| In time of war, expecting people to focus on the subject of rights might seem a bit perverse. I can almost see the raised eyebrows as most readers quickly hit the back key. In war, rights are often considered luxuries, and to harp on them is considered somewhat unmanly, distracted, even unpatriotic. But this war is all about power and the need to sacrifice rights, and lives, to sustain the supremacy of Western power on Earth. So perhaps it behoves us to think about our rights, before we give them all away.
What are rights anyway? They can be broadly broken down into entitlements (those things a civil society owes to individuals and communities) and freedoms (those things that are inaliable i.e. must not be taken away from individuals or communities). The late, great U.N. identifies three tiers of rights: civil and political rights (those that can be legally enforced), economic, social and cultural rights (those that are moral imperatives), and a new category of environmental rights that transcend national borders and recognize that the other two tiers are not of much value in a hopelessly degraded physical environment.
Human rights declarations, most notably the 1948 U.N. Declaration , were initially viewed as somewhat idealistic statements of principle. No country could reasonably argue it provided even the majority of its people all of the rights in the 1948 Declaration at that time. Since then, some countries have promulgated national declarations of human rights, and some even established them as principles within the purview of the national courts when ruling on existing laws. The recent establishment of the International Court of Justice (which most countries other than the U.S. recognize) allows for the first time international prosecution of the most egregious national and trans-national civil and political rights violations.
For the most part, however, rights are still mostly ideals, moral constructs with little or no legal enforcement, and only scattered recognition of their legitimacy by governments and other socio-political structures worldwide. In most countries, including many Western democracies, political actions, laws and their enforcement are driven by power, and the exercise of power by the elites that have it, rather than principles like rights. This is most clearly manifest during times of war when the rights of POWs, for example, are routinely and arbitrarily ignored or denied. What we have seen recently in the chambers of the U.N. security council is clear evidence that power, not principle or consensus, determines who has what rights, and that we are a long way away from changing that.
In fact, it could be argued that the most momentous thing happening in the U.S. under the Bush administration is not warmongering or fiscal recklessness, but the systematic dismantling of the rights of the powerless, and the re-establishment of the supremacy of power over principle in the world’s most powerful nation. Rights – both entitlements and freedoms – take generations to gain social and legal recognition and legitimacy, but can be removed very quickly by those with power. Sadly, even in well-established democracies, power can be seized by stealth. When the majority is ignorant of, or distracted from, or complacent about, the true agenda of ambitious leaders, it allows the democratic voice to be usurped and then silenced. That is the nature of man, the burden of our culture.
Once this happens, the solution is always revolutionary. The wrenching away of the power from elites, and the establishment of checks and balances that ensure that power is, and remains, distributed and truly democratic, is almost by definition war. The founders of the American republic knew this, as did the progenitors of all the world’s democracies. Every enduring democracy has established checks and balances, and has called for eternal vigilance, to resist the inexorable cultural slide into autocracy in their absence. The fight for true democracy never ends.
It is only with a level playing field, where power is distributed, that the establishment and entrenchment of rights can progress from the first, legally enforceable tier (civic and political rights) to the more ethereal tier governed by moral consensus (economic, social and cultural rights). This second tier is thus even more fragile than the first, as it depends on sustained consensus and activism to realize. Even basic recognitions of these second-tier rights, such as minimum-wage laws, social safety nets, so-called ‘gay rights’, rights for children and the mentally handicapped, are hard-fought and tenuous, and constantly challenged.
Why is this so difficult? When we think about rights within our immediate community: the lesbian next door who lost her job when she ‘came out’, the abused spouse down the street, the child frightened of the school bully, the dog chained up outdoors on a freezing night, we tend to be pretty liberal on the subject. When it’s close, personal and stark, the lack or the loss of basic entitlements and freedoms is seen by most as deplorable. But as soon as the issue becomes impersonal and remote – relating to people we don’t know far away – we tend to be a lot more cautious about judging their need for, and what constitutes unreasonable or immoral violation of, their rights. The reason for this, I believe, is that granting of rights is a social contract that requires sharing and giving something up. If I agree that the rights of civilians in a war-torn nation are sacrosanct, I give up my ability to wage war with everything I have to rid the world quickly of a despot. If I agree to same-sex family benefits I am giving up some of my hard-earned tax dollars to strangers. If I agree that animal testing is inhumane and immoral, I am giving up some of the potential medical benefits that such testing could produce. If it’s my nation under attack, or my same-sex family needing the benefits, or my pet in the laboratory, or my child needing the laboratory research, I assess the trade-offs much differently than if those affected are far away.
So the problem with rights arose when we evolved more complex social structures, beyond the tribe and community. As these structures became larger and more remote, the trade-offs of rights became more abstract and harder to negotiate. At the same time, these complex social structures concentrated sources of power and opened up the opportunities for power elites to emerge and deprive others of rights. It could be argued that this has occurred not only in the political sphere (large, centralized governments), but in the commercial sphere (large, multi-national corporations) as well. In fact, large corporations, to which governments have also granted rights, some of which trump individual rights (e.g. NAFTA), do not even pretend to be democratic. Their mandate for profit at any cost often abets the concentration and abuse of power (just look at Enron) and leads to suppression of economic rights (e.g. the death of family farms at the hands of more ‘efficient’ corporate farms).
If the problem is large, centralized governments and corporations, the prognosis for rights would not seem good. There have been some promising models and experiments in self-sufficient local communities (e.g. Ecovillages , Intentional Communities and Bio-Regionalism ). The preconditions for such ventures to work is daunting, however. As anyone who has lived under an autocratic condominium council or self-important municipal government can tell you, local institutions can be as tyrannical as central ones. To be successful, local institutions must be creatures of local communities, and these communities must be politically (not ethnically) homogeneous (i.e. like minds with like ideas), self-formed, self-sufficient, willing to compromise and self-organized. While our tribal ancestors knew instinctively (or learned) how to create and run such institutions, that knowledge must be re-learned by modern man, probably by trial and error. Few of the self-sufficient communities of recent history have been successful. Few in fact have even pretended to be democratic.
Suppose we could learn to re-invent tribal communities and dismantle the large institutions that replaced them. Is it not inevitable, and ‘human nature’, that those that want power will bully the rest of us to re-create these centrally-managed institutions, on the pretense of obtaining economies of scale, or defending us from other tyrants, or some other ‘greater good’ promise?
So short of reclaiming our rights by a cultural revolution that devolves authority and responsibility to tribal communities, what is to be done , as the eloquent Toby Sackton recently put it, to protect our rights in the face of a powerful and power-hungry elite of psychopathic demagogues who see rights as unaffordable luxuries and as obstacles to ‘security’ of the status quo?
I suggest we can do three things: Organize, Communicate, and Investigate. In a recent New Yorker interview, Noam Chomsky’s wife confessed that her husband’s only advice on what to do in response to all the problems we are now facing is to organize. That means keeping up the anti-war protests and the organized fight against the abrogation of individual rights. It means using the Internet to coordinate education and peaceful dissent. It means galvanizing the opposition and working together like hell to ensure that this regime is not re-elected in 2004. And then working even harder to undo the damage to democratic institutions and to strengthen the checks and balances, so that such usurpation of power and trampling of democratic rights can never happen again.
Communicating is what bloggers do, as a hobby or for a living or both. The Internet has given us a vehicle for sharing information and viewpoints instead of passively accepting the propaganda from the sad, pandering, corporate-owned mainstream media. Before we can do we need to know . We are surrounded by misinformation, half-truths, and spin, and so we must continue to keep each other informed, peer-to-peer.
Investigation is something we naively expect the media to do. As Elizabeth May of the Sierra Club puts it, “there is no Woodward and Bernstein”. The Internet gives us access to unprecedented information, but it is not enough. The real information we need is the stuff that’s hidden, that nobody wants to tell us. It’s the hidden tapes and the dirty tricks, the CIA assassinations of leaders unfriendly to the West, the truth about what’s going on in the AIDS wards, in the animal testing labs, in the backrooms of the shadowy organizations of
Organizing, communicating and investigating. These are the tools we must use to deal with abuse of power and the dismantling of our public infrastructure and our rights. We have a difficult task to do. It isn’t yet too late to undo the damage, but time is running out. If we wait too long, it will take another revolution.
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