Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

And Savvy Workarounds

We U.S. sophisticated know the greatest wealth citizens can possess is the unimpeded exercise of their human rights. From such a fortunate state, each of us can develop his or her potential to the extent to which we have the fortitude, desire, and ingenuity to do so. Fate, talent, intelligence, and common sense certainly factor in. The playing field will be crowded and never level.

We know lots about our rights: The truth that we have them is self-evident, as proclaimed by Thomas Jefferson et al. This creates the impression that the rights themselves must also be “self-evident,” but privately we sense they are elusive, abstract, puny adjuncts of our lives we don’t much consider. Should they get pruned back or pinched off, we’re not too sure we’d be much bothered by it.

Jefferson tells us human rights are inalienable, and we suspect that’s true. But French political activist Simone Weil says that’s baloney.

In Jefferson’s sense, those rights are indispensible to the expression of an individual human consciousness and native to that individual alone, the same as a disability would be. You may stand before a legion of disenfranchised but never thunder with their voices, cause the earth to tremble with their marching feet, or feel their wounds after battle. Each of us has just one mind helplessly and fully occupied with the cogitation of our single mental faculty and at constant pains to fathom its druthers exclusively. Therein lies the exercise of an individual’s human rights: working those druthers out. The chore can’t be stolen, donated, or transferred to be employed by another. No one has the time or equipment to fathom the druthers of someone else’s mental faculty; we can’t imagine what’s going on in there; witness the finesse required to establish motive in court cases. Nor can anyone relieve us of our responsibility to exercise our rights. Imagine a man about to explain how he wants his hair cut when the stylist cuts him off. “Your wife just called. I know what to do.”

To all this French political activist Simone Weil responds: au contraire, you bumptious man. History presents to us case after case in which “inalienable” human rights have been systematically denied individuals and groups. They can be stolen, they can be revoked, they can be stripped, and are. Lifetime after lifetime.

But Jefferson and Weil talk at cross-purposes; they are discussing two different aspects of the notion. And while we revere Jefferson, Weil’s remarks should chill us through, hinting as they do at the root of the oppression. Far more than hating, oppressors of the world covet, driven by an evil epiphany: how immensely valuable a commodity the rights of others can be.

We know rights are universal. The wicked geniuses who would deny individuals based on genotype have been exposed. No one today could credibly justify withholding from single members a civil liberty enjoyed by the general community. But power elites have devised a savvy workaround based on a perfectly acceptable form of discrimination that, oddly, works very well: money.

While no human being would be consigned a bucket for a toilet based on a factitious racial inferiority, they will be forced to drink out of a ditch if they cannot afford the plumbing and services required to hook up to the clean drinking water available for everyone else. Blacks in post-Civil War Texas were picked up on misdemeanor charges to fulfill leasing quotas local prisons received on a regular basis from corporations for “slave type” labor. Today, residents in less affluent neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx are used as garbage transfer stations, and yes, they notice the smell. We see that manner of discrimination everywhere we look and accept it with mild demeanor as yet another caveat of “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We citizens of the modern age have acquired yet another wisdom: the scope of human rights waxes with affluence and progress. Neanderthals were not bothered about access to gender-appropriate restrooms, a vehemently contested issue today. The right to have an abortion continues to be heatedly assailed by at least one puzzling faction – a contingent of men whose zealotry reeks of a male piety that insists women go veiled.

Yet, we must take note: If the consciousness of possessing a right can be “awoken,” we must assume that consciousness can be suppressed, confused, or distorted. A right may be inalienable, but knowledge of that right is not innate. The issue does not reflect solely on Frantz Fanon’s wretched colonized. It brings us back to that faction of the human race – seeded among us everywhere – who knows how very valuable the expropriation of human rights can be. While that faction understands that outright denial of rights today is a no-no, it is aware of something worthwhile it can get away with: tinkering with our understanding of those rights.

The danger is inherent in any power pyramid. If the power brokers in the top blocks manage to hollow out – skillfully – the lower blocks, they can create a powerful structure to support whatever they want. Politicians have their engine. Industrialists and entrepreneurs have their market.

Those simmering below must ask themselves: are we simmering below? Or are we enjoying our rights as best they can be apportioned under the miserable circumstances of today’s world? One telltale sign is any flattery sent your way about all those rights you possess. Rights are not in fact ever “possessed.” No one can ride a pony without climbing up and taking reins and bumps alike. No one mistakes not riding a horse for riding a horse. Similarly, “having” rights is not “exercising” them. Rights are not an acquisition but an organ of our national citizenry. They should hurt a little. A sense of smug enjoyment means we don’t possess them at all and, despite our freedom, are not riding but ridden.

3 thoughts on “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

  1. Congratulations on your insights. No peace without justice, no rights, freedoms, whatever you want to call them without money—that is an insight worthy of Gore Vidal who in fact first made me aware of this cruel problem that you have called attention to many years ago. He would have saluted your analysis I’m sure. I just this morning started reading a piece from the December 21 2017 NYRB by Pankaj MIshra about the untouchables in India. His approach to the huge inequities of India is similar to your analysis of the problem of rights and freedoms or both of you have at inequities in the same way. You might want to look at his piece

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