It is not often, if ever, that one finds it possible to agree with Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the irascible former prime minister of Malaysia and frequent critic of the US (despite sending his children to school there, ostensibly to pick up the principles of democracy, etc). But his current outburst against Vice President Joe Biden for criticizing Malaysia’s retention of the sedition act is right on.
This is not to defend Malaysia’s use of the sedition act, which in recent months has been employed primarily to silence opposition critics, is so vague as to be misused by the majority against the minority and is of little use in any case. If the United Malays National Organization thinks a silly law will stop the man (or woman) in the street from seeing the corruption and cronyism that characterize the party, they are living in a dream world.
But Mahathir asks where Biden gets off criticizing Malaysia for its sedition laws when the United States has kept prisoners in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade without recourse to habeas corpus and a fair trial, where CIA officers employed waterboarding and other methods of torture against suspects, where American citizens have been executed from the sky by drone without benefit of trial, and where US local police appear to have often used unjustified force against ethnic African American citizens, killing three in controversial incidents in the past few months.
The superpatriots in the United States greet these acts with a hearty Right On! But America has no idea what this looks like from the prism of another shore. It looks like a right-wing country out of control and veering towards fascism. How the US thinks it can command the moral leadership of the world while these injustices are taking place as a result of government action is hard to figure out
As Mahathir said in his blog, “Just don’t go around telling people how to behave and what they should not do. Tell it to your own people, about how Americans prospered through slavery, through discrimination against blacks and Hispanics, about spying on your own people, about your controlled media etc. That is what Joe Biden should do.”
What the United States has become can be traced directly to Sept. 11, 2001, when Jihadis at the behest of Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden crashed the jets into the World Trade Towers in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, DC. For the past 13 years, the United States has predicated its actions from fright. That included the disastrous election of George W. Bush as President of the United States and the free run of Vice President Dick Cheney and his chicken hawk cronies.
Given its early history of slavery of black people, the colonization of the Philippines, its protection of banana republic dictators in Cental America and other issues, the US has little to be proud of. But from the time Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President in 1932, the United States was on a steady march towards civil liberalism, with court decisions protecting the rights of minorities and leashing the operations of Wall Street titans.
That march continued through the elections of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and Supreme Court appointees whose decisions were based on at least some thought of the human wellbeing of the common citizen. That is no longer true. The United States, enmeshed in its own fears, has turned into something not reflected in its own propaganda.
When George Bush frequently announced that the United States was the leader of the free world, he did not seem to understand what those words meant. The version of “American exceptionalism” that he and Cheney and others espoused appeared to be a belief that the country could ignore crimes it committed in service of a higher truth, which is about what the Communists thought in Russia.
In truth, the freedoms Bush thought he was talking about were the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of the United States and its amendments. He ignored almost all of them.
Those amendments include the freedom of speech, assembly and religion; freedom from self-incrimination; the right to be secure in one’s own home; prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment; guaranteed right to public trial with a jury of one’s peers; freedom from search and seizure without permission of an independent court; and rules governing indictment by Grand Jury, something especially important in two of the recent three cases involving the deaths of black citizens, in which grand juries refused to indict police officers who allegedly had acted outside the bounds of justice. They also include the 14th Amendment, which ratifies the equality of all citizens regardless of race, and the 15th, which prohibits the denial of the right to vote based on skin color.
Most if not all of these have been violated in varying degrees since 2001. The election of Barack Obama, a constitutional lawyer and a half African-American, was expected to restore those liberties. It has not happened. A majority of the Congress – especially the one returned to office in November of 2014 – has ensured that they will not be. The majority of the Supreme Court appointed by both George Bush and his father, George HW Bush, in decisions on campaign funding, public prayer, voting rights and corporate behavior, have all been in favor of one increasingly isolated group: wealthy white males.
The fact is that the US as a moral leader on the world stage has lost the principles that moored the nation in the Constitution. Mahathir, sad to say, is right. Where does Joe Biden get off criticizing Malaysia for doing many of the same things, including shutting its ethnic minorities out of the wider economic and political picture?
John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel