Getting Human Rights Wrong

Last week, America’s foreign policy shifted in a startling way. Our nation went from home of the free and the brave, to a potential Airbnb stay for oppressive dictators. Donald Trump is courting foreign leaders who have been likened to Hannibal Lector, and is opening the floodgates to negative possibilities by meeting one of the world champs of human right’s violations.

To the uninformed, inviting Rodrigo Duterte to the White House doesn’t seem that extreme or worrisome – foreign leaders are called to Washington on a regular basis. It’s common, expected diplomatic behavior. That this head of state, specifically, was invited is alarming, because a quick Google search turns up a number of 7,000 civilians killed due to his war on drugs in the Philippines (as of March 2017). Other evidence of his disregard for human rights can be found in additional returned searches. Legal experts assert that if Duterte were not President of the Philippines, he wouldn’t be allowed into the U.S due to these violations. But these are not normal times. There are certain similarities between Duterte and Donald Trump. The current egoist occupying the Oval Office would apparently love the opportunity to speak to himself through a fun-house mirror.

Combine Trump’s curious condoning of Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, with the recent designation of Kim Jong-Un as a “Smart Cookie.” Add in his ongoing obsession with Russia’s Vladmir Putin, and we’re looking at a bleak future for human rights. This is a president easily swayed by flattery who quickly absorbs problematic ideas. He shouldn’t be left alone unsupervised. All three of these foreign powers (The Philippines, North Kora, Russia) sit high on the Human Rights Watch violations list, with regressive policies against free speech and mounting (state controlled and sponsored) paranoia of the west, specifically the United States.

The truly terrifying take away from a potential visit with Duterte isn’t what could happen in the future, should The Donald develop a strong relationship with the leader. The real horrors are the shades of dictatorial political systems and regimes that have already infiltrated America. There are more examples than space in this column to provide, but you don’t have to look far to see escalated aggression against any group defined as “other” (read: non-white, poor, homosexual, religion other than Christianity). The divisive rhetoric from world leaders such as Duterte, Putin, Jong-Un and Trump creates a muscled environment for hateful propaganda to flourish. It encourages divisive hostility, supporting an “us vs them” narrative (looking at you, Breitbart, with your glowing “special report” of the first 100 Days of the Trump disaster) that  supporters embrace.

Mr. Trump signed an executive order (his 35th in just over 100 days in office- this list summarizes the first 29 and six more have been produced since) promoting “religious freedom,” which allows tax-exempt churches to advocate for and endorse political entities. This is another dangerous muddling of the lines between separation of church and state (The Constitution only mentions Congress in Amendment I). Many readers (myself included) interpret this as a blank check, allowing Indianans to refuse to bake me a cake if I decide to tie the knot. We all know how that turns out.

That’s just one tame example of authoritarian, dogmatic creepage. But right now, we have a President who’s achieved his definition of “winning” almost entirely through executive orders. He’s resentful of the press (no-showing at the Annual Correspondents Dinner) and prefers to create “alternative facts” while decrying reason and established journalism as “fake news.” We’re looking at the early stages of a dictatorship with a self-generating propaganda machine. Don’t believe me? Just take a look at the arrest for laughing during confirmed racist’s Jeff Session’s Confirmation Hearing,  the same week that Alton Sterling’s highly publicized death resulted in no charges for the officers who shot him.

While all of these are technically separate events and occurrences, together they point to a narrowing notion of freedom in America – one where racism is rewarded, undue aggression is allowed a free pass if the victim isn’t a cisgendered white male, specific religious beliefs Trump (pun intended) others, and unrepentant murderers receive invites to the White House. The closing window of life and liberty also expanded last week to shut out the poor and unlucky further. The House passed a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, expanding the definition of pre-existing conditions to absurdly discriminatory levels (pregnancy is now apparently a pre-existing condition, whereas erectile dysfunction is not).

Detractors might say that coddling up to a man like Duterte could help promote a growing relationship with China. An increasingly hostile North Korea faced together and all that. I’m going to go however with a less is more approach. Given their records, Duterte and Trump should never be in a room together. America can’t risk it.

Republican Ideology Has Its Worst Week Ever (July 20, 2014)

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Though you’d never guess by listening to its representatives speak, it was a terrible week for modern Republican ideology.

Those right-wingers who love to call President Obama weak on foreign policy, setting him in relief against their favorite bare-chested strongman Vladimir Putin, are scrambling to crawl under the nearest rock. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the icon of conservative male virility lent support to war criminals who shot 80 children from the sky. Per a report from theAssociated Press:

“On Thursday, Putin blamed Ukraine for the crash, saying Kiev was responsible for the unrest in its Russian-speaking eastern regions. But he didn’t accuse Ukraine of shooting the plane down and didn’t address the key question of whether Russia gave the rebels such a powerful missile.”

If gathering rumors are to be believed, Russian interlopers may have already absconded to Moscow with Malaysian Airlines Flight 17’s “black box” recorder. And as of Saturday morning, the crash site in Eastern Ukraine remains unsecured. As evidence decays and/or is purposefully tampered with, Putin’s Thursday statement may be the closest thing we ever get to an admission of the truth. A wise person once told me that when an unpleasant man tells you something about himself, believe him. And by shying away from implausible deniability (a sport in which the Russian thug routinely indulges), Putin is speaking loud and clear.

Russian sponsorship of the downing of the defenseless civilian airliners. Yeah, that’s real bravery. Keep talking McCain Nation.

Moving onto another human tragedy a little closer to home, the Republican Party continued its parade of heartless, xenophobic double talk about the Central American child immigrant crisis. Even as Colorado’s Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper offered a ray of humanitarian hope in writing, “If Denver or other communities in Colorado want to offer their support and sponsorship while these children are in the legal system, the state respects and would defend that decision,” and Pope Francis publicly cautioned the devout to love and protect the kids, a dark strain of ugliness continued to permeate the official GOP response.

This past week, retired medical doctor and Republican House member Phil Gingrey told NBC News, “The border patrol gave us a list of the diseases that they’re concerned about, and Ebola was one of those…I can’t tell you specifically that there were any cases of Ebola, I don’t think there were, but of course Tuberculosis, Chagas disease, many – small pox, some of the infectious diseases of children, all of these are concerns.”

These alarmist and disgusting comments continue to undercut our nation’s once-vaunted reputation as a refuge for freedom seekers. On a secondary level, you have to wonder if the GOP understands that they won’t be able to erase Hispanic voter memory in 2014 and beyond. Yet the certainty that the party is briskly digging its own electoral grave doesn’t do much to relieve the dire and fearful predicament of the kids. They’ve run from terror only to be treated as enemy invaders by the Land of the Free.

This year has been unbelievably tough for those in favor of contemplative, deliberate foreign policy, sensible gun and comprehensive immigration reforms and last but not least, liberty for the GOP’s most discounted “special interest group” – women.

New York Times commentator Timothy Egan makes the case this week that the SCOTUS’ disastrous Hobby Lobby decision does more than assault female reproductive freedom. It also takes a swipe at our founding principle – the separation of church and state. He writes, “In the United States, God is on the currency. By brilliant design, though, he is not mentioned in the Constitution. The founders were explicit: This country would never formally align God with one political party, or allow someone to use religion to ignore civil laws. At least that was the intent. In this summer of the violent God, five justices on the Supreme Court seem to feel otherwise.”

As Americans continue to grapple with the Supreme Court’s increasingly partisan suppression of human rights in favor of corporate ones, the media is finally (finally!) beginning to take the five Catholic male justices responsible to task in a semi-bipartisan way. Meanwhile, Democratic Congressional leaders are trying to develop and pass legislation that would grant women access to everything promised by the Affordable Care Act. May they be relentless.

It was a week when modern Republican claims to be defenders of freedom, limited government and human dignity were clearly exposed as money and power grabbing, racist scams. Individual rights trump all else – except for women who want to make their own family planning decisions. Give us your tired and your poor – unless they are frightened brown children. We have no money to take care of them properly as dictated by law. Those funds are subsidizing the lifestyles and business ventures of the one percent. And that weak-willed, effeminate Obama. If only he’d man up and covertly supply terrorists who murder international civilians like that macho Vladimir Putin.

Did President Obama Really ‘Miss an Opportunity’ by Avoiding Sochi? (February 18, 2014)

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During a cab ride home this evening, I spent the first part of the trip sort of balefully and resentfully staring at the continued downpour of yet another Winter 2014 blizzard upon Chicago. However my bitter reverie was interrupted by a different irritant of the rhetorical variety. Several local public radio panelists were tearing into President Obama for relatively undefined “missed opportunities” with regard to his absenteeism from the Olympic Games in Sochi. Notably, these commentators were of a liberal bent, which put me in the interesting position of disdaining the meat of the discussion not for its ignorance, but because these individuals ought to know better.

It’s been a feature of the last five and half years of the Obama Presidency that even those media types who ostensibly sit on the left side of the political spectrum have chosen a “fair and balanced” approach that can easily be interpreted as an irresponsible dereliction of duty. In attempting to placate everyone, they ultimately please nobody, and furthermore contribute a distortion of facts every bit as damaging as the reckless demagoguery of Fox News.

So it is with the POTUS’ abstention from Sochi. In mid-December 2013, the website LGBTQNation displayed a comprehensive understanding of the President’s compelling social motivations for snubbing Putin and his arrogant, expensive and delusional display of Russian exceptionalism. Reprinting an Associated Press piece by writer Eddie Pells:

“President Barack Obama sent Russia a clear message about its treatment of gays and lesbians with who he is – and isn’t – sending to represent the United States at the Sochi Olympics.

Billie Jean King will be one of two openly gay athletes in the U.S. delegation for the opening and closing ceremonies, Obama announced Tuesday. For the first time since 2000, however, the U.S. will not send a president, former president, first lady or vice president to the Games.”

We live in a nation where the majority of registered voters support equality, where 17 states and counting have legalized gay marriage. We are a society in which even members of the Republican Party, once dependably able to use the issue as a wedge to avoid serious policy discussion, no longer wants to touch the topic. Homophobia just doesn’t play in Poughkeepsie like it once did.

But let’s move beyond the fact that Putin’s Russia is a human rights trainwreck that leaves the White House’s subtle refusal to legitimize this month’s grandstanding with a personal appearance entirely commendable. Syria anyone? A Reuters report from early this week quotes U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry as saying, “The regime stonewalled. They did nothing except continue to drop barrel bombs on their own people and continue to destroy their own country. And I regret to say they are doing so with increased support from Iran, from Hezbollah and from Russia.” It seems those among us who feared that Russia might have us chasing our tails with a 2013 offer to broker a diplomatic end to the long-running conflict in the troubled Middle Eastern country, may have been onto something.

If this isn’t enough to make Obama’s removal from Sochi comprehensible, let’s talk about a consideration that has enjoyed bipartisan appeal lo these last 13 years – national security. NBC News’s chief foreign correspondent Richard Engel appeared on last Sunday’s edition of Meet the Press, where he observed:

“The most threatened Olympics in modern history has so far been safe, and that’s not just because of the ring of steel around Sochi. We traveled 500 miles from Sochi to the North Caucasus, the heart of Russia’s Islamic insurgency, and saw how Vladimir Putin is using a combination of crackdowns and payoffs to secure the games.”

Safety via temporary efforts of corruption and intimidation don’t really set my mind at ease. I don’t know about you, but for me as a viewer, this is a rare instance where I’ve been unable to divorce what I know about the host country from the objective magic of the Olympic Games. To offer a comparison, I had a lot more luck with the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and we’re talking about China. Would I really stand behind a leader who decided to put on a happy face and pretend that all is as it should be, in a nation that appears to be nostalgic for the Cold War?

My point is there are a lot of issues about which we as liberals can quibble with President Obama. Many of us feel health care reform can never be truly realized without a single payer revolution. Others feel that the emboldened and reckless Tea Party might not have become the force it is without Obama’s misguided attempts to negotiate with hostage takers. And just why is it that former President Bill Clinton has been so much more successful at articulating the Obama vision then the elected man himself?

But the White House’s decision to let the athletes do their thing while avoiding overt support of a regime that has been a veritable thorn in America’s side on so many fronts? Perfectly advisable.