Of Human Rights… And Wrongs

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We Americans pride ourselves on our sophistication. We like to think that we are worldly-wise and cynical. We shed our milk teeth long ago, and if anyone appeals to our better impulses our instinctive response is to ask: Well, now, what’s his angle?

It is a good pose, most of the time, and succeeding generations of sophomores have found it most effective. The trouble is that we can’t keep it up. One of the enduring traits in the American character is the broad idealistic strain that was built in far back in the past, and it keeps coming to the surface when we least expect it. When this happens we feel embarrassed and try to act as if it were not happening.

Thus in the final quarter of the twentieth century-a century arranged to create cynicism, if one ever was—we find our President Carter reminding the rest of the world (in our name) that we are deeply and irrevocably concerned with human rights and that we get profoundly disturbed when we look about us and see areas where those rights are being violated.

A frequent response seems to be that this is dangerous, because some of the countries where human rights are most firmly denied are large and powerful and seem to take our President’s remarks personally. Another response is a feeling that the man just ought not to go on that way because it is so dated; it is corny; say what you like in a Fourth of July oration, but don’t mix patriotic rhetoric with sober statecraft or we may get involved in another “make the world safe for democracy” program before we have finished paying for the first one.

Finally, we have just a trace of guilt arising from the fact that there are places here in our own country where human rights are often given rather poor protection.

Yet what the President is doing is defending America in a world that has grown hostile. Words alone cannot be our first line of defense, but they can remind all hands what the great human values now at stake really are. We could stop talking, if our intellectual establishment finds the talk embarrassing, and resort to one clear alternative: a program of singleminded anticommunism.

We have given that alternative a rather extensive trial, and the result was not especially good. It led us straight into Vietnam, and we almost tore ourselves apart getting out. If there is a way to avoid doing something like that again, then we really ought to explore it.

There was a time, of course, when no one needed to talk about the human values that are involved in America’s survival. People everywhere understood about them. They wanted those values in their own lives, and they proved it in the most direct way imaginable: by coming to America to live. They came by thousands, by tens of thousands, finally by millions, in the greatest folk migration the world has ever seen. They did not come over to make America different, and in the end they did not make it greatly different, although they did enrich it; they came because what America was drew them irresistibly.

It is necessary, of course, to remember that some of them experienced disappointment and disillusionment after they got here. The “melting pot” was imperfect, and many of the newcomers were royally exploited. It is also necessary to remind ourselves that black people came because they were forced and not because they wanted to, and for generations they had no freedom and no future. But over the long pull the people came, found a way to live that was better than what they had left behind, and learned to identify popular rights with being American.

It may be proper to remind ourselves that the same thing is true today. So many people want to get into the United States that along much of the border the effort to enforce immigration controls is in a state of virtual collapse. Something here draws them, and they come. If we do not practice everything that we preach, we make, by and large, a pretty good try.

It is also proper-indeed, it is downright essential—to remember that all of this began with words put down on paper. Maybe one of our problems today is that we do not spend enough time meditating on the Declaration of Independence. The preamble to that document is studded with words that still contain fire, for us and for others—liberty, equality, the pursuit of happiness, unalienable human rights.

When they composed the Declaration, the Founding Fathers proclaimed that the sky was the limit. They interpreted the American dream in unforgettable terms, declaring that it meant a better life and a stake in society for everyone , regardless of race or sex or creed or previous conditions. The things the Declaration claimed for America were, by definition, things that all people everywhere were entitled to.