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First-World Refugees


Thinking of moving to another country? I hear Sudan is nice this time of year.

Let’s face it. Kerry lost. Bush won. I’m crying too. Literally. The next four years will be ruled by a fascist, far-right, lying, corrupt government that routinely persecutes a large portion of the population and wants to take away our most basic liberties.

But if you thought I was referring to America, try looking at Sudan. Or China. Or Cuba. Or Burma, Haiti, Libya, Uganda, Congo, Vietnam, Liberia, Pakistan, Syria, Laos, Rwanda, and North Korea. As of 2002, these countries all ranked below zero in their polity scores, which measure the degree of democracy minus autocracy.

The secret police in these countries don’t just snoop through your e-mail, they show up at your door in the middle of the night and drop you off weeks later, in a body bag. A woman in Pakistan, Iran or Jordan who’s been raped won’t have to worry about whether she can get an abortion, because her father and brothers will probably kill her first. We know our economy is suffering because 5.4 percent of Americans don’t have a job; people in North Korea, Somalia and India know because children who can’t find enough food in dumpsters starve to death on the street.

When you couldn’t vote, it was because someone threw away your registration card or directed you to the wrong polling place, not because of civil war or fixed elections or militants who chopped off your hands to physically prevent you from casting a ballot (c.f. Uganda, Sierra Leone, Haiti). Negative campaigns focused on character assassination, not literal assassination (c.f. Congo, Niger, and Burundi). If you thought Nader was hopeless, ask China’s Democracy Party how they feel. And in the end, the biggest retribution you have to fear from your Republican friends is their taunts and jubilation, not government-sanctioned genocide (c.f. Sudan, Rwanda, Pakistan).

So if you were thinking of leaving this country, go right ahead. Your space will be filled in no time, by one of the thousands of faceless refugees from third-world countries, who are stuffing themselves into airplane cargo holds and literally selling their first-born children into slavery for a chance to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, complete with unconstitutional reference to God. For the 1.2 billion people around the world living on less than $1 a day, for whom actual elections are a fantasy that comes after staying alive, America is still the land of freedom and opportunity, where you can walk off the boat with $5 in your pocket and make your dreams come true.

I realize this might be playing devil’s advocate. Responding to “the Patriot Act infringes on civil liberties” by saying “40,000 children die every day of malnutrition” is at best a non-sequitur and at worst dangerous and trivializing. For every injustice, there will always be something greater, and ranking them on a scale of acceptable moral outrage is nearly meaningless. Just because our standard of living is astronomically high compared to 86 percent of the world doesn’t mean that we can’t demand better. We have every right to feel desperation and outrage at our country.

But we also need a little perspective. We need to realize how extraordinarily lucky we are to have a democracy, to appreciate it and to fight all the harder to preserve it. The downside of a democracy is that sometimes your side loses, and the upside is that in four years you can try again.

Most of us here at Harvard are somewhere between 18 and 22. We grew up during one of the most prosperous times in this country’s history, taking things like universal suffrage, women’s rights and peace for granted. Last Tuesday night, the system didn’t fail us. It just showed us that democracy and progress are something we have to work for, just like the civil rights or abolitionist or anti-war movements that came before us. And it showed us that it won’t be easy or fast. In some people’s estimation, we might have taken a step backwards. But compared to the 228 years it’s taken to build this country, four more is nothing.

So do what you need to. Cry until you have no tears left. Get so drunk you can’t remember which country you’re living in. Check immigration requirements for Canada. But when it’s all over, take a glance through the looking glass and realize what’s already on this side: hope for peaceful change.

Sanby Lee ’08, an editorial comper, lives in Thayer Hall.

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