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Of Human Rights… And Wrongs

July 2024
6min read

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.

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.

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