That Feeling When You Mistake Risks for Rights and Thus Consent to Oppression
“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”
— Article 1 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights
“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.”
— Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Millions of Americans cannot tell you what is contained in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They could not tell you when it was signed. They cannot tell you why it was needed. I wager if you asked most Americans right now, they would not know this document exists.
Most high school curricula for American history peter out right after World War II after America kicks ass and wins the Earth Cup. The last few weeks of the semester mean for most kids means watching 13 Days and sprinting through Vietnam before finals. No substantial time is allocated for the establishment of the United Nations, the Nuremberg trials, or the Geneva Conventions. World War II bleeds into the Civil Rights Movement so fast, you forget that there was a revolution of consciousness in between.
When a human right is universally recognized, it can never be taken away, only violated. Human civilization has only two measures in my opinion: the expansion of human rights and the measures collectively taken to protect these rights. Once, believe it or not, Christianity played a major role in democratizing power by insisting that every (white) man was endowed by his creator with equal dignity so far as God was concerned. Of course, God is dead now, but America enshrined the idea into all of our founding documents.
Unions have been ideologically pathbreaking because they erupt in history to remind the individual of the power of collective action in protecting and advancing human rights. The IWW in particular was recognized as a massive threat to beneficiaries of injustice because — as it turns out — human rights protections are wildly popular with the vast majority of humans. Labor history is nothing if not the fascinating story of humans organizing to add dimensionality to our working definition of equality.
But if modernity killed God, then Reagan killed unions. Neither God or Unions are really gone, per se, but other ideas have overtaken them.
The biggest idea that has overshadowed them all is Neoliberalism. Yes, everyone evokes this word now, but it’s accurate: we now expect the individual to bear all risks associated with being human. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously shat on the idea of Society (and by extension Sociology), insisting that we are all just individuals making choices. If people are poor, they must have made bad choices and should suffer their lot.
And from this illogical premise aided by the ideological theatre of the Cold War, she and her American counterpart Ronald Reagan argued that all social protections are illegitimate socialism. Society, she implied, was a communist idea and incompatible with free market success. By being an ignorant shit and denying social reality altogether, Thatcher convinced millions that humanity was not in their best interest.
Since then, America and Britain both have completely reneged in their promise as world leaders to advance human rights. Over the past 30 years, both have adopted conservative austerity policies, dramatically gutting government’s obligations to protect the human rights of their own citizens, never mind protecting them abroad. Rights are expensive, they insist, so we must privatize. So, today, in lieu of basic rights, you are granted risks.
Consider the following:
The Right to Risk Torture
According to Article 5 of the UNDHR, torture is recognized as a human rights violation and proscribed by international law. However! America believes itself exempt from the Geneva Conventions. Many Americans plainly do not seem to give a fuck. In fact, consumers of conservative talk radio seem pretty into torture as a weapon in the War on Terror. Perhaps one of the most terrifying historical consequences of 9/11 is that it revealed to the rest of the world how eager and willing a great number of Americans are to disregard the United Nations Human Rights Declaration. And if that was the terrorists’ intention — to make the world see how inhumane we really are — the case could be made that they succeeded.
Americans are removed from the practice of American torture. We know it happens, but it’s far away and distant so we allow ourselves the delusion that it has nothing to do with us. But that’s not how human rights work. Our State violates the human rights of others in our name. As citizens, we are all guilty and responsible for American war crimes. In fact, our leaders spent considerable resources using the 9/11 terrorist attacks to Pariotize state violence, to make cheerleading unilateral aggression seem like our civic duty. The goal was to make citizens complicit with murder so that they would never be held accountable by the electorate.
Today, millions are gleefully campaigning for Hillary Clinton without giving a second of critical thought as to her position as Secretary of State atop a multinational system of torture and state violence. She can run for President because millions of Americans think this is good foreign policy experience that qualifies her for the Presidency. Few Americans seem willing to engage with its objective reality: Hillary Clinton is a profiteer of state torture. Slay, queen.
So today, we risk still more human torture as there is no sign that either President Clinton or President Trump will end the violations. Trump’s pro-torture stance is met with applause. Clinton’s tacit reliance on state torture to achieve her foreign policy objectives as Secretary of State is ignored entirely. Neither option will emancipate American citizens of their culpability in supporting a pro-torture mandate for the next four years. Even those who do not vote share in this sin.
The logic of human rights agreements is that when we agree that under no circumstances should a human body be tortured, under no circumstances is the torture of a human body legitimate. No exceptions. Hard and fast. Black and white. Cross your heart and hope to die. This is a promise we make to the world and future generations that torture will be no more. The promise was to never again be as cavalier towards the sanctity of human life as were the Nazis. That was the point of the agreement. No hyperbole necessary.
But many today allow themselves moral peace of mind by insisting there are circumstances under which torture is somehow justified. They thus believe there to be conditions to what was created to be a universal social contract. Thus any defense of torture is a claim of exemption from the jurisdiction of the global compact. It is a rejection of conscious Civilization.
The Right to Risk Slavery
According to the UNDHR, “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude.” Yet, human trafficking persists all over the world. At no point has human slavery ended. At no point has there been a unified commitment to eradicating human slavery, either. Sure, people think human slavery is awful and shouldn’t happen, and yet still it does.
We could commit as a people to the unifying principle that no human being born on this planet runs even the slightest risk of falling into human slavery. And honoring this commitment means a radical reprioritization of our prerogatives. So long we know there are human beings being sold into slavery and we do not use our privileges to fight for their emancipation, we are to some degree complicit with oppression. Ignorance of the moral law excuses no one.
As democracies, we could demand that our governments unite in eradicating slavery across the globe. And yet people hear about sex trafficking and child soldiers and somehow their existence doesn’t consume our media attention. We should be hearing stories about Boko Haram every fucking day. But we don’t have to go to Africa to see bondage. Our landscape is littered with cement boxes where the bodies of Blacks and Latinos are caged for years. And in many of these for-profit prisons, they are conscripted to work for corporations such as Microsoft, Quaker Oats and Victoria’s Secret in exchange for what amounts to a tube of toothpaste a week in their hyper-inflated prison economy.
I think it’s important to acknowledge that we are to some degree responsible for all human life we allow to slip into slavery. There are moral consequences when we allow our attention to become corrupted and distracted by historic minutia, everyday luxuries and comforting amusements. One of the hardest parts about growing up is realizing that the second you figure out how to really take care of yourself, then you have to start taking care of others. To take care of only yourself when you have the capacity to also care for others is to be a selfish dick.
To reach that rare point where comfort is a choice in a world where humans still suffer injustice is to have to defend and legitimate reasons why you get freedom while others get chains. Most Americans say we are free because we are Americans. Which is a tautology. We are free because our national social contract protects the rights and freedoms of every citizen and every citizen endows that social contract by affirming their commitment to abiding by it. But when you don’t really care about the freedom of other people, how can you trust that other people will care about yours?
The Right to Risk Health
Right now, healthcare is run on a for-profit basis. Health insurance is privatized in America. It is illegal for the government to regulate drug prices. Even executives of ostensibly non-profit hospitals make millions of dollars a year in personal income, wildly stretching the meaning of nonprofit. To put it bluntly:
Until we come together to recognize healthcare as a right — not a financial privilege — we are violating a basic tenet of the UNDHR. Many people want to claim healthcare is not a human right but a commodity. But here’s the thing: in the same breath you are saying you don’t care that America is violating the human rights of its citizens to appease Capitalists. That’s what you’re saying. You’re saying Capitalism matters more than this basic human right. You can believe that, but just admit to yourself that you’re that kind of an asshole. Don’t sugar-coat it.
The Right to Risk Shelter
If you ever go back and find my master’s thesis, my research focused on the role that housing ideology plays in reproducing residential inequality. On a grand scale — and what other scale can we play — Americans are obsessed with housing. The Boomers were the first generation to interpret housing as a speculative asset that could dramatically accrue value over the course of their lifetime, offering them a low-risk investment plan. But in order for this to work, everyone had to go along with the idea that houses are more than shelter.
If you take this logic to its conclusion, you see how banks could bundle mortgages — which individuals saw as investments — and speculate with them en masse. After all, if housing isn’t seen by Americans as a place to live but a cashcow, why not gamble with it? And Goldman Sachs can buy a lot more houses than you ever will. And did. And crashed the economy. But hey, ain’t we got fun?
The ideology that housing is a safe speculative asset escalated the homelessness epidemic and our contemporary crisis of housing poverty (where millions of Americans are paying more than 30% of their income to in rent without any expectation of ownership). In order to realize housing as an interest-bearing asset, America double-downed on the idea that housing is a privilege afforded to the wealthy and not a basic human right that should be ensured for all people.
And because we think of it as a money-maker, we reject on principle the idea that everyone should have access to it. That’s why there are 14 million empty houses in America, outnumbering the homeless 6:1.
Our Inalienable Right to Risk our Lives
America, the most radical thing we can do is go back and honor our agreements to the world in the UNDHR. They weren’t fancy. They weren’t complex. They were simple promises we made to a world in crisis the American government would be pioneers in modeling good governance for its own people. They were basic tenets of a good society.
But what America has become in a post-Reagan epoch is what Ulrich Beck described as a risk society. We no longer believe we should be protecting the rights of our fellow citizens. We no longer believe we should be sheltering our brothers and sisters from the vulnerabilities of modern life. We believe it is acceptable that a single mother has to work two jobs to pay her rent. We believe it is acceptable that Hillary Clinton should run for President on a platform of state violence.
And rather than demand a government that works for everyone, we glorify the rich and search for reasons to justify an unequal status quo.
America, risks are poor facsimiles for rights. It’s time we do better.