John Hopkins: Reawakening The Spirit of Democracy | March 14th, 2019


Garry Kasparov’s remarks:

“Thank you, and thank you all for being here today. My deep appreciation for our hosts, Johns Hopkins University and its President Ron Daniels, and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation. Democracy is always in need of friends, and they are steadfast.

It’s been a little over two years since a few friends and I got together to discuss what we might be able to do to address the modern crisis of liberal democracy. We understood that although the moment was catalyzed by the election of Donald Trump, he was only a symptom of a disease that had been spreading for many years. The Renew Democracy Initiative is an attempt to find a cure.

Authoritarian regimes like Russia and China have become openly dictatorial at home and more aggressive abroad. Fragile republics like Hungary and Turkey have shifted to demagoguery and autocracy. Populists rule in Italy, while fascists and socialists have made gains across much of Europe. Bellwether democracies like Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States are struggling with populism, xenophobia, and the rise of ideological extremism on the right and the left. Perhaps most concerning of all, the basic principles of liberal democracy, the individual freedom, the guaranteed rights, are under attack like never before. Civil disagreement has given way to contempt, to open hatred.

I have been forced to leave my home twice in my life. My family and I fled my birthplace of Baku, Azerbaijan, in the USSR when violent anti-Armenian pogroms began in 1990. In 2013, I realized I could no longer return safely to Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where my opposition colleagues were being harassed, persecuted, and murdered with impunity.

It’s easy to say such things could never happen here, as the saying goes. The democratic institutions here are far stronger than those of the fragile, young Russian ones destroyed so completely by Putin. But decay does not happen overnight. It doesn’t begin with weak institutions or a corrupt executive. Those are the effects that reveal how weak the system has already become. It’s the result of years, of decades, of complacency, a shift in values, the abandonment of principles. It is the direct consequence of a steady decline in the responsibilities of being a member of a democracy, and of being a democratic nation in the world.

The Renew Democracy Initiative is dedicated to fighting back against that tide. As we did with our first project, the book Fight for Liberty, modeled on the Federalist Papers, RDI wants to educate those who have never learned about why democracy really matters—and to remind the many who have forgotten. We want to inspire a new generation to believe in the power of individual freedom and of free societies to create unrivaled prosperity and opportunity. This is never to say that America is, or has ever been, perfect. We must not whitewash our flaws if we hope to fix them. America’s strength has always been its ability to get better, and while it has recently taken a few steps back, we do say that America remains the best hope of revitalizing the spirit of democracy in the world—and to do that it must lead by example.

We understand that our emphasis on education and civics may sound too slow in a time of crisis. And I admit, I do consider myself someone who places a priority on thinking several moves ahead! But we do not shy away from the battles of the day. Our members advocate and agitate in lectures, op-eds, back rooms, boardrooms, and classrooms. We read books, we write books, but we also march in the streets and tweet! (Probably too much!)

We also know that a rush for short-term solutions will only make the problem worse. Extremism must not be met by equal and opposite extremism. Despite what you might see on cable news, there is room in the middle. There is room for respect, for cooperation, even for sanity! We must fight to defend that space and to expand it. We must use the moment to spark a rebirth of active and engaged citizenship. This must be a wake-up call for American democracy, not a death knell.

As we begin our next session of discussions, it is essential to remember that listening is not enough. We are here today in a temple of knowledge, a library in a hallowed place of teaching and learning. But today it must also be a place of action. Apathy and ignorance are not the only threats to the values of democracy today. They are under active attacks from the forces of dictatorship, of demagoguery and corruption and hate. If those attacks are not countered, we will have proved ourselves unworthy of the mantle of freedom. We will also have failed to defend those most in need of the protections and benefits of democracy and rights.

Do not be afraid. Do not be intimidated into silence—not by your enemies or your allies—or you will soon lose the right to speak at all. Please, I have lived through it twice and I do not want there to be a third time! This wonderful conference is a spark and we need your help to fan it into a flame. Go to RDI.org and join the Renew Democracy Initiative, spread the word online and off. Most importantly, spread the values you believe in. Thank you.


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