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Column: Give Me Liberty, Give Him Something Else

This story was written by Rachel Forman, Brown Daily Herald


On Tuesday, Nov. 4 I woke up at 4:30 a.m., took the train to Boston and cast my ballot in person before heading back to Brown for a 10:30 meeting.

I know this was completely unnecessary because you can request Massachusetts absentee ballots until the day before the election. Still, sending something in the mail doesn't feel as good as gathering with your fellow citizens and actually watching your ballot go into the counter machine.

My post-election high was still strong when I returned to school. I was participating in the annual Strait Talk Symposium as a United States delegate, and I eagerly shared my voting experience with my Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese peers during a discussion about the basic needs of people living on both sides of the Taiwan Strait.

My mood was promptly ruined by a follow-up question from one of my Chinese friends.

"Is democracy really a basic human need?"

Democracy isn't a human need like food or water, but in the United States, it's an integral part of our identity. Unlike China, we aren't united by a common ethnicity or history. Our nationalism is a civic one - we believe that anyone, regardless of culture or religion, can accept our values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Inasmuch as voting is the highest expression of our civic identity, I'd say that democracy is, in fact, a basic human need for Americans. Aside from national security, upholding the strength and integrity of democratic institutions is one of the only interests that all Americans share, at least in theory. And even though over one third of eligible voters choose not to vote each year, I bet they would be up in arms if the right were officially revoked.

Yet even after I had reaffirmed my gut belief that democracy was a basic need for myself, his question still unnerved me. If we believe Martin Luther King Jr.'s claim that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," shouldn't the same apply to liberty? Does relative indifference about political expression in China somehow threaten freedom of political expression in the United States?

One of my Taiwanese-American friends then pointed out the paradox of our democratic values. We believe people are free to worship as they please, vote for whom they please and say what they please so long as their actions do not restrict the ability of others to exercise those same freedoms.

What does this mean for a nation like the People's Republic of China, where stability is the master value? If you polled every person living in the PRC and asked whether they thought freedom of speech or social stability was more important, most people would probably choose the latter.

Does this undermine the proclaimed "self-evident-ness" of our values? I think many Americans would answer this question by blaming the stability-over-liberty choice on the "brainwashing" tactics of the Chinese government.

But I've met many Chinese people who are highly educated and have spent extensive time abroad, and they still believe that the PRC government is right to limit access to information and freedom of expression, as least for the time being. This makes me think that maybe, given the PRC's one-party system, income inequality problems and complicated relationship with its ethnic minority groups, the stability-over-liberty position is legitimate.

We all want to be safe, and we all want to be fed. In China, people believe these goals are best achieved when collective stability is maintained. In the United States, we believe these goals are best achieved when individual liberties are more protected (with the exception of fun diversions like the Patriot Act).

I was naive before to think tht Chinese people would want what Americans want, if only they could know what we know. But while the reality of China may have shaken my belief in the universality of democratic values, I don't think it undermines the validity of those values for Americans.

If I had the choice to do it all over again, I would still get up at 4:30 in the morning to cast my vote in person.

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