Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

As freedom blooms in the East, it's withering in the West Add to ...

So there's a little girl somewhere in Egypt named Facebook. According to the Al-Ahram newspaper, Jamal Ibrahim named his daughter after Mark Zuckerberg's electronic baby as a way of paying tribute to the role Facebook played in the triumphant uprising in his country.

As a name, it's not bad. It certainly beats Jermaine Jackson's modest offering for his own son, Jermajesty, and it honours the immense power of social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook and that Niagara Falls of information, Google. All three of those workhorses of nascent democratic movements are American inventions. That's what America's good at, right? Invention and democracy.

More related to this story

Or it least it used to be. One of the great ironies of watching the uprisings across the Arab world and Africa is witnessing them struggle and bloody themselves to achieve basic human rights, while across the U.S. and Britain hard-won liberties are shrinking like a bar of soap left in a shower.

I can't remember the last time anyone mentioned Wisconsin outside the confines of football or various cheese-producing activities - before this month, that is. Now it's a battleground, where the Republican governor, Scott Walker, is attempting to severely restrict the collective-bargaining rights of public-sector unions. He says the measure is necessary to patch over the state's deficit; the thousands of people protesting in the streets of Madison say that he has created the deficit himself through unnecessary tax cuts to corporations and that the whole thing is camouflage anyway, the thin edge of a (cheddar-shaped) wedge: Republicans want to disembowel unions because unions traditionally support the Democratic Party.

The situation in Wisconsin has descended into a delirious farce, with Democratic senators hiding out of the state to gum up the passage of Mr. Walker's "budget-repair bill." The governor was caught joking about taking a baseball bat to his opponents during a prank phone call, which he thought came from the arch-conservative billionaire David Koch. A local restaurant, Ian's Pizza, has been delivering cheesy treats to the protesters holed up in the state capitol (and taking donations from supporters across the world, including Egypt).

It would be hilarious if the basic rights of thousands of people to use their collective power to seek better working conditions weren't under threat. But it gets worse. In Arizona, possibly the nastiest place to be an undocumented immigrant (with the possible exception of Italy), the state government is considering legislation that would make their lives even more miserable. It would deny schooling to the children of those immigrants, and - if you can believe this - it would also take away their cars. Because you wouldn't want a Mexican without papers to be able to drive to his crappy, back-breaking job that no natural-born American wants to do.

But wait, you say. At least those kids in Arizona who will no longer be allowed to go to school, and have lots of extra time on their hands, can go to their local Planned Parenthood and get some advice about how to spend that extra time responsibly. Oh, maybe not. The U.S. House of Representatives has just voted to cut all federal funds for Planned Parenthood because the organization also provides abortion services (although, by law, no federal money was going to those services). If the cuts also pass the U.S. Senate, it will mean a drastic curtailing of health services for uninsured women, including cancer screening and HIV tests.

Is it beginning to seem clear that there's a certain segment of society with a big target painted on its back? I'd say it's anyone clinging on by their fingertips and those who have already let go. And not just in America, a country I loved when I lived there, but also Britain, where I live now, and where the disadvantaged are under siege as well because of the government's new austerity program.

Every day there is news of further cuts to programs that are not, let's face it, overcrowded with people wearing Jimmy Choos: rural bus services, libraries, disability allowances, respite care, legal aid, youth centres, the National Health Service (in a two-tier health system, those with money can always go private). While rejecting a tax on bankers' bonuses, the government saw fit to kill the measly $45 a week it was giving to keep 16-to-18-year-olds in school. Picture it as a circus act, with the terrified masses gathered on a little platform staring at a bucket far below. At least there used to be a bit of water in the bucket, but now it's draining out fast - maybe some Tory MP mistook it for Château Pétrus.

It's hardly a stirring example to set for countries that are looking for ways to remake themselves. Maybe when little Facebook grows up, she'll change her name, in a fit of adolescent pique, to: "Hey, America! Watch Us and Learn."

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories