Guest Columnists

Creating space for civic dialogue

Saturday forum to discuss 'Participating in Democracy'

Czech President Vaclav Havel, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Slovak President Michal Kovac stand together after signing
Czech President Vaclav Havel, U.S. President Bill Clinton and Slovak President Michal Kovac stand together after signing their names on the President's Kiosk inside the Grand Hall of the National Czech and Slovak Museum & Library. (Gazette file photo)
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For some, the 2016 presidential election will go down in history as one of the most contentious, divisive and absurd the American people have yet endured. For others, it’s a pivotal moment in the evolution of our democracy, and the race to the White House has sparked a renewed sense of civic duty to participate in the political process and to get our country back on track. Maybe it’s a little of both.

If you haven’t completely tuned out at this point in the race, you have undoubtedly noticed the steady stream of inflammatory, often derogatory remarks being made on social media and have seen footage of the conflict — even violence — unfolding at rallies. Clearly, these outbursts are a symptom of a country at odds, and emotions don’t just abdicate to reason because we want them to; they must be acknowledged and processed. Sitting in your living room with family and friends is often a suitable place to just get things off your chest, jostle each other’s points of view a little and complain in uncensored tones about the state of the world. After all, what’s a few ruffled feathers among friends?

Similarly, very few would consider Facebook to be the obvious resource for objective, reasoned analysis of the issues. It’s a platform to tell the world what you are doing now that you’re awake, how you are feeling about the weather — and to share your opinions in all of their half-baked glory, interspersed among political memes, a few hastily skimmed news articles, cat videos and pictures of artfully plated food. Nothing wrong with all of that. But there is a growing concern that we aren’t taking that next critical step in our role as citizens — who are fortunate enough to live in a democratic society, by the way — which is to engage in civil discourse, let others poke some holes in our own dogmas and go on to make decent decisions for the good of the group. Some of that work can be done online, yes, but more of it needs to be done the old-fashioned way, where you share physical space with someone and look them in the eye when they are talking to you.

In a country where people sacrificed their lives for the right to vote, it is embarrassing that we spend so little time participating in the political process. I will be the first to admit that there have been times in my life when political involvement took a back seat to other concerns of daily living. There have been moments when I have questioned whether or not my voice was really being heard (and times when I wished I could take my comments back). And I can remember a few times when I did not feel empowered to speak at all.

It is because some issues come drenched in lighter fluid that we are often told to leave our matches at home. But there’s a danger in avoiding the flare-ups that come with political participation. The more we disengage, the more we abdicate our values and leave the decision-making up to someone else. The founders of this country worked hard to create a democratic system that, even if imperfect, has the potential to benefit all Americans, but it must be continuously cultivated to those ends by citizens who are informed and positively motivated. John F. Kennedy charged us quite pointedly with the task when he said, “the ignorance of one voter in democracy impairs the security of all.” To that I would add “apathy.”

The Association of American Colleges and Universities sounded a call in A Crucible Moment: College Learning and Democracy’s Future. The report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 begins by citing some worrying statistics. Among them that less than 10 percent of Americans surveyed in 2010 had contacted a government official during the previous year, and that among the 172 world democracies the United States ranked 139th in voter participation. In the years since that report, some would say we’ve improved a bit, but not enough to be thoroughly encouraged. What the authors concluded is that there is an obligation to ensure that students acquire the skills and knowledge that will help them become informed, civically engaged citizens.

Museums have long provided an important alternative learning environment in their communities, but can do more to create a safe place to tackle tough issues. Lois Silverman writes in her book, The Social Work of Museums, “All my life I have been seeking to understand the remarkable magic of museums. As people engage with objects and with each other, museums become containers and catalysts for personal growth, relationship building, social change, and healing … It is my passionate belief that the most important and essential work museums do is to use their unique resources to benefit human relationships and, ultimately, repair the world.”

A lofty goal, but worth pursuing, perhaps one corner of the world at a time.

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In Cedar Rapids, the little museum that grew up to be the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library (NCSML) has long focused on its role as an ethnic museum, and for good reason. Many thousands of people visit from all over the country and the world every year to immerse themselves in this rich culture, and to see the treasures the museum holds in its collection. But the NCSML has recently taken a big step in its strategic plan, and is leveraging its unique resources to help visitors find new ways to think about human rights, family, culture and community.

One reason for this expansion of mission is that the board and staff recognize that the museum took root in this community. It follows logically, that it is an institution of the community, working for the community. If it is true that democracy is a continual work in progress, then one service we can provide is to counterbalance the emotion of political rib and jab by creating a safe, inclusive place for reflection and civic discourse — the intended outcome being that we have helped to inform and empower citizens to action.

Few would disagree that the NCSML is a unique museum, but not everyone instantly understands how the museum is positioned to take on broader issues like democracy or human rights. A closer look at the museum’s signature exhibit helps make the connection. Faces of Freedom: The Czech and Slovak Journey tells the stories of people who struggled for freedom over centuries, and it includes objects that serve as physical reminders of the trials they endured and the cultural identity they protected. It also includes the oral histories of those who fled their homes and came to The U.S. during World War II and the Communist era, hopeful that American liberty would provide the fertile soil in which their families could thrive. Their stories are in turns dramatic, sobering and inspiring.

One of the central figures of the transition of Czechoslovakia (now the Czech and Slovak Republics) to democracy in the 20th century is Václav Havel. He has inspired the museum to create “The NCSML Forum: Participating in Democracy,” taking place this Saturday. The forum is a public exchange of ideas on how we shape democracy, inspired by Václav Havel, one of Time Magazine’s “Top 10 Political Prisoners,” and a freedom fighter celebrated the world over.

The museum has put together a full day of programs that are meant to inform and engage. Visitors can listen to panel discussions, go on a gallery tour, and have a chance to engage in civic dialogue during “Popcorn and Politics,” thematic roundtable conversations facilitated by graduate students from across the U.S. and abroad who are studying Czech and Slovak issues. While connections will be made to Central Europe, the topics discussed at each roundtable were created to appeal to a broad audience. High school students on up will find the conversation lively and worthwhile.

The event culminates with a keynote by Dr. Tomáš Vrba, who worked alongside Havel during the 1960s-1990s. Vrba will explore the tremendous impact of Havel’s artistic and political contributions. Havel reminds us that every simple attempt to forward civil society takes courage — courage to overcome fear and to actively participate in shaping political outcomes. The keynote is free and is followed by a birthday cake reception, in honor of Havel’s 80th birthday. The full day’s details are listed here: http://www.ncsml.org/event/ncsml-forum

As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.”

• Leah Wilson is vice president of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids. (319) 362-8500;

www.NCSML.org

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