A Roundup of the events and comments of the week

11 October 1996

by Dan Murphy

Good evening.

Sometimes, it's well to remember that things could be worse. After enough obsessing about any number of injustices and inequities in our own society and country, a brief look around the world can offer some useful perspective.

For example, a new militarist regime is taking over control of Afghanistan and forcing everyone to conform to a strict and ancient Islamic code of behavior. This is a very sexist code, among other things, and may deny girls even the opportunity to attend school. This tradition hold that girls should not do anything that takes them out of their homes, including going to school or work, so that they remain chaste.

Adult women, foreign and native alike, may be forbidden to work, and even venturing out in public requires that the entire body, including the face, be completely covered.

And should anyone feel bold enought to defy some of these new restrictions and requirements, note that the penalty for various offenses, including adultery and drinking, is death by stoning.

And of course, there is no discussion permitted about the wisdom or logic or fairness of any of this. Freedom of speech is no more tolerated than is freedom of religion.

This is a country where, some years ago, the US supported those who were resisting Soviet-backed communist control, and the final failure of Soviet control there was a significant milestone on the road to decline of the Soviet empire. On the other hand, with the Teleban forces now in control in Afghanistan, even the communists don't look too bad by comparison.

For another example, take Liberia, where the militarist dictator there holds secret trials and public executions of his political opponents. By various accounts, these actions aren't just the usual actions of a tyrant to keep a populace under terror and control, but are maniacally calculated to fly in the face of the international community and to defy the outside world to do anything more than bluster.

And we need hardly mention Bosnia, where, although full-out war is no longer raging, the area remains a tarpit of ethnic hatred and segregation, and where no group is innocent of ongoing ethnic offenses and attacks.

Our own culture, imperfect though it may be at times, at least sets a standard and direction that is the very opposite of these three examples. We should keep in mind that, even though we could do better, we are still doing pretty well in support of individual rights and liberties, particularly in comparison to most other cultures.

Even though we could do better, women here have more opportunities and real power than in almost any other society. Even though we could do better, individuals are largely free of the dictates of particular religious hierarchies. Even though we could do better, the political process is open to a very wide spectrum of positions and people, and those who challenge existing power structures are generally not thrown in jail.

And even though we could do better, we still support an amazing range of expressions and opinions under the freedom of speech umbrella, including ironically, many who would quickly deny that freedom to others if their own group or ideas were to achieve power.

Indeed things could be worse. I'm willing to say that things are as good as they are because our culture is based on a set of values that support these things. Cultures are NOT all equal, and one way to tell the difference is to see how much oppression, intolerance, violence, and fear exists within each of them.

The extremes we see elsewhere in our present day world are simply examples of societies where the principles of freedom of speech, press, religion, and equality, and of democratically elected government are not sufficiently ingrained in the population to prevent their denial. They are reasonably well ingrained in our population, but again, we could do much better. When "values" are brought up in political discourse, these days, it's frequently code for choices that should coexist in a diverse society and completely ignores the fact that our true basic values are those freedoms and beliefs that support this diversity and those choices.

Things could be worse, and they will remain as good as they are only if a sufficient number of people visibly support and perpetuate the values and ideas that maintain diversity and individual freedom.

And in one final example, we note with some satisfaction the decision by IBM, one of the country's largest employers, to support the extension of employee spousal benefits to same-gender domestic partners. I'm not about to say that this represents a great stand for principle by IBM; I believe this decision was taken for a set of pragmatic reasons appropriate to a large public corporation. We don't in fact want our corporations getting too involved in moral questions or enforcing any one view of morality to the exclusion of others. Where IBM deserves the credit is for standing up to the outrage of the religious right and their threats of boycotts and political opposition. The Disney organization took a similar decision some time ago, and several large, politically active, conservative Protestant denominations have been calling for a boycott of Disney entertainment and products since then.

One need look no further to find a clear example of how the religious right is working to enforce their morality on everyone else, just as is the new religious totalitarian government of Afghanistan. The difference is that the US religious right doesn't have the political or police power to do that now. As I said, things could be worse.

For this week, that's the view from the Outpost. For WMBR, this is Dan Murphy.