Danny Zeng | June 25th, 2013
This week as we wrestle with landmark decisions from the Supreme Court, the controversial “Gang of Eight” immigration bill, and the President’s climate change agenda, we are reminded of the robustness of our democracy. All three branches of government are acting in concert to engage in issues of immense importance to the public. They are leading the political discourse at our nation’s capital that filter through news organizations, talk shows, blogs, YouTube updates, and podcasts to the American people, who then have the luxury of consuming these daily soundbites – and oftentimes boiling tirades- from people of opposing views without having to give concern to our physical safety or that of our friends and families. And yet these precious freedoms that allow us to have constructive, heated, and ultimately vibrant discourse about the direction of our country, the merits of a legislation, and the conduct of our public officials are foreign to so many across the globe who enjoy so little freedom in the public sphere.
As I read about what is happening in Turkey, Brazil, and Syria, I am ever so grateful for the kind of hard fought freedoms that we enjoy here in the U.S., even though we are constantly reminded of their slipperiness. Despite the public ire over IRS targeting conservative groups, government wiretapping reporters, drone attacks against American citizens, or NSA tapping of our phones, the American people largely vocalize our disagreements, peacefully, through non-violent democratic channels. On the other hand, over 93,000 people have died in the Syrian conflict, and over thousands are injured and four confirmed dead in Turkey in recent weeks as result of the anti-government protest. The Turkish police was firing tear gas and rubber bullets at their own people. Most of these issues can be understood from the perspective of freedom: a perennial political and economic ideal that mutually sustains each other through capitalism and democracy, a political notion popularly articulated by the late Milton Friedman in 1962 and many others.
Oftentimes in a democracy, people take their issues to the streets, a sign of either economic or political distress. The mix of the two could be fatal to a sitting regime, as evidenced throughout the history of great kingdoms and empires. Present protests happen for the same reasons. The source of protest in Brazil stems from “a strike against a 9-cent bus-fare hike,” a seemingly small if not utterly incomprehensible fuse – for many Westerners at least – that it’s simply awe-spiring. The episode strikes me as a non-graphic replay from a similar incomprehensible-to-the-West display from Arab Spring two years ago, when a Tunisian vegetable peddler set himself on fire in front of a governor’s office. These massive protests against government corruption and graft are testaments, to the chagrin of many big-government advocates I’m sure, that governments with incoherent economic policies are doomed to fail from within as college students, working class, and middle class citizens rise up against an administrative state and layers of public fat that take away from productive sectors in the economy. Economic freedom is invariably linked to political freedom. Both, in my mind, have to harmoniously co-exist for true prosperity and progress.
In recent days, thousands in Brazil have unveiled the other side of the “Brazilian miracle.” The “B” in BRIC that has been religiously touted by Wall Street analysts and acronym-trained neophytes in Finance (ahem guilty…) has proven to be a hollow one. The Economist calculates that about 290 million youth worldwide are unemployed or not in school. The same article cites low growth, low-competition, and skill mismatch as top reasons for youth unemployment, phenomena experienced by Brazil in recent quarters with its anemic growth figure, shortsighted “stimulus” that fails to promote growth, and increasingly protectionist trade policy. Turkey is ranked highest on the youth unemployment chart with 30% with no job and not in school. The economic challenges strain the political regime, hence rampant graft and influence peddling, inefficient delivery of government services, and anti-government protests.
In Turkey, Prime Minister Erdogan has been in power for over a decade. During this time he often punished his political enemies with military guns loyal to his command. Turkey’s ranking for Freedom from Corruption had gone down in recent years in Heritage’s annual Index of Freedom (Brazil has a lower score albeit ticking upward). To a far greater degree, Assad’s atrocity against his own people through the use of chemical weapons is a clear case of repression. In addition, dozens of reporters have been killed or gone missing in Syria in recent years, including American journalist, James Foley, who’s been missing for 215 days since last Thanksgiving (support their family by joining the plea here). The conflict in Syria needs to stop. Fifty million Syrians are currently refugees in Jordan. More than 93,000 have died in the conflict (triple the amount since I last wrote about Syria during the Presidential Election). If the United States of America is resolved to end this conflict, this conflict will end. Recent announcements by the White House to arm the rebels – with small light weapons – won’t make a dent in the situation on the ground. Conflict resolution requires an integrative, mission-driven strategy from the administration. Freedom and stability in the region are at stakes for the Syrian people and their neighboring states.
In many ways, the voices of the people in Turkey, Brazil, and Syria have inspired and sustained my faith in freedom and democracy (even though I am aware of the differences in these cases). In recent days, the Brazilian president, Ms. Roussef concedes that her government has received the message from the people. Even PM Erdogan met with leaders of the protest to attempt to tame public unrest. Western countries took positive steps to devise military assistance to the Free Syrian Army over the weekend in Doha. The march toward freedom for all is a long journey that involves American leadership in the world.
The White House should provide unwavering support for the people in Turkey, Brazil, and especially the Syrian opposition. All of these constitute only one piece of the global challenge. It would be a shame for us to relinquish our leadership abroad and allow new players to redefine the geopolitical landscape in Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere. Freedom must have a strong advocate on the global stage. Who we are abroad is just as important as who we are here at home.
To be clear, I’m not advocating for the U.S to interfere directly with the political processes in those countries. Though I do believe the U.S. should be unequivocal on where it stands on principles of freedom and democracy in light of international developments. Dr. Friedman would remind us that “Concentrated power is not rendered harmless by the good intentions of those who create it.” This is and has been the struggle between the people and tyranny all along. Power corrupts, here and abroad, no matter how benign the autocrat. Managing human flaws through institutional mechanisms has been one of the greatest political inventions in Western political thought. As our country celebrates the vibrancy of our democratic order, a republic in which our written Constitution outlines and tames federal power through three branches of government and reserves general police power to the states, we shall not forget the struggles abroad for freedoms that we enjoy on a daily basis.
The Turkish Chapulla Choir sent their government this beautiful melody of protest, which I love, on behalf of the protestors. Let’s hope that autocrats everywhere will, for their sake, hear the voice of the people.