On human rights, the “other countries are worse” defense needs to go

In an interview recorded on Friday, Mike Huckabee called out businesses who opposed Indiana’s and Arkansas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Acts for hypocrisy, pointing out that Wal-Mart does business in China and Apple does business in Saudi Arabia. If these companies were really so concerned about human rights and anti-LGBT discrimination, then why are they still doing business in and with countries that sport shoddy human rights records?

Tom Cotton made a similar argument last week when, in defending Arkansas’ RFRA, he pointed out that “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay,” so those who are critical of Arkansas would do well to get themselves some “perspective.”

We don’t just hear the “other countries are worse” argument as it relates to non-discrimination legislation. We hear it when Israel is cited for abusing Palestinian human rights. We hear it when Americans criticize another country’s imperial impulses, only to be reminded that America is no saint when it comes to our own expansionary military incursions. And we hear it when the American government criticizes the human rights record of other countries, such as China, only to be reminded that we have the largest prison population on the planet and our self-described democracy has taken on all of the trappings of an oligarchy.

It’s time to put this argument to bed. It’s nothing more than a distractive device used by the criticized to deflect, not respond to, legitimate criticisms levied against them. Here’s why:

It isn’t a defense

Mike Huckabee and Tom Cotton can shout and scream all they want about how terribly China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and other illiberal countries treat their citizens. No one is arguing otherwise. LGBT citizens and allies who are fighting for rights in America aren’t saying that life is worse here than it is in Russia or Uganda, where there are laws on the books criminalizing homosexuality.

But that says nothing about the American laws that Huckabee and Cotton are defending, laws that Americans have direct control over and are directly affected by. While Mike Pence can’t do anything about social justice in China — although a few Republican governors seem to be inspired by their labor laws — he has a great deal of influence over how Indiana treats anti-gay discrimination. He has used his power poorly, and he has been called out in kind. Answering that criticism with “But Iran…” doesn’t address the American debate at hand. At all.

It’s an admission of guilt

In deflecting a criticism by making an analogy with a worse case, the defender is admitting that whatever they’re defending is, at the very least, not “good.” If it were, they’d simply be saying so. This is a massive hole in the glass houses argument. When listeners are invited to forget about the sins at hand because they aren’t the only sins that exist, the speaker is admitting that the sins at hand are, in fact, sins.

The need to identify, call out and shatter bad public policy renders the glass houses argument completely moot. “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” begets zero progress. Free society relies on judgment. Errors can only be corrected if leaders are open and responsive to criticism.

That was the case with Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, an error that Mike Pence (sort of) corrected following intense pushback from citizens and major corporations who didn’t like the idea of state-protected discrimination. The law was judged, and it was judged to be bad. If we had shrugged our shoulders and sighed “Well, at least they aren’t hanging gays in the street,” we’d have been giving a bad law a pass simply because it wasn’t a much worse law.

It invites the wrong kind of comparison

America isn’t just supposed to be less-bad than autocratic dictatorships; it’s supposed to be better. We reserve the right to judge Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and other illiberal regimes as politically inferior to our own because we claim to hold ourselves to a higher standard.

When Mike Huckabee says with a straight face that Saudia Arabia’s laws matter in the context of American domestic policy, he is effectively saying that this is no longer the case. That Tom Cotton would rather Arkansas be compared to Iran as opposed to Illinois doesn’t feel like American exceptionalism; it reeks of American relativism. If the goalposts have moved in this way — if America is no longer a shining beacon on a hill, and is instead just the house on the street with slightly brighter Christmas lights — it’s hard to argue that whatever moved those goalposts was a positive development.

When it comes to human rights, other countries certainly are worse. No one is saying otherwise. But when it comes to American human rights and civil liberties, that adds nothing to our domestic discourse. America can be better and it should be better. That proponents of anti-LGBT legislation such as Mike Huckabee and Tom Cotton are using Saudi Arabia, China and Iran to make their case shows how far we’ve come, and how far we have to go.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • cleos_mom

    Interesting tactic when it’s reversed. When Jimmy is doing something that Mom wants her kid to emulate, sonny doesn’t want to be a weirdo, does he?

  • cleos_mom

    Not to mention the obtuseness of “at least we aren’t trying to kill you [yet]; why aren’t you grateful?”

  • cleos_mom

    That’s happened in a lot of rural communities in Missouri too. What happened here was that law enforcement in bigger cities forced them to move elsewhere so they could brag about the success of the “war on drugs in our community”. The urban attitude that rural areas and people who live in them might exist but don’t ‘really’ count served well for that purpose, but it was no different from claiming that dumping mental patients on the street and closing down cheap boardinghouses accomplished anything other than to increase the homeless population.

    Out of sight.

    Out of mind.

    Get your coats on kids, it’s time for church.

  • cleos_mom

    When “everyone is to blame”, no one is to blame. It’s one of the most reliably popular detours around moral responsibility.

  • Don Chandler

    I almost wrote Ann instead of Sarah.

    I was thinking about it, the only place where a seller is suppose to be concerned by morality is when a gun is being purchased….but no, a gun merchant will sell to anyone…even a convicted felon if they can get away with it. But damn, a cake to gays…blasphemy. .

  • johnbales

    I would say Carley is much more polished than Sarah Palin but otherwise, you peel away the business suits, expensive hairstyles and jewelry and you still have the same stinking core of bigotry and selfishness towards others less fortunate than themselves. Grifters.

  • johnbales

    Had this been Democrats making such a comparison of America to autocratic/dictatorial countries, they would have been labeled “anti-American” and derided by Fox News and other right-wing media. But because they are conservatives representing the fundamentalist wing of American Christianity they’re given a free pass to to make such outrageous statements and given credence? I don’t think so. A bigot is a bigot no matter where they live or what political or religious system they represent.

  • Butch1

    The “because Iran is worse” excuse is no argument. If they would like to live in a theocracy, then go there, but I do not want this country to turn into one. No degree of discrimination against gays is acceptable and these idiots should know that.

    Cotton is a warmonger and I would guess is the new face of the republican party. A veteran, nice looking, wants war, no brain, homophobic. Perfect!

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  • Don Chandler

    I hear those deflection arguments all over the internet. When someone like Huckabee uses it, he is appealing to a childlike or immature constituency: fundamentalist voters. Because it is a child’s argument. And fundamentalist actually do believe in literally spoon-fed translations of the bible.

    The best way to answer GOP rhetoric is with real arguments. You tell Huckabee that while problems exist in Saudi Arabia, “get real”, we live in the United States and this is where we vote and have some impact. We have zero to negative impact on Saudi Arabia….or Russia for that matter. But the fundies will love Huckabee for coming to their defense. The Fundies are the appeased child and Huckabee becomes their loving and sensible Christian father. We must be nearing an fucking election.

    I heard a similar argument from Carly Fiorina. That if Apple’s Tim Cook wanted to really do something to help gays, he would stop selling his product to places like Saudi Arabia where they kill gays. Of course, this is deflection from the Indiana discrimination law. Fiorina is championing “religious liberties” and she would have folks believe Tim Cook is just a meddling “profiteer” (GOP hypocrisy). The best argument is that Tim Cook is not in the business of asking customers about their morality: he says, “I sell to everyone”. he doesn’t play judge. But it would appear that Fiorina is interested in the business of morality and wants to know who is buying her product and is judging their moral standing before selling her wares. Carly is not in touch with reality. In US markets, sellers don’t judge their customers; they take the money and run. Businesses have something to sell irrespective of their customers morality….except hypothetically in Indiana and Arkansas. I guess Carly Fiorina was a failure at Business at Hewlett Packard and she ran a failed campaign for Senator in California. She was also an advisor of McCain’s failed campaign for presidency. Maybe she should run for President on the GOP ticket and after that failure, get a gig on Fox. She kind of reminds me of Sarah ….

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  • The_Fixer

    It’s probably a little from column A and a little from column B.

  • The problem is, most of them would be more than happy to steer the country toward the policies of such enlightened places as Russia and Saudi Arabia.

    I don’t think they’re trying to justify their bad behavior so much as deflect the criticism.

  • The_Fixer

    The reply from mom was always something like “So, if Jimmy jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, you should, too?”

    This response deserves a similar retort. It’s nothing but attempting to justify bad behavior.

  • Indigo

    Human rights, let alone equal rights, is uneven in the United States. Some states are way more progressive than other states that act like they’re in a race to be more repressive. That’s the outcome of our uneven enforcement of the Constitution.

    The attitude that supports that is occasionally described as a grass-roots kind of thing but I think it’s more of a meth-lab paranoia. Oh! that brings me around to a topic my Hoosier relatives report, though I’m not going to research it, but somebody might pick up on it: the rumored ruin of rural Indiana as home meth labs pop up in every township. My point? Not to take the discussion off track but rather to focus the discussion on the social behavior of the bigots. Druggies in the woodwork!

  • Bill_Perdue

    With the recent additions to repressive laws in the US the march towards a police state that began with Wilson (1) and Truman (2) has taken a dangerous new turn. In 1978 Ted Kennedy and the Carter regime established FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978 (3) and the FISA Court. FISA was strenghtened under each subsequent regime. The Bush regime, taking advantage of the monstrous attacks on 9-11 introduced the Paytriot Act chichi cut deeply into the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. (4) The Obama regime followed up by adopting a racist policy of murdering Arab Americans (5) and introducing legislation (6) to permit the government to detain citizens without trial for an undetermined period of time.

    There are still some countries that have a worse record in human rights than the US but the number is dwindling.

    (1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Scare

    (2) http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/uchistory/archives_exhibits/loyaltyoath/timeline1940_1948.html

    (3) http://www.npr.org/2013/06/07/189430580/the-history-behind-americas-most-secretive-court

    (4) http://www.commondreams.org/views/2011/06/20/patriot-act-and-quiet-death-us-bill-rights

    (5) http://www.commondreams.org/news/2014/02/10/aclu-obama-no-you-cant-just-murder-american-overseas

    (6) https://www.aclu.org/blog/tag/ndaa

  • nicho

    The main argument against it is that it’s the “Eight-year-old Defense.” “But, Mom, Jimmy is doing worse stuff than me.” It didn’t work for me when I was eight and it shouldn’t work for them.

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