Like millions of others around the world, I have been watching this year’s protests in the Arab world, Europe and the United States. What has struck me the most as I have followed the protests on television and in the social media is that the protesters generally agree that the status quo is unacceptable, but are a lot less clear and unified about what to replace it with.
In the war of ideas, it’s not enough just to be against something; you have to be for something that is sound as well. Before you set out to alter the status quo, you ought to know how to replace it—and you need to be convinced, intellectually and in your heart, that the new system will actually be better.
When we began our protests at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk in 1980—protests that triggered the eventual collapse of Soviet communism throughout Central and Eastern Europe—we didn’t have the benefit of the Internet and social media. What we had instead was a unifying idea: that men and woman have a God-given right to be free and that government has no right to deny them this freedom. We were fighting for individual freedoms that many Americans take for granted: freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom to organize unions, freedom to congregate in public places and express our views, freedom of the press, and freedom to contract, own property, have enterprises and work to uplift the lives of our families and communities.
Those who opposed the status quo in Poland and elsewhere behind the Iron Curtain were great in number. That was the source of our strength: when we realized we weren’t alone and that others shared our concerns and views. This empowered us, as it empowered the protests in the Arab world, and today’s protests in the United States and Europe.
Today’s protests seem more focused on the problems that are plaguing many of the world’s advanced economies, with little regard to the impact of government in creating these problems. What is needed in addition are sound solutions that are mindful of both the effects of government powers and the importance of vital freedoms. These solutions have to be earned through dialogue between bankers, entrepreneurs, public administrators, labor unions and social organizations.
Whenever I support the freedom movements in Cuba, the Middle East, Burma and other outposts of tyranny, I do not support solely the idea of overthrowing those who are in power. I support the processes that would lead to new orders guaranteeing individual liberty, democracy, civic virtue, equality and the rule of law.
“Power to the people” is not an empty phrase. The powerful voice of the people can be heard above the megaphone of the state, no matter how well armed or oppressive any government may be. This is how change comes about. This is how Solidarity grew from a small group of trade unionists at a single shipyard in a single city to an organization that a year later represented about a third of Poland’s total working-age population.
I have lived under the heavy hand of communism, where the state controls virtually everything, and I’ve lived under freedom. While today’s protesters have many legitimate concerns, let me assure them that instead of either cronyism or greater government control, it is dialogue and solidarity leading to freedom that we should all strive for.
Let’s hope that the people can come together to solve our shared problems. Otherwise they will have to contend with mere turmoil against the status quo without benefit of a clear, rational and productive alternative for a better future of freedom for all.