Yesterday, I watched some folks describe the United States as a "police state" because of some allegations of police brutality in Chicago. Without either defending the Chicago police department or agreeing with its critics, I tweeted that those who describe the United States as a "police state" have never lived in or visited an actual police state. I then watched as leftists went berserk in response.
As regular readers of this blog know, I believe language matters -- as does the precision with which we use it.
So let's first explore the term "police state." Political science literature has a lot to say about authoritarianism and police states, but here is the plain vanilla definition from Merriam-Webster:
a political unit characterized by repressive governmental control of political, economic, and social life usually by an arbitrary exercise of power by police and especially secret police in place of regular operation of administrative and judicial organs of the government according to publicly known legal procedures.
Now, by that definition, I think most observers of U.S. politics and comparative politics would be hard pressed to classify the system by which we we govern the United States as a police state. But let's look at the United States in comparison to other nations using the Freedom House and Polity IV surveys. The 2012 Freedom House survey (.pdf) ranks the United States as among the most free countries on earth with respect to both political rights and civil liberties. And here is the 2010 Polity IV country report for the United States (.pdf), which raises questions about some post-9/11 legislation passed in the United States (and also this crazy thing called the Electoral College) but otherwise gives the United States a clean bill of democratic health.
None of this is to say that the United States is perfect or that violations of civil liberties do not occurr too often for any of us to be comfortable with. And yes, I realize that a white guy such as myself shouldn't take his largely positive interactions with law enforcement authorities as being representative of, say, the experiences of African-Americans who live in my neighborhood.
At the same time, though, when polemicists and activists on both the left and the right so carelessly throw around pejoritive terms like "police state" and "facism" and "totalitarian," the only thing they accomplish is to strip these terms of any real meaning so that when we really do need them, they are rendered useless.
After all, if the United States is a police state, can Syria really be that much worse?
From the Chronicle of Higher Education:
The budget deal, which would finance federal agencies until the end of September, would slash funds for these Department of Education programs by 40 percent, or $50-million, reducing their allocation to $76-million.
"A cut of that magnitude to such small programs really has a huge impact," says Miriam A. Kazanjian, a consultant with the Coalition for International Education. "It would be devastating."
In particular, she says the teaching of "critical" foreign languages, like Arabic and Farsi, and studies of various regions of the world would suffer, hurting America's national security and competitiveness in the global economy. ...
Ms. Kazanjian says she was surprised that the Title VI and Fulbright-Hays programs were the focus for such deep cuts. The programs, some of which began 50 years ago to counter research gains made by the Soviet Union, received increases in federal dollars after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, when the government wanted more graduates with fluency in Afghan languages like Pashto.
The budget deal "rolls these programs back to 2001 levels," she says.
Much like the International Affairs budget, which includes funding for the Dept. of State and USAID, funds that support the study of critical languages should be understood as part of our national security expenditures. I myself was the recipient of a 2007 fellowship that allowed me to spend a summer in Morocco in an advanced Arabic program* that helped get my Arabic up to the level I needed to pore through newspaper archives in Beirut while researching a dissertation on Hizballah. And I would happily pay a little more in taxes to keep these programs going.
But hey, it's probably safe to cut funding for these languages. It's hard to see Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or anywhere in the Arabic-speaking world causing issues in terms of U.S. national security interests anytime soon.
*Some of my classmates in this program are not currently doing anything remotely related to U.S. national security, I should add. I should also add, though, that some of my classmates in this program are now doing really important work in the U.S. government in jobs related to the Arabic-speaking world.
Ms. Yousef picked up her new language and thinking skills as part of Access, an after school English language program that is a small, almost invisible corner of the United States Department of State’s multibillion-dollar budget. It is a low profile, delayed-impact program that aims to promote change and understanding from the bottom up. Since its inception in 2004, it has taught 32,000 students in 50 countries. Access arrived in Egypt about two years ago and 182 teenagers from all over the country, Christians and Muslims, young men and young women, have graduated from the program. The only requirement is that they come from poor families.First off, I am a huge fan of these kinds of programs. They strike me as more effective COIN than most of the capture/kill missions I have been on in Iraq and Afghanistan. As far as information operations go, I would argue they are invaluable to any kind of long-term strategy. But toward the end of the article, the students themselves ask a good question of a U.S. ambassador:
“Their first question to the ambassador was, ‘What’s next for us?’ ” said Robert Lindsey, the State Department’s Egypt coordinator for Access.That sounds pretty reasonable to me, Bishoy. So allow me to give some free advice to the U.S. government based upon personal experience. As some of you know, I was a classics major in college. When I left the U.S. Army in 2004, that contributed to me being interesting to speak with at a cocktail party but pretty much tits on a bull when it came to international travel. I didn't speak a single living language other than English. I then lived in Lebanon and Egypt while studying Arabic for the next two years. But that wasn't the only language I learned -- I also learned French. I studied French for almost three years in the French cultural centers in Beirut and Cairo -- which offer good, cheap language instruction (subsidized by the French tax-payer) -- in addition to the Alliance Française here in Washington, DC. I also took advantage one summer of a great program -- originally set up for U.S. veterans of the First World War -- at the Sorbonne. The French -- like the British, with the British Council -- take the teaching of their language seriously. And if you go to a French cultural center, the odds are high that you can take classes in French from the novice to advanced levels. But what are you to do then? Well, the French push the application to French universities hard to students who achieve a high degree of proficiency in the language. It strikes me that we Americans should do the same for the Egyptians and Sudanese and Bulgarians and Vietnamese who learn English well enough to rock the TOEFL. Why not? Our university system is considered to be one of the best (if not the best) in the world, and international students who study in the U.S. tend to think highly of our country. (There are, ahem, notable exceptions.) So we should partner this language program with a program that rewards the very best students with a chance to study in the U.S. -- even if it's only for a year-long exchange.
The students seemed disappointed by the answer. They were told there were no more steps to Access, that it could help them get into other programs, but that would be up to them.
“We don’t want it to be two years that just passed and then it’s over,” said Sandy Morris, 15, of Minya.“We took the first step, so we want to take the next step,” said Bishoy Wanees, 15, also of Minya.