Ayn Rand used to say that there was ever only one fight in the history of philosophy; and every new conflict is simply a re-enactment of this one original contest. Plato against Aristotle. Those who revere the collective and seek uniformity and conformity under an overpowering state; and those who believe life more abundant is best found through the empowerment of unique individuals protected by a government responding to the consent of those that she governs.
That is it; that is all.
Cue the post-WWII period; the advent of the United Nations Organization and the new battle that has been brewing, until it finally was lost – by we good guys – to the forces of collectivism. I’m speaking of the struggle to preserve our concept of human rights.
Human Rights; that term which was never used much by the founders (if at all), though they did talk about “laws of nature and of nature’s God” defended through a constitution. A document to serve the people not as a vehicle for utopian fantasy but instead a practical list of basic protections from a government which is always on the verge of becoming a state; as Lynn Hunt explains in “Inventing Human Rights”. A state – the very idea is utopian, and our old utopianisms do abide, don’t they.
Unfortunately “laws of nature’s God” – we call them natural rights – were too effective to survive. Effective, in that they serve as such an active containing wall against the dictators’ pretensions that they must be undermined. But how to do that? Those of us who studied theology know that the devil is in fact beautiful. What they needed was a bait and switch, something that would “look fairer and feel fouler” as J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote; to weaken the rights which are such an existential threat to them, they needed something lovely.
All this is what Aaron Rhodes’s new book “The Debasement of Human Rights: How Politics Sabotage the Ideal of Freedom” is about; and it is systematic and extraordinarily well researched. And it pulls no punches. Rhodes is a veteran human rights defender who for more than thirty years has stood against the world’s worst totalitarian regimes; varnished over and “looking fair” as were the communist states of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. His important book outlines the process by which principles of positive law slowly replaced our understanding of fundamental human rights, like a steady salty tide eats out the limestone base under a mighty castle. While we all thought we stood strong, that we had won, that the “end of history” was upon us, slowly fundamental rights of humanity were replaced in favor of positive law bestowed upon partisan politicized states. “Rights” which are not rights at all but entitlements, services provided with varying degrees of success by bloated and often brutal regimes began to overtake basic freedoms by which we protect ourselves from those states and hold them accountable to our consent. Economic, Social and Cultural rights they are called – because who would disagree with that?? – and their very existence demanded a curbing of natural law, starting with our sacrosanct right to property. Because once property is usurped, everything else is easy.
Freedom House has categorized our times as in a “democratic recession” – and this is not a coincidence. As the rights with which we protected our freedoms were eroded from within by the very organizations tasked with protecting those rights, little by little we have lost our liberty until again half of the world is unfree.
So, what to do? Read Aaron Rhodes’s important book. Familiarize yourself with the jargon that is so oft-repeated that it has become second nature to even good people who have not ever had the need to challenge what they are saying. And then, armed with knowledge, make a stand. Because it is now clear who we are standing against – just as it is now clear what the new human rights demand, represented as they are in their highest council by Venezuela, Cuba, Syria and other despot regimes eager to talk about universal healthcare or primary education over the rights to speak and to retain our property. Until, finally, at the end, le deluge. And what good is speaking then?