically correct class. Individual rights are being abolished for the sake of political correctness. I see evidence of this daily. Because it is gradual, it appears benign. But it is a malignancy.
First the gods enslaved man. But he broke their chains. Then the kings enslaved him and then it was by his birth or his race. But he broke those chains as well. Man then declared there is nothing more sacred than liberty. We stand on the threshold of freedom because of the blood shed by the patriots before us. If we are not vigilant, the oppressors will oppress the minority. Then different oppressors will oppress the oppressors. And it will continue; so what are then left with?
Ronald Reagan said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”