Posted by: amylamb | May 3, 2012

Democracy’s Vulnerability According to Holocaust Survivor

I recently had the privilege of hearing the story of Ms. Agnes Tennenbaum, a Holocaust survivor. You can find her memoirs here. 

Ms. Tennenbaum spoke softly in a thick Hungarian accent, her chemical-stained hands folded gingerly in her lap. During a brief Q & A session, one student asked, “do you think a Holocaust of some kind could happen again?”

Ms. Tennenbaum’s answer struck me: “It depends on the people – the people who educate, the people we vote for.”

Her message was clear: democracy is powerful, but fragile. Its preservation depends on the integrity of the people therein. If we do not take the responsibility of maintaining reverence for the moral principles that hold our nation together (and respect for individual opinion simultaneously), then the nation will succumb to either tyranny or anarchy.

The Holocaust is a poignant example of the necessity of this balance. Hitler was an extraordinarily charismatic leader who rose to power by promising jobs, hope, change, and happiness. He had a vision for “what could be,” and the people bought into it because they were weary of “what is.”

The reality is that Hitler lacked a moral compass to guide him from “what is” to “what could be.” He crafted his own compass – whose mechanism was the Holocaust – to the “what could be,” but he did so without the guidance of a moral standard and the accountability of the people he was elected to serve. 

That’s why we need a leader with a moral compass. We cannot predict the decisions our elected leaders will make once in office, but we can perceive the presence or absence of a moral standard that guides their decisions.

The connection is simple: the foundational principles of the United States of America – freedom, justice, liberty, and equality – are inherently moral, derived from a standard of right and wrong that is greater than our own authority. It is not our role to create the principles that hold our nation together, but it is our role to interpret them. We cannot interpret these principles well without invoking the moral standard from which they are derived. 

Only by electing leaders with a moral compass – and by allowing the same compass to guide our personal decisions on a daily basis – can the power of democracy remain. Only then can the generations after us still echo the words of Ms. Tennenbaum:

“I came to the USA for hope, leaving behind fear. Now I don’t have to be afraid of anything. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t say, ‘God bless America.’ It is not perfect, but it is the best. The United States of America is the only democracy that I trust.”

Hers is a glimpse of the “what could be” envisioned by the Founding Fathers and pursued by American citizens today. Only by a moral compass can we find our way between “what is” and “what could be.”  

Yes, we are weary of “what is,” but we must not relegate the power of the “what could be” to a leader without the map to lead us there. Vote wisely.


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