By Farooq A. Kperogi
This was not what I wanted to write about this week. I wanted to honor the request of a friend and faithful reader of this column who asked that I write about the black experience in America in the spirit of the Black History Month, which is celebrated every February in America. But recent developments in the ongoing upheavals in the Arab world caught and detained my attention and made it impossible for me to honor my pledge.
In the wake of the revolutionary tumult that is sweeping across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), the American establishment has displayed the kind of invidious hypocrisy that has been the source of worldwide resentment against it.
First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during a speech titled “Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices and Challenges in a Networked World” at George Washington University last Tuesday, pledged American government’s assistance to cyber dissidents in MENA. The Obama administration, she said, will devote $25 million to help cyber dissidents in these societies to foil Internet repression.
Furthermore, the U.S. State Department launched Twitter accounts in Arabic and Farsi and would soon begin tweeting in Chinese, Hindi, and Russian. The goal is to expand the discursive and subversive opportunity structures that the Internet enables for citizens of repressive societies. This all sounds good, frankly, except that on the very day that Clinton gave her admirably high-flown speech on the virtues of unfettered deliberative democracy on the Web, the US Department of Justice appeared in court to defend its request to compel Twitter to make available all of its records to help the US government prosecute WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange who exposed hundreds of thousands of embarrassing US diplomatic cables.
In other words, the American government wants to trespass upon the discursive spaces of certain Twitter users—who may, in fact, be non-Americans— in order to criminalize and imprison Assange. But the same government wants to democratize access to Twitter for citizens of other countries in order to help them bring down their own admittedly despotic and unrepresentative governments. But it is the same self-preservationist instinct that causes autocratic governments to impose iron-clad repression on freedoms that is causing the US government to lose sleep over WikiLeaks’ unmasking of their inner, sordid workings.
Thankfully, I am not the only person who is outraged by these galling double standards. A Harvard university law professor by the name of Alan Dershowitz, who recently signed on to advise Assange’s legal team, told Politico, an American political newspaper, that the American government’s witch-hunting of WikiLeaks while supporting cyber dissidence in other countries is a “typical example of it’s right for thee but not for me.”
He added: “They’re perfectly happy to see all of Iran’s secrets disclosed, but they draw the line at their own. They’re perfectly happy to see open media in every other part of the world, but here they’re trying to close down media that has challenged them. It’s a clear double standard at work, and we’re going to expose that double standard.”
The irony of it all, one might add, is that the MENA rebellions that the American government wants to support with an unsolicited $25 million largess are partly inspired by revelations from WikiLeaks cables for which the American government wants to jail Julian Assange. The barefaced hypocrisy in all of this just stinks to high heavens.
But that is not even the worst. While Hillary Clinton was delivering her lecture promising support for cyber dissidents in the Arab world and preachifying about the merits of freedom, civil liberties, and human rights, a 71-year-old former CIA worker by the name of Ray McGovern was “grabbed from the audience in plain view of her by police and an unidentified official in plain clothes, brutalized and left bleeding in jail,” according to an online source. His offense? He heckled and turned his back on Clinton as a symbolic gesture of defiance. As the man was being dragged out with bruises on his body, he screamed, “So this is America?”
This scream, in more ways than one, capsulizes the moral burdens of America’s contradictory, ambidexterous preachments on democracy and human rights. In essence, the man was saying: So this is America, the self-imposed moral police of the world, the evangelist of democracy, human rights, and civil liberties brutalizing its own citizen for a mere act of peaceful, if rude, civil disobedience? So this is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave where a high-ranking public official (who is ironically sermonizing about the virtues of tolerance, human rights, and civil liberties) watches in contentment while an old man is being viciously assaulted by government security forces? Or is this perhaps some repressive Third World country in the Middle East or North Africa?
Interestingly, the mainstream media here largely blacked out this aspect of the story. And Clinton herself has not talked about it thereafter even though the video of the incident has been captured, posted on YouTube, and viewed by thousands of people.
If you appoint yourself as the world’s police, the least you should do to earn that title is to rise superior to the infractions you habitually point out in others. When you default in that elemental obligation, you invite resentment and scorn in people who didn’t like you in the first place-- and disillusionment in those who look up to you as a moral compass. But the American power structure seems splendidly unreflective about this basic fact.
You see, most people admire the industry and progress of America. They love the infectious spirit, energy, and friendliness of many ordinary Americans. They only hate the two-facedness of American foreign policy. They resent a government that makes high-minded pontifications about and support for cyber dissidence in other countries but wants to file criminal charges against people who use the Internet to expose the workings of the American government. They have no respect for a government that blocked WikiLeaks from being viewed in certain government offices and that told its workers not to view contents of the leaks even in their homes, but wants to set up Twitter accounts in foreign languages to bring down other governments—even if the governments deserve to be brought down.
To be sure, all of these despotic governments deserve to be uprooted. And, in spite of everything, the American society is light-years freer and more progressive than they are, but if the American government wants to play the role of unsolicited guardian of human and civil rights and free speech, it shouldn’t just preach it; it should practice it as well. It is not doing that now.