I studied anthropology in college. At the particular university I attended, this entailed a certain amount of time spent hanging around the anthro lounge with other students. There was a grassy corner outside the building housing said lounge where a curious family would occasionally take up temporary residence to harangue the students passing by. They had a large (about 15’ tall) wooden cross they would hold (usually the father) and they would scream at the passerby about their likelihood of burning in Hell for all eternity. Apparently, this family thought attending university was some form of especially grievous sin. Beside the father, the family consisted of a mother and a small boy, probably around 8 years old at the time.
One day, I sat in the lounge while this family stood at their posts screaming invectives. Dickie, a grad student, entered the lounge and flopped angrily into a chair. I looked up and noted that he was visibly upset.
“What’s up?” I queried.
“I just feel for that little boy,” came the response. “I just want to go out and tell him that there’s another way.”
My reaction to this statement was to question Dickie about a few things. Specifically, why he thought he had the right to tell anyone else how to raise their children, what he thought entitled him to pass judgment on someone else’s beliefs, and whether he liked the idea of someone else telling Dickie how to raise his own children. I didn’t do it very nicely.
I got to thinking about that family today as I was reading yet another article about China/Google. I was thinking about them because the elephant in the room reminded me of them.
You see, in all the discussion about this scenario, I have read reams of opinions about human rights (which I’ll get to later), but I have read precious little about sovereignty. You know – something along the lines of: Who are we to tell China what to do? When companies from other countries do business here in the United States (even Chinese companies), we quite rightly expect them to play by our rules. If they fail to do things our way, we kick them out. This is right and proper and how it should be.
But not, apparently, when China does it. When we do it, we are a sovereign nation exercising its right to protect the interests of its people. When China does it, they’re an evil, tyrannical empire abusing its citizens.
To quote Brian Lewis: “God bless America. And no place else.”
Just one more damn thing I find tiresome about my country. Which should not be taken to mean I don’t love my country. I love my country, and I always have. I just hold it to a higher standard than most people.
Anyway, a large part of the Great American Idiocy is the unshakable belief that everyone else in the world wants what we have (which contains a kernel of truth, but not of the sort most people think). Americans inexplicably think that the rest of humanity would really love to have an American form of government, as well as a full set of American rights. This is inexplicable for a variety of reasons, the largest of which being that Americans don’t even want them themselves.
Don’t believe me? Are you actually under the impression that Americans are protective of their rights? If so, I have one question: Where the hell were you for the first eight years of this millennium? You know – that dark, cold period in American history when the Bush/Cheney empire routinely erased the rights of the American people, in response to which the majority of Americans stood up and cheered.
And our form of government? Please. In the first place, we do not have a democracy in this country, or even anything close to it. ‘Representative Republic’ is one of the phrases that often gets batted around in an attempt to describe what we have. Whatever you want to call it, what we do have in this country is the ability to vote. The actual weight our individual votes carry is an arguable point (and it varies, depending on what, exactly, we’re voting about), but in some fashion it boils down to the fact that we are freely given a real, active and meaningful voice in our government.
And yet, in the last election, only 58% of Americans who were eligible to vote actually did so. This means that 42% of the Americans who were eligible to vote chose not to participate in the process, despite the fact that it doesn’t cost them anything, is easy to do, and directly and immediately affects their lives.
So tell me – if our form of government is so damned wonderful, why do almost half of the eligible participants choose not to play? And please don’t try to tell me that all those Americans want our form of government, but just aren’t willing to ‘work’ for it. That’s just another way of saying they don’t want it. Besides, dropping by the polls for an hour (at most) once every couple of years is not exactly work (truth be told, there are only two things that the majority of Americans really do want. They want to be able to pick up a six-pack on their way home from work, and they want their cable to work when they get home. If these two things are in place, the average American doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything else). I just don’t understand why we insist on believing the rest of the world wants a piece of our so-called ‘democracy’ when such a large percentage of Americans don’t even want it. Seems like a bit of a stretch.
Which brings us to the subject of human rights. We here in the Land Of Silk And Money tend to believe that the government of China routinely violates the basic human rights of the Chinese people. Personally, I believe this to be true, but not through any firsthand (or even secondhand) knowledge.
What’s unclear to me is why we’re bringing internet censorship into the whole human rights discussion. This is not to say I am a proponent of internet censorship (or any other sort of censorship, for that matter). I’d like to think this is obvious. Censorship in any form is an infringement of the freedom of expression, something I consider to be a basic human right (within reason, of course. You know – the old saw about not yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater. Possessing a right to speak freely does not automatically confer a license to use it recklessly. Nor does it absolve one from taking responsibility for things said). What I’m not getting here is why we’re all pretending that the Chinese government is the only government that actively censors the information its citizens receive. Or why we pretend that censorship only comes from ‘bad’ governments. All governments censor information – some are just more honest about it (for which they get sent over to sit on the Group ‘W’ bench).
We here in the United States tend to place freedom of expression into the ‘basic human right’ category, I think mainly because our freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed and therefore we have more of it than most. What we forget is just how rare this is. The overwhelming majority of humanity does not enjoy this right, even many of the people we Americans kind of assume do have such a right – While article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights pertains to the freedom of expression, it contains the conditional: subject to certain restrictions that are “in accordance with law” and “necessary in a democratic society”. In other words, everyone should have a right to free speech, but only insofar as their government wishes to allow (Neil Gaiman wrote a great piece on this a while back). It also should be noted that the European Convention on Human Rights is much like the United Nations – it has no muscles. It is only enforceable if a government chooses to flex its muscles on the Convention’s behalf.
I guess my point here is simply a repetition of one of the great litanies of my life: They are all bastards. I don’t really see how asking Google to abide by their rules makes Chinese bastards worse than all the other bastards.