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Common ground and independence

What good is Independence Day without hot dogs, hot air, barbecues and oratory? I can't supply the eats, but I would offer some holiday thoughts, inspired by an intercontinental exchange between Prague and the American groves of academe.

Vaclav Havel, the president of the Czech Republic, was Harvard's commencement speaker, delivering a passionate and eloquent address on the responsibility of politicians and journalists to embody and inculcate the civic virtues that make democracy possible. Both politics and journalism, he said, must aim at "serving the community," which means "morality in practice."

At the same time, in Havel's home city of Prague, Benjamin Barber, the Walt Whitman professor of political science at Rutgers, was offering a related set of thoughts. Barber's comments are as applicable to our own country as to the representatives of the former Communist lands who were in his audience at a conference sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, the American Federation of Teachers, Department of Education and the U.S. Information Agency.

In words that Havel would certainly applaud, Barber reminded his listeners that "democracy is a process, not an end; an ongoing experiment, not a set of fixed doctrines. . . ."

And then a sentence that I wish could be written on every classroom blackboard and intoned at the start of each day's session of Congress: "When a nation announces the work of democracy is finished, it's usually democracy that is finished in that nation."

We live in a time when a great many politicians are addicted to rewriting the Constitution. No fewer than four constitutional amendments may be voted on in Congress this year. Most of them don't stand scrutiny. But even if they did, Barber reminds us that constitutional protections are only what James Madison called "parchment parapets," from which threats to freedom and democracy can be repelled only if a strong-willed, principled citizenry stands ready at the gates.

Those documents will endure only as long as their principles are clearly etched on our minds and enshrined in our hearts. That is why this great national holiday really is the occasion for the kind of patriotic oratory that reminds us of our individual responsibility _ Havel's favorite word _ to safeguard democracy through active citizenship.

We also live in a time when, as noted here recently, House majority leader Dick Armey of Texas and other politicians argue that "the market is rational and the government is dumb."

Barber decries the "disastrous confusion between the moderate and mostly well-founded claim that flexibly regulated markets remain the most efficient instruments of economic productivity and wealth accumulation . . . and the zany, overblown claim that naked, wholly unregulated markets are the sole means by which we can produce and distribute everything we care about. . . ."

The point is that we are citizens as well as consumers. Individual choice works wonderfully well in guiding our private consumption. But it is only as we join together to sort out the means for meeting our common goals that we can sustain our democracy.

That is why the traditional American Fourth of July involves meeting on the common _ whether it is Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Grant Park in Chicago or the Mall in Washington, D.C., where I will be. It is a time to remind ourselves of the blessings _ and responsibilities _ we share as citizens of this land.

As Havel said at Harvard, "The main task of the coming era is . . . a radical renewal of our sense of responsibility."

There is no better time for pondering that challenge _ and acting on it _ than Independence Day.

Washington Post Writers Group