Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed some concerns about Israeli democracy in a closed-door session at the Saban Forum, reportedly criticizing proposed Knesset legislation aimed at curbing foreign funding of Israeli NGOs and gender-segregated bus lines serving haredi Orthodox areas.
A couple of weeks later, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman penned an Op-Ed saying that he is “deeply worried about where Israel is going today.”
Maybe Clinton and Friedman first should take a hard look at the state of democracy at home.
In the spirit of Friedman’s letter-style columns, I offer my own only half-facetious letter on American democracy:
Dear Tom Friedman and Hillary Clinton,
As I write from Jerusalem and look at what is happening in America, I am very worried. Let me be clear: As someone who used to live in America, I love the United States. I also love liberal values. It is with both of these loves in mind that, as 2011 concludes, I must express my concern that the very core of America’s democratic underpinnings is disappearing.
Numerous events this year suggest a dangerous trend — not merely isolated incidents — that strikes at the heart of American democracy and ultimately could lead to the country’s downfall.
In November, I watched with horror as protestors at the Occupy demonstrations at the University of California, Davis were viciously mistreated by police. Simply for sitting and showing opposition to America’s unfair economic structure, these students were violently and repeatedly pepper-sprayed. This form of police brutality can cause blindness and even death in some occurrences. The police reaction stands in stark contrast to the principle of freedom of assembly on which America was founded.
Frankly, the Occupy movements throughout the country were met with the type of violence that we normally see in totalitarian regimes here in the Middle East.
My deep love for America also drew my attention to New York, where local papers reported on gender-segregated bus lines in Brooklyn. Gender segregation is deplorable and — particularly when it occurs on buses — a stark reminder of a time when American bus companies enforced racial segregation. A democratic country that fails to stop gender segregation will soon cease to be democratic.
I have been horrified as well as I learn of the views of Michele Bachmann, a mainstream Republican presidential candidate who has such a popular following that she was atop the polls at one point. Yet, her views on homosexuality have no place in a democratic society that claims to treat all citizens equally. In a 2004 conference, Bachmann said that “gays are part of Satan.” And her husband’s counseling center espouses the view that Christianity can “cure” homosexuality.
These views are destructive and hateful and have no place among the leaders of a democratic society.
The same goes for Arizona’s viscously anti-immigrant law, which was signed by Arizona’s governor in April 2010 but is now being challenged at the Supreme Court. This law makes the failure to carry immigration documents a crime, effectively encouraging racial profiling by police officers and discriminating against Hispanics. America was founded by immigrants. Why turn against them? Treating immigrants as second-class citizens and assuming guilt is the antithesis of democracy. It is a sign of impending doom.
Finally, as 2011 ends, the Racial Justice Act soon may be repealed in North Carolina. What greater sign is there of the erosion of democracy than eliminating something called the Racial Justice Act — which has allowed death-row inmates to argue that racial bias played a role in their cases?
If the legislative pursuits of the Tea Party in North Carolina are a bellwether for American democracy — and I believe they are — then other states certainly will follow with racist legislation. What’s next — churches banning interracial marriage?
Again, my concerns come from a place of love. I worry that America is on a self-destructive path and that the death of American democracy is near. This should serve as a wake-up call for deep, personal reflection about the choices Americans have made.
America can still regain its democratic footing, but it requires more action at home, not more handwringing about the internal politics of countries overseas.
Concerned American Living Abroad
(Jason Edelstein is communications director of NGO Monitor, which is based in Jerusalem.)