My post about the protests has generated a lively discussion about what it means for a society to be free and democratic and whether and to what extent Georgia fits into these categories. Specifically, I’ll center this post on the debate over human rights.
*****Disclaimer: if you are offended by criticisms of the American government, you will be very, very offended by this post.*****
There are lots of definitions and ideas about freedom and democracy. There are lots of ways to go about measuring the extent to which a society is democratic and how much it respects and guarantees human rights and fundamental freedoms, of course depending on which human rights and freedoms you believe are important, because there is actually no consensus on what constitutes a human right and which freedoms governments are supposed to guarantee their citizens.
And yet I get the sense that none of that really matters. We can argue all of those points all day, but at the end of the day, someone will turn around and say “Well that is just philosophy. I’m talking about real life.” And in real life, what people experience depends very little on objective factors like number and severity of human rights violations, amount of money spent on propaganda, or statistical likelihood of an individual affecting outcomes through political activities such as voting or activism. What people experience, instead, is based on their background, their perspective, their self-interest, etc.
So, for example, some Georgians will say that Georgia is free and democratic, some feel that it is not, and some feel that it is in between. Those who claim that Georgia is neither free nor democratic are likely to tell you that those who claim that Georgia is free and democratic are only saying that because they are afraid of the secret police. Those who claim that Georgia is free and democratic will usually say that people who say that it isn’t are simply lying, and some will say that they are lying to claim power for themselves.
So with both sides essentially accusing the other of malfeasance, it’s difficult for a foreigner to evaluate the competing claims and counter-claims. I can’t really tell you how any Georgian really feels about whether their society is free and democratic or not, because for every Georgian who tells me how they feel there’s always another Georgian who tells me not to trust what I’ve been told.
What I can tell you is how I feel in Georgia. I feel much better than I did in the US. Do I need to enumerate the historical and current human rights abuses and authoritarian policies of the US? Even if I stuck to events that happened in my lifetime, I’d be here for days detailing the flaws in US freedom and democracy. Consider this fantastically interesting article (in which is a proposal to break up large US states into smaller states in order to increase the effectiveness of state governments – an outside-the-box idea that’s certainly worth considering) which hinges on a Supreme Court decision that prisons in California currently deprive something like 170,000 people of their human rights (and their Constitutionally guaranteed rights). In the United States, there are currently around 2.3 million people incarcerated in jails or prisons – note that that’s half the population of Georgia – and of those more than a fifth claim to have been sexually assaulted in prison – and 20 to 40 percent of prisoners have Hepatitis C. The prison system is racist – disproportionately victimizing blacks and Hispanics – and often targeted against non-violent offenders.
The sheer scale of those numbers – and the fact that there are more prisoners in the US than there are people in Tbilisi – is breathtaking, but the US is also the world’s leading jailer per capita. So in reality – objective, numerical reality – the Land of the Free has become an Orwellian term to describe the Land of the Incarcerated.
And that’s just one issue. Some Georgians accuse the government of imprisoning people for political purposes – like this guy, Shota Iamanidze, who was incarcerated for narcotics possession. Given that in Georgia, police can apparently drug test people off the streets without probably cause, I’d be more concerned with the drug war being an infringement of human rights than the supposed political connection. Still, it’s nothing compared to the US drug war in terms of scale and scope. But if you look a little deeper at the US drug war – and remember that convicted felons can’t vote in most states – it becomes inescapable that the US drug war is one hundred per cent political. The US drug war is a systematic and highly successful effort to disenfranchise black and Hispanic voters – it’s Jim Crow for the 21st Century, effectively – and it also works against the poor and other people whose votes might destabilize the status quo.
*****Edited to add: a friend just tipped me off to Michelle Alexander, who puts the issue in perspective quite well: “As of 2004, more African American men were disenfranchised (due to felon disenfranchisement laws) than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified, prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race.” So much for democracy.*****
But of course the worst part for me is that Americans are complicit in these crimes. Many Americans think that the drug war is just smashing, and hope that it never ends (like the War on Terror, or John McCain’s Hundred Years War). That’s because America is an extremely and disturbingly militaristic society. Americans absolutely love war and branding something as a war is virtually guaranteed to ensure its popularity. Americans celebrate several military holidays. Americans devote more money to military capacity than any other people on the planet. Americans worship people who fight in wars as heroes, regardless of the actual moral character of their actions and regardless of whether the war was justified or even Constitutional. Even most people who disagree with *particular* wars still explicitly support the American military machine and those who willingly serve as cogs in that machine.
So do I feel free when I am compelled to pay taxes that go towards murdering people darker than myself abroad and imprisoning them at home? Absolutely not. Have I been threatened with violence for expressing these kinds of opinions? Absolutely. Is there a real danger that someone in the American government could read this and put me on a no-fly list, or tap my phone without a warrant? Thanks to the Patriot Act, those would both be totally legal recourses that the American government could take, and has in fact taken against journalists who expressed opinions outside the acceptable mainstream. Do we have freedom of the media in America? Sort of. I mean, up to a limit.
I compare my experience in Georgia. Like in the US, we have protests, and like in the US, the police occasionally use excessive force in dealing with protesters. Like in the US, there is little accountability within government, although unlike in the US, Georgia does not have a highly comprehensive civil and criminal legal system capable of offering redress for those wronged by police and other administrative officials. Like in the US, lots of money and influence are poured into getting specific messages to the public and keeping specific information away from the public. Like in the US, this is rendered somewhat less effective by the internet and the deep penetration of foreign media and citizen journalists, all of whom have the legal right to operate.
Working for the Georgian government, I am allowed to maintain a blog that comments on political issues and offers details about my employment, about Georgian schools, and about anything else I have an urge to talk about. When I worked for the US government – the Decennial Census, to be exact – I was issued a gag order. We had to sign papers promising not to talk about our employment at all, anywhere. People were fired for leaking information about the waste, fraud, and abuse going on in the Census. Not for divulging confidential information about enumerated citizens, no – just for making the Census department look bad.
So we can go back and forth and compare anecdotes about various benefits and hazards to being in the US or in Georgia – and I guarantee, the US has more anecdotes of human rights abuses, because the US is a huge empire that perpetrates such abuses not just on our own 300 million citizens but also on our various imperial holdings throughout the world – but the long and short of it is that I personally feel much better about being in Georgia than I did about being in the US. In fact one of the main reasons I wanted to leave the US and don’t really want to go back is that the political situation and the continuous erosion of civil liberties coupled with the increasing militaristic global presence over there were weighing on me quite heavily.
Of course, there’s an argument that these abuses hurt more when you see them in your own country. Like maybe if I went to North Korea, I would expect to see a society completely brainwashed and dominated by a violent sociopathic dictator and his innumerable secret and not-so-secret police, and so it wouldn’t shock me as much as it shocked me, for instance, to read about the carnage that we created in Iraq during the 90’s – because when you’re 19 and you find out that the country you were raised to love and worship starved half a million children to death for no discernible reason it throws your entire worldview into question – or at least, it should.
And I want to make it absolutely clear – two wrongs don’t make a right. I don’t think that it is good for anyone when Georgian police beat up unarmed civilians who have surrendered for no reason, as we all witnessed on youtube this past week. I think that the riot police need to be trained better – because once you are in a violent scenario, you are simply more prone to violence against anyone who happens to be around, and most people need specific training to avoid those impulses (see the Stanford Prison Experiments and the controversial concept of “contagious shootings”) – and I think that the Georgian government would really benefit from making a show of reprimanding those responsible in some meaningful way.
However, I categorically reject the idea that Georgians are living in a state of abject terror, that they are afraid to come out of their houses or talk politics in public. I don’t think any Georgian equates the police overreacting to a demonstration that had just become illegal to the police coming and seeking out people who expressed dissent, dragging them out of their homes and beating them or pulling them off the streets and disappearing them. Those who do I simply cannot find credible.
Georgia could benefit from addressing its human rights problems. It just seems to me that people are holding Georgia to an unfair, and even unrealistic, standard. Georgia aspires to be European, but it is a former Soviet state that is now under the sway of the United States – in other words, the two polities that have had the most direct influence on Georgia in modern history are both militaristic empires with very spotty human rights records, even though most US citizens are in deep denial about the problems that the US has with human rights. Why would Georgia clean up its prisons when the US won’t? Why would Georgia punish police who beat up a journalist when the US won’t punish soldiers who fired into an unarmed crowd of civilians killing two Reuters journalists and injuring two children but is perfectly willing to imprison the man who leaked the video of that massacre without due process?
Still and all, I feel safe and happy here. Life goes on. People go to school or work, they come home, they do it again the next day. I am not one of those TLGers who thinks TLG is listening in on our phone conversations – a ridiculous rumor if I’ve ever heard one – and I don’t think that there are secret police waiting to arrest Georgians who speak against Saakashvili – at least, there weren’t any of the numerous times I’ve heard Georgians speak against Saakashvili in public and in private. People have gripes with the government here just like everywhere else. There’s always room for improvement.
Finally, to put a cap on the protest issue, here are two articles that I suggest checking out:
Georgia and hasty comparisons: Why these protests are nothing at all like the Arab Spring.
Taking the Bait: A better idea about what’s really behind the protests.