Years ago, a friend told me he was going to visit his sister in Queensland, Australia. I was living in New Zealand at the time, and we made plans to meet up. We ended up hiking through some spectacular parks and amazing waterfalls. On one of our hikes, my friend asked me, “Why do you hate America?” It’s one of those lines often parodied from early 2000s Fox News broadcasts, during the height of outrage over the Iraq war.
At the time, I did hate a lot of American foreign policy, and found there was little difference between US political parties. I had my reasons for leaving, yet I eventually came back to America. Having traveled through and lived in different places around the world, I saw the trade-offs in the different values held by nationals of various countries. I still take issue with many policies in the United States, but I believe there are many aspects to American law and ideology, that respect individual rights and freedoms in fundamentally unique ways. America may run afoul of letting people slide through the cracks, but it is also a nation suited to help people succeed at their dreams.
My father had a front vanity plate on his car, displaying an American Flag, with a Bald Eagle and the words In God We Trust. His family survived the partition after India gained independence from the British Raj. My grandfather almost lost his life to three men who wanted to take the house he was squatting. Both he and my mother’s family fled war, and struggled against poverty. In a Sociology class I took in my undergraduate years, I had a professor who told us that climbing up the economic ladder to a different social class is not very common. George Carlin famously said, “That’s why they call it the American Dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.1“. I internalized that message as reality, while ignoring that my father, perhaps against all odds, had literally achieved the American Dream.
A Canadian friend sent me an image from her doctor’s office. I thought she was complaining about the notice that test results wouldn’t be discussed over the phone, but she was actually concerned that results would take several days, even for tests that were done in a doctors office and available immediately in other countries. I worked for a health insurance company during the 2008 health care debates, and took issue with the sad state of the Affordable Care Act upon my return to the US. Canada’s national health system does work fairly well for most common conditions, but surgeries can have long wait times. A number of Canadians, who can afford it, will travel to the United States for medical procedures2. Canadians do pay less for many prescription drugs, but that may change with Trump’s recent executive orders around pharmaceutical pricing3.
In Australia, voting is ranked with instant runoff. Citizens put down numbers indicating their preferences in order, making it impossible to throw a vote away, and voting is mandatory. New Zealand uses Mixed-member Proportional Representation (MMP) allowing each voter two votes. This system is somewhat complicated, but it basically allows for a representative distribution of parliament seats based upon the proportion of votes given to each political party4. America has a first past the post system, and while this system falls behind in proportional representation of the population, it attempts to favor representation of individual states in blocks by means of a complex and controversial electoral college system.
While I was living in New Zealand, one of my friends was wrestled to the ground unjustly by a police officer. When he went to file a complaint, the officer’s partner attempted to intimidate him. While I was in Croatia, I was illegally searched by a police officer at a bus station. Police misconduct is on the forefront of news and politics in America today, but the US is not exceptional when it comes to police corruption. It can be found in police forces around the world, but so can good, honest constables who simply want to do the right thing.
I could go on comparing Native Americas and Aboriginals, transportation, drug policy or any number of areas where America might either excel or fall short. America has a lot of problems, but it’s also the third largest country by population. The second largest is where my family is from. India has a functioning democracy, with an impoverished population. China, the largest country by population, is ruled by a Communist government that arrests dissidents and places members of their ethnic minority in reeducation camps. Every nation has problems, and every country’s population lives with the trade-offs that come from complex socioeconomic and geopolitical policies.
The Freedom to Speak
On March 15th, 2019, an Australian man shot up two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand5. He live-streamed the atrocity. Although the video was taken down from Facebook, there were copies people had archived. Possession of the video, as well as the shooter’s manifesto, are illegal in New Zealand without special permission from the government. The video is horrific, and in the United States, it would likely be removed from many platforms. However, it wouldn’t be illegal to possess or distribute. In New Zealand, having a copy of the video or manifesto can carry sentences of up to 14 years, and several people were arrested and prosecuted for possession of the material6.
The majority of my friends in New Zealand, fully support this form of government censorship7. Even Americans I knew who had immigrated, told me they fully understood and accepted this limitation when they became citizens. If this level of censorship happened in the US, citizens would likely be outraged. From the time we are young, we are taught that freedom of speech is an essential part of our civil liberties, and our identities as Americans. It’s the first amendment made to the United States Constitution; the first in our Bill of Rights.
New Zealand doesn’t have a constitution, and Australia does not have a bill of rights. Victoria, Australia passed a Charter of Human Rights in 2006, but its provisions are limited to the state of Victoria8. China has the freedom of speech written into their constitution9, which is a complete and total joke as their only political party exerts Orwellian style censorship over all 1.5 billion Chinese people.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” -Amendment I, Constitution of the United States
Mike Ward is a French Canadian comedian who once made a joke about a child who was chronically ill, and was fined $80,000 CAD by the Quebec’s Human Rights Tribunal for his joke10. The Scottish comedian Mark Meechan trained his dog to raise his paw when he heard the phrase “gas the Jews” for a video he used on a comedy routine. In 2018, Ward was fined £800 in the United Kingdom for violating a communication act for offensive speech. In many nations, jokes can result in fines or prison.
The freedom to speak does not guarantee the freedom to be heard. You can ignore those you disagree with. If you run a forum or social media platform in America, and you have a user who says something you disagree with, you are well within your rights to delete their content or ban their account. Except for a few states, employers are free to fire people based on their political views as well. The goal of the First Amendment is to protect individuals against persecution from their government. It prevents individuals from being arrested for voicing their opinions. Contrary to what Chris Cuomo says on CNN, the constitution does require that those who assemble must do so peaceably11.
Very few high income nations have true freedom of speech, to the extent we have in the United States. There are limits to that freedom, of course. Although you may advocate for the use of force, immediate and immanent threats of directed violence are typically not protected. Obscenities, images of child abuse, direct threats to individuals, and lying materially to officers of the Federal Government are also not protected by the freedom of speech.
Still, Americas laws and protections are far that above other developed nations. The ability to speak ones mind, without fear of prosecution from the government, is a civil liberty vital to ensuring a free State and protecting against authoritarianism. Although the debate about this basic freedom may be more contentious in the age of social media, the America I grew up in is one where we do not fear ideas.
In Melbourne, Australia, a woman was choked by a police officer and arrested for not wearing a mask. She had a medical exemption, but she probably should have just said so instead of flipping off the police officer12. Another woman in Melbourne was arrested for a Facebook post promoting a lockdown protest13, which shows the limitations of Victoria’s Charter of Human Rights8. When I bought this up with friends I knew in Melbourne, all of them supported the lockdown measures14.
From the beginning of the pandemic, I was concerned about overreactions. Many of those concerns turned out to sadly be true. In late August, nearly 40,000 people in Germany15 and thousands of people in London16, gathered in protests against the lockdowns. Just like similar protests in the United States, these groups are often ridiculed by the main stream media, but at least they have the right to gather. In Australia, BLM protests were ruled unlawful in Sydney. While I agree with Sky News’s evaluation of the protests being for a “Marxist movement17,” such protests would still be legally allowed the United States. Melbourne did have an anti-lockdown protest in September, but it didn’t gather many people18.
The Pandemic has turned into the ultimate litmus test of nations and their respect for basic civil liberties. During the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the Chinese government welded people into their homes19. In America, our main stream media hypocritically criticized lockdown protesters while praising BLM protesters. At least in the US, people still had the right to peaceably assemble.
“In an emergency, even a vigilant public may let down its guard over its constitutional liberties only to find that liberties, once relinquished, are hard to recoup and that restrictions—while expedient in the face of an emergency situation—may persist long after immediate danger has passed” -US District Judge William Stickman IV20
Typically, courts will side with executive authority during national emergencies. In a landmark decision, Pennsylvania’s shutdown orders have been ruled unlawful by a US Federal judge20. Judge Stickman’s decision addresses issues of due process, equal protection and the arbitrary definition of “life-sustaining” with respects to which businesses were allowed to stay open while others were condemned to fail. In regards to balancing emergency powers and civil liberties, it may go down in history as one of the most important decisions of its kind21.
National emergencies are one of the greatest tests of any nation. Laws around civil liberties are not written for times of peace or prosperity. They are specifically crafted to protect the rights of individuals during times of crisis, when governments can utilize narratives of fear, whether real or imagined, to enforce restrictive policies upon their citizens. I truly believe history will not look back kindly on this era, but I am glad that I chose to return to a country whose citizens are able to voice their opinions and make some determinations about their own lives and freedoms, compared to the other places I’ve lived in.
America started with a high sense of idealism. The nation was born from a war against the British Empire; a war where colonists were taking up arms against their European brethren. It rose during a time when questions about the morality of slavery were growing around the world. Americans fought through decades of injustice to bring about laws against child labor, slavery and discrimination. It has grown into a better nation. Although far from perfect, time and growth have led its people out from under the toil of relentless factory work and cotton fields into an era of prosperity and leisure.
“A lady asked Dr. [Ben] Franklin Well Doctor what have we got a republic or a monarchy. A republic replied the Doctor if you can keep it.” -The notes of James McHenry, Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention22.
There are many faults to America. We’ve had terrible presidents who have led us into wars for resources. We’ve had a CIA that has started revolutions in other countries, removing democratically elected leaders, in order to create regimes that can easily exploit their people. Foreign aid is the means by which democratic nations keep autocratic regimes in power in order to wield influence and extract resources23, yet America is one of many high income countries that perpetuates this system of inequality. Our allies across the ocean may not directly cause the same conflicts, but they all benefit from it. Mutually beneficial arrangements, such as The Five Eyes, allow many states to sidestep the rights of their own citizens when it comes to domestic spying.
..."Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
-The New Colossus, Statue of Liberty
Every person throughout history has had faults. We are now in a social media age that seeks to cancel the memory of anyone who may have had questionable ideas, either during their time or even today. Nations, like people, are not perfect. They are complex, with centuries of leaders, policymakers, laborers, soldiers and citizens who have made and shaped them into what we have today. Stable, developed, high income States with a high degree of individual freedom and social mobility are difficult to achieve. While America’s voting system and passenger train infrastructure may be far behind others in the world, our commitment to individual freedom and research into hardware and software technology has reshaped the planet.
I do not take comfort in the blind nationalism and American flag waving of the American right, nor do I subscribe to the neo-Marxist ideology of the hard-left, which seeks to define America as an existential threat born out of pure racism and slavery24; a nation of victims. America is not the greatest nation, but it is a developed, high income nation with a high standard of living and solid human rights. Like any country that’s been around for a while, it has a history filled with questionable decisions. Yet its people have always fought diligently for justice and equality.
I once took off on a plane from Cincinnati for Melbourne, with two backpacks and a work visa. I lived in Australia for a year, New Zealand for three, and spent eleven months living out of two bags. If I had applied for permanent residence and stayed on that side of the world, I would be the third generation of family members who would immigrate away from their homelands (the 2nd that would do so by choice). But I didn’t stay. In 2016, I returned to Seattle, and thankfully left long before it went to shit.
Growing up in Tennessee, we said the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag in elementary school, stopped in middle school, and it picked back up in high school for some reason. I never had issue with it. I even respected it; and every time I played the Star Spangle Banner in marching band, I did with reverence. During the Bush years, I did not respect The Pledge, and saw it as a form of blind nationalism. I do not know how I feel about the pledge today. There’s an importance to national cohesion and identity, but also personal freedom; working towards an ideal.
Years later I grew to dislike American exceptionalism, the continued wars, and the gross misrepresentation of 9/11. I did not like America. But in my time away from my country, I’ve grown a lot. Living other places, I’ve come to see the pros and cons of cities across many nations. Returning to the country where I grew up and seeing many of my friends again, it made me truly understand what it meant to be an American. I really enjoyed the fireworks on the 4th of July this year.
In University, I learned that the American dream of rising up social classes, is rare. In reality, although America’s social mobility isn’t as high as some of our European counterparts, it’s still considerably higher than many of our neighboring nations25. Just because it’s not easy to move up the social ladder, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Through many will try and fail, that desire, that drive, against insurmountable odds, to make a better life for oneself and one’s family: that is America. Though she is far from perfect, that is the America I grew up in. That is the land my father brought his family to for a better life, and that is the America I still know and love.
Quote by George Carlin: “That’s why they call it the American Dream, bec…”. Goodreads. Retrieved 21 September 2020. ↩
Donald J. Trump on Twitter …and prices are coming down FAST! Also just ended all rebates to middlemen, further reducing prices.. 13 September 2020. Donald J. Trump. Twitter. ↩
Mixed-Member Proportional Representation Explained. 26 September 2011. GCP Grey. ↩
Christchurch mosque attacks: Gunman pleads guilty to all charges. 26 March 2020. RNZ News. ↩
Charges laid in 35 cases over sharing of video of Christchurch terror attacks. 2 September 2019. RNZ News. ↩
Tom on Twitter: In New Zealand, sharing videos of child pornography on social media is illegal, it’s also illegal to share videos of child murder. It’s not that complicated. 24 March 2019. Tom Eastman. Twitter. ↩
CHARTER OF HUMAN RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES ACT 2006. Victorian Current Acts. Retrieved 21 September 2020. ↩ ↩2
#10 - That’s Not Funny with Mike Ward and Jamie Kilstein. 28 December 2008. Wrongspeak (podcast) ↩
‘They’re just looking for a fight’: Man responds after girlfriend’s dramatic arrest. 11 August 2020. 7 News. ↩
Andrews ‘must go tonight’ after horrible example of ‘inexcusable powers’: Jones. 2 Sept 2020. Sky News Australia. ↩
Thousands of anti-lockdown protesters gather in London to claim coronavirus is a ‘hoax’. 29 August 2020. Hawkins. Mirror. ↩
BLM is a ‘Marxist movement’ which will stop at nothing to ‘drive division’. 26 July 2020. Sky News Australia. ↩
Avi Yemini: Diverse anti-lockdown protesters BUST Australian media stereotypes. 10 September 2020. Rebel News. ↩
chinese authorities welding shut apartments with people inside to enforce quarantine 10 Feb 2020. WCGW of the day. (Video) ↩
Pennsylvania’s shutdown orders to stop coronavirus ruled unconstitutional by federal judge. 14 September 2020. Santucci. USA Today. ↩ ↩2
Judge Declares “Stay-at-Home” Order UNCONSTITUTIONAL - Viva Frei Vlawg. 16 September 2020. Viva Frei. (Video) ↩
‘A republic, if you can keep it’: Did Ben Franklin really say Impeachment Day’s favorite quote?. 18 December 2019. Brockell. Washington Post. ↩
The Dictator’s Handbook (p194-196) ↩
The 1619 Project. The New York Times. 2019. ↩