Thursday, May 08, 2008

How Free Are We?

Here's a blurb for the report.

Here's a review in the "Economist," which hardly qualifies as anti-American, and says Freedom House couls have taken a more stern and less optimistic tone.

“How Free?” not only details and condemns the administration's familiar sins, from Guantánamo to extraordinary rendition to warrantless wiretapping. It reminds readers of its aversion to open government. The number of documents classified as secret has jumped from 8.7m in 2001 to 14.2m in 2005—a 60% increase over three years. Decade-old information has been reclassified. Researchers report that it is much more difficult and time-consuming to obtain information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Government whistleblowers have repeatedly been punished or fired—even when they have been trying to expose threats to national security that their bosses preferred to overlook. Richard Levernier had his security clearance revoked for revealing that some of the country's nuclear facilities were not properly secured. Border security agents have been punished for pointing out that the border is inadequately monitored, and airport baggage-handlers and security people for pointing to weaknesses in the security system. The Office of Special Counsel, which was established to enforce laws designed to protect the rights of such people, is widely regarded as “inept and even hostile to whistleblowers”.

And then there's this:

Freedom House's strictures are, if anything, too soft. America insists on criminalising victimless crimes such as prostitution. Last week Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called DC Madam, committed suicide; the government had thrown the book at her, including racketeering and mail fraud, because it really wished to penalise the arranging of assignations between consenting adults. In her suicide note to her mother she wrote that she could not “live the next six-to-eight years behind bars for what you and I have both come to regard as this 'modern-day lynching'.”

The American legal system also seems to have lost any sense of proportion. Christopher Ratte, a professor of archaeology, recently tried to buy his seven-year-old son a bottle of lemonade at a baseball game. He was handed a bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade, an alcoholic drink, by mistake. Officials noticed the boy sipping the drink and immediately whisked him off to hospital. He was fine. But the family was condemned to legal hell: the police at first put the seven-year-old into a foster home and a judge ruled that he could go home only if his father moved out. It took several days of legal wrangling to reunite the family.

Extreme cases? I know a few such in my community. I bet you do, too.

In a "New York Times" column this week (found here, h.t. Reader_iam for finding it) on current British politics, David Brooks wrote, "The central political debate of the 20th century was over the role of government. The right stood for individual freedom while the left stood for extending the role of the state. But the central debate of the 21st century is over quality of life. In this new debate, it is necessary but insufficient to talk about individual freedom. Political leaders have to also talk about, as one Tory politician put it, 'the whole way we live our lives.'"

If he's right about this century, the Bush Administration -- whatever its excuses or justifications -- isn't the foot you want to step off on.