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Freedom House, Woke Imperialists
Meet the US-government staffed, US-funded, "independent" NGO that decides which countries are free
Recently, I noted a CIA recruitment video that must be seen to be believed.
Wokeness has not simply taken over the CIA, as the entire foreign policy establishment has moved in the same direction. A particularly sinister aspect of this shift is that we are seeing a merger between a fanatical new faith and long-standing institutions specializing in manipulating populations.
Spreading democracy is an important part of American foreign policy. While it’s fashionable to brush off concerns with democracy as hypocritical or just a cover for power politics (“look at Saudi Arabia!”), I believe that outside of the Middle East, where pretty much everyone is non-democratic, American foreign policy is driven by ideological goals that aren’t reducible to material interests.
In this worldview, all countries called “democracies” have reached the end of history, while all others are candidates for regime change, if not today then when the time is right. When countries fight back against this, it’s considered aggression on their part. Hillary Clinton believes that Putin interfered against her in the 2016 election because she spoke out against his government as Secretary of State. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s certainly what I would do if I were Putin, and the lady who tried to overthrow me was running for president.
It seems strange that such a concept would drive US foreign policy, given how little Americans themselves agree on what is or isn’t “democratic.” Was Trump casting doubt on the legitimacy of 2020 “undemocratic”? How about when Democrats did the same in 2016? What about gerrymandering? Court packing?
These are silly debates, and I feel sorry for people who have strong opinions on them, which always boil down to “what my side does is democracy, what the other side does isn’t.”
The Role of “Independent” NGOs
Nonetheless, the American government clearly has something in mind when it uses the term, and it often relies on non-governmental institutions (NGOs) as supposedly objective sources of information. One of the most important of these is Freedom House, and it is therefore worth looking at the organization in some depth.
According to its financial report, in the fiscal year that ended in 2019, Freedom House raised $48 million. Of that, $45 million, or 94%, came from the American government. Its current President is Morton Abramowitz, a lifelong American diplomat. The Chair of the Board is Michael Chertoff, who was Secretary of Homeland Security under the second Bush.
Looking at the 12 members of the Executive Board, and just going off their bios on the Freedom House website, it appears that 6 have had jobs for the federal government, with at least one other appearing to have worked as a government contractor.
You might think that an organization that is funded almost completely by the American government, and staffed by former American officials, wouldn’t have much credibility as an “independent non-governmental organization.” Yet it is called an NGO, and regularly cited by the press as an objective authority on which government actions are legitimate.
Much of what is called “civil society” functions this way. The American government then uses the work of “independent” organizations to justify its own policies, as you can see by going to the State Department website and searching for “Freedom House.”
Freedom House is also a top source for pundits who write about the decline of democracy. In 2019, Hungary was officially kicked out of the club.
Freedom House has represented the American foreign policy establishment as long as it has existed. According to its own website, the organization at its founding in 1941 had among its leaders Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, the Republican who lost to FDR in 1940. So imagine a “non-governmental organization” today being founded by an alliance of Jill Biden and Donald Trump.
After advocating for American entry into World War II, Freedom House supported the Cold War. Although the website mentions these facts, it tends to downplay or ignore its more recent history, which has involved cheerleading for disastrous wars in the Middle East.
The Freedom House history page does not mention Iraq despite the fact that, in 2003, its Chairman was R. James Woolsey, Jr., former head of the CIA. As McClatchy reported at the time, in the weeks after 9/11, Paul Wolfowitz and Doug Feith sent Woolsey to the UK to find evidence that Saddam Hussein was behind the attacks. Robert Draper’s To Start a War tells us that
When British reporter David Rose of The Guardian called former CIA director Jim Woolsey on October 13, Woolsey—who had bonded with Paul Wolfowitz over their contempt for Saddam—said that only Iraq was known to have the capability to produce airborne anthrax spores. “Iraq Behind U.S. Anthrax Outbreaks” was the headline blaring from The Guardian the next day.
In the same newspaper, Woolsey in July 2003 called Iraq a “war for freedom,” relying on his status as both Chairman of Freedom House and former head of the CIA to establish credibility. By 2011, Woolsey had moved on to become the Chairman of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The “Science” of Measuring Democracy
So it is this organization, run by former American officials and funded by the US government, whose former Chairman was also the director of the CIA and helped lie the country into Iraq, that is the nation’s most important source for deciding who is or isn’t free.
Recently, Freedom House released its annual report on the state of democracy in the world. It would be one thing if the organization simply declared some countries “democracies” and others not. Instead, it gives a number to each country on a scale that goes up to 100, updating the scores on a yearly basis. So in 2020, Ethiopia gets a 24, Switzerland is a 96, and North Korea is a 3. After 20 years of war, the US has managed to get Afghanistan to 27.
Here’s an interactive map where you can find out how well your country is doing.
There’s actually a formula that they use to calculate each score, although it’s not always clear what causes a country to gain or lose points. 40% of the score is determined by how well a country does on “Political Rights,” and 60% on “Civil Rights,” with subsections under each of these headings.
The 2021 report tells us that 2020 saw “the 15th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” Sounds really bad. But it’s one thing to say, that for example, the US is freer than China, or that the coup in Myanmar was a blow against democracy. It’s quite another to pretend to have a neutral formula that can compare the state of democracy in say Hungary versus France, the US versus Canada, or Syria versus Cuba. But that’s what Freedom House gets tens of millions of dollars a year from the American government to do.
How does one make these more fine grained, largely subjective judgments? You perhaps won’t be surprised to learn that Freedom House’s democracy scores reflect the political views of its staff, who have created a system in which countries are punished for adopting conservative policy positions and being enemies of the United States, while ignoring America’s own domestic spying and prosecution of journalists.
Woke is Democracy, Conservative is Authoritarian
In Europe, Freedom House tells us that “Hungary has undergone the biggest decline ever measured in Nations in Transit, plummeting through two categorical boundaries to become a Transitional/Hybrid Regime last year. Poland is still categorized as a Semiconsolidated Democracy.”
That’s a nice coincidence, how the two European countries that have moved in the most conservative policy direction are the ones also becoming more “authoritarian.” Looking in more detail, it appears that Freedom House classifies conservative countries as authoritarian in two ways
1) Portraying things that would otherwise be considered normal politics as “authoritarian”, while ignoring things that are similar or worse when done by non-right wing governments; and
2) Just directly penalizing countries for conservative policies.
We shouldn’t find 1 that surprising. This is motivated reasoning, and why Democrats and Republicans each think the other side is more “authoritarian.” But you’d think Freedom House would avoid 2, literally saying that conservative views are authoritarian by nature, in order to maintain their credibility as objective observers.
This map gives the game away.
We are told that the Polish government opposes “LGBT and gender ideology,” which it uses for “mobilizing its base” (mobilizing your base sounds pretty democratic!), while the Prime Minister of Slovenia has “raised verbal attacks on journalists to a new level.”
The connection between how many genders a government acknowledges and its level of democracy is never explained. The report also mentions the Polish government’s opposition to abortion and Slovenia reducing funding for its public broadcaster.
Many conservatives in the United States criticize the media and would like to ban abortion, cut funding for NPR, and not have schools teach that gender is a social construct. They may be surprised to learn that they are engaging in “anti-democratic” activities.
To show the kind of hackery at work, here’s the report on Poland for 2020. We are told that the Archbishop of Kraków describes “LGBT as a ‘rainbow plague’ bearing similarities to communism.” So apparently countries are judged based on the wokeness of their clergy, so Poland loses a point in part for that, and appears to get another point deducted for some combination of the government’s positions on birth control, abortion, and gay adoption.
You can really tell that American conservatives annoy Freedom House analysts more than any other people in the world. In the US, not only are conservatives’ views on abortion and gay marriage undemocratic, but so are their positions on organized labor, with Freedom House mentioning a Supreme Court ruling that government employees could not be forced against their will to contribute to public sector unions.
The 2020 report on the United States also mentions Republicans refusing to confirm enough Obama-appointed judges and the use of the death penalty.
When it’s not penalizing countries for being too conservative, Freedom House is applying double standards against those nations. Poland, for example, has tried to make judges appointed through elected officials, rather than having the judiciary in effect be a closed guild. Such reforms would bring the Polish judiciary into line with the systems that prevail in the US and other Western countries, and is arguably more “democratic” than the alternative.
Not only does Freedom House portray the behavior of conservative governments in an unflattering light, but it looks past what are much clearer violations of individual liberty and democratic norms when they are committed in the service of left-wing social or political goals.
Sweden, for example, is one of only three countries to receive a perfect score of 100. This is despite having hate speech laws, which have in the past been used to arrest Christian preachers for their interpretation of the Bible. Norway, another “perfect democracy,” in 2020 expanded its hate speech laws to cover gender identity, with punishments of up to three years in prison for violators.
“Whether a country arrests people for speech” seems like it could be a clear criterion an organization interested in democracy can use, but Freedom House prefers a vague points system that allows it to penalize countries for everything it doesn’t like.*
Apologists for US Spying, Foreign Policy
Another clear double standard is related to whether countries are allies or enemies of the United States. For example, Iran has actual elections that determine who gets in power and have legitimate consequences for economic and foreign policy, even though many candidates are disqualified from running. Oman, in contrast, is an absolute monarchy with a “Consultative Council,” which “has no legislative powers and can only recommend changes to new laws.” Yet Oman has a score of 23, while Iran has a 17. Jordan, another American ally and arguably another absolute monarchy, gets a 34.
As seen above, Freedom House doesn’t mind criticizing the United States; the country after all only gets an 83, making it a not very good democracy. Yet it’s notable what the US doesn’t lose points for: NSA spying programs, and the prosecution of journalists who have brought them to light. Julian Assange is, in the words of Glenn Greenwald, “responsible for breaking more major stories about the actions of top US officials than virtually all US journalists employed in the corporate press combined,” and he’s now facing life in prison. Yet Assange goes unmentioned in the 2020 report, along with Edward Snowden.
On the question “Are there free and independent media?” the US only gets a 3 out of 4, because “Fox News in particular grew unusually close to the Trump administration” and “Trump was harshly critical of the mainstream media throughout his presidency, routinely using inflammatory language to accuse them of bias and mendacity.” The US gets 4/4 on the question “Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?” Surveillance programs are mentioned, but here no points are deducted (the US also gets 4/4 on academic freedom).
It’s a strange algorithm that deducts points for criticizing journalists, but not for putting them in jail. It’s the algorithm you’d expect, however, from an organization run by former American government officials.
Woke Imperialism Threatens American Freedom at Home
Why should Americans care about this? In addition to Freedom House being supported by their tax dollars, whether a country is called a “democracy” or not has fundamental implications for American foreign policy. It is generally considered more legitimate to interfere in the domestic politics of non-democracies, or even engage in regime change against them.
If the US government and the NGOs it relies on define conservatism as undemocratic, we will in the coming years find ourselves having hostile relations with nations that do not threaten American interests and whose only crime is offending the sensibilities of a liberal elite that holds positions that are far from universally accepted within the United States itself.
The potential implications for liberty at home are no less catastrophic. If conservatives are not only wrong, but “undemocratic,” it becomes easier for the other side to justify attempts to silence dissent and take extreme steps to prevent them from coming to power.
The media, when it advocates censorship or government suppression of its enemies, never says that it’s going about silencing dissenting views. Rather, the propaganda it uses involves classifying what the target is saying as “hate,” “disinformation,” or “foreign propaganda” to delegitimize the speech as unworthy of either First Amendment protection or respect from non-government institutions.
In Freedom House reports, almost no aspect of American conservatism is safe from the charge that it is undemocratic. The organization mentions “a widening inequality in wealth” in its report on the US, meaning that even conservatives who just like tax cuts and deregulation don’t have views that anyone is bound to respect as legitimate. Unsurprisingly, it seems that the only standard GOP positions that do not get smeared as “undemocratic” by Freedom House are support for war and government spying.
It’s fine to disagree with many aspects of American conservatism, as I certainly do. And it wouldn’t be correct to say that there is no objective measure of democracy one can use; certainly, some countries pick their leaders through fair elections, and others don’t. But democracy is supposed to involve a respect for various segments of society, and a consideration of their views. A definition of the concept that delegitimizes what large swaths of the population believe about economic and social issues, while overlooking the prosecution of journalists disfavored by American foreign policy elites, is little more than a tool of propaganda and potentially oppression.
Luckily, it’s easier to know what to do about Woke Imperialism than Woke Capital, or Woke Institutions more generally. The national security establishment does not survive by its ability to bring in voluntary donations or make money through selling products and services people want. Freedom House, like many other similar institutions, is almost exclusively dependent on the American taxpayer, despite the NGO label.
Given how much contempt the organization clearly has for a large portion of the public, and the threat to political liberty that can result from identifying democracy with one side of the political spectrum, there is no reason for that support to continue. While cutting it off would certainly be seen as “undemocratic” by Freedom House, it would remain at liberty to continue writing reports at its own expense.
[*Note: A previous version of this post had the sentence “Whatever else one can say about Hungary and Poland, you will in the last decade find fewer examples of people in those nations being arrested for speech alone than you will in countries like Sweden, France, and Germany.” Someone brought my attention to the fact that Poland has a law against anyone who promotes “a fascist or other totalitarian system of state or incites hatred based on national, ethnic, race or religious differences or for reason of lack of any religious denomination,” and it is often enforced (see Article 256 here). I am unsure if this means more people are arrested in Poland for speech than the other countries listed, but since I cannot verify the veracity of the sentence as written without more research the sentence has been deleted.]