The Sign of the Trigger: Dying to Hold onto Democracy
I haven’t posted on Substack in a long time, but here’s a recent essay/memoir meditation on a world gone mad.
I’d be most grateful (assuming you like what you’ve read) if you share with others.
More to come & thanks,
“You can’t eat democracy!” proclaims a pop-up dictator, his photo op: a hot slice of crocodile grin and a wink. Voila President Bukele of El Salvador, who dispensed with due process and the constitution in a countrywide crackdown on gangs and gang violence, leading to a 90% approval rating.
Nixon once intoned: “When you grab them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow”. Even Sylvia Plath sexed up the mantra: “Every woman adores a fascist…” But what used to be cynical if cruel satire is now a half-baked dull-witted cruelty taken seriously.
Once, long ago, I traveled to a country that had been denied all democratic rights for decades by totalitarianism. Later I witnessed its hunger for democracy fully sated. Or thought I had. The fact is: democracy needs to stay hungry to survive.
On December 21, 2023, a student of history and economics at Charles University in Prague shot and killed fifteen other students on campus, then shot himself. This happened in the Czech Republic, not in gun-crazy America, as the mayor of Prague, shocked and incredulous, later remarked, “We always thought this was a thing that does (did) not concern us.”
“Other things” concerned the Czech people historically. Among them, holding fast to democratic ideals, even as Czechoslovakia was swallowed by the Soviet land grab after World War II and as national boundaries were re-drawn on a map militarized at the re-invented borders of a Communist stronghold.
I visited Prague for the first time in 1970. It was two years after Soviet tanks rolled across the Charles Bridge, targeting protestors celebrating The Prague Spring, a heady uprising that led to liberal reform lasting just seven months, from January to August, 1968. Students, workers and artist-activists, including playwright Vaclav Havel, promoted “socialism with a human face”, a soft landing away from totalitarianism and toward freedoms the country had cultivated since the end of the first World War.
But the idyll was brief. Armored tanks dead-rolled Prague’s Spring back into Soviet winter. I’d read about the invasion and the abrupt freeze of that green season. I was a grad student, traveling with an assorted handful of Brit students on an unthinkable overland trip to Moscow from London in a cramped mini-van. We came to a stop in Prague’s Old Town where windows were shuttered, monuments soot-blackened, streets completely deserted, although it was broad daylight.
At the border, we’d been granted a 12-hour-only visa allowing us to enter the city. But how were we to enter this city deep in shadow before us? In improbable answer, an elderly gentleman approached our van and offered himself as guide. I remember asking about the personal risk inherent in his offer, as we had been informed at the border that residents were warned not to speak to foreign visitors. “I am a citizen of Prague” he announced proudly in response, refusing to accept our money. He led us past the sealed astronomical clock, the Orloj, past the statues on Charles Bridge – and finally, the hidden memorial to Jan Palach, the student who had burned himself alive, protesting the Soviet invasion.
Government officials maintained a clumsy attempt to obliterate the site of Palach’s immolation - but it remained hauntingly in place: a boarded-up “shrine” with JAN scrawled in child’s crayon. Outsiders, we thought we understood what we were witnessing, but our guide corrected us. “This was not a protest” he said.
Jan Palach had died after three days in the hospital. He told the burns specialist at his bedside that he meant his death as a warning to his fellow citizens to never stop fighting for democracy. He did what he did because he believed the Czech people had begun to give up, surrendering in resignation as the tanks thundered over the horizon. He set fire to his body, to his life, because he believed people would remember his death as a symbol, extreme testimony to the fragile life of democracy.
I returned to Prague exactly twenty years later, in 1990, when democracy had finally triumphed. The Soviet Union had collapsed. Vaclav Havel had been elected President. A new nation was christened. All day people filled the streets, drinking and laughing. At dusk, streetlamps were lit, and the celebration went on. Shops and restaurants hung signs and opened their doors wide. The shrouded city of 1970 had vanished. My actor husband, whose film, The Josephine Baker Story, shot in Budapest, had just wrapped - drove us to Prague from Hungary. It was his first visit and also the first for our seven year old daughter, who held my hand as we located a flower-strewn memorial to Jan Palach.
My daughter and I returned in 1996. I had been invited to teach poetry at Charles University that summer - to a class made up of both Czech and American students. Annie was twelve, taking a photography class at the University and her best photos were of the ancient Jewish cemetery. Cafes were jammed, there was street theater and the animated figures on the astronomical clock chimed in carousel syncopation. Jan Palach’s warning about democracy now felt like lack of faith in the historical inevitability of enlightenment.
What the U.S. in the 1960’s had steadily imported was its politics as culture, a youthful progressive liberal vision. The international high sign salute was the “V” of the peace symbol. But in 2023, the Prague mayor acknowledged a frightening transformation. What was being imported was the Sign of the Trigger, in both senses: violent gun culture and what looked like an abrupt repudiation of a democratic past, including “triggering” censorship.
The Czech Republic had never seemed, as the Mayor said, “concerned with these things” – by which he meant the brutal contagion of gun violence. But now shooters killed in schools and churches and supermarkets, as Russian tanks once again crossed the border of a neighboring country. At other borders, drones and bombs killed for desperate cause after cause – terrorists murdered and raped civilians and in return a population was decimated. On U.S. campuses protestors carried signs with unbelievable outcry: anti-democratic, antisemitic and anti-settler colonialism.
Think of Yeats’ poem, The Second Coming: “the best lack all conviction/and the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
A poet might call up Jan Palach’s ghost from the ashes, along with a lyric about the enduring power of a single vote. But neither a poem nor a lone vote held dominion as shots rang out on a campus where Jan’s fellow students had once protested the violence of dictators, never imagining wielding firearms to kill one another. At Charles University, I taught students who argued, impassioned, about what had gone wrong in the neighbor-against-neighbor nearby Serbo-Croatian war, a war they found unimaginable.
Who could have predicted that fascist rhetoric would again fill the mouths of dictators and idiot would-be dictators – and even more idiotic members of Congress bowing to a dictator - to resounding cheers? Or that left wing rhetoric would turn to support of terrorist ideology or cower in legal double-talk parroted by presidents of corporatized universities?
It seems so far away now - that past whose ideals are now mocked. We hungered for justice once. Back then we believed in the right to speak and read freely, the right to choose, the right to be concerned about democracy’s future as inherent in our education, our politics, our uncensored faith in each other. The dictator grins: “You can’t eat democracy.”
But democracy’s loss will starve the soul. And the memorial to one young man’s terrifying attempt to make his death a symbol of what we now stand to lose is forgotten like a plaque in a park.
To remember Jan Palach today is to call up a past where we once mourned collectively. Now we are losing what we once held close as a single life in its power and fragility. What we have turned against by turning against our history, our righteous hunger — is ourselves.
- Carol Muske-Dukes