Thursday, February 8, 2007

The alienable and the unalienable

I've been rather sporadic with my sessions lately, but that comes largely from my decision to cut down on the whining, which forces me to work more on presenting ideas and such, and well, ideas are hard things to articulate and such. They're such slippery rascals when you get down to it, at one point you think you grasp the idea and are ready to put it down on paper, but then oops it's gone and you feel like a complete and utter idiot. But I've got some ideas and even if they're slippery it's a worthwhile endevor I think to pin them down, cut them open, gut them, cook on them and then make them into a nice and tasty curry.

Let's start with an idea of human rights. Human rights has been a pretty popular concept, at least in the '90s when I was growing up. Of course, key matters has been interpretations, limitations and value. And now, especially a popular issue is cultural relevance. But Americans seem to think they are relevant, at least in regards to themselves, at least most of the time. The Bill of Rights is popular and that shows some appreciation of human rights, and nearly all Americans will applaud the sentiment "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." (To my shame, although I could paraphrase it off the top of my head, the exact wording I had to get off the internet, but give me a break, it took me till 7th grade to memorize my parents phone numbers.) But when you think about it that core statement of the Declaration of Independence is very complex and has implications for today.

Part of the complexity comes from key words like "all men (now regarded as men in the figurative sense meaning all mankind, although I'm not sure it would be regarded as such back then (I'm really unsure of this because some of the Founding Fathers were rather feminist in their views of the rights of women))" and "unalienable." Let us compare this to recent criticisms of the war in Iraq as promoting a Western ideal of human rights. This critique impliciting would contradict the idea that the rights apply to all men, and despite the fact that this contradicts some of the loftiest ideals that founded this nation, a lot of people in the United States would be ok in abandoning those words. But the implication that human rights are Western also carries other implications, ones that threaten the word "unalienable."

I think we forget part of the complexity of the Declaration of Independence because everyone, especially Americans and to a lesser but still very large extent Europeans, have selective memories regarding history. We like to think that human rights are an integral part of Western culture, unseperable from it, something so key to Western culture that it can be traced to its oldest roots. We like to quote the Greeks and Romans in this regard, and we pick and choose a few other writers here and there. But like I said this is selective, very, very selective. Europe was never historically renown for human rights. Those good old Greeks relied on a massive system of slavery, even those much lauded Athenians. The Romans, well, the Romans, I like the Romans I really do, I like their culture, I like their contributions to law, literature, etc., I love their language and I want to be best buds with Cicero (it will happen, the time machine is in the works), but they are not a good example of human rights. Let's look at their foreign policy. Over the course of their republic and empire they conquered a massive amount of land and did so incredibly brutally. The conquest of Gaul is said to have killed a million and left a million slaves. The completely annihilated Carthagian civilization, despite the fact that after the Third Punic War Carthage was already crippled by the peace treaties of the two previous wars. The crushing of the Jewish rebellion by Titus in AD 70 killed probably a million Jews, maybe more, exiled most of the rest and destroyed the center of Jewish cultural life, the Temple. Let's get to the domestic policy. Massive, massive, massive slavery. Persecution of Christians (not as much as legend says, but still signifcant) and after the Romans became Christians perecution of other religions. Murder of political dissetents. Exile of offensive writers (poor Ovid). They didn't treat women or children very good either. Romans are very cool but not very nice. Those are the roots of Western Civilization, from there it just gets better right? Wrong. Midevil ages, oppression of serfs, persecution of heritics and non-Christians (yeah, Jews rule the world, that's why they've gotten the shaft consistantly for 2,000 years), brutal warfare (Christian Europe was renown for the brutality of its warfare), etc., etc. I'm taking up too much space with this section, so let me wrap up.

The Modern Era: Holocaust!!! Westerners committed the Holocaust!!! How can you say Western has human rights at its center when Westerners the Holocaust!!!

Other problems of the modern era caused by the Western world: Fascism, Communism, Imperialism, oppression of minorities, forced migration of minorities, oppression of dissetents, etc., etc.

Yeah, Western culture is not inherintly human rights centered, but I've discussed mostly European examples, maybe you can say human rights is at the center of American culture, well... I love the United States, I am a patriot through and through, when we said the pledge of allegience in class, I meant it, but I'm not a blind man and I am a historian. The United States has done some very, very bad, bad things. It has supported horrific regimes (Pol Pot was given US aid, as was Saddam Hussein (which was a mistake, turning against him in our opinion is not hypocracy, it is the correction of that mistake (although the Iraq War was not right though, but Saddam Hussein was still a horrible, horrible, horrible man, and much of the violence happening now has its roots in what he did)). And at home we've got slavery, decimation of Native Americans, discrimination (up till the '60s it still was crippling and there are still problems today although I think we've had a lot of progress), denial of women's rights, etc.

The human rights enshrined by the declaration of independence are not inherintly Western, because the West has historically ignored and abused human rights to horrific effect. It's not good, it's just not good. Human rights are popular now, but they weren't in the past, and who knows what the future may bring. Combine that with the idea that human rights are cultural and we get a very disturbing result. Cultures change, and since human rights in the West isn't inherint, then say culture changes so America doesn't value human rights anymore, say we don't even like the Bill of Rights (that has not happened yet, despite what some doom sayers have said, but there are some worrying signs that if trends continue it could happen later), well then we don't need human rights any more.

If human rights only matter if the culture supports it, then they are not inalienable. If we say we should only support human rights in a nation if their culture supports human rights, then in the future we might have to give up the fight for human rights in America. The same goes for democracy. Now don't get me wrong. I am not advocating invasion of every country that doesn't support human rights or democracy. I believe in a law between nations that states you do not use armed aggression to change other nations domestic policies. The only justifications for war are self-defense (not pre-emption, thank you very much neo-cons) and defense of another country (we should sometimes ignore this, but I'll get into my feelings on when to declare war in a later session). But I believe in organizations like Amnesty International, Freedom House, etc., private organizations that fight for human rights through organizations and such. I believe in using diplomatic, and when useful (key word) economic pressure (however, this is often useless and then becomes detrimental to innocents, but at times it is useful, see South Africa) to help change human rights. I understand that the way the world is we sometimes can't change human rights in a country and still need to work with it, but whenever we are able to do so we should challenge countries on human rights (I know this is inconsistent, but if we were being consistent we could never do anything on human rights because some human rights violators are too powerful and too vital for us to take on in a big fashion, although we can take on them in a small fashion with periodic rebukes and such). It doesn't matter what country it is, what culture that country has, whether its Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist or any other (and there are other religions), human rights still matter and should still be fought for (if not by foreign militaries, except in cases where you're already going to war with a country, in which case you should try to change the government, although you can't always if the country's too strong). Why? Because human beings are beautiful and should not be abused. Because, well, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." (thank you cut and paste.)

Well that's all I have to say on the matter, for now at least. So take it your head, take it to your heart, and remember Rand rocks. Goodnight Folks!

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