Hypocrisy and the difference between rights and privileges

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Originally posted at dKos, where a lot of people just don’t get it.

Imagine how different our world would be if Thomas Jefferson penned these words:

We hold these truths to be somewhat apparent, that some men are created more or less equal, that they are endowed by their leaders with certain alienable Privileges, that among these are Life, Malaise and the pursuit of Melancholy.

Sounds pretty silly, doesn’t it? Certainly not the kind of rousing rhetoric with which to declare the founding of our country. Fortunately, Jefferson wrote this instead:

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.

Our nation was founded with a declaration of the universality of human rights. The Founders recognized that it is unjust to deny rights on a whim, that basic human rights are not derived from a ruler but rather something greater — call it God, call it karma, call it natural law, call it whatever you want.

And yet, that’s exactly what they did, and that’s exactly what we as a nation have done for the last 232 years.

We denied women basic civil liberties, including the franchise, for most of our national history. In many ways, we as a nation continue to endeavor to restrict the basic civil rights of women. We see it in efforts to deny women reproductive freedom; we see it in Lilly Ledbetter’s case; we see it in candidates for public office who insist that women ought to be subservient to their husbands.

We denied even the basic personhood of entire races and ethnic groups. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution declared until the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment that any given black person was in fact only 60% of a human being. Native Americans weren’t treated as people at all until 1924. And until 1965, many Asians were officially treated as subhuman as well. Today, these groups all have equal status under the law, but don’t you dare think for even a single second that they are actually treated equally.

And I hardly need to tell this group about religious discrimination in the United States. Atheists and agnostics are routinely treated as fundamentally evil; Muslims are routinely stereotyped as terrorists; it’s not altogether uncommon for Jews to be threatened for standing up for their First Amendment rights or told by elected officials, directly or indirectly, that their concerns are irrelevant because Christians outnumber them by a great margin.

As a nation, we believe that everyone is equal, everyone has equal rights, and it would be wrong to deny anyone equal rights.

Well, not really.

We really believe that some people are better than others.

We really believe that some people deserve fundamental human rights, but others don’t.

We really believe that some people don’t deserve some fundamental human rights, so they shouldn’t have those rights.

We really believe that some people should have some fundamental human rights, so they shouldn’t have any rights at all.

We really believe that some people shouldn’t have any rights at all, so maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to live among us.

We really believe that some people shouldn’t be allowed to live among us, so maybe they shouldn’t be allowed to live at all.

Does that sound too harsh to you? Especially that last one? I know, I know, you don’t bear genocidal thoughts to anyone, though it’s a far too slippery slope that leads from the first of these statements to the last. This is where bigotry leads. That should terrify you, but it’s not quite my point.

The point is the difference between rights and privileges. It’s a difference that’s actually rather easy to grasp, so imagine my disgust to find that even here, a bastion of enlightenment and progressivism in a world full of regressive idiocy, so many people seem to think that rights are privileges. The point is that when we allow bigotry to dictate who gets basic rights and who doesn’t, it is only a matter of time before blood is shed.

Here are a few basic facts — no matter how much you may dispute them, they are facts — for your consideration:

1) It never should have been necessary to grant gays and lesbians the right to marry their chosen partners.

2) Granting gays and lesbians the right to marry did not create any new rights for anyone.

3) By demanding the right to marry their chosen partners, gays and lesbians were not demanding “special treatment.” They were demanding equal treatment under the law.

4) Under the law of the United States of America, the right to marry one’s chosen partner is one of the “basic civil rights of man.”

5) Over the course of world history, people of the same gender have been able to marry each other in many cultures throughout the world.

6) “That’s the way it’s always been” as an argument against same-sex marriage may be true in the limited context of US history, but as we’ve already established, there was a time when that same argument could have been made against granting even basic human rights to women, African Americans, and Native Americans. Using the argument against gays and lesbians isn’t any different — it’s just repackaged bigotry.

The Founders recognized that there are basic human rights above and beyond those conveyed by a government. This is the difference between, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” as opposed to, say, the privilege to put milk in your coffee (though it would be pretty stupid for the legislature or courts to consider such an issue). The “basic civil rights of man” are unalienable; it is not just and it is not right to impose limitations on them. The government has an affirmative duty to protect them, even and especially against the tyranny of the majority.

That means that the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the similar bans in Arizona and Florida, and the abomination banning gay and lesbian parens from adopting children or serving as foster parents in Arkansas are fundamental affronts to the basic civil liberties we claim to revere in this country.

We believe that we all have the right to speak our minds without undue governmental intervention.

We believe we all have the right to practice our religions (or lack thereof) freely.

We believe that we all have the right to an education, to pursue work in our chosen fields, to go for a walk in our neighborhoods without being harassed for no good reason by the authorities.

We believe that we all have the right choose public accommodation without fear that we will be mistreated or barred from service because of the color of our skin, our gender, or our heritage.

Can we all agree that these are rights? That it is a fundamental betrayal of of the Constitution we claim to love, defend, and uphold if we deny these rights to certain classes of people for no good reason? Can we all agree that it would by hypocritical to claim that the Constitution guarantees equal rights, then turn around and defend denying equal rights to a certain class of people?

So why is it that so many of us seem to believe, as do the bigots in our society, that we all have the right to marry our chosen partners if we happen to be heterosexually oriented, but not if we choose someone with the same body parts? If marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” is it not just as much a betrayal of the Constitution to deny it to a class of people based on sexual orientation?

This is the nature of rights — they’re not privileges. Rights are supposed to be granted to everyone, even the people you don’t like and even people who do things that may make you uncomfortable. That’s what God/karma/natural law/whatever demands, and it’s what the Constitution demands. And that’s true even if and when we as a nation hypocritically claim that the Constitution is the basis of our laws while both overtly and covertly sneering at groups that are somehow different in some way from the majority, telling them that the Constitution doesn’t really count when it comes to them.

We enjoyed a number of rousing victories last night, but we also suffered a few staggering defeats. It’s time to go back to work to ensure that our newly elected government will work to protect the basic rights of all people and to restore the rights wrongfully denied and removed to certain classes of people based on nothing more than narrowminded hatred. Let’s not yield even an inch to those who would push us down the slippery slope of bigotry.

12 comments

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    • wiscmass on November 5, 2008 at 5:50 pm
      Author

    …between rights and privileges.

  1. here & there.  Didn’t comment there, b/c your essay says it all.

    • Edger on November 5, 2008 at 6:53 pm
    • Robyn on November 5, 2008 at 6:56 pm

    Piece of Mind

    –Curved Air

    Now turning again

    Turning away from the light

    Doors open then shut

    Corridor footsteps at night.

    Wake up in the bed with the screams,

    See faces that smile as you dream.

    See things come to call

    As they crawl on the wall

    And you know it’s the end.

    To them it means nothing

    To them it means nothing,

    To them it means nothing to them at all.

    Seems we’re on two different wavelengths,

    Misinterpreting, you realize

    What this age of insanity

    Lack of humanity brings

    You know I couldn’t even tell you my name.

    Faces watching through the darkness

    Seems like nothing can dispel my fears

    Of endless rejection

    By beings ethereal,

    You know it’s just about as bad as it can.

    Now I feel a little better

    Seems the walk has done me good, you know

    I feel I’m beginning

    To see the existence of

    You know I never even found out quite what.

    Now I really feel I’m flying

    Far beyond my wildest dreams to keep

    Alive in this prison

    of torturing ecstasy.

    You know at first it never seemed to relate.

    The river sweats

    Oil and tar.

    The barges drift

    With the turning tide.

    Red sails wide to leeward,

    Swing on the heavy spar.

    The barges wash

    Drifting logs

    Down Greenwich reach

    Past the Isle of Dogs.

    Let your hopes begin to falter

    See your dream begin to fade, for in

    This age of enlightenment

    20th Century man, you know

    He’ll never, ever let you go back.

    Maybe one day we’ll be happy

    Living life the way we see it through our

    Visions of fantasy

    Harold in Italy

    You know I think I’ll just go back to my dreams.

  2. …these rights are universal, and not capable of being granted us by any government.  They are innate, and the only power the state has is to try to take our rights away.

    The betrayal of the Constitution is the small matter.  The big matter is the betrayal of the rights of free persons, which they have whether we acknowledge them or not.

    • Edger on November 6, 2008 at 3:43 am

  3. One thing I’d like to see moving forward is more talk about the idea that with those “inalienable rights” also come a set of duties and obligations. We’ve foolishly allowed the Right to hijack that discourse, when in fact the idea that we earn our rights through honoring our duties as citizens is really nothing new. We’ve simply forgotten it in our rights-centric view of the world. I’ve love to see Obama lead America to a place where the chant “I want my rights!” is echoed by the chant “Let’s do our duty!”

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