Of Human Rights… And Wrongs

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To put these words on paper and send them all across the world was to speak of more than America was prepared to deliver; but what the words called for could never be forgotten or ignored. They are still at work, those words, and if in troubled times like those of today an American President finds it advisable to remind us and everyone else just what we stand for, what we have been chiefly aiming at ever since we became an independent nation, who is to say that he is wrong? As a nation we may be grasping, materialistic, selfcentered, forgetful, anything you likebut we built our country on a magnificent creed that bespeaks faith in humanity’s ultimate destiny.

What we often overlook is that this faith expressed itself in a revolutionary new notion about where governments come from and what they rest on. In 1776 a national state and government drew its authority, its right to survive and rule, from delegations made willingly or otherwise by the kingship; from an entrenched ruling class, privileged in its ownership of land, wealth, and arms; from a general agreement that what the people got must come down from above and that the plain people were really pretty lucky to be allowed to exist at all.

The Declaration and later the Constitution turned this upside down, once and forever, by announcing flatly that the people are the state and the government, which have no other basis for existence.

Sovereignty belongs only to the people.

It belongs equally to all of them.

It allows neither for privileged orders nor for second-class citizens. It is not “handed down” by anybody; it exists because people exist.

Freedom, as a result, is defined quite simply as humanity’s birthright. It goes with being a human being. It is totally and eternally unalienable. When anyone talks about human rights, that is chiefly what is meant. And although our country has its full share of imperfections-of failures to see the ideal, failures to grasp it, once seen, failures to live up to the high levels of achievement that we do reach now and then—freedom in the last analysis is what the existence of our country means.

That is why our remarks about the denial of human rights elsewhere in the world are listened to so attentively. Some governments are made nervous thereby, and it is easy to see why they are. What exists here is an ever-present reminder that what exists there does not need to be put up with, and when our President makes remarks about the denial of human rights—mild enough he has been about it, as a matter of fact—he is quietly reminding people of something.

It may well be that this course has certain dangers. Every course that anyone can suggest in this final quarter of the twentieth century has certain dangers, and it is not easy to see how this one is any more dangerous than all of the others. The hard fact is that we are in a time when it is necessary to live dangerously, and we might as well make up our minds to it. After all, in one way or another we have been doing it ever since the fourth day of July in 1776.

Freedom, we believe, is as much to be taken for granted as the air we breathe. Unfortunately, the air we breathe gets polluted over and again by the by-products of a highly mechanized society and the carelessness with which some of those by-products are used and disposed of. When that happens we complain about it, without first debating whether the complaint is politic, becoming to a great people, or likely to irritate strong folk who can be most unpleasant when roused. Why is what we are doing now any different? To say that freedom here and there is being polluted by despotism is right on a level with saying that the air is being polluted by industry and by our own heedlessness. Why should we expect a President of the United States to keep quiet about it?

It may be that one of our troubles is that we have spent the last twenty or thirty years giving ourselves a profound inferiority complex. We have scrutinized ourselves and our doings—properly enough, because we have made a number of kingsized errors-until we distrust our own motives. Most of all, we distrust our idealism and the people who still speak about it. We complain because human rights are denied elsewhere? Aha, what about our own record! Let us, cry the critics, put our own house in order before trying to remedy the world’s ills.

That complaint might be valid, except that we call attention to the denial of human rights simply by existing. That, in the long run, is what America is all about. We can and will set our own house in order; review the record of the last half century if you don’t believe it, and reflect that if much remains to do, a prodigious lot has actually been done. Meanwhile, even if our elected persons meekly keep as quiet as so many graven images, we still rebuke the deniers of human liberty.

What we are and what we mean speak with a voice that cannot be quieted.