Volume 17 Number 4
The Us: Freedom Begins at Home
01 August 2004
If America is to advance the cause of democracy world-wide, she will have to work harder at applying democratic values universally, argues Richard Ruffin.
The American public's farewell to Ronald Reagan, who died on 5 June, was surprisingly emotional and prolonged. This reflected more than nostalgia for an era of good feeling; more than affection for our most popular president in 50 years; and more than appreciation for his record of accomplishments, about which there are different perceptions. At a deeper level, it reflected a need for a return to civility in America's public life and for a renewed sense of community and common purpose.
That sense of community and common purpose was rekindled for a time after 11 September, 2001--as poignantly expressed the next day in the Le Monde headline, 'We are all Americans'. But stark disagreements about how to respond to the terrorist challenge have rapidly dissipated feelings of global solidarity. And questions about the rightness, cost and conduct of the Iraq war have fuelled growing polarization at home.
The American people are by nature and history optimistic and forward-looking. We respond to positive visions. While fear and insecurity may temporarily unite us behind a 'war on terrorism', it takes a great positive purpose to hold us together above partisan differences, and create a sense of national and even global solidarity.
President Bush offered such a vision in a speech at the National Endowment for Democracy on 6 November, 2003. He described the advance of freedom as 'the calling of our time'. The march of democracy, he said, had been advanced at great cost in the 20th century but was at another major turning point. After citing challenges ranging from Cuba and Zimbabwe to China and North Korea, he turned to the Middle East. Anticipating the now controversial Democracy Initiative for the Middle East and North Africa, he quoted a remarkably candid 2003 report by Arab scholars in support of a bid to expand democracy in the region.
To date, neither the Arab states nor the leaders of the Group of Eight most powerful nations who met in June in Sea Island, Georgia, have evinced great enthusiasm for the plan. If Bush's potentially compelling vision is to become a shared vision that engages the creative energies of freedom-loving peoples the world over, America must take three important steps.
First, we must turn from our 'go it alone' ways. We must acknowledge that only a joint, collaborative effort can be effective. Democracy cannot be imposed on any nation. The creativity, resources and commitment of freedom-loving people everywhere will be required to advance freedom's cause.
Europe should be in the forefront of this effort. After centuries of wars between its tribes and nations, the European Union has brought together 25 nations in a bold experiment to expand freedom and the rule of law and to make war unthinkable on that continent. India, the world's largest democracy and home to the world's second largest Muslim population, is also an important partner, as are the many nations that have recently begun their democratic journeys. Most importantly, the American people must insist that our government and civil institutions stay the course and give consistent support to those in any country who genuinely seek to expand freedom and democracy.
Secondly, America must acknowledge that its own democracy is a work in progress. Efforts are needed to raise the alarmingly low voter turnout in our elections; to reduce the role of money at every stage in the democratic process; to make our institutions more open to the full diversity of the American people; to reconfirm our commitment to the equal protection of the laws for all detainees and prisoners of war.
This must include an unequivocal commitment to right the outrageous wrongs committed in Abu Ghraib prison, and to express heartfelt sorrow for those abuses, as is beginning to be done through an ad recently placed by Americans of different faiths on Al-Jazeera TV station.
A few weeks ago, America marked the 50th anniversary of Brown versus Board of Education, the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court that formally ended racial segregation in our schools, and laid the foundation for the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. America is a healthier, more integrated nation because of this ruling, but much of its promise remains unfulfilled. As described by Ellie Cose in Beyond Brown v Board: The final battle for excellence in American education, far too many minorities go to schools that 'might have been plucked out of some impoverished country that sees education as a luxury it can barely afford'. The public schools of many cities, such as Cleveland, Detroit and Richmond, Virginia, remain overwhelmingly non-white.
Nor is 'de facto' segregation restricted to our schools. Sunday morning in this church-going nation remains one of the most segregated hours of the week. And despite civil rights legislation, informal barriers to full inclusion of minorities remain in housing and job markets, and within many private institutions. It is the responsibility of every citizen to bring down these barriers.
Finally, America must take urgent steps to restore civility to public discourse. Polarization has not been so extreme since the era of Vietnam and Watergate. ABC correspondent Cokie Roberts contrasted the present incivility with the Reagan era when people disagreed vehemently but still broke bread together. Today, she said, we have 'a nest of vipers'. The airwaves are filled with vitriol and few seem willing to acknowledge either the good points in the other's arguments or the weaknesses in
Respect for one's political opponent, a hallmark of civility, is regarded as weakness. With few exceptions, the media promote this polarization and engage in a war of sound bites.
In this atmosphere, what can ordinary citizens do? Some dream that the outspoken Vietnam War hero, Republican Senator John McCain, will join a national unity ticket with Democrat John Kerry. Others applaud the civility of those like Republican Senator Richard Lugar and Democratic Senator Joseph Biden, who quietly work towards bi-partisan approaches to important foreign policy issues. But much more is needed. Each of us needs to help break the cycle of blame and recriminations by simple decisions to listen truly to those with different viewpoints from our own.
If the American people take these three steps to advance the cause of freedom, we will see three important results. First, we will discover eager allies in this cause among America's six million Muslims, too many of whom feel afraid and unwelcome in the current climate. Many of these are new Americans from predominantly Muslim countries where freedom languishes. If these new Americans feel fully included in the American democracy; if they observe that we acknowledge its shortcomings and are working to deal with them; if they sense we wish to work in partnership to realize hopes shared by all humanity--then they will become powerful advocates for democratic reform in their countries of origin.
Secondly, we will begin to win again the trust and respect of those around the world who in the past have looked to America for inspiration and leadership.
Thirdly, we will re-find a sense of common purpose and community that will lift the heaviness and divisiveness of the current political climate. Then, in partnership with many others, we could help realize the longing of people everywhere to shape their own destinies in free and open societies.
Richard Ruffin is Executive Vice President of the International Association of Initiatives of Change. He lives in the Washington, DC, area.