Sunday, November 29, 2009

Civil Rights Do Not Come in Separate Boxes

I don't really refer to myself as a 'liberal' anymore, though I certainly believe in core values that can be described as liberal in today's political metrics. This is not because the word is no longer 'cool' in American politics, but rather because I have drifted further to the left than the mainstream of American political liberalism. I would say they have drifted to my right, but I have to recognize that my political maturation has been a step by step journey further to the left.

I certainly refuse to call myself a 'progressive', both because I reject the utopian underpinnings of the original meaning of the word and because I reject the more modern notion that 'liberalism' and 'progress' are automatically synonymous. Not all change is automatically good, and quite a bit of human progress has been counterproductive. One can't turn back the clock or hold back the future, but we need to try to make better decisions.

Never the less, it really made me happy to see someone else make sense on the key left wing issue of civil rights.

Writing in The American Prospect, Ann Friedman writes:

In the wake of the passage of the House health-reform bill and its attached anti-choice Stupak-Pitts Amendment, the conversation happening among progressive women was viscerally angry and palpably fearful. The broader liberal conversation was very different -- one in which the amendment was regrettable but unavoidable in the interest of the greater good. It is moments like this, with Democrats in control of Congress and a nominally progressive president in the White House, when it becomes painfully clear that in reality we do not all take on the same level of responsibility for securing the rights in which we claim to believe.

We rely on gay-rights groups to battle it out alone for marriage rights in Maine. We expect feminists to secure abortion rights in health-care reform legislation. We look to the NAACP to effectively respond to racist statements about Obama. And yes, those groups will work hard for those goals. But when they fall short, they are not the only ones to blame. It's fair to look at the entire progressive coalition and ask the hard questions about our movement: What's the use of having a community, a coalition, if you aren't going to fight for each other? Are we amplifying the voices of those whom we hope to empower or silencing them? Whose "greater good" are we really pursuing?

Shout it a little louder. Please. I don't think most people on the left right now are really listening closely. At least, not the ones in actual positions of power.

In the specific case of Stupak-Pitts, the problem is relatively simple: health care is such a massively important issue that it is easy for a pragmatic policy-maker to say 'I am going to do whatever it takes to pass health care reform, because health care reform is better than no health care reform.' This is laregly a correct moral and intellectual position. The problem is that the purpose of health care reform is to serve society as a whole and the rights of the individuals within society. So when one makes a compromise that undermines the very purpose behind health care reform by undermining the individual rights of the Americans the policy is supposed to help, one is not really serving the interests of health care reform at all. One is undermining it. As a very smart fellow said before me: these kinds of violations of individual rights are exactly what conservatives foretell with gloom and doom when they predict the dangers of government intervention. The irony that conservatives oppose health care reform because of the danger of restrictions on patient-doctor decisions about care and that it was conservatives who colluded to actually place them there should be voiced more clearly and more often.

Instead of a fundamentally united civil rights lobby, we have a badly divided set of individual lobbies for the rights of specific groups. Instead of adopting a comprehensive civil rights platform for all Americans, the Democratic Party (and the liberal coalition within it) have instead established 'women's rights' platforms, 'minority rights' platforms, and 'gay rights' platforms that all work at cross purposes. I understand the political circumstances that have brought this about, but it is immensely counterproductive. We need a simple, basic, comprehensive platform supporting human rights: equal recognition of the natural rights of all Americans.

I am reminded of something from one of the last HBO specials of the late George Carlin:

"Rights are an idea. They are a cute idea, but that's all they are. Let's say you do have rights; where do they come from? Oh, you say, they come from God, they're God given rights... Personally, folks, I believe that if your rights came from God he would have given you the right to some food, he'd have given you the right to a roof over your head; God would've been lookin' out for ya!"

I both disagree and disagree with the philosopher Carlin. Rights are an idea. They are an idea borne of human intellect and human imagination. Yet I believe that human intellect and human imagination are God given, and that the notion of natural rights is entirely valid. It is better to agree to accept a 'cute idea', in this case, then to accept the far too obvious alternative:

"If you still think you do have rights, one last assignment for you. Get on the computer. Go to Wikipedia. When you get to Wikipedia, in the search field, I want you to type in 'Japanese Americans 1942' and you'll find out all about your precious fuckin' rights, okay?"

Since Blogger does not allow one to include a link in a quote block, I include this for the edification of my readers.

This is precisely the alternative to the cute idea of rights and is a point that should escape no one on the left. The internment of Japanese Americans happened precisely because the majority of American citzens were so focused on the 'big picture' and the 'necessary compromises' to achieve their greater goals that they pissed all over the basic premise of America itself. Health care should not become the same kind of clusterfuck.

Health care is not the point, however. It is merely one example that illustrates the point. The Japanese American internment is another. So is the somewhat soft commitment of many liberals to genuinely equal rights for gay Americans. The difference between a 'civil union' and a 'civil marriage' is such a tenuous fiction that it becomes useless to maintain it; unless one really intends to deny gay couples the full rights of interpersonal partnership.

One can go on. The willingness of 'liberals' to pander to nativist policies regarding illegal immigration deserve some attention, perhaps. The unwillingness of liberals to put real effort into passing laws to protect workers' rights to bargain fairly with their employers also come to mind.

As Ann Friedman writes:

"After all, "special interest" issues do not exist in separate silos. Labor rights are tied to gay rights are tied to women's rights are tied to immigrants' rights. If what binds us together as progressives is our vision for a more just society, it is our commitment to all of these issues that will define us."

Forgetting this is a fundamental betrayal of basic principles. One can even call it a fundamental betrayal of basic American principles and leave the word 'progressive' out entirely. I'd far prefer that she had done just that.

Ultimately, however, even Ms. Friedman loses her way:

"We can't work from sweeping visions of liberalism on down. We have to work from concrete rights and opportunities on up. Think of it this way: White men are the least likely Americans to identify as progressives. The people most likely to identify with the liberal worldview -- women, people of color, LGBT people, disenfranchised workers -- are those who have experienced a lack of freedom and opportunity themselves. They are then motivated to broaden their scope and see how injustice also affects other Americans. It is the progressive movement's commitment to these people -- its base, its core -- that will ensure its long-term survival. If we continue to compromise on the concerns of those people, or dismiss them as "special interests" working against an imaginary greater good, we will ultimately render our shared concept of liberalism totally meaningless. After all, if each group within the coalition is actually just in it alone, what's the point of subscribing to a common ideology at all?"

Most of this is dead on the money, but it fails to make the most important point. What is not needed is a renewal of the commitment to protect the rights of each member of the 'liberal coalition.' What is needed is a new and genuine commitment from all members of the coalition to protect the basic, common rights of individuals within society. True social justice requires us all to shed our labels. Even those of us 'priveleged' to be 'white men.'

Real social justice requires we all be willing to share the label 'human' without claiming our own precedence. Even if we really want to get Blue Dog votes for health care reform or badly want blue collar whites in the Rust Belt to vote for us.


Mike Hatcher said...

The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. As shameful and horrific as that was, I'll confess, I'm somewhat fatalistic on the matter. I wish our Constitution and laws were enough to stop such things, no doubt they should have been enough, but human fallability seems to sadly trump laws and reason at times. I honestly believe something similar to that can, and likely will someday occur again. Still, what can one do but to oppose it when it occurs and to as much as possible limit the power of the government so that when they do exert it in the wrong way, the harder it is for them to work such evil deeds. But when we depend on the government for stimulus jobs, and depend on the government for our health care insurance, like many already depend on the government for education and retirement, that is just more hooks they have in us to yank us anywhere they want us to go, including into an internment camp. At least you will likely get your "rights" to a roof and a meal in the camps even if all your liberties are gone. I don't know the future, but it wouldn't surprize me at all if the oppression came from right-wing types, in their zeal "protect" our society. And all the groundwork will have been done by liberals, with more and more of our wealth being filtered through government taxs and more of our private information being held by the government to "ensure" people have health insurance weither they want it or not and our homes someday being inspected for greenhouse emissions, and what the heck, let them inventory firearms and literature being stored in the home while they are at it. Of course I could be completely wrong, I believe oppression could come in countless forms, but almost all forms are through a powerful central government. The more limited the government, the more decentralized, the easier it is to escape and/or oppose governmental abuse of power.

Chris Richards said...

'Of course I could be completely wrong, I believe oppression could come in countless forms, but almost all forms are through a powerful central government. The more limited the government, the more decentralized, the easier it is to escape and/or oppose governmental abuse of power.'

Colorado 1913-1914: specifically because of the federal government's desire to respect states rights and because of the state and local police agencies desire to avoid intervening in the private business of an American company, Colorado Fuel and Iron (owned by John D. Rockefeller) waged guerilla warfare against striking miners. These miners were not breaking any laws. They had simply moved out of the company shanty towns maintained by Colorado Fuel and Iron and established their own settlements to support themselves until the end of the strike.

Their employers felt it necessary to show the striking miners who was boss through the use of armored cars mounted with Gatling guns, assassinations from ambush, and the liberal employment of hired gunslingers to kill anyone of whom they did not like the look.

This culminated, in April 1914, in the Ludlow Massacre. At least 26 people were killed when company detectives attacked a settlement at Ludlow, CO. 11 children and two women were included in the casualty list.

There is reason to believe both the body count and the number of women and children killed were higher. The local papers were in the pay of Colorado Fuel and Iron.

The government's involvement was weak, halting, and ineffectual. The state of Colorado could not afford to keep the National Guard in the field for the duration of the conflict and the federal government only became involved after the massacre.

A weak government is as dangerous as a strong government. It allows those with money and power to do as they please.

Frankly, repeating the same libertarian talking points over and over again is not an argument or debate. There are many reasons to oppose 'big government' and there are many reasons better government and strong public services are needed.

Frankly, the Patriot Act and GITMO scare me a lot more than health care. They don't actually contribute anything of value and are a lot more dangerous to human rights.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps a bit more cogitation and a bit less C2H5OH would help your blog...

No one except the American Taxpayer is losing any rights...

Chris Richards said...

'Perhaps a bit more cogitation and a bit less C2H5OH would help your blog...'

As insults go, I'm not sure this is the best you might have done.

Next time try something like:

The courage it takes to make a slanderous accusation of criminal behavior from behind an Anonymous log in is truly astounding. I already admire you.

Oh, wait. That's not something you can try... because that's you. Sorry about the false lead there.

'No one except the American Taxpayer is losing any rights...'

This is very true. The American taxpayer is losing the right to see a doctor when he/she is sick because of the libertarian freedom of insurance companies to screw their paying customers over right royal. Some of us want to do something about it.

Then there's you.

Mike Hatcher said...

If I'm too brief, it is time limits of my lunch break. You mention me not making arguments, I found little in your article to argue about, in summary, it sounded to me like the democratic party talking a good game about civil right but not really walking the walk. I could say the same thing about my "conservative heros" often talking a good game of financial responsibility then squandering money as badly or worse than their political opponents. I found it interesting that what I thought were 'heart felt, not necessarily substatiated ideas' you called libertarian talking points. Perhaps I'm a libertarian instead of a conservative and didn't even know it. I'm not familiar with the particular historical case you cited but it sounds very familiar to some of Wyoming history in the days of the "Wild West". I'm not sure I would say even at that time that the Federal government was too weak to control the situation, but perhaps they were too unconcerned, even sympathetic to the wealthy if they were perhaps getting funds from them. I would dispute there is a difference between unable to protect the poor from the rich and unwilling to do so. But, given I don't know the facts on that situation, I can certainly accept the general concept that there is such a thing as too weak of a central government. My argument is, where it may have been the case 75 years ago, it certainly isn't the case now. There was a Supreme Court case during the 1930's , Sorry I can't cite it from memory, but it basically established that the commerce clause of the Constitution could allow congress to 'regulate" wheat grown by a person on his own property for his own consumption, based on the premise that even though he wasn't affecting commerce by selling or giving the wheat, the fact that he was consuming the wheat meant he wasn't buying it, thus falling within interstate commerce- according to what I would consider, twisted logic of the U.S. supreme court. If the U.S. goverment wasn't meddling enough with individuals prior to that point, it certainly was by that point.

Mike Hatcher said...

*Note- the case I was refering to was Wickard v. Filburn- 1942. To give due credit, I first learned of this case in the book; Liberty vs. Tyranny by Mark Levine.

Chris Richards said...

I don't think we have 'too weak' a central government now either, but I don't think it being 'too strong' is the problem either.

I don't believe in small government or big government, I believe in efficient government and good government. Do I believe that over-regulation has hazards? Yes. So does under-regulation, and our financial markets and business sector are woefully under-regulated. This is one of the biggest reasons for our economic problems, not just the obvious credit crash but the way the poor and middle class have been getting squeezed out of the economy to the benefit of the rich during putatively good economic times as well.

I fundamentally agree with the conservative/libertarian statement that we should only have necessary laws... but I believe economic stimulus, financial reform, health care reform, public investment, legal protections for natural rights, and an improved welfare system to be very necessary. One gets something tangible in return for all of this, as opposed to the negligible benefits of two very expensive wars.

As for the Democratic Party...

Nobody disappoints me more. They consistently let their real constituents down. They haven't 'walked the walk' since Lyndon Johnson, if then.

On the other hand, they've done a lot better than the Republicans. Across the board. Even the last fifteen to twenty five years worth of DLC neoconservatives have still done better than Republicans.

I am a Democrat by default, and I have seriously considered changing my registration to independent... except that I feel my voice has something to offer in primary elections.

Mike Hatcher said...

Thanks, as always for the feedback.