The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

Pay Them Forward: Rights and Liberty

I don’t think most people realize the fight for individual rights is typically something that is paid forward. Those who fight the hardest for a right are often the very ones who never get to enjoy them. During their lifetime the rights they sought are denied them while future generations, who didn’t fight for them, come to enjoy them.

How many suffragettes fought for the right to vote for women yet never lived long enough to exercise that right? Many of the longest advocates for marriage equality didn’t live to celebrate their own marriage.

Hans Scholl organized the resisters known as the White Rose to help defeat the Nazis but was beheaded before that defeat was accomplished. Advocates fighting apartheid in South Africa frequently died in that fight and didn’t see the day when it would fall.

Thousands and thousands resisted the tyranny of communism and socialism in Eastern Europe, died trying to find freedom, but never saw the Berlin wall collapse and the Soviet block disintegrate. Right this moment thousands of Ukrainians—both men and women—are in a battle trying to preserve their liberty against a tyrant, and protect lives against a genocidal monster. Every day some of them are buried and will never see the outcome—one, where I hope, they are victorious.

I think our nation’s Founders realized this and that is one reason I don’t think the Declaration of Independence should be read as a news account of the day. It wasn’t. All men were most certainly not equal at that time. But it wasn’t meant to report reality, but to delineate possibilities; it was a list of ideals that were hoped for, not accomplishments. It looked forward to a future where rights, previously unacknowledged—for people previously deemed rightless—came into being.

This is why the opinions of Justice Alito are quite literally anti-American. He says rights only exist if there is a long tradition of recognizing them. The Founders realized rights exist even when trampled upon for generations and no list of human rights could possible be written—they are too many and include many rights not yet considered.

In general the bulk of the rights you enjoy today were rights others fought for long before you were born. The expansion of rights inherently means those fighting for them at the start often never live to enjoy them, others do, just not them. But those who died enjoyed rights previous generations fought for as well.

The expansion of rights requires some to begin a fight and inevitably many will not live to see the victory. Those who start the relay race toward humane values often aren’t there when the finish line is reached. But, without them, victory would never have been possible at all. The successful finish is the logical outcome of the initial attempts—no matter how flawed they might have been.

This is the nature of progress in all things, it takes time and because it takes time, the beneficiaries tend to be future generations. Great thinkers contemplated medical discoveries and laid the groundwork for discoveries future generations would enjoy. The first innovators of computers may never have imagined a day when kids would own them and take them to school.

There are battles you may be fighting for today, remember those who fought the same battles before you. Even if they got some things “wrong” they started the battle you continue and without them your struggle would be further behind. Thank the generation of activists who came before you. They made your life easier. Each day there are fewer and fewer of the great advocates of liberty and equality of rights for you to thank so do so while you can.

Isaac Newton once said of science, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” And each of us today, no matter the nature of our struggles, enjoy those shoulders ourselves. The first giants in each battle had the toughest row to hoe. In doing so they made it easier for the next generation to continue the struggle. Eventually victory is won and in short order generations exist who look at this result and think, “Wasn’t it always so?”


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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.