Neither highest nor lowest

The divisive politics of Washington make it easy to focus on all that is wrong with America. Congress seems hopelessly locked in a battle of extremes that’s fueled by the corrupting influence of lobbyists’ dollars. Controversial social issues deepen the ethical and moral chasm between us. Peril and gloom are all-too readily summoned.

That which erodes at the fabric of our nation stands above all that is right — until we step back and take a closer look at some of our global neighbors. Burma (Myanmar) provides a timely example. Just this week the 2-year-old reformist government repealed a 25-year-old ban on public assembly. Known as Order Number 2/88, the prohibition declared: “Gathering or marching in processions and delivering speeches on the streets by a group of 5 or more people are banned.”

The order had been applied selectively by the now-displaced military junta to crush dissent against the totalitarian regime. Since the election of Thein Sein in 2011, many political liberalizations have taken place, including greater freedoms of speech and of the press.

The December 2011 “Peaceful Assembly Law” that allows public protests — with prior approval by the government — has proven to be a bitter pill for the Thein government. With its patience tested by sensationalist photos and unflattering stories, tension between dissident ethnic groups in Western Burma have come to a violent head. In short, they are wrestling with questions we resolved two centuries ago.

We could then move to western Asia with an examination of women’s rights in places like Afghanistan. According to a PBS report, the era of Taliban rule has retarded nearly every aspect of women’s rights, health and education: “The Taliban focused solely on religious studies for boys and denied nearly all girls the right to attend school. During the Taliban’s rule, only about 3 per cent of girls received some form of primary education. The prohibition of female education, coupled with the cultural mandate that women receive their health care from female health care providers, resulted in a vulnerable population receiving care from poorly-educated providers.”

We might then turn to Somalia in the horn of Africa. Human rights activist Lisa Shannon authored the report “Somalia: the worst place in the world to be a woman.” The title pretty much says it all. As Shannon details, “(Somalia is) considered to be one of the worst places on Earth to be a woman. It has near-universal female genital mutilation. Women are locked out of healthcare, so the figures on infant mortality and death during childbirth are unknown, but certainly terrible. It has widespread domestic violence and, on top of that, 20 years of complete instability in which women were forced to flee their homes.”

These three examples go to a very simple point: As bad as we may seem to have it, there are people on Earth who have it much worse. Few people in the U.S. starve to death. Even if we can’t always afford access to it, a vast, modern health care system is present. Everyone has a right to free public education. Women have much greater personal agency. There are no civil wars, no ethnic cleansing, no barbarous torture, no death squads, no secret police.

Are there some serious problems in the United States? Of course there are, but on balance, we have it pretty good. All we need to do is look around at our neighbors for evidence. That said, we should not become complacent. Just as we have it better than most, some have it better than us. There are plenty of nations with universal health care, lower murder rates, higher literacy and more stable economies. At this time of polemical politics we’d be wise to remember both above us and those below us.