Tom Fulks

Watch out, America. We could become the next Singapore

Tom Fulks
Tom Fulks

If you’re reading this on Sunday in The Tribune’s print edition, I’m in the air, heading to Singapore on a business trip.

Some people see Singapore as idyllic: warm, safe, peaceful, crime free, a place where a teenager can ride a bike across town and her parents have no fear.

Idyllic, perhaps, except the Singaporean people live in a police state.

They’re nominally able to criticize their government and organize opposition to it, but government authorities know and watch opinion leaders, journalists, academics and the intelligentsia. Nearly every social and political group in Singapore is infiltrated by police. Ubiquitous cameras observe nearly all things public. No one dares jaywalk for fear of being observed and severely punished.

If you’re not breaking the law in Singapore, there’s nothing to fear. However, if you spit on the sidewalk, you might be corporally punished — caned. Bring weed into the country and you could be executed. With punishment in Singapore so disproportionate to offenses, fear of pain or death at the hand of the state drives “legal” behavior.

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Here at home, many Americans are too comfortable with such draconian disproportionality. Trump supporters callously justify his authoritarian measures on our borders, in which children are seized from “illegal immigrant” parents, thusly: If they hadn’t broken the law, they’d not have had their children kidnapped by the U.S. government.

It gets worse: Trump’s administration this week missed its court-ordered deadline to reunite immigrant children under age 5 with parents, and it recently empanelled a “denaturalization task force” to round up naturalized U.S. citizens for deportation. Rounding up American citizens. What’s next? Who’s next?

Traditionally, Americans have accepted lawlessness under color of authority if it occurred in other countries, but not here. Today, a swath of Americans, mostly Republican politicians and their voters, blithely accept a growing, incremental authoritarianism: health insurance stripped from the poor, fewer rights for gays and women, abortion restrictions, idolization of the military and police, a blissful disregard of behavior by a president Republicans not two years ago would have called treason.

Their 30 pieces of silver for acquiescence? Tax cuts for the rich, indulgence of their gun fetishes, promotion of their comingled hyper-religiosity and xenophobic nationalism.

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Easing into totalitarianism is new to Americans, but not the rest of the world. In February 1937, Ernest Hemingway described his experience as a correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War to a writers’ conference in New York: “There is only one form of government that cannot produce good writers, and that system is fascism. For fascism is a lie told by bullies. A writer who will not lie cannot live and work under fascism.”

A president who calls the American press “enemies of the people,” attacking press freedom enshrined in the First Amendment, treads the bully’s fascist path. What’s the next increment? Losing our religious freedom, which a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled doesn’t necessarily apply to Muslims?

I was reminded of Hemingway’s speech this Fourth of July. Notions of patriotism, freedom, honor and duty abounded as fireworks exploded over Cayucos beach. A small army of revelers decamped to the shore and possessed what seemed a warehouse of high-end pyrotechnics, so powerful they commanded as much attention as the “professional” fireworks launched from Cayucos Pier.

The bombs bursting in air supposedly symbolized our freedom, but I wondered how many celebrating on the beach truly appreciated that in order to be free, we must tolerate ideas we oppose. Do they understand loyal dissent: that you can love your country, be ashamed of its government, yet remain as patriotic as any American — though flag-waving jingoists might disagree?

Television news pioneer Edward R. Murrow understood well: “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. … We will not walk in fear of one another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, remember that we are not descended from fearful men, not from men who feared.”

Resistance to the betrayal of American ideals — science, reason, fairness, justice, due process, the rule of law — is the heart of patriotism. As I travel abroad again, I couldn’t be more proud to be an American — not because our nation is infallible, but because it isn’t. That and because I’m free, for now, to resist its failings with all my strength.

Our president may find Singapore and other authoritarian states alluring models of government.

Absent our freedom to dissent, that could be us.

Liberal columnist Tom Fulks serves on the San Luis Obispo County Democratic Central Committee. His column runs every other Sunday, in rotation with conservative columnist Andrea Seastrand.