25 March 2021

Rosemary's ice cream, part two

The USA's score as a democracy is slipping. By the standards of Freedom House (an organization "... founded on the core conviction that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people"), the USA's aggregate score on their scale of political rights and civil liberties has declined eleven points over the last ten years.


Since most of Freedom House's funding comes from the U.S. government, it's interesting that it has now cast its eyes and its metrics homeward. According to its new report, From Crisis to Reform: A Call to Strengthen America’s Battered Democracy, it turns out that the most problematic areas causing our downward slide in the ratings, according to author Sarah Rapucci, are these: 

  • discrimination: unequal treatment in the areas of law enforcement and criminal justice; immigrants and refugees; labor, housing, and health care; and voting
  • the distribution of wealth and the political influence of money
  • partisan polarization -- owing in part to the entrenched two-party system, gerrymandering of electoral districts, and the role of social media in amplifying polarization.

Just in time to prove Freedom House's case, Georgia's governor today signed into law a major set of new voting regulations for elections in his state, rolling back many of the initiatives for greater access to the polls that may have improved the chances for the Democratic Party's victories in 2020. Over 250 similar measures are being pushed nationally.

Since the late 1960's I've been aware of specific cracks in the facade of USA exceptionalism, but somehow I assumed that, in general, the USA would always score at or near the top in any survey of global democracy and human rights. Even now, I have to confess that I'm extremely reluctant, on an emotional level, to allow that the USA is just another country among many, with wonderful ideals but very indifferent performance on some measures of citizen accountability and equal protection of the laws. Yes, scandals have abounded, but on a systemic level, my faith was mostly unshaken. I think that this sort of loyalty is not unusual among immigrants. After all, we came here for a reason. The lethal insanity of World War II had disillusioned many with the Great Powers and empires of old, and it was the USA which then seemed to be leading the global search for a more humane and democratic world order. Interestingly, Eleanor Roosevelt was one of the co-founders of Freedom House.

In April 2014, I noticed a story on the BBC with the headline, "The US is an oligarchy, not a democracy." I put this link, along with a couple of related links, in my April 24 blog post, "Every knee shall bow." However, I comforted myself that at least we had a president at that time who was able to express both pride and contrition at the same time, acknowledging US failures as well as defending our exceptionalism.

Then came November 2016 and the advent of a president who decisively rejected any American obligation to adhere to or hold up a global standard of human rights. His successor may be trying to renew our traditional commitments, but now the world sees how fragile those commitments might be.

I first mentioned Rosemary Elliott's ice cream metaphor in a blog post back in January 2016:

Back in the Friends World Committee's 50th anniversary year, 1987, several weighty Quakers from various parts of the world traveled in the ministry all over North America. As a staff member, I served as host and driver for several of them. I'll never forget hearing Rosemary M. Elliott speak on Christian witness in South Africa. Among many other things, she challenged us to confront the apartheid South African government's claim to be a bulwark for democracy on its continent. She said (paraphrasing from memory), "You already know what ice cream tastes like. If the South African government gives you a bowl of something white and calls it ice cream, you have a perfect right to taste it and decide for yourself. It's the same with democracy."

I appreciated the metaphor, but I mostly applied it to South Africa and the anti-apartheid campaign, not the USA. I'm obviously not the first person to discover that the USA's version of democratic ice cream tastes different to different people; I'm just confessing my nearly lifelong emotional tendency not to notice! Those who have the most social and racial resemblance to the Founding Fathers have the fewest occasions to question the consistency of our actual experience with our founding ideals. But if Freedom House's placement of the USA in its democracy rankings is to have any value or credibility at all, it has to measure the functional reality of those ideals for all of us.

It may not be obvious or happy, but on some level, the truth is always good news. We cannot address problems we don't even acknowledge. Maybe those in USA politics today who are displaying the most flagrant desire to rig elections, preserve elite access, and amplify all manner of false witness against their opponents are doing us a favor -- dramatizing the extreme danger of assuming US democracy is a stable brand that will keep spreading hope at home and abroad forever.

Christian politicians and Rosemary's ice cream

Exceptional pride

Exceptional pride: USA and Russia 

Seeking to justify myself

D.L. Mayfield: The good White Christian women of Nazi Germany.

Sam Levine (The Guardian): Stacey Abrams on Republican voter suppression. Heather Cox Richardson, There is only one story today (voter suppression law in Georgia).

Aleksei Navalny's lawyers are worried about his health. Prison doctors say his health is "satisfactory."

Two items from GetReligion: The late Luis Palau as the "Latin American Billy Graham"; and Christianity somehow infiltrates MSNBC.

Jewish mysticism offers wisdom for modern politics.

The basic concept of the secularization thesis, whereby modernization necessarily leads to secularization, has been invalidated by rising religious conservatism and fundamentalism and the emergence of hybrid models of religion and modernity, for which Israeli society serves as a fertile case study.

Cristina Arcidiacono: from relapse to hope.

Indeed, succeeding in keeping our community as loving and united as ever is the best revenge on the relapse syndrome! Considering ourselves part of a larger community, which thinks, prays, acts and does not yield to individualistic temptations, but opens itself to the world, is the victory...

From the Decent Films site: Christopher Plummer, the cross, and the swastika.

A repeat. Playing for Change's version of "Walking Blues."

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