Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.

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The Relevance of Thomas Paine

I have been reading Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” about which Wikipedia has this to tell us:

Thomas Paine has a claim to the title The Father of the American Revolution,which rests on his pamphlets, especially “Common Sense,” which crystallized sentiment for independence in 1776. It was published in Philadelphia on January 10, 1776 and signed anonymously “by an Englishman.” It became an immediate success, quickly spreading 100,000 copies in three months to the two million residents of the 13 colonies. In all about 500,000 copies total including unauthorized editions were sold during the course of the Revolution.

The pamphlet came into circulation in January 1776, after the Revolution had started. It was passed around, and often read aloud in taverns, contributing significantly to spreading the idea of republicanism, bolstering enthusiasm for separation from Britain, and encouraging recruitment for the Continental Army. Paine provided a new and convincing argument for independence by advocating a complete break with history. Common Sense is oriented to the future in a way that compels the reader to make an immediate choice. It offers a solution for Americans disgusted with and alarmed at the threat of tyranny.

Paine was determined to get the colonies to unite and especially to write a constitution. He felt that as long as the colonies were “lawless” they were subject to usurpation by a despot who would be king. As he himself says:

A government of our own is our natural right: And when a man seriously reflected on the precariousness of human affairs, he will become convinced that it is infinitely wiser and safer to form a constitution of our own in a cool and deliberate manner, while we have it in our power, than to trust such an interesting event to time and chance. If we omit it now some [opportunist] may hereafter arise who, laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.

Now, while the minions who blindly follow today’s popular would-be-despot can hardly be described as merely “desperate and discontented,” they are certainly ready to follow the man who would be king. I would describe the minions in stronger terms than did Paine, but we get the picture. When men and women are “desperate and discontented” they are subject to the lure and promises of anyone who presents himself as the one WITH THE ANSWERS, who knows all, and who will sweep away the corruption he sees all around him and RESTORE this country to greatness — the greatness that followed upon the American Revolution, perhaps.

But, as Paine was careful to point out, the only king this country could possibly allow and remain free is the constitution, a body of laws that would make it possible for the citizens to protect their property and retain their freedom. They never looked to one man to deliver them from England and protect their property and freedoms, though they held George Washington in very high regard. He himself realized the dangers of allowing the executive in the new constitution to have too much power and he was, by all reports, a very restrained president.

The irony of the parallel I seek to draw here is that the man who would be king appears to be ignorant of the constitution (one of his first acts as president, he says, would be to jail “corrupt Hillary”) and to place himself in the place of that constitution as a law unto himself. But the truly sad thing is that his minions actually appear to believe that he can do just that and they are ready to support him and follow him wherever he leads. They desperately need to read history and take a course in civics to see how things are supposed to work in a republic defined by the balance of power.

This country is founded on the principle that no one person will have the power to determine the course of the country. The constitution is law and it rules in place of a king. The coming election will see this principle sorely tested and my hope is that we are the people that the founders hoped would make this country strong enough to reject tyranny and despotism no matter what form it might take.

Political Parties

Did you ever wonder why the founders of this nation wrote a federal constitution? In this day of political paralysis it might be well if we consider that question, because the answer is that it was written in order to avoid political paralysis that was thought to inevitably follow the formation of political parties — or factions as they were called in the eighteenth century. To a man, people as diverse in their leanings as the Federalist from New York, Alexander Hamilton, and the Republican from Virginia, James Madison, agreed with Thomas Paine when he insisted that political parties were “evil” and would eventually bring about the dissolution of the Republic and of individual liberty as well. The example these men had in mind was England which had no written constitution and which was in their day being torn apart by the Whigs and the Tories who were ever at odds with one another. The only way to avoid the disaster that was England was to have a written constitution that would embrace the principles of Republican government and rally men of various political persuasions to the cause of the Common Good and instill in their hearts the spirit of public virtue. Paine insisted that “. . .it is the nature and intention of a constitution to prevent governing by party, by establishing a common principle that shall limit and control the power and the impulse of party, and that says to all parties, thus far thou shalt go and no further. But in the absence of a constitution, men look entirely to party; and instead of principle governing party, party governs principle.” Indeed, George Washington’s Farewell Address echoes Paine’s fears of parties: “However [parties and factions] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things to become potent engines by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

But Washington’s hatred of parties merely anticipates that of John Adams who said in 1780, “There is nothing which I dread so much as a division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.” And John’s wife Abigail went even further, if that’s possible, in saying, “Party spirit is blind, malevolent, uncandid, ungenerous, unjust, and unforgiving. . . Party hatred by its deadly poison blinds the Eyes and envenoms the heart. It is fatal to the integrity of moral character. It sees not that wisdom dwells in moderation and that firmness of conduct is seldom united with outrageous violence of sentiment.” And, of course, there’s Thomas Jefferson’s famous comment that “If I could not go to heaven but with a party I would not go there at all.”

The Federalist Papers, which were written to help persuade New York to ratify the newly written federal constitution, are rife with references to political parties, or factions; phrases such as “the cloven foot of faction,” “faction acting in disguise,” and “the dupes of faction,” together with literally hundreds of such references that can be found on nearly every page. One might say that the single thing the founders feared above all else  — even more than the return of the English King to power over the colonies — was the rise of political parties. As noted above, Thomas Paine, whom many historians regard as the major figure behind the American revolution, regarded the constitution as the essential barrier between the violence of party and the principles of republican government. Paine, along with virtually every other intellectual of his time was convinced that if political parties were allowed to develop they would inevitably destroy the constitution, the principles of republican government, and the republic itself. And with the republic would go individual liberty.

So when we look back from the perspective of the 21st century and ask what went wrong we need to look no further than the ascendency of political parties and the inordinate power and wealth they have been able to amass, together with the loyalties that men and women who feed at the public trough feel toward their party and those who fund their party rather than to the nation and its people they are pledged to serve.

Propaganda

As we all know, propaganda is a concerted effort to get people to believe something and presumably to act on those beliefs. Effective propaganda is based on bombast and rhetoric that appeals to our fears and desires: it may or may not involve blatant falsehoods, as Paul Ryan’s speech at the RNC tended to do. Usually, it involves half-truths — that is, statements that have a modicum of truth in them and seem plausible if one doesn’t really think about them. And the propagandist does not want listeners to think about what they hear!

Let’s say I want you to vote for my candidate, Jones. Now It is generally known that Jones was divorced a few years ago and later married a woman who had been his secretary. A good propagandist will twist the facts and embellish them so the story comes out that Jones is a womanizer who was unfaithful and left his wife high and dry after his torrid love affair with his secretary in a Miami hotel. If he is the least bit concerned about law suits, he will rely heavily on innuendo — a suggestion that Jones is a womanizer, not a bald-faced statement to that effect (“Jones was seen by several witnesses coming out of a Miami hotel with his secretary several months before his divorce.”). You get the picture: filter in a few “facts” but make sure you create the impression that the man is scum and not worthy of anyone’s vote: use loaded language and strong emotive overtones. The idea is to persuade, not to tell the truth. In fact truth is the real victim here — if it is not Jones.

The radicals just prior to the American revolution had a huge problem: how to persuade the majority of Americans who considered themselves loyal British citizens that they must cut all ties with the mother country and go to war? As a number of historians have noted, the remarkable thing is that the revolution happened at all: Americans really had very few gripes with the mother country and all were of a mind to regard revolution as a last resort. Don’t underestimate the power of words carefully chosen!

To begin with, of course, they stopped calling Britain the “mother country.” They used emotive language, calling Britain “the rotten island” that was out to pillage America and steal its wealth, rape its women and turn its children into slaves. In fact, the propagandists in the mid-eighteenth century used the term “slavery” again and again to great effect. The idea was to instill in the American citizens — many of whom right up to the end, even after Lexington and Concord, regarded themselves as loyal British citizens — a love of liberty and a hatred of England. They insisted that Great Britain would “overwhelm the virtue of the people” of America. As John Miller tells us in his remarkable study of the period (Origins of the American Revolution), “the America of 1775 was made to appear tied to a bankrupt, rotting state that sought to keep itself alive by sucking the strength from its colonies.” Further, “every shilling squeezed from the colonies, Americans were told, went to ‘tyrants and debauchees‘ and was spent on vices that would have made Nero blush.” Note the clever use of exaggeration and bombast: arouse the emotions of the listener or reader and generate a hatred of the desired object, Britain. And keep stressing Britain’s desire to tax Americans, to reduce Americans to slavery. Sound familiar?

It worked, of course, as millions of Americans in a very brief period were persuaded to go to war against the most powerful nation on earth — a nation that had only yesterday been a trusted ally of the colonists and their protector against a hostile world, expelling the French from the continent. It is indeed food for thought. With Thomas Paine’s Common Sense in the lead the British radicals were not the only effective propagandists the world has ever known but they did perform an amazing turnaround in a very short time. And it was done without radio or TV. Truly remarkable.

We need to think about this at this time because there are unscrupulous people who are busy marketing their politicians like boxes of cereal and they desperately want to sell them to us without letting us know what the ingredients are. And the underlying rule is: the end justifies the means. It matters not if what we say is true, we shall repeat it often enough that people will come to believe it in the end. If it turns out later to be false, it will be too late: strike quickly and often and repeat the message until it is no longer questioned. The last thing the propagandist wants is for the listener, viewer, or reader to think about what is said. Logic and reasoning have no place at the table of the propagandist: it’s all about persuasion at any cost. Be on your guard! It’s out there and it’s out to get your vote!