Thursday, May 04, 2006

Rights, Rights, Rights!

“Our current American rights talk is but one dialect in a universal language that has developed during the extraordinary era of attention to civil and human rights in the wake of World War II. It is set apart from rights discourse in other liberal democracies by its starkness and simplicity, its prodigality in bestowing the rights label, its legalistic character, its exaggerated absoluteness, its hyperindividualism, its insularity, and its silence with respect to personal, civic, and collective responsibilities.”

- Mary Ann Glendon – “Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse” (1991)

Things in America have changed since Mary Ann Glendon wrote those words in 1991. Sadly, they haven’t gotten better; they’ve actually gotten much worse. While some of the age-old divisions built and nurtured along the fault lines of “rights” are still here – white versus black, left versus right, man versus woman, rich versus poor, more and more are emerging as new interest groups are born. In the last generation or so we’ve witnessed the birth of the animal rights movement, the gay rights movement, the abortion rights movement, and, most recently, the immigrant rights movement, pitting Anglo against Hispanic.

Perhaps it’s been an inevitable evolution of our national history. After all, our birth as a nation came because our forefathers believed that their mother country had infringed upon their unalienable right(s) to Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. When our victory over the tyranny of George III was complete, we drafted a Constitution and a Bill of Rights. Among those rights codified, and still cherished today, were the rights of free exercise of religious belief, speech, press, assembly, and petition.

I’m grateful to be an heir to the sacrifices America’s founders made on behalf of all who followed them. I believe in the nobility and rightness of what they did. But, I’m not at all sure that if our Founding Fathers could see us today they would be happy with America’s political and philosophical landscape. On every hand, it seems, our national conversations and debates are about rights. It’s become so pervasive that it’s now trivial. We demand the right to cheap gasoline. We demand the right to die. We demand the uninhibited right to privacy. Pedophiles demand the right to freely abuse innocent children. We demand the rights of citizenship even when we aren’t citizens. We march for rights. We carry banners and flags. “You’re violating my rights.” “It’s my right.” Twenty-first century America is without a doubt awash in talk of rights. It’s rights…..rights…..rights…..rights!

But, was this all supposed to be so inevitable? Is America today, with its fixation on individual rights, the America our founders sacrificed to create? Professor Walter Berns wrestled with those questions and made the following observation:

“Of course, when properly understood, the Declaration is not merely a catechism of individual rights. In fact, it claims to be the act, not of isolated individuals, but of “one people,” a people with the “Right” to abolish one government and to “institute” another, and an entity in which individuals are bound to each other, contractually if not naturally. Accordingly, it was signed by men who pledged to each other their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Except hypocritically, and the Founders were not hypocrites, such a pledge cannot be made by selfish or simply self-interested individuals. Yet, on the face of the document, the rights are inherent, whereas the duties have to be acquired.”

Our founders were willing to accept tremendous personal and collective responsibility in order to secure the rights they believed were unalienable. They sealed the words of their Declaration with action, a willingness to lose everything they held dear in life if necessary to create a just and lasting society. They saw, so much more clearly than we, that the foundation of the rights they sought to secure was responsible citizenship. They saw, so much more clearly than we, that the surest path to tyranny was almost inevitably found in the despot’s demand for rights without responsibilities. Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 1, put it this way:

“On the other hand, it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty; that, in the contemplation of a sound and well-informed judgment, their interests can never be separated; and that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government. History will teach us that the former has been found a much more certain road to the introduction of despotism than the latter, and that of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people, commencing demagogues and ending tyrants.”

As I read the words of Berns and Hamilton my concern for the fate of America today almost overwhelms me. Are we on the brink of an era of the despotism of the individual?

I had an interesting conversation earlier this week with Binna, the South Korean exchange student who’s living with us. We were on our way back home from track practice and passed by our local version of the “Day without Immigrants” demonstration at the fairgrounds. I told her that I supported the rights they were trying to secure, that I believed in the American principle that those who would embrace the principles of our founding should have a path to responsible citizenship made available to them. “But,” I said, “I cannot in good conscience support the notion that the rights of citizenship come without any responsibilities.” I asked her a question. “America has enemies,” I said. “There are some who are hiding in caves somewhere in northeast Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan. What do you suppose many of those who now demand the rights of Americans would say if I asked them to join the hunt for these despicable terrorists?” She answered without hesitating. “They would say, “I’m not an American citizen. I won’t go.” That, I submit to you, is not in keeping with American principles. In fact, it’s un-American! You see, it’s one thing to march and demand rights (the rights I support). But, the real proof of citizenship comes when one is asked to belly up to the bar, to place one’s life, fortune, and sacred honor on the line. Sadly, Binna was right. Many of those, particularly young people, who demonstrated on Monday wanted everything to do with rights and nothing at all to do with responsibilities.

While what I saw frustrated me, I also understood it. It didn’t surprise me. Those who marched were just doing what so many Americans have taught them to do. Interest groups clamoring for rights taught them. Teachers in the schools taught them. Politicians taught them. Journalists taught them. They’ve somehow come to believe that a stake in America means claiming rights without accepting responsibilities.

The other day I said that on September 11th, 2001, America was faced with a new reality, a new national challenge. On that day we were confronted with an enemy who hated us and our free way of life so much that they were (and are still) willing to kill us all and ravage the founding principles of this great national experiment in liberty. We all seemed to grasp back then that our great challenge was to invest our lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to ensure that liberty and righteousness would win, whatever the sacrifice. It’s been less than five years since those days of “resolve.” It’s now 2006 and the talk of pledging our lives and sacred honor has vanished, like words lost in the mist of history. Now, the talk is of rights…..rights…..rights!

As I observe the goings on I’m not so confident that we are up to the task that was set before us. Five years ago the despots attacked and then fled into caves. Today, the despotism of the individual has sprung up from within, like a weed bent on destroying everything but its self-interest. America is on the brink of explosion, and, tragically, in all the talk of rights today, I’m not even sure we care.

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The Bill of Rights

The Constitution

The Declaration of Independence


James Fletcher Baxter said...

"To make any sense of the idea of morality, it must be
presumed that the human being is responsible for his
actions and responsibility cannot be understood apart
from the presumption of freedom of choice."
John Chamberlain

If today's threat is really from Individualism why are the noise-makers manifest as a collective? Si

Semper Fidelis

Ed Darrell said...

In reality, many immigrants have already gone to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and served honorably. A not small number have sacrificed their lives, and a few have been granted citizenship posthumously.

For that matter, there were several dozen, perhaps more than a hundred, illegal immigrants who died at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

What should we do about those who do accept responsibility?