Saturday, May 01, 2010

What Does It Mean To Have Rights?

***Feb 27,2007*** Someone from England Googled into this and it has been a regular archive hit since it was written. I don't think it will seem dated today.

I will start with a disclaimer, an entire library could be written on this subject and I'm not going to.

The US government recognizes some rights, the basic documents of our form of government set some out. These documents begin officially with the Declaration of Independence, there are preceding documents, but this one is officially American. The Declaration sets out two ideas that form this nation's soul, that certain rights precede all forms of government and that when a government no longer serves its people they have the right to change it, violently if needed.

The Revolutionaries fought a long, bitter war against a government they previously had every reason to believe was their own. This experience taught them that their belief in inherent rights could come into conflict with a government's interests and that a government might not represent its citizenry. They had no interest in repeating the experience and tried to pre-empt such a thing's recurrence. They argued long and hard about the Constitution, having failed with the Articles of Confederation to create stability, in order to make a system which was strong enough to withstand the competing interests of its citizenry and flexible enough to meet those interests. Some things like Habeas Corpus they considered basic enough in Law to survive mention in the basic document, the Constitution, others were not so well codified and yet considered of great import. These others composed the Bill of Rights, a formal recognition of rights that were not derived from government, or created by government, but actually superior to government. The ideals of the Declaration of Independence were given codification or enumeration.

The things that they had declared in embarking on war with the most powerful nation in the world was now set out in definite wording. These men never intended that these rights superseded responsibility in action nor that a right allowed the destruction of our fellows, they assumed that simple humanity required an end point to the exercise of a right. They also were more inclined to err on the side of the individual's sense than the government's interests. It is important to remember that these individuals were primarily of English descent or of English Law culture and had watched and finally fought the disintegration of their relationship with their government over a clash of interests. They knew these issues first hand.

When you accept the idea of rights that are superior to and precede governance you have set a high ideal. You put your government out of business in areas where it has almost always interfered. These are areas that the citizenry has strong feelings and beliefs about, areas that governments have always used or suppressed in service to their interests. No one can deny that religion, as an example, is an issue that is of tremendous import to members of society and that its co-option by government is a powerful tool. It is extraordinarily dangerous to government to let it loose for free expression, government takes a large blow to its interests. Each of the rights that were enumerated is similarly debilitating to government and dangerous in the hands of individuals. The Framers were engaging in a risky course of action.

That brings us to us. We are engaged in a risky enterprise, the exercise of rights that all previous governments restricted in one way or another. The government cannot tell us to only praise it with our words, it also cannot tell us not to say mean hurtful things. It cannot tell us that to say one group is unfit to be within society is wrong and forbidden, it must allow us to go our own way. We can say that our elected officials are liars and cheats in the service of unelected elite interests. This creates a possible source of chaos that the government is forbidden to interfere with. The very few limitations the government is allowed to attempt to enforce are those that involve direct deliberate harm to other's rights. Virtually the only protection offered the government is in the transmittal of government secrets. Even in this arena the government treads on very thin ice, it has of late asserted privileges that it may find are specious. Just in the narrow limits of free speech and free press the situation is fraught with risk to order and civility and particularly to government.

It is easy in our modern world to become comfortable and believe we have safe and secure lives and it is a mistake. We live in a system that encourages and supports dissidence, and finally places the tools of rebellion firmly in the citizenry's hands. This systemic deprivation of power of governance is so deep and broad that its beneficiaries often are not aware of it. The tools of sedition range from speaking and gathering together, to having the arms to fight, and protections from governmental investigations. Every direction the government turns it is constrained. This is not the recipe for quiet sedate life if the people do not wish it and frequently despite their wishes it is not.

Because government, the enforcer of societal order, is so constrained it falls on the citizenry to exercise its rights in manners that do not create harm to their fellows. It falls to the citizenry to make informed and reasoned votes for those who represent them. It falls to the citizenry to be responsible for a government that allows and encourages cooperative society. The onus for failure of the system and violent reaction falls on those who have the very things that so constrain their government. There are those who would place restrictions on rights in the name of order and security, they would attempt to undo the system because its own members are failing it. This is misplaced responsibility, if a situation requires redressing it is not because rights are too broad, it is a failure of those responsible for the structuring of our relationships, which is finally the citizens.

We have the most glorious of opportunities, a government restrained and citizenry empowered and that is where we start. Almost a quarter millennia ago we put into operation the most daring and audacious experiment in history and we stand or fall on our own. We cannot blame the hamstrung and hobbled government, we are the power. Let us take ahold with both hands and move this forward, not fall back into the decay and decadence that is all previous governments.


Zak J. said...

This is the thing that really aggravates and disappoints me frequently about the Democrats in Congress--their unwillingness to make real waves. While in power since '94, Republicans continued to play political brinksmanship and to totally lock the Democrats out of any role in Congress. I expected prompt, decisive action once Democrats were back in power to address the erosion--more accurately the wholesale bulldozing--of our rights and legal protections. I haven't seen it yet. I've seen dickering about non-binding resolutions and little to no protest when our Attorney General claims habeus corpus isn't a Constitutional guarantee and torture continues as policy (Cheney practically brags about it), American citizens are being held without due process, and both contractors and regular military interrogators have clearly been given license to murder prisoners as a matter of course.

Other than Waxman and a couple others, the rest of the delegation is acting like it's business as normal. It's not, and these reps of ours need to stand up and show they are leaders, not pansies.

What on earth do they even want the job for if they are willing to protect our rights, liberties, and good name?

Zak J. said...

And here's where the Dems should start: with the impeachment of Alberto Gonzales.

I have to agree with McJoan at DailyKos: "Alberto Gonzales should not only be impeached for his willfully obtuse interpretations of the Constitution, he should be disbarred.".

And imprisoned, IMHO.

Chuck Butcher said...

While I understand having to pick a place to start with Iraq, I entirely agree that there are multiplle fights. It is only the end of February, but I'd expected some noise by now. I don't know, fear of "soft on security"? I'm not happy.

Anonymous said...

brilliant piece of writing, almost as good as me. That's a joke. I'm a little older and getting oldtimers disease. You understand what I call the big picture. My main concern though is that it seems damn few people are engaged except for a little while justr before elections. I really believe that this country is at a turning point. While the elites would ahve us beleive that there is a fight between Democrats and Republicans I say for quite awhile it has been between gloablists and Americans. I could mention trade deals, military adventurism, empie building and go on for days. But what I would do here is to challenge anyone to tell me the real diffence betwenn George Bush and Bill Clinton. Under both of them corprorate Americ ahs done well at the expense of what I would call the citizens of the old republic. Rights have gone away under both. The manuagcturing back bone of the nation has been dismanteled. We are dependent on the rest of the world instead of being independent and both the progressives and money elite think that is a good thing. As a vereran Of Viet Nam and watching politics for a long long time I feel like I've been sold out.

Steve Culley
too damned old for aliases

Chuck Butcher said...

Whether we want it or not we are a part of a world wide economy, but that doesn't mean the store has to be given away. I also see little difference between the two on glosbal trade, there is a little matter of wars and liberty and internal economics though. Bill did manage to toss some scraps over to us, Bushco won't let those drop off the table.