The US political system was codified 250 years ago in documents written by a bunch of powerful white guys who decided to create a new independent nation – an 18th century Brexit except that they were leaving Britain and evicting them by force from the USA.
The men agreed that their America would be built around the notion that men like them had various rights, primarily to be free of bullying kings, churches, and governments, and primarily so they could prosper via private ownership and exploitation of anything including slaves (innumerable) and women (theoretically, one at a time).
Despite the limits on who could have these rights in the real world, the blokes wearing wigs and wooden false teeth boldly wrote that everyone had the right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. They borrowed this from the English thinker John Locke, who also said these rights were God-given, which means ‘I made it up’.
From those days to today, America’s men of privilege and power (let’s call them MOPPs) have defended those US Constitutional rights, and fought like hell to keep any other rights from creeping in – specifically, ‘social’ rights like the right to health, a home, an education, a fair share of nature, and the right of non-MOPPs to invent new rules, such as equality for other races, and the other gender, let alone a panoply of genders.
‘Great for greed’
MOPPs see every social right as an infringement on their private right – if someone is getting health, education and a bed ‘for free’, I must be paying for it, they think. Social democracies are actually afterpays (used to be called laybys); you feed and educate people and then they grow up and buy your products and pay taxes. But the idea that everyone does better when everyone does better is just too hard for a MOPP to grok. And it’s easy for MOPPs to find people who aren’t of their class but aspire to be, like Scott Morrison and his mob, to keep beating back the forces trying to expand those phony social rights.
Fight for the right
In the US today Bernie Sanders and much younger politicians like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (AOC) are now posting lists of new rights, called a Green New Deal, and the MOPPs and their crazy tub-thumper Trump are cranking up for the Mother of All Battles to beat them back, send them home, lock’ em up, and make America Great for Greed again.
President Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR) also proposed a new Bill of Rights, much like AOC’s, and the MOPPs of the 1940s and 50s beat him back. The Democrats under FDR did bring in social reforms but their failure to have new ‘rights’ recognised illustrates just how much America’s left/right progressive/reactionary liberal/conservative battles are all framed by this stuff about rights.
Lots of good people have written stirring declarations about humans’ rights, and before the secular age we’re sort-of in came along, ‘rights’ were dressed up and fought about between various religions, and even more so between factions within the same religions.
My own parents grew up in the first half of the 1900s and declared themselves ‘secular humanists’, meaning they’d given religions the flick and adopted moral and ethical positions that were based on the notion that we should ‘do good for good is good to do’, and we should ‘spurn bribe of heaven and threat of hell’.
I got it, when I was a kid, but I had doubts: it was a lousy and limp slogan, especially that first bit, which might have been pinched from a toothpaste jingle on a black-and-white tele. But the meta issue was that while it was blazingly right about Earth being created in seven days of smoke, mirrors, fire, brimstone, and a mountain of recycled myths, it nevertheless did its own version of deriving authority from hot air; do it this way because it’s the right way. What is there really to force a serious Greedhead into acting for a more common good? Even the fact that the rest of us might punish them for being bad is a bit of a Hail Mary.
So where are we now on the question of rights? We have a PM who belongs to a church designed to make Greedheads feel virtuous, like American libertarianism; they both let you turn your Beemer into a symbol of righteous and robust individualism. And Morrison is trying to sneak a bill into Australia’s gerry-rigged ideological framework. (Our MOPPs never got around to writing a constitution – they/we borrow bits from the Brits and Yanks and make believe we believe; like we’re playing air guitar.)
Meanwhile, there’s a national festival of handwringing about Isileli Folau (his name isn’t Israel) – and whether he has the ‘right’ to preach on social media that people who’ve given up god, and just about everyone else on the planet, are destined to burn in hell forever. I put non-believers first in that sentence because even though Folau’s list includes ‘atheists’, and even though almost the same number of Australians are non-believers as are Christians, we who believe in science and in the infinite wonders of the universe, but not in God, are never mentioned in all the media hype and hyperventilation over ‘religious rights’.
Facts for future life
I believe we do have a hard factual basis for deciding what is right and wrong, for the first time ever in the couple of hundred thousand years we humans have been searching for such a thing, along with food, and a better mousetrap. The fact, established by more measurements, correlations, computations, and applications of the scientific method than anything we’ve ever put out hands and minds to, is that our one and only home, this planet we evolved on, is itself evolving with exponential speed toward being environmentally unlivable for our species and millions of others too – all because we, ‘our species’, have been spectacularly effective at rearranging things on the earth’s surface, and are proving terminally incapable of engineering an even faster Rearrangement Two.
Doing good and having rights must both be measured by the yardstick of whether they save the planetary ecosystems we depend on, meaning saving all eight billion of our sorry arses, or even eight of them because, as Folau’s cousin says, that’s how many humans survived the flood and… how can we have come to this? That we are capable of understanding a universe of dazzling complexity and beauty, and we’re still banging on about Noah and his fucking two-by-twos.