Elliotte Rusty Harold has just returned from China and posts this disturbing comment:
Reflecting back on my recent trip to Beijing…one of the most striking things was the contrast between personal, day-to-day freedom in Beijing and the United States (especially NYC/Los Angeles/Orange County). I’m not talking about political representation or freedom to read whatever I felt like, but just the simple ability to go whereever I felt like going without being hassled. To my surprise, by that measure Beijing came off way better than the United States does these days, and that doesn’t speak well for the U.S.
Somehow I thought a one-party, authoritarian state would be more oppressive than this. At least in the capital, Beijing compares favorably to major U.S. cities. To be honest, that doesn’t speak well for the U.S. If we can’t be less of a police state than a one-party, nominally Communist nation like China, then something has gone seriously wrong.
Back during the Cold War, right-wing types used to make a big distinction between “totalitarian states” (bad) and “authoritarian states” (not so bad.)
A totalitarian state (Russia, China or Nazi Germany) would try to monitor everything its citizens did and demanded constant declarations of effusive loyalty. An authoritarian state (Franco’s Spain) would generally leave people alone if they kept quiet and stayed out of politics.
By this definition China has clearly become an authoritarian state. But if America is becoming more of a police state than China (in terms of surveillance, etc.) then what does that make us?
Well, for one thing I suspect that Harold is much more sensitive than the average American to the amount of monitoring that our government does, and much less sensitive than the average Chinese to the extent to which their government monitors them.
In any case, America still has the strongest protections for free speech in the world. With very limited exceptions you can say anything you want, regardless of whom it offends. As long as that remains true we can’t be called either authoritarian or totalitarian.
On the other hand, public support for free speech does not run very deep. (Most people, after all, don’t like to be offended.) It is easy to imagine free speech being abolished overnight in a national emergency. Even more likely, it might be gradually eaten away under the demands of a horde of special interests, each wanting to impose their own “reasonable limits.”
If that happens, we really will be less free than the Chinese.