Last week at the United Nations, after condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and ISIS’s barbarism in the Middle East, Barack Obama acknowledged what, for non-Americans, is usually the elephant in the room: the morality of American behavior itself. “I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals,” he noted. But while admitting that the United States cannot offer the world a model of democracy and human rights, Obama argued that it can offer a model of how a flawed society struggles to better itself. “What you see in America,” he said, “is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems, to make our union more perfect. … [W]e fight for our ideals, and we are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short.”
By deploying the pronoun “we,” Obama slyly conflated state and society. He deflected criticisms of America’s government by spotlighting the struggles of America’s people. In so doing, he implicitly acknowledged something important: America’s greatest contributions to democracy abroad often stem not from Washington but from the Americans who mobilize against it.
Look at Hong Kong, where a group called Occupy Central with Peace and Love is playing a key role in a broader movement for free elections. If the name sounds familiar, it should. It’s a variation of the phrase made famous when protesters began congregating in New York’s Zuccotti Park roughly three years ago. In Washington, Hong Kong’s Occupy movement is widely admired for its challenge to China’s undemocratic rule. But in taking the name “Occupy,” Hong Kong’s protesters are paying homage to a movement that challenged the lack of democracy in Washington itself.